India: From error to war - A tale of Nehru’s blunders

The untold story is the advance planning to enable Pakistan to seize of Jammu and Kashmir by force by the India Office in London, Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, in conjunction with British officers who continued to lead the armies of India and Pakistan after Independence.

by Dr Gautam Sen 

Mahatma Gandhi’s unqualified propensity for unilateral concessions has apparently triumphed in post-Independence India over Lord Krishna’s unyielding terse realism in the Bhagavad Gita. Not only that India has zealously sacrificed the narrative of its own bloody travails, in which its courageous men and women laid down their lives. The awesome exploits of the bravest of the brave, the Kumaonis, is barely accorded dignified recall and the women who gave up their lives guarding the Indian Parliament in 2001 dismayingly forgotten. In any other self-respecting country, the statues of such heroes would have dominated the skyline of their capital city. India’s faithfulness to eccentric Gandhian edicts, dismissed by even China’s lobbyist, Nehru acolyte ambassador, K.M. Panikkar, as a perverse misreading of the Bhagavad Gita, repudiates even courage and the universal legitimacy of self-defence. It was in Jammu and Kashmir that India fought its first war after Independence in 1947, to which in fact Gandhi did not object and suffered its first historic geopolitical setback, losing the peace despite being on the verge of military victory.

Britain’s India Office, its irate civil servants chafing at what even Winston Churchill repeatedly denounced as the Hindu Congress for stealing the “Jewel in its Crown”, plotted how to best carve up India. Punjab in its entirety was to be a part of Pakistan, as the senior civil servant of the province, Penderel Moon, highlighted (in Divide and Quit). The story was spoilt by truculent Islamic zealots taking to violence and provoking Sikhs, who were previously considered potentially ambiguous about their choice of country, into retaliation. But the British did not give up altogether, “fixing” the three Christian votes in the region’s assembly and ensuring it voted in favour of Pakistan by two votes overall and Punjab’s partition ensued. In addition, all India’s Christian organisations had evidently followed London’s advice and rebuffed overtures from Jawaharlal Nehru during the negotiations for Indian Independence and supported the Muslim League instead. Incidentally, Bengal was not as important strategically as the northern provinces, and Gilgit Baltistan was to be forcibly seized from Maharajah Hari Singh’s legitimate representatives and handed over to Jinnah by British officers, led by Major Brown. Most of this story is ably recounted by Indian diplomat C. Dasgupta (War and Diplomacy in Kashmir 1947-1948) and Narinder Singh Sarila’s unusually well-researched and evocative popular history (The Shadow of the Great Game).

The untold story is the advance planning to enable Pakistan to seize of Jammu and Kashmir by force by the India Office in London, Viceroy Lord Mountbatten, in conjunction with British officers who continued to lead the armies of India and Pakistan after Independence. The diabolical conspiracy, which India’s amateurish Congress leadership failed to anticipate, began well before Indian Independence on 15 August 1947. The legal and political groundwork had been laid by the Viceroy’s proclamation, with Jinnah also insisting that rulers of the princely states would be free to choose which country, India or Pakistan, they wished to join. And the choice would not be subject to a popular vote, as elsewhere. It was clear that a popular vote in Jammu Kashmir was unlikely to favour Pakistan because the overwhelmingly influential leader of Muslims in the state, Sheikh Abdullah, had correctly inferred that his head would be the first on the chopping block if the state joined Pakistan. He had also undoubtedly sealed his own fate by rebuffing Jinnah’s blandishments to accede to Pakistan.

The fate of Huseyn Suhrawardy, who delivered Bengal to Jinnah, once Pakistan had been created, is a salutary reminder of what would have been in prospect for Sheikh Abdullah. Thus, the rationale for the Viceroy’s injunction of avoiding a popular vote in the princely states was crystal clear, though not even in retrospect to India’s secular historiography, too busy composing paeans to India’s Islamic heritage and penning horror stories of the impending disaster of India’s descent into Hindu feudal rule. As an aside, it might be noted that Jinnah also, presumably, had kept open the prospect of the wealthy princely state of Hyderabad in southern India choosing Pakistan, in accordance with the principles of accession for princely rulers established by Lord Mountbatten, at his urging.

