October 20 marks 60 years to the day that the border war between India and China began, with the People’s Liberation Army attacking simultaneously in Chip Chap valley in Ladakh and in Namka Chu in NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh).

Like the safety warning etched on the rear-view mirrors of vehicles that “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear”, the border war is much closer today than the six-decade time gap seems to suggest. Events in Ladakh over the past 29 months, with the Indian failure to either reverse Chinese ingresses or restore the status quo ante of April 2020, have made the 1962 war of contemporary interest and relevance. It enables us to better understand the present even as we prepare for the future.

This is not to argue that both India and China are still the same as they were in 1962. Neither is today’s India the country that it was in 1962, nor is China; the world has also changed dramatically since. However, the myths of 1962 cast a dark shadow over the reality of 2022. Those shadows are most visible in the wrong lessons learnt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his establishment from the 1962 war, as they have been applied to the ongoing border crisis in Ladakh.

Silence from the top

The first among them is the denial of information to the larger public. While the top political leadership has largely maintained silence on the Ladakh crisis, the government has gone out of its way to block all questions and debate in parliament and parliamentary standing committee on Ladakh. There have been no official media briefings and journalists have not been allowed to report from eastern Ladakh. A concerted effort has been made to keep the border crisis, where 50,000 additional Indian soldiers are deployed in the harsh terrain of Ladakh for more than 29 months, completely under wraps and shielded from public scrutiny.

In contrast, whether through parliamentary debates, white papers, media reportage, press conferences or official briefings, Prime Minister Nehru led his government in making information about the border issue available to the country. On a first-time Rajya Sabha MP Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s request, Nehru himself participated in and answered the debate in Parliament while the war was on.

This was India functioning as a democracy accountable to the public, even though many observers saw this democratic endeavour as the cause of the war. Even the official history of the war by defence ministry notes, “Ignorant and vociferous media and opposition parties played a disastrous role in forcing a reluctant Nehru on a confrontation course.” The myth of too much democracy not being good for India continues to drive the actions of the current regime.

The second is the reluctance to assert Indian territorial claims in eastern Ladakh against an assertive China. Whether it is the creation of the “no patrol zones” largely on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control or a failure to undertake quid pro quo operations, the Indian side has displayed extreme caution, if not timidity, in physically establishing its claims in the contested areas. In the Nehru era, the assertion of Indian territorial claims in Ladakh was done by sending regular patrols and establishing forward outposts.

In largely uninhabited areas, it is those actions that helped vigorously display and formalise Indian claims. Because the military was unprepared for that strategy in 1962, the actions did not yield immediate results even as they are used by our diplomats during border negotiations. But this has led to a hesitation on the part of the current political leadership in undertaking any bold assertions of its claims on the border against China, particularly in Ladakh.

The third is the blame heaped on the Nehru government for meddling too much with the military. Historian Srinath Raghavan has shown that this persistent myth has little basis in truth and the political leadership needed to be more involved in the operational details during the war: “Nehru was aware of the dicta that war was a continuation of politics and that it was too serious a business to be left to the generals, but lost sight of their import.”

A political shield

During the current crisis, or even in earlier instances under Prime Minister Modi, the government has used the military as a political shield for its decisions. Military leaders are put out to defend political decisions and any questions about the government are portrayed as the questioning of the bravery of the Indian soldiers. The lesson that has been learnt is to avoid all scrutiny for political actions and avoid public accountability by firing the proverbial gun from the military’s shoulders.

The fourth is the global dimensions of the 1962 War. Nehru believed that the world, especially the superpowers, would not allow a war between India and China. But that was not to be the case. It now seems to the current dispensation that the rest of the world has no role to play in the Ladakh crisis, which must solely be dealt bilaterally.

This has been witnessed in the US officials being told by the government to not mention Chinese ingresses in Ladakh in any statement or briefings. This stance is partially driven by the desire to keep all information under wraps, lest it prove embarrassing to the macho image of Modi, but also reeks of a prickly defensiveness born out of low self-esteem. This is akin to the usual argument in conservative Indian families about keeping some embarrassing facts, however egregious, within the family.

The fifth and final lesson learnt by the Modi government is to be scared of a military conflict with China. The whole establishment seems to have internalised that India has no offensive military options against China, lest it leads to military escalation and greater kinetic engagement. It is witnessed in the political leadership’s unwillingness to use the military boldly in Ladakh, and instead deploying it in a purely defensive manner to prevent further loss of control of territory. The humiliating military loss six decades ago seems to have permanently scarred the minds of those taking decisions today.

In this understanding, it is forgotten that the 1962 war was a limited one with only four divisions of the Indian Army involved. The Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy were not even used in the conflict. It happened at the same time as the Cuban missile crisis, which left the world distracted. And even that military victory by China didn’t result in a permanent solution of the disputed border in Beijing’s favour.

The military debacle, however, marred the political reputation of Nehru in the subsequent years, with facts being distorted and myths being perpetuated to show him in a poor light. As Shivshankar Menon wrote, “It has been convenient for all concerned to blame Nehru for the war and the unsettled boundary with China. And Nehru, being Nehru, never publicly blamed anyone else for failures of policy.” The contrast with the silent evasiveness of the current political leadership stands out.

It is clear that 60 years later, the Sino-India war remains an unhealed wound in India. Driven by a faulty narrative, our memory of 1962 still affects Indian attitudes and responses to China. As witnessed in Ladakh, the wrong lessons learnt from that war have set the political context for the Modi government’s China policy. When it comes to 1962, what’s past may not be prologue. The myths of 1962 may illuminate the past but they cast a dark shadow on the realities of today.

Sushant Singh, Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research