Sunday, March 20, 2016

JFK, Nehru, Tibet, CIA and the Sino-Indian War

On 20th October 1962 war broke out between India and China along the border with Tibet. The war was disastrous to India and a crushing personal failure for Jawaharlal Nehru. The Kashmir tangle and the Sino-Indian war remain the most hotly debated topics of Nehru's regime. The popular Indian narrative is that China invaded India and routed an army that was ill equipped for a war and suffered from effete political leadership that was at best naive about Chinese intentions and at worst plainly incompetent. There is, however, much more to that story. Bruce Reidel's book "JFK's forgotten crisis: Tibet, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War" weaves a narrative of a conflict that drew into it the US, USSR, China and Pakistan.



The Sino-Indian war illustrates how nations unwittingly march towards war and how in geo-politics where nations operate out of perceived self interest and in that pursuit allies become enemies, enemies become bed-fellows. A little known fact in India about the war is how the US, with Pakistan, practically fomented the war.

Mao Tse Tung established the People's Republic of China in 1949 and within a year launched two wars, that too almost simultaneously. On October 7th 1950 Mao annexed Tibet and in November 1950 China entered the Korean war on the side of North Korea.

Nehru protested the use of force by China but conceded that China had a claim on Tibet. Miffed by China's incursion into Korea US wanted to internationalize the Tibet issue in the UN. Seidel writes, "Nehru worked quietly both to calm his agitated domestic constituency and to keep the Tibet issue out of the UN". India and Nehru played a larger role in the Korean conflict.

India was one of the few non-communist countries to recognize Mao's China, PRC and send an ambassador. K.M. Panikkar, India's ambassador to China, had good relations with Zhou en Lai. On October 2nd 1950 Zhou summoned Panikkar and informed him of China's intention to invade Korea. The pompous and megalomanic American warlord Douglas MacArthur, who was promising America that the US army will be back home by Christmas, was not only refusing to believe that China would invade the US forces via Yalu he also throttled the flow of intelligence reports to Truman. India promptly relayed Zhou's intention but was brushed aside by self styled wise heads in Washington.

India played an "important role in arranging the cease-fire between the PRC and UN and helped with the repatriation of captured prisoners to each side". A delicate issue arose when many North Korean POWs preferred to stay back in South Korea and India "supervised a careful process that ensured they were able to defect, but without too much humiliation for the communist regimes".

Dwight Eisenhower rode the Korean war issue to emerging victorious in the presidential election and took office in 1953. Ike's administration came to be dominated by two brothers, John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and Allen Dulles as Director of CIA. The Dulles brothers unleashed a set of policy prescriptions, blessed by Ike, whereby regime changes and military alliances became the order of the day. Pakistan's Ayub Khan eagerly signed onto not one but two military alliances with US, CENTO and SEATO driven by his obsession over Kashmir and a paranoia about India. India, led by Nehru, was steadfast in not being drawn into the Cold War and focusing on domestic development.

Allen Dulles created the U2 spy plane program that flew over USSR in spy missions and over Tibet too. The spy planes took off from Pakistan's Peshawar base. Added to this was the CIAs active incitement of insurgency in Tibet, also with Pakistan's cooperation. In all of this Nehru ensured India was embroiled in any way. Nehru visited US in 1956 and was hosted by Ike at Gettysburg where they discussed for hours. Though key areas of disagreements remained they developed a mutual respect. Ike reciprocated with a trip to Asia that included India.

Amidst all of this Nehru signed a treaty with China in 1954, called the Panch-Sheel (5 principles). Though Nehru gave it the sentimental flavor of HIndi-Chini bhai-bhai the agreement was grounded in pragmatism and the lopsided military superiority of China was a critical factor. The Dalai Lama sought refuge in India in 1959. The capture of a U2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers, in 1961 by USSR plunged US-Soviet relationship to it's lowest. Further flights over USSR were stopped by US but flights over Tibet continued.

Ike departed office gifting incoming president JFK a world steeped in chaos. JFK's first year in office was rocked by the disastrous Bay of pigs invasion of Cuba. JFK retained Allen Dulles at the CIA. At a meeting held on Fenruary 14th 1961 JFK approved support for continued stoking of insurgency in Tibet. Now declassified CIA files show that by 1961 CIA had escalated the insurgency in tibet with more air drops, more arms and ammunition, use of larger C-130 planes instead of C-118 planes for air drops. Seidel says JFK persisted with this despite the objection of his ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith. "Galbraith thought the whole Tibet covert operation was too dangerous, recklessly provoking the Chinese".

