History, Howard Zinn once said, is an empty vessel and you can fill it in whatever way you can. There can be infinite meanings attached to what caused the war between India and China, but, what is the purpose for which we seek that meaning or understand the cause of what happened?

The purpose of asking this should be to seek answers that are relevant to us today. What lessons are to be learnt about leadership, about public opinion, about logistical and military preparedness, about narrowing differences, and about negotiation? How can we deduce a new history for the future?

History, any history, is about the book of life, as Samuel Eliot Morison once said. It is a jungle and a jumble of facts and impressions, and the history of the India-China relationship is no exception. In its early mid-20th century phase that relationship was a history of politics, of ideologies, of the disposition of leaders, and a history of war, the study of whose conclusions reminds us that it is we who are exactly mirrored in those events and decisions, for we have not as yet, distilled the import of those events.

That history has confined us in many ways, and if we are to build a secure future, we must untie our minds about it. Where does the curtain rise on our contemporary relationship with China? One is aware of the trope upon trope about Jawaharlal Nehru’s affair of the head and heart with China.

Nehru made his first trip to China in August 1939, a trip that had to be cut short before a planned meeting with Mao Zedong in Yan'an, because of the outbreak of World War II in September that year. It is one of the “what ifs” of the history of the India-China relationship as to what the trajectory of subsequent events might have been if Nehru had met Mao at that stage.

Be that as it may, Indian interest in China was growing significantly. Edgar Snow, writing in 1942, spoke of the broadening of the foundations of Indian nationalism with increasing admiration and esteem being expressed by Indians for the Chinese people in their struggle against Japanese invasion.

The Burma-Assam-China frontier, “so long a barrier to intercourse”, had “become a gateway, a center of struggle”, with Indians now feeling politically and spiritually wedded to China and being aware of “the mutual interdependence of their destiny”.

It is significant also that Nehru’s trip to Chungking was his first to the Far East. Mahatma Gandhi said of this new phenomenon of Indian interest in China, “Jawaharlal Nehru, whose love of China is only excelled, if at all, by his love of his own country, has kept us in intimate touch with the developments of the Chinese struggle.” Edgar Snow believed that “China has no more devoted friend alive – and hence neither has the cause of world freedom and brotherhood.”

In the years after 1947, friendship with China was one of the cornerstones of Nehruvian India’s foreign policy. It was only years later that China was to shake Nehru’s confidence, and as one writer put it, “mock his own dreams”.

Historian S Gopal writing on the subject, put it thus: “Nehru’s policy was founded on friendship with China, but China made clear, ‘when the time was ripe’, that there was no room in her outlook for friendship; and India was obliged to reformulate her policy.” India was among the first (second only to Burma) non-Communist nations to recognise the Government of the People’s Republic of China in December 1949.

Gopal notes how this was despite the fact that Chinese media mouthpieces described Nehru as an imperialist quisling. Nehru was determined to ignore this brusqueness and to befriend China. “Without necessarily agreeing with or supporting China in everything, he refused to line up against her in any way," he wrote.

Suggestions that India should replace China in the United Nations Security Council were rejected because India, "whatever her intrinsic claims to membership, had no wish to secure a seat at China’s expense."  When Chinese armies marched into Tibet in 1950, fragmenting historical geographies, and fracturing people-to-people contact in the India-China borderlands, the Indian government while stressing they had no political or territorial ambitions in Tibet urged that relations between China and Tibet should be “adjusted” through peaceful negotiations.

The Chinese response was accusatory. Nehru was realist enough not to be sanguine about these Chinese moves. Administrative steps were taken, for instance, to extend Indian administration in NEFA – now Arunachal Pradesh, particularly in the Tawang tract and, to properly structure and formulate India’s relations with Bhutan and Nepal, and to consolidate interests in Sikkim.

In Gopal’s analysis, in the early years after 1950, as China was consolidating her ascendancy in Tibet, she wished to strengthen her hand by securing India’s acceptance of her position. This led to the April 1954 Agreement on trade and intercourse between Tibet and India, in which India gave up all rights that “savoured” of extra-territoriality and recognised Tibet as a region of China. The Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence were enshrined in the preamble to this agreement.

Was it a folly, as many have suggested, for the Government of India not to have secured from China a formal recognition of the India-China boundary in return for recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet in 1954? Gopal thought otherwise. In his view, “There seemed at the time no reason to insist on such an explicit assurance.”

The boundary between Kashmir and Xinjiang and Tibet was traditional, had been shown on official Indian maps, and the Chinese, in his estimation, were obviously aware that this was regarded by India as a firm boundary.

Similarly in regard to the Middle and the Eastern Sectors, there should have been no doubt, as in the Middle Sector, the 1954 Agreement had specified as border passes six passes that “lay on the traditional watershed boundary”.

And, in regard to the Eastern Sector, or the boundary between Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet, as far back as November 20, 1950, Nehru had stated in Parliament that the McMahon Line “is our boundary – map or no map. That fact remains and we stand by that boundary and we will not allow anybody to come across that boundary."

As India saw it, the Chinese had raised no claim in regard to the Indian depictions of the boundary, and “far from doing so”, as Gopal observed, “had affirmed their respect for the territorial integrity of India.” But the historian in Gopal also understood China’s silence. Qing dynasty claims had been embraced by the People’s Government of China.

Gopal saw the People’s Republic “as intensely expansionist as any other in Chinese history; they only differed from their predecessors in bringing a new vigour to their policy and harnessing a new ideology in their service. ” When Nehru brought up the issue of an incorrect boundary alignment concerning India in Chinese maps with his hosts in October 1954 when visiting China, Premier Zhou Enlai said these maps were of little significance, being reproductions of old maps and that the People’s government had had no time to revise them.

Gopal’s view was that at the heart of the failure to disclose Chinese claims on Indian-claimed territory at this juncture was evidence of China’s having “no desire for long-term friendship” with India. By 1959, with the unfolding of the revolt in Tibet, the flight of the Dalai Lama to India and the proclamation of China’s territorial claims in Premier Zhou’s letter to the prime minister of January 23 1959, the Rubicon had been crossed.

Gopal defined it thus: “To China, India was no longer a useful friend in the Afro-Asian world but a rival; and, in addition, relations with India were entangled with China’s insecure position in Tibet and her differences with the Soviet Union."

This is Part 1 of the S Gopal Memorial Lecture at King's College, London, titled, The Politics of History: India and China – 1949-1962, delivered in May by Nirupama Rao, former Indian ambassador to the US and a fellow at the Watson Institute of International Studies, Brown University.