Column: India honours its 1962 dead after 50 years

Sun Oct 21, 2012 7:51pm IST

Chinese soldiers guard the Nathu La mountain pass, between Tibet and Sikkim, July 6, 2006. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan/Files

Chinese soldiers guard the Nathu La mountain pass, between Tibet and Sikkim, July 6, 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Desmond Boylan/Files

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(The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not represent those of Reuters)

By C. Uday Bhaskar

India finally honoured its long ignored ‘shaheed' -- soldiers who had laid down their lives defending flag and national sovereignty -- in the brief war with China that began with the surprise People's Liberation Army (PLA) attack on under-equipped and ill-clad Indian troops on October 20, 1962.

Defence Minister A.K. Antony, accompanied by the three service chiefs and the venerable five-star Marshal of the Air Force, Arjan Singh (a World War II veteran), led the nation in laying a wreath at Delhi's war memorial at India Gate.

This has been described as a gesture of epic proportions, for ever since the humiliating defeat that India suffered with nearly 3,000 troops killed in the icy Himalayan heights, the Indian state led by former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru chose the path of obdurate and self-imposed amnesia.

A long festering border and territorial dispute that had its origins in the colonial-era demarcation (imposed on Tibet and China by imperial Britain during the heydays of the British Raj in India) was at the heart of the Sino-Indian dispute. The month-long war left India stunned and Nehru was taught a lesson by Mao. The war ended as suddenly as it began when China withdrew unilaterally.

The Indian troops, equipped with vintage World War II ordnance and cotton clothing, acquitted themselves with characteristic gallantry and raw courage. Certain battles such as Rezang La will compare with the legendary Thermopylae. However, there was an abysmal failure at the highest political level in India and PM Nehru and his abrasive and arrogant Defence Minister Krishna Menon were unable to cope with what Mao had unleashed.

To its shame, over the last 50 years, the Indian state chose not to acknowledge the death of its soldiers -- those who defended the nation to their peril. The unstated reason was it would sully the image of Nehru to recall or commemorate the 1962 war. India's distinctive strategic culture derived from the Buddha-Gandhi tradition of ‘ahimsa' and non-violence is reflected in the discomfiture of the Indian state in empathetically and astutely dealing with either military victory (the 1971 India-Pakistan war) or defeat and this is an abiding trait.

To their credit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Antony took this brave decision to finally acknowledge the war by honouring those killed in 1962 -- and while it may not be the beginning of a long-awaited mea culpa, it is nonetheless welcome. The families of those who died may find some succour and the Indian military and its three million veterans, some solace.

Antony also briefly dwelt on the trauma of 1962 and asserted: "I would like to assure the nation that India of today is not the India of 1962. Over the years, successive governments learning lessons from the past strengthened our capabilities and modernised our armed forces ... we are confident our armed forces will be able to protect the border in event of any threat."

Fifty years after the October 1962 war, Sino-Indian relations are more stable, though the territorial and border dispute remains exactly where it was -- frozen in time. The complex Tibet issue and the presence of the Dalai Lama and his followers in India irks Beijing. India remains wary of Chinese intent and the received wisdom is that Beijing's deeper objective is to contain India in the subcontinent and that Pakistan is a useful strategic proxy.

The much hyped Asian century is predicated on the rise of China and India who have a combined population of more than two billion. Strategic restraint has been the lodestar for the political leadership since the 1993 peace accord signed by the two Asian giants.

Commercial and economic opportunities beckon and bi-lateral trade is expected to cross $100 billion soon. But for China and India, neither co-operation nor conflict is preordained.

Sino-Indian relations will be tested when a new leadership assumes the helm in Beijing in early November and defines the contours of its relations with Washington and New Delhi. India will have to review its past more objectively to manage its future orientation apropos China.

The first step was taken on Saturday.

(C. Uday Bhaskar is Distinguished Fellow, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi.)

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