Frontline, December 04-17, 2010

by Praful Bidwai

SENIOR columnist and author Inder Malhotra has done the public a service by publishing, with his own comments, two important letters Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to United States President John F. Kennedy towards the end of the 1962 China war ( The Indian Express, November 15, 17). The letters are extremely sensitive. Written within a few hours' interval on November 19, 1962, a day before Beijing unilaterally announced a ceasefire, they ask for far greater U.S. military help than sought earlier to deal with a “really desperate” situation.

Nehru wrote: “We have to have more comprehensive assistance if the Chinese are to be prevented from taking over the whole of Eastern India. Any delay in this assistance reaching us will result in nothing short of a catastrophe….” The assistance included at least “12 squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters” and “modern radar cover”. “U.S. Air Force personnel will have to man these… while our personnel are being trained. U.S. fighters and transport planes manned by U.S. personnel will be used for the present to protect our cities and installations from Chinese air attacks….”

Nehru was begging for U.S. help not just in “our fight for survival”, but “the survival of freedom and independence in this subcontinent and rest of Asia”. The letters reveal the Indian leadership's trauma and humiliation at the military debacle then under way. They expose the depths to which its morale had sunk in asking for U.S. air cover before ordering the Indian Air Force into battle.

The letters, some commentators contend, prove that Nehru was not the principled believer in the ideology and practice of non-alignment, as has been made out, but a “pragmatist” or “realist” who considered “the national interest” supreme and paramount over a “third-worldist ideology”. This is a specious interpretation and distortion of the Nehruvian legacy although the letters do show Nehru at his weakest – and panicky worst – and represent an aberration from non-alignment, albeit in extreme and exceptional circumstances.

Various questions arise. Was Nehru wholly, personally responsible for this aberration? What explains it, including the background of the border dispute and war with China? Why were the letters suppressed for long years? Who released them and why? How significant was Nehru's turn towards the West within the global context? Did it spell a decisive break with non-alignment and other cornerstones of his policy, including decolonisation, peace and opposition to nuclear weapons? Did the China war precipitate a shift in India's Tibet policy, in particular support to Tibetan forces hostile to Beijing?

It will not do to plead, as some staunch Nehru supporters might, that he did not personally draft the letters, contrary to his normal practice. Even if they were drafted by Foreign Secretary M.J. Desai, as Nehru's official biographer S. Gopal asserts in Volume Three of Jawaharlal Nehru (OUP, 1984), Nehru signed them and must bear responsibility for them. It is also irrelevant whether Nehru took the decision to ask for U.S. help “apparently without consulting any of his Cabinet colleagues or officials, apart from Desai”. When Food Minister S.K. Patil protested that the Cabinet was not being kept fully informed of the recent developments, Nehru said the crisis had come suddenly and adaptation to it was taking time. He added: “No policy decisions have been taken, so far as I can remember, without reference to the Cabinet….” Adds Gopal: “Clearly, Nehru's memory was not at this time at its best.”

“Punitive expedition”

What were the circumstances in which the momentous decision was taken? The Indian Army was hopelessly unprepared for the Chinese attack, which began on October 20. The attack is regarded by many chroniclers (including Neville Maxwell, the author of India's China War, still the richest account of the conflict despite its pro-China sympathies) as a “punitive expedition” against India's “forward policy”. Tawang fell quickly. Chaos prevailed north of the Brahmaputra. On October 31, V.K. Krishna Menon was stripped of his Defence portfolio. A week later, he resigned from the Cabinet – a big blow to Nehru.

It soon became clear that the Indian Army's ill-clad, ill-shod and poorly armed soldiers would not hold out for long. It is only in Chushul in Ladakh and Walong in the north-eastern region that they put up resistance. But India's great hope, the 12,000-strong 4th Division, collapsed. On November 19, Army chief P.N. Thapar was relieved of his charge. Defeat stared India in the face.

