In his first interview after a Snowden-style disclosure of the contentious secret report on the 1962 China-India war, Neville Maxwell tells Debasish Roy Chowdhury of the South China Morning Post what the 50-year-old document means for the future of China-India relations.
Post: The Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report (HBBR) was filed in 1963. You, it appears, gained access to it soon after. What took you so long to come out with it?
NM: I had been trying for years to get the report on to the public record. In 2012, I’d made the text available to several newspapers in India.
Post: What reasons did they give you for not carrying it?
NM: Well, they agreed it should be made public, but they thought that had to be done by the government. If the press did it, the result, they said, would be a fierce row, accusations of betrayal of national interest, fierce attacks on the journals who had leaked. In short, nothing good, a lot bad.
So it had begun to look as if the report might never be published, and I thought that would be dreadful, wasting all the efforts of the authors, denying historians access to a crucial aspect of that unnecessary but hugely consequential border war - so I decided to do it myself.
I must apologise, by the way, for the clumsy way in which it was done. The blog collapsed under its own weight soon after it was launched, not because of government censorship, as was thought in India. I saw reports in India on speculation that the government was blocking the site.
Post: Why have you disclosed only a chunk of Volume I of the report? Where’s the rest?
NM: I uploaded what I had. I never saw Volume Two. I understand it is mainly memos, written statements and other documents on which the authors based the report.
Post: What do you hope to achieve with this disclosure?
NM: I hope to achieve what I have been trying to do for nearly 50 years! To rid Indian opinion of the induced delusion that in 1962 India was the victim of an unprovoked surprise Chinese aggression, to make people in India see that the truth was that it was mistakes by the Indian government, specifically Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, that forced the war on China.
My putting the report online now deprives the government of India the excuse they’ve used to keep it secret, the false claim that it was to preserve national security. It’s clear to anyone who reads the report that it has no current military or strategic significance. So there is no good reason for the government to persist in refusing to declassify the whole report, including Volume Two, which I never saw.
Post: That’s not how Indians see it.
NM: Start with seeing that India inherited a border dispute with China, it was congenital to independent India. The British created it in the mid-1930s when they decided that for strategic reasons they should push their north-eastern frontier out some 60 miles. They knew China would not agree to that, because they’d failed to persuade Beijing to give them that belt of territory by diplomatic pressure in the Simla Conference in 1914, and so beginning about 1936 they just took it, by force.
China was too weak to put up any military resistance but it was late in the day for the Empire to get away with that sort of action. The British parliament wouldn’t stand for it. So they falsified the record of the Simla conference by withdrawing and pulping a volume of the series recording India’s treaties and replacing it with a forged version that indicated that at Simla in 1914, China had accepted the new border alignment that they now called the McMahon Line, after the man who had in fact failed to get that agreement at Simla!
Post: Why would independent India follow Britain’s line?
NM: It was a Faustian offer: “You keep quiet about what we did, and you get to keep the McMahon frontier: baulk, expose our trickery, give up the McMahon frontier territory, and what would your public and opposition think about it, Mr Nehru?”
Post: Why do you hate Nehru so much? Didn’t you start off as an admirer?
NM: “Hate” is too strong a word. I have only criticised his border policy. I knew Nehru well and liked him immensely, he was a man of great charm. I was twice the head of the foreign correspondents association, and that brought me into personal contact with him, and as the Times man, I could sometimes get in to talk to him.
That access and friendliness shows, to my shame, in my reporting of the dispute with China as that developed – throughout I took the Indian side, never seeing what should have been obvious, that China was not aggressive but was consistently trying for a settlement on mutually beneficial terms.
I became a marked man in Beijing, they said the Times correspondent must be either stupid or hired. I wasn’t either, but I was blinded by ideology…liberal anti-communism. You’ll see the same affecting many journalists today, as American policy continues the Cold War.
Post: Ever wondered why Nehru, a known China ally, took such a strong line?
NM: On that, I have come to some answers, guided by scholars like David Hoffman and Perry Anderson. Their reading is that the Indian leaders felt insulted by Zhou Enlai’s insistence on negotiations as they felt it impugned India’s character as an ancient nation with defined boundaries.
Post: Ok, back to HBBR. What’s the significance of this 50-year-old report today?
NM: It proves that all that talk about China’s “unprovoked aggression” is utterly false, the truth is that India was the aggressor in 1962. But of course it’s not spelled out in those terms, the political conclusion is buried in dense military jargon, written by soldiers for soldiers, the report is hard reading for unversed civilians.
But nevertheless, the story emerges. From its very beginning as an independent state India, which is to say Nehru in this context, took the view that the alignments of India’s borders was a matter for India alone to decide, unilaterally, privately and definitively.
Without for a moment considering that good sense and good international manners pointed to the need to bring Beijing in to discuss their common border, Nehru and his close advisers selected the alignment themselves and put out new maps showing them as full, formal, final international boundaries … and including an area beyond what Britain had ever claimed, the Aksai Chin.
Post: Your book India’s China War, whose account of the Indian Army’s collapse, was obviously based largely on the HBBR, challenged the entrenched “aggressive China” notion. The book came out in 1970, Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 – how much do you think your book influenced Western thinking on China?
NM: A great deal, and indeed Nixon personally! Kissinger read the book, in 1971 I suppose, when it came out in America and it changed his thinking on China, and he pressed the book on Nixon – all that’s on the record now, in the transcripts of Nixon-Kissinger-Mao talks. While Kissinger was in Beijing, Zhou Enlai sent me a personal message to tell me that Kissinger had said to him, “Reading that book showed me I could do business with you people.”
You have to remember, the belief that China had suddenly attacked an innocent India had really blackened the international view of the PRC, so my revelation that it was a frame-up came like a flash of light everywhere. At a banquet in Beijing, Zhou publicly told me: “Your book did a service to truth which benefited China.”
Post: Your book, India’s China War, didn’t go down very well in India when it first came out in 1970. What’s been the reaction like this time?
NM: I always saw the danger that if I published the report, there would be another outbursts of animosity against me but in fact there’s only been one such - and oddly enough from an old friend. Otherwise, there’s been concentration on the content and implications of the report.
Post: Any charges laid on you yet? After all, you are messing with one of India’s top national secrets.
NM: Not that I know of, this time. The Indian government had laid charges against me, breach of Official Secrets Act, soon after India’s China War came out. I was asked by the British government to keep out of India to avoid request [for arrest] - and for eight years I did so! Until at last Morarji Desai as prime minister annulled the charges, enabling me to return.
Post: Now that India and China seem to be talking again, do you see the border problem as ever being solved?
NM: Yes, I certainly do, and my hopes are rising. I noted with great relief that the magic phrase, the hey presto or abracadabra, “package deal” has recently emerged as jointly used in the official correspondence.
That points to the only, but simple and obvious, solution to the dispute: India recognises that since there is no legal foundation for the McMahon Line, it must be submitted to re-negotiation – but knows that China will accept the basic McMahon alignment. And China is glad to negotiate the western sector, knowing that in those negotiations India will retreat from its absurd, ahistorical claim to ownership of Aksai Chin. The negotiations will have to be lengthy, but both parties will know from the outset that at their conclusion lies the precious, buried treasure of the Sino-Indian friendship which Nehru once sought.