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Better Understanding



Dipankar Banerjee


The early morning sun attempted to peep out, but quickly gave up and hid behind the clouds. A blanket of snow covered the earth below my feet as I trudged slowly to the observation post. I was trying to familiarise myself with my company’s area of operations located physically closer to the gods than I would have liked. Soon I stood next to the sentry and through the bunker loopholes had my first fragmented view of China. It was somewhere in Sikkim in the mid 1960s. The vista was one of high mountains and rolling hills, as far as the eye could see. All was peaceful in a transcendental way. It was my tentative version of “looking at China”. This is how most Man military officers of my generation have looked at our northern neighbour over the years. In some ways I have been more fortunate than my colleagues Over the years I have looked at China from many directions and angles, from inside and outside. And have had the opportunity to share my views directly or indirectly with countless others in the military’s training institutions and other civilian academic and research establishments.

But on that day I could not but reflect that elsewhere on the same mountain where blood had flowed only a few years ago even though all was tranquil now. What is it that divides people and civilizations? Is it mere, hills and mountains? Formidable though they may seem, no physical barrier has ever separated people. Iron bars by themselves never made a prison. It must be something else. Perhaps it is a more intangible fear. A fear of the unknown leading to anxieties, uncertainties, and suspicion. That day I decided that I needed to break through this invisible barrier, for my own understanding.

The first step must necessarily be to “look at each other”. Not merely with our two open eyes, but also with our inner eye. The eye that provides a deeper view and a degree of understanding. How have we looked at each other? What have we seen? What have we understood? An honest examination of these and other questions can help us to know better, what in military terms is referred to as the side across the hill.

Officers of my generation were deeply affected by the India-China war. In a way it was intensely emotional. And of course it changed our lives totally in many substantial ways Twentieth October 1962 was a defining moment. A question we often asked each other was where we were on that fateful day? I was far from any scene of action. Less than ten per cent of the Indian Army came into contact with the Chinese forces and I was not amongst them. I was alone commanding a remote post in Jammu & Kashmir. The world came to me only through a portable transistor radio, a proud personal possession and an inseparable companion. What we heard that day made a deep impact on every one of us. The overwhelming feeling was one of betrayal. Not merely by China, but our own leaders who had unknowingly and, we thought criminally, led us up a path from where there was to be no return. For many of our close comrades of several years, it was indeed to be the end of the road.

It is important to understand the depth of our feelings and our hurt. Well over three decades have past since then. The bitterness has gone and time has healed many wounds. But suspicion still lingers. How far can we go in normalising relations with our northern neighbour? What lies ahead along the road that we need to travel together> Can we proceed confidently trusting each other? Many layers of mistrust perhaps still remain to be removed, step by step.  A processs has indeed begun over several years, but  we have many miles to go.

The aftermath of the 1962 War was significant. Official interactions between India and China remained frozen.  Ambassadors were withdrawn, though diplomatic relations continued at a low key.  Encouraged by our estrangement and helped greatly by the resultant improvement in their bilateral relation, Pakistan initiated two wars against us. The 9165 War was a blatant attempt at exploiting the perceived weakness of the Indian military, Field Marshal Ayub Khan apparently discussed the strategy with Zhou Enlai. The latter saw through the fundamental weakness of the plan and did not encourage its pursuance. However, he did little to dissuade lslamabad either. The September War was a severe set-back for Pakistan, even though it had the advantage of first strike.

