After the start of the pandemic, few would have expected Xi Jinping to don the war paint and literally follow in Mao’s footsteps where everyone was an enemy, to be bullied and dominated. India, with its teeming masses and on the face of it, especially to Chinese eyes, complete chaos would have been and was Xi Jinping’s first port of call, especially since the PRC has its carefully nurtured pet poodle ever ready to bite from the west.
New Delhi: At Lumpu, there is a hut of remembrance. An inverted .303 Lee Enfield Rifle with a helmet placed on it overlooks the Nyamjang Chu that flows north to south from the direction of Khenzemane, the border post where the Dalai Lama had stepped onto Indian soil in 1959. Also visible from the hut is the Thagla ridge that runs off to the west from Khenzemane to the tri-junction with Bhutan, while at the base of it, is the Nam Ka Chu. The names of those who fell in the valley are enshrined on the walls all around the rifle—men from 1/9 Gorkha Rifles, 4 Grenadiers, 9 Punjab, 5 Assam Rifles, some gunners, some signalmen, some sappers—but the longest list is of 2 Rajput, which lost 281 men on the fateful morning of 20 October 1962. Also written on the wall, are three words which together carry a lot of meaning: “We Shall Avenge!”
Six decades ago, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had paid the price by trusting the PRC, which under the Communists was a very different animal from the earlier Kuomintang Chinese with whom Indians over the centuries had never had any serious issues. “President for Life” Xi Jinping, the Chinese strongman, who, at the beginning of 2019, was not only dreaming but preparing his people for a new world order, has made a few fundamental mistakes. The PRC, whose own ruthless march to power was fuelled by years of oppression and humiliation, forgot that other people too have a DNA and they also will fight back when pushed to a corner. If they have embedded in their collective national consciousness humiliation at the hands of the Chinese, the fight-back will be even more resolute, even if they have to fight with sticks and stones.
Even though on the face of it, the Chinese virus had the world on its knees, Xi Jinping forgot that there are three positions to fire back from. In the initial post-1962 period, a lot of the disguised propaganda unleashed by the likes of Neville Maxwell was unleashed upon us to the extent that even Indian history text books defensively stated “the 1962 War was the result of Nehru’s Forward Policy”. Fortunately, more recently, this mindless acceptance of “history” has been countered and when we look at what happened in 1962, two things stare us in the face—we lost not so much to the Chinese but to ourselves; and we were definitely not the aggressors. Maxwell’s book’s title, India’s China War has been stood on its head by the research and subsequent writings of most scholars, among whom is the Swedish journalist, Bertil Lintner. The title of his book, China’s India War, says it all.
In 1962, the Chinese may have achieved their military and strategic objectives vis-a-vis India, but the PRC lost out on many fronts, which will forever haunt the Chinese people. By annexing Tibet, it destroyed a country and a culture that had never harmed anyone. Living in their isolated Shangrilas, the Tibetan people stood no chance against a ruthless and conniving Mao Zedong, who not only created the PRC, but ruled over it with an iron hand till his death in 1976. Prior to grabbing Tibet, Mao had annexed Xinjiang—or as we know it, Sinkiang—where he subjugated the Uyghur people among other Turkic groups who until then were more or less a Soviet protectorate. Mao then had his fingers in just about every post-WWII pie, be it the Korean War, the split with the Soviets, the rise of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnam War. In the subcontinent, the PRC was not only involved in grabbing Indian territory in Ladakh and NEFA, but was actively involved in fanning the Naga and Mizo insurgencies. In addition, as brought out in my forthcoming book, 1965: A Western Sunrise (Aleph), it was none other than Chairman Mao who had sat with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, and worked out the blue-print for “Operation Gibraltar”, wherein thousands of armed “Mujahids” were let loose into the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
Chairman Mao, whose reign was autocratic and totalitarian in the extreme, is considered to be responsible for the death of a staggering 80 million people, through starvation, religious and ideological persecution, labour camps and executions. Xi Jinping has inherited that legacy.
One of the reasons why Mao succeeded in getting away with his massive land grabs, was the fact that the world was fed up of war. Europe was in a shambles, colonial empires were at last disintegrating, allowing the peoples of Asia and Africa to breathe the air of independence, and the United States was locked in a deadly cold war with the Soviets. As they stared unblinkingly into each other’s eyes, Communist China quietly expanded its frontiers based on the simple “might is right” principle.
