Column: Tharoor, Nehru and China

Last Updated: Wed, Jan 13, 2010 12:36 hrs

late member of our Pune-based think tank often used to remark that one can be serious without being boring.

Of late, Shashi Tharoor, our Minister of State in the extremely serious Ministry for External Affairs, has been a source of amusement and humour.

There is a tradition in India that all governments have at least one Raj Narayan (the health minister in the Janata regime of Morarji Desai) who provides good copy by constantly putting his foot in his mouth.

There was Mr KK Tiwari, nicknamed ‘Kuchbhi Kahega’ Tiwari, (In Rajiv Gandhi’s government) and ML Khurana of the Vajpayee government, who provided constant fodder to the media and opposition with their utterances.

Mr Tharoor seems to have taken on that role in a cabinet led by a very serious Prime Minister.

The latest controversy sprung from remarks on Jawaharlal Nehru attributed to him while he was responding to talk by Lord Bhiku Parekh.

In his strong rejoinder, an angry Tharoor clarified demanded an apology from the media and clarified that he had actually disagreed with Lord Bhiku Parekh’s remarks about Pandit Nehru’s  policies presenting India in a light of "moral self-righteousness".  

Earlier, his remark about the government’s austerity drive forcing him to fly “cattle class” had sparked a political uproar. The minister perhaps forgot his party’s close relationship with cattle. The Congress party’s original election symbol was a pair of bullocks. After the 1969 split, the party symbol was a cow and calf.

Then, following the government’s decision to tighten visa rules following the revelation that two Pakistani Americans, David Coleman Headley and Tahawwur Hussain Rana,  had surveyed 26/11 targets on multiple entry Indian visas issued by the Indian consulate in Chicago, Tharoor ignited another debate by publicly asking whether the terrorists who struck Mumbai had come in on visas.

Yes, Minister, the terrorists came without a visa, but their helpers and planners did come in with it. Is India to remain vulnerable due to lax visa provisions? While the knee jerk changes in visa rules are asinine to say the least, no one can doubt that we need a tightening of immigration procedures.

Following the misquote over Nehru, Tharoor accused the media of lack of professionalism and knowledge. Very true. But then, Tharoor too could have politely snubbed and rebutted the arguments of Lord Bhikhu Parekh.

Keeping the Twitter Tharoor aside for some time, let us re-examine the Indian policy of ‘Non Alignment’. This helped India ‘hunt with the hounds and run with the hare’, without compromising national interest, and at peace to pursue economic development.

Thus, while India leaned on the Soviet Union for military supplies, it kept equally good relations with the US to get generous economic aid. One reason for Nehru to favour relations with the USSR was probably that the Soviet Union was decidedly the weaker of the two. In fact it was only half a super power as it lacked the economic muscle as well serious power projection capability. Nehru rightly thought that it was hence lesser of the two evils.

But this policy had to be suitably camouflaged, hence the ‘sermonising’ and moral high ground rhetoric. It is a pity that Parekh or Tharoor failed to see the ‘real’ as opposed to the apparent Indian approach to foreign relations. Nehru, who was vehemently opposed to India making nuclear weapons, was nevertheless prudent enough to concentrate on complete autarky or self-sufficiency of the Indian nuclear programme. If India was able to go nuclear in 1974, a large measure of the credit must go to Nehru.

Many westerners saw through Nehru’s game. When US President Eisenhower’s secretary of state John Foster Dulles equated Non-Alignment with immorality, he was not too wide off the mark. But such is the power of the myth of an ‘idealist’ Nehru and India that we do not wish to see the real politics behind his actions.

Nehru was a supreme nationalist. At the whiff of separatism by Kashmiri heavyweight Sheikh Abdullah in 1953, he jailed him in far-away Oooty for 11 long years. Sheikh Abdullah was a political giant, yet Nehru took him on when he crossed the line. How one wishes the present rulers take a cue from Nehru and similarly deal with the kashmiri lightweights (both literally and figuratively speaking) like Gilani, Yasin  Malik, Mirwaiz and his ilk. Kashmir would be far more peaceful place then.

