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India And China : Eyeball To Eyeball

India And China : Eyeball To Eyeball

I was only nine when I took part in a political procession, the first-ever in my life. True, I had taken part in processions earlier also. That was when I attended the Vacation Bible School (VBS). The procession in 1962 was quite different. It was organized by the Government Primary School at Pathanamthitta where I studied at that time.

What provoked the procession was the Chinese attack on India. We did not have much idea of what happened at the borders. All that we knew was what appeared in the newspapers. We did not have a radio at home. Most newspapers depended on the All India Radio for the news from the borders.

We were told that our soldiers were giving a fitting reply to the Chinese aggressors. Newspaper headlines suggested that China was in for a drubbing. We even made fun of what we thought was a characteristic of the Chinese — flat nose. The butt of our ridicule was not so much Mao Zedung as Prime Minister Chou-en-Lai.

Decades later, I spent some time at the very spot where the Chinese leader and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru discussed the Five Principles or  Panchsheel that should guide bilateral relations. Nehru was a romanticist. He took Chou-en-Lai all the way to Nangal in Punjab for their discussions. He, perhaps, wanted to show him the Bhakra-Nangal dam, the most ambitious project India had undertaken.

The war, though short-lived, had a disastrous effect on the people, even in Kerala. There was sudden shortage of essential items like rice. Even the Public Distribution System was adversely affected. When the war ended, we were under the impression that we had inflicted a crushing defeat on the Chinese.

It was only years later that I learnt that the war did not proceed in the manner in which the media at that time portrayed it. India was not prepared for a war. The man who should have known it — Nehru — was told by his own Generals that China would be taught a lesson it would never forget if they were allowed to proceed.

The fact remains that if the Chinese had not unilaterally ended the war, it could have inflicted a deeper wound on India. Books like the  Himalayan Blunder have been written about the war. What actually happened in 1962 is no longer a secret. We know how a district magistrate ran away from his post when he was told that the Chinese were advancing to the district headquarters.

Yet, the official report on the war called the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report, also referred to as the Henderson Brooks report, remains under wraps. Its authors were officers of the Indian armed forces. They were Lieutenant-General T.B. Henderson Brooks and Brigadier Premindra Singh Bhagat, commandant of the Indian Military Academy at the time.

Successive governments have feared that publication of the report would show the state in a poor light. Only two copies of the report are believed to exist, though portions of the alleged report are available on the Net. The government should have taken the courage to publish it when the US has published similar reports about the Vietnam war which everyone knows did not end the way the US wanted it to end.

I had an uncle in the Indian Army those days. His story was the best I heard. He “took part” in the Sino-Indian war. As the hilarious story goes, uncle did not look backward or sideward as he marched into the Chinese territory. Suddenly he found a small group of Chinese soldiers relaxing under a bush. Realization soon dawned on him that he was alone and if he did not act smart, he would be killed.

Uncle summoned up courage and asked them to stand up. He knew he had only one bullet in his gun. So he asked them to stand in one line. They obeyed. Even before they could bat their eyelids, he fired at them. The bullet pierced through each of them until the last man also fell dead. Later, Uncle migrated to the United States.

We children appreciated his imagination, though we knew that he could not have killed even a Chinese fly. The war had a devastating effect on Nehru. For once he realized that he fell a victim to rhetoric. He gradually lost his will to live. It is difficult for me to dissociate his death from the defeat India suffered in 1962.

What provoked these thoughts were the recent happenings at the Sino-Indian border. The Chinese have a problem with all its neighbours. It has 22,000 km-long borders with as many as 13 countries, including India. It also shares maritime borders with some other countries.

It has a border dispute with almost all of them, though they are not in an eyeball-to-eyeball state. China does not share a border with Pakistan. It shares the border through what India calls the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir. China also retains a vast area called Aksai Chin it captured in 1962. 

Once Nehru told Parliament that not a blade of grass grew in Aksai Chin forcing an Opposition leader to ask him, “Would you, Panditji, consider your head useless because not a strand of hair grows there?” That left the Prime Minister speechless.

The Chinese are insular in nature. That is why they built what is called the Great Wall of China to prevent foreign troops from entering their country. They were actually afraid of the Mongols whose leader Genghis Khan captured a large portion of the country at a time when Adi Sankara was preaching advaita. Today the Chinese occupy a large portion of Mongolia. Left to themselves, they would have devoured large tracts of land in countries like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and India.

The Chinese Ambassador in India was once invited to the  Indian Express for a meeting with senior editors of the paper. I asked him a question about the border dispute. For once, he raised his voice and said I should read Nehru’s own books which quoted some source to suggest that China had a claim on Arunachal Pradesh.

The world saw how the Chinese invaded Tibet forcing Dalai Lama to escape to India. Tibet was not a small country as at one time its territory covered vast areas in China. Ever since it physically captured Lhasa, the Chinese have been doing everything possible to obliterate Tibet’s culture and civilization.

One reason why China turned against India was because it gave sanctuary to Dalai Lama and a Tibetan Government in Exile is allowed to function from Dharamshala, a beautiful hill resort in Himachal Pradesh. China is unable to reconcile itself to the fact that there are many cultural and religious commonalities between the Tibetans and the Indians. Perhaps, more than they have with the Mandarin-speakers!

The Chinese do not understand cultural niceties. The government claims to be Communist but when it comes to border disputes it holds on to what various dynasties that ruled China claimed were the gospel truths. That is how they claim that Arunachal Pradesh belongs to them.

