Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Short History of the 1962 War and its Lessons

Cross posted on Tarikh Par Tarikh

On Tuesday, Nevile Maxwell, a former journalist with The Times, posted in Delhi, published sections of the Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report on his personal website. The report was an investigation into the 1962 military debacle and is still classified as ‘Top Secret’ by the Government of India. Maxwell wrote that he was publishing the report on his website after efforts to release it to the Indian press had failed with editors backing out. “So my dilemma continued,” he wrote. “Although with the albatross hung, so to speak, on Indian necks as well as my own. As I see it now I have no option but, rather than leave the dilemma to my heirs, to put the Report on the internet myself.”

The release of the document, by itself, is no great addition to our understanding of 1962. Maxwell has had the report with him for many decades and uses it as one of the principal sources for his book, India’s China War. His account, already widely disseminated, would now be open to be scrutinised alongside its principal primary source thus adding more weight to his narrative. Till now, the report being classified, we had to take Maxwell’s word for it.

Nevertheless, the release of the report does raise some important points.

The first thing it does is lay bare the almost autocratic way in which the government in our country functions. The lifeblood of any democracy is information, on the basis of which the electorate can make decisions. This level of secrecy—the Henderson Report has been under wraps for more than 5 decades now—is odd for a country that calls itself a democracy. Most Western countries, even organisations such as the CIA, declassify documents after more than 30 years. This is just one example of the paternalism which the Indian state has inherited seamlessly from the Raj. Our government still has a tendency to rule rather than govern which is why it can so easily keep this report away from the prying eyes of its own citizens. With regard to 1962, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that communist China has been more open than democratic India.

The other thing this hullabaloo does is bring 1962 back into the spotlight. The renewed interest in India’s greatest military debacle would help shape India’s response to further conflicts, hopefully in the correct manner. Till now, with very little information available (and Maxwell’s views under heavy criticism), the debate around 1962 has been severely hampered. One half of the efforts have been spent in proving Nehru’s contention that China “stabbed us in the back”—the official Indian view of the war. The other half, critical of Nehru, have blamed his appeasement of China for the defeat. Surprisingly, even this half unquestioningly accepts Nehru’s version of Chinese perfidy, only berating Panditji for letting down his guard.  As luck would have it, both stances are largely incorrect.

In 1947, as India emerged as a free country, it saw that its borders with its largest neighbour, China, had been left largely undefined by the British. In the eastern sector (now Arunachal Pradesh), the border was demarcated by the McMahon Line, an agreement formalised between British and Tibetan representatives at the Simla Conference of 1914. The Chinese do not formally recognise this line. They argue that the Tibetans were not sovereign in 1914 and hence did not have the authority to decide a border. In the western sector, things were even fuzzier. As late as 1950, India itself had produced maps marking the border in this sector as “undefined”.

Initially, this ambiguous border wasn’t an issue. China emerged from World War II a broken country torn apart by civil war. The power equation between the two countries can be judged from the fact that for the Bandung Conference, Nehru sent over an Air-India aeroplane to fly Zhou Enlai (China’s first premier) to Jakarta. This unusual aircraft lending was done because at the time, strife-torn China did not even have an airline.

However, in 1950, China invaded Tibet, bringing itself to India’s doorstep and very soon built itself up as a stable power. Around the same time as India and China committed themselves to the lofty (but, as time would tell, hollow) principles of Panchsheel, friction emerged between the two countries with regard to the border. Matters were more or less settled on the eastern sector. Even though China did not formally accept the McMohan line (and still does not), the area had been under Indian control for some time and Zhou Enlai had stated that “now that it is an accomplished fact, we should accept it”. In the western sector though, India, curiously, used a shaky treaty from 1842 to unilaterally claim a fixed boundary (the Kashmir-China boundary shown in Indian maps today). This is an area that the British has never really had any jurisdiction over, neither de facto nor de jure. China, on the other hand, claimed it had controlled the area for over two centuries and, most importantly, it had certainly been under Chinese control since 1950, ever since it invaded Tibet. When India first drew a definite border for Aksai Chin (articulated in Nehru’s letter to Zhou in 1959) China was already in control of Aksai China for almost a decade (roughly mapping to its present area of control).

