MUMBAI: External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told the Rajya Sabha on August 2, 2017 that “dialogue is the only way out of the Doklam standoff” with China. She ruled out war as an option and added that “China has contributed to our economic strength”. She also advised patience and restraint “and also restraint in statements”.

Swaraj needs to be complimented for making a mature policy statement on the floor of the House. This was indeed necessary in the background of “muscular” if not aggressive strategy pronouncements from other government sources directly or indirectly, supported by a few “Patriotic” TV channels struggling to expand their TRPs.

Till now the nation was fed with different shades of combat readiness against China, whether it was during the Malabar Naval exercise or through former Defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s “Brahmos” statement on February 14, 2017 or by the present Army Chief ‘s claim on June 8, 2017 that the “Indian Army is fully ready for a two and a half front war”.

The public could not be faulted for carrying these impressions after RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat’s complaint on October 13, 2013 that UPA’s weak policies had emboldened China and Pakistan to make incursions into India.

If we rewind to 1959, we will find that a similar scenario was unfolding almost under similar circumstances when Jawaharlal Nehru was the Prime Minister. On October 21, 1959 Chinese patrols ambushed an Indian police party in Ladakh and killed 10 of our men. The nation was deeply upset at this perfidy after the “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” era. Attack on Nehru’s China policy was made by all opposition leaders including Bharatiya Jan Sangh founder the late Deendayal Upadhyaya.

Ramachandra Guha in his “Harvard Yenching Institute Working Paper Series” says that Upadhyaya compared Nehru to Wajid Ali Shah, the 19th Century ruler of Awadh: “Only he (Nehru) knows when a crisis is not a crisis”. Guha continues: “Week after week Upadhyaya excoriated Nehru and his China policy in the pages of RSS journal ‘Organizer’: ‘As usual Prime Minister has exhibited his temperamental weakness in dealing with the issue of Chinese aggression’. The Prime Minister’s attitude to China, concluded Upadhyaya, was ‘characteristic of his weak and timid nature’”.

The question then arises why the BJP, which runs our government with an avowed “muscular” security policy is fighting shy of implementing the late Upadhyaya’s desire by throwing out the intruders? Why are they silent in reacting even after “Global Times” had audaciously announced (Aug 5) that China might undertake a “small scale military operation” within 2 weeks?

The answer lies in Ludwig von Rochau’s concept of “Realpolitik” (1853) that “Might is not necessarily the right” policy. Over a period of time it also meant that states should follow policies based on “practical” instead of “moral” or “ideological” considerations. The most shining example of “Realpolitik” during NDA-1 was Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s policy of mending fences with Pakistan and China besides calming the Kashmir Valley. Unfortunately some of the prominent BJP spokespersons in NDA-2 do not understand the nuances of “Realpolitik” nor do they seem to have any sense of history. They evade the issues by blaming Nehru for both Kashmir and China problems.

Was Nehru hesitant to deal with China? Was he weak and timid? Did he have a strategic plan to deal with China? A different picture emerges if we read veteran American diplomat Howard B.Schaffer’s 1993 biography of Chester Bowles who was US ambassador to India twice, 1951-53 and 1963-69.

Schaffer says that Nehru was aware of the dangers from China even in November 1951 when Bowles first met him. He also hints that Nehru had a strategy: “Nehru considered China potentially aggressive and expansionist” and “the best hope was an attempt to divide Russia and China-or if this was not possible at least to modify China’s viewpoint through outside contacts and thus convince China it did not need to depend entirely on Russia”. Thus Nehru had sent a discreet message to Washington DC which Bowles conveyed through US Embassy telegram 1661 dated November 7, 1951. Simultaneously India developed closer relations with Soviet Union.

As Ramachandra Guha had stated: “Left to himself Nehru could not have waged a war with China on the Tibetans’ behalf. India was newly independent; it was a poor and divided country. There were a clutch of domestic problems to attend to, among them the cultivation of a spirit of national unity, the promotion of economic development, the nurturing of democratic institutions. War would have set back these efforts by decades. It would have led to political instability, and economic privation”

Instead of war Nehru took some strategic steps to strengthen India’s security. Schaffer says: “He bolstered India’s position in the border areas by negotiating new security treaties with the small Himalayan states that lay between India and its possibly ambitious northern neighbor”.