India realized the Chinese acquisition skills in 1962. Yet, there are many in India who believe that had India also been less democratic like China it would have achieved greater economic heights. True, the economic conditions in China and India were more or less the same when both countries became “independent” around the same time. Today China is the world’s second largest economy overtaking Japan a few years ago.

Chines goods have invaded and occupied markets all over the world. The iconic products of the US like iPhones and iPads are manufactured more in China than elsewhere. China has become the factory of Western goods. Statues of Indian gods and goddesses, too, come from China. Celebrations of Diwali and Christmas are possible only because of Chinese products. Fancy lights in temples, mosques, gurdwaras and churches all have a “Made in China” sticker.

Remove Chinese goods from the toys market and the shelves will suddenly become empty. The other day I saw a policeman taking pictures of helmet-less scooterists in Nagpur with an Oppo mobile phone, made in China. Such is the pervasive influence of China on the Indian market, nay the world market.

One leader who is really enamoured of China is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Even as Chief Minister of Gujarat he visited China several times. I have read a Press release issued by the Gujarat government soon after his first visit. It went gaga over the fact that he was received at the Great Hall of China, a great honour.

Modi’s fondness for China is easily understandable. He believes that governance means letting businessmen like Ambani, Adani and Baba Ramdev to flourish so that they can give jobs to more and more people. He set up special economic zones in Gujarat to attract investors like the Tatas who shifted overnight their Nano car project to Gujarat from West Bengal only to realize that it has no takers, though it was touted as “People’s Car”. Modi modelled his economic policies after the ones in People’s Republic.

As Prime minister also, Modi gave great importance to China. It is said that the Chinese eat everything that moves. One proof that Adam and Eve were not Chinese is that if they were so they would not have eaten the forbidden fruit before eating the snake that created a wedge between the proto-couple and the Almighty God. 

Modi’s followers hate beef-eaters in India but Modi has no problem in hugging beef-eaters in China, Japan, Germany, Israel and the US, not to mention several other nations he visited.

The Chinese are very impersonal. Their system does not allow their leaders to be too personal with foreign leaders. They know the importance of state policy. They do everything with a purpose. In 1979 it militarily intervened in Vietnam when foreign minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was visiting China, forcing him to cancel his visit and return to India.

Two years back, Modi threw protocol to the winds when he hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping in Gujarat. While he was serving dhokla to the visiting dignitary, the soldiers of the People’s Republic were staging a military drama on the borders. It was Modi’s idea to set up a BRICS bank to counter the World Bank. After all, between the two, India and China represent nearly one-third of humanity. But the bank was set up in China, not India, though the post of the chief executive was given to an Indian. It showed how calculative the Chinese are.

We should have expected that India-China relations would take a turn for the better under Modi’s leadership. Far from that, the relationship has worsened. Modi may have praised the Chinese at the G-20 meet but there is little love lost between the two sides.

The present standoff has arisen over the construction of a road by the Chinese. One must say that the Chinese are great road-builders. I travelled once from Gilgit to Islamabad by the Karakoram Highway, built by the Chinese. It is easily one of the most marvellous roads ever built by man. I even saw some Chinese building a culvert near the road.

India has stopped the Chinese construction which is at the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan. The Chinese claim that it is their territory whereas Bhutan considers it as its own. India has a bilateral commitment to protect Bhutan from external aggression. Incidentally, the first nation Modi visited after becoming PM is Bhutan.

Though China protests too much, it can do little else except at the cost of its ambitions to emerge as the world’s largest economy. It could not do anything against Hong Kong or Taiwan, though they remained separate for a long time.

The Chinese have reminded India about 1962 but Finance Minister Arun Jaitley retorted that India was no longer the same as in 1962. Both are nuclear-weapon states. Indian missiles have the capacity to reach Beijing just as Chinese missiles can reach New Delhi. Both are great civilizations and they should not speak the language of the bullies.

Modi recently mentioned the fact that India and China have not fired against each other for over 40 years. Institutional mechanisms are in place to settle border disputes. Talks, not troop mobilization, is the need of the hour. Does the RSS have a role in all this? It may not have but I am tempted to quote from an article BJP leader and MP Subramanian Swamy wrote in the Frontline in 1998.

“Vajpayee is immune to receiving this strategic wisdom for two basic reasons. First, in the final analysis, despite all his superficial posturing, he is a volunteer of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS world-view has been laid bare for the initiated in the "saffron" press, for example, the  Organiser and  Panchjanya (although it would be more accurate to call them yellow rather than saffron).

“A gleaning of this press reveals without doubt that the RSS is an addict of Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington's thesis that the 21st century is going to witness a clash of civilizations, between the Islamic and other civilizations.

“The RSS indoctrination today through its networks is just this: that India should team up with the U.S. in wiping out the "evil" Islamic civilization. As a by-product, the RSS suggests that India identify itself with the US in whatever it does. This is the bottom line of the RSS worldview.”

Seen against this backdrop Modi’s pro-Israel policy and the warm response he got from Tel Aviv make sense. Will it be good when it comes to China? The two countries have unlimited human and material resources which can be channelled properly to make their people the most prosperous in the world. The potential can be frittered away as easily as in 1962. It is time for talks, not guns!

The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at  ajphilip@gmail.com

(Published on 10th July 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 28)