The Colombo ‘compromise’

The Chinese ceasefire in the 1962 war ('Panic, pandemonium, ceasefire', IE, October 3), to be followed by withdrawal by both sides by 20 kilometres from the line of actual control (LAC) "as it existed on November 7, 1959", certainly was unilateral. But unconditional it wasn't. Indeed, such were the Chinese conditions that there was no way India could accept them.

For, shorn of diplomatic obfuscation, these meant that even if China did move back from its positions on the ground, critically important frontier areas such as Thagla Ridge, Walong and Longju, would remain under Chinese "police control". Moreover, in Ladakh, India's gains from the misnamed "forward policy" would be eliminated. And to make matters immensely worse, the Chinese claims about the LAC differed hugely from anything they held on November 7, three years earlier. They were clearly trying to establish their claim on Indian areas they had occupied only after their aggression on October 20.

On the other hand, given the lamentable state of the Indian army and the great gap between Indian and Chinese power and logistics, it was impracticable to reject the Chinese offer out of hand. So Nehru decided to say nothing about the Chinese declaration. He justified his refusal to comment on it by pointing out that he had received no formal communication from the Chinese government. He thus refused to acquiesce in China's demands without rejecting them. Chinese withdrawals thus went on.

Meanwhile, Zhou Enlai started exchanging letters with Nehru, repeatedly demanding clarification of the Indian stand on Chinese stipulations. More importantly, the Chinese PM emphasised that officials of both countries should meet to discuss the "implementation" of China's unilateral declaration of ceasefire and withdrawal.

To this, Nehru's reply was an emphatic "no". There could be no talks with China, he wrote, until the Chinese went back to their pre-September 8 positions, that is to say, vacated the areas they had occupied by the use of force. Nehru also rejected emphatically China's definition of the LAC as it existed on November 7, 1959.

In this rather curt correspondence between the two prime ministers came a stage when, in a sharply worded memorandum, Zhou demanded a "clear and definite" reply to his three questions: "Does the Indian government agree, or does it not agree to a ceasefire? Does the Indian government agree or does it not agree that the armed forces of the two sides should disengage and withdraw 20 kms... Does the Indian side agree, or does it not agree that officials of the two sides should meet to discuss (these) matters... to form a demilitarised zone?" Nehru described Zhou's questions as being "couched in a peremptory and dictatorial tone replete with factual distortions" and answered that India would do nothing to "impede the implementation" of the ceasefire and Chinese withdrawal, but negotiations would be possible only "on the basis of undoing the further aggression committed by the government of China on Indian territory since September 8, 1962." He added that India did "not agree to the so-called line of actual control... which is not in accordance with the facts ."

It was around this time that leaders of non-aligned countries bestirred themselves into action to "help" India and China convert the "de facto ceasefire period into a good starting point for a peaceful settlement of the India-China conflict". With the honourable exceptions of President Gamal Abdul Nasser of the United Arab Republic (Egypt) and President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, all the non-aligned leaders had remained silent all through the month-long war in the high Himalayas, to India's unconcealed dismay. Now they were obviously trying to make amends to the extent they could.

Six non-aligned nations — Burma (now Myanmar), Cambodia, Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called), Ghana, Indonesia and the United Arab Republic — met in Colombo from December 10 to 12 and formulated proposals that, together with subsequent clarifications, they recommended to both India and China. To this country they seemed broadly acceptable.

In essence, the Colombo proposals amounted to a reasonable compromise between Indian and Chinese positions with a discernible tilt towards India, clearly the aggrieved side. For instance, while accepting the LAC shown on the Chinese maps, the Colombo powers suggested that in the western sector, the Chinese should withdraw 20 km from this line but India could stay up to and on it. In the demilitarised zone created by the Chinese withdrawal, both sides could set up civilian posts, but their number and locations was to be decided jointly by the officials of the two countries. In the eastern sector, Indian forces could go back right up to the south of the McMahon Line except for the Thagla Ridge and Longju area.

Even so, when presented to Parliament, these proposals provoked a bitter debate. Many opposition members denounced Nehru for going to China on "bended knees"; the Colombo powers were described as "the cowering satellites of imperialist China." However, Nehru's persuasive eloquence prevailed. After receiving the Lok Sabha's endorsement, his government announced its full acceptance of the Colombo proposals". Within hours, China also accepted them "in principle" but raised questions about their interpretation, which rendered the Colombo suggestions virtually irrelevant. "No negotiations with China except on the basis of the Colombo proposals" became the bedrock of India's bedrock. All contact between Asia's two largest countries was ruptured, except for the exchange of acerbic notes.

This situation lasted for nearly five years. Then, on New Year's Day, 1968, Indira Gandhi announced that India would be willing to hold talks with China without insisting on the acceptance of the Colombo proposals. She also quietly decided to stop the publication of acrimonious demarches exchanged by the two countries. "This would cool tempers down", she remarked privately.

Two years later, on May Day, 1970, Mao Zedong smiled at the then Indian charge d' affaires in Beijing, Brajesh Mishra, and remarked that China and India were "great nations", and there was no reason why they could not settle their disputes through peaceful negotiations. Before New Delhi could respond, the Bangladesh crisis, inevitably leading to the 1971 war, intervened. India and China were back to square one.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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