As the Doklam military standoff in the China-India-Bhutan tri-junction enters its second month, the memories of a border war in 1962 have been stirring back to life. Chinese state media is warning of teaching India a lesson similar to 1962. The cover of the India Today magazine this week is asking ‘Will there be war?’ The People’s Liberation Army is urging the Indian Army to learn from history and stop “clamouring for war”. India’s defence minister is warning that India is not what it was in 1962. Neither is China, Beijing is warning back.

The wider world has largely forgotten that short border clash 55 years ago, playing out as it did in the shadows of the more momentous Cuban missile crisis at the peak of the cold war. But in this part of the world, the ghost of that war still lurks – it is the key to how the world’s two most populous nations imagine one another.

For Indians, spooked more by that distant war for the shame its defeat inflicted on a young nation, 1962 remains an open wound desperate for closure. From warmongering television anchors to bloodthirsty Twitter warriors, the craving for revenge is ubiquitous. As editor and author Shekhar Gupta succinctly said in a column on the 50th anniversary of the war, “for generations, the loser wishes he could fight the same battle, the same war, again, this time with different results of course”.

For the Chinese, their superiority irrefutably established by the overwhelming military triumph in 1962, silent disdain is more the norm. As Fang Zhenjun, a researcher from the China Institute of Cyberspace Strategy, is quoted by the strident state-run newspaper Global Times as saying, the war with India is “scarcely mentioned in the Chinese government statements, official news reports or textbooks, largely out of concerns that it might affect bilateral ties”.

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No wonder then there’s so much talk about another war, because neither side learnt much from the last one. There’s little knowledge, understanding or debate over the complex mesh of factors that whorled into the war of 1962, and that’s because neither India nor China has been completely honest about the war. Each state churned out a simplistic narrative that blamed the other. These half-truths have over time crystallised into myths, providing the monochromatic, self-righteous prism through which the Chinese and the Indians see each other today. Any suggestion that their own actions may have contributed to the war verges on the blasphemous.

In China, the state-constructed rationale for the war was Indian intransigence and aggression, which forced Beijing’s hand. In this storyline there’s little room for other factors like the internal power struggles in the Communist Party, the Sino-Soviet split, Beijing’s own handling of Tibet ( 西藏 ), and the cold war politics of the day. All of these would coalesce into a perfect geopolitical storm. With its stubborn refusal to negotiate and empty bravado, India marched right into it, like a moth to a flame. In the 1962 war, India was actually as much a combatant as it was the collateral damage.

In India, the humiliating defeat necessitated the construct of a surprising and unprovoked attack by China in a shocking act of betrayal. “It’s a very simple narrative about ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’ (the slogan popularised by then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru that means Chinese and Indians are brothers) and then India being stabbed in the back by the duplicitous Chinese, and that therefore India can no longer trust the Chinese. It also includes the notion that Nehru was naive in his blind trust of China,” says Dibyesh Anand, head of the department of politics and international relations at the University of Westminster.

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In this Indian formulation, Nehru is at once the trusting fool and the tragic hero whose idealistic gullibility led him to play into the hands of the land-grabbing Chinese. For Chinese scholars, he was the archetypal bourgeois reactionary playing dirty with communist China.

The truth is more complex. Nehru, no matter how much the Chinese scholars hate him, was the original “China bull”. But his love for China was neither blind nor unconditional, as his Indian detractors claim. And the war was neither unexpected nor unprovoked. As a secret Indian war report shows, India picked both the place and the time. Only Nehru misjudged the enormity of the Chinese response that would follow.

“If there was an identifiable core to Nehru’s foreign policy it was that China, whether it was communist or not, was going to be central to the post-war international world,” writes Anton Harder, reviewing archival evidence of India rejecting US feelers of a seat on the Security Council at a crucial juncture of the cold war.

In a 1950 letter from Washington, Nehru’s sister and then ambassador to the United States, tells him: “One matter that is being cooked up in the State Department should be known to you. This is the unseating of China as a Permanent Member in the Security Council and of India being put in her place.” Nehru replies: “We are not going to countenance it...We shall go on pressing for China’s admission in the UN and the Security Council. India, because of many factors, is certainly entitled to a permanent seat in the Security Council. But we are not going in at the cost of China.”

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In a conversation with Nikolai Bulganin five years later, when the Soviet premier makes a similar offer, Nehru says: “Perhaps Bulganin knows that some people in USA have suggested that India should replace China in the Security Council. This is to create trouble between us and China. We are, of course, wholly opposed to it…I feel that we should first concentrate on getting China admitted.”

