The mission of The Fractured Himalaya: India Tibet China 1949-1962 is to refute the all too easy tendency to ‘blame Nehru’ for the 1962 conflict. Nirupama Rao, former Foreign Secretary and former Indian ambassador to China and the US, argues that this cannot be the ‘simple or default answer’ (p.xxi) to the denouement. And to explain why, she painstakingly scans the period 1949-1962, to show how the India-China relationship went from the heights of an ‘idealised’ fraternal partnership (which Rao dubs ‘delusional diplomacy’) to the depths of a tragic war in 1962.
Covering only 13 years, the book brings together a treasure of details on a canvas so granular, that a brief review cannot fully address its complexity. It is replete with diplomatic details in which personalities are drawn with a discerning eye and empathetic pen. The information has been culled from a vast array of sources, across a national and international institutional complex that scholars can only fantasise about. The narrative is smooth, the quotations, apposite and Rao’s familiarity with great literary works and political treatises imparts sophistication and elegance to her prose. A quote from the book’s advance praise sums it well, ‘…this is a must read for anyone interested in India’s foreign and defence policies’.
The narrative in India coheres around the themes of betrayal (by China) misplaced trust (by Nehru on China) the misjudgments by the bureaucratic and military establishment in India and above all, the errors of ‘omission and commission’ of Nehru. In Rao’s assessment, Nehru was a ‘Caesar who was neither Bismarck nor Kissinger,’ and ‘flawed, but flawed in a heroic sense’. (p.xxi) She makes a strong case for Nehru’s ‘idealism’/‘naivete’ regarding China, but this is invariably juxtaposed with his ability to be a ‘hard-boiled realist’ – a striking paradox in connection with Tibet, dubbed the ‘three body problem’.
The challenges of tackling poverty and development were Nehru’s priority. India was being egged on to take on China, but no major power was ready to contest the PRC’s military takeover in 1950, unequivocally and explicitly. The Tibetans equally were putting outlandish claims to vast areas of Indian territory, and the shadows of the cold war were fast lengthening across Asia. Nehru’s decision can be seen as realpolitik, no less.
Equally, we know that India was involved in and supported the resistance in Tibet, but Nehru’s impulses and objectives were other than cold war ones. While the strain of ‘idealism’ in Nehru is undeniable, it does not make a clinching case for ‘naïvete’. How was the decision to don the mantle of the ‘successor state’ to the British empire and follow the logic of colonial-era Curzonian geopolitics as regards frontiers, reconciled with the Nehruvian foreign policy that was consciously post-colonial and eschewing of cold war politics is something that Rao sidesteps.
The Fractured Himalaya is a saga of ‘what ifs’ galore. What if India had contested the PLA takeover of Tibet, what if the Dalai Lama had rejected the 17-Point Agreement of 1951, (one wonders whether Rao posed this question to the Dalai Lama in her conversations with him!) what if we had acted on the 1953 Reuters report and subsequent Indian intelligence reports about Chinese construction in the Aksai Chin region; what if we had raised the matter of the disputed borders at that time and extracted a quid pro quo when signing the 1954 Panchsheel Treaty; what if India (Nehru) had not decided to ‘unilaterally’ fix the boundary in the west in 1954; what if India had taken up Zhou Enlai’s offers between 1959 and 1962 and clinched a deal on the border. Rao discusses such counterfactuals throughout the book and in the last chapter reaches the conclusion that ‘the brief conflict of 1962 was avoidable’. Notwithstanding Rao’s masterly fleshing out of the mitigating circumstances, an unintended consequence is that Nehru cannot be entirely let off the hook.
This narrative also takes the Indian foreign policy establishment head on. Nehru may have been fairly set in his fundamental stance towards China but in Rao’s telling, those who were in the charmed circle would be equally guilty in terms of the ‘errors of omission and commission’. There are numerous mentions of the warnings and ‘prescient’ comments from the political, bureaucratic and military actors of that time, but they induced no rethink. Rao’s critique is gentle - ‘perhaps this is a failing that can be attributed to many in the bureaucratic tribe, the tradition of not contradicting their Caesar’ - but no less hard-hitting. However, we get no sense of whether the Chinese perceptions or apprehensions were being either taken seriously or objectively assessed in the internal debates in New Delhi. One can only conclude there were none.
Focus on security dimensions
Rao does well to make a case for renewing the concern with culture, science and economic factors in the India-China discourse that can “provide a fresh perspective on the history of the relationship”. (emphasis added. p.187) She cites a 2017 study in support, but it may be useful to bear in mind that much before 2017, many Indian China scholars have been making this argument precisely. The Indian government had in fact assisted this process by commissioning a joint India-China effort to compile an Encyclopedia of India-China Cultural Contacts which was released in 2014. Regretfully, 1962 has limited the interest and focus of our research on zero-sum security dimensions.
From a researcher’s perspective here are a couple of issues. There are places in the narrative where the original or primary source of the quotations or facts are missing. For instance, on page 95, it is mentioned that a draft resolution proposed by El Salvador requesting “condemnation of the Chinese action as well as the ‘creation of a special committee to develop proposals for the UN regarding actions that could be taken” only a secondary source has been cited. This is followed by an account of the Indian response to the Chinese ‘military entry into Tibet’ Two notes were handed to the Chinese – the first, an unofficial and unsigned “weakly’ remonstrating diplomatic note by Ambassador Panikkar to the Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister on 21 October 1950 and the second rather strong one to the Chinese Embassy in Delhi on 26 October. The strong words and exchanges in the Chinese response and the Indian counter- response are quoted, but there are no references provided for this account.
At another level, one recalls the penetrating insights of Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea regarding the Tibet factor in India-China relations, that Rao refers to as the ‘three-body problem’. Sadly, the only reference to her is in the context of her reminiscences as a former Foreign Service official – not the formidable scholar of India-China relations that she undoubtedly was.
Looking back from the vantage point of the present, thoughtful issues about the cultural, philosophical, ecological significance of the Himalayas are raised by Rao at the end, in the Coda. Clearly, these should have also been a part of the visions of the post-Independence establishment, animated by their struggles against imperialist atrocities and their cold-blooded calculations and yet, from the evidence presented, it appears that ‘geopolitics trump[ed] all’. One could not agree more with Rao’s call to ‘stop the blame game’. But hard lessons must be drawn to address what is clearly a strategic stasis in Indian policy today. Rao however makes the strongest indictment yet. ‘Letting go is not a question, its heresy.’ (p.459)
We had mentioned at the outset that this was a book with a mission. Perhaps, it may be more appropriate to say dual mission. Rao’s objective is also ‘to provide a rational understanding of a complex subject for a lay audience’ (p.xx); ‘to etch this history onto the surface of ….[a] young demographic’ (p.xxi). At 609-plus pages, it may be a tad too formidable for the ‘lay’ audience to pick up easily. The literary allusions to the ‘three body problem’ or ‘an area of darkness’ in the absence of the references, would probably bypass the lay reader. But to the world of scholars and researchers, or to those stepping into the valley of ‘contested sovereignties and cartographies’ these 600 pages will be empowering and enabling indeed. (The reviewer is Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)
The Fractured Himalaya: India Tibet China, 1949-1962
Publisher: Penguin, Viking India
Price Rs. 524