'Blaming Nehru a superficial way of looking at India-China war'

One journalist’s claim to distill the reasons for the 1962 war between India and China caused a storm in New Delhi’s power corridors last week. But another seasoned journalist has questioned this premise and expressed his views on the Henderson Brooks report.

Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist and former correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review, who has been reporting on East Asia for nearly four decades, believes the Henderson Brooks report doesn’t mean much in the larger geopolitics which led to the 1962 Indo-China war. In an email interview to Nikhil Kanekal of Deccan Herald, Lintner, who lives in Chiang Mai, explains why he thinks Neville Maxwell was wrong for the conclusions in his book India’s China War and why it would be myopic to blame the Nehru administration and the Indian Army for the debacle.
What was the prevailing political situation in China in the early 1960s? What was the thinking in the Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai administration?

One has to put the 1962 border war in context. In 1959, Mao Zedong launched the disastrous Great Leap Forward to modernise China. By 1961, anywhere between 18 and 32 million people died as a result of Mao's policies. He was discredited and on his way out. He felt he had to regain power -- and the best way to do that was to unify the nation and, especially, the armed forces, against an outside enemy. India was a ‘soft’ target. After all, India had granted the Dalai Lama asylum after the failed uprising in Lhasa in 1959 and his subsequent flight south, first into what was then NEFA (the Northeast Frontier Agency; a territory claimed by China) and then, eventually, to McLeodganj, where he set up a government in exile. Mao did manage to regain power and several of his political enemies were sidelined. Some remained, of course, so in 1966 Mao launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, during which all his political enemies were eliminated and he was elevated to a God-like status in Chinese society.
Was India's Forward Policy really flawed or did separate factors influence Mao’s China into engaging in combat?

I believe that the 1962 war had much more to do with internal power struggles in China at the time than the border dispute, or India’s forward policy. Those were pretexts for the assault on India, it was not a ‘spur-of-the-moment’ kind of action because of some ‘provocation’ by India. Just look at the forbidding terrain in Tibet across the border. In the early 1960s the infrastructure there was almost non-existent. It would have taken months to move tens of thousands of troops and military equipment up to the MacMahon Line.

It is also worth remembering what China did in the years before the 1962 war. In January 1961, a combined force of three divisions, or 20,000 men, of regulars from the Chinese People's Liberation Army launched a very similar attack across the northeastern border of Myanmar. The target was a string of secret, Nationalist Chinese Kuomintang camps on the Myanmar side of the border, from where those had launched raids into China. The campaign was code-named ‘the Mekong River Operation,’ and was sanctioned by the Myanmar government, which also wanted to rid the country of the sanctuaries that the Kuomintang forces had established in this remote part of the country - although no Myanmar government has ever acknowledged that this operation took place. It was swift and over in a matter of weeks. Then, the Chinese troops withdraw to their side of the border. I often look at the 1961 the Mekong River Operation as a ‘rehearsal’ for what happened in 1962.
Why were you not excited about the Henderson Brooks report?Did it not reveal anything new?

I read the report several years ago - it was passed on to me by another journalist - and, though interesting, it wasn't all that exciting from my point of view. It analysed the weaknesses in India’s defence of the border and other policy shortcomings. Naturally, the Henderson Brooks report did not go into the main reasons for the war, i e what I have outlined above: power struggles within the Chinese leadership at the time.
Do you think the Henderson Brooks report was an accurate depiction and analysis of what happened in 1962?

As government enquiries go, it is actually quite good. It deals with the situation on the ground, and what India did wrong at the time. But it leaves too many questions unanswered, especially the actual reason why China attacked in 1962.
Do you think Neville Maxwell was wrong about his conclusions in his book India's China War? Please explain why.

Maxwell puts the whole blame on India, Nehru, and the Forward Policy. That is a very superficial way of looking at the issue, which must be seen in a much broader perspective. Apart from power struggles in Beijing at the time, there was also a brewing conflict between China and the Soviet Union -- and India was seen by the Chinese leadership as a Soviet ally. China didn't dare to attack the Soviet Union militarily, but by launching a war against India, Beijing wanted to show Moscow that it was a military force to be reckoned with. Maxwell just harps on and on about minor issues and his book, therefore, clouds the bigger picture.
How relevant are the recent revelations to the geopolitics in the region? Do you think the Indian's government's position that the report should continue to remain classified is valid?

After reading the Henderson Brooks report, I couldn't understand why it was still classified. What it says has been written elsewhere and, apart from showing weaknesses in the Indian position on the ground at the time, it is not damaging to broader issues of national security.
Could you briefly tell us about the book that you said you are working on?

I am working on a book about the 1962 war as seen in the context of power struggles in China during the post-Great Leap Forward era, and the Sino-Soviet conflict. It is my hope that this book will shed more light on the 1962 war than Maxwell's deeply flawed account does.

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