Nehru’s internationalist stance was a product of his strong belief in the inevitability of China’s rise and the importance of integrating China into the global system to guarantee peace. It may sound like a no-brainer today but it was not an easy conclusion to reach in the 1950s, and certainly not an easy one to fight for in those ideologically charged cold war days. At home, Nehru staked substantial political capital to push forward his vision of an amicable relationship with China, deftly outmanoeuvring the powerful right-wing nationalists in his own party and in the opposition. And, in his mind at least, he expected a pay-off for his troubles. That’s where the problem lay.


“In all, after 1959, China’s determination to delimit new strategic borders, using both diplomatic and military methods, would conflict sharply with India’s post-1947 determination to have historic borders. The two concepts of proper border determination have never been reconciled,” writes Steven Hoffman in India and the China Crisis.

For China, the border was a muddle left behind by colonial powers that needed to be sorted through negotiation between Asia’s newly independent nation states. For Nehru, India’s borders had been historically determined by “custom and usage” and could not be negotiated. As far as he was concerned, there was simply no border dispute, a position that has flummoxed historians like Neville Maxwell and A.G. Noorani.

“The stark truth is that India became independent in 1947 with the legacy of a boundary problem, and Nehru and his principal advisers were fully aware of that. The boundary dispute did not arise all of a sudden in 1958-59, as was made out later,” according to Noorani.

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Nehru wouldn’t just refuse to talk, he even unilaterally determined the border and expected China to abide by it. India’s official maps of 1948 and 1950 showed the entire northern boundary as “undefined”. On July 1, 1954, Nehru issued an order to withdraw old maps and print new ones with “a firm and definite one [line] which is not open to discussion with anybody”. The new border line included Aksai Chin in the western sector of the China-India border. But even as late as September 17, 1959, he was telling the Parliament: “This place Aksai Chin area is in our maps undoubtedly. But I distinguish it completely from other areas. It is a matter for argument as to what part of it belongs to somebody else. It is not at all a dead clear matter.”

In the eastern sector of the border, Nehru similarly expected the Chinese to accept the McMahon Line as the border, knowing full well that it was a product of secret negotiations between the Tibetans and the English in 1914, and had never been accepted by Beijing. But China was still open to it, as premier Zhou Enlai told Nehru on a trip to Delhi in 1960. China had after all drawn a border with Burma on the basis of the McMahon Line. What Zhou offered was a land swap, under which China would accept India’s McMahon-based claims on the east in lieu of China’s claims to Aksai Chin, which it needed for the vital road link between Xinjiang (新疆) and Tibet. New Delhi would have none of it.

While he kept rebuffing Chinese requests for talks, Nehru forced the military to push forward and stake out new territory. His yes men in the army, who were quickly promoted to key posts, would force this so-called “forward policy” from 1961 down the throats of ground commanders, overriding their objections to provoking the Chinese without the means to handle a backlash.

The increasingly egregious forward patrolling would snowball into major confrontations, provoking a Chinese counterattack that came on October 20, 1962, and ended exactly a month later after the Chinese delivered a crushing defeat. The war claimed the lives of 1,383 Indian soldiers, many of whom died not in enemy firing but of the cold, as the government didn’t have enough winter clothing even as it rushed headlong into a war.

“We were mute witnesses of our own impending destruction. We had to stand by helplessly, as we were outweaponed, outnumbered and tethered to indefensible ground, with the order to defend useless logs of wood at all costs,” writes Brigadier John Dalvi in his moving memoir, Himalayan Blunder, which was banned by the Indian government immediately after its publication.

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The “forward policy”, disastrous as it was, would still have probably been glossed over by Beijing as an incremental escalation had it not become entwined with Tibet, that too at a time of an unprecedented power struggle in the communist world.

Addressing a Nepalese delegation in 1964, Mao said it was not the McMahon line that was China’s main problem with India, but Tibet. “In the opinion of the Indian government, Tibet is theirs,” he said.

“It was a deeply pernicious Chinese misperception that contributed powerfully to the decision for war in 1962,” according to John Garver, author of Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century, who holds that Nehru’s insistence on autonomy for Tibet was wrongly misconstrued as his evil plan to annex Tibet. “This fundamental attribution error must be laid at Mao’s door. It was he who first determined, at the central meeting on 23 April 1959, that ‘Indian expansionists’ wanted to ‘seize Tibet’. Mao completely dominated China’s foreign policy decision making process by 1959. Once Mao made that determination, China’s other leaders were compelled to chime in. Indeed, even today China’s scholars are still compelled to affirm Mao’s erroneous judgment,” says Garver in his essay titled China’s Decision for War with India in 1962.

“If the forward policy had not been seen – as Mao saw it – as part of an effort to seize Tibet, but as arising from a desire on the part of Nehru to demonstrate toughness and resolve in the face of mounting domestic criticism, such a firm Chinese rebuff as the one that came in November 1962 might not have been deemed necessary.”