China provided all manner of diplomatic and political support, including accepting Pakistan’s position of plebiscite over Kashmir. But it refrained from any military assistance. We in the military, however, felt sure that without China’s tacit support and promise of diversionary efforts, Pakistan would hardly attempt a war as major as this. Most of us did not follow the diplomatic maneuverings behind the scene. For in March 1965 when Ayub visited Beijing he did not receive the categorical assurance that he hoped. Even Marshal Chen Yi. whose position in 1962 was strongly anti-India, did not provide anything more than fulsome expression of Chinese friendship. When the Chinese ultimatum came on 17 September, I was in command of a company with my battalion in the Sialkot Sector. Beijing demanded dismantling within three days all “aggressive military works” in Sikkim. To be sure the warning was late in coming and was in no way as threatening as it might have been. But to most of us still involved in the war with Pakistan it was a reminder of the continuing strategic relationship between the two countries. We were of course prepared for any eventuality this time. But were then not sophisticated enough to realise that this statement was at best a face saving gesture on the part of Beijing. Neither global conditions, nor internal situation within China were conducive to direct involvement.

The mid-60s were a turbulent era for India. Amidst political uncertainty in the country there emerged left extremist movements in many parts of eastern India and insurgencies in the northeast. All of us who ware involved with these internal security operations realised the degree of Chinese influence over many of them. While in some cases these were only ideological, in the northeast there was overt Chinese involvement. The malaise of course lay mainly within. As these conditions were dealt with effectively the internal situation improved. Not in the northeast though, where China’s support till the late 1970s was a major factor for continuing instability.

The next war with Pakistan in 1971 was a result of internal contradictions in that country, but with major consequences for India. The oppressed East Pakistan finally exercised its political right through the ballot. But this was not acceptable to a power-crazy elite in lslamabad led by the Army. The subsequent brutal military crackdown led to one of the major holocaust of this century and a demographic invasion of India in the east. This transformed what might have been an internal question for Pakistan into one of external aggression of India. The inevitable war in December was started by an air bombardment by Pakistan in the west. Chinese position in the conflict was of concern to India. As early as April 1971 Zhou Enlai expressed steadfast commitment to Pakistan’s territorial integrity and expressed the view that the situation in East Pakistan was an internal matter for Pakistan. The “secessionists” were termed a mere handful of individuals, rather than what they actually were, a majority in the nation.

Ultimately China did nothing in tangible terms. Though it continued to express solidarity with Pakistan in the United Nations Security Council. A number of developments, such as the Sine-Soviet clash on the Ussuri River two years earlier, emerging Sino-US detente and the after-effects of the Cultural Revolution, may all have contributed to this restraint. Besides, winter ensured that passes remained blocked in the north. We were by now also more aware of China’s limitations. Still the friendship treaty with Russia came as a welcome reassurance. No strategic planner in India could look with equanimity at a two-front war. These fears were to be compounded by the opening of the Karakoram Highway in 1978 which provided for the first time a direct usable road-link between China and Pakistan. Its strategic implications were indeed far too obvious.

None of us really understood the internal dynamics of China’s transition and the political convulsions of the last years of Mao’s rule. Even serious China scholars were somewhat ignorant of the implications of these developments. Else we would have known the many contradictions within China. Beijing has yet to come to terms with this era in its recent history. Just as India needs to closely examine many issues relating to its China policy in the 1950s and 60s. Beijing also needs to do the same for the same period.

The next time I personally came face to face with China again, was in the mid 1970s in Arunachal Pradesh. It fell on me to study in detail the Chinese offensive in that sector in 1962, as part of a small team of selected officers. Meticulous research revealed many aspects of the conduct of these operations which till then were somewhat hazy We expanded our search to include the wider dimension of understanding China’s strategic thoughts. One appreciated the manner in which the People’s Liberation Any (PLA) had imbibed the teachings of Sunzi and other military strategists of ancient times. Blending these with modern military thinking of Zhu De and Mao it evolved a military strategy with Chinese characteristics, further modified to suit the needs of modern war. The professionalism of the PLA stood out. Also their determination and the long and meticulous preparation for the conflict. With understanding came respect. But by the midi1970s we were a much self-assured Army and entirely confident of our ability to handle any contingency.

One incident during this time stood out and remains imbedded in my memory. It was the Tulung La incident of September 1974. A small detachment of the Assam Rifles while on a routine border patrol, well south of the watershed and clearly within the Line of Actual Control, was ambushed and savagely killed. This was quite pointless and utterly unnecessary by the accepted concepts of border domination, Yet, about five years later a larger Indian patrol in Sikkim when it strayed across the Line on a misty day was treated with utmost civility and returned in very good order.