This maximalist claim by India, the weaker side, might strike one as odd but starts to make more sense when taken to be a bargaining counter. India wanted China to formally accept its claims in the east in return for which it would accept China’s claims to Aksai Chin. This claim was therefore never meant to be an actual military posture—just a diplomatic bluff. The logic of democracy married with jingoism, though, put paid to Nehru’s strategy. Once the border in the west had been demarcated and put on a map, it took a life of its own. Public opinion staunchly opposed the idea of a barter, or even the ceding of an inch of Indian land—which now included Aksai Chin, a region which had never been in India’s control but was now a part of the country by the occult powers of cartography. Nehru himself acknowledged this pressure lamenting that “if I give them that I shall no longer be Prime Minister of India”. President Radhakrishnan also warned that the maps could not be changed “if only because public opinion will not tolerate this”.

The end result was that when Zhou Enlai flew to India in January 1960 (this time, presumably, in his own aircraft) he was ready to negotiate the border but Nehru was in no position to cede land from areas that had already been demarcated by his government as India’s. To further press home the public opposition to any ‘concessions’ to China, Zhou’s visit was marked by protests and demonstrations including a massive dharnaa staged by the Jan Sangh outside Nehru’s residence (it is therefore, ironic, that today the BJP criticises Nehru for 1962—a mistake he committed partially by giving in to pressure from the Hindutva wing). The east-west ‘barter’ first thought up to solve the problem—the ‘logical solution’ as per Neville Maxwell—was a nonstarter. India would not, could not, shift from its claims either in the east or the west.

In spite of these reverses, it still did not mean conflict was inevitable. In fact, the situation in 1960 is also the situation today—India holds the McMohan line and China holds Aksai Chin.

What eventually lead to war was something known as Nehru’s Forward Policy.

In November 1961, the Government, under massive public pressure, issued instructions to the Army to set up posts all along India’s claim lines and "especially in such places as might be disputed". This bizarre strategy, known as the Forward Policy was based on completely misplaced intelligence from the IB that the Chinese were unlikely to use military force against India even if they were in a position to do so. NB Mullick, part of Nehru’s coterie, supplied this fantastic assessment. At Army HQ, Nehru’s other two acolytes, Lt General BM Kaul and Army Commander, Thapar accepted this order rather than, as should have been done, protest it from a military point of view.  Valid and urgent objections from the Western Command (in-charge of operations in Aksai Chin) stating that it severely lacked forces to carry out the task (much less face the Chinese should they retaliate) were summarily overruled by Army HQ.

Matters reached a head in June 1962 as India established a post in the eastern sector at Dhola, which lay around 1.5 kms north of the McMohan line. As explained by Brigadier John Dalvi in his seminal war memorial, Himalayan Blunder, “the Thagla-Dhola area was not strictly territory that we should have been convinced was ours as directed by the Prime Minister, Mr Nehru, and someone is guilty of exceeding the limits prescribed by him.”

By September, China had attacked and taken over the post. Political compulsions now forced the government to act and attempt to evict the Chinese from Dhola—a move not short of suicide given the strength of the Chinese, the climate and the harsh geography of the area. When the army resisted this move, the government promptly replaced the intransigent General Umrao Singh (XXXIII Corps) with General Kaul, sweeping aside all opposition to its plans. The Indian force that was eventually sent to evict the Chinese from Dhola was heavily attacked by some 800 Chinese troops supported by heavy mortars. For the first time, the fiction the IB had spun, that the Chinese would not retaliate with force, came crumbling down. General Kaul’s first shocked reaction to the Chinese action is said to have been “Oh my God! You are right, they mean business.”

By 20 October, the Chinese had launched major offensives in the west as well as the east, citing “self-defence” against India’s aggression; ironic because India’s Army was in no possession to defend itself much less be aggressive. The false bravado of the Forward Policy had collapsed.