The Communist Party leadership, which in any case had deep-rooted ideological suspicions of Nehru, was convinced he was hand-in-glove with the CIA in training Tibetan rebels in 1957. “India was more important to Chinese leaders than is generally understood. Nehru and other Indian leaders were seen as tools of the West, working to subvert Chinese influence in the Himalayas and supporting an American agenda around the globe,” says Jonathan Ward, who specialises in China-India relations at the University of Oxford.

While there is plenty of evidence that India helped the Tibetans in 1949 and 1950 with small doses of arms, it is still unclear if Nehru was aware of the CIA operation in 1957. But what is irrefutably clear is that Nehru overcame considerable resistance at home on China’s presence in Tibet following the PLA’s entry there in October 1950, a momentous occasion for India. As the No 2 in the Nehru cabinet and his arch-rival, Vallabhbhai Patel, warned in a letter to Nehru within days, “for the first time, after centuries, India’s defence has to concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously”, the other one being the front with Pakistan.

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Patel was heading an influential section within the government that wanted a policy revision to forge greater cooperation with the Western powers. Declassified American documents show that within three days of Patel’s letter to Nehru, US ambassador Loy Henderson was relaying to Washington Patel’s efforts to strengthen India’s military establishment to effectively “face its Communist neighbour”.

The PLA’s march next door had put both Nehru’s much-avowed non-aligned foreign policy and China tilt in jeopardy. He still held his ground, repeatedly saying in public and government memos that Tibet was indisputably China’s. In 1954, he led India to formally recognise China’s ownership of Tibet, among the first countries to do so. India also gave up the extra-territorial rights in Tibet that it had inherited from the departing British in 1947, such as trading missions, telecommunications facilities and limited military presence. India refused to support a Tibetan appeal to the United Nations in 1959 and 1960. After the Dalai Lama fled to India in March 1959, Nehru prevailed on him to refrain from demanding independence, but seek autonomy, instead.

But again, Nehru was expecting a quid pro quo, and believed he and Zhou had a deal whereby India had agreed to recognise China’s sovereignty over Tibet in exchange for China’s granting of a significant degree of autonomy to Tibet. “This ‘agreement’, according to Nehru, accommodated India’s ‘sentimental’, ‘cultural’ interests in Tibet, and China’s security and sovereignty concerns in that region, and thus provided a foundation for Sino-Indian partnership,” writes Garver.

The March 1959 Tibetan uprising saw Beijing discard all notions of autonomy as it set about tightening its grip over Tibet. The ensuing crackdown brought Chinese soldiers right up to the Indian border.

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After years of semantically laden boundary deliberations, the exchanges became more open and increasingly bitter. China now began to make specific claims, in a marked departure from its earlier equivocation that its maps were from the Kuomintang days and needed to be examined afresh.

In a letter to Zhou in December 1958, an edgy Nehru reminded him of the personal assurances on the boundary. As far as India was concerned, he said, there had never been a boundary dispute and there was no question that “large parts of India being anything but India”. Zhou in January 1959 replied that the Sino-Indian border was not a settled matter and that “border disputes do exist between China and India”.

Nehru had already been under pressure at home since the People’s Daily reported the near completion of a road in the Aksai Chin area in September 1957. In August 1959, the border began to stir again. The PLA took an Indian prisoner at Longju. Two months later in Aksai Chin’s Kongka La, nine Indian frontier policemen were killed by Chinese troops, widely described in the Indian press as a “massacre”. With Zhou’s unsettling letters, growing border skirmishes and a marked change in tone of the Chinese ideological statements emanating from Beijing from around the middle of 1959, Nehru began to reverse his policy of friendship that would culminate in the “forward policy”. This decision, according to Hoffman, was “heavily influenced by Nehru’s belief that China had become hostile to India in a fundamental and permanent way”.

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Nehru was right, China had changed fundamentally, and so had its rules of engagement.

As cold war historian Niu Jun writes in 1962: The Eve of the Left Turn in China’s Foreign Policy, an extreme leftist foreign policy was beginning to take shape at the Eleventh Plenary Session of the Eighth Party Congress in September 1956. This heralded an era of turmoil in Chinese foreign policy that would intensify in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and draw India into the violent vortex of a gathering ideological storm next door.

Prior to the Eighth Congress in 1956, the broad thrust of Chinese foreign policy was peaceful coexistence irrespective of ideology. Its signing of the “Five Peaceful Co-existence Principles” in 1954 with India on Tibet in 1954, a high point of China-India relations, encapsulated this approach. The two things that would change this peaceable policy was the Sino-Soviet split and the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s deluded policy of rural industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation that ended in mass starvation and killed millions.