As a result of foreknowledge of his fate, Sheikh Abdullah had shrewdly decided to join India though on his own terms and Jawaharlal Nehru acceded, with alacrity, to pretty much all his demands for constitutional and legal guarantees. Jawaharlal Nehru had made the ruler, Maharajah Hari Singh irrelevant and allowed his prime minister to be treated with shocking indignity, arrested and dragged through the streets by the Sheikh. The ambitious Sheikh had evidently hoped to inaugurate his own dynasty and apparently an independent Jammu and Kashmir nation too. It was the latter aspiration, on which he parlayed indiscreetly with the Americans about creating an independent Switzerland in the east that prompted Nehru to arrest his friend, Sheikh Abdullah, to whom he had given almost everything that had been sought. In the event, it was due to Sheikh Abdullah’s truculence that an invasion of Jammu and Kashmir was planned by Jinnah with cynical British collusion. The infinitely calculating Jinnah evidently thought that the recalcitrant Sheikh would be swept aside by an upsurge in local Islamic sentiment once a violent conflict had been precipitated by the Pakistani invasion between Jammu and Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims. Jinnah expected the situation to parallel the breakdown in relationships between the two communities elsewhere in India during its bloody partition and ensure Jammu and Kashmir’s Anschluss with Pakistan.

As it happened, such a breakdown in relationships did not occur nor did a popular uprising by Muslims greet the invaders from Pakistan. In fact, Jammu and Kashmiri Muslims showed no inclination to choose Pakistan even later, according to the British historian, Alistair Lamb, championing its case, when Nehru offered a plebiscite to the Pakistani prime minister, Muhammad Ali in 1954. Memories of the depredations of 1947 and 1948 by Pakistani invaders, looting, raping and abducting women (who filled the brothels of Rawalpindi and elsewhere) were still too fresh. Knowing it was unlikely to win a plebiscite, the Indian offer was rejected on a flimsy pretext, with Pakistan insisting the plebiscite administrator had to be US Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Pakistan hoped an US admiral would by sympathetic to its claims since Pakistan was a collaborator of the US in the Cold War and also enjoyed British support and rejected Nehru’s proposal for a neutral Scandinavian.

When India mobilised hastily to expel the invading tribesmen and Pakistani regulars from Jammu and Kashmir, its commanders on the ground in the state, led by then Brigadier L.P. Sen (Slender was the Thread), did not know they were going to face perfidy and betrayal by their own senior commanders at headquarters in Delhi. Bewilderingly, the exact circumstances have not been fully appreciated even today by most Indians. The Indian Army not only faced the killing, pillaging and raping invaders but also interference coordinated by Britain through British officers who headed both the Pakistani and Indian Armies. Quite clearly, the two chiefs, who headed the Indian Army until December 1948, Sir Robert Lockhart and Sir Roy Bucher, were almost certainly in touch with their British counterparts heading the Pakistani forces. The latter had obviously known of the impending invasion of Jammu and Kashmir, planned in the very building from which they themselves operated. Sir Robert, the Indian chief of staff, was summarily dismissed after six months into a four-year contract, but puzzlingly, another British general, Sir Roy Bucher was appointed chief of staff to succeed Sir Robert despite disquiet with the British predecessor’s suspect conduct. The British leaders of the Indian Army then proceeded to thwart their own forces on the ground in Kashmir by refusing reinforcements when the Indian Army was making rapid progress and advancing, denying repeated requests. They also instigated the redeployment of experienced units that had been victorious from critical strategic locations, effectively enabling Pakistani forces to retake them, including the Haji Pir pass, from which they had been expelled earlier. Sadly, Major General Thimayya, later chief of staff in 1957, did not play a glorious role in this tragic situation, often siding with headquarters.