Within a month, the Chinese had swept through the west and east and, having achieved their war aims, declared a unilateral ceasefire. They withdrew to the Line of Actual Control as it existed in 1959 (and still more-or-less exists today), which maintained the McMohan line in the east but also firmly kept Aksai Chin with them. As might be noted, this is a compromise that, at one time, the Chinese were willing to do at the negotiating table. India’s Forward Policy had achieved nothing other than a humiliating defeat for its army. While 1962 laid bare the army top brass and political leadership, it must be pointed out that most Indian Army units showed exceptional courage in the face of almost impossible odds, fighting a far-more well equipped enemy as well as their own bumbling leadership.

India has a lot of lessons to learn from this debacle. One is the double-edged sword that media attention is in a democracy. Media and public pressure plays a remarkably important role most of the time but in 1962 it also forced Nehru’s hand, compelling him to take unsound decisions such as the Forward Policy. This lesson is as valid today as it was in ’62, maybe even more so given how much more stronger the media is as compared to 5 decades back. The 2013 Daulat Beg Oldi incident is a case in point. Defence minister AK Antony protested the media reaction, insinuating that television news media overplayed the face-off by showing old footage of Chinese “incursions” on what is still an undemarcated boundary—a situation similar to 1962.

It also calls for a reappraisal of Nehru—something both his supporters as well as critics need to do. In 1962, Nehru’s position of being “stabbed in the back” was clearly a bit misleading. During the war, he flatly contradicted a lot of the qualities he is admired for: Third World solidarity, non-alignment (Nehru appealed fervently for US support in 1962 and was turned down) and democracy (removed all opposition to his 1962 policies, staffing every level with ‘yes men’). His critics, mainly from the Right, also seem to have gotten the wrong end of the stick. For example, in his book Are We Deceiving Ourselves Again? Lessons the Chinese Taught Pandit Nehru But Which We Still Refuse to Learn,  Arun Shourie paints Nehru as a Sinophile, a Kumbaya-singing peacenik who was fooled by the wily Chinese, thus, ironically, buying into the Government’s excuse of being “stabbed in the back”. Of course, as we see, Nehru was hardly fooled by his own rhetoric of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai. Nehru understood realpolitik very well, thank you, and could, be aggressive (in this case, over-aggressive) as and when needed.

But of course, given our ostrich-like attitude towards history—will the Henderson Report ever be declassified?—it remains to be seen how much we learn from this incident.

First published on NewsYaps

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Opinion polls are predicting a doubling of the BJP’s vote share in Bihar. Is that possible?

Opinion polls are projecting huge gains for the BJP in Bihar in 2014 with one survey even predicting a doubling of its vote share. I have a piece up on DNA which uses past voting and demographic data to show why such a windfall is unlikely.

Opinion polls are predicting a doubling of the BJP’s vote share in Bihar. Is that possible?

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Chicken "Biryani"

There are many signs of the decadence of our society. Signs that point to its slow but inexorable descent into chaos. Markers that warn of losing order, civilisation and all that is good.

Of those signs, there is none more obvious, more dire than the very existence of Chicken "Biryani”. BIRYANI! (strides up and down; voice booms); Biryani, ladies and gentleman is a dish which exploits the science of dum.  Meat and rice, stacked together, sealed in a sauna of masaala, zaafraan and ghee, the flavours intermingling, rubbing up against each other, fornicating.

Titillating, I know.

But in this if you drop chicken, wham, you kill it. The sex is gone.

Murghi has no libido. It’s limp. White meat, they call it. Skin and bones; no fat. Nothing to melt and snake its way up, spread all over the degh; infuse every kanni with its goodness.

It’s fake, put on, a CHARADE.

And it’s NOT Biryani.

This wedding being called off, it’s just the first, ladies and gentleman, in a long line of disasters that Chicken "Biryani" will lead us to.

Mark my words, this cancer will kill us all.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Faiz is Beautiful but Can You Really Call Him a People's Poet?

I recently came across a short debate I had with Mr Sohail Hashmi on Kafila. I found rereading it quite interesting so thought I’d post it up here for posterity.

