Why does the Indian government refuse to declassify a report on the Sino-Indian war even now, nearly 50 years later? And how
does this affect India’s efforts to work things out with China and explore options for strategic co-operation today? DNA has some answers after talking to experts, including one of the few persons to have had access to the report.
Last fortnight, a ghost made a brief appearance in Parliament. It slipped in quietly on a Monday afternoon, about the time when ministerial replies to parliamentarians’ questions are tabled, but it didn’t stay long. In fact, so fleeting was the apparition’s appearance that few legislators even noticed its presence, distracted as they were by more weighty matters, such as the telephone tapping and IPL scandals.
More diligent observers of spectral spirits would, however, have recognised this as a ghost that’s been haunting Indian official and strategic thinking on China since the 1962 war that ended in demoralising defeat for the Indian Army.
Its most recent manifestation was in a written reply that defence minister AK Antony gave Parliament to explain why a Top Secret report of a review commission could not be declassified nearly 50 years later.
Antony claimed the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report, which was submitted to the Jawaharlal Nehru government in May 1963 and was immediately classified, could not be made public even today because an internal study by the Indian Army had established that its contents “are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value.”
“Those reasons are completely untrue and quite nonsensical,” says Neville Maxwell, who reported on the Sino-Indian war as South Asia correspondent for The Times and authored India’s China War, a searing critique of Nehru’s policies vis-a-vis China that ended in war. Maxwell, one of the few persons to have had (unauthorised) access to the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report recalls that “there is nothing in it concerning tactics or strategy or military action that has any relevance to today’s strategic situation.”
Antony’s pronouncement was only the latest effort by governments down the years — Congress-led and otherwise — to hold back from the Indian public the details of the political and military failings that contributed to that defeat. This obduracy has meant that although the Indian military’s preparedness on the border today is, from all accounts, vastly superior to what it was in 1962, that benighted loss remains a festering wound on the Indian national psyche.
“It’s as if the war happened last week,” says Prof Dibyesh Anand of London’s Westminster University.
“India hasn’t forgotten it even today,” adds David Malone, a Canadian diplomat who served in New Delhi and who is writing a book on Indian foreign policy. “The Chinese have largely forgotten about the war, but then it’s easier to forget a war you’ve won than one you’ve lost.”
Reconciling that traumatic chapter in India’s political history isn’t just a matter of academic interest: analysts say that failure on that front has bedevilled India’s relations with China since then — and, additionally, cramped efforts to resolve the border dispute.
The official Indian narrative on the 1962 war suffers from “unhelpful nationalist myth-making,” says Anand. The Indian public, he adds, was “sold a specific story about 1962”: that India reached out to China in a bhai-bhai spirit, but was “betrayed”. This, he reasons, was done in order to “prevent any serious self-reflection” of the civilian and military strategies and decision-making processes prior to 1962. To this narrative, another layer of myth-making was added, which was to blame the loss, additionally, on Nehruvian naivete.
“There is no debate about whether or not the Indian government’s position was legally dubious and politically suicidal... There is no questioning of whether the Chinese had legitimate grievances against the Indian position,” adds Anand.
Publication of the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report, for which several thinkers in India, including veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, have been campaigning for long, would, in Maxwell’s estimation, “re-arouse Indian interest in the political background of the Sino-Indian war.” That, he adds, would be a “healthy development” — because it is a “misunderstanding of the causes of that war that blights any real hope of achieving a profound political reconciliation between India and China.”
Anand feels that declassifying the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report may, in fact, put the Indian government “in a good position to influence public opinion that a border settlement with China, based on concession of Indian claims as well as some actual concessions, is good.” There is, he argues, no merit in repeating the “mistake” of the 1950s — “of assuming that the Indian position is the only right one.”
Need for debate
In his view, India’s unwillingness in the 1950s and 1960s to negotiate a border settlement with China — which Maxwell cites as the root cause of the war — can be traced to a failure of post-colonial India to “rethink how the legacy of British India had distorted strategic thinking and the national interest.” Freed from “nationalistic myth-making”, the definition of “national interest” could be tweaked, he reasons. “National interest can be redefined as ‘making territorial concessions (of claims, rather than of de facto control) for the sake of international goodwill and friendship with neighbours so long as the people directly affected (on the borderlands) are consulted’.”
But will such a ‘concession’ — even if it’s only of Indian claims — be received by the Indian public, without accusing its leaders of “selling out to China”? In Anand’s estimation, the public can be “persuaded either way if the political leadership shows signs of moving beyond unhelpful nationalist myth-making.”
The best way to prepare the public, he argues, is to allow freer debate among scholars and opinion makers. “Having multiple views, including many critical of the government of that day, in the public realm will allow the present government more leverage in ‘selling’ a compromise — which in reality may mean simply accepting the status quo.”
By remaining paranoid about how it controls the information on the 1962 war, the government restricts its own options, Anand adds. “The first thing it can do is to allow more openness — and not only anti-China voices or a militaristic rhetoric that, in turns, blames the government for being ‘weak’.”
That, perhaps, could exorcise the ghost of 1962.