I had other Occasions to look at China across the border, in areas as diverse as Bhutan and Ladakh. They provided sharp contrasts and some similarities. Both areas had Buddhist populations astride the Line. There had been much to and fro throughout history. Cutting-off contacts since 1962 have harmed the people on both sides greatly. Artificial boundaries have kept the people apart, The earlier route from India to Bhutan lay through Yatung in Tibet. Now it had to follow a much longer and more difficult way. Flying by helicopter along much of these borders one was always struck by the fact that seen from high boundaries drawn by man were indistinguishable. The land looked the same whether in Tibet or India. Standing on the observation post at Demchok, one could on a clear day look west for two hundred kilometres and east for another six hundred. Mansarovar beckoned in the distance, holy to all Hindus and in recent years much frequented by pilgrims.

For the first thirty years of my army career I saw no Chinese soldier except at some distance and often through the lens of a binocular. But I had experienced the loud sound Masts of powerful speakers across the mountain passes in Sikkim that both sides inflicted on each other with telling effect. It was meant to be propaganda. The only effect it has was on our ear drums, but that was severe enough even at some distance. It was one dimension of surreal ‘looking” that I could surely have done without.

An enormous gap persisted in our thinking on China. Officers of my generation learnt about it from popular fiction, vague ideas of the past and in recent years from media reports that confront one born every other international journal. This view is not real. No second hand perception can ever replace personal experience. Especially in the case of China which attracts such widely divergent and often partisan views. Yet, reportage such as this provides a strong impression and often colours our thinking. This is particularly true of the military whose direct access to foreign countries is especially restricted. It was only after the restoration of Ambassadorial relations in 1976 and the beginning of the Deng Xiaoping era two years later that it was possible to resume direct people-to-people contacts. But even then the Armed Forces remained out of it. Contact between the Indian Armed Forces and the PLA was resumed only in 1990.

Major General Fu Jiaping was an apt emissary from the Middle Kingdom. A pleasant well mannered gentleman more in the mould of a Confucian scholar, he usually wore a disarming smile. He was the first Chinese general to visit India in a long while and also the first whom I met at close quarters. Director of the Foreign Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Defense, one of his responsibilities was foreign military relations. I clearly remember the reception for him at the Army Mess at Delhi. His speech made a major impact on me. Swinging his right hand on a vertical plane to emphasise his point, he said that the PLA would never attack India across the mountains. He repeated that his superiors had asked him to convey this very clearly, that the PLA would never launch an offensive against India.

Six months later I was a member of a two men delegation from the Indian Army to visit China at the invitation of the PLA. This was the first visit from India after a gap of 34 years. It was memorable in many respects. It at last enabled me to actually “look at China” and in particular the PLA, totally unfettered and without blinkers. General Fu Jiaping received us at the airport and immediately made us at ease. There were many memorable moments during the visit and looking back it is not easy to highlight any out of several substantial features, one of them was our discussions with Major General Xiong, a sharp and highly competent professional soldier. General Xu Xin received us for a formal meeting. He was then the First Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the PLA. My first visit to the National Defence University and first discussion with my friend Major General Cheng Mingchun, the head of the Strategic Studies Department. His clear thinking, eloquent expression and a warm sense of humour always made our discussions a special delight. Then there were our visits to the Command and General Staff College at Naming and a day spent with the 54 infantry Division.

But without doubt what made the most impact on me was the spontaneous and warm hospitality that we had received everywhere. There were no reservations, no want of sincerity and nothing artificial about the way we were treated. A phrase that featured repeatedly was that, there were five thousand reasons why China and India should be friends and not even one why we should be enemies, The visit itself was totally open. We were explained the conduct of computer war games at the Staff College against an imaginary enemy. And on a field firing range, in the divisional area, its complete fire power and its other major warlike tasks were demonstrated in seventeen separate activities.

