In 1962, China’s People’s Liberation Army carried out an unprovoked attack on Indian borders. Over 1,300 Indian soldiers died defending the borders. 61 years later, questions about the Indo-China war and India’s defeat continue to haunt us. However, what is also certain is that history will not repeat itself as India is not afraid to fight its bullies anymore.
In an exclusive interview with Sandeep Unnithan, Editor, News9 Plus, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Union Minister of State for Entrepreneurship, Skill Development, Electronics & Technology, discusses how today’s India is very different from the India of 1962. Edited excerpts:
What are the big ‘what ifs’ of the 1962 war that continue to haunt you?
It was really a combination of hubris and incompetence on the part of the political leadership, the lack of a commitment to a strong security framework, the lack of modernisation of the armed forces from the independence of 1947 onwards. It was a classic case of a political failure that was paid for with the lives of men in uniform. We sent forth unacclimated, untrained soldiers and commanders into a battle with a very determined enemy who had played India for several years and decades before that. So in a lot of ways, in the otherwise glorious history of India defending its own sovereignty and borders through the ages, it certainly marks a low point for us.
India’s then defence minister VK Krishna Menon and then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru may have been great in many ways, but in this singular issue of dealing with China, a country that has grown to haunt India for successive generations and is now haunting the world at large, it is clear that the political leadership of that time, either through delusion or hubris or both, or a misguided sense of socialism and a belief in leftist ideologies, allowed that monster to grow.
Six decades later, have we exorcised the ghosts of the 1962 war?
There are two aspects of the ’62 war that we certainly believe will never happen in today’s India. One is the fact that we were gullibly and naively misled by this neighbour into being humiliated, conceding 38,000 sq km of our territory. I certainly don’t think it will happen ever again. The second is the tentative nature with which we responded, where, for example, the Air Force was never deployed even though we had clear air supremacy. The political leadership’s fear of escalating conflict and of taking on a bully will certainly not be repeated in 2023 in this new India. We have come a long distance, as a people, as a military, and as the political leadership that our people have built.
But we must never forget that moment in history, because people like Major Shaitan Singh and Subedar Joginder Singh built this future for us with their blood, where we can afford to be stronger and more confident about dealing with the same country that did that to us in 1962.
You have a personal connect with the war…
My father, MK Chandrasekhar, has told me these stories about how he airlifted the Sikh regiment and the Gurkhas. After the war ended, he was decorated with the VSM for those operations. He told me how they would fly back dead bodies and grievously injured soldiers. They would see these under-equipped young soldiers carrying Lee Enfield, World War II type of weaponry, being sent off into battle. Mercifully, the political leadership in 1965, Lal Bahadur Shastri, and then in 1971 Indira Gandhigave a lot more respect to capable generals. The paranoia of VK Krishna Menon, that Pakistan-type coups would happen in India, and of under-funding the armed forces, pushing strong leaders down, which was a reason for the 1962 debacle, was soon replaced by strong leadership in the Army.
Military history tells you that wars can never be won by so-called intellectual Krishna Menon type ofministers. It is generals like Manekshaw or Thimayya, all the generals that preceded 1962 and post 1962 that changed the course of India’s military confidence and capabilities subsequently.
The damage caused in 1962 is something we should never forget because that caused the permanent loss of 38,000 sq km of land and it created a bullying posture and confidence about that posture in another neighbour that remains intact to this day. We can even go so far as to say that posture is something that has created modern China today. They do that with the Philippines. They do that withTaiwan. I think in a lot of ways 1962 was a setback not just for India but for most of Asia.
Does it bother you that the Air Force was not used in the 1962 war?
More than the fleet itself, the Indian Air Force consisted of men who had just come out of World War II and were amongst the most competent, battle-hardened air warriors in this part of the world. And it remains one of those great mysteries why Pandit Nehru did not deploy the Air Force. His ostensible reason, which is publicly available, was that he feared that it would expand the conflict. An enemy is taking 38,000 sq km of land away from you and you’re fearing expanding the conflict, I don’t think the two things add up.
Today, we will fight hard for every square inch of land. But one of the most important things about this lack of air deployment and conceding of the land is this narrative leading up to 1962 which almost encouraged a country like China to take the land. In 1959, the Prime Minister said: Why are we fighting over this place where not even a blade of grass grows? Why should conflicts be fought for beautiful mountains? There was all this eloquent poetry when the focus should have been on national security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
Was Pandit Nehru misled by his defense minister, Krishna Menon? Was he misled by the Chinese? But there is no doubt that not deploying the Air Force cost us. And the cost was paid by all of those people who died.
