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Mainstream, VOL L No 44, October 20, 2012

Looking Back on History: Fifty Years after the Chinese Aggression

Wednesday 24 October 2012, by Barun Das Gupta

On October 20, 1962, the Chinese Army launched a full-fledged aggression—there is no point in trying to dilute that hard fact by saying it was a mere ‘border war’—against India. This year, 2012, marks half-a-century of that event when India was humiliated and defeated decisively. Pandit Nehru and his close associate of those days, Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon, were squarely blamed for his alleged gullibility and trustfulness on two counts. One, his inability to read the Chinese leadership’s mind about its intentions on India and believing in their hollow promises of friendship; and two, his supine acquiescence in Tibet’s annexation by China.

The sustained attack on Nehru by the Right-wing forces had two decisive results. Krishna Menon was sacked from the government and Nehru’s own life was cut short. He died nineteen months later in May 1964. Let us recall the chain of events that had happened during that momentous period—from October 1949, when the Communist Party of China drove out the Kuomintang regime and captured power in China, to the invasion of India thirteen years later. (The third issue on which Nehru has been accused of committing a cardinal mistake—taking the Kashmir issue to the United Nations—is outside the purview of this article.)

The Chinese aggression of 1962 could not have been possible if China had not gobbled up and annexed Tibet in 1950. The control over Tibet gave China a launching pad to mount its aggression on India.

Let us turn to Tibet first. The following facts, reproduced without quotation marks, have been gleaned from Ram Gopal’s India-China-Tibet Triangle.1 In 1882-83 the then Chinese Government had unequivocally stated that Tibet was not a part of the Chinese empire. Earlier to that, the Chinese had imposed and lost their overlordship of Tibet. Three months after the conquest of power, the Chinese Government, led by Mao Zedong, asserted on January 1, 1950 that their basic task during the year would be the ‘liberation’ of Tibet. On October 7, 1950, the Chinese troops crossed the Dre Chu river which had been the traditional boundary between Tibet and China. Resistance was useless. To cut a long story short, on May 23, 1951, the Tibetan Government was forced to sign under duress a fifteen-point agreement that formalised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

What was Nehru’s attitude to the overruning of Tibet by China? Did he acquiesce in it? No, he didn’t. But as a statesman, he realised the futility of any attempt to resist China and preventing it from military occupation of Tibet. India was just in no position to defend Tibet’s independence. Sarvepalli Gopal, Nehru’s biographer, writes:

“So, on hearing in the autumn of 1950 that a military invasion of Tibet was imminent, the Government of India were surprised and decided to represent to China the advantage of desisting from any such action.

“Probably Nehru was encouraged into taking this indiscreet step by Panikkar’s assurance that People’s China was desirous of maintaining the friendliest relations with India. Anything in the nature of pressure tactics was ruled out, because ultimately India had no effective sanction and to take up an attitude of resistance without the strength to follow it up would have been, as Nehru observed later, ‘political folly of the first magnitude’. [Italics mine—B.D.G.] But Nehru felt that India, while recognising China’s suzerainty over Tibet, had a right to express her interest in the maintenance of Tibetan autonomy; and a friendly caution might not be misunderstood.

“However, in reply to India’s suggestion, made ‘without any political or territorial ambition’, that a peaceful settlement be worked out, China asserted that Tibet was Chinese territory which it was China’s duty to liberate, even though this problem should be solved by peaceful and friendly means. This satisfied Nehru, though, as he later said, it was not quite clear from whom Tibet was to be liberated...†2

The Chinese annexation of Tibet angered the United States no end, as it was then busy fighting the Korean war. Ironically, it was Nehru and none else, who was trying his level best to argue with the Americans on behalf of China, but China was accusing India of acting as a US tool. As V.P. Dutt observes, “But the real tragedy was that Nehru’s China policy was undone by the US Administration’s implacable hostility and its persistent moves to frustrate it. Nehru had hoped that recognition of revolutionary new China would tame some of [its] exuberance .... But successive American administrations excelled in inveterate hostility to China thus undercutting Nehru’s China policy. Indeed US policy came to be to undermine Nehru and cut him to size....