Quite clearly, the British officers at headquarters, directing the Indian Army, did not wish it to liberate the region and possibly make the admittedly difficult attempt to restore Gilgit-Baltistan to the legitimate sovereign rule of the state of Jammu and Kashmir as well. What the British officers sought instead was a stalemate on the ground, while Lady Edwina Mountbatten set about persuading a lovelorn “Jawaharlal” to bring the matter before the UNSC to legitimate the deadlock sought. Indeed, this is exactly what happened, with the UNSC-sponsored ceasefire freezing a disastrous status quo for India, with the loss of historic land access to Afghanistan and beyond. Astonishingly, the plea to the UNSC was drafted under Chapter 6, characterising the situation as a” dispute” instead of “an act of aggression” under Chapter 7 since Jammu and Kashmir had acceded to the Indian Union legally. Seeking to nullify India’s sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir was no inadvertent “technical error”, as some describe it, but an historic conspiracy that reeks of British duplicity, consistent with the Viceroy’s aim of legitimating the stalemate on the ground, and Indian complicity at the highest level. The catastrophe of losing critical areas of J&K territory continues to haunt India to this day, robbed of a land and air corridor towards the northwest, with Pakistan regularly denying overflight rights. Western allies in Afghanistan have also discovered in recent years that this situation was mightily inconvenient for them too for the supply of their mission in Afghanistan, for which they had to frequently serenade a grudgingly acquiescent Pakistan.

Interestingly, the British Cabinet Office has recently ordered the Mountbatten diaries and letters between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, for the period 1947-1948, withheld by Southampton University which had bought them. This is now the subject of High Court action to compel their release to the public. Also note, once Indian diplomat, C. Dasgupta had accessed material on Jammu and Kashmir in London, which he quotes, they were quickly removed from public view. The long historical British campaign to secure Jammu and Kashmir for Pakistan, though the strategic rationale of an east of Suez policy ended in 1956, continues unabated, with scores of British MPs pouring incessant bile to incite support for its occupation by fundamentalist Wahhabis.

India failed to learn from the abysmal errors of misjudgement of 1947 and 1948 in Jammu and Kashmir. Jawaharlal Nehru continued to blunder, ideologically fixated, over-confident and unwilling to take counsel from his own prudent colleagues and capable advisers. Both Nehru and his completely untutored sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, guided by the disingenuous courtier, K.M. Panikkar, censured by Sardar Patel as an apologist for China rather than someone representing Indian interests. Nehru embarked on a doomed course of uninhibited appeasement of China. Flattered to become a go-between for it, bidden to convey warnings to the US that China would intervene if the Yalu River and the 38th parallel were crossed in Korea, Jawaharlal Nehru threw caution to the winds. He blithely endorsed China’s conquest of Tibet, three weeks before General MacArthur ignored the Chinese warning in the third week of October 1950 and crossed the Yalu River. Nehru persisted in his pseudo-Gandhian role of proffering unsolicited advice, to a thoroughly irritated US, on ending the Korean War, quite oblivious to the geopolitics in which he claimed supreme expertise. Nehru had also surrounded himself with former servants of the British Raj, who had been wholly loyal to it, for the governance of the country he inherited, virtually as a personal fiefdom, despite himself recognising the potential negative repercussions.

