The two Asian giants, India and China, had coexisted peacefully since times immemorial. There is no historical documentation, before the Indo-China war of 1962, of the two great civilisations having resorted to hostility and war to resolve issues. What makes things even more distressing is the fact that even a few years before the war, from 1950 to 1959, relations between India and China were on a very positive wicket. Both countries had a common ground in building their nationhood after shedding a severe imperialistic and colonial yoke. In fact, India was the second country after Burma to recognise the Peoples Republic of China in April 1951. Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950 was the first catalyst of conflict between the two nations.. Nehru voiced his concern but went along with the “Seventeen Point Agreement” which recognised China’s historical sovereignty over Tibet while preserving India’s trade and social links with the region. The people of Tibet, however, rose in revolt against Chinese occupation; the revolt was crushed by the Chinese by use of brutal force. Indian, very rightly, raised a voice against this brutality; relation between India and China further deteriorated when, in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet, took asylum in India and formed a Tibetan government in exile over here. The Chinese perceived all this as a violation of the Panchsheel Agreement.
Matters took a turn for the worse when India discovered that the Chinese had constructed a road in the Aksai Chin area to connect Xinjiang with Tibet. When India launched a protest, the Chinese asserted that they considered Aksai Chin to be their territory and insisted on speeding up the process for resolving the border dispute. It is notable here that earlier Nehru and Zhou Enlai had agreed to leave the border issue to be resolved at the bureaucratic level and it was this assertion which had paved the way for the Panchsheel Agreement. Tibet brought into focus the border issue all over again. The Indian side refused to enter into negotiations till such time that the Chinese withdrew completely from Aksai Chin.
Nehru went a step further and ordered Indian troops to occupy forward posts in areas which were clearly north of the McMohan Line and were claimed by Chinese as their territory. These posts were occupied to assert Indian territorial claims in Ladakh and specifically to threaten the Xinjian-Tibet road in Aksai Chin. The fact that India was taking a belligerent military posture and yet refusing to engage in talks caused the Chinese to conclude that India had expansionist designs with regard to Tibet.
The aforementioned were the political and diplomatic factors that led to build up of a trust deficit and escalation of tension between the two countries. What went beyond this was the irritation that the Chinese leadership felt with Nehru and his policies; Chinese leaders did not like Nehru’s forays into international diplomacy with the non aligned movement nor did they like his proximity to the United States and the Soviet Union. They harboured a feeling that Nehru was distancing himself from the avowed friendship with China and was trying to outflank them diplomatically. They were convinced that Nehru had designs of creating a great Indian empire in South Asia by filling the vacuum left by British, for which control of Tibet by India was imperative.
The war, therefore, was a Chinese way of destroying the international prestige that Nehru enjoyed as also showing Khrushchev down for ignoring a communist country in favour of a democracy. By crushing India militarily, China wanted to show the world that it was now a force to reckon with.
Nehru, for all his political acumen, failed to understand and comprehend the Chinese psyche. His overwhelming self view of being a leader of global stature led to a conviction that the Chinese would not attack India despite the provocative posture that he and his advisors were adopting. That he followed this policy when the Nations army was weak and ill prepared indicates a woeful ignorance of geo-strategy. The Chinese, on the other hand, prepared well and attacked simultaneously in two areas 1000 kms apart at a time when the other super powers were preoccupied with a major cold war predicament historically termed as the Cuban missile crisis. The Chinese came in fast, dealt India a crushing and humiliating blow, devastated Nehru’s prestige and declared unilateral ceasefire on November, 21, 1962, exactly a month after the hostilities began. Not only this, they also withdrew 20 kms behind the line of actual control leaving a bewildered and shattered Nehru and a devastated Nation to pick up the pieces.
While accepting the need for Nehru to stand up to Chinese obduracy it is felt that there was a scope for him to handle the issue with more sensitivity and diplomatic finesse. He could have refrained from adopting a belligerent military posture in view of the Nations very obvious weakness in comparison to Chinese military might. He could have resorted to diplomacy to convince the Chinese about the need to reflect upon a divergent view on Tibet. He could have engaged the Chinese in the boundary talks and assuaged their mistrust. At an opportune time he could have steered the dispute into the ambit of the United Nations and by so doing exposed Chinese intransigence. Instead, Nehru refused to get off his high horse and rebuffed Chinese attempts to negotiate on the misplaced premise that the latter would never dare to attack India.
Thus due to one mismanaged political spat, friendship and mutual respect between two civilisations built and nurtured over millenniums was torn to shreds. In the aftermath China has tried to forget the war but India is not ready to let go the baggage. In fact, for many decades after the war the Indian people vehemently looked upon the Chinese as enemy number one. Indian films normally showed the nations enemy as an ugly Chinese with evil, inimical intentions. Fortunately, of late the trend has worn down somewhat. The two countries have not been able to rebuild the trust even fifty years after the unfortunate incident.
One cannot discount the possibility of major mistakes having been made by the Chinese leadership but we, as a Nation, cannot turn a blind eye to our own blunders. Once we admit to our faults it will become easier to embark on the path of reconciliation. With fifty years behind the unfortunate incident maybe it is time to move on. Indian and China need to rejuvenate their historic ties so as to once again gain the mantle of world leadership which has been their mandate for many centuries in the past.