Somewhere in the files of the PMO there is a 1949 query by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to his Army chief, General K M Cariappa, asking if the Indian Army would be able to intervene and prevent the Chinese conquest of Tibet. The General’s response was that, given the capacity of the Army and the difficult communication links with Tibet, intervention was out of the question.
Nehru was not the caricature woolly-headed idealist that his critics make him out to be. He had to deal with the instruments under his command. And among these was an army that lacked the size and heft to take on the battle-hardened PLA across the Himalayas in Tibet in 1950.
India’s response to the invasion of Tibet by China, beginning January 1, 1950, was, therefore, cautious. Nehru’s interim government had already supplied weapons and trained Tibetans since 1946. But with Chinese power rampant, the Indian effort became covert.
According to one source, India quietly dispatched 40,000 rifles to the Khampa regions, the first to feel the weight of the PLA invasion.
Sardar Patel’s famous letter to Nehru on November 7, 1950, warning of the dangers arising from the Chinese invasion of Tibet, was not meant as a critique of Nehru as many uber-nationalists claim, but as part of a policy review which was undertaken after the Sardar passed away a month later.
Jawaharlal Nehru meets then Army chief General K.C. Cariappa at Palam Aerodrome in 1949
A committee headed by Major General Himmatsinhji, the Deputy Minister for Defence, was set up to examine the issues of the border and external intelligence.
The Committee, which comprised of senior army, intelligence and foreign ministry officials, submitted its reports in two parts, one dealing with the eastern border in April 1951 and the other with the western border in September.
The recommendations called for the reorganisation and redeployment of the military forces and an increase in the size of the infantry and supporting arms, the development of certain airfields, the setting up of radar stations in the east, and an increase in the size of the Assam Rifles to patrol the border.
It called for the strengthening of the administration in the eastern areas and the strengthening of the IB network.
The dilemma before Nehru was stark. His army could not take on the PLA in Tibet. So, he used diplomacy to delay that moment of confrontation. Unfortunately, it came sooner rather than later and its causes had as much to do with India’s China policy as Beijijng’s internal power struggles.
The Indian Army not only lacked the capacity to intervene in Tibet - it did not even have the ability to defend India’s northern border. To right this, paradoxically, Nehru needed economic growth, which required minimising defence expenditures, while encouraging the creation of a domestic defence industry.
Towards that end, the government appointed Dr D.S. Kothari as the Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and the head of the new Defence Science Organisation in 1949.
In 1957 India began work on the design and development of a combat aircraft which was to be done by a German team of Dr Kurt Tank and Engineer Mittelhuber, while an Indian team of Dr Ghatage and Raj Mahindra would design a jet trainer.
The first flight of the HF-24 took place in June 1961 and the trainer HJT-16 (Kiran) in September 1964.
But Nehru’s diplomacy failed to synchronise with his defence modernisation plans. Also, it was hit by America’s decision to arm Pakistan in the name of fighting Communism.
Even though India expanded its ordnance factories and established facilities to make and assemble trucks, aircraft and other equipment, poor management and scarce resources ensured that the armed forces were badly equipped when the crisis with China erupted in 1959, culminating in the disastrous war of 1962 that shattered Nehru’s reputation and health.
Nehru’s pragmatism is best visible in his policy on nuclear weapons. He was among the first leaders to call for the abolition of nuclear weapons in the world. However, he was also the person who summoned Homi Bhabha and gave him the wherewithal to start India’s civil nuclear programme.
In 1956, a nuclear reactor named Apsara, designed and built by Indian scientists and engineers, went critical. This was the first reactor to go critical in all of Asia. By 1958-1959, the DAE overtook the CSIR as the most important scientific institution in the country.
One third of all R&D expenditures were flowing to the DAE. This led to the 1955 Canadian offer of a nuclear reactor called CIRUS (Canada-India-US) with the initial load of uranium fuel to be supplied by them came through. Nehru and Bhabha’s strategy was to build India’s nuclear capacity in such a way that it could be quickly transformed into a strategic capability.
Once again, unfortunately, they were let down by their instrumentalities. The DAE failed to deliver the plutonium reprocessing facility in time and the result was that India did not have the wherewithal to carry out a nuclear test shortly after the Chinese test of October 1964 or before the cut-off date of January 1, 1967 for the NPT.
It is easy to criticise Nehru today. His priority then, as it remains that of our country today, is to take hundreds of millions of poor Indians out of poverty and protect the country’s territorial integrity.
Given the circumstances, he did not do a bad job, and he did it without murdering millions as was done in China, or overturning democracy, as was the case in many countries of the time.
But to understand him, you have to place yourself in his very large-sized shoes. Suffice to say, none of the heroes of today’s uber-nationalists would be able to fill them.
Mail Today November 20, 2014