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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 16, April 12, 2014

On Writing India’s China War: Some Recollections

Saturday 12 April 2014


by Neville Maxwell

Following the publication of Kuldip Nayar’s “Neville Maxwell and Brooks’ Report” in Mainstream (March 22, 2014), Maxwell wrote in an e-mail from Australia: “Sumit, I have read Kuldip Nayar’s article with interest and surprise and wish of course to submit a response ASAP. Will you please give me a deadline .... and send me his piece in a form I can print out for reference?” On March 31, it was conveyed to him by the Mainstream editor that his rejoinder would be published whenever it was ready; and Kuldip’s article was sent in word form so as to enable him to download it. Maxwell’s article arrived by e-mail on April 7, with NM conveying that it was “a bit wider than just a response to KN”. The following is Maxwell’s piece. —Editor

Anyone who sets out to correct a mass delusion is going to risk incurring obloquy. In my case I was exposing a dominant group whose policies had led India into disaster and international humiliation and which had concocted, as an alibi, an entirely false story about the wicked Chinese who had suddenly attacked India, without provocation or forewar-ning. Since the humiliation was felt personally and almost universally within the political class that myth, instead of being scrutinised and challenged, was welcomed and clutched like a comforter, becoming with time an indispensable national narrative, the only palliative for a rankling wound to the national psyche. So, while I was prepared, of course, for a hostile response from the government I should also have been prepared for the much wider hostility that in fact turned upon me with the publication of India’s China War.

I had finished the bookwith a sense of a job well done. I had read and re-read my basic source, the dozen or so volumes of White Papers issued by the Indian Government while the border dispute was boiling, and had spelled out the casuistry on the Indian side, the foiled attempts to clarify and resolve the issues on China’s. Access to the Army’s secret report had enabled me to shine light onto the personal failures and strategic follies that underlay the collapse and rout of 4 Division in the eastern sector. By chance I had found the ideal title, apt and pithy, on the wall of an English country church: a plaque from the 1880s in memory of men from the village killed in the “China War” (which we know as the Opium War). That was it, I saw immediately, the 1962 clash at arms had been India’s China War.

My expectation of a general welcome for my work was fulfilled in the West. The apogee came with the historian A.J.P. Taylor’s accolade: “Magnificent on every count, a historical achievement of the first rank.” But in India, with few exceptions, there was a tumult of abuse of the author when the book came out, with the nadir reached by a former colleague and friend, Pran Chopra, who described it as yellow journalism “fit only for the dung-heap”. Another former friend, S. Gopal, used the same vocabulary in a venomous review in The Round Table—but he, of course, had reason for indignation because his falsification of the historical record helped turn Nehru onto the path of enmity to China, so ICW had revealed the ill-service he had done his country.

That the Indian Government would be hostile to the book and its author I had expected, of course: as the case of Washington has just reminded us every government hates to have its secrets bared, its ulterior motives revealed. ICW was not banned but the offices of its Indian publisher, Jaico, were raided and charges were laid against me under the Official Secrets Act. I was warned by the British Foreign Office to keep out of India since my arrest would be awkward for HMG as well as unpleasant for me, and I did so, for eight years. When Morarji Desai became Prime Minister the charges were reconsidered and in due course annulled.

There was an opposite reaction in China, of course. I had come to Beijing’s hostile notice when the border dispute was hot, as a journalist who consistently supported the Indian side and it was only with Z.A. Bhutto’s friendly backing that, in 1963, I had been able to get to China in President Ayub Khan’s press party. I got on well with the Chinese and was profoundly impressed with the achievements (astonishing then for someone coming from India) of their “basic needs” approach to development. They gave me material on their side of the dispute, showed me their film of the fighting and its aftermath (happy Indian prisoners, glad to be alive and grateful for good treatment) but I can’t say I even began to correct my understanding of the dispute at that early stage.

But when ICW came out, the Chinese embassy in London sent a copy to Beijing and Zhou Enlai had it broken up into six parts and distributed among fluent English-speakers for express translation. Reading the book left Zhou still puzzled, however, at a loss to understand what could possibly have motivated Nehru into belligerent enmity to China, when there were no critical quarrel points between the two states and Beijing, seeking friendship, was offering generous territorial concessions. He asked me, in a long off-the-record talk after I had interviewed him for The Sunday Times in 1973, to explain Nehru’s change of attitude—but I couldn’t. Could I even now? Can Indian readers? The search for answers must lie, I suppose, in Nehru’s personality or psychology, his perceptions of the nature of the Indian identity, his apprehensive sense of its national fragility, overlain by his will to see it, make it, concrete and unbreakable. The American scholar, Perry Anderson, has probed those depths in his recent essays published as The Indian Ideology.

There is little to add to what I wrote about the Henderson Brooks Report in my “Albatross” preface and previous “Introduction” except to mention that I never met or contacted either of the authors, the General or his Brigadier assistant. I did meet Manekshaw, but that was long after the publication of ICW. Back in Delhi on a visitI called in, unannounced, at the residence of the Army Chief (then next door to the British High Commissioner’s residence, is it still?) and the Field Marshal, in T-shirt, shorts and sockless boots, emerged from working on the shrubbery. Talking over a cup of tea I suggested he should give me access to the papers connected with his investigation on charges of disrespect of Krishna Menon and the “Kaul boys” as he had dubbed that coterie, arguing it would be healthy to bring the details of those proceedings into the public domain. He turned me down, quite rightly, I now see; but it is high time an Indian scholar, not one of that sorry crew of “strategic thinkers” but a genuine historian, should seek them out and bring them alive. That Not Guilty ruling had high significance when it was brought in, and momentous consequences of course in 1973.

I note with relief that the reaction to my publication of what I have of the HB Report has been for the most part temperate and indeed in one case grateful; the only really hostile outburst I have seen, a jumbled hodge-podge of mis-rememberings, was published in this journal by Kuldip Nayar, another good friend in the old days—or so I thought. It now appears, in his memory anyway, that what I enjoyed as regular meetings to exchange ideas between two like-minded and amicable colleagues were ordeals for him, every time kept seething with contained rage while I paraded deep anti-Indian prejudices. My respect for Nayar (who was never, as he claimed, the correspondent of The Times—a stringer is quite different) had anyway taken a knock recently when, in his Autobiography, I kept coming across the benighted phrase “the Chinese aggression”, so his abuse came as less of a surprise for that reason. As many have done, and with apparent justification, he brought up as a charge of malice or imbecility my 1967 prediction that that year’s election would be the last. Well, I have always admitted that that was an unwise venture into foretelling. But my prediction reflected a sound reading of Indian political direction at that time, and was very nearly fulfilled. As Nayar himself tells, had Indira Gandhi not, for once, over-ruled her son Sanjay when he urged her not to hold an election, the “Emergency” dictatorship would have continued and 1967’s would have been India’s last election, for many years at least.

The author of India’s China War (1970), Neville Maxwell is a well-known specialist of the history of Sino-Indian border conflict. He was for eight years the Times correspondent in India.

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