Mr Hashmi, of course, is a writer I much admire and I have, especially, read his writings on the architectural heritage of Delhi with great interest. In this instance he wrote a lovely piece on Faiz, Urdu’s greatest poet of the modern era. What I took issue with, though, is Mr Hashmi’s characterisation of Faiz as a “people centric” poet and one whose “ideas glisten with the truth and democratic ideals that enlighten the hearts of the overwhelming majority of our people”

My first comment on the article was:

“Thanks for this fascinating account Mr Hashmi.

Although, personally, I’ve always battled with the notion that Faiz’s poetry was “people centric”. If it was, it was in a very top-down, almost patronising sort of way. Can any poetry, written in Rekhta (and here I make a very stark distinction between Urdu and Rekhta as should be done) ever be truly “people centric”? Are “people centric” themes enough to award Faiz with the honour of the subcontinent’s most imprtant poet, this hardly a handful people in the sub-continent could actually understand his overtly Persianised Urdu? You must admit, to claim to talk on behalf of the people, when the people can’t even understand you is a bit rich.

Urdu is one of the few languages which exhibits such extreme literary diglossia that the literary form (at least in poetry) is almost incomprehensible to its native speakers. Bengali is another sub-continental language which did exhibit a similar trait with an artificially sanskritised form of the language (shadhubhasha: cholit bhasha :: Rekhta:Urdu) but thankfully, that elitist trend has died out and almost all literature in Bengali today is in cholit bhasa (i.e. the normal spoken language).”

To which Mr Hashmi replied:

“You have touched upon some very complex issues and no simple explanations are possible.

Between the time that Faiz began writing to the time that he died, Urdu ceased to be a language of public discourse in large parts of the subcontinent, at least in the parts where it was born as Hindavi, that is the Ganga Jamuna doab and in the parts where it grew into a full fledged language that is Deccani .

The language became a victim of the divisive politics of language equals religion that began with the Fort Williams college in 1825 and culminated with the adoption of the resolution to make Sanskritised Hindi as the national language of India instead of Hindustani written in both the Nagri and the Persian scripts, the latter had the backing of Gandhi but the constituent assembly went against the old man’s wishes and voted against Hindustani.

URDU became the official language of Pakistan where it was the mother tongue only of the Muhajirs and was banished from the land where it was the language of Prem Chand, Kanhaiyalal Kapoor, Krishan Chand, Ram Lal, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Tilok Chand Mehroom, Firaq, Arsh Malsiyani and also of Josh,Sahir, Shakeel, Jazbi, Majaz, Majrooh and Kaifi. Faiz could only write in the language that he was comfortable in, his mother tongue might have been Sialkoti Punjabi but all his initial education was in Urdu, Persian and Arabic and this is the linguistic discourse that he was familiar with.

The other issue is do you have to , of necessity, write in the language of the people if you are writing about issues that concern them? I don’t know how many blacks had access to the English in which Langston Hughes wrote his anti racist poems, how many Russians understood Yevtushenko or Maykovsky, when they wrote on issues that concerned the working class of Russia.

We had a literacy rate of 13% when we became independent, so 87% of our population was illiterate in all languages, which language should the writers have written in. Tulsi’s Ram Charit Manas written in Awadhi,because he wanted the image of the ideal being to be presented before the people, has had to explained to Awadhis for the last 400 years, the same is true of Jaisi’s Padmavat and Rahim’s Dohas.

some of what a great poet writes about the people is understood by them immediately, some takes a while to be understood and some is understood after a couple of generations. it is this that makes him/her a great poet. the only way a poet can be understood totally by the people is for the poet to write not only in the language of the people but also write only about the here and now. This way lies 15 minutes of glory and impermanence and an absence of literature that speaks to generations. you can not demand that literature that lives beyond its time and deals with issues that go beyond the immediacy of now must also be understood totally, fully and completely by those who live at the moment of the creation of that literature.

