Exactly 55 years ago, a full-fledge war broke out between India and China. The Sino-India war began on October 20, 1962 when the People’s Liberation Army of China invaded Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh (then known as the North East Frontier Agency) in a synchronised move.
With a three-week ceasefire, the war lasted till November 21, when China unilaterally withdrew from Indian territories before the snow could block safe passage to its forces. Around 3,250 Indian soldiers were killed. India lost about 43,000 square kilometres of land, captured by China in Aksai Chin. It is of the size of Switzerland.
The 55th anniversary of the India-China war has a shadow of Doklam stand-off hovering over it. The anniversary is also significant in the view of the the CPC Congress, underway in China, where President Xi Jinping has emerged as the most powerful leader of the country in its history. He is said to be the first President of China to have effective control over its armed forces – not even Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping enjoyed unchallenged say over the PLA.
INDIA-CHINA RELATION BEFORE WAR
The Himalayas served as frontiers between India and its northern neighbours for centuries. But, with India inheriting boundary demarcations from the British and China being occupied by the Communist forces in late 1940s changed the equations on the ground.
After the annexation of Tibet by the PLA, China proclaimed that the entire Himalayan region was part of its sovereign territory. It refused to acknowledge the sanctity of the McMohan Line separating India from China in the east. It also laid claims on parts of Jammu and Kashmir. But, the two countries signed what is known as Panchsheel or Five Principles agreement.
The Panchsheel was enunciated in the preamble to the Agreement (with exchange of notes) on trade and intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India. It was signed at Peking on April 29, 1954.
On July 1, 1954, former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru stated in a note, “All our old maps dealing with the frontier should be carefully examined, and where necessary, withdrawn. New maps should be printed showing our northern and northeastern frontier without any reference to any ‘line’. These new maps should also not state there is any undemarcated.
“Both as flowing from our policy and as a consequence of our Agreement with China, this frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody,” Nehru added.
On the other hand, China’s official maps laid claims over Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. When countered about Chinese claims, the then Premier Zhou Enlai said that there were errors in those maps.
BEFORE ARMIES CAME FACE-TO-FACE
Having termed the territorial claims as “errors”, Zhou Enlai in 1956 said that China had no claims over India-controlled territories. However, soon, he stated that Aksai Chin was under Chinese control.
Two years later, in 1958, India officially stated that Aksai Chin was its territory. Meanwhile, a rebellion was brewing in over Tibet, where the PLA was busy crushing any voice against the Communist Party of China headed by Mao Zedong.
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and was given huge reception in India. The government decided to give him asylum. The Dalai Lama formed the Tibetan government in-exile in India.
The same year, Indian and Chinese forces clashed at several posts. Major armed engagements were reported from Longju in the eastern sector in August and at the Kongka Pass in the western sector in October, 1959.
While the relation between India and China was on the downslide over the questions of boundaries and the Dalai Lama, Zhou Enlai proposed a peace-deal asking India to forfeit its claim over Aksai Chin while China would give up its claim over Arunachal Pradesh in return.
Nehru rejected the proposal saying that China lacked legitimate claim over these territories. China responded with an allegation that India had “grand plans in Tibet”.
HOW 1962 WAR BEGAN
Alarmed at Chinese assertiveness, India launched its Forward Policy in 1961. Its objective was to create outposts behind advancing Chinese troops to cut supplies forcing them to retreat to north of the demarcated lines. Deployments were made at several posts.
Skirmishes continued throughout the first half of 1962. But, the Indian think tank was not fully convinced that China would go to war with India. They believed that China would engage in small skirmishes as it was not in a position to wage a full-fledged war.
Major General JS Dhillon, who later played a major role in 1965 war with Pakistan, had said in September 1962 that “a few rounds fired at the Chinese would cause them to run away”.
Finally, on October 20, 1962 China launched simultaneous attacks on Indian posts in Arunachal Pradesh and Ladakh. Its objective was to capture Chip Chap valley in the western sector and territories beyond Namka Chu river in the eastern sector.
CEASEFIRE AND END OF WAR
The Chinese forces made rapid advancement into Indian territories as the Indian Army was ill-prepared, poorly equipped and short in supplies. By October 24, Chinese troops were 15 km inside the Indian territories when Zhou Enlai shot off a letter to Nehru.
Zhou Enlai proposed ceasefire and offered a negotiated settlement. Enlai suggested that both India and China should disengage and withdraw their troops 20 km behind the present lines of actual control. Enlai proposed Chinese withdrawal in Arunachal Pradesh (NEFA) while suggesting that India and China should maintain status quo in Aksai Chin.
Zhou Enlai wrote another letter to Nehru making the same proposal. But, Nehru rejected the proposals saying that Chinese claim on Aksai Chin was illegal. Meanwhile, Soviet Union changed its stance from pro-India to say that the McMahon line was the notorious result of British imperialism. This is exactly China stated.
Parliament passed a resolution to “drive out the aggressors from the sacred soil of India.” Finally, on Nehru’s birthday – November 14, Sino-India war resumed. A week later, China declared unilateral ceasefire ending the war having occupied the Aksai Chin and withdrawn from the northeastern territories, where its forces had come down till Tezpur in Assam.
The 1962 war was jolt to India and Nehru. This led to reversal of defence policy of the country putting the Indian Army on the path of modernization. The greater emphasis on nuclear power and use of nuclear weapons became part of India’s defence policy.