“Subsequently, when Beijing came heavily on the side of Pakistan, including on the Kashmir issue, the Chinese defence given to an Indian protest, as seen from India’s White Papers on China, was: could you point out anything that we had written or spoken that endorsed your position on Kashmir!†3

No, indeed. Rather the contrary. When the Kashmir issue was being debated at the Security Council, Krishna Menon quoted what Communist China’s representative, Mr Tsiang, had told the SC. What he said was an unashamed defence of British conquest and colonisation of India.

Krishna Menon quotes Tsiang as saying: “All colonial empires have the backing of law. All of them have been fortified with treaties, conven-tions, protocols, agreements and what not.†Here Krishna Menon makes a parenthetical remark: ‘I will confess that this is the first time I have heard that.’ Then he goes on quoting Tsiang: “In the face of India’s claim to self-determination, all British legal claims were swept aside. These claims were solidly based on treaties duly signed and ratified, and even sanctified by time and tradition. When the Indian people demanded self-determination, the legal documents in the hands of the United Kingdom seemed to have no legal or political relevance. What the Indian peoples demanded and wanted from the United Kingdom should, I hope, be granted to the people of Kashmir.†4

If the Chinese Communists had such admi-ration for British colonisation of India, little wonder they would feel perfectly within their rights to occupy Tibet and bring it under their colonial rule. But the Chinese did something else too, which the British never did in India. The Chinese leaders settled tens of thousands of Chinese families in Tibet to bring about perma-nently a demographic change in the population pattern of Tibet. Incidentally, they did the same thing in Xinjiang province to dilute the population of Uighur Muslims. This policy was one of the reasons that led to last year’s clashes of the Uighurs with the Chinese police.


BUT let us go back to the question of Chinese annexation of Tibet. Did Pandit Nehru approve of it? Did he accept the Chinese claim of sovereignty on Tibet? What was his first reaction to the Chinese invasion of Tibet? At that time K.M. Panikkar was our Ambassador to China. In a cable to Panikkar on October 26, 1950, Panditji said:

This morning’s papers report an official handout in Peking ordering units of the Chinese Army to advance into Tibet ... We deeply deplore this development both from the point of view of continuance of friendly relations between India and China and because this will help the drift to world war. We tried our utmost to develop the friendly relations and to work for peace. It is a matter of great regret to us that the Chinese Government have suddenly taken this action, which appears to us to be contrary to assurances of peaceful settlement given to us and on the eve of departure of the Tibetan Mission for Peking. We are protesting formally against this action to the Chinese Ambassador....5

On the same day he shot off a message to Chou En-lai:

We have seen with great regret report in newspapers of official statement made in Peking to the effect that ‘People’s Army units have been ordered to advance into Tibet’. We have received no intimation of this from your Ambassador here or our Ambassador in Peking. We have been repeatedly assured of the desire of the Chinese Government to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means and negotiations. In an interview which India’s Ambassador had recently with the Vice Foreign Minister, the latter, while reiterating the resolve of the Chinese Government to ‘liberate’ Tibet, had expressed a continued desire to do so by peaceful means....
Now that the invasion of Tibet has been ordered by the Chinese Government, peaceful negotia-tions can hardly be synchronised with it, and there will naturally be fear on the part of the Tibetans that negotiations will be under duress. In the present context of world events, the invasion by Chinese troops of Tibet cannot but be regarded as deplorable and, in the considered judgment of the Government of India, not in the interest of China or of peace.6

Six days later, on November 1, he wrote to C. Rajagopalachari, the Governor-General of India:

Morally I find it difficult to say that the Chinese Government has deliberately deceived us at any stage. We may have deceived ourselves.7 (Italics mine—B.D.G.)
What does it mean? It means that we should have been able to see through the Chinese intentions on Tibet. By not seeing it, we deceived ourselves. He understood fully the long-range implications of Chinese occupation of Tibet to India. In a letter to the West Bengal Chief Minister, Dr B. C. Roy, on November 15, he wrote:

... But the fact remains that the approach of a Great Power like China to our frontier makes a great difference and we have to make our arrangements accordingly. We have in fact been considering this matter carefully with our Defence people.8

Panditji was now no longer willing to accept China’s ‘sovereignty’ on Tibet. In a Note on Policy Regarding China and Tibet, on November 18, 1950, he wrote:

6. It is true that in one of our messages to the Chinese Government we used ‘sovereignty’ of China over Tibet. In our last message we used the word ‘suzerainty’. After receipt of China’s last note, we have pointed out to our Ambassador that ‘sovereignty’ was not the right word and that ‘sovereignty’ has been used by error.....