The occupation of Tibet had appalled Sardar Patel, who died within two months of it. He had earlier warned Nehru of Chinese duplicity, describing a letter from Zhou Enlai, as “not that of a friend”. But Nehru was swayed by K.M. Panikkar and his unschooled sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who, childishly entranced on meeting Mao Zedong, notoriously compared the warlord to Mahatma Gandhi with oriental hyperbole. This was the same unpardonably commonplace woman sent as ambassador to Moscow who so chagrined Joseph Stalin by spending extravagantly importing embassy furniture on arriving in a Russia devastated by war, that he declined to accept her credentials personally. Nehru’s own Secretary General, MEA, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, had warned of the grave threat posed to India owing to the loss of Tibet as a buffer state, but the omniscient Panditji, in cahoots with his ambassador to Beijing, K.M. Panikkar, chose to ignore him; Panikkar was the same supposed intellectual virtuoso who so annoyed the French man of letters, Andre Malraux, a friend of Nehru, after delivering an excruciatingly boring lecture on revolutions that he suggested to Nehru not to send such diplomats to France. A brilliant young Indian diplomat, Sumol Sinha, proficient in Mandarin and with deep knowledge of China, who had been there during the revolutionary years, had warned of an impending Chinese assault on Tibet, only to be ignored. No policy was formulated or preparations made to minimise the consequences of Tibet’s conquest to Indian strategic interests. And there was no cognition of the problem agitating contemporary India today about the origins of major Indian rivers in the Tibetan plateau.

China and Pakistan had begun collaborating discreetly by the mid-1950s, with the former even telling the latter, its participation in the Cold War SEATO and CENTO, the Baghdad Pact, treaties was not incurring Chinese disapproval. Pakistan now had the goodwill of both China and the West to pursue its adversarial policy against India. Despite the historic Sino-Pak alliance against India, which had now truly begun in earnest, Nehru bent over backwards to appease both, one with the Liaquat-Nehru Pact, the other by earnestly representing its interests in world forums to a hostile West. Jawaharlal Nehru even refused the permanent UNSC seat, at China’s expense, with sister Vijaya Lakshmi deploying her supposed incomparable mastery of geopolitics to airily dismiss the US proposal. Jawaharlal Nehru had earlier also scotched the idea of a formal mutual defence relationship with the USSR, broached in 1951 with a Soviet counsellor in Beijing by the young Indian diplomat T.N. Kaul. It would have constituted a serious deterrent to aggressive Chinese intentions, but Nehru remained enamoured with Mao’s China as the beacon of light and wisdom and allowed T.N. Kaul to negotiate instead the Panchsheel Agreement in 1954, legitimating Tibet’s conquest by China. The unfailingly astute Sumol Sinha warned, once again, of possible border clashes. These, in fact, occurred in 1959 after the Dalai Lama fled to India and China had also already published a map in 1958 claiming the Aksai China plateau. Presciently, Sumol Sinha alerted Nehru to the prospect of an impending full-scale Chinese attack against India as well. But the all-seeing and all-knowing Jawaharlal Nehru banished him do a course at Harvard, berating his poor grasp of the intricacies of international politics.

In the meantime, Nehru had authorised a “Forward Policy” without adequate military preparations, confident of compelling Soviet intercession in India’s favour should that prove necessary. Nor did he attribute enough significance to the Sino-Soviet split after Khrushchev’s speech at the 20th party Congress in February 1956 denouncing Stalin, and its implications for India’s relationship with both China and the USSR. His undue self-confidence had also been encouraged by flawed advice from historian Sarvepali Gopal that India’s claims in the region were incontestable. He gave thoroughly misplaced spin to documents he had been sent to London to examine, missing one critical aspect concerning the signing of the 1914 Shimla Convention. A price was inevitably going to be paid due to Nehru’s fondness for courtiers like Panikkar and Gopal and penchant for nepotism. He appointed as chief of staff of the Indian armed forces a relative of his late wife, P.N. Thapar, who presided over the Indo-China border with disgraceful ineptitude. In addition, a request for an increase in the defence budget had been turned down earlier, despite growing Sino-Indian tensions. Nehru told his friend, Krishna Menon, he would have to agree with the finance minister, Morarji Desai, that a rise could not be justified. In 1961, Nehru rebuffed President Kennedy’s offer to enable India acquire nuclear weapons with arrogant disregard, though he later begged for US arms once China’s attack threatened the entire Northeast. China had duly attacked an unprepared Indian Army and India’s actively deployed modest four brigades were confronted by an entire Chinese Corp of four divisions. They fought valiantly and were predictably overwhelmed, the matchlessly brave Kumaonis fighting to the last man. They killed innumerable enemy troops before succumbing themselves, charging the enemy with bayonets when they ran out of ammunition. Diplomat Sumol Sinha was recalled from Harvard and an order was issued by Nehru that no document on China would pass without his counter signature, but as Sinha lamented, “it was too late”.

