Book Reviews

An inconvenient truth about Nehru’s foreign policy?

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on October 06, 2021

Contrary to popular belief, author AS Bhasin reveals how much the Chinese tried to resolve their border issue with India, and it was Nehru who resisted.

Avtar Singh Bhasin's Nehru, Tibet and China is arguably the most important book on the historical evolution of the India-China border dispute so far. It covers the events leading up to the contentious takeover of Tibet by the Chinese and the Dalai Lama’s exile to India as well as the India-China border war of 1962.

The principal characters who shaped the relations between India and China, among them Jawaharlal Nehru, Zhou EnLai and Mao as well as our diplomats KM Pannikar, GS Bajpai, KPS Menon and the controversial TN Kaul - come alive in Bhasin’s book. Most importantly, his book reveals how India’s border row with China was allowed to spiral out of control by Nehru. This has led to the never-ending standoff between India and China all along their long Himalayan border.

The book lays bare the strategic innocence, the lack of diplomatic savviness and obduracy Nehru displayed in his dealings with China. From unilaterally altering boundaries on extant maps and withdrawing inconvenient ones to humiliating Zhou EnLai, Nehru seems to have done them all.

Given the important position Bhasin once occupied as head of the Historical Division of India’s Ministry of External Affairs - the repository of records of all our dealings with other countries - it is very likely that material still marked secret by the Government of India, when declassified, should confirm the conclusions he reaches in his bold book expressly written to “put forward the factual history of those turbulent times before the people of India.”

Nehru’s resistance

Contrary to popular perception, Bhasin reveals how much the Chinese tried to resolve their border issue with India and it was Nehru who resisted. In fact, Bhasin’s book brings out, China was very willing for a settlement, with India recognising Aksai Chin as Chinese territory in exchange for Chinese acceptance of the McMahon line as the border between the two countries.

Bhasin further observes, had the border in the Western sector been “discussed with China in 1954, before declaring demarcated,” as Nehru did, “perhaps all the trouble could have been avoided. By unilaterally doing so, India opened itself out to the avoidable charge of unilateralism and therefore created a dispute.”

In rather painful detail, Bhasin also brings out how Nehru flubbed over Tibet. As Bhasin states in his book, “India remained anxious to protect its inherited facilities and privileges” there, “even if these were gains of the imperialist policies of the British, but was shy of any action which could be a challenge to China.”

Bhasin wonders why Nehru chose to be so unreasonable with China when he was “fully aware that neither Kuomintang China, nor Tibet, before the emergence of the communists, had accepted India’s northern frontiers bequeathed by the British. There was full consciousness that the communists would challenge them, but Nehru remained hesitant, nay unrelenting, to discuss them to reach an amicable settlement. In the Western sector his unilateral demarcation of the border by his fiat and his adamant refusal to discuss it proved to be the nemesis which was entirely avoidable.”

“The need of the time,'' Bhasin argues, was to have properly surveyed “the un-demarcated frontiers, for which Zhou had pleaded repeatedly. Only if he had followed the advice that he liberally gave to the Burmese Prime Minister to negotiate his country’s borders with China and not adopt a rigid line, India would have saved itself the ignominy of 1962.”

With some professionalism

In his book, Bhasin implies that, with a little more common sense, a lot more professionalism and circumspection in dealing with China and we could as well be coexisting with China today, with clearly demarcated borders and without being shut out of Tibet. Nehru’s ambition to be seen as Asia's pre-eminent leader, Bhasin’s book brings out, also played a more negative role than we tend to accept in shaping India-China relations. He riled the Chinese no end. As Zhou En Lai told Nixon, Nehru was, “so discourteous.”

There have been several other works on this subject that have made Indians doubt the popular account of the Indo-China border conflict or at least made them ambivalent. One of the most comprehensive and clinical is AG Noorani's India -China Border Problem 1846-1947. Another, Dividing Lines by KN Raghavan, is kinder to Nehru but not before posing the inconvenient question,”What did the Chinese gain out of the 1962 border war the "so-called treacherous act," when they did not try to retain “any piece of territory in the eastern sector, where most of the war was fought," nor "attempt to commit further acts of aggression despite the Indian Army being in full retreat."

Such has been the secrecy surrounding the India-China border dispute over the last several decades that successive Indian governments, Bhasin states, have chosen "to stay with the past narrative and bat on the same old wicket while keeping the nation ignorant of the facts that caused the war in 1962.” The way out, according to Bhasin, “is to fully open out all archival records about our border dispute with China and through them convince “the Indian public that the position taken by India in the past was not a rational one and that China was not altogether perfidious as it was made out to be.”

While we can be justly proud of Nehru for creating the modern secular Indian state, we also need to accept that his management of our foreign policy left much to be desired. By the time Nehru passed away in May 1964, India had two hostile neighbours, Pakistan and

China, to contend with and an alliance between the two he feared most has now come to pass. Bhasin, through his book, speaks truth to the Indian people. Will they listen, and, more importantly, will they accept?

Name of Book: Nehru, Tibet and China

Author: AS Bhasin

Pages: 368

Price: ₹402

Publisher: Penguin Viking

Check out this book on Amazon

Dr Uday Balakrishnan teaches at IISc Bengaluru. Views are his own.

Published on October 05, 2021

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