The 75th anniversary of Independence is a good occasion to reflect upon the wars and conflicts that were thrust upon India, their enduring significance for the country and how these have shaped the geopolitical contours of the region.
What stood out in all these conflicts was the exceptional role played by India’s armed forces and the many acts of valour, often beyond the call of duty. These conflicts also brought to the fore the benchmarks that would define India’s boundary-related decisions in its neighbourhood, such as the near permanence of the boundary lines between India and Pakistan (like the Ceasefire Line, now the LoC) and between China and India (like the LAC and the McMahon Line). How these came to be needs to be recalled.
Contrary to the prevailing perception that it was the political elite of the newly created nation of Pakistan that had launched the invasion of Kashmir in October 1947 after they saw that the Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir was unlikely to join Pakistan, a new narrative has emerged. Iqbal Malhotra’s book Dark Secrets: Politics, Intrigue and Proxy Wars in Kashmir (2022) explains with well-researched details that it was the British establishment prodding Pakistan’s army to launch the invasion of Kashmir in two parts — Operation Gulmarg to capture the Kashmir valley and Operation Dutta Kel to take over Gilgit-Baltistan.
The Indian Army and the IAF were thrown into a prolonged campaign — from October 1947 into the summer of 1948 — to ‘save Kashmir’ for India. They did so with immense resolve. But the British leadership hadn’t given up. They managed to get the Pakistani flag hoisted in Gilgit and Lord Mountbatten convinced Pandit Nehru to have the matter debated at the UN and to accept ‘plebiscite’ as the best option for the Kashmir issue. It led to a ceasefire and the agreement on a ‘ceasefire line’ that became the de facto Indo-Pak boundary in Jammu & Kashmir.
However, the unsettled Himalayan boundaries with the Chinese drew India into its second major conflict after Independence. The 1962 Sino-Indian conflict was the outcome of many factors — from the increasing US footprint in India with the aim of assisting the Tibetan cause, even though Nehru made every effort to appease Communist China — but above all was the conflicting boundary claims along the Himalayas that led to the Chinese invasion.
India’s publication of maps in 1954 had shown Aksai Chin as a part of Ladakh (and therefore India) and Nehru’s stand that ‘map or no map’, the McMahon Line was the border in India’s northeast with China, upset the Chinese leadership so much that Mao decided to teach him a lesson. However, what isn’t known is that the Chinese were armed and encouraged by Moscow — first for the Korean war in the 1950s — and then, since India was seen to be in the US camp, Peking (now Beijing) received a signal from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to attack India just as the world got busy with the Cuban missile crisis, from October 20 to November 19, 1962.
The Chinese invasion that followed destroyed the illusions that Nehru held about his role as a global statesman and India’s standing in Asia. In New Delhi, sadly, India’s military commanders surrendered to the will of the civilian leadership — especially Nehru, Krishna Menon and BN Mullick — who ignored all the signs of China’s aggressive intent.
India’s publication of maps in 1954 had shown Aksai Chin as a part of Ladakh (and therefore India) and Nehru’s stand that ‘map or no map’, the McMahon Line was the border in India’s northeast with China, upset the Chinese leadership so much that Mao decided to teach him a lesson
Thus, when China attacked in October 1962, India’s ill-equipped and ill-armed troops were pushed into those high Himalayas to fight Chinese aggression. However, despite the massive odds, Indian troops put up an impressive fight, both in Ladakh and the NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh), as was argued by this writer in his book Contested Lands: India, China and the Boundary Dispute (2021). And though the 1962 conflict was called a national defeat, the reality is that the bulk of the Indian Army wasn’t used and nor was the IAF, for fear of further upsetting the Chinese! Had they been used, the story would’ve been different.
No wonder, due to India’s reverses in 1962 and the findings of a US-based war game — as brought out by Sumit Ganguly in The Origins of War in South Asia (1986) — a US-armed Pakistan decided that India’s morale was shattered and that they could capture the Kashmir valley if they were to launch a well-organised quasi-guerrilla invasion, unlike their disjointed invasion of 1947. However, Pakistan’s plans were once again thwarted by the determined response of an IAF-Army combine as a counter-offensive led to our troops standing at the gates of Lahore and Sialkot.
Gen Ayub Khan scrambled his forces to save Lahore, while our troops stood at the gates of those cities, waiting for a ceasefire! Pakistan later declared the 1965 war a victory as our political leadership was too shy to claim victory! The 1971 Indo-Pak war was very different from the earlier ones. For once, India’s three armed services fought in that war, and it wasn’t about Kashmir — but about the liberation of Bangladesh — even though the post-war accord was about the future of Jammu & Kashmir!
Our armed forces and their grit
The most important outcome of the Simla Agreement was the conversion of the Ceasefire Line into the Line of Control (LoC) as a politico-military boundary. Many of the apologists for the then Congress government would insist that the Simla accord had made the Kashmir issue a bilateral matter.
Much credit must go to the armed forces for having stood up to the challenges to guard the sanctity of India’s boundaries.
But Pakistan has long since abandoned that commitment, whatever India’s official stance on that may be. However, the LoC — a modified version of the Ceasefire Line — has now become the de facto boundary, which even the US urged Pakistan to respect, after Nawaz Sharif rushed to Washington at the height of the Kargil conflict. Interestingly, the primary aim of Gen Musharraf’s intrusions across the LoC in 1999 was to challenge its sanctity. But ironically for Pakistan, India’s strong military response and the complete eviction of Pakistani soldiers had led then then US President Clinton to acknowledge the sanctity of the LoC.
Thus, much credit must go to the armed forces for having stood up to the challenges to guard the sanctity of India’s boundaries. What is often ignored is the fact that since Independence, India’s forces have not lost any territory. What is held by our rivals was occupied before India’s forces were sent to stall incursions in 1947 and 1962.
-This story earlier appeared on www.tribuneindia.com.