How Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ Worked And Its Lessons Look From The Vantage Point Of 2020

How Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ Worked And Its Lessons Look From The Vantage Point Of 2020

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Tuesday, June 9, 2020 11:07 AM IST
How Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ Worked And Its Lessons Look From The Vantage Point Of 2020From left to right, defence minister V K Krishna Menon, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, junior defence minister Majithia and General K S Thimayya.
  • The most important takeaway from the ‘Forward Policy’ is that once personal whims take the place of foreign and defence policy, then there is no estimating how much damage that will cost.

Last month marked sixty years since Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ began to be implemented in Arunachal Pradesh with proper fervour – the decision to set up forward military posts, to deter the Chinese from advancing across the McMahon Line and claiming Indian territory as theirs.

Sixty long years, since a chain of portentous events was set in motion.

Sixty years, since the legendary 4th Indian Division began to establish itself atop impassable ridges, without equipment, support, or supply routes. And sixty years, since that augural prelude, which culminated in the unforgivable catastrophes of the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

It is a good moment to introspect upon the dynamics of that fateful decision, since two flagrant border incursions were attempted by the Chinese along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) last month; and a good lesson, on how a government might define and secure national aims within a confusing geopolitical scenario.

This is however, not so much a chronological sequencing of the gut-wrenching events which led to war, as it is a survey of that pivotal, instigating ‘Forward Policy’ which set up the whole debacle.

That is because, while we know how the story ends – in defeat, despair, humiliation and pain – we know far less of the machinations which scripted the policy basis of that entirely avoidable tragedy.

The spark to Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ was provided by two closely-related events.

One was the Sino-Soviet split, which began with Nikita Khrushchev’s doctrinaire repudiation of Stalin, and was cemented by his aggressive drive for Soviet control of nuclear bases on the Chinese coast.

The second was the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in March 1959, once Mao withdrew the fiction of Tibetan autonomy, and actuated a strategically vital trans-Tibetan road link passing through India’s Aksai Chin.

A Rubicon was crossed once India granted the Dalai Lama asylum, from which there has never been a turning back.

The threat of a live, safe monk, who would remain as a symbol of Chinese imperialism over Tibet – both political and cultural – was simply too potent a truth to bear.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Khrushchev tried to get Mao to back off was because he understood the wider ramifications, of such viscerally incensed Chinese impulses, to somehow neutralise this live, symbolic continuation of Tibetan resistance to Chinese occupation.

If China pushed India too hard, the possibility existed that India might be forced by desperation into the American camp.

But Sino-Soviet ties were too worn for such advice to be taken; if anything, it only spurred Mao into plowing his own furrows, to stress the point that China would chart its own course hereon, with steadfast independence.

Nonetheless, these substantial geopolitical changes appeared to make no visible impact on diplomatic functioning in Delhi. Not even with the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, when it was clear as mud to observers, that every material aspect of Sino-Indian relations, meticulous crafted by a rhapsodic Nehru, lay in tatters about his feet.

The official hope, masquerading as foreign policy, continued to be that China would respect the basic tenets of their bilateral Panchsheel treaty, of 1954, and high principles of civilised sovereign conduct, which were enshrined at the Bandung Conference the next year.

After all, wasn’t it India’s own V K Krishna Menon, who had argued that the United Nations couldn’t introduce a discussion on Chinese aggression over Tibet, for the legalistic reason that China wasn’t then a member of that international body?

Surely such altruism merited everlasting gratitude from Beijing.

The opposite happened instead: the fiction of Panchsheel was rendered redundant.

Nehru’s needless, gratingly unctuous courtship of Chinese Premier Chou En Lai, at the Bandung Conference, became a topic of caustic derision.

India’s unwavering, decade-long insistence, that China be rehabilitated into international forums, was abruptly replaced by the realisation that Sardar Patel had been right all along, about China’s mal-intentions.

And most damagingly, revelations emerged of a long-suppressed fact, that China had built a motorable road across the Indian territory of Aksai Chin, as far back as the mid 1950’s.

