By Sujan Dutta
If one anniversary in 2012 symbolises India’s progress, past demons and future challenges, it must be that of the humiliation by China 50 years ago. Sujan Dutta charts the changes
At a mountaintop hut in the Eastern Himalayas on the border in late autumn, a senior colonel of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) confronted an Indian brigadier with photographs. The prints showed a bunker that the Indian troops had allegedly built in what the Chinese said was disputed territory.
“You have to take it out,” the Chinese officer told the brigadier, expecting the usual response.
The usual response from the Indian side at such flag-meetings is softly bureaucratic: “We have noted your complaint; it will be sent to higher authorities.”
“Okay, we will see what has happened,” the brigadier told his Chinese counterpart. But the Chinese officer was insistent, even mildly threatening. “You will bear the consequences of this if you do not take it (the bunker) out in good time,” he said — a statement the Chinese inevitably make at flag meetings to sort out border transgressions.
But this time the script was altered.
“You have said what you have to say and I have heard you,” the brigadier replied in fluent Chinese without raising his voice. “But don’t threaten me. If you do something we do not like, YOU will face the consequences.”
The BPM (border personnel meeting) had reached an uncharacteristic conclusion. Some months later, Chinese troops removed the unmanned bunker from the area that is not patrolled. It was what the Indian Army had expected. There was no encounter. The bunker was just a calling card that read: “We were here.”
This year, the Indian Army will not mark the remorse and the humiliation in the hands of the Chinese in 1962. In the half-century since that event, a different generation of soldiers is willing to look the Chinese in the eye at the very spots in which its predecessors were so thoroughly routed. That attitude is evident even in recent routine BPMs, such as the one recounted above.
Plucky or pro-active, bravura or brazenness, the Indian Army is less impressed by China’s growing military might now than it has ever been in the last 50 years.
In early (February) 2012, India will test its 5,000km-range Agni V missile for the first time. A commentary in the Chinese Communist Party paper, Peoples’ Daily, said it was China-specific.
“It is the Indian goal to continue to strengthen the military and possess a military clout that matches its status as a major power,” the paper said. “However, how many missiles is enough is a question for all governments in the missile era.”
If successful, the range of the Agni V, which can deliver a nuclear warhead, would be able to cover most cities of central and south China — Guangzhou and Shanghai among them.
Even if the first test fails, India will have stated its intent: despite the intensity of bilateral economic ties, New Delhi, like Beijing, will continue to reinforce its military capabilities.
China is far ahead in the missile race. Its 8,000km-range intercontinental ballistic missile Dong Feng-31 (the name means “Eastern Wind”) can cover most of India from depth launch pads in China, and its shorter-range DF series can hit cities in most of north India. The Chinese PLA Navy’s submarine fleet continues to expand at a faster rate than any other force, including America’s. Its surface combatants are reaching farther almost every passing month, largely to secure its sea lanes of communication through which much of China’s oil imports transit.
In the South China Sea, where China is locked in a dispute with four other countries, Beijing’s claim has got shriller. In July 2011, it buzzed an Indian assault ship, the INS Airavat, sailing in Vietnamese waters.
Combined with its economic heft, the Chinese military machine has put an aura around Beijing that the world is largely in awe of.
In New Delhi, though, the security establishment is convinced that it can read the Chinese mindset better than ever before. Within the security establishment, it is the military that has a measure of confidence not yet shared by the political class. The external affairs ministry, for example, worries about Chinese objections to the coverage of Sino-Indian relations in the Indian media. It is true that sections of the Indian media see a larger shadow of the Chinese ghost than the military itself does. TV channels have routinely played up the construction and re-construction of bunkers and watchtowers by the Chinese along the border, as if they represent the threat of invasion.
In the military and the defence ministry, cooler analysts point out that such defences are requirements for peacetime rather than preparations for war. Wars are not conducted from visible control stations.
“The idea is not to keep India-China relations hostage to the border dispute," a top adviser remarked recently. “The border has been largely peaceful for more than three decades. Indeed, the so-called transgressions — the crossing of the line by patrols — now have such a pattern that we can almost predict when and where they will occur.”
Without a shade of doubt, the paranoia originates from the border war 50 years ago. Indian border patrols discovered much to their shock in 1959 that China had built the Western Highway, a road linking Tibet with Sinkiang province of China through Aksai China, the northern and eastern bulge of Jammu and Kashmir that Jawaharlal Nehru’s government then believed it was in possession of.
