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The elephant in the room

The 1962 China war is often described as a great betrayal, which it wasn't. In fact the two nations never regarded each other with the same measure of warmth, says Shruti Pandalai.

Five decades on and some scars still run deep. Sino-Indian relations today wear a garb of civility, progress and engagement. Yet, have we psychologically shed the baggage of the "great betrayal of 1962 ?"

Perhaps not for a generation that still remembers the war and carries one particular albatross: of balancing the need to constantly engage with China while recalling a bad bruising;one which stays alive even today, in the guise of an unresolved boundary dispute. But naturally, insecurity, mistrust and suspicion along with preconceived notions of the other have always played havoc with any progress made in this troubled relationship.

If one removed 1962 out of the equation, the fears perhaps would not be so exaggerated. The enduring legacy of 1962 is this cementing of perceptions on either side which manifests itself in the form of a clash of world views and national narratives. These are narratives often worded with phrases like "great betrayal", " Chinese expansionism" and "deception" on the Indian side, while Chinese editorials are sometimes laced with phrases on how "1962 taught India a lesson". The long aftertaste has clearly been bitter.

However, even during the best of times, the two countries viewed each other through very different ideological prisms: be it the relationship between their leaders Mao Zedong and Nehru, the understanding of the concept of national territories, or the prickly issue of Tibet. They never were really on the same page. An asymmetry in expectations and perceptions led to 1962, which is why calling it the great betrayal would be an incomplete assessment of historical facts.

Nehru, it is often said, died of a broken heart from 1962. He believed that Asian solidarity would empower the Third World to take on the superpowers and relentlessly pursued close relations with China. The Chinese in turn thought of him as "patronising", "arrogant" "a "stooge of the imperial powers" and a "self-appointed leader of the Third World". Indeed, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai's dislike for Nehru is well documented. Nehru also often emphasised the ancient historical ties between the two civilisations. This feeling too was not reciprocated in equal measure.

Yaacov Vertzberger's work - a perceptual analysis of the border conflict - describes how Indian culture was never really regarded as equal to that of China's. Cultural ties among equals do not exist in Chinesecentred thinking. So Mao and Zhou Enlai, never shared Nehru's perceptions of commonality of cultures and found much of what Nehru said rather insulting. A content analysis of this period has shown that while the Chinese never referred to India as a 'great culture', Nehru - in his speeches in parliament - referred to China as a 'great culture' in 17. 3 per cent of cases where China was the subject.

In fact, if one were to go back even further historically - to the very concepts and constructs of nation and territory - Chinese and Indian thinking have always differed markedly. The 'idea of India' as a geographical entity (in the modern sense, of nationhood) never really existed before the Raj, and was conceptualised for centuries on the basis of Indic understandings of "kingship" and affiliation, and plurality. Territorial consciousness came with colonisation, argue most scholars. Ancient China, on the other hand, created a territorial heartland and protected its periphery, thereby slowly expanding and consolidating a territorial state. This perhaps explains the diametric perceptions of both states on the issue of Tibet.

Sino-Indian specialist John Garver points out that historically both China and India see Tibet in their sphere of influence. The Indian nationalist narrative sees deep attachments with Tibet, both culturally and economically, since the lines of communication from the Upper Bramhaputra valley were more India-oriented than towards China, up until Mughal conquests. In contrast, the Chinese nationalist narrative elaborates on how Chinese empires adopted Tibetan Buddhism as their dynastic religion and developed a close relationship with the region. This "made Tibetans one of the 'nationalities' that have long been part of the Chinese state and today constitute the multiethnic, multi-national People's Republic of China. "

While these historic anecdotes only superficially tie together the cords of asymmetric historical perceptions, they did help shape judgements on both sides. Nehru thought giving up suzerainty over Tibet would mean China would respect Panchsheel and the defacto border. China thought that India had aggressive ambitions in Tibet, was playing stooge to the great powers and was not genuine in its deliberations. This cloud of misjudgments and misperceptions cost two nations a relationship and led to a brutal war.

50 years later these perceptions have manifested themselves as territorial claims on Arunachal, Chinese pressure on India's positions on Tibet and the Dalai Lama, fears of Chinese encirclement, the China-Pakistan "all-weather" friendship and India's need for China's validation of its rising clout. These more often than not have been polarised by media debates which often sound alarmist and influence public opinion. China dismisses the war, and many there still expresses views of India as a messy, politically chaotic democracy with unfounded great power aspirations. Yet there seems to be more interest in India since the Indo-US nuclear deal, if one goes by reports in the public domain.

It is perhaps time to move on from this great betrayal narrative in India. We need to carefully look at history and the cold facts it throws at us. Let's not fool ourselves into believing that there really was a golden period in Sino-Indian ties in the first place. Great betrayals happen when there is trust, or at least a convergence of ideas and beliefs. 1962 was a clear case of misjudgment, on both sides.

The writer is with IDSA, New Delhi

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