China has been India’s bete-noire since the time a horde of Yuch-chi nomadic tribes from North-West China had overrun Indian territory in around 150 BC. Subsequently, the 1962 war, which resulted in an embarrassing loss of face to the Nehru Government, proved a watershed in Sino-Indian relations. In the context of the war, the two letters of Nehru, as addressed to John F. Kennedy, the then President of the US, that were recently made public, make for interesting reading. Apparently, they were reeled off in quick succession on 19th of November, 1962 after China had made deep inroads in the North-Eastern territory, following their crossing the MacMohan Line in the month of September.
In the first letter, Nehru thanked Kennedy for the ‘speed at which the urgently needed arms & ammunition were rushed to India’ and voiced his grievance at the ‘grim situation in the struggle for survival against an unscrupulous and powerful aggressor’. At the time of drafting of the two letters, China had all but captured Bomdi La in the Kameng Division, the headquarters of the NEFA command. A distraught Nehru also happened to address the nation acknowledging the serious reverses with the imminent takeover by the Chinese of Chushul in the Ladakh valley which would lead them to Leh, the headquarters of Ladakh. Within hours of dispatch of the first, Nehru reeled off a second letter, after the fall of the Sela Pass, requesting Kennedy for comprehensive air support in the form of ‘a minimum of 12 squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters’ and for the US Air force personnel to ‘protect the radar installations from Chinese air attacks’. Nehru, despite a desperate need to deploy the nation’s own air force, expressed his inability to do so in his letter, as ‘the present state of India’s air and radar equipment did not provide a defence mechanism against retaliatory action by the Chinese’. All of this, became meaningless as the very next day, China declared a unilateral ceasefire and a withdrawal from most of the Indian territories that they had taken over, perhaps with a foreboding of the possible intervention of Western powers. They of course, refused to give up the highway stretch in Aksai Chin that gave them direct access to Tibet from Xingiang region.
But the harm had been done and India was downsized in a military showdown with China like never before. The events were a direct offshoot of a flawed defence policy, troops that were ill-equipped to fight the enemy in alien terrain and a lack of tactical resources. It was ironical that less than a decade of his rejecting Eisenhower’s offer of military aid with no strings attached, Nehru had to turn to the US for immediate air support with an unceremonious volte-face to India’s committed non-alignment policy.
Almost 50 years have since gone by, yet the vestiges of the war still remain. Despite friendly overtures by the Prime Ministers of both the countries recently, relations continue to be strained over boundary disputes, which seem unlikely to be resolved any time soon.