Shekhar Gupta Tags : 1962 war, War mongering, Tawang border, India China Posted:
The sixties have been the most dangerous decade for independent India. It saw two full-scale wars (China 1962, Pakistan 1965), several large skirmishes (including Kutch, with Pakistan, 1965, Nathula, with China, 1967), the peaking of the Naga and Mizo insurgencies to such levels that air power had to be used against both, rise of Tamil separatism, and all this in a period that saw successive droughts, that saw the deaths of Nehru and Shastri and the decline of the Congress. But for most Indians of my generation, who started going to school in that decade, the memory that stays is 1962. More than a memory, it is a scar. 1965 was a much bigger war, but it was an even contest. If it left a feeling of “incompleteness”, 1971 settled it.
The droughts led to the green revolution, the Congress party rose from the ruins again and grew to be more powerful than under Nehru. The two insurgencies retreated to the jungles, with populated regions of both the Naga and Mizo Hills firmly controlled by the army. But there was no real redemption for 1962. That is why that scar refuses to fade away. And that is the reason we over-react so irrationally, stupidly and ignorantly to even a rumour of another Chinese provocation.
We forget how much water has flown through the Indus, Teesta, Kameng and Lohit since 1962. And I mean not just militarily. The change in the larger political, strategic and diplomatic environment is much more significant. In the years leading up to 1962, India and China were “bhai-bhai” in a fake, hypocritical and contrived bonding of an entirely muddled and contradictory ideology.
Today we are both acknowledged as powerful and important nations and have a relationship of much greater substance and no phoney emotion and sloganeering. We do a phenomenal amount of business together, have maintained total peace on our unsettled borders and, while progress has been slow, have got some issues out of the way. Territorially, India’s gain is the Chinese acceptance of Sikkim’s accession. And for China, it is a very favourably substantive nuancing of India’s position on the status of Tibet. True, our border talks have progressed less rapidly than we would all wish, but these things require patience.
How come then even rumours of the so-called Chinese “incursions” caused us so much consternation? Most of these, even if these happened exactly as two-and-a-half war-mongering TV channels reported, were minor and superficial and did not justify either the panic or sabre-rattling that followed. Hundreds such are reported by each side every year. If the number is larger this year, and if the Chinese are indulging in more aggressive patrolling, we need to analyse and figure out the reasons, and then look for a counter. We cannot simply start getting the old 1962 nightmares. Militarily, 2009 is a far cry for both India and China. And politically, both, particularly China, have huge risks in an armed skirmish of any size, leave aside a war.
That is why, over the past three weeks, some of our discourse has been disturbing. It is as if we are again rushing to defend Namka Chu, Tawang, Tse La, Dirang Dzong and Bomdi La, Rezang La, Daulat Beg Oldi and Chushul. I do not believe any nation in the entire world has such stark and sharp memories and reference points of a war nearly 50 years old. We Indians do, firstly because this was the only war we have lost. But secondly, also because in our collective memory and popular culture, quite remarkably, this is the only war we remind ourselves of. Lata Mangeshkar brought tears to Nehru’s forlorn, defeated eyes when she sang “Ai mere watan ke logo”, a heart-wrenching tribute to outnumbered, outgunned troops in 1962, abandoned by their generals who loved politics and dumped by a disastrous defence minister who thought he could win wars by filibuster. But it is still the song we hear even at our Kargil or Bangladesh war celebrations. Maybe it is because Lata Didi never thought of singing something really stirring for those victorious occasions. Or maybe, we just find the pain of defeat more enduring than the joy of victory. That is why at so many official functions, military events, on national days we still hear strains of “jab ghayal hua Himalaya, khatre mein padi azadi” (when the Himalayas were assaulted, when our freedom was in peril) in Lata’s immortal voice. Popular culture only echoes our disinclination to celebrate a military victory (also evident in our failure to build even one reasonable war memorial for our soldiers). So neither 1971, nor Kargil resulted in a great war movie that we would watch again and again. So which one do we watch year after year? Chetan Anand’s Haqeeqat, a wonderfully realistic tribute to a small and valiant band of men who fought to the last man in Ladakh, broadly based on the true story of a Kumaon regiment company led by Major Shaitan Singh (a posthumous Param Vir Chakra). Incidentally, most of the 109 men of that company killed at Rezang La were Ahirs from southern Haryana and a mostly decrepit and rotting memorial still exists for them in a rotting municipal park in the town of Rewari, some 70 km from Delhi, off NH8 on way to Jaipur.
It is because we are so shy of celebrating our military success and so obsessed with defeat that we jump for the trenches the moment somebody says the Chinese are coming. We are not helped by a small band of excitable journalists who love military jargon but do not want to be confused with facts. The panic-mongering over the Chinese “incursions” is a direct result of that and it is doing India enormous damage. We sound insecure, hysterical, even irrational. This is most unbecoming of a nuclear weapons power with the fourth largest armed forces in the world, and the second highest economic growth rate.
If it is any comfort, please do read up a bit (Google Nathula, 1967). This is where India and China had their last major battle. It was no minor skirmish, but a local battle lasting six full days — maybe 1967 was a year for six-day wars (the other, more one-sided, being in the Middle East)! There were massive artillery duels. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. We had nearly a hundred dead, and by all international accounts the Chinese many more. Just five years after 1962, the Indian army had reminded the world — and China — that it had left that nightmare far, far behind. But we had completely obliterated 1967 from our memories, until it rushed back in my head last week as an “in memoriam” entry appeared in our newspaper’s Salute the Soldier section from 2 Grenadiers for its 32 martyrs of this battle. We must underline the fact that even in 1967 our armed forces were equal to the challenge.
It is time, therefore, that we bury defeatism. If we continue to fight the 1962 war, we can only lose again. This is 2009 and we are a resurgent, new India, managing and building a complex relationship with a near-superpower China. Both of us have stakes higher than a post here or a hill there. And none looks so crazy as to ruin a good story with rogue military adventurism. So it is time, for the sundry panic-mongers in some sections of the media and strategic community, to cool it. Or as would be said in the military jargon which they so love, to stand down.