Nehru couldn’t even deny knowledge of the road, because the Chinese had officially invited both the Indian Ambassador and the Military Attache in Beijing, to Tibet, for the inauguration ceremony (they wisely declined to attend).

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Chinese began to violate the border repeatedly – just as they do now.

Whatever Nehru’s stature might have been then, this was not elevated foreign policy, since the Chinese were now openly goading him into a response. This was dramatically aimless vaudeville, played out behind thick curtains in South Block, with fatal consequences on both policy-making and core national interests.

Yet all that our citizens got to see on stage was a shadowy crumpling of the cloth. Within months, that gaudy fabric began to come apart at the seams.

On 28 August 1959, N G Goray of the Praja Socialist Party, and MP for Poona, stood up in the Lok Sabha to ask a simple question of his prime minister: Did Nehru mean to say that anyone could cross our borders, enter our country, build a road, apprehend our troops, release them because of ‘good relations’, and we would do nothing about that?

Nehru’s astonishing response was to wonder out loud, if the honourable member actually expected a reply, because, apparently, there was a difference between borders and frontiers.

For good measure, Nehru also informed a stunned Goray that there were also some parts of the country which ‘no one was interested in’.

Readers reeling in disbelief at such supercilious condescension would do well to read Lok Sabha records available online.

For a man of Nehru’s standing, Goray’s question must have felt like impertinence. But with the disclosure of a Chinese road crossing Indian land, whose construction took place with official Indian knowledge, past stature began to matter less, and national security more.

Flowery speeches and patronising retorts were no longer effective substitutes for right thought and right action.

So now, as much as the government needed to act decisively, the greater urgency was to appear to have acted thus.

As a result, fawning camaraderie was reluctantly replaced by empty bravado. Conciliation unwittingly became confrontation, and it was decided that the Chinese would be put in their place, at the border.

‘Runglee rungliot’ – thus far, and no further. A ‘Forward Policy’ was here. Now, if that didn’t pacify the opposition, if that couldn’t retain soaring public visages in unblemished poise, then nothing would.

There was only one problem with this abrupt volte-face: the armed forces had gone to seed during a preceding Ashokan decade of violent pacifism, and so were in no position to honour the cabinet’s fantasies of even patrolling the border, leave alone defending it.

There were no roads, there had been no modernisation of military equipment, what little equipment as available was useless at Himalayan heights, and the Army in particular, had no way of conducting combat operations in narrow river valleys that snaked through 7000 foot gorges.

General Thimayya, India’s most popular warrior and Chief of Army Staff, bluntly said as much to both Nehru, and his defence minister, V K Krishna Menon.

So did his senior army subordinates.

That put Nehru in a fix.

Now out of the blue on the one side, was a still-diminutive opposition who’d finally smelt blood, after a dozen years of waiting patiently in the great man’s shadow; on the other was a military, which professed grave incapacity, because of horrendous shortcomings caused directly by Nehru’s own pacifist policies over the preceding decade.

Talk about being trapped between a rock and a hard place.

It is in the backdrop of such dynamics, that we must understand how a disastrous policy was first successfully formulated, and then implemented, in the face of momentous internal disagreement.

The key impediment was Thimayya, whose valid obduracy was centred on an elementary point of fact – namely, that the executive should not design a political response which the military could not carry out.

But the desperation to be perceived as acting decisively, coupled with the possibility of opposition ‘impertinence’ snowballing into widespread disillusionment (at a time when the demand for reorganising states on linguistic lines was set to peak), posed a greater threat than the one on the border.

This is what propelled the insidious rise of institutional acrimony towards Thimayya.

It became full-blown when two alarming confrontations, at Khenzemane and Longju in mid-August of 1959, clearly demonstrated military inability to enforce the sovereignty of our borders.

Within a month, Thimayya was forced to submit his resignation, as good men must, and then cajoled into withdrawing it.

Amidst that confusion rose a mighty debate, on whether Timmy Sahib had done the right thing or not, by withdrawing his resignation letter.

The answer didn’t matter a fig for two reasons: the damage was already done, and focus was finally diverted – at least temporarily – from the bounden duties of a government, to the morals of an Army Chief.