Faiz has fortunately written both kinds of poetry, the time bound and the time less and that is one of the reasons of his being recognised as the greatest poet of the 20th century. He has written BOL, he has written Tarana, he has written Hum Dekhengegy, all three have become slogans of our times, he has also written hazar karo merey tan se, Nisar mein teri galiyon pe, Do aawaazen etc that need to be understood gradually. Why do you want all political poets to be political activists too. Let the political activist do what he is good at and allow the poet to do what he is good at.“


“Thanks for that detailed reply. Couple of points:

I should have done this earlier, but let me define the term Urdu (since the term means so many things). From my first post, I used ‘Urdu’ to mean the common spoken language of the urban people of much of North India. What you might call baazaari Hindustani. The term ‘Hindustani’ when used to mean a sort of middle language between High Hindi and High Urdu is fairly new. The term Hindustani was coined by the British and throughout the Raj the term was used as a synonym for what we call Urdu today. For example, John T Platts dictionary calls qaaf the “twenty-seventh letter of the Urdu or Hindustani alphabet”. In most of modern India, Hindi is also used as a synonym for Urdu. For example, Hindi Movies etc.

The language became a victim of the divisive politics of language equals religion that began with the Fort Williams college in 1825 and culminated with the adoption of the resolution to make Sanskritised Hindi as the national language of India instead of Hindustani written in both the Nagri and the Persian scripts, the latter had the backing of Gandhi but the constituent assembly went against the old man’s wishes and voted against Hindustani.

I fail to grasp how this is relevant to getting Faiz to write in a register which is widely understood but, for what it’s worth, the GoI’s attempts to invent a new standard (sanskirtised) register of Hindi-Urdu have failed rather miserably. That Gandhi anecdote is nice but only half true. Gandhi oscillated quite a bit on the language question (which was typical of him) between Hindustani in both scripts as well as only using the Devanagri script.

Faiz could only write in the language that he was comfortable in, his mother tongue might have been Sialkoti Punjabi but all his initial education was in Urdu, Persian and Arabic and this is the linguistic discourse that he was familiar with.

That might be one reason. Or it just might be that he wanted to occupy a literary space that only Urdu could provide. Either way, Faiz is not at fault. What I am wondering is whether applying labels such as ‘people centric’ etc to his poetry is not misleading.

We had a literacy rate of 13% when we became independent, so 87% of our population was illiterate in all languages, which language should the writers have written in. Tulsi’s Ram Charit Manas…

Uh-oh. ‘Literacy rate’ refers to written not spoken language, Hashmi sahib. Jaahil bhi bol aur sun paate hain. If recite Bidrohi by Nojrul to an illiterate Bengali he will understand it. Prem chand would be understood by all Dehlavis; even Krishan Chandar. I doubt that the same could be said of say ‘Aaj Bazar Mein’.

The other issue is do you have to , of necessity, write in the language of the people if you are writing about issues that concern them?

IMO, it would be crushingly patronising to not do so; reminds me of Gandhi’s pledge to not allow Harijians to run the Harijan Sabha but for it to be run by upper castes and Ambedkar’s rage at this.

Why do you want all political poets to be political activists too. Let the political activist do what he is good at and allow the poet to do what he is good at

Exactly my point; let us admire the beauty of Faiz without clouding his appraisal with terms that take his poetry beyond poetry into political activism. Art for art’s sake and all that; because as soon as we start assigning it some utilitarian function, say, we state that his poetry, to, quote Zaheer from your piece, carries “democratic ideals that enlighten the hearts of the overwhelming majority of our people” when the only a microscopic minority can even understand what he’s saying, that we start sounding rather hollow.”

Sohail Hashmi:

“you are absolutely right in using the term Urdu for the spoken language of much of North India, Urdu was the language of this region till a little after 1947, with the selection, on paper, of Hindi as The Official Language the spoken language of much of north India has undergone drastic changes in the post 1947 period and Urdu has by and large been replaced with a strange mixture of what you call the Bazaari Hindustani and the Sanskritised Hindi constructed by the Rahtra Bhasha Samitis in the post independence India.

