When WhatsApp becomes the chief source of information, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that India was a mere 15 years old as a free nation when China invaded in 1962. An impressionable teenager, whose population was 45 crores, whose GDP was a mere $4,200 crore.
On the other hand, when China intruded into Ladakh this year seizing land and strangling soldiers, independent India was a full grown adult, a real senior citizen if you will, all of 73 years old. India’s population is now 130 crores; its GDP in excess of $3 trillion.
But the manner in which India and Indians have responded to the Chinese incursions, 58 years adrift, provides a grim commentary on the manner in which Indian democracy has matured.
In 1962, the man at the helm of affairs was a learned liberal. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was in his third term, and at 73, not quite in the pink of health.
When the news of the Chinese invasion broke, the Opposition parties pushed the government to advance the Parliament session so that the issue could be discussed threadbare. The government listened and a united response was formulated.
Within the ruling Congress party, and in the Opposition benches, there were discordant voices at the manner in which the issue was being handled by defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon, whose resignation was sought and obtained.
The defence chiefs had the spine to act independently. The press went hammer and tongs at PM Nehru and Krishna Menon. Nehru actually made public all his correspondence with China to clear the air but ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’ was history.
Contrast that with 2020 when a so-called “strongman” is in charge. Narendra Modi is 70 years old, in his second term in office. In the three months since the Chinese were spotted in the heights of Ladakh, the BJP-led NDA government has shown how lightly it treats Bharat Mata.
On June 2, defence minister Rajnath Singh admitted that the Chinese had come into India in large numbers. But even after 20 Indian soldiers were killed on June 15, the prime minister insisted noone had intruded into Indian territory and there were no intruders on Indian soil. Yet, the two countries are in “mutual disengagement” just now.
As opposed to 1962, Parliament has not met, Coronavirus providing a handy excuse to short circuit democracy. The decision-making process is opaque. The Army is virtually run out of the Prime Minister’s Office by a former policeman who is now national security adviser (NSA).
The government’s spin masters send reporters notes intended not to send a message to the Chinese but at driving divisions in the Opposition ranks. Vast sections of the news media have been mostly silent and pliant, painting a scenario far removed from the reality on the ground.
The Modi regime thinks it can manage China by managing the headlines.
The former Union minister and Congress MP, Jairam Ramesh—who introduced the portmanteau word “Chindia” in which he envisioned the two ancient Asian civilisations leading the world together in the third millennium—has just written a stellar biography of the brilliant V.K. Krishna Menon, who is largely seen as the “fall guy” for the debacle.
In this episode of J-POD, the journalism podcast, Jairam provides much needed perspective on how the media conducted itself then—and what the Modi government can learn from 1962. And, as the Chinese dig in and hawks in the government, Army and media pine for action, Jairam Ramesh believes the only way forward for the two nuclear power is a negotiated settlement.
# “Contrary to the perception created by Neville Maxwell and bought into by Nehru’s critics, 1962 was “Mao’s India War”. Because of domestic political reasons that had little to do with the border, Mao decided to invade India in October-November 1962.
# “The Chinese have deep internal problems today. Quite possible that this misadventure that they have embarked upon at the LAC, to redefine the LAC which they had agreed in 1993, has in large part been caused by diversionary tactics, which Mao had in 1962.
# “The Chinese in 1960 were deeply, deeply suspicious of India because of the flight of the Dalai Lama that had taken place the previous year. We tend to devalue the importance of the Dalai Lama’s flight in 1959 as a contributory factor to Chinese invasions.
# “The 1962 war was not inevitable. There had been talks going on from 1957-58. There was talk of having a negotiated settlement, but defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon was in a minority of one in the Indian system. Nobody in India at that point of time wanted a negotiated settlement. Nehru’s cabinet was deeply divided. Parliament and the media were completely opposed to any form of settlement.