Panic at the thought of China overrunning the north-eastern region, combined with very poor intelligence, provoked Nehru to write his first letter to Kennedy: “Bomdila, which was the headquarters of our Northeast Frontier Agency NEFA, now Arunachal Pradesh Command, has been surrounded and the equivalent of two divisions… are fighting difficult rear-guard actions.… The Chinese are… poised to overrun Chushul in Ladakh. There is nothing to stop them after Chushul till they reach Leh.”

Within hours, Nehru wrote again: “Bomdila has fallen and the retreating forces from Sela have been trapped…. A serious threat has developed to our Digboi oilfields…. The entire Brahmaputra Valley is seriously threatened and unless something is done immediately to stem the tide the whole of Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland would also pass into Chinese hands.… Another invasion from the Chumbi Valley appears imminent. Our areas further northwest… in… Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh are also threatened. We have also noticed increasing air activity by the Chinese air force in Tibet.”

It emerges from other accounts that the Chinese air force had been virtually immobilised by a severe lack of spares from the USSR – a consequence of Sino-Soviet tensions. However, Nehru was unaware of this and wrote: “We have repeatedly felt the need of using air arm in support of our land forces, but have been unable to do so as in the present state of our air and radar equipment we have no defence against retaliatory action….”

Nehru added the proviso: “Any air action to be taken against the Chinese beyond the limits of our country… will be taken by IAF planes manned by Indian personnel.” To attack Chinese air bases, Nehru wanted “two squadrons” of B-47 bombers, for which Indian pilots and technicians would be trained in the U.S. He concluded: “We are confident that your great country will in this hour of our trial help us in our fight for survival….” U.S. Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in his Ambassador's Journal (page 487) on November 21: “Yesterday was the day of ultimate panic in Delhi, the first time I have ever witnessed the disintegration of public morale…. The wildest rumours flew around the town, the most widely believed being that a detachment of 500 paratroopers was about to drop on New Delhi…. Rumours of the advance of the Chinese reached massive proportions and at one stage, they were said to be virtually on the outskirts of Tezpur.”

In an emergency meeting, the U.S. Embassy recommended the flying in of U.S.-piloted air transport and materiel. Galbraith also recommended that “elements of the Seventh Fleet be sent into the Bay of Bengal”. This is the origin of the arrival of the aircraft carrier Enterprise, as a mark of solidarity with India. This manoeuvre, which India did not protest against, was to be repeated in 1971, during the Bangladesh war, when it was seen as a menacing gesture, and widely, if irrationally, cited as a rationale for India's fateful decision to hold the 1974 nuclear test.


The Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire on November 20 and withdrew to their pre-combat positions. They did not take prisoners, and according to Maxwell, even oiled, polished and returned the guns seized from Indian soldiers.

In 1962, the USSR, despite its sympathies, did not openly support India against China because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. India continued to receive military aid from the U.S. and the United Kingdom but soon turned to the Soviet Union, which supplied arms at a fraction of the Western prices and on concessional terms.

The origin of the China conflict is instructive and complex. To oversimplify somewhat, it originated in India's persistent refusal to negotiate the border problem and its demand that the Chinese accept the MacMahon Line (negotiated by the British in 1914 with Tibet but never accepted by China), plus a degree of Chinese annoyance at being thwarted repeatedly. After 1959, both sides progressively hardened their positions. Nehru came under domestic pressure to demonstrate “firmness”.

The dispute was allowed to turn into a bloody conflict by an incompetent, overconfident military leadership unequipped with intelligence. As former Ambassador K. Shankar Bajpai writes: “Memoirs of two foreign secretaries, Y.D. Gundevia and Rajeshwar Dayal, independently recounted how, barely a few days before the Chinese attacks, they were bewildered by being called to meetings under the Defence Minister to be solemnly told… that it was not China that was preparing mischief, but Pakistan.”