However, the rest of the world, has also evolved since the 1950s and 60s, even though it watched passively as the PRC steadily worked its way to being a superpower. The Americans, naively believing that the influx of big money would sound the death knell of communism and that China, like them would go soft on their stated “world domination” policy, couldn’t have got it more wrong. To make matters worse, the Americans, by their abrasive manner, where they often let their allies down after having used them, had also made the world extremely wary of them. The answer, especially for the Indian subcontinent, was to make sure it carried a big stick, and was capable of staring down the dragon that every now and then let out a waft of fire from across the Great Himalayan Range.
After the start of the pandemic, when the world felt China owed moral responsibility for what had transpired, few would have expected Xi Jinping to don the war paint and literally follow in Mao’s footsteps where everyone, and everyone, was an enemy, to be bullied and dominated to a point where they would go into collective home quarantine and didn’t dare look towards China. In early April, during an interactive session with the Rotary Club of Chennai and Kampala (Nigeria), I had pointed out that World War III had already begun and it was a matter of time before India too would feel the heat of Chinese aggression. In my opinion, the US and the rest of the world today have no choice but to not only take on but dismantle the PRC—a task that is more easily said than done.
India, with its teeming masses and on the face of it, especially to Chinese eyes, complete chaos would have been and was Xi Jinping’s first port of call, especially since the PRC has its carefully nurtured pet poodle ever ready to bite from the west. It also made sense to try and precipitate a limited military confrontation in the Himalayas where if other nations were to get sucked in, China would have the advantage of a huge buffer between its actual frontier and the conflict zone.
There is a lot that Indian political parties have done over the years that has adversely affected the country’s defence preparedness. Jawaharlal Nehru, hugely guilty of interfering with the Armed Forces’ structure has been joined by other worthies and the institutional integrity has been repeatedly attacked, so much so that today there are a lot of parallels with the pre-1962 situation. However, the country itself, the people and the Armed Forces, have undergone a sea change. Institutions like the National Defence Academy and the Indian Military Academy have nurtured generations of fighting men, who are today in a class of their own and quite capable of sorting out any misadventure by not only the Chinese, but also the Pakistanis, who face us in a different environment where the dynamics are quite different.
Pangong Tso and Galwan are the perfect example of what and how the leadership at the higher levels has evolved. That the so-called intelligence agencies, whose job it is to anticipate these sort of build-ups, failed is something we shall never have definite answers to. It may have taken 59 years for the message to sink in, but the commanders of today have done what Lieutenant General S.P.P. Thorat advocated in April 1961—do not let the Chinese decide where and when to fight. Choose your own ground and then take them on. The cacophony of orchestrated voices in the Indian media, some of them undoubtedly controlled by handlers both within and across the Himalayas, did its level best to provoke a reaction.
The Indian leadership, having withstood the initial onslaught and after the Chinese faced the fury of but a handful of soldiers after they murdered the commanding officer of an Indian infantry battalion, has shown its willingness to open up other fronts as well. The PRC’s calculations were based on similar propaganda that had been launched by the Pakistanis in 1965 when the self-styled Ayub Khan was at the helm of affairs—that the Indians as a race were buzdil (cowards) and would crumble like a house of cards the moment any pressure was applied.
The time has also come for India to take on the Chinese narrative about Claim Lines and territorial sovereignty over large tracts like the Aksai Chin. We may not have been in a position in the 1950s to take them on, but historically and even going by the PRC’s own pre-Panchsheel maps, the International Boundary is what we have to eventually redefine, not some arbitrary subsequent lines on the ground. Eventually, the people of India and China must also realise that as Asian neighbours, our destiny on this planet is closely inter-linked. However, until the Chinese return to the Tibetans what is rightfully theirs, and undo the injustices meted out through the barrel of a gun in the past, the dark shadows will continue to haunt our collective existence.
The “great game” is far from over and it is but a matter of time before the next flash-point emerges. It could be anywhere, on the Indian borders or elsewhere. China is at a disadvantage against the US in the South China Sea, so it will try again to take the fight to terrain where it perceives itself to hold the advantage. Indians on the other hand, twice bitten, know that the carefully built up myth of a 9-foot Chinaman is pure hogwash. It is not just the Bihar, Punjab and the gunners who had a point to prove, but the Gorkhas, Jats, Grenadiers, Nagas, Assamese, Kumaonese, Garhwalis, Guards, Mahars, Madras, Dogras, Sikhs, Marathas, Sikh LI, Rajputs—all are waiting quietly to step forward, to say nothing of the people of this country. As I said a month ago in The Sunday Guardian, we didn’t light the fire, but now we must take it upon ourselves to put it out on our terms. Only by doing that would we have laid to rest the ghosts of 1962.
Shiv Kunal Verma is the author of “1962: The War That Wasn’t” and “The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why.”