# “The biggest critic of the negotiated settlement was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and it is a supreme irony that as prime minister in 2003, he signed an agreement which led to the appointment of special representatives on both sides to work out a negotiated settlement, which we have been trying to do for the last 17 years.
# “This border cannot be settled through clashes, it cannot be settled through war, it has to be settled through a negotiated settlement. That is something Vajpayee recognised, and subsequent governments of Manmohan Singh and Modi have proceeded on that basis.
# “Indian defence preparedness today is incomparable to that in 1962. Till 1962, the general dogma was that any investment in defence is an insult to the legacy of ahimsa, non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi.
# “India’s foreign exchange position at that time was quite precarious after the forex crisis of 1958, but Morarji Desai’s political stance was that India could not afford defence expenditure. This cost us heavily, but the same Morarji Desai, after the debacle of 1962, changed his view and India then started taking defence spending seriously.
# “We fought a war in 1965, there were clashes in Nathu La in 1967, the Bangkadesh war in 1971, Kargil in 1999. But the lesson of 1962 was that India cannot afford to neglect defence on sentimental or on emotional grounds. After the war, Acharya Kripalani, who was one of the biggest critics of defence spending, accused Nehru and Krishna Menon of neglecting defence.
# “The 2020 military establishment is a vastly different one, and paradoxically a lot of the credit must go to Krishna Menon, because it was he who set up DRDO, Bharat Electronics, Hindustan Aeronautics, the tank factory in Avadi. All the prize jewels of defence research and production were Krishna Menon’s contributions.
# “It was Krishna Menon who negotiated the MiG deal with the USSR. The Americans and British wanted to sell us fighter aircraft, and sections of the Air Force and Army were divided, but it was Krishna Menon who said we will choose an aircraft that can be manufactured in India. “Make-in-India” and “self-reliance” (atmanirbharata) in 1962.
# “The Chinese invaded India in 1962 in two phases. First on October 20, then after 8-9 days there was a pause, and then they resumed on November 16. Krishna Menon resigned as defence minister on November 7.
# “In between, a couple of MPs led by N.G. Gore, the great socialist leader, and Vajpayee, asked Nehru to convene Parliament immediately. Parliament was supposed to be convened around November 18 or 19. Nehru agreed, and Parliament was convened a week in advance on November 11.
# “As the Chinese invaded India a second time, Parliament was in session. The media waa attacking. Cartoons were coming out in the press. PM was being attacked and lampooned. The former defence minister was being attacked and lampooned. The war was going on, we were getting a drubbing, but democracy was in full bloom.
# “There was no attempt to stifle the media. There was no browbeating the media. There was no one saying, ‘criticism of the government is anti-national’. Nobody’s nationalist credentials, nobody’s patriotism was being questioned.
# “The brightest moment for Indian democracy was in October-November 1962 when it faced an unprecedented external threat, the government did nothing to stifle political opposition, called Parliament, listened to the criticism, patiently responded to the criticism, and business went on. That’s how democracies function. That’s the biggest difference between 2020 and 1962.
# “Nehru went to China only once, in 1954, that’s when he met Mao. Chou En Lai and Nehru met in 1954, 1956, 1958, 1960. No two Indian and Chinese leaders have had the type of intensive and extensive contact as Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. No two heads of state have spent as much time and across geographies—Ahmedabad, Delhi, Wuhan, Mahabalipuram. If you can accuse Nehru of being taken in by the Chinese, the accusation can be made against Modi hundred fold. Nehru did not spend as much time with Chinese leaders as Modi has done. And yet this is what has happened.
# “The external affairs minister S. Jaishankar was a distinguished ambassador in Beijing. We have no shortage of China experts unlike in 1962. Back then, there was only V.V. Paranjape.
# “Clearly, the Chinese are playing for high stakes. They see the US in retreat. They are playing a long game, that’s why they did this at this point of time, a unilateral redefinition of the LAC.
