Monday, January 11, 2010

Shashi Tharoor and the Truth about Nehru's Foreign Policy

Shashi Tharoor's latest statements may have aroused some controversy, but the question worth examining is - is India ready to discuss its forefathers' mistakes  or just sweep them under the carpet?

It seems that Shashi Tharoor is in the spotlight again for allegedly making politically incorrect statements. However, I believe the larger question is – is he right? Foreign Policy is a complex business; but I don’t think anyone is more qualified to comment on Foreign affairs than Shashi Tharoor. However, in this whole controversy, we are in fact losing sight of the larger issue – is it wrong to question the actions and policies of Nehru, who most Indians treat as a demigod?  (Abhishek Singhvi, in his response said, “Nehru is a giant about whom no one can be dismissive in a one-liner”) And that too in a democratic country which guarantees freedom of speech?

Tharoor was in fact speaking about British MP Lord Bhikhu Parekh’s speech on ‘India's Place in the World’ organized by the Indian Council of World Affairs. What he actually said was,

"That Indian foreign policy drew from our sense of civilisation, and the extraordinary contribution by Mahatma Gandhi and Nehruji’s articulation of our civilisational heritage, both enhanced India’s standing in the world but also earned us the negative reputation of running a moralistic commentary on world affairs......."

So Tharoor in fact said that Nehru's Foreign Policy had some pros and cons. Sadly, the media skipped the former and focused only on the latter. They deliberately missed the fact that he had also praised Nehru's Foreign Policy.
Tharoor was only quoted in the newspaper as saying, "It was more like a moralistic running commentary". Predictably, the media emphasized his negative remarks and wrongly attributed this quote to him without printing the whole sentence verbatim.

India had gained independence on the basis of non-violence, and had gathered much international support. The British even left with good cheer. Nehru considered India the leader of the Third World.

After Partition, the British Indian Army was divided between India and Pakistan in the ratio 2:1. Thus during the 1947 war we were militarily superior to Pakistan, yet Nehru did not push the Pakistanis back and allowed them to keep about a third of Kashmir. Nehru invited the UN to intervene, declared a ceasefire, possibly under British (Mountbatten’s) influence. Thus Nehru might have actually played into the British’s hands, whose obvious interest lay in keeping some part of Kashmir illegally occupied by Pakistan in order to create further hostility between these two newly formed countries.

This concept of non-violence and avoidance of conflict even at the costs of a country's sovereignty, soon spilled over to India’s Foreign Policy – which resulted in the Indian government paying much less attention to increasing its military prowess. As a result, India was ill-prepared and much less powerful militarily than China in the 1962 war. The Indian Army was in fact, so unprepared that it didn’t have enough rations and warm clothes to survive the harsh winter climate in the border regions. Nehru did not listen to the advice of his senior army officers, appointed his favoured cronies at top posts regardless of merit; and, as a final straw, pursued a 'Forward Policy' which severely tested the limits of China’s patience and was the final nail in the coffin for the Indian Army. 
The Director of Military operations during that time, Brigadier D. K. Palit makes some insightful statements in an interview here (better format here)

Nehru, after becoming Prime Minister, envisioned a World where India and China were good friends, giving rise to the slogan “Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai”. China responded accordingly but kept its options open. India under Nehru was one of the first countries to recognize communist China. Nehru turned down a permanent UNSC seat in 1955, saying that China deserved it more. However, the facts on the ground were just the opposite. During the run up to the 1962 war, Nehru assumed and in fact was convinced that the Indian Army was superior to the Chinese in every way and that the Chinese would not attack even when Indian posts were established on territory that even India admitted to be Chinese! And thus was born the controversial Forward Policy, for which Nehru, the then Defense Minister Krishna Menon and Chief of General Staff, Lt. General B.M. Kaul, have all taken early credit and later disavowed responsibility. This policy gained further momentum by the fact that the Chinese forces withdrew when Indian outposts advanced towards them. Nehru blatantly ignored Chinese diplomatic protests. India's 'invasion' of Goa in 1961 further alarmed the Chinese.

In fact, the Chinese leaders were surprised at the feeble response to their attack. What is surprising is that in that war, not a single Chinese soldier was taken prisoner; while the Chinese took 3,968 Indian prisoners, which were returned the following year. (Much later it emerged that the Indian Army had actually taken two Chinese prisoners and were held as foreign spies in India. In 2003, during Vajpayee’s visit to China, they were returned)

India had enjoyed certain privileges with regard to Tibet under the controversial Simla Agreement, which was negotiated between Britain and Tibet in 1914. If the Simla agreement is legal, then it serves India's cause; and if it is illegal, China's. However, when China annexed Tibet in 1951, India under Nehru recognized it as Chinese territory, thus giving up those privileges and undermining Tibet’s sovereignty (which it had momentarily enjoyed during the time of the Simla agreement). Thus in a sense the Indian government tacitly admitted that the Simla agreement was effectively illegal, which to this day remains China's official position. In doing so, we weakened our own legal position with respect to the border dispute. This was furthered by the fact that even the current British government in discarded the Simla agreement as an anachronism and a colonial legacy - a "position [the British] took based on the geo-politics of the time".  The British pulled away the only leg India had to stand on.

Hiding Nehru's Folly
And then there is the official review of the 1962 war, known as the Henderson Brooks Report, which, according to British journalist Neville Maxwell, puts the blame squarely on Nehru and the politicization of the army. This report, which Maxwell claims to have seen (it is rumoured that a senior minister showed it to him) is still classified by the Indian Government, presumably in order to save Nehru’s face. Many Defence Ministers, form Y.B.Chavan to A.K.Anthony have responded to requests about releasing the report in Parliament by politely refusing in the name of “national interest”. Even RTI applications have been brushed aside. Clearly, the Indian Government has something to hide.

After 1962, Menon and Kaul took the fall for Nehru, in a sense, and resigned. Nehru's government and the media succeeded in portraying India as the innocent 'victim' of Chinese 'aggression' and 'betrayal'. Even today, a look at media reports and even MP's speeches clearly proves that this fiction is still maintained in the Indian mindset.

After Nehru’s visit to the US in 1961, Kennedy described it as “the worst head of state visit ever” and that his conversations with Nehru as "like trying to grab something in your hand only to have it turn out to be just fog."

And therein lies the relevance of Shashi Tharoor's comments. He just reiterated what had been said many times before. The 'civilisational heritage' which he talks about was exemplified by the Gandhian concept of non-violence which increased India's standing in the world and also heavily contributed to India's Soft Power. But it also left India with a false and misplaced sense of moral superiority and even complacency - As if India could teach the (violent) world a lesson in non-violence and morality.

India would never be the same again after 1962. After losing to China, the government started a complete overhaul and modernization of the army. 

One cannot help but feel sorry for Nehru. He had to learn the hard way that an obnoxious and sometimes passive attitude in foreign policy can have disastrous consequences. Later, in 1963, admittedly releasing his mistakes, no one put it more bluntly than Nehru himself,

"……what India has that in the world of today there is no place for weak nations... We have been living in an unreal world of our own creation".

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