Today, we are back to a military stand-off with China. In 1962, China was not a nuclear-armed state, not an economic power, not a military power. Most importantly, they didn’t have a collusive relationship with another nuclear power, Pakistan. In that sense today, are we facing a far bigger threat from China? How capable are we of handling this?
These several decades of India’s own posture of so-called strategic restraint — you come punch us and do a 26/11 terrorist attack and you can constantly play this card of strategic restraint as if the lives lost don’t mean anything to us, which is really another way of saying that we don’t have the guts to do anything — has emboldened some countries. You saw that in the case of Pakistan and China. If you have to deal with the bully, you have to at least make sure the bully knows there are consequences for their actions. Today’s India has come a long way from the India of 1962.
Countries that want to inflict damage on India, slow down India’s rise as an economic power, want to create some unrest, will have to deal with very determined 1.2 billion Indians who are today determined under Prime Minister Narendra Modi to protect themselves. The people of India have understood that the only guarantor for our economic growth and success is a strong security posture and the ability to defend ourselves, and the only people who snipe at the modernisation of our Armed Forces or our position vis a vis particular countries are people who have a vested interest in keeping India weak, akin to the strategic restraint strategy that we followed for 40-50 years.
On the subject of 26/11, you moved a Private Member’s Bill in the Parliament for Pakistan to be declared a terror state. Do you think that we erred in not pushing the line with the Pakistan military, which seems to have orchestrated the attack?
The cost and consequence of being a poorly behaved nation, an irresponsible army, was never something that was shown to Pakistan. They played this game for several decades of being the favourites of US in the US-Taliban conflict, then the favourites of the US in the US-Soviet Union conflict, the Cold War. And under that charade, they got away with a lot of irresponsible conduct, which is missile proliferation, nuclear proliferation, and terror. And as long as it was only India that was complaining about it, the world ignored it. But when the consequences started getting exported to countries in the Middle East, Europe, and the US, the world woke up.
Today, our approach to every country in our neighbourhood is very clear. We want to coexist in a peaceful manner. Our priority is to grow our nation. But countries like Pakistan, other countries who have made it their business to incite unrest will find that this is a very different India today than it has ever been in the history of independent India.
Do you see any parallels with the way India responded to the 1962 war as compared to how we responded to 26/11?
I think they were the same type of government. In 1962, Pandit Nehru was maybe deluded into believing that he was so loved by the Chinese that the Chinese would never invade him. And the Chinese broke that delusion very swiftly, with great consequence.
In 2008, we were again deluded into believing that as long as the Americans were there and as long as some Western countries gave us lip service, the Pakistanis would never launch terror attacks against India. And this publicly spoken, repeated strategy of strategic restraint, which the UPA government, the government during the 26/11 period, kept spouting only emboldened these elements. If a bully knows that the other person has publicly agreed to never hit back, then the bully is going to do what hewants.
The long story short is that India today is very different. I think Pulwama and Balakot have shown what our capabilities are. Modernisation of the armed forces has been rapid. And the capabilities of the domestic industry to create cutting-edge technologies such as drones, electronic warfare systems, sensors, and satellite technology means that India is a very different country today. We are prepared to safeguard what is ours.
How would you ask for justice for the victims of 26/11 from the Pakistan army, which clearly sponsored it?
In a lot of ways, I think the justice for victims of terror exported from Pakistan, including but not limited to 26/11, is to see where Pakistan finds itself as a nation today. They were a country that almost always wanted to be hyphenated with India for several years after independence. And today, forget about being a hyphen, they are not even a postscript or a footnote in the story of India. The best revenge, as I read in a book, sometimes to is be more successful than your enemy. And in the last nine years, the gap between the new India and what Pakistan is is known to everybody.
Beyond that, what other satisfaction can victims derive from Pakistan? They have the most discredited army in the world. For generals who have lost every war, who have lost half their nation, they certainly have more medals per general than any other general on the planet. If the Pakistani people could get rid of their army and chart their own course as whatever republic they want to be, they would be better off. But that is advice from us to them. They have to learn how to follow it and find their own future.