# “The August 5 decision on Kashmir was a paradigm shift. It was not just the abrogation of Article 370, it was also the downgradation of Jammu & Kashmir, and separating Ladakh from J&K as a separate Union Territory.
# “We have a large community of China watchers. Each one has a theory. There is no clarity as to why they have done what they have done, but they have done it, and important thing is the government is in denial as to what has happened.
# “Everybody is clear on this, the LAC as has been understood, has been changed. All along, there have been two interpretations of the LAC, an Indian interpretation and a Chinese interpretation, but that situation had not got destabilised. For the first time, now, the Chinese have unilaterally redefined the LAC.
# “I am one of those who believes the settlement has to be a negotiated settlement. What was true in the late 1950s is true in the early 21st century. Military solution is not a solution. India has to stand up, it has to be prepared to defend its territory, it must be prepared for the worst, it must be in a state of constant alertness, but the solution to this border dispute has to be a negotiated settlement. And that was recognised by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003, recognised by Modi himself. NSA Doval has been meeting his counterpart on the border.
# “The overwhelming media in 1962 was no negotiated settlement, we should not give in. The media was perhaps the sentiment in Parliament as well. In Parliament, the only people who supported the negotiated settlement were sections of the Swatantra Party. Even the socialists were against a negotiated settlement.
# “The ‘mahol’ (climate of opinion) was against a negotiated settlement, and the media was reflecting the mahol. The media was not kowtowing to Nehru. He was being criticised in newspaper after newspaper. A large part of the criticism was because of Krishna Menon. To that extent, he served a very useful purpose, he came the whipping boy, the target, the punching bag.
# “When the Chinese invaded on October 20, C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji), who was Nehru’s bitterest critic, issued a statement calling for the resignation of Krishna Menon but saying the country needs Nehru now more than ever, we must strengthen Nehru’s hands, but Krishna Menon must go.
# “The media was at that point of time was merciless, it was critical of Nehru. Nehru did not avoid the media, he spoke to the media, he gave press conferences, and most importantly, Parliament was in session.
# “The media was completely anti-Krishna Menon and Krishna Menon hated the media. He was the one who invented the word “Jute Press”.
# “The best commentary is not so much the newspapers as ‘Shankar’s Weekly’. Week in, week out, Shankar who is very very close to Nehru, and very close to Krishna Menon also, lampooning them mercilessly. Today if anybody were to lampoon our prime minister in that fashion, there would be sedition charges.
# “What Gen K.S. Thimayya was telling the British high commissioner Malcolm Macdonald about his own defence minister, it’s almost treasonous. I have been an admirer of Gen Thimayya for long, but he doesn’t come out very well.
# “Look at Major Gen J.C. Chaudhuri, who then became General, became Army chief in November 1962, taking over from Gen Thapar. For 10 years he is writing in ‘The Statesman’ in a byline called “By a military correspondent”. A general talking like this would have been sacked. A general writing like this would have been sacked.
# “This is not nationalism, this is jingoism. There is no questioning by the media. A journalist like Ajai Shukla is portrayed as “anti-national”. You can disagree with Ajai or Sushant Singh but you cannot question their patriotism, their motives. They are reporting on the basis of certain evidence. You can dispute the evidence, argue the evidence, come out with the facts,
# “In the 1960s, Nehru put all his correspondence with the Chinese in the public domain. What prevents the government, rather than briefing their favourite journalists and favourite TV channels.Take the country into confidence. Educate the people, ‘this is what has happened, and this is what we require your support for’. What better way of doing it than Parliament? Why not an authoritative statement on behalf of the government of India? Bring out a white paper.
# “Gen Hooda has raised questions, Gen Panag has raised questions, Gen Malik has raised questions, and you look at the way Gen V.K. Singh talks. A man who can call the Indian media “presstitutes”, imagine what frame of mind he is. Serious people have raised questions. You cannot dismiss their concerns. It is the responsibility of the government to respond to these concerns. Who will respond? Gen Singh is a drumbeater. Jaishankar has become a drumbeater. The NSA is a drumbeater.
