Face to Face: Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (1962 Indo-China war)

We provoked the Chinese

Akash Bisht/ Sadiq Naqvi   Delhi 

As a fighter pilot, Air Commodore Jasjit Singh has served the country at the frontline in many a battle, including in the war with China in 1962. A decorated soldier, he was posted at Tezpur in Assam when the war broke out. Post-retirement, he has served as the director general of premier strategic institutions like the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA). Currently, he now heads the Centre for Air Power Studies. Excerpts from an interview with Hardnews: 

 What was the immediate provocation of the war with China in 1962?

My opinion is a minority view. We provoked the Chinese. Jawaharlal Nehru was famous and the media quoted only half the sentences of what he said. Like, he had given orders to get certain areas vacated and the army had been given orders to do this. However, what went missing in the whole concept was the second part of the sentence — when the army is ready. So, I can’t see how the PM can be faulted on this subject. This, many believed, led to the provocation.

The Chinese had already prepared and we had enough military intelligence in May 1962. I was in the Air Force. We flew over the area and there were no signs of tension. At that point of time, there were no roads in the Himalaya and the British had built hill stations at 5,000 feet and only Shimla was higher at 7,000 feet. Beyond that there was a road for next 15 miles till Kufri. From there the Tibet border was 140 miles, there was a similar scenario in the east, and in Ladakh. Between 1947 and 1962, the elected government had a compulsion to feed the 85 per cent people living below the poverty line. So, roads were not the government’s priority, development was. There was Gandhi’s model of development of villages and Nehru’s vision of putting the industry first. He was of the opinion that unless we produce steel and cement, we won’t be able to even build houses,  in villages. 

Also, at that time, the world admired India which was full of paradoxes. The first paradox was that India had such great poverty and yet it was treated as a major power that was invited for the conference that created the United Nations. India’s example was sought by the bulk of the decolonising world. Therefore, this global status of India added up with the charisma of Nehru. And then there was China with similar situations. They had enormous poverty, but they followed a different route under Mao and communism. There was a great difference between the power flows from the barrel of the gun principle and the power of ideas that functioned in India. It was inevitable that the two would a clash. On two counts, Mao had problems with India. One was that the developing world should be looking at China as the leader of the third world. He was worried. Why are they going to India? Nehru, educated in the West, a neocolonial, used the language that suited that particular period. Mao became paranoid with this issue of leadership. Why Nehru? Former diplomats would tell you that the real tension started
in Bangkok during the Afro-Asian meeting.

The other issue with Mao was that he was willing to accept the leadership of Stalin as long as he was alive. His methods and that of Stalin weren’t very different. After Stalin died and Khrushchev took over, Mao felt that China should now be the leader of the Socialist bloc. And there was no way that Khrushchev was going to give him that and that is where the real Soviet-Sino tensions grew. The classified documents of that period reveal that meetings between Mao and Khrushchev between 1956 and 1958 turned into heated discussions. These two factors played very heavily on Mao and one of them was that Khrushchev was doing his best to come closer to India. What we tend to forget about Indo-Soviet friendship is that, for the first eight years after Independence, the Soviet Union didn’t like India and there was serious tension. Then Nehru sent some high-profile people as ambassadors to Soviet Union and because of his standing as a philosopher gained some respect from Stalin.

The Chinese worldview was different. Their aims, goals, strategies were different from that of India and they wanted to be treated as the leader of the world including the socialist bloc. This is the Middle Kingdom syndrome wherein others come to pay homage but the emperor doesn’t go. So, they waited till India and Pakistan recognised the People’s Republic of China. There is a very interesting letter from Mao to Stalin wherein Mao mentions since India and Pakistan have recognised China, now is the time to send the Army to Tibet. If India had not recognised China, they would have waited a little longer. Having recognised China, the onus was on us whether to fight or oppose this. Nehru tried to build up a friendship. The government was criticised in 1954 for not settling the border issue. Nehru preferred Panchsheel because China was not a part of the UN and Panchsheel had the same provisions and obligations as the UN — peaceful coexistence, no interference in internal affairs, and so on. This moderated China’s problems with India. It did not last very long. China had problems assimilating Tibet whereas India was successful in assimilating all the princely states. This jealousy, this hatred, was behind their tirades against India. The Chinese side was of the view that they should teach India and Nehru a lesson. 

 Some experts claim that the war was to divert attention from the internal crisis that the Chinese were undergoing…

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2012