The past as prologue

Remembering the military debacle of 1962 is not enough. India must ensure its security from a fundamentally adversarial China

There are two reasons for me to add to the tsunami of words on the 1962 border war with China that ended in a military debacle and political disaster 50 years ago. One, I lived through the trauma my generation is unable to forget; and two, it is not enough to moan the past ensuring our security from the fundamentally adversarial northern neighbour is more important.

The army chief, General Bikram Singh, is entirely right in declaring that China would never be able to repeat 1962. The Chinese learnt this as far back as 1967 when the Indian army thrashed them in a spat in Sikkim at Nathu La. Even sharper was the message in 1986 at Sumdourong Chu. General K. Sundarji, wrongly blamed for having "acted on his own", checkmated Chinese designs without firing a shot. He let them sit pretty at a post they should not have set up and deployed Indian troops on surrounding heights. "We have reversed the Namka Chu situation," he told me.

Today, the gap between Chinese and Indian power is much less than then, but there is no room for complacency. Economically and militarily, China continues to be far ahead of us. More importantly, it makes no bones about its "supremacy" in Asia. Its assertiveness about its claim on the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh verges on aggressiveness. However, to determine what we need to do to maintain our current confidence vis--vis China, it would help to look back on the dark days half-a-century ago.

At the root of everything going absolutely wrong was the woeful misreading of Chinese intentions. Inexplicably, Jawaharlal Nehru had convinced himself that while there would be border skirmishes, patrol-level clashes and even somewhat bigger spats, the Chinese would do "nothing big". No one, not his civilian and military advisers, nor his inveterate critics, questioned this judgement. "Panditji knows best" was the governing doctrine.

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