Nehru’s neutral game
October and November 1962 were unforgettable months for those who lived through that era. On October 20, the Chinese crossed the Namka Chu and disseminated a brigade of the Indian Army. A month later, on November 19-20, they crossed the high mountain passes and came to the foothills of ranges on the north bank of the Brahmaputra river. It was the gravest moment in India’s post-Independence history.
In that grave situation Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote two letters to US President John F. Kennedy that Inder Malhotra has published in the Indian Express (Letters from the darkest hour, November 17, 2010). Strategic analyst K. Subrahmanyam, in an article in the same publication next day, has described how there was subtle shift in Nehru’s foreign policy as seen in those letters.
On the morning of November 21, 1962, Yashwantrao Chavan was sworn-in as defence minister in place of V.K. Krishna Menon. As his private secretary, I was shown the latest telegrams. There was one to President Kennedy that stated: “In this hour of crisis, when we are engaged in resisting this aggression, we are confident that we shall have your sympathy and support…”
President Kennedy assured Nehru of his support and sympathy where he suggested: “This is a practical matter and, if you wish, my ambassador in New Delhi can discuss with you and the officials of your government what we can do to translate our support into terms that are practically most useful to you as soon as possible”.
Almost within 24 hours, in response to the Prime Minister’s request, United States diplomatic and military missions started arriving in Delhi. There was such a flurry of activity in the defence and foreign ministries that anything that was offered was gratefully accepted. Early in February 1963, a 15-man air defence mission arrived. They inspected air bases and some radar stations and installations in Assam and Kolkata. Very soon reports started appearing in the foreign press about the provision of a radar belt along the 2,000-mile Himalayan frontier to give India protection against Chinese aircraft, should cities and vital installations be threatened.
As a consequence, when in mid-November US supersonic planes flying over 10,000 miles landed in New Delhi there was another controversy about whether India and the US had entered a joint defence agreement. As anticipated, there was much agitated discussion and questions were raised in Parliament. Nehru openly rejected the concept of the “air umbrella”.
We in the defence ministry carefully studied Nehru’s statement and the various press reports. While Nehru had no intention of asking for a Western air umbrella, he had deftly side stepped answering whether he had at all asked for such an “air umbrella” in the past. Now we know from his second letter how precisely Nehru’s request was worded.
Over the next two years that I spent in the defence ministry no one mentioned the letters of November 19, till the matter suddenly came to the fore one day on a question in March, 1965. Sudhir Ghosh MP, speaking on non-alignment and our policy towards China, mentioned that while our policy vis-à-vis America and Russia was correct, it was dangerous to follow the same between America and China. In that context Ghosh mentioned how in the hour of our peril in 1962 even Pandit Nehru, the apostle of non-alignment, had solicited American air intervention and a US aircraft carrier was in the waters of the Bay of Bengal.
There was much agitated talk in Parliament about the veracity of that statement and Ghosh was accused of damaging the “image” of a great man, and of casting a slur on the fair name of India. The Communists and their allies asked Lal Bahadur Shastri, the then Prime Minister, to explain whether Nehru had indeed made such a request.
According to Shastri, the statement was incorrect and he would have to say so in Parliament. Ghosh was greatly upset and requested Shastri to make an effort to seek confirmation from the American ambassador, Chester Bowles. If he refuted the statement, Ghosh would resign from his seat in Parliament.
Accordingly, foreign secretary C.S. Jha got in touch with Chester Bowles who in turn sent the counsellor in the US embassy to meet Jha. The foreign secretary was informed that the US government did have the document (Nehru’s appeal to President Kennedy for air protection), but it could be produced if the Government of India so wished. Apparently on learning this, and knowing that any continuation of this controversy would further damage Indo-US relations, Shastri decided not to pursue the matter. Shastri made a statement denying that any request for an aircraft carrier was made or that any such a carrier was in the Bay of Bengal at the time.
Prime Minister Shastri’s statement made Ghosh very unhappy. Nehru had done no wrong in asking for an “air umbrella” and Ghosh’s main aim was to illustrate that when India’s territorial integrity was at stake, even Nehru, the apostle of non-alignment, had not hesitated to seek special air protection from the Americans. He felt that Shastri had told a half-truth.
Now that the letters have been published, a question begs explanation: Whether in November 1962 Nehru was ready to give up non-alignment? At that time it was presumed that the Prime Minister was almost willing to give up non-alignment, if necessary, to fight the Chinese. This presumption was not totally misplaced and is now confirmed by the two letters.
In October and November 1962, not many were aware that the Soviet Union’s relations with the People’s Republic of China were undergoing a change. A chasm was invisibly developing between the two Communist giants. Apparently Pandit Nehru, with his perception of international relations, had sensed the new developments. His two letters indicate that a practical Nehru was moving towards what is described as bi-alignment, with the US and the Soviets. They also help us understand Nehru’s contribution in the right perspective. For Nehru, as K. Subrahmanyam said in his article, non-alignment was a strategic foreign policy option.
R.D. Pradhan is a former governor of Arunachal Pradesh