Let us not do Politics over history

We can learn crucial lessons if we move beyond blame-fixing over 1962 war

srinath

Srinath Raghavan | April 25, 2014




I t is over fifty years since Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier Prem Bhagat submitted their report on the Indian army’s performance in the war against China. Yet going by the response to parts of the report recently released by Neville Maxwell, it feels almost as if we are back in 1963. Much of the commentary on the report eerily echoes the post-mortems performed in the immediate aftermath of the war – not least in its search for the guilty men of 1962. Jawaharlal Nehru, in particular, is vilified as though he were still the prime minister of a country that had just suffered a humiliating defeat. How do we explain this strange collective reaction, especially this outburst of animosity against a figure that has been dead for half a century?

At one level, it can be explained by the timing of the report’s public revelation. Maxwell is an old observer of India. He spent much of the 1960s as the Times (London) correspondent in New Delhi. Apart from his controversial book, India’s China War, which drew on the Henderson Brooks report, Maxwell wrote a famous series of articles in early 1967 prophesying the end of India’s democracy. “The coming elections,” he wrote, would be “the fourth – and surely last – general election”. The various crises in India had apparently led to an “emotional readiness for the rejection of parliamentary democracy”. Military rule, he claimed, was inevitable. All this turned out to be spectacularly wrong. Yet Maxwell is shrewd enough to know that releasing the report in the run-up to an election would create a political firestorm. After all, Nehru’s progeny are still at the helm of the Congress party and the report would provide ammunition to their opponents.

At another level, though, the context of the elections cannot in itself explain this reaction. The larger problem appears to be our inability to treat events of 1962 as history. It is inconceivable, for instance, that historical fiascos like Pearl Harbour or the Bay of Pigs can figure prominently in contemporary American politics. Part of the problem is the state of our academe. Our historians are almost entirely uninterested in contemporary history, or the history of the recent past. Most of our political scientists have never cared to visit an archive. In consequence, what passes for scholarship on 1962 is merely recycled received wisdom.

The problem is compounded by the government’s refusal to declassify documents pertaining to the conflict. Never mind 1962, even documents relating to the Simla Agreement of 1914 – which resulted in the McMahon Line boundary – are closed to researchers.

“In the short run history may be made by the victors,” the German historian Reinhart Koselleck once observed. “But in the long run the gains in historical understanding have come from the defeated.” This has, alas, not been true in our case with 1962. It is a pity that despite the passage of time, we persist in asking the same simplistic questions about 1962 – and, worse, in insisting on giving the same old answers. Without denying the responsibility of prime minister Nehru for the debacle, it should be possible to ask deeper historical questions about the events of 1962 – questions that might have greater relevance to our contemporary problems.

Consider one such question. Why did the Indian government, despite considerable tension along the borders in 1962, believe that China would not launch a massive attack? This is clearly a key issue. Yet, the answers that continue to be trotted out are trite assertions about the naiveté of Nehru (or his idealism, if you are an admirer). In fact, this perception stemmed from a combination of several factors.

For a start, Indian intelligence assessments extrapolated from China’s past behaviour that despite verbal threats and armed stand-offs the Chinese had always refrained from a major escalation. This assessment continued to hold even after the intelligence bureau (IB) received inputs suggesting that the Chinese were contemplating large-scale use of force. The IB, of course, held on to this assessment because it underpinned the “forward policy” of planting weakly held posts in disputed – a policy that had been championed by the IB itself.

Further, and more important, were the political leadership’s background assumptions about the unfolding crisis. Nehru had for several years discounted the possibility of a major attack by China owing to international factors. He thought an attack on India would invariably carry the risk of great power intervention. Besides, he was aware that in 1962 China was undergoing a period of internal turmoil following the Great Leap Forward.
With hindsight it is easy to castigate these assumptions. The fact, however, remains that these were reasonable, even if wrong. It is not clear that there is any more accurate way of predicting future behaviour of an adversary than by extrapolating from the past. In theory, you can draw up multiple scenarios but these are so many and so various that any one of them can seldom form the basis of policy.

Similarly, it is quite difficult to get political leaders to change their strongly held, but reasonable beliefs. This results from the physiology of our cognitive processes. Once we start thinking about an issue in a certain way, the same mental channels get reinforced when we return to the issue. Besides, the more ambiguous the information, the stronger is the role of preconceptions. Nor is it easy to avoid an overlap between analysis and policy making in dealing with intelligence.

It is striking to note that in 1962, the Indians were not the only ones who predicted China’s behavior incorrectly. Intelligence assessments prepared by the US, Britain, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia all held that China would not launch a major attack on India. Most interestingly, they reached this conclusion on the basis of almost the same assumptions as the Indians.

By asking such questions, we can illuminate the challenges we continue to face in avoiding so-called intelligence failures. Indeed, there are interesting similarities between the intelligence dimensions of 1962 and the Kargil conflict, or even the Mumbai attacks of 2008.
History can have contemporary relevance. But first we need to regard
it as history – and not as a political polemic

Raghavan is senior fellow at Centre for Policy Research, and lecturer in defence studies at King’s College, London.

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