The greater point made in this sordid episode, is that the more Thimayya was weakened, the less of a hindrance he was to the ‘Forward Policy’.

This was a turning point in independent India’s history.

A dangerous precedent was set.

Now, if good men refused to do the wrong thing, then the alternative was not to do the right thing, but instead, to replace those good men with the right ones.

If ever there was an example of how the system gets structurally weakened by political influence, this was it.

Still, Thimayya had a rock solid stature of his own, and it would take more than a Fabian Socialist to whittle that down to dust. So, they bided their time, quietly putting small pieces of the Forward Policy into play, until the last good men were gone. Only then did they move ahead, with new men of their own.

The irony is that the very Generals they chose to distrust, whose putsch-inclined hearts, they said, continued to beat for the Raj, polo matches, and the British Indian Army, were sidelined in favour of men, who openly believed in the undemocratic nonsense the old sort were unfairly suspected of.

One such man was BM ‘Bijji’ Kaul, a relative of Nehru’s, who, even if it cannot be proved that he was the key instigator of the ‘Forward Policy’, certainly carries the moral responsibility of having pushed this unsound political decision to breaking point, and disaster, in 1962.

Although commissioned into an Infantry regiment, Kaul spent much of his career before independence in the Army Service Corps, away from operational commands of even a battalion. He therefore missed combat experience, staff service (where you learn how to conduct battles and wars), and other prerequisites necessary to hold high military command.

After 1947, that divergence from the career path of a regular officer only increased, courtesy a relative who was now prime minister.

Kaul was gifted a series of plum foreign postings well above his rank and capacity. While they certainly allowed him to ascend the political ladder, these favours did nothing to enhance his military worth as a commanding officer.

It was a shock then, to hear that he had been given charge of the 4th Indian Division in the Punjab (where he was awarded a high medal for making the illustrious formation build staff housing).

No wonder his horoscope predicted that he would rule India one day. This was in line with his views that the military had made a mistake, by abjuring power to the civil lines (something he espoused as far back as 1947 to Jayprakash Narayan, when Kaul hinted that, perhaps, India needed a ‘strong’ government if it was to avoid the carnage of partition).

But by 1960 however, Kaul knew which side of his bread was buttered, and thus found it far more expedient to facilitate the Nehru persona, rather than contradict it.

The 4 Div was dispatched to defend an indefensible border, before finally descending into surreal absurdities, when it came to the nuts and bolts of executing such policy.

Remember this: 4 Div’s official remit under this new ‘Forward Policy’, was to defend the borders of Arunachal Pradesh from the Bhutan-India-China tri-junction to Myanmar – a 360 mile-long line, passing along the tops of the highest mountain range in the world.

And they didn’t even have boots.

But no matter; Nehru had finally found the man to execute his ‘Forward Policy’, and 1959 became the setup for an even more Alice-in-Wonderland 1960.

There could be no turning back after that; the die was cast.

Brigadier John Dalvi tells the best story of the Forward Policy’s early days, albeit with a great deal of sadness.

He would know, since he was later given key command of 7 Brigade, under 4 Div, and had to physically implement Kaul’s directives with nonexistent resources.

Dalvi was the good man on the spot in Arunachal Pradesh – a Thimayya type, if you will, but without the seniority to protest beyond a point.

He was in charge on the ground when Nehru’s wishes were forced to be carried out, and he was there on the field when his men were massacred in 1962. He then spent seven months in Tibet as a Chinese prisoner of war, before being repatriated home.

Attending a top-secret meeting to determine materiel tonnage to be flown by the Indian Air Force, as part of the ‘Forward Policy’, Dalvi found himself instead at the entrance to the rabbit hole.

There was a functionary from the Ministry of Food present, who wanted most of the available airlift to transport – hold your breath – hothouses for a research project. The man wanted to try and grow vegetables on the roof of the world.

Another attendee, from an unnamed, non-military government department, invited opinions on how to breed ponies at high altitudes.

The Survey of India was also present, not to offer new maps though, which was the crying need of the hour (the Chinese were then vigorously engaged in ‘mapmanship’ with India over boundary contours), but with a demand for tonnage – to transport their survey teams to high altitudes for routine work.