8. I think it may be taken for granted that China will take possession, in a political sense at least, of the whole of Tibet. There is no likelihood whatever of Tibet being able to resist this or stop this. It is equally unlikely that any foreign Power can prevent it. We cannot do so. If so, what can we do to help in the maintenance of Tibetan autonomy and at the same time avoiding continuous tension and apprehension on our frontiers.9

Earlier, on November 8, in a Note on Recent Developments in East and South Asia, he called China’s occupation of Tibet as ‘aggression’.

Chinese aggression in Tibet immediately raises new frontier problems for us. We cannot be happy to have a strong, centralised and Communist Government in control of Tibetan border with India and yet there are no...means of stoppinng this, and even legally our position is not a strong one.

.... Therefore, some kind of strengthening of our frontier posts is increasing from the point of view of watch and ward as well as intelligence. It is also necessary to improve our communications to Assam and adjdoining borders. This might involve erection of some airfields.10

Going through his letters, cables and notes during this period (1950 to early 1951), one gets the impression that though Panditji was getting apprenesive of Chinese movements, he was not apprehending a full-scale aggression of the magnitude that the Chinese launched in 1962. But by September 1951, his perception had changed. He was now getting apprehensive.

The developments in Tibet and Chinese forces coming right up near the Indian borders has created a new situation for us. We did not think for a moment that there was any danger of invasion of India via Tibet. (Italics mine—B.D.G.) (Mr Henderson entirely agreed with this.) But nevertheless the new situation made us somewhat apprehensive of this long border and we had to take some steps in regard to it. Previously we had completely ignored this matter but now we could not do that.11

The reader may well ask, if Panditji had realised that a ‘new situation’ had been created in the northern borders which could no longer be ‘completely ignored’ , why did India find herself in a state of total unpreparedness as it did eleven years later in 1962 when the aggression was mounted? To this writer, it seems that while anticipating further Chinese intransigence and belligerence, he was still not expecting a full-scale attack that would push the Indian Army as far back as Tezpur as it actually did.

Otherwise, our troops would have been acclimatised for the rarefied heights of the Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh where battles had to be fought at altitudes as high as sixteen thousand feet and above. When the Chinese Army crossed the borders in 1962, troops stationed in the plains were sent to those heights in great haste and many of them died of pulomnary oedema because they had not been acclimatised. They died without firing a single shot.

At the same time, Panditji did not lose sight of the strategic importance of Arunachal Pradesh (then NEFA). India’s ‘Forward Policy’ emanated from that realisation. That policy was to extend India’s administrative control over the yet unadministered territories south of the McMahon Line—part of India. About this policy, Panditji was clear and explicit.

In a note dated July 1, 1954, to the Secretary-General and Foreign Secretary of the External Affairs Ministry, he set out this policy.

6. In future, we should give up references, except in some historical context, to the McMahon Line or to any other frontier line by date or otherwise. We should simply refer to our frontier. Indeed, the use of name McMahon is unfortunate and takes us back to the British days of expansion.

7. All our old maps dealing with this frontier should be carefully examined and, where necessary, withdrawn. New maps should be printed showing our Northern and North-Eastern frontier without any reference to the ‘line’. These new maps should also not state there is any undemarcated territory. The new maps should be sent to our Embassies abroad and should be introduced to the public generally and be used in our schools, colleges, etc.

8. Both as flowing from our policy and as a consequence of our Agreement with China, this frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody. There may be very minor points of discussion. Even these should not be raised by us. It is necessary that the system of check-posts should be spread along this entire frontier. More especially, we should have checkposts in such places as might be considered disputed areas.

9. Our frontier has been finalised not only by implication in this Agreement but the specific passes and mentioned are direct recognitions of our frontier there. Check-posts are necessary not only to control traffic, prevent unauthorised infiltraltion but as symbols of India’s frontier. As Demchok is considered by the Chinese as a disputed territory, we should locate a check-post there. So also at Tsang Chokla.

