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Sunday, March 19, 2023

From error to war: A tale of Nehru’s blunders

The second part of the article, Mahatma and Bhagwan Krishna: Winning wars and losing the peace, looks back at the wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971

Bharat failed to learn from the abysmal errors of misjudgement of 1947 and 1948 in Jammu and Kashmir. Jawaharlal Nehru continued to blunder, ideologically fixated, over-confident and unwilling to take counsel from his own prudent colleagues and capable advisers. Both Nehru and his completely untutored sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, guided by the disingenuous courtier, K.M. Panikkar, censured by Sardar Patel as an apologist for China rather than someone representing Bharatiya interests. Nehru embarked on a doomed course of uninhibited appeasement of China. Flattered to become a go-between for it, bidden to convey warnings to the US that China would intervene if the Yalu River and the 38th parallel were crossed in Korea, Jawaharlal Nehru threw caution to the winds. He blithely endorsed China’s conquest of Tibet, three weeks before General MacArthur ignored the Chinese warning in the third week of October 1950 and crossed the Yalu River. Nehru persisted in his pseudo-Gandhian role of proffering unsolicited advice, to a thoroughly irritated US, on ending the Korean War, quite oblivious to the geopolitics in which he claimed supreme expertise. Nehru had also surrounded himself with former servants of the British Raj, who had been wholly loyal to it, for the governance of the country he inherited, virtually as a personal fiefdom, despite himself recognising the potential negative repercussions.
The occupation of Tibet had appalled Sardar Patel, who died within two months of it. He had earlier warned Nehru of Chinese duplicity, describing a letter from Zhou Enlai, as “not that of a friend”. But Nehru was swayed by K.M. Panikkar and his unschooled sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who, childishly entranced on meeting Mao Zedong, notoriously compared the warlord to Mahatma Gandhi with oriental hyperbole. This was the same unpardonably commonplace woman sent as ambassador to Moscow who so chagrined Joseph Stalin by spending extravagantly importing embassy furniture on arriving in a Russia devastated by war, that he declined to accept her credentials personally. Nehru’s own Secretary General, MEA, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, had warned of the grave threat posed to India owing to the loss of Tibet as a buffer state, but the omniscient Panditji, in cahoots with his ambassador to Beijing, K.M. Panikkar, chose to ignore him; Panikkar was the same supposed intellectual virtuoso who so annoyed the French man of letters, Andre Malraux, a friend of Nehru, after delivering an excruciatingly boring lecture on revolutions that he suggested to Nehru not to send such diplomats to France. A brilliant young Bharat diplomat, Sumol Sinha, proficient in Mandarin and with deep knowledge of China, who had been there during the revolutionary years, had warned of an impending Chinese assault on Tibet, only to be ignored. No policy was formulated or preparations made to minimise the consequences of Tibet’s conquest to Bharatiya strategic interests. And there was no cognition of the problem agitating contemporary Bharat today about the origins of major Bharatiya rivers in the Tibetan plateau.
China and Pakistan had begun collaborating discreetly by the mid-1950s, with the former even telling the latter, its participation in the Cold War SEATO and CENTO, the Baghdad Pact, treaties was not incurring Chinese disapproval. Pakistan now had the goodwill of both China and the West to pursue its adversarial policy against India. Despite the historic Sino-Pak alliance against Bharat, which had now truly begun in earnest, Nehru bent over backwards to appease both, one with the Liaquat-Nehru Pact, the other by earnestly representing its interests in world forums to a hostile West. Jawaharlal Nehru even refused the permanent UNSC seat, at China’s expense, with sister Vijaya Lakshmi deploying her supposed incomparable mastery of geopolitics to airily dismiss the US proposal. Jawaharlal Nehru had earlier also scotched the idea of a formal mutual defence relationship with the USSR, broached in 1951 with a Soviet counsellor in Beijing by the young Indian diplomat T.N. Kaul. It would have constituted a serious deterrent to aggressive Chinese intentions, but Nehru remained enamoured with Mao’s China as the beacon of light and wisdom and allowed T.N. Kaul to negotiate instead the Panchsheel Agreement in 1954, legitimating Tibet’s conquest by China. The unfailingly astute Sumol Sinha warned, once again, of possible border clashes. These, in fact, occurred in 1959 after the Dalai Lama fled to Bharat and China had also already published a map in 1958 claiming the Aksai China plateau. Presciently, Sumol Sinha alerted Nehru to the prospect of an impending full-scale Chinese attack against Bharat as well. But the all-seeing and all-knowing Jawaharlal Nehru banished him do a course at Harvard, berating his poor grasp of the intricacies of international politics.
In the meantime, Nehru had authorised a “Forward Policy” without adequate military preparations, confident of compelling Soviet intercession in Bharat’s favour should that prove necessary. Nor did he attribute enough significance to the Sino-Soviet split after Khrushchev’s speech at the 20th party Congress in February 1956 denouncing Stalin, and its implications for India’s relationship with both China and the USSR. His undue self-confidence had also been encouraged by flawed advice from historian Sarvepali Gopal that Bharat’s claims in the region were incontestable. He gave thoroughly misplaced spin to documents he had been sent to London to examine, missing one critical aspect concerning the signing of the 1914 Shimla Convention. A price was inevitably going to be paid due to Nehru’s fondness for courtiers like Panikkar and Gopal and penchant for nepotism. He appointed as chief of staff of the Bharatiya armed forces connected to his niece, Nayantara Shaghal, who presided over the Indo-China border with disgraceful ineptitude. In addition, a request for an increase in the defence budget had been turned down earlier, despite growing Sino-Bharatiya tensions. Nehru told his friend, Krishna Menon, he would have to agree with the finance minister, Morarji Desai, that a rise could not be justified. In 1961, Nehru rebuffed President Kennedy’s offer to enable Bharat acquire nuclear weapons with arrogant disregard, though he later begged for US arms once China’s attack threatened the entire Northeast. China had duly attacked an unprepared Bharatiya Army and Bharat’s actively deployed modest four brigades were confronted by an entire Chinese Corp of four divisions. They fought valiantly and were predictably overwhelmed, the matchlessly brave Kumaonis fighting to the last man. They killed innumerable enemy troops before succumbing themselves, charging the enemy with bayonets when they ran out of ammunition. Diplomat Sumol Sinha was recalled from Harvard and an order was issued by Nehru that no document on China would pass without his counter signature, but as Sinha lamented, “it was too late”.