THE 1965 WAR

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto visited India soon after its military debacle in 1962 and on his way back to Pakistan was escorted to the airport by Y.D. Gundevia, India’s Foreign Secretary, who said to him about Jammu and Kashmir: “settle while the old man is alive, after that you will get nothing and, Mr. Bhutto, please don’t fight for it”. In fact, the bellicose Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been disappointed in 1962 by President Ayub Khan’s reluctance to accept China’s proposition to engage in a co-ordinated assault against India in order to seize Jammu and Kashmir, while China attacked from the north. On his return to Pakistan, after meeting a demoralised Nehru during his visit to India, he declared to Ayub Khan that India was on its knees and the time was ripe to launch a full-scale assault on Jammu Kashmir, a project that came to be known as Operation Gibraltar. In the meantime, thorough reform of India’s armed forces had been initiated by the highly experienced General J.N. Chaudhuri, who had almost resigned in disgust at the 1962 military disaster. He had been dissuaded by President Radhakrishnan, who met him by chance at Hyderabad airport and told him the Prime Minister was waiting for him in Delhi. According to an officer, who had fought in 1965 and subsequently retired as a general, without the reforms to the armed forces that had been implemented by General Chaudhuri after 1962 Delhi’s security could not have been assured in 1965. Jawaharlal Nehru died, leaving behind a legacy of acute fiasco. But an extraordinary statesman, Lal Bahadur Shastri, was to succeed him within the year, unprepossessing and small in stature, but politically astute and iron willed and under whom reform of India’s armed forces had continued.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s importunate desire to attack India failed to achieve any of his ardently sought goals when it actually materialised in 1965. The resulting ceasefire in 1965 prevented any territorial losses to Pakistan, but the outcome was not exactly a stalemate since the Indian Army had been poised to advance deep into enemy territory. However, dramatic events did hold it in balance at various junctures of the war. At one critical moment, Pakistani forces under the command of an outstanding general, Akhtar Hussain Malik, made rapid advances, threatening to seize Jammu, which would have resulted in Kashmir being cut off and a spectacular historic victory for Pakistan. But General Malik was unexpectedly recalled in the midst of battle by President Field Marshall Ayub Khan, and General Yahya Khan was sent to replace him. It is suspected the idea of General Malik, an Ahmadiyya, becoming Pakistan’s greatest military hero, was unwelcome, but it allowed India to seize back the initiative and Pakistani forces were repulsed. Elsewhere, Pakistan also threatened a swathe of territory in the Punjab, including Amritsar and Chief of Staff General J.N. Chaudhuri instructed General Harbaksh Singh, the GOC Western Command, to retreat with his besieged forces and hold a line at the Beas river. General Harbaksh Singh chose to ignore the order, following a heated discussion with his Chief of Staff. An experienced and skilful officer, General Harbaksh Singh had displayed great personal bravery during the invasion of Kashmir in 1948 and was able to turn the tide in the battlefield in 1965 with a series of brilliant manoeuvres. The grievous setback under Jawaharlal Nehu, in 1962 and indeed earlier, was a turning point for India. The armed forces had been modernised by 1965 and showed their mettle and the political leadership had also acquired much greater maturity and realism.

