The war that changed everything

It is essential this year to mark the anniversary of the 1962 India-China War for reasons other than that it is the 55th, as because it provides indications of where the Indo-China relationship is going. A closer study of that conflict is relevant because the two countries have once again come into conflict in the same area of India’s north-eastern frontier, which is also China’s south—western. The lesson thus is that the war did not resolve issues. While China and India mull over that, Pakistan and the USA might also examine with profit that conflict.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the conflict is the lead-up. It was a story of how India and China, which had emerged on the international stage as the leaders of the Third World, which was only now winning independence from the European colonial powers, as the foremost of the Non-Aligned Movement, which rejected domination by either the USA or the USSR, then locked in a Cold War; of how they came into conflict and went to war in the remote North Eastern Frontier Agency of India. The border dispute originated in differing interpretations of the agreements reached by the British Indian and Chinese Empires, by the new independent Indian regime on the one hand, and the revolutionary Chinese regime on the other.

It should be noted that the war itself, between 20 October and 20 November 1962, had seen the Indian military do badly. While there were recriminations aplenty, the fact of the matter is that the Indian Chief of General Staff, Lt Gen Brij Mohan Kaul, had lost an entire brigade when he took command of a corps set up for the purpose. Kaul had been the blue-eyed boy of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, perhaps because he too was a Kashmiri Brahmin, and enjoyed unprecedented access to him, even though he would often be going to him over the head of the Army’s Commander-in-Chief.

It seems that the Pakistan Army, then commanded by Gen Muhammad Musa, under Field Marshal Ayub Khan, got the wrong impression about the Indian Army, that it was a pushover. This was reinforced by some rather unrealistic thinking about the ability of the Muslim to match 10 unbelievers. This view posited the Pakistan Army as having inherited the Islamic martial tradition, and the Indian the Hindu, though both were descendants of the British Indian Army, which had been an instrument of colonial occupation, and were now national armies. The Pakistan had also become a player in national politics. The view of the Pakistan and Indian Armies as representing the Muslim-Hindu binary was tested in 1965, and then in 1971. The binary was disproved, especially in the latter. Either Muslim soldiers were not equal to 10 disbelievers, or the Pakistan Army was not a Muslim Army, except in the sense that it was composed of Muslims.

It was not until the Siachen conflict that Pakistan has experienced high-altitude warfare for the first time. Indian had done so before, as had China, in their 1962 conflict. An account of the conflict would have revealed that it was India’s first high-altitude conflict ever, and it strained its logistic capabilities. This would parallel Pakistan’s own experience, in the 1980s, when its conflict with India over the Siachen Glacier started. It is perhaps relevant to note that in World War II, when China and Britain were on the same side, the British Indian Army did not attempt to cross into China to fight the Japanese, who had occupied large parts. This was precisely because the boundary between the two had been across these same icy wastes where the 1962 War was fought.

The Indian attitude to China was reflective of its attitude to Pakistan. The build-up to the 1962 conflict showed that it did not view negotiations as a means of solving disputes, but as a sort of lowering of national prestige. Even talks about talks were to be avoided. It is worth noting that China did not have the same problem with Burma when negotiating its boundary, as it did before the 1962 War.

The Chinese approach was that the boundary agreements with India had been made when India was under the British and China still an empire. As the empire was weak, the agreements were unfair, and needed renegotiation. On the other hand, the Indian government held to those agreements. The pre-1962 exchanges saw India insist on the McMahon Line as marking the boundary in the east. Pakistan too might find another boundary drawn by a colonial official, the Durand Line (the border with Afghanistan), troublesome because one party claims it was not fairly drawn. However, the McMahon Line had been drawn to mark the border of Burma with China too, and the Sino-Burmese boundary agreement of 1960. That agreement is an important landmark in the cordial relationship that has seen China back Burma in the massacre of the Rohingya. Incidentally, this indicates one area where China has united with India, and thus the USA, in going counter to the wishes of the Pakistani people.

Pakistan needed no indirect lessons over Indian negotiating tactics, though. It observed restraint in this war, though, and its refusal to attempt any pressure on India for a settlement of the Kashmir dispute reflected not just diplomatic restraint, but also military lack of preparedness. It should be remembered that the Pakistan Army was deployed for a bilateral war, not for exploitation of an Indian entanglement. It should also be remembered that Pakistan’s rapprochement with China came after the 1962 War, not before.

It should be remembered that the 1962 War had meant a global shake-up. It came virtually on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, and the Indian collapse had been so complete that Pandit Nehru had abandoned his cherished nonalignment to ask US help in the form of air support. It had been long assumed that the USA was on Pakistan’s side, the USS on India’s, but this conflict challenged this. At the same time, while it was to the USA that Nehru felt he had to turn, the USSR’s backing of China fell short of the latter’s expectations, and though by no means the only cause, proved vital to the development of the Sino-Soviet split that rocked the Communist world (and caused a split in the Indian Communist Party that persists to this day). Perhaps more importantly, the US rapprochement with India caused Pakistan to cut itself loose from it, and allowed it to begin developing ties with China. That is a process that is happening at present.

One aspect of the episode was how it showed that both empires had used border states for making boundary agreements. Thus the NEFA boundary was with Tibet rather than China proper, and one part of the border was between the Indian princely state of Kashmir and of Tibet. The flight of the Dalai Lama to India was a live issue at that time, and contributed to the worsening of relations between the two countries at a time when the slogan Hind-Cheen Bhai Bhai was yet to be replaced by Pak-Cheen Dosti Zindabad. There are many lessons to be learnt from that seminal episode, but one of those for Pakistan is that the friendship of China is not an eternal given. Circumstances can arise in which it might once again befriend India. Then what?

It seems that the Pakistan Army, then commanded by Gen Muhammad Musa, under Field Marshal Ayub Khan, got the wrong impression about the Indian Army, that it was a pushover. This was reinforced by some rather unrealistic thinking about the ability of the Muslim to match 10 unbelievers.

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