The furore in Parliament and an inability to determine the exact nature of the threat it posed led to the government ordering the army to take a “forward posture”. The army moved its posts closer to the disputed boundary and, on occasion, crossed it in 1960-1961.
For months, Beijing — then called Peking — absorbed the pricks. China was emerging from its revolution in 1949. Mao Zedong famously told the Communist Party’s central military commission: “Lack of forbearance in small matters upsets great plans. We must pay attention to the situation.”
Then, in 1962, Indian army units led by Brigadier Dalvi in Eastern Arunachal Pradesh crossed a rivulet called the Namka Chhu — which was conventionally acknowledged as the undefined border — and established posts along the Thagla Ridge, an event documented by journalist Neville Maxwell in India’s China War.
China sent Premier Chou En Lai to New Delhi to talk things out with Nehru just a week before hostilities broke out. By this time, China was beginning to suspect “creeping annexation”. In subsequent years, even Brigadier Dalvi admitted that “the territory we were fighting for, we were not convinced it was ours”.
By October 18, Chinese troops were ordered to restore the balance. Mao changed his policy.
Henry Kissinger quotes the Chinese Chairman in his book On China: “...Since Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him, for us not to fight would not be friendly enough. Courtesy demands reciprocity.”
Wave upon wave of Chinese troops cut through Bumla and Tawang. Despite heroic efforts by some of the Indian troops, the sheer numbers of the war-honed Chinese army overran the Indian posts. Civic authorities in Tezpur, Assam, prepared to evacuate citizens. New Delhi all but lost hope for the tea town.
In Ladakh, China consolidated its hold over Aksai China. India had only two divisions — about 30,000 soldiers, poorly equipped and not acclimatised to walk and fight in heights of 13,000 feet and above — in the areas where the most intense battles took place.
The entire higher command and control structure of the army had failed to read the situation in their effort to please the political leadership led by Nehru and defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon. Much of the command and control failures were studied by Lt General Henderson-Brooks and Brigadier P.S. Bhagat in a post-operations study that was ordered. The report is still a state secret, wrapped in brown package in the defence secretary’s cabinet. Defence minister A.K. Antony told Parliament as recently as July that its contents “are not only extremely sensitive but of current operational value”.
Senior army officers say 50 years down the line that that is an overstatement. There is quiet suspicion that the report is under wraps because it could rip the aura around the political leadership of Nehru. Chinese troops withdrew unilaterally from Arunachal Pradesh to positions north of the McMahon Line, believing that they had delivered to India the lesson it deserved, by December 1962. They continued to hold Aksai China, though, for the strategic reason of giving depth to the crucial Western Highway, the connect between Tibet and Sinkiang.
Neither China nor India had used their air forces or their navies. China, probably, for an inability to operate aircraft from the high Tibetan plateau where the air is rarer. The Indian military now recognises that not using its air force was a gross miscalculation.
In the immediate aftermath of the war there was a churning. Six years later, India recorded its most — and probably its only — convincing military victory in modern warfare. In 1971, it routed Pakistan, mid-wifed the birth of Bangladesh and took 90,000 prisoners of war.
Relations with China, after a freeze till the early 1980s, were gradually revived. Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1988, the agreements of 1993 (on border peace and tranquillity) and 1996 (on military confidence-building measures) and Vajpayee’s 2003 visit (which decided to establish the special representatives’ talks on the border) paved the way for increased trade and cultural exchanges. Even then, bilateral ties were subservient to the border dispute. The effort now is to de-link the border from other exchanges. Through 2012, it is likely that bilateral relations will continue to follow a pattern that has emerged towards the end of 2011 when the fourth Annual Defence Dialogue took place after a gap of two years. Even in those two years, Indian border policy has seen changes on the ground.
The army has raised two new mountain strike divisions in the Northeast. The air force has begun basing its most potent assets — the Sukhoi 30 Mki — in Assam and the Indian Navy has, with encouragement from Asean nations and the US, stated its interest in “the freedom of navigation in international waters”, a euphemism for the freedom of access to and through the South China Sea.
On the economic front, it is against Beijing’s interests to disrupt exchanges because the balance of trade favours it.
“Militarily,” said a top adviser, “there is a beefing up of defences on either side of the border; you might say we now have a higher state of equilibrium”.
Fifty years after 1962, neither is the Tiger crouching nor is the Dragon hidden in the script for India and China. When the forest itself has changed, breathing fire will burn the trees and even a growl can awake sleeping dogs.