My next visit to China was two years later. It was when I led a delegation of the institute for Defence Studies and Analyses for a bilateral dialogue with the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. This time my meetings were entirely with various research institutes at Beijing, Chengdu and Kunming. It also allowed me to renew my acquaintance with friends made earlier and meet many officials dealing with policy towards India. We exchanged ideas freely and frankly on a whole range of issues of interest as well as concern. Our discussions were conducted with frankness and goodwill.

This visit also enabled me to see a little more of the country We could experience the enormous progress that was taking place all round. The large numbers of buildings and roads under construction, ports being developed, industries sprouting everywhere. The countryside was humming with activity as well, with light industries and agriculture booming in the new environment. We also experienced the rich heritage of the nation and its history, that flowed in a continuum for over 6,000 years. Only by my visit could I appreciate that this rapid progress and improvement in material living of well over a billion poeple could not be held hostage by the threat of, or even worse, the outbreak of conflict.

My last visit was in mid-1999 I was a member of a high level delegation from India. A two-day seminar addressed the possibilities of bilateral cooperation between our two countries in a whole range of areas. Our Chinese hosts brought together senior officials who had dealt with India past and present. Senior Indologists, officials, former Ambassadors and scholars from many institutes gathered together. We were entirely of one mind that the future held many possibilities. In the interest of our two countries and prosperity in Asia and the world, it was incumbent on us to find modalities for cooperation. We frankly discussed these possibilities. We bared out all our doubts and none lay hidden under the carpet. We decided to resolve all problems that we could and set aside the thorny ones, so that they did not interfere with the many opportunities that lay ahead.

Many others from the Indian Armed Forces have visited China in the last five years. One delegation was led by the Defence Minister Sharad Pawar, and another by the Chief of the Army Staff, General SC. Joshi. Finally, Admiral Shekhawat, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited in 1996. The Indian National Defence College has been sending a delegation every alternate year since 1990. As these visits have intensified so is the range of understanding expanded. Today there are a fairly significant number of military officers who can grasp with China much beyond the view from the Observation bunker.

There are many officers from the PLA who have also had opportunity to “look at India”. General Xu Huaizi, the First Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the PLA, came to India. I was impressed with his vast operational experience. Currently he

heads tine Academy of Military Sciences, a major think tank of the PLA. Next was General Chi Haotian the Defence Minister. A very distinguished soldier, he had a very sharp appearance and a fine bearing. A senior delegation from the National Defence University, a high level Air Force delegation and a senior team of officers from the Chengdu Military Region were among the others.

Slowly the barriers have fallen and earlier suspicions are beginning to give way. A perspective for cooperation is developing on both sides albeit among a minority of officers. There is obviously a need to widen our ability to “look at each other”.

I am often called to lecture on China either at formal courses of instruction spread across the country to officers whose commissioned service range from 5 to 30 years or, military formations during their study periods. The former study China as a part of their larger area studies or professional curriculum. The latter are often merely interested observers. I have tried to gauge how they lode at China.

Younger officers between 5-15 years of service and below 35 years of age have a distinctly different view than their more senior colleagues, Younger officers are more detached and perhaps a shade more objective. They have no hang-ups and do not carry the baggage of the past. In particular, there is an admiration for China and its recent economic progress. They appreciate China’s firm nationalistic stand on international issues. Chinese sportsmen and their performance around the globe also attract them. In general there is a desire to know more about that country. Of course they too have many serious concerns. Amongst the older generation, especially those bred in the Army of the 1960s there is a clear difference. These are the officers in the highest rung of decision-making and who will remain there for some time in the future. Most of them vividly recall the relations immediately prior to the 1962 War and the conflict itself. There is great wariness regarding China and its future intentions. The defence budget of the PLA is carefully noted. Its growing military capability and its force projection ability, limited though they actually are, is often exaggerated. Both capabilities and intentions are scrutinised and discussed. Finally, there is always a doubt about the willingness of Beijing to resolve the border question.

