The article titled “India needs to revisit 1962 humiliation for catharsis” by the Times of India newspaper should come as an absolute stunner for the Indologists in Beijing. For one thing TOI was one of the flag-carriers of the anti-China xenophobia of the late 1950s, which inexorably dragged Pandit Nehru into the confrontation with China resulting in the tragic 1962 conflict. It is pertinent to see that even TOI has changed its perspective on China.
This offers big hope that India and China can put behind the 1962 tragedy. The TOI has been featuring a series of articles arguing for the need for the two countries to move on — although the contrarian viewpoint that nothing can be forgotten and nothing will be also prevails in the Indian opinion. The Hindu newspaper recently featured a weekend supplement to that effect, garnished with faded, black-and-white vintage photographs and memorabilia culled out from the remaining 1962 war veterans.
Indeed, TOI has led the way for fresh thinking to be brought into the understanding of what precipitated the 1962 conflict. It has honestly highlighted that the fault is as much India’s.
A soul searching always does good. For instance, on India’s “meddling” in Tibet; its unilateral decision in 1953 (6 years after independence) to claim Aksai Chin as part of India (thereby creating a border dispute in Ladakh) despite the British policy to the contrary; the cascading xenophobia (”public opinion”) of the late 1950s which forced Nehru into the disastrous “forward policy”; Indian recalcitrance to spurn the repeated Chinese offers of compromise (including while the two countries were already four days into the war); and, of course, the obnoxious Indian trait of self-righteousness (which continues to dog us — what’s the big deal in acknowledging one made a disastrous mistake?).
Where I found TOI tiptoeing gingerly is on the sensitive question of the alchemy of the so-called “Indian public opinion” in the late 1950s. My late father used to be a member of Lok Sabha in the 1950s. Being a historian and a communist MP, he closely followed those fateful times when India’s China relations began coming up ever so frequently in the Lok Sabha in the late 1950s.
He used to narrate in detail in later years how a downcast Panditji with his chin resting on his palm used to sit with a forlorn look and patiently listen to the vilification (and pontification) by speakers in the parliament who knew nothing of the subject of China or the border dispute — or world politics. Then, as now, Delhi had a strong pro-American lobby and they swung into action. The target was very often Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon, whom the Americans viscerally hated. The broader idea was also to weaken Nehru politically, this dangerous apostle of non-alignment who was anathema to the West.
My father held the firm belief that Nehru was hustled into the “forward policy” against his own better instincts - and judgment. My father also used to be a close friend of VKK. According to what he heard from VKK in great detail, Nehru’s hands were tied even before Zhou Enlai came on his historic last-minute mission to Delhi in a spirit of compromise to salvage the Sino-Indian relations.
At the restricted Indian cabinet meeting before Zhou’s arrival, Morarji Desai (who was Nehru’s bete noir in the cabinet) apparently pressed an outrageous demand that Zhou should not be allowed to have a meeting with VKK. Such was Desai’s fear that a compromise formula on the border problem might ensue if only the two leaderships met and rationally talked things over. Later, indeed, Zhou sought out VKK at the Teen Murti reception hosted by Panditji to have an aside with him but by then the mood in Delhi had turned ugly.
TOI made a huge contribution at that time in whipping up the xenophobia — so did the Indian right wing opposition with pro-American leanings. Thus, today, TOI is undergoing a “catharsis” of its own. By the way, when TOI glorified the signing of the US-India nuclear deal in 2008 with banner headline, I was instinctively reminded of the daily’s screaming headline on the morning after the departure of Zhou from Delhi celebrating the failure of that historic mission. (I keep a clipping of it from my father’s vast library.)
Still, there are many aspects to this momentous question in India’s post-independence history that need to be understood, which is only possible if India “declassifies” its archives. For example, what is this gory affair of “public opinion”? Or, exactly what was this queer business of India’s “meddling” in Tibet? This latter mystery is actually crucial to know because to my mind, it was Tibet issue more than anything else — “forward policy” or teaching Nehru a “lesson”, pricking India’s vanities as a NAM leader, Mao’s megalomania, Sino-Soviet rift, etc — which prompted the Chinese to take matters to the preparation for a conflict with India.