The 20th century was an `ideological century`. International politics revolved round the US-led ‘Free World’ versus Socialist world led by the Soviet Union. But behind the façade of this rhetoric, Washington pursued its Coca Cola empire building- by supporting the worst dictators in the name of freedom, while Moscow pursued a thinly disguised Russian Imperialism, the main cause of Sino-Soviet split. If Nehru also used the rhetoric of world peace and morality to further Indian national interests, we should celebrate rather than berate him.

Nehru did make some major mistakes in his handling of  Kashmir, specially his blind faith in the UN and his reference to Plebiscite. But pray what did his supposedly ‘pragmatic’ daughter do in Shimla in 1972? She accepted Kashmir as a disputed territory. Lal Bahadur Shastri handed over the Haji Pir pass in 1965, while Vajpayee undertook a bus journey to Lahore,  only to be stabbed in the back at Kargil.

But Nehru’s biggest perceived failure was his inability to deal with the Chinese, and the subsequent Chinese aggression of 1962. It is time to clear the mist on this traumatic event.

Whenever the dangers of his Forward Policy (which called for establishing posts in the disputed areas often behind the official Chinese line)  on China was pointed out to him, Nehru confidently declared that the Chinese would never attack.

He had sound reasons for this optimism. In the background of the Cold War, he foresaw an unwritten American commitment to come to India’s help should China attack. Thomas Schelling, the doyen of strategic thinkers writes in his seminal work “Arms & Influence” (Yale University Press, New Haven et al, 1966, page 53) declares:
“It was more a prediction of what the US would do in case of Chinese effort to destroy the Indian army. In the Indian case, we had a latent or implicit policy. For all I know, Mr Nehru anticipated it for ten years. ……..that is one of the reasons Nehru was so contemptuous of the kind of treaties that the Thai and Pakistani signed with us…his own involvement with the west in a real emergency might be about as strong even without a treaty……” .

But to Nehru’s and India’s misfortune, the Cuban Missile Crisis happened. The Chinese probably had prior information about this, and coincided their attack on India with it.

Sample this: the first serious clash in Namkachu valley at Dhola took place on September 11, 1962, the day the US called up all reservists.

The actual attacks on India took place on October 20, the day the US enforced the Naval blockade of Cuba. The Cuban crisis finally ended on November 20, 1962. The very next day the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire and pledged to withdraw its troops from India.

On November 19,  Nehru had sent a telegram to the US President asking for air support. Four Squadrons of fighter bombers based in Philippines were placed on alert. Also around 300 transport planes and 14,000 men (about a division) were placed on 48 hours notice. (Kennedy archives NLK 94.83,  declassified in 1997). But as the news of Chinese cease fire came in, US defence secretary Robert McNamara asked them to stand down at 10 am (US Eastern Time) on 21 November 1962.

Nehru’s original sin was to rely on diplomacy that was not backed by force. He is rightly blamed for not building defences on the China border. But his plan was to build Indian economic strength first. If the Cuban Missile crisis had not taken place in that fateful year, Nehru may well have pulled off his China bluff.  It is essential to remember the context  in which decisions were taken and policies formulated. People like Bhikhu Parekh are guilty of ignorance about the context of Nehru’s policies and therefore wrong in their criticism.

To return to the present, the last few months have seen a series of incidents with China. What is the reason behind the sudden aggressiveness of the Chinese? Are we likely to see a ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’ like situation on Af-Pak border? Is China then preparing ground for ‘teaching a lesson’ to India? Is China doing this to save its ‘all weather friend Pakistan’ from the consequences of American surge? Is it a Chinese attempt to divert Indian attention from the Af-Pak cauldron?  

Mr Tharoor and the MEA would do well to focus on this.

More on Shashi Tharoor | More by Col Anil Athale
Formerly Joint director,  War History division,  and co-author of the official History of 1962 Sino-Indian Conflict, Col Anil Athale was a  Fellow at President Kennedy Centre in 2003, and is  Currently co-ordinator of Inpad, Pune, affiliated with the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

The views expressed in the article are of the author's and not of

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