I attempt to put across in as objective a manner as I possibly can, based on what I have seen and studied and tried my best to convey what I have “looked” and found personally from my visits and understandings. It is not easy. Some misgivings and suspicion are too deep-rooted to overcome. Barriers once erected by emotion cannot be crossed through logic. Yet, I always become wiser through such interactions.

My Chinese friends too have raised a number of issues with me. These reflect of course the views of a small group of research scholars and experts to whom I have had access. I am particularly struck by the total absence of the burden of the past in their thinking. Their perception of the events of the late 1950s and early 60s is vague and ill-informed. They are overwhelmed by so many profound developments within China that the Sino-Indian conflict is out of their minds. They view it only as a minor incident of an earlier era but put blame squarely on Indian irrationality. The unprovoked attack by the PLA on India is termed as a “self defence counter-attack” and entirely justified. They are totally oblivious of the psychological hurt that the Indians felt over the entire episode. Such a perspective has its own problems and hampers understanding.

We need to reconsider the whole question of threat perception. It has not yet been fully accepted in India that in today’s world assessing military threats to a nation is not the best way of planning for national security. Today the approach has to be more sophisticated. The objective has to be rooted more firmly on enhancing national interests, and defending the core values of a nation with a greater orientation towards economic issues. The emphasis must be to enrich the population and rescue them from poverty and ill health. Our long-term goal is to ensure the nation’s respectable place in the comity of nations as a stable polity and a strong economic power. In the last nearly two decades China has been more purposive and determined than India in this respect.

Therefore, it is wise to refrain from considering a nation or even a group of nations as a threat, unless there is a possibility of a near term hostile intention. This is pragamatism. Over exaggerated threat perceptions may be good secret military contingency planning but a misguided self fulfilling calculation. This is precisely what any sane strategic planner must avoid.

With a right perspective, let us consider the outstanding problems that agitate the minds of both sides. From the Chinese perspective the only thorn is the problem of Tibet and Dalai Lama. An underpopulated peripheral deeply religious province, its possibility of secession from the mainland is one of the worst case scenarios that must be of serious concern to any responsible person in China. For it also has the potential to unravel the state. In the absence of democratic institutions to cushion popular discontent it is a matter of concern.

From the Indian viewpoint the litany is long. The unresolved border, past support to ethnic insurgencies, China’s large stockpile of intermediate range nuclear weapons that may only target countries on its periphery, its high defence expenditure and political and military support to India’s neighbours, are some of them. While articulating these concerns the positive developments are usually overlooked. There is an agreement to maintain peace, and tranquillity on the borders! Support to insurgents stopped in 1978. China’s nuclear policy of no first strike, no use against non-nuclear powers, positive and negative security assurances and willingness to eliminate nuclear weapons if all states did the same are discounted. There can be many views on China’s defence expenditure and in any case it is really not excessive for a country of China’s size and length of borders. A case that India itself often makes in justifying its own defence spending. That leaves the question of China’s support to India’s neighbours, especially Pakistan, very high amongst India’s concerns.

It is not the objective here to discuss the merits of these issues. It is really a question of perception and how one views these situations.

Today we are coming to the end of a millennium and entering the threshold of another. There is a whole era that has passed. A new epoch is begining. This is a juncture of opportunity though also of challenge. Our aim must be to set our ayes on the new millennium and strive for a better world for all our citizens. In this interdependent world and fast shrinking spaces and distanced narrow mindsets and frog-in-the-well views are out of order. We in India are looking east -- a east that has entered a dynamic period of growth and opportunity. To shape any role in the area we have to establish a relationship of cooperation with all its members. China is surely the most important of them.

It is in this way that we must address our relationship with China. But to do that with effect and impact we must understand China. It is in developing this process of understanding that we must first learn to “loo4 at each other” and share our experiences with each other.

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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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Published in 1998 by 

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