Book Review: JFK’S FORGOTTEN CRISIS: Tibet. The CIA. And the Sino-Indian War / Bruce Riedel / Harper Collins India
The complex tale of the evolution of India-USA relations is well known. But the close tango by the two for a brief period in 1962 is little known and seldom told. Ever since its birth as a communist state, China and the USA had an intensely adversarial relationship. India’s choice of remaining uncommitted during the age of Containment and Cold War, and Pakistan’s geography making it a frontline state and political choice of becoming a Cold War partisan, largely shaped Indo-American relations, as they do even now.
In 1950 China entered the Korean War against the US led UN forged alliance, a war that cost the US almost 34000 combat deaths. North Koreans and their Chinese allies together lost over 1.5 million, but it was still considered a Chinese victory. It will be worth remembering that India sent a military medical unit to Korea to serve with the UN forces. India nevertheless served as a conduit between Communist China and the USA that helped them come to the table at Panmunjom to end the Korean War. The USA had also conveyed its threat to use atomic weapons should the PLA continue with its offensive via India.
India and China were never neighbors. India’s northern neighbors were always Tibet and Xinjiang. These two territories have a long history of being alternately under China’s over-lordship and free. In 1947, when India became independent, both these nations were enjoying freedom from China. Xinjiang was an independent Soviet Republic under Russia, and Tibet was enjoying full political freedom.
In 1913 the Tibetans declared independence after the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of a Republic in China under Sun Yat Sen. They attacked and drove the Chinese garrisons in Tibet into India over the Nathu La. Also in 1913 the British convened the Simla Conference to demarcate the India-Tibet border. The British proposed the 1914 McMahon Line, as we know it. The Tibetans accepted it. The Chinese Amban however initialed the agreement under protest.
At the crux of India-China conflict or rivalry is the larger question of the national identities of the two nations and when and how they evolved. The Imperial India of the Mughals spanned from Afghanistan to Bengal but did not go very much below the Godavari in the south or Brahmaputra in the east. The Imperial India of the British incorporated all of today’s India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but had not Afghanistan, not for want of trying.
Despite the Simla Agreement of 1913, it was only in 1935, at the insistence of Sir Olaf Caroe ICS, then Deputy Secretary in the Foreign Department, the McMahon Line was notified. There was a hiatus again for it was only in 1944 that JP Mills ICS established British Indian administration in NEFA, but excluding Tawang. Tawang continued to be administered by the Lhasa appointed head lama at Tawang despite the fact that it lay well below the McMahon Line. This was largely because Henry Twynam, the Governor of Assam lost his nerve and did not want to provoke the Tibetans. In 1947 the Dalai Lama (the same gentleman who is now in Dharamsala) sent the newly independent India a note laying claim to some districts in NEFA/Arunachal, including Tawang.
On October 7, 1950 the Chinese attacked the Tibetans at seven places on their frontier and made known their intention of reasserting control over all of Tibet. As if in response, on February 16, 1951 Major Relangnao ‘Bob’ Khating IFAS raised the Indian tricolor in Tawang and took over the administration of the tract.
The point of this narration is to bring home the fact that India’s claim over Arunachal Pradesh doesn’t rest on any great historical tradition or cultural affinity. We are there because the British went there. But then the Chinese have no basis whatsoever to stake a claim, besides a few dreamy cartographic enlargements of the notion of China among some of the hangers-on in the Qing emperor’s court.
After independence the relationship between the US and India was cold and often thorny due to the USA’s Containment policy that sought active participation of Communist country neighbors in their ring fencing. Pakistan with its eye on India happily became a length of this ring fence. India-USA relations further soured with India actively and stridently espousing “Non-Alignment.” American officials perceived India’s policy of non-alignment negatively. US Ambassador Henry F. Grady told Jawaharlal Nehru that the United States did not consider neutrality to be an acceptable position.
Nehru also rejected American suggestions for resolving the Kashmir crisis. India also rejected the American advice that it not recognize the Communist regime in China. India in the meantime established a warm relationship, or so it thought, with Maoist China. Using that as a footstool India tried to climb up into global diplomacy by acting as an honest broker to help end that war. India was also loud in its advocacy of China’s immediate membership in the United Nations and taking a seat on the Security Council instead of the Kuomintang led Republic of China.
But in 1959, the long festering Sino-Indian border dispute sprang into the open when the Dalai Lama once again sought refuge in India. The Chinese saw it as yet another proof of India’s inimicality towards it. There were other things happening that further convinced the Chinese of this. In 1950 the CIA office in Calcutta established a link with the Dalai Lama’s older brother, Thupten Norbu. The USA was keen to use Tibet to open up another front against China. Which is exactly what they did in 1957.
The CIA began training Khampa warrior tribesmen from Amdo, the home district of the Dalai Lama, in Colorado where the high altitude mimicked Tibetan conditions. The CIA established a forward base for them at the then Pakistani airbase at Kurmitola near Dacca. They then parachuted sticks of them into Tibet to lead the expected insurrection. Very few survived. The USA was also to later use this airbase, as well as the airbase at Peshawar, to launch U-2 flights over China and Russia.
The Chinese believed that the Tibetans were being air dropped by the Indian Air Force and protested several times about “Indian” air incursions. Delhi didn’t seem to have a clue about what these protests were about. The Americans were quite happy to make the Chinese believe just that, as it served the added purpose of discomfiting the Nehru government, which had made the Pancha Shila doctrine its cornerstone for foreign policy.
In 1960, the newly elected US President, John F Kennedy, initiated a foreign policy change that envisaged India as a democratic bulwark against communism. JFK invested heavily in this notion and his administration sent a presidential confidant, John Kenneth Galbraith, as the US Ambassador to India. Galbraith quickly established a rapport with Nehru and began to be counted as a personal friend of the PM.
Galbraith was also a famous economist and Nehru turned to him for advice on domestic policy matters also. Galbraith worked his connections with the White House to sponsor a $1 billion economic assistance package for India. A billion dollars was colossal amount of money those days. Clearly JFK was putting his money where his mouth was. This only alarmed the Chinese and confirmed to them their still widely held notions of the perfidious Indian.
The 1962 border war caused more than a panic in India. Indian leaders were devastated by the speed and relentlessness of the Chinese assault. The collapse of India’s vaunted 4th Infantry Division in just two weeks of fighting in NEFA caused a despondency never seen before or again in New Delhi.
On November 19, 1962 Jawaharlal Nehru wrote a letter to Kennedy entreating stepped up US military assistance. India even proposed joint air operations by the USAF and IAF to defeat the Chinese and save Assam from falling into Chinese hands. Delhi was already buzzing with rumors that China had promised to give Assam to Pakistan. For a brief moment in its modern history India contemplated becoming an active US ally and a vital cog in its Cold War containment policy.
Bruce Reidel has been a top CIA official and its in house expert on South Asia. He is now a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Director of the Brookings Intelligence Project. His views still matter and successive US presidents, including Barack Obama, hugely relied on him for advice on the region.
Reidel writes with immense knowledge and access to hitherto top secret documents, but with eloquent brevity. He tells all and says all without using up many lines of wordage. He has an eye that can focus with hawk like precision on the relevant detail and keep looking at the big picture also. This is a book that everyone who is interested in the brief shining moment that was Camelot, should know about the brief shining moment when India and America came together. And how the Chinese wrongly credited US’s Tibet policy to India.