The doublespeak of China has forced India to reach out to the United States to safeguard its interests

It was in 1958 – a full four years before the Sino-Indian war – that Vidya Prakash Dutt, a China expert, and his wife returned from Beijing with the distinct impression that chauvinism was overtaking Communism in China. They also felt that anti-India attitudes were being cultivated by the Communist Party of China (CPC), at a time when ‘Chini-Hindi Bhai Bhai’ was still dominating public discourse in India.

Dutt and his wife Gargi reported this directly to the CPI leadership and also through Mohit Sen, a party leader who decades later would break away to form his own Communist party. Then CPI general secretary Ajoy Ghosh gave them a patient hearing. After feeling they were overreacting, he told them and Sen to keep silent. Sen, who had spent three years in China earlier when he met Mao, also felt that the Dutts were making a mountain of a molehill.

Anti-India Feelings

Sen’s discomfort was understandable. Only two years previously, in 1956, the Chinese Communist Party had decided on a strategic alliance with India in a bid to promote world peace. A CPI delegation touring China in 1957 was told by the Chinese leadership that it was strange that the CPI opposed the Nehru government when it pursued a progressive and anti-imperialist policy. Mao himself had told Ajoy Ghosh that border disputes were a matter of concern but as long as the Ganges and the Yangtze rivers flowed, Sino-Indian friendship would continue. So how could the Chinese suddenly start fomenting anti-India feelings? Surely the Dutts were wrong.

The late 50s and early 60s were tumultuous times in China, what with Mao unleashing a disastrous Great Leap Forward to boost the nation’s economy (the campaign was a disaster) and the Dalai Lama escaping to India. The Sino-Soviet differences were getting sharper. China began to assert itself in the Communist world after having been subservient to Stalin for long. Jawaharlal Nehru had been under attack from both within the Congress and the opposition ever since the Chinese overran Tibet. The increasing bitterness over the disputed border only brought him under further pressure over his alleged softness towards a belligerent Beijing in the name of Afro-Asian solidarity and internationalism.

McMahon Line

Much like now, China suddenly took a hard stand over the McMahon Line, which the Communist regime refused to recognise. Maps published in Beijing showed vast tracts of territory in India’s northwest and northeast as belonging to China. (China now calls Arunachal Pradesh southern Tibet.) When the CPI, at the urging of the then Indian Defence Minister, raised the matter with the Chinese, they said these were old, pre-Communist maps. But China made a volte-face and told India that the areas claimed by Beijing had been annexed by the British and that the Chinese people felt strongly about the territory because the remains of their ancestors rested there!

One fine day Indians woke up to learn that Chinese soldiers had ambushed and killed 19 Indian soldiers. China refused to express any regret, saying the dead men belonged to “aggressive and reactionary armies”. (Note the insistence now by Chinese media that it is Indian troops who are the aggressors.) Although some writers have argued that it was Nehru who provoked the northern neighbour, Beijing needed no needling. As (the late) Mohit Sen records in his highly readable autobiography, such was the nature of the Chinese revolution that nothing could stop its Communists from turning chauvinistic. No wonder that Deng Xiao-ping had the audacity to claim years later that China wanted to teach India “a lesson”.

1962 War

The 1962 war was a disaster for India. It killed Nehru both politically and physically. He was a pale shadow of his old self until passing away in May 1964. China went on to encourage a split, first, in the CPI, which refused to bow to Chinese claims on India and later in the CPI-M by openly encouraging the Naxalbari revolt. Beijing provided clandestine and not-so-clandestine support to insurgents in Nagaland.

At the same time, it insisted that the Dalai Lama, an internationally respected figure, should not be allowed to talk against the Chinese regime. Even courtesy meetings between Indian politicians and the Tibetan icon would draw angry reactions in Beijing. In later times, China refused to give visas to people hailing from Arunachal Pradesh (as they were its nationals anyway!). Although the Nehru regime went out of its way to support China’s candidature for a UN permanent seat, Beijing used its veto right and other international forums to oppose India on various issues. Much like Nehru in an earlier era, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s courting of the Chinese President too has not helped.

Indian leaders have claimed, justly so, that the India of now is not the India of 1962. But it is equally true that today’s China is dramatically different from that of 1962. When the 1962 war took place, China was a Communist state that was beginning to isolate itself, which would leave it in the times to come with only North Korea and Albania as friends.

Global Giant

Today’s China, despite calling itself a developing country, is a global economic giant (despite the setbacks caused by Covid-19) besides being a huge military power. It looks down upon India, whose economic growth has taken a massive beating due to Covid-19. (That it has no respect for other but much smaller countries with which too it has disputes can be no consolation.)

The times when we journalists used to accompany Indian Prime Ministers to the UN Assembly, we saw how mainstream American media gave prominence to the Chinese President while burying the Indian leadership in inside pages. Indian diplomats would blame it on “nuisance value” – the more a country has it, the more the interest in it.

Each time Chinese leaders say that New Delhi and Beijing need to work together, one wonders what is going on in their mind. It must be frustration with doublespeak that may have forced Modi to say that he discussed the border trouble with China with the US President. India normally shies away from discussing bilateral issues with a third party. For the first time, it not only broke the norm but also made a public admission. Full credit must be given to the Chinese leadership for generating so much lack of trust that India decided that a U-turn was vital to safeguard its interests.