Unhappy over Kennedy becoming friendly with India Ayub Khan rescinded permission for US access to air bases in East Pakistan but retaining access to those in West Pakistan. International diplomacy is an art in skulduggery.

Nehru visited US in 1961 and met with JFK. The visit was unmitigated disaster. The aging Indian leader and the charismatic young president did not get along. By all accounts Nehru was frosty, except when chatting with Jacqueline.

1961 was a watershed year that paved the year for the calamitous events next year. The Bay of Pigs invasion fiasco convinced Kruschev that he needed to supply Cuba with nuclear missiles. In India, alarmed by China constructing a road in Aksai Chin area, Nehru, in a meeting held on November 2nd 1961, initiated what came to be called 'Forward policy'. In 1959 China had proposed that India cede Aksai Chin in return for them agreeing to honor the McMohan line in the west. Nehru had rejected that.

The 'Forward Policy' was completely ill thought out. Indian intelligence bureau and CIA which were monitoring the Communist Party of India intercepted communications from China that had propaganda material meant to bolster China's case when war came.

Events moved on many fronts across the globe now. USSR had signed a treaty with India on August 17 1962 which included sale of MIGs. Alarmed Pakistan moved towards China. Pakistan had it's own border problem with Afghanistan for which Afghanistan turned to USSR for help. Pakistan was not backed up by US contrary to expectation. When the UN voted on allowing China to become part of UN for the first time Pakistan voted 'yes'.

In line with 'Forward Policy' Indian army started fortifying positions across the border especially near Aksai Chin. China responded in kind but with overwhelming numbers. On October 16th 1962 the Cuban missile crisis hurtled the world towards World War III and On October 20th China invaded Indian army positions. Thus the world was teetering on global conflict.After initial assault China withdrew giving a pause to the operations. With the nation in turmoil and facing political compulsions Nehru pressed on with ill-fated assault where the Indian army was outnumbered and outmatched in arms. By November 17th China appeared ready to overrun North East frontier and even Bengal. Nehru sought urgent help from Kennedy and practically asked US to join India in the war. Having made it's point China abruptly stopped the war on November 20th. Galbraith recorded that "peace came in the night like a thief". China withdrew to "positions 20 KMs behind the Line of Actual Control which existed between India and China on November 7 1959". The humiliation of Nehru and India was complete. Nehru never recovered from the disaster politically.

Seeking to buttress his ceasefire war Mao released a statement signed "editorial department" in the newspaper Renmin Ribao titled "More on Nehru's philosophy in the light of the Sino-Indian boundary question" on October 27th 1962. I happened to get a book released by Chinese government in US during the war with detailed maps, Zhou en Lai's letter, notes from their ministries and the above referred editorial. This rare book illustrates the propaganda effort by China. In the editorial Chinese government interestingly cited portions of Nehru's 'Discovery of India' and 'Autobiography' and other quotes to show that Nehru's position on the borders mirrored the colonial position and that his mind worked within colonial paradigms. The editorial cast aspersions on the nature of the Congress led freedom struggle and the nature of socialism in Nehru's economic policies.

A complete re-alignment of alliances happened between US, India and USSR, likewise the alliances between Pakistan, US, China also changed. JFK continued to move closer to India and military alliances were signed in addition to financial aid. USSR provided far more generous aid to India  giving, as US ambassador Chester Bowles summed up, "all that India asked for and more". Indian army became more reliant on USSR.

The death of JFK and Nehru soon after the 1962 war saw leadership changes that had great implications for Indo-US relationship. LBJ was distracted by the war in Vietnam and lacked JFK's appreciation of India. Nixon was even worse and he openly favored Pakistan. Nixon's historic opening up of relations with China recast US-India relations. China insisted on admission to UN with Nixon, its long sought holy grail, and as evidence of being a responsible global player cited it's restraint in the war with India in 1962. US, Pakistan and China now formed a triad with India left with no option but to gravitate towards USSR.

Reidel's book is patently mediocre and fails in its central mission in proving any central role for JFK in the Sino-Indian war. Reidel praises JFK for rejecting the advice of 'experts' during the Cuban crisis and in the very next page nonchalantly mentions that JFK would've done well to heed to the advice of Galbraith in stopping the covert operations in Tibet. India practically bore the brunt of US-Pak adventurism in Tibet because China suspected that India had some inkling of the covert efforts.