THE 1965 WAR
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto visited India soon after its military debacle in 1962 and on his way back to Pakistan was escorted to the airport by Y.D. Gundevia, Bharat’s Foreign Secretary, who said to him about Jammu and Kashmir: “settle while the old man is alive, after that you will get nothing and, Mr. Bhutto, please don’t fight for it”. In fact, the bellicose Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been disappointed in 1962 by President Ayub Khan’s reluctance to accept China’s proposition to engage in a coordinated assault against Bharat in order to seize Jammu and Kashmir, while China attacked from the north. On his return to Pakistan, after meeting a demoralized Nehru during his visit to Bharat, he declared to Ayub Khan that India was on its knees and the time was ripe to launch a full-scale assault on Jammu Kashmir, a project that came to be known as Operation Gibraltar. In the meantime, thorough reform of Bharat’s armed forces had been initiated by the highly experienced General J.N. Chaudhuri, who had almost resigned in disgust at the 1962 military disaster. He had been dissuaded by President Radhakrishnan, who met him by chance at Hyderabad airport and told him the Prime Minister was waiting for him in Delhi. According to an officer, who had fought in 1965 and subsequently retired as a general, without the reforms to the armed forces that had been implemented by General Chaudhuri after 1962 Delhi’s security could not have been assured in 1965. Jawaharlal Nehru died, leaving behind a legacy of acute fiasco. But an extraordinary statesman, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was to succeed him within the year, unprepossessing and small in stature, but politically astute and iron willed and under whom reform of Bharat’s armed forces had continued.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s importunate desire to attack Bharat failed to achieve any of his ardently sought goals when it actually materialized in 1965. The resulting ceasefire in 1965 prevented any territorial losses to Pakistan, but the outcome was not exactly a stalemate since the Bharatiya Army had been poised to advance deep into enemy territory. However, dramatic events did hold it in balance at various junctures of the war. At one critical moment, Pakistani forces under the command of an outstanding general, Akhtar Hussain Malik, made rapid advances, threatening to seize Jammu, which would have resulted in Kashmir being cut off and a spectacular historic victory for Pakistan. But General Malik was unexpectedly recalled in the midst of battle by President Field Marshall Ayub Khan, and General Yahya Khan was sent to replace him. It is suspected the idea of General Malik, an Ahmadiyya, becoming Pakistan’s greatest military hero, was unwelcome, but it allowed Bharat to seize back the initiative and Pakistani forces were repulsed. Elsewhere, Pakistan also threatened a swathe of territory in the Punjab, including Amritsar and Chief of Staff General J.N. Chaudhuri instructed General Harbaksh Singh, the GOC Western Command, to retreat with his besieged forces and hold a line at the Beas river. General Harbaksh Singh chose to ignore the order, following a heated discussion with his Chief of Staff. An experienced and skillful officer, General Harbaksh Singh had displayed great personal bravery during the invasion of Kashmir in 1948 and was able to turn the tide in the battlefield in 1965 with a series of brilliant maneuvers. The grievous setback under Jawaharlal Nehu, in 1962 and indeed earlier, was a turning point for Bharat. The armed forces had been modernized by 1965 and showed their mettle and the political leadership had also acquired much greater maturity and realism.