# “Call Parliament, make an authoritative statement, take the nation into confidence, and say this is what has happened, and move on.
# There has been a determined effort to control the narrative, a single minded pursuit, of not the truth but managing the narrative, managing the headlines. That’s what we have seen.You cannot put everybody down. You can discredit them. You don’t discredit them professionally, so you discredit their personal credentials. This is the worst type of argumentation you can think of.
# “The media is no longer independent of the executive. The way PTI has been browbeaten. They want to take over PTI, not the first time. It is no longer an independent entity. You have people who are speaking. These are voices in the wilderness.
# “Modi is trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. He has enough cheerleaders, he has enough drumbeaters. Whether people are actually convinced or not, I have no evidence, but I know a lot of people who have been his supporters, who are doubtful of the claims he is making in relation to what has happened on China, that he is not telling the full story. Whether he is able to ride this out, only time will tell.”
# “In 1962 you didn’t have social media, you didn’t even have television. Both social media and television have added to the sense of irresponsibility of national debates. The media should be an instrument of calming, soothing, of bringing temperatures down, actually it is being the reverse.
# “We have to create a climate of opinion in our country that we have to negotiate a settlement. The prime minister has to create it, Parliament has to create it, every political party has to create it, the media has to create it. If India has to occupy its rightful place in the world community, it must negotiate a settlement on the border with China.
# “In 1962, the media was far less subservient to the government than it is today even though the government was headed by a titan like Nehru, it had a huge majority. It was not easy times for them. Media reflected what was happening in Parliament, and day in and day out, Nehru and Krishna Menon were under attack, not only by Opposition parties but even within the Congress party.
# “P.N. Haksar could tell Indira Gandhi, ‘make up your mind, do you want to be prime minister of India or Sanjay Gandhi’s mother?’ Can you imagine anybody telling Modi, ‘don’t do notebandi’, ‘don’t do demonetisation’. NSA Doval is no Haksar.
# “We will have our differences with China, we will be in competition, we may also be confrontation, but I hope we will not be in conflict. There will be avenues for cooperation. We have to understand each other. China has invested far more in understanding India than India has. There are more Chinese journalists in India than Indian journalists in China.
# “India and China are giant civilisations. We are nuclear powers. We are economic giants. We are neighbours. We have a disputed border. We have to find a way of engaging. What has happened in the last month and a half is deeply disturbing, because it shows a different China, and it will be a long road back to normalcy, if at all. As far as I am concerned, we have to restore the status quo ante, then we can start talking.
# “Belittling Nehru, defaming him is the one-point agenda of the RSS and Narendra Modi. They can live with Indira Gandhi, they can live with Rajiv Gandhi, it’s Nehru they are not able to stomach. Nehru’s idea of India is fundamentally different. Modi has made more time with Chinese leaders than Nehru ever did, and he has ended up losing more territory than Nehru did.
# “The government has become one giant echo chamber.”
# “PM doesn’t take Parliament seriously at all. India is becoming an illiberal democracy. We have all the external trappings of democracy—political parties, Parliament, elections—but the soul of a democracy has vanished. Ved Pratap Vaidik wrote a column in Dainik Bhaskar, ‘Lok tantra ki shehnai bandh ho raha hai, ek tantra ka top chal raha hai.’
# “I said in Parliament, ‘Pradhan Mantra galti se bhai sach nahin bolenge.” It’s truly extraordinary. His ability with a straight face to take liberties with truth. This is too much for a PM and he doesn’t need to. The mandates he got in 2014 and 2019, he could have risen above his own insecurities, but unfortunately he takes delight in not speaking the truth. ‘Asatyameva Jayate’.
# “Shatrughan Sinha had the best description: “It’s a one-man show, two-man army”