The book is billed as important because draws upon 'declassified CIA documents'. The new material cited is pretty much damp squib and contains no new earthshaking revelation. Those were just memos commissioned by JFK to understand the political climate of China and India.

The connection between US moving its fleet and China stopping the war abruptly on Nov 20th is very tenuous at best. From all available evidence it appears China only intended to teach India a lesson. Also, Mao wanted to send a message to USSR and US that China has to be given it's due place and it is not a vassal state of USSR.

Reidel is starry eyed about Kennedy when he suggests that Jacqueline Kennedy's visit to India healed the rift between US and India post the annexation of Goa by Nehru. This is silly. Reidel happily cites the collective chortling in US about Nehru's supposed hypocrisy when he annexed Goa. Little does he realize or contextualize Nehru's decision was rooted in pragmatism and that it came after implacable intransigence by Portugal. It was grating to read Reidel refer to Jacquiline Kennedy as JBK just to make it rhyming with JFK. Jackie was never referred as such and after all she died as Jackie Onassis.

Rider's knowledge of Nehru and India is pathetic. Referring to Nehru he writes, "he had been jailed for 13 years in British prisons...he had led the Quit India movement during World War II, seeking to sabotage the British war effort and colonial government, which ultimately helped to bring independence for his country". Nehru spent 9 years in jail, not 13. Nehru did not lead Quit India movement and what is even more egregious it was not an attempt to 'sabotage' the British war effort. Absolutely careless writing. He also says that Nehru took part in the non-aligned meeting in Cairo in October 1964. Nehru died on May 27th 1964.

Nehru famously had many amorous affairs and all of them were anything but a secret. But, Nehru was no skirt chaser. Reidel implies that Nehru was skirt chaser when he writes that during JFK's visit to India along with his 'attractive' sister Pat Nehru got bored talking with JFK and was more interested in talking to Pat. A similar canard is perpetuated about Nehru being more interested in talking to Jackie during his visit to US in 1961. This factoid comes from Stanley Wolpert's biography of Nehru. I referred the book only to find that Wolpert in turn had relied on hearsay from an Indian, possibly someone with an axe to grind. Reidel calls Wolpert a 'pre-eminent' biographer of Nehru. That's facetious.

Writing about how Allen Dulles played a role in the famous and aborted assassination attempt to kill Hitler Reidel says that the episode was "immmortalized" in the movie 'Valkyrie'. Since when was a B grade Hollywood movie considered immortal and one that was panned by critics. This is sloppy writing.

The book is readable only because it serves as a good summary of three other better books, one by Neville Maxwell, second by J.P. Dalvi and third by John Kenneth Knaus. The bibliography wrongly lists Ramachandra Guha as Ramachandra Gupta.

This book as with Neville Maxwell's suffers from a serious lacuna due to Chinese sources still being completely inaccessible. Though Indian government commissioned Henderson-Brooks report remains classified there is much information from Indian and American sources but next to nothing from China.

Nehru's policy of non-alignment served India well in those treacherous years and if anything India was an unwitting victim, as I said above, of US-Pakistan led adventurism in Tibet. The insistence by Nehru that Mao's China be included in UN is often portrayed in current India as a sign of naive idealism. On the contrary it was an important concession that China hankered after and finally got from US.

Nehru, in the opinion of legions of detractors, is pilloried for being supposedly a dove and insufficiently hawkish unlike Patel. An honest appreciation of Nehru's conduct towards threats from within and without show that he would easily be a hawk. The annexations of Junagadh and Goa, the repression of Communists, the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah, the Forward Policy all portray a more hawkish leader than is commonly realized. At the same time his non-alignment was not naive and nor was it cynical isolationism but it was pragmatic choice not to be sucked into a maddening swirl of competitive militarism. 

2 comments:

Anilkumar Kurup said...

Interesting account of the tumultuous cold war years when impoverished Pakistan and India were pawns manipulated by the US.
I agree with your take on Nehru.It is unfair to cast all the troubles we have upon him. Yes, Kashmir could have been salvaged but I guess, that was unwittingly preempted by running to the UN and then backtracking on the UN resolution on plebiscite. I'm sure a plebiscite then, would have buried the Kashmir issue.
The comments on Nehru's alleged promiscuity is blatantly voyeuristic and should be ignored.
But then who in the world have been an impeccable Statesman?

Unknown said...

Thanks to Galbraith and Kennedy when the US came to our rescue we kept it a secret. We continue to do do. Gratitude does not appear to be in our character!