Apart from a host of dogmatic differences with the Soviets, China also began to strain at the leash after the revolts in Poland and Hungary in 1956 against Soviet-imposed policies. It saw an opportunity to rise in the socialist camp but would have to find out “how far it had risen and to what extent Moscow would tolerate such a change”, according to Niu, a professor at Peking University. India served itself up as a perfect test case.

The new, leftist foreign policy would preclude the possibility of global peace or détente that the Soviets sought, seek greater confrontation with imperialism and the capitalist world, “exaggerate China’s position and influence in world politics”, and would have zero tolerance of divergent opinions. This ideological extremism in foreign policy was an extension of Mao’s strategy of using doctrinal purity to mute any opposition to the Great Leap Forward at home. The purge of defence minister Marshall Peng Dehuai in August 1959 on the grounds of being a “rightist opportunist” showed the extent to which Mao could go to push his plans of deliberate disruption at home and abroad.

It was against this backdrop that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev reached Beijing in September 30, 1959, hoping to persuade Mao to drop his “adventurist” policy towards India and Taiwan, and invited Mao’s fury. As the transcripts of their increasingly heated exchanges – much of which centred on their differences over India – show, this summit would set the stage for the formal Sino-Soviet split. China’s India policy would no longer be filtered by India’s Soviet friends.

In 1960, about 50,000 residents of China’s Xinjiang province crossed over to Soviet Union. The turmoil in Laos plunged China’s immediate neighbourhood into chaos and the US increased intervention, fuelling Mao’s paranoid world view of a rising “anti-China tide”, complete with the threat from India. He would use this external threat to his advantage in domestic politics.

“War with India killed many birds with one stone for Mao,” writes India’s former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon in a recent piece for The Wire. “It stopped the territorial jostling with India on the ground; it distracted attention from the calamitous domestic situation he had caused; it damaged the irritating domestic and foreign policy of the Indian bourgeoisie and Nehru; it weakened the Soviet position in the Sino-Soviet ideological dispute; it thwarted US machinations that he saw in Tibet and Taiwan; and, it sought (unsuccessfully) to replace the non-aligned movement with a China-led Afro-Asian bloc. But I suspect that far more significant than all these external factors was the fact that it was the beginning of his taking back control of the party.”

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China and India shut each other out for over two decades after the war. When they began the process of rapprochement, they focused on commerce. Good politics, it was thought, would follow good economics. China is now India’s second largest trading partner and Chinese and Indian companies are doing business in each other’s country on an unprecedented scale.

But the dispute over their unsettled border, which triggered the 1962 war, is nowhere near resolution. Any border deal will require give and take on both sides, which is not possible without the support of the people. That, in turn, would require informing public opinion. That can never happen as long as China and India do not start talking honestly about their problems.

After the war, the Indian government commissioned an operational review of India’s military debacle. The so-called Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report, submitted to the government the following year, rips into the “forward policy” and details the plight Indian soldiers were put through as a result of the political brinkmanship with China. Even after all these years, the government refuses to declassify the report.

Maxwell, who authored the controversial India’s China War, which turns on its head the Indian conventional wisdom of 1962 being a product of unprovoked Chinese aggression, outed a part of the first volume of the report in 2014. And, the impact on public discourse was immediate. Gupta, the editor and author, lambasted the government for hiding the truth of the war from the people to “protect our carefully crafted and preserved mythologies of 1962”. After that brief spurt of objective reflection, public opinion has since returned to the default Sinophobia.

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In China, where public awareness about India has been traditionally low, whatever little India-related scholarship is available follows the tight script laid down by the state anyway. So does the new burst of media coverage of India surrounding Doklam. Given that only 24 per cent of Chinese have a favourable view of India, according to the last Pew survey, it’s not difficult to imagine what this is doing to public opinion in China. If the Indian government is uninterested in the political risks associated with a truthful retelling of the war, the risks are infinitely higher for China. They are both trapped in their myths. And the soldiers trapped in the mountains.

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1962 robbed India of its leadership of the third world and laid bare its poor state capacity.

For China, relations with India would be irreparably damaged after 1962 and mark it out as an aggressive power in the eyes of the world. As Menon points out, Mao told the Politburo that the effect of the war on India-China relations would last 30 years, after which it would be forgotten. Yet, here we are.

The similarities between 2017 and 1962 are striking. The trigger, like last time, is a road in the high mountains. China is still jumpy about India’s dalliance with Tibet’s “splittists”. The leader of the Communist Party is consolidating his grip on the party and stressing ideological purity. China’s relationship with the US is riven with strategic tension. And as in 1962, it sees India as working in tandem with America to encircle and contain it. India is as convinced of its greatness and military might as it was in 1962. And Indian public opinion about China remains as inflamed.

In 1962, nobody won. India lost the war, China lost the peace. Yet they don’t seem to mind doing it all over again in 2017.

Debasish Roy Chowdhury is the deputy editor of This Week in Asia