The episode showed India's leadership and establishment in an embarrassing light. That is almost certainly why the government has refused to publish, or even admit to the existence of, the two letters, although Gopal refers to them (page 229). According to Malhotra, the letters were placed in the U.S. National Archives, the JFK Library in Boston and the LBJ Library in Austin, but “every line of each letter was so heavily inked out that no technology could help decipher it”. Researchers continued to be denied access to them “at the request of” the Indian government. So far, only the JFK Library has declassified the letters, according to Malhotra. Why and with whose permission this was done remains a mystery.

Strangely, no U.S.-based Indian journalist/researcher put these letters in the public domain. It would be relevant to find out if someone in the Indian Embassy or Foreign Office quietly agreed/decided to declassify them. Their contents would give pro-U.S. non-alignment bashers a good opportunity to say that even Nehru wanted a strategic alliance with the U.S., of the kind that A.B. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have pursued.

Third World dimension

That would be a travesty of non-alignment as Nehru understood and practised it – with the 1962 exception. For Nehru, non-alignment was rooted in strong, principled opposition to the Cold War, which he regarded as a struggle for hegemonic influence and a betrayal by both the U.S. and USSR of the legacy of their own liberation from feudalism and imperialism. He was acutely aware of the Third World dimension of the Cold War as superpower rivalries played out in the former colonies.

The clarity with which India condemned the British-Israeli invasion of the Suez Canal, the Korean War and U.S. hegemonism speaks of Nehru's refusal to kowtow to the West at a time when it was lobbying India against the purchase of MiG jets from the USSR and a steel mill built with Soviet assistance. But he did not hesitate to condemn the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary either. Nehru did not lightly dismiss either the West's espousal of democracy and freedom or the East Bloc's emphasis on economic and social rights. But he subjected them to rational scrutiny while upholding universal principles of freedom, equality and justice.

Non-alignment was integrated with a larger agenda: decolonisation, Afro-Asian solidarity (hence Bandung) and a thorough reform of the world order to give the Global South a greater voice. Given the Nehruvian legacy, India could effortlessly return after 1962 to non-alignment and espouse a New International Economic Order and United Nations reform. The anti-hegemonic thrust of non-alignment retains its validity even today. So do the agendas of correcting global injustices and inequalities.

Year 1962 was no aberration in one respect, however. Until then, India had refused to join, host or assist the Central Intelligence Agency's “Operation ST Circus”, which armed, trained and infiltrated Tibetan guerillas into Chinese strongholds in Tibet between 1956 and 1969, sacrificing thousands. This is ably documented by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam in a BBC documentary, Shadow Circus. After 1962, however, India joined the covert operations and created a Combined Operations Centre. This is an unwise policy. But it cannot be rectified by those who deride non-alignment as idealism or romanticism.

When the China war broke out, Nehru was not quite himself. He was confused, isolated and bitter and responded to pressure in erratic ways. But that should not be allowed to obscure or diminish his legacy of democracy, secularism, non-alignment and socialism. Not many statesmen have had the courage to stand by their convictions on issues such as nuclear disarmament.

In 1961, the U.S. State Department noted China's advanced preparations for a nuclear test and recommended providing India with technological help to develop a nuclear weapons capability as a counterweight to China. It did not want the first Third World nuclear power to be a communist state. It recommended that Galbraith propose the plan to Nehru.

Galbraith took a dim view of raising the issue with Nehru: not only did he think the chances of Nehru rejecting a U.S. offer of assistance were 49 out of 50, but “he sees the calculus of prospective benefit inherent in the one chance as outweighed by the harm implicit in the other 49”.

By the late 1950s, India stood in the forefront of the leading powers of the world, respected and honoured for upholding the canons of peace, freedom and equality of peoples. Even The Economist wrote in 1957 of Nehru's India being “unrivalled in articulate detachment” and in possessing a “genuine bird's eye-view” of the world.

Mountbatten later said that if Nehru had died in 1958, history would have remembered him as the greatest statesman of the 20th century – not least thanks to non-alignment.