And last, there was someone from the Government of Jammu and Kashmir present – at a top-secret meeting, mind you – with a requisition for transporting pilgrims between the mountains and the plains.

This description of the dangerously guileless, ham-handed, half-baked manner in which a detrimental national policy was crafted against the advice of experts, is crucial to our story, because we then also learn that nothing changed in over half a century.

When the millennium turned, China still yearned for a secure land route to the western Indian Ocean. Their route of choice was the Karakoram Highway, which went from Sinkiang province through Takshkorgan into the Karakoram Range, rode the Khunjerab Pass, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, West Punjab, and Baluchistan, and ended at Gwadar Port on the Makaran Coast.

It was a passage which could not be militarily threatened by either Russia or America, while remaining easily defensible by China, and her ally Pakistan.

And just like in the 1950s, Delhi watched with a blind eye for a long decade, in the early 21st century, while Chinese construction of another transmontane highway made steady progress over Indian soil.

The similarity was astounding: fifty years on, here was Dr Manmohan Singh, another prime minister of the same Congress Party, who too seemed to believe that there still existed some parts of this country, which ‘no one was interested in’.

Such a travesty could only be perpetuated because, until 2014, that essential facility for self-denial, and dangerous self-deception, was enabled by the organied relegation of good men by the right men – again, just like in the 1950s.

If it was a Thimayya then, in 1959, it was a VK Singh now in 2012.

Look at Dr Manmohan Singh’s appointment of Shiv Shankar Menon as Foreign Secretary, for example. It beggars credulity, since that key selection was made by superseding over a dozen of the Indian Foreign Service’s senior-most officers.

That is how far down the ladder Menon was.

And that’s how we got an infamous drafting error at the India-Pakistan summit of Sharm el Sheikh in 2009, by which, an unforgivable moral equivalence was drawn between the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, and unverified, alleged Indian involvement in Baluchistan.

With a keystroke, a decades-old, bipartisan foreign policy position was offhandedly rewritten, and old gains undone.

Superseding one or two officers happens at senior levels now and then, but such a leap was unprecedented.

While Singh was technically well within his right to do what he did, the selection underscored less the assumed, staggering intellectual prowess of the officer, and smacked more of forbidding ‘Forward Policy’ days.

It also scored poorly on the First Law of Bureaucratic Competence: the worth of an officer, measured on a scale of zero to one, is the cube root of the inverse, of the number of officers he/she supersedes. (In case readers are wondering, the value here is 0.437.)

The sole difference between the 1950s and the 2010s is that India was finally awake, and possessed of a vibrant political opposition, which ensured that such wilful myopia was mercifully snubbed out by the weight of a popular mandate.

But the risks of such ideology- and personality-driven tendencies, to disastrously prioritise selfish, political durability over national interest, remain extant within our socio-political framework – even if such risks are now, slowly, visibly and thankfully beginning to ebb slightly, with each passing election.

So as sad thoughts of sadder days wind down into conclusion, the key takeaway is: the only reason Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ ever saw sunlight, was because capricious vanity allowed the system to be broken for political purposes.

Specifically, this took the form of senior military officers being hounded out of their posts, merely because their expert, professional advice ran wildly contrary to the demonstrably-impracticable views of their political masters.

Unfortunately, much of those machinations remain unknown to us, not least because the Henderson-Brooks/PS Bhagat inquiry report into the debacle remains classified till date.

Hence, if the present dispensation is serious about new India learning from its past, then disclosing what precisely transpired sixty years ago might be a good starting point.

Until then, one can only hope that the stout men of 7 Brigade and 4 Div understand that never again will they be put in such a spot, as their military forebears once were; and, in that knowledge, also accept the remembrances and apologies of an eternally grateful nation.

Recommended reading:

  • Himalayan Blunder’by Brig. JP Dalvi
  • After Nehru Who? by Welles Hangen
  • India’s China War by Neville Maxwell
  • The Indian Army Since Independence by Maj. KC Praval
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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