Neville Maxwell discloses document revealing that India provoked China into 1962 border war

Journalist's Snowden-like revelations about 1962 war boost China's claims of 'peaceful rise'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 5:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 3:51pm

At an official banquet in Beijing in 1971, Neville Maxwell had the shock of his life. Premier Zhou Enlai and Pakistan's then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto rose from the head table and walked to the foreign correspondents' table, where The Times reporter was seated.

"Mr Maxwell," said Zhou through his interpreter, "your book has done a service to truth, and China has benefited from that." Zhou called for a glass of mao-tai and offered him a toast.

"That moment at the banquet is deeply engraved in my memory, failing as it sometimes is," Maxwell said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

The 87-year-old Australian journalist and historian likes to make jokes about his supposedly fading memory. But he won't let India forget its past errors which, he says, led to the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

Beijing would welcome the revived attention to their India dispute
Journalist Neville Maxwell

For nearly half a century he has been going against the grain of Indian collective memory that remembers the humiliating defeat in the month-long border war as an unprovoked act of aggression by a country it considered a friend.

This month he pulled a Snowden on India. He exposed a top-secret Indian war report that returned the spotlight to a period in history that still sours public opinion in India and bars normal ties between the two Asian giants.

In a specially created blog, Maxwell published a chunk of the secret war report that harshly criticised the highest echelons of power in India at the time for pursuing a flawed strategy of provoking China without the means to handle a backlash.

India's toll in that short war in the high Himalayas was 1,383 killed, 1,047 wounded and 1,696 missing. China never declared its losses. The war ended when Beijing suddenly called a unilateral ceasefire and ordered its troops to retreat to their previous positions - all after dealing India its worst military drubbing.

India called the "attack" a stab in the back. But China maintained it was a necessary counterattack to fend off India's advances on its territory - Maxwell's thoughts exactly. "I had been trying for years to get the report on to the public record but it had begun to look as if the report might never be published, and I thought that would be dreadful," Maxwell told the Post in an exclusive interview. Speaking from Sydney, it was the first time he discussed his disclosure that has made waves in India.

Maxwell covered the 1962 war as The Times' India correspondent. Like all Western journalists, he unquestioningly accepted India's line that China had been the aggressor and reported it as such. Later, when he took a sabbatical to study the conflict more deeply, he said he began to see China's side of the story.

"I was blinded by ideology … liberal anti-communism. You'll see the same affecting many journalists today, as American policy continues the cold war," he said.

In 1970, a converted Maxwell published an influential yet controversial revisionist tome, India's China War - the object of Zhou's praise at the banquet the following year. The book chronicled how India provoked Beijing into the fight, challenging the narrative of Chinese aggression. For his conviction, Indians denounced Maxwell as a China apologist and an India-basher.

The inspiration for Maxwell's epiphany was widely believed to be a document that gave him a rare insight into the workings of the then Indian establishment. The so-called Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report was an operational review of India's military debacle commissioned by New Delhi that Maxwell managed to obtain.

Compiled by Lieutenant-General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier Premindra Singh Bhagat in 1963, it has been kept secret by the Indian government despite repeated appeals that it be declassified. The government's excuse for keeping the report under wraps "for national security" has few takers in India. The predominant view is that the government aims to protect the legacy of the then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Disgraced by the 1962 defeat, Nehru died a broken man within two years. But the Nehru-Gandhi clan, through its grip on the ruling Congress Party, has continued to maintain a near monopoly on the levers of power.

The report is a dry army operations review, its terms of reference narrowed to military preparedness to insulate the civilian leadership from a witch hunt. But the authors still manage to make a scathing implicit attack on top civilian and military authorities.

In particular, they rip into the so-called "forward policy" pushed by the Nehru government, under which Indian troops were told to advance from their existing positions to stake out new territory and force out the Chinese.

The report details how this brinkmanship was forced down the throats of ground commanders despite their repeated warnings about reversing the border's status quo without sufficient preparation. Such moves, they said, were bound to provoke the Chinese.

Half a century on, as India and China struggle to overcome the mutual suspicion left over from the war, peaceniks hope Maxwell's outing of the secret war report might lead to more critical examination within India about its own role in the war and help reset bilateral relations.

Indian media organisations have been widely covering the report, long seen as the key to bringing closure to a national shame. Opposition parties have renewed demands for the report to be declassified, but the government has refused to budge. In a moving piece thanking Maxwell, Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta wrote that the report was still being treated as top secret only to "protect our carefully crafted and preserved mythologies of 1962".

For China, the significance of the disclosure goes beyond India. At a time when there is growing disquiet in the region over China's claim to a "peaceful rise", a revisiting of the 1962 war helps it polish its credentials while reaffirming its ideological steel in view of its disputes in the South China and East China Seas.

"Beijing would welcome the revived attention to their India dispute," Maxwell said. "Its lessons are that China is conflict-averse and will do all it can to reach peaceful solutions, but that it can't be pushed around and will never back away from defending what it sees as its basic security concerns. If the issue becomes fight or surrender, the PRC will always fight."