The problem with Narendra Modi’s overtures to China

By Debasish Roy Chowdhury | 23 July 2014

In his meeting with Xi Jinping in Brazil on the sidelines of the BRICS summit, Narendra Modi last week impressed on the Chinese president the need to “amicably resolve the boundary question.” Yet only the week before, Arun Jaitley had ruled out declassifying the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report (HBBR) on the 1962 war, the memories of which still plague our relations with our giant neighbour. It is difficult to see how the prime minister’s stated end game is compatible with the defence minister’s resistance to talk about the past.

Border settlement is tricky business, a far more ambitious venture than border management, which China and India have almost perfected. With no shot fired across the Line of Actual Control in decades, the border could not have possibly been managed any better. Border management is a largely military matter; border settlement would be a political exercise—and this is where it gets tricky, especially in a democracy as raucous as ours.

Any border settlement will entail give and take. We will have to lose some land, as will China. The most likely scenario, if it ever happens, is India giving up its claim on Aksai Chin and China giving up its claim on Arunachal Pradesh (or South Tibet, as they call it), formalising the current status on the ground. If selling a shrunken map to a nationalistically charged citizenry is a daunting task in one-party China, imagine doing it in India.

Despite his massive mandate, even Modi cannot expect his people—not to mention the opposition—to fall in line quietly and accept parting with Jammu and Kashmir’s eastern protrusion. And this is where the defence minister’s newfound zeal for secrecy jars. To even attempt an enterprise as challenging as border settlement, the government would need to first create conducive public opinion. The refusal to declassify the war report indicates the lack of political will to do so.

The British-Australian journalist and historian Neville Maxwell created a storm when he recently published a chunk of the first volume of the HBBR online. The report only provides a limited account of why we lost the war, not of why we went to war in the first place. But the 126 pages Maxwell outed still offer startling insights that suggest our view of the events of 1962 might be quite wrong.

The leaked pages, for example, take the government of the day to task for the ill-conceived “forward policy,” which forced our soldiers into disputed territories held by the Chinese. This goes against the grain of the core Indian belief that the war was provoked by China’s tendency to nibble on our land.

One such post created by the “forward policy” was Dhola, at the western extremity of the McMahon Line. China demanded that India vacate the post as it was on their side of the line. India claimed it was on the Indian side and dug in with a massive arms build-up, which in turn provoked a similar build-up on the Chinese side. That led to the first full-fledged combat between the two forces, which lit the fuse for the 1962 war.

But the HBBR reveals: “… the post was actually NORTH [emphasis in the report] of the McMahon Line … The General Staff must have been well aware of this; and it was their duty to have warned lower formations regarding the dispute.”

Not only did they not warn them, the top brass in fact repeatedly lied to officers on the ground unconvinced about India’s claims on Dhola, telling them the post was on the Indian side. The confusion resulted from Delhi’s unilateral “correction” of the original McMahon Line—this brought Dhola within the Indian side, while the McMahon Line on the maps that China and the Indian army followed still put it on the Chinese side. As the HBBR observes: “The Army Commander’s clarification of the McMahon Line and the doubts that existed in the minds of some officers need examining. It is clear in the planning stage and after the establishment of the Dhola post that XXXIII Corps and formations under it were working under the impression that the McMahon Line as such was as given in the map then available to them.” The map available to them did not show Dhola on the Indian side of the line.

The leaked parts of HBBR also provides the timeline of events leading up to the war, which makes it clear that it was India that declared the war and even set a date for evicting the Chinese—from their own territory, in Dhola’s case. So not only was the Chinese attack—counterattack, rather—not completely unprovoked, as we have been conditioned to think, it was not unexpected either. India picked the place, India picked the time, and India served the—demonstrably flawed—casus belli by way of Dhola.

Of course, many of the triggers of the war, such as the wider historical and geopolitical factors, are beyond the remit of the HBBR, which is primarily a military operations review. These include the role of the Tibetan unrest, an ongoing cartographical wrangle with several instances of contentious map alterations, the power struggles within China and India at the time, and the Cold War, all leading up to a cocktail that exploded in October of 1962.

Half a century on, our own role in that mix has been largely erased from public memory, and even suggesting that we might have some blame to bear verges on the blasphemous. What has taken root, instead, is a state-inspired monochromatic construct of the war—of India being the hapless victim and China the evil aggressor, which continues to poison public opinion and weigh on bilateral relations.

In an explanatory note on why he chose to out the HBBR, Maxwell wrote in his blog, “The reasons for the long-term withholding of the report must be political, indeed probably partisan, perhaps even familial,” alluding to the need to protect the Nehruvian legacy from the shame of 1962.

Free from the partisan allegiance that compelled most governments in the past to adhere to the institutional and popular interpretation of the war, Modi and his government are in a unique position to craft a very different China policy. The added advantage for Modi is that after a lame-duck dispensation in Delhi, the Chinese are also keen to do business with him as they see in him an Indian leader who can lead the country into a compact with China without the fear of appearing to compromise national interest. But such a China policy would have to begin with a sincere effort to inform public opinion. And the easiest way to start that process would be to declassify the HBBR in its entirety.

The second volume of the HBBR is understood to contain maps, memos and other documents. Let’s see them; let’s see the missing chapters of the first volume that Maxwell doesn’t have, and let’s review them along with other literature on the war. 

Before he became the defence minister and discovered the virtues of state secrets, Jaitley wrote on the BJP website in March: “… to keep these documents ‘top secret’ indefinitely may not be in larger public interest. Any Nation is entitled to learn from the mistakes of the past … the report’s contents could have been made public some decades ago.”

Indeed. Let’s objectively talk about the war and examine the historicity of the conflicting claims that led to it. Until that conversation begins, all talk of “border settlement” will be little more than empty rhetoric.

Debasish Roy Chowdhury is the Business News Editor of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

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One thought on “The problem with Narendra Modi’s overtures to China”

This is a pragmatic but impossible task for any country since their jingoistic masses will not be happy to listen to hard truth! Well written blog…..

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