War and geopolitics are not my focus, invested as I am in the history of universities and the role of intellectuals in society. But a combination of factors, the recent India-Pakistan skirmish, the Indian government's revisionist and critical stance on Nehru and my own interest in historical interactions between India and China, have led me to look closely on the Sino-Indian war of 1962. This is very much a work in progress, as I have compiled a reading list and started working through it, but one thing is clear to me right at this initial stage: The history of war has huge contemporary significance, particularly for India, and this should indeed be studied better there.
For example, this war weakened Nehru politically at home and in the world stage: There is no denying the truth in Mountbatten's comment that had Nehru died in 1958, he would have possibly gone down in history as one of the greatest statesmen ever. The war also changed, I shall argue, India's position in Asia; from then on, it was a second rate power jostling for influence in Central Asia. Finally, as China also won the propaganda war afterwards, successfully casting India, and Nehru, as the aggressor, India never again recovered its Nehru-era preeminence as a globally visible agent of the peaceful coexistence. In fact, 1962 set off a decisive break from the hope and optimism of the independence in India and presaged a dangerous decade, through which period India's politics completely changed.
But that's not all. The war was an important victory of Mao and allowed him to strengthen his position after the disasters of the Great Leap Forward - and to unleash the Cultural Revolution afterwards. But there were other victors and losers too. It is not difficult to see this war as an important break between USSR and China, and an important contributor to the demise of Khruschev's brand of politics. This was also a big body blow for the non-aligned movement (along with 1967 Arab Israeli War, that finished it off) and the whole idea of solidarity among the previously oppressed nations.
But it's not all history that I am interested in. I believe there are insights to be gained for the contemporary geopolitics as well. China is very active in Central Asia today and it is looking to expand its military power greatly in the backdrop of a slowing economy and an impending debt meltdown. There are also important strategic lessons: India stumbled into the war unprepared, by pursuing a 'forward policy' within its own territory. Nehru's folly - and no one would think that he was guiltless in this - was to miss the realities of geopolitics: That Mao would love to put him 'in his place', that McMillan would rub his hands in glee that Nehru was finally being taught a lesson and Soviet Russia would shift its stance, at the crucial hour, in a desperate bid to not to oppose China at the moment its Cuba strategy was imploding. Nehru never seriously thought China would go to war, and when it did, he was caught in his own rhetorical prison; despite the war being fought completely on Indian soil, the world came to regard India as the aggressor. The geopolitical compulsions and the invitation to similar folly were all too common - some of those elements showing up in India's attempt to 'neutralise' terror camps in Pakistan.
As I read more about the conflict, I shall write about it, if only as a necessary diversion from my excursions in the history of Indian universities. But I can't but see this as a tragedy: A tragedy not because India lost, but because this was the moment the idea of a post-colonial Afro-Asian unity vaporised and imperialism was back inside the family house again, by invitation from the left. One of the books on my reading list is Julia Lovell's Maoism, a history of the distinctive doctrine which will dominate the left imagination ever since. This was indeed the moment Maoism will go viral, and become the hegemonic idea in the post-imperial world making, replacing the anti-colonial nationalism, of the kind Nehru represented. And, indeed, the doctrinaire Maoism was the anti-colonial nationalism's exact opposite - flexible on values but rigid on strategy, a military doctrine cloaked as an ideology of liberation. Subsuming all promises of freedom into an ideology would, in the end, leave the global Left with nothing more than inverted consumerism, a state-sponsored benefit-fest bereft of vision or sacrifice. This was the real tragedy of the Sino-Indian conflict.
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