16. As I have said above, we need not raise the question of our frontier. But if we find that the Chinese maps continue to indicate that part of our territory is on their side, then we shall have to point these out to the Chinese Government. We need not do this immediately, but we should not put up with this for long and the matter will have to be taken up.12

What is the basis of China’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls ‘Southern Tibet’? Because for a long time the Indian administration had not been been extended to these areas. The local Lamas were under the control of the Tibetan Lamas. Panditji became aware of this fact during an extensive tour of the North-East Frontier Areas in 1952. Coming back from the visit, in a Note dated 27.10.52, he wrote:

I went to visit Tawang, near the Tibetan border. This is a place of some importance to us as we had recently extended our administration to it some two years back. It was on our side of the McMahon line, but it had not been occupied by us and was practically under Tibetan control till then. (Italics mine—B.D.G.) In fact our going there and occupying it, led to protests from the Tibetan authorities..... It was not possible to land there as there was no airstrip. To go by mountain path was many weeks’ journey.13

Years later, during one of my trips to NEFA/Arunachal Pradesh, I learnt from senior Army officers that in ancient times the local Lamas used to pay tax (land rent) to the Tibetan Lama of the region. These rent receipts were produced by the Chinese side as ‘proof’ that the present-day Arunachal Pradesh was under Tibet and, after Tibet’s annexaion, came under China.


IT is on such flimsy pretexts that China’s territorial claims on India are based. Once the Chinese rulers claim an area as their territory, they say in the same breath that their claim is ‘undisputed’. This is happening now with regard to China’s unilaterial claims on the whole of South China Sea. The estimate of oil in the area around the Spratley Islands is between 105 and 213 billion barrels. The gas reserve is estimtated at 266 trillion cubic feet. That is why energy-hungry China wants to gobble up the whole of it. So it has an ‘undisputed’ claim over the Sea.

The post-Mao Chinese leadership launched an aggression on Vietnam in 1979 but was effectively beaten back by the Vietnamese Army. With equal disdain for the interests of its neighbouring countries in the east, China has built and is planning to build dams on the Mekong River which originates from the high plateau of Tibet but flows through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in its 4500 km long journey, threatening the livelihood of several million fishermen besides causing large-scale deforestation and floods.

Communist China’s leadership is still guided by the ‘Middle Kingdom complex’. Tracing the origin of this mentality to the days of Imperial China, a Soviet scholar and member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Mikhail Sladkovsky, observed:
The arrogance of ancient Chinese emperors was backed up by their campaigns against Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, Burma and Nepal which resulted in the vassalage of these countries. This ‘greatness of the past’ stirs the minds of the Maoist leaders, whets their expansionist appetites and affects the entire foreign policy of the PRC.14

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Chinese aggression, we have to look back on the entire course of Chinese foreign policy since 1949 and guard ourselves against a repetition of 1962. Let us not forget that in August 2009, even as Indian and Chinese officials were meeting in New Delhi for talks on resolving the border dispute, an article in the website of the China Institute of International Strategic Studies called for the dismemberment of India into several smaller states in the interest of China’s security. China is a perfidious neighbour and we cannot suffer a second treacherous attack.

[I am thankful to the Librarian and staff of the Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata, for allowing me the facility of the Library. —B.D.G.]

1. Ram Gopal, India-China-Tibet Triangle, Jaico Publishing House, 1966.
2. Sarvepalli Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru, A Biography, Vol. II, Oxford University Press, pp. 105-06.
3. V.P. Dutt, India’s Foreign Policy, National Book Trust, 2011, pp. 27-28.
4. Krishna Menon on Kashmir, Speeches at United Nations, p. 348, Sanchar Publishing House, New Delhi, 1972.
5. Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 15, Part II, p. 331.
6. Ibid., pp. 331-2.
7. Ibid., p. 336.
8. Ibid., p. 341.
9. Ibid., p. 343.
10. Ibid., p. 409.
11. Ibid., Vol. 16, Part II, p. 628. (Note on Nehru’s Talks with US Ambassador, Loy Henderson)
12. Ibid., Vol. 26, pp. 482-3.
13. Ibid., Vol. 20, p. 160.
14. Mikhail Sladkovsky, “Maoists’ Great Power Policy Towards Neighbouring States†in Post-Mao Maoism, Part II, USSR Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1980, pp. 34-35.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Dasgupta.

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