THE 1971 WAR

The crisis of 1970-1971 was to prove the challenge against which India’s political class and military were to be severely tested. Unfortunately, India won comprehensively on the battlefield but failed to capitalise on what its men in arms had achieved at the negotiation table. The fruits of the resounding military victory of 1971 did not result in lasting gains. India’s deeply-rooted domestic political deficiencies are not only threatening to reverse what now seems to have been transient gains of victory, but menace calamity for eastern India, as inexorable demographic transformation diminishes the region’s loyalty to the Indian Union. The dogged persistence and foresight of a weakened enemy proved more effective than the limbering sightlessness of the over-sized ponderous elephant that is India. Once Indira Gandhi took the decision to invade East Pakistan, despite US threats, India’s military advance proved unstoppable. The late Lt General J.F.R. Jacob, who has been derided since he passed away by jealous officers and malicious political commentators though Bangladesh continued to honour him until he died, played a crucial role in India’s military victory. He has never claimed he was solely responsible for the striking victory of Indian arms in Bangladesh, as his two volumes of autobiography make amply clear. What he did repeat to me personally on more than one occasion was that Field Marshal Manekshaw, who put him in effective control on the ground though his immediate superior was GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, Lt. General Jagjit Singh Arora. Field Marshal Manekshaw had a high regard for “Jake”, but he was not convinced by General Jacob’s strategy of avoiding pitched battles to capture towns and heading instead for Dhaka along unpaved roads. But nor did his Chief of Staff, Field Marshal Manekshaw, order him to desist once operations unfolded, though Lt General Jagjit Sigh Arora did embark on one costly direct assault on a town, in keeping with conventional military wisdom. The only other claim Lt General Jacob has made is that he understood the significance of getting Lt General A.A.K. Niazi of Pakistan to sign a surrender document before the UNSC Polish resolution requiring an immediate ceasefire, which the USSR had informed the Indian government it would not veto. The facts of his negotiations with Lt Gen A.A.K. Niazi have been confirmed by the officer’s own account of his defeat and he complains Lt Gen Jacob blackmailed him, which General Jacob dismissed, though I suspect the charge has some merit.

It was at Shimla that India declined to press home its advantage, earned by its courageous soldiery, by imposing a peace settlement that would have damaged Pakistani pretensions for the indeterminate future. India faced challenging dilemmas, with the Soviets pressing it to not impose harsh terms on a defeated Pakistan because they were negotiating to sign the SALT and did not wish to antagonise the US any further. India was beholden to the USSR for its support during the war, when the unprecedented human rights violator, Henry Kissinger met China’s ambassador to the UN, Huang Hua, appropriately in a warehouse like gangsters and urged an attack on India by China. Huang Hua had apparently replied the US was better placed to do so instead since its Seventh Fleet was already in the Bay of Bengal. India was grateful to the Soviets for mobilising 40 divisions along their Sino-Soviet border to deter any Chinese action against it and the Soviets also vetoed the first UNSC resolution, giving India vital time to bring the war to a successful conclusion by liberating Bangladesh, as it did.

Alas, Indian diplomats did not think it worth engaging in a spot of far-sighted subterfuge, to attain imperative national goals at the Shimla negotiations. The irrepressible trio of P.N. Haksar, D.P. Dhar, and T.N. Kaul mistook their own cunning for superlative sagacity. They erred in thinking Pakistan was concerned about its captured eastern army, which, in reality, it was happy for India to continue feeding, only anxious about the return of Haji Pir pass. This is what India did for a second time after 1948, while holding 93,000 Pakistani servicemen prisoners. India also honoured an apparent commitment to shield Pakistani officers who had murdered millions of Bangladeshis and engaged in rape on an industrial scale, destroying the lives of over 300,000 women. India could well have insouciantly pleaded powerlessness and allowed the Bangladeshi government to seize and put Pakistani officers on trial, as war criminals. It would have ended indefinitely the prospect of the kind of bonhomie now discreetly in train between Bangladesh and Pakistan. Evidently, India had begun to come of age but somehow still harboured whims of its adolescent self, embarrassingly surfacing at crucial moments of its national destiny. The divine Lord Krishna did not override such reflexes from the Mahatma completely.

Dr Gautam Sen taught international political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science for more than two decades. 

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