The term Urdu, used for the language that was commonly spoken in the north Indian plains itself is also a rather recent development, the prose of Ghalib when it was first published was given the name Oud-e-Hindi by Ghalib, and Rekhta that Meer and Ghalib wrote their poetry in was derisively called Rekhta – mixed Language by the Persian Ustads of the immediate post wali period. So Urdu that was known as Hindi/Rekhta written in the Persian script by and large till the time of Ghalib and a little later was transformed at Fort Williams into Hindustani/ Urdu if written in the Persian script and Hindi if written in the Nagri Script
My reference to the divisive politics that created the language equals religion discourse was to the process, initiated at the fort williams and carried forward by the votaries of Hindi/ Hindu/ Hindustan and Urdu/Muslim/Pakistan that changed the very nature of the language that was commonly spoken and understood till the immediate pre independence period. It is this changed nature of the language that has created the situation in which most of Faiz’s poetry and also the poetry of Sahir, Majrooh and Kaifi and others begins to sound unfamiliar to those whose grandparents would have had no problem in understanding it.

As for literacy and illiteracy the point that I am making is that there is a difference between the vocabulary of the illiterate and the literate and therefore written language is always a little if not very different from the spoken add to that the difference that has always existed between the language of Poetry and that of Prose, Meer in his time and Firaq much later were two poets who wrote in a language that was closest to the spoken Hindi/ Hindustani/ Rekhta/ Urdu and still there is much in their writing that an illiterate will not understand.

Faiz was writing in a language whose literary traditions and style he was more familiar with and could therefore express himself better in. to my mind He wrote in a language that he thought he could best express himself in, that was a language he inherited as the language of literary discourse and he wrote on issues that were dear to him or he felt strongly about, issues that he grew up with and held dear I think he wrote poetry with a strong political message, you might not think so. So be it.”

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Hindi Nationalism

Cross posted on Tarikh Par Tarikh

Relating an incident related to the formation of the Eight Schedule of the Constitution (which contains a list of India’s official languages), Alok Rai says:

“Nehru had asked him [M. Satyanarayan] to draw up a list of languages, and he came up with a list of the twelve major regional languages of India. Nehru added a thirteenth, Urdu, before putting the list to the Committee. When “a Hindi friend” asked whose language this Urdu was, Nehru replied angrily:

Yeh merī aur mere bāp-dādā’oñ kī bhāshā hai (This is my language, the language of my ancestors!)

Thereupon the “Hindi friend” retorted:

Brāhman hote hue Urdu ko apnī bhāshā kehte ho, sharam nahīñ ātī? (Aren’t you ashamed, being a Brahmin, to claim Urdu as you language?)

Nehru did not reply. The Eighth Schedule was finally approved by the Constituent Assembly with the addition of one more language, Sanskrit.”

Of course, what the “Hindi friend” didn't know is that Kashmiri Brahmins (such as Nehru) as well as other upper-class urban Hindu communities such as Kayasts and Khatris had traditionally learnt and used Urdu before the creation of Shudh Hindi and its installation as the official language of India in 1947.

In fact, it is this act of creation that Alok Rai (who, coincidentally, is Hindi-Urdu author Premchand's grandson) outlines beautifully in his book Hindi Nationalism, from where this extract is taken. To quote again from the book itself, Hindi Nationalism is “a narrative of the violence done to the people vernacular Hindi by and in the name of “Hindi” [Shuddh Hindi], the Sanskritic usurper.” It is an account of how, Indian and Hindu nationalism intertwined in the late 19th century to produce the hyper-Sankritised register of “Shudh Hindi” which is now the official language of India and forms the core of our education system. The book charts how this “Shudh Hindi” battled the already entrenched register of literary Urdu (in which the ancestors of Nehru had made their living), other forms of Hindi-Urdu such as Braj Bhasha as well as everyday spoken Hindi-Urdu (Bollywood language, if you will) to emerge as the primary language of the government of India.

If you've ever wondered why, say, the language of train announcements is so arcane or struggled with the bombastic vocabulary of Dinkar as a school student, this is a highly recommended read.

Bonus read:

A Debate Between Alok Rai and Shahid Amin Regarding Hindi: an engaging debate between historian Shahid Amin and the author Alok Rai around the book, amongst other things.