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Nehru, an idealist or a realist?
By Prof. A.C Bose
Fifty years have passed since the fateful autumn of 1962 when the collective psyche of India received the most traumatic experience so far. Nehru’s fifteen year old reputation as a visionary statesman and helmsman of India’s destiny was blown away, leaving him a broken man in every sense, physically and politically.

The 14th of November 1962 was certainly the unhappiest birth anniversary he and the nation observed. What was certainly the unhappiest birth anniversary he and the nation observed. What was certainly the cruelest for him was the fact, that, though the nation still adored and obeyed him in the absence of any alternative, there was hardly anyone who condoned him for our disgrace in the Himalayan foothills in the hands of those for whom he had popularised the slogan, ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’.

The west, the U.S. in particular, whose help he now sought, after having spurned their requests for joining their alliance system and posed as the leader of the so-called ‘third world’, now laughed through their sleeves, while a disappointed and disgraced nation accused him of idealism bordering on utter naivete for once his close cabinet colleagues joined hands to force his trusted defence minister, V.K. Krishna Menon to step down. He had clearly lost his moral authority to lead the nation, far less the recently emancipated countries of the former colonial world. Even the then president Dr. Radhakrishnan criticised the government for “credulity and negligence”. Nehru too admitted the charge by a declaring in the parliament, “We have been living in an unreal world of our own creation”.

However, one would like to question, was he actually so naive as to believe that there could never be any friction between the two Asian giants. We do not know how he reacted to his trusted Dr. K.M. Panikkar’s (then India’s ambassador to China) almost criminal faux pas in writing when he accepted China’s sovereignty, instead of suzernity, over Tibet. But, that must have satisfied the Chinese, as with India’s gesture to leave Ecquador of South America alone to speak for Tibet’s independence when the P.L.A of China marched into that Forbidden Land. Apparently, there was nothing to fear from China then engaged in settling down after a generation of peasant revolts, Japanese aggression and civil war, and faced with the unswerving opposition of the might U.S. It was only to be expected that China too would like to have India as a friend when facing such odds at home and abroad.

Yet, Nehru wrote soon after signing the Panch Sheel agreement in 1954, “In the final analysis no country has any deep faith in the policies of another country, more especially in regard to a country that tends to expand”. This indicates that he had already foreseen the potentially expansive bent in Chinese foreign policy that would seek to re-create the Middle Kingdom of the middle ages when much of central and south-east Asia were under Chinese control or, at least, influence.

Of course, there was the historic display of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai at the Bandung Conference, in early 1955. But, Nehru was not unaware of Chinese designs just across the Himlayas, and told the chief ministers in October 1958 that India had to face “a powerful country bent on spreading out to what they consider their old frontiers, and possibly beyond”. The confrontation started a year later when developments within Tibet forced the Dalai Lama to escape to India forcing an embarrassed government of India to accept him and his entourage of Tibetan refugees as honoured guests.

The public opinion is India then would not have allowed any government in Delhi to follow any other course of action. However, the dice has been cast, and thereafter Sino-Indian relations were to slide down from bad to worse. In the face of a neighbour bent upon spreading its control and influence Nehru had choice but to opt for the so-called limited forward policy’, aimed at establishing military outposts in bringing under some sort of administrative control the so far virtually no-man’s land claimed by the British-Indian government for being south of the Mac Mohan Line which, of course, the Chinese had never recognised. That was certain to lead to occasional frictions on the undemarcated border with the potential of a major confrontation.

However, with the memory of the Korean War in mind he told his party members in late 1959 that the Chinese were unlikely to invade India as that would start to a, world war’, by which he, of course, meant a major war involving outside intervention.

Besides, Nehru had the prescience from the early fifties that the alliance between the two Red giants, the USSR and China, would not last long, mainly because of the inevitable clash of their interests and ambitions in central and north-east Asia as well as over their claim to leadership of the communist parties of the Afro-Asian countries.

Hence, he felt that, since Soviet Russia would draw herself closer to India as a balancing factor in Asia, China would not dare needle India with threats of a major war. That Sino-Soviet tension became visible as a split in 1959, and even as late as on 13 October 1962 Kruschev told the Chinese Ambassador in Moscow that he had always tried to be even handed between India and China so that the former did not seek the American embrace.

Of course, it is a different story that, once the Chinese attack had started, Kruschev came out in support of China, probably, hoping to repair the frayed Sino-Soviet relations. Even Krishna Menon, who had greater influence on Nehru’s foreign policy than anyone else, cannot be blamed for being very naive or pro-Chinese. Alone among Nehru’s colleagues he always believed that a settlement of the border dispute can never be based on concessions by the Chinese alone; rather both the countries should concede some of their claims.

It was with that aim that, during Chou en Lai’s last visit to India, in early 1960, he proposed offering the whole of Aksai Chin on a long term lease to China. But, the Chinese, who had by then constructed the road from Gartok to Yarkand, and were in total control of the whole of Aksai Chin, were in no mood to go for anything less. He had again tried to find a settlement with the Chinese foreign minister, Chen Yi, when they met at Geneva in July 1962 to discuss the Laos problem. But, nothing came out of it, mainly, because the Indian response was slow and the Chinese were not too keen for a peaceful settlement.

All these go to prove that Nehru was not that star-eyed idealist and naive as he had been usually painted since then. Where he and Menon both obviously miscalculated was in not expecting the type of attack that actually took place, and the Soviet support for China once the limited war had actually started. True, Chine cautious enough not to invite big power involvement as had happened in the case of Korea. They had a rather easy run all the way from the accepted border to the foot-hills of the Kameng district of the then NEFA (now Arunachal) but decided on their own to withdraw exactly a month after they had crossed the border. Probably, they had aimed at just chastising the Indians who were claiming the leadership of the Third World, and to warn them against exhibiting any undue interest in the affairs of Tibet. They did not want to push us closer to the U.S., and they appear to have succeeded in achieving their limited objective.

Many have blamed Nehru for adopting the so-called ‘forward policy’ from the mid-fifties, and for asking the army before leaving for Sri Lanka to “throw them out”. However, they forget that a newly independent nation needs self-confidence, and it cannot tolerate the sight of an apparently stronger neighbour nibbling away parts of its territory. Indian psyche was not yet reconciled to the loss of territory constituting Pakistan, and Was in no mood to accept any further loss of land. So, it was sheer political compulsion that forced Nehru to adopt a tough attitude over the border question, and not to yield any ground.

It was the same question of national honour that prevented New Delhi from accepting the U.S. requests to join their band wagon. Those who had fought the British for freedom were not expected to willingly play the second fiddle to another Western country. India needed an independent role for her psychological sustenance. We must not forget that independent India’s foreign policy, especially in earlier years, was not some thing very rationally thought out. It was in large parts inherited and coloured by our view of Asia’s cultural history, and India’s place therein, and the moral stand that Tagore and many of our national leaders had adopted on issues involving human rights, freedom, and peace.

It was not possible for any one in power in Delhi to disown the burden of our historical legacy. Of course, Nehru shared those ideals, but was not naive enough to ignore the realities of the actual world.
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News Updated at : Sunday, November 18, 2012
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