THE 1971 WAR
The crisis of 1970-1971 was to prove the challenge against which Bharat’s political class and military were to be severely tested. Unfortunately, Bharat won comprehensively on the battlefield but failed to capitalize on what its men in arms had achieved at the negotiation table. The fruits of the resounding military victory of 1971 did not result in lasting gains. Bharat’s deeply-rooted domestic political deficiencies are not only threatening to reverse what now seems to have been transient gains of victory, but menace calamity for eastern Bharat, as inexorable demographic transformation diminishes the region’s loyalty to the Bharatiya Union. The dogged persistence and foresight of a weakened enemy proved more effective than the limbering sightlessness of the over-sized ponderous elephant that is Bharat. Once Indira Gandhi took the decision to invade East Pakistan, despite US threats, Bharat’s military advance proved unstoppable. The late Lt General J.F.R. Jacob, who has been derided since he passed away by jealous officers and malicious political commentators though Bangladesh continued to honor him until he died, played a crucial role in Bharat’s military victory. He has never claimed he was solely responsible for the striking victory of Bharatiya arms in Bangladesh, as his two volumes of autobiography make amply clear. What he did repeat to me personally on more than one occasion was that Field Marshal Manekshaw, who put him in effective control on the ground though his immediate superior was GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, Lt. General Jagjit Singh Arora. Field Marshal Manekshaw had a high regard for “Jake”, but he was not convinced by General Jacob’s strategy of avoiding pitched battles to capture towns and heading instead for Dhaka along unpaved roads. But nor did his Chief of Staff, Field Marshal Manekshaw, order him to desist once operations unfolded, though Lt General Jagjit Sigh Arora did embark on one costly direct assault on a town, in keeping with conventional military wisdom. The only other claim Lt General Jacob has made is that he understood the significance of getting Lt General A.A.K. Niazi of Pakistan to sign a surrender document before the UNSC Polish resolution requiring an immediate ceasefire, which the USSR had informed the Bharatiya government it would not veto. The facts of his negotiations with Lt Gen A.A.K. Niazi have been confirmed by the officer’s own account of his defeat and he complains Lt Gen Jacob blackmailed him, which General Jacob dismissed, though I suspect the charge has some merit.
It was at Shimla that India declined to press home its advantage, earned by its courageous soldiery, by imposing a peace settlement that would have damaged Pakistani pretensions for the indeterminate future. India faced challenging dilemmas, with the Soviets pressing it to not impose harsh terms on a defeated Pakistan because they were negotiating to sign the SALT and did not wish to antagonize the US any further. Bharat was beholden to the USSR for its support during the war, when the unprecedented human rights violator, Henry Kissinger met China’s ambassador to the UN, Huang Hua, appropriately in a warehouse like gangsters and urged an attack on Bharat by China. Huang Hua had apparently replied the US was better placed to do so instead since its Seventh Fleet was already in the Bay of Bengal. Bharat was grateful to the Soviets for mobilizing 40 divisions along their Sino-Soviet border to deter any Chinese action against it and the Soviets also vetoed the first UNSC resolution, giving Bharat vital time to bring the war to a successful conclusion by liberating Bangladesh, as it did.
Alas, Bharatiya diplomats did not think it worth engaging in a spot of far-sighted subterfuge, to attain imperative national goals at the Shimla negotiations. The irrepressible trio of P.N. Haksar, D.P. Dhar, and T.N. Kaul mistook their own cunning for superlative sagacity. They erred in thinking Pakistan was concerned about its captured eastern army, which, in reality, it was happy for Bharat to continue feeding, only anxious about the return of Haji Pir pass. This is what Bharat did for a second time after 1948, while holding 93,000 Pakistani servicemen prisoners. Bharat also honored an apparent commitment to shield Pakistani officers who had murdered millions of Bangladeshis and engaged in rape on an industrial scale, destroying the lives of over 300,000 women. India could well have insouciantly pleaded powerlessness and allowed the Bangladeshi government to seize and put Pakistani officers on trial, as war criminals. It would have ended indefinitely the prospect of the kind of bonhomie now discreetly in train between Bangladesh and Pakistan. Evidently, Bharat had begun to come of age but somehow still harbored whims of its adolescent self, embarrassingly surfacing at crucial moments of its national destiny. The divine Bhagwan Krishna did not override such reflexes from the Mahatma completely.

(This article was first published on sundayguardianlive.com on September 19, 2021 and has been republished with minor edits to conform to HinduPost style guide)

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Dr. Gautam Sen
Dr. Gautam Sen
Dr. Gautam Sen taught international political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science for over two decades.


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