Did the results of Nehru’s 1951 strategic vision emerge in February 1972? That was the year when US President Richard Nixon made his epoch making visit to Beijing, setting aside their frosty relations for 25 years. It may be difficult to say. Schaffer says that US had tapped other leaders too in the 1950s to assess China. Nixon and Kissinger would be loathe to give any credit to Nehru.

But the 41 page top secret/ sensitive/ ’Eyes only’ White House record of the “Memorandum of Conversation” dated 23 February, 1972 between President Nixon and Prime Minister Chou En-lai (Declassified in 1996) reveals the depth of Chinese anger against Soviet Union and India. It is a fascinating record of how two countries, till then declared enemies, could have a sudden convergence of opinion on many geo-political issues. It also reveals that Heads of State dialogue need not always be stiff business like meetings but could be peppered with prejudices, rumours, poetry and innuendos laced with hearsay.

After pleasantries, the first thing Chou does is attacking Nehru as the aggressor for not following “Panch Sheel” which he had accepted earlier. He then quotes Neville Maxwell’s book as proof. Nixon says he had read it and jokes that he mentioned about the book to Mrs.Indira Gandhi when she called on him (1971). “She did not react favourably when I said that”.

At this Chou laughs and adds that Khrushchev “instigated it” (Indian aggression). He made the Indians feel that China would not retaliate. He says: “we fought them …but Tass said that China had committed aggression”. Later he (Khrushchev) came to Peking. During the meeting Marshal Chen Yi asked him why Tass had branded China as aggressor without hearing their side. Khrushchev replied: “The casualties on the Indian side were greater than yours, so that’s why I believe they were victims of aggression”.

He then claims that China respected McMohan line and pushed Indians back only when they crossed it and came into their territory. “But if your (Indian) troops come up north of the McMohan Line and come even into Chinese territory, how is it possible for us to refrain from retaliating? We sent three open telegrams to Nehru asking him to make a public reply, but he refused. He was so discourteous; he would not even do us the courtesy of replying, so we had no choice but to drive him out”. He then says that all these are in Neville Maxwell’s book and repeats: “India was encouraged by Soviet Union to attack”.

Both Nixon and Chou praise Yahya Khan: “Both of us owe something to Yahya”. Then they turn their attention to economic aid to South Asia. Nixon says that he would ensure that economic aid to India would be related on how India deals with the border problem (with neighbours). At this Chou remarks “India is a bottomless hole” and Nixon laughs.

Chou then mentions about Nehru’s book “Discovery of India”. He complains that Mrs. Indira Gandhi also had adopted the same philosophy embodied in that book. To this the usually well read Kissinger interjects: “He was thinking of a great Indian Empire?” Chou replies “yes-he was thinking of a great Indian Empire- Malaysia, Ceylon etc. It would probably include our Tibet.” Nixon had to intervene at one stage to temper Chou’s unbridled venom against India: “I should emphasize our policy is not anti-Indian….It is pro-peace”.

Next they discussed Kashmir. Nixon says: “it’s so sad that Kashmir has poisoned relations between India and Pakistan” To this Chou says: “But Britain purposely left that problem behind”.

Chou expounds basic Chinese philosophy on border question: China would like the “present status quo” as the basis and make adjustments. Clashes with Soviet Union and India took place when that principle was breached. However they could come to agreements with Burma, Nepal, Afghanistan, Mongolia, South Korea, Vietnam and Laos. Only two big countries-Soviet Union and India- have not conceded. “They are cooperating in this”.

My purpose in recalling this old history and reproducing quotes from this lengthy secret paper is to convey that Nehru had realized as far as back as 1951 the futility of using force to settle bilateral disputes but was compelled to use it only under severe domestic pressure for which he had to pay a heavy price.

That should be a lesson to our BJP propagandists to realize that “Surgical Operations” route cannot be successful in all situations.

[The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. His latest book is “Keeping India Safe: The dilemma of internal security”]

(Cover Photograph: Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou En-lai in Beijing, October 19,1954)