Considering the Sino-Indian War of 1962’s pivotal role in recent South Asian history as well as the fact that the mountainous border separating India and China remains disputed and skirmishes still occur, it is somewhat surprising that its 50th anniversary in 2012 hasn’t spurred more publications of the likes of “The Sino-Indian War of 1962: New Perspectives”. In the introduction to their co-edited volume, Amit R. Das Gupta and Lorenz M. Lüthi provide a concise description of this conflict that dates back well into the 19th century and not only shattered independent India’s self-confidence to the core, but also lay the foundations of the informal Sino-Pakistani partnership that exists to this day.
While the British rulers made sure to secure colonial India’s western borders against a potential Russian invasion, the borders with imperial China remained somewhat fuzzy throughout the Raj. The Himalayas in the north and impenetrable forests close to the north-eastern borders of the Indian subcontinent seemed like natural barriers and since China had no de facto rule over Tibet, a legal settlement was deemed negligible. Some half-hearted suggestions by British officials as to where exactly in South Asia their Empire should end, were ignored in Beijing and not followed-up upon in London.
This British omission would backfire only after India had finally gained independence in 1947: the People’s Republic of China occupied Tibet in 1950–51 and started to construct a road through Indian-claimed Aksai Chin, a Himalayan plateau bordering Kashmir that geographically belongs to Tibet. East of Bhutan, the Indian government decided to respect the “McMahon Line”, agreed upon by British and Tibetan officials in 1914, but never formally recognized by China. Throughout the 1950s, the two disputed areas of Aksai Chin and North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA – now the Indian state of Arunchal Pradesh) became subject to many fruitless Sino-Indian bilateral talks.
Tensions rose following the Tibetan uprising in March 1959, when the Dalai Lama was granted asylum in India and started to publicly criticize the Chinese government. After first border clashes had occurred later that year, the Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai offered his Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru control over NEFA in return for the much smaller Aksai Chin during a bilateral summit in April 1960. Nehru refused, later border negotiations failed and the fights continued leading to two massive Chinese attacks in October and November 1962. Within a few days, Chinese troops were marching towards the Bay of Bengal, when Zhou declared a ceasefire and ordered his forces to withdraw to the Himalayan watershed, i.e. the McMahon Line.
Das Gupta and Lüthi have decided to subsume their volume’s twelve chapters under three separate parts pertaining to the conflict’s bilateral, international and domestic dimensions, respectively. In the first chapter, Lorenz M. Lüthi gives further in-depth insights into the Sino-Indian relations between the end of World War II and the first successful Indian nuclear test in 1974. He describes Nehru’s hopes of bringing China closer to the idea of non-alignment in the mid 1950s and his disillusionment upon finding that Zhou Enlai would bluntly deny what he thought had been border agreements a few years later. The Indian prime minister began to mistrust Chinese motives, which is also why he decided to turn down Zhou’s offer to exchange NEFA for Aksai Chin in April 1960. When Indian resistance collapsed under the Chinese attacks in 1962, Nehru successfully called on the Western powers and fellow non-aligned countries for help, which led India’s nemesis Pakistan to turn to China to quickly settle their border differences – the beginning of a beautiful friendship that would have great impact on the South Asian wars to come.
The second chapter, written by Amit R. Das Gupta, is dedicated to Subimal Dutt, India’s Foreign Secretary from 1955 to 1961, and provides a genesis of the Indian stance on the 1962 conflict from the Ministry of External Affairs’ (MEA) point of view. While Nehru chose to turn a blind eye on the unresolved border conflict, his Foreign Secretary Dutt decided to clandestinely send diplomats to British archives to collect archival evidence in order to prove the Indian case. Das Gupta concludes that “China pursued a pragmatic solution, whereas India wanted to discuss ‘historical borders’” (p. 60), which garnered India international support, but did not lead to the intervention of either superpower during the war.
While the following two chapters by Dai Chaowu and Eric Hyer on China’s India policy and conciliation with its neighbors are rather repetitive when it comes to the war of 1962 itself, Paul McGarr in his article “The United States, Britain and the Sino-Indian border war” provides an excellent overview of the conflict’s international dimension. He shows how, by offering its support against communist China, the Kennedy administration hoped to counterbalance India’s alienation from the West after the annexation of Goa from NATO member Portugal and its decision to purchase Soviet MiG-21 aircrafts during the previous year. However, much of Indian goodwill was lost when a US diplomat later offered long-term arms supply in return for a settlement of the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan.
Pakistan is described as the conflict’s main beneficiary by Amit R. Das Gupta in the subsequent chapter. When its Western allies sided with inimical India, Pakistan decided to settle its differences with China once and for all, thus gaining a powerful regional ally. In chapter 7, Andreas Hilger portrays a Soviet leadership torn between alliance with China and friendship with India all the while being preoccupied with the coinciding Cuban Missile Crisis. In the end, by choosing to remain neutral, Moscow would disappoint both Beijing and New Delhi.
The last “perspectives” shed light on the effects the Sino-Indian War of 1962 had on Indian domestic life and politics. In chapter 9, Imtiaz Omar describes how the conflict paved the road for constitutional amendments that made the 1970s’ Emergency possible, while the following two chapters are dedicated to the repression – and subsequent radicalization – of parts of the Communist Party of India (CPI) during and after the war, and the much-neglected fate of Indians of Chinese descent, who were not only interned for up to five years, but also expropriated. Many of them have since migrated to China – a subtle form of ethnic cleansing the Indian government has never admitted to.
Altogether, Das Gupta and Lüthi have assembled a fine collection of contributions. However, in view of the fact that neither of the last four chapters of the book deal with the war’s repercussions in China, one cannot help but get the impression that the volume’s third part “Domestic perspectives” somewhat overlooks the other side of the picture. A greater focus on the Chinese motives in 1962 and on the consequences of the war in China itself shortly after Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” had ended in a complete disaster and not so long before the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” would create tremendous turmoil, might have done even better justice to the editors’ claim of providing new perspectives on the Sino-Indian War of 1962.