On 13 June 1962, Hem Barua, legendary poet, politician and Praja Socialist Party member of Parliament, representing Mangaldoi constituency in Assam, asked a pointed question to the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on “whether the implementation, the unilateral implementation of the Panch Sheel ethics, is possible against background of this sort…” that is of China’s aggressive behaviour against India on the Ladakh front. Nehru replied, in his characteristic manner, that “Panch Sheel is civilised behaviour” and riposted on whether Barua wanted the Indian government to “say that we will not follow civilised behaviour because somebody else does not do so?”
Barua persisted. “I said ‘unilateral implementation’. Is it possible”, he asked. Nehru, continuously assailed by the triumvirate of Barua, H.V. Kamath and Nath Pai, blew his top, “What does implementation of civilised behaviour mean? To the extent implementation of civilised behaviour is possible, we will do it. Whether the other party does it or not. It has nothing to with the defence or non-defence. Defence is looked upon from the point of view of defence.” Barua’s stoic and cryptic answer to Nehru’s long-winding philosophising on whether Panchseel was based on nonreciprocity, was simply, that “It is ethically all right, but, in practice, it does not yield results.” By October 1962, as his “heart went out to the people of Assam”, Nehru would realise the futility of a hollow Panchsheel. His obstinate promotion of a concept which had no takers among the Chinese but saw him repeatedly speak of “civilised behaviour”, went up in smoke, the shock when it came was rather rude.
Kamath and the irrepressible Nath Pai had raised a very crucial issue, to do with the Chinese incursion and troop movement from Sinkiang using the Aksai Chin highway. Pai had given a precise input on the floor of the House, that there was information that the “Chinese defence forces or, rather, aggressive forces are logistically so placed that they have a definite advantage over us and they are in a position to haul their lighter weapons from their bases in Sinkiang through the Aksai Chin road.” Krishna Menon dismissively replied that news “about military equipment on the Himalayas, are not based on facts” and Nehru launched into a broadside on the efficacy of Panchsheel. Each time the triumvirate of Pai, Kamath, Barua asked Nehru on whether India’s defence preparedness was on track, he called them “warmongers”.
Barua described Nehru’s attitude best when he said that those who were asking for greater defence preparedness were not warmongers but were instead, “interested in defending the morale of this country, defending the boundaries of this country and if a call comes tomorrow, we shall be the first to go to the battlefield with guns in our hands… I said that by the very policy of weakness that the Prime Minister or the Government is following towards China we are made to look like lambs.”
A good 12 years before this debate, when the provisional Parliament discussed the international situation for the first time, on 6 December 1950, two very able Parliamentarian and prescient statesmen had called for focusing on India’s defence and strategic interest. N.G. Ranga, for instance, asked what preparation was being made in the country, “This peace can be made sound, strong and stable only when we are in a position to make ourselves strong strategically as well as industrially, when we are in a position to know our friends and develop that friendship as strongly and as sincerely as we possibly can, even if we cannot cement that friendship by formal political treaties or alliance or liaison.”
Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, extensively participating in the discussion argued: “The doctrine for which India has stood has been the doctrine of live and let live. At the same time, if the danger signal comes, if the red signal comes, what is it that India will do? Suppose the Himalayas, which were considered to be impregnable, that huge border covering 2,000 miles for which no separate precaution or defence was thought to be necessary, but which has suddenly become an important frontier, happen to be the line through which there is penetration or infiltration into India, how is India going to defend herself? Today two things are vitally necessary. We have to strengthen our military position and if we cannot do it alone, we shall have to do it in collaboration with others with whom we can stand on a common platform in defence of a common ideology…”
Yet, Nehru followed a deliberate policy of neglect of our border defences. For all his grandstanding on leading the Third World to liberation, when it came to China, he exuded submissiveness and resorted to delaying while articulating India’s positions or looked the other way when China nibbled away at Indian territory. His understanding of defence matters was shaped by his confusing philosophical formulations that he indulged in on most occasions. Sometime in 1955, Nehru was of the clear opinion that “the proper way to consider defence is to begin to forget the military aspect. Defence is considered far too much in military terms.” Sometime in 1958, when asked on possibilities of aggression and India’s defence preparedness, Nehru “had asserted that the nation had the spirit to defend itself by lathis and stones if need be; therefore I am not afraid of anybody invading India from any quarter.”
Replying to an intense discussion on a motion on India-China relation on 27 November 1959, Nehru poured scorn on Dr Ram Subhag Singh, Congress Member of Parliament, from Sasaram, who had suggested that a proactive industrialisation drive be undertaken in NEFA and Ladakh regions. “Some suggestions made”, said Nehru, rather surprised him, he could be caustic against those who had foresight and spoke intelligently, “Dr Ram Subhag Singh said that we should industrialise NEFA, the Ladakh area and – where else? It is a noble ambition of Dr Ram Subhag Singh. But before we do that we have to think of the little country of India also. We have to deal with and industrialise it. We might concentrate on industrialising India first before we go across the Himalayas for that purpose. It shows the enthusiasm of our hon. colleagues here in this Parliament, but it also shows that in their enthusiasm they sometimes overshoot the mark and that is not helpful.”
Nehru’s reply, thus, was astounding. Singh had made the right point, he was strategically prescient. Had the frontier areas and Ladakh seen a massive development drive, India’s borders would have been secured long back, and yet Nehru heckled him. What was also surprising was that he considered NEFA and Ladakh as separate from India and strangely spoke of concentrating on industrialising India first.
“Undeveloped borders are safer than developed borders. So, for many years, there was no construction of roads or airfields on the border areas,” admitted A.K. Antony, Defence Minister in Manmohan Singh’s government. Antony’s government was following the Nehru line, they had not deviated from that fundamental position.
In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke, among other things, the Nehruvian Consensus on how India’s borders must be defended. Modi’s sledgehammer blow on that debilitating consensus has unnerved India’s adversaries both within and outside the country. The writer is Director, Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation, New Delhi.