by Saarthak Singhal

The article is a continuation of a previous article which analysed the Kashmir situation and Nehru’s legacy of the same. The first part can be found here.

Love for USSR and Socialism

With the eventual victory of the West over Soviet Union and the eventual dissolution of USSR and India embracing the market economy, a fair question arises; Was our socialist bent worth it?

The Magnetism of Socialism

Socialism was a massive force in 1940s and 1950s. It ignited the passions for revolutionaries both young and old, both Bhagat Singh and Jawaharlal Nehru. The Soviet miracle, in which an old and huge nation mired in poverty and backwardness was transformed into an industrial powerhouse inspired many Asian nationalist looking to do the same for their nations. Incidents such as the Bay of Pigs and the consolidation of the Chinese nation under the Communist Party of China, reinforced belief in the socialist system. USSR was not only an ideological benefactor but helped India in numerous occasions and myriad ways. From subsidized military sales, technology transfers, protection in international forums and cultural outward expansion, the USSR proved India true “all weather friend”. This benefaction allowed India to set up heavy steel and iron industries and massive dams which may not have been possible other wise.

Despite the above, what truly inspired socialism in India was its appreciation of Indian sensibilities. Indian society was built on community and rejection of the Western capitalist sentiment and materialism. The Jajmani system, though riddled with casteism, was akin to collectivization plans and put community based needs first in order to uplift the whole community. In the recently independent India, village development was seen as the prime task and socialism as a model could achieve economic progress without negatively altering the social fabric. Gandhi’s village primacy may not have been the best of economic models yet it was capable of being the mainstay of the economy as even today majority of employment comes from the agriculture sector.

Political Considerations

Choosing the socialist ideology did was not alienate the masses and allowed the limited economic capital in the country to be used for setting up the first heavy industries in India alongwith important infrastructure such as dams and bridges. Choosing socialism also did not colour Indian domestic policies in the same hues of the simmering Cold War. This allowed the Communists, the principal organized opposition in that era, to co-exist with the Indian National Congress with limited external influence and support of the major powers. This allowed USSR’s continued support and the West would never have supported the Communists.
This factor of external influence can be seen when the Chinese communists had a falling out with the USSR and began backing the Communists, which many allege continues to this day. This restriction of the international influence in domestic politics was possible mainly due to the socialist stance. In addition, socialism ensured that the opposition cannot use the suffering and disillusionment of the masses to its political advantage. This led to most Indian polity be unified in the approach to socialism versus capitalism debate and divide an already divided Indian society.
So while India’s democracy won it a few friends in the West, socialism did the same for the non-democratic communist bloc, allowing India strategic autonomy in foreign policy. The same was hardly true for other nations which elevated Indian status abroad and gave it a much more neutral and influential position in world affairs.

Rejecting Western Imperialism

For a newly independent India, not being targeted with Western imperialism became one of the most important considerations. Even a hint of bend towards the West led to fiery opposition not only in the Parliament but also in the press and the streets. In addition, despite being independent saw many other nations under the yoke of colonization which stoked even more suspicion of Western intent. Moreover, American involvement and economic disruptions in Africa and Latin America, popularised the term neo-colonialism. Further, by early 1950s the West had made known their preference of Pakistan and included Pakistan in various Western security institutions such as the Baghdad Pact.
The above led to a greater degree tilt in Indian alignment towards China and USSR. India in a bid to maintain strategic autonomy shifted more towards China and attempted to create a neutral third front in the Cold War, that is the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Pan-Asianism became Nehru’s pet project which led him to the creation of the NAM and the first Asian Games in New Delhi and numerous such initiatives. However, deteriorating ties with China made such an approach untennable.

Falling on a Sword or Backstabbing: The 1962 Debacle

India’s loss to China decisively in 1962 is something which stings Indians to this, most of whom were not even born then. The major reasons for such significance of the loss was the sense of betrayal that Indians felt, which only a few years ago were used to hearing “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai” on the All India Radio. The other reason was also the ease with which the Chinese were able to defeat the proud and admired Indian Army.

Political Mismanagement

The 1962 defeat can be rightly termed as a political loss, as the Indian Army redeemed themselves by winning two major victories in the next 10 years. The Indian Army was outmanned, unequipped of weapons and lacking military strategy and diplomatic heft. The Indian Army was also able to hold its own in Ladakh which indicates early preparedness may have prevented Chinese attacks altogether.
Indian political posture towards the military was immensely peculiar. In a world where military conflict along with unilateral great power military intervention was becoming common, having an ill-equipped military was a calamitous mistake. This was supplemented by rising Indian ambitions and nationalism which began to foster Indian exceptionalism in a certain senses. India is simply too big and influential to have been a Switzerland of the East. A minimum military policy can only be achieved when there is great power patronage and a lack of vested interests or global ambitions.

VK Krishna Menon: External and Internal Divisions

The Indian Armed Forces pride themselves, and rightly so, for being a non-political organisation which runs efficiently with a superb chain of command and a respect for the same. However, in the years leading up to the 1962 conflict, the military was as divided as it ever had been. The spat between Menon and the then Chief of Staff K.S. Thimayya, did not help anyone and only deepened the suspicions and politics of the day. Things came to such a head, that Thimayya offered his resignation, which then became a matter of much political debate and maneuvering. The resignation was rejected however, the scar still remained. They were at odds at most issues, placement of troops, the equipment (the forces were equipped with .303 calibre Enfield rifles) and most importantly, Lieutenant General B.M Kaul.

Menon appointed Lieutenant General BM Kaul, superseding twelve military officers. BM Kaul was not the completely incompetent as many make him out to be, but he lacked serious combat experience and as such was deemed inexperienced for the Army Headquarters. Many officers praised his live-wire attitude and spirit however, his lack of experience hurt India’s counteroffensive attempts. Later in the war, the decision to retake the NEFA under the command of Kaul turned head over heels, and the inexperience of Kaul showed in battlefield.

Chinese Aggression

The Chinese claims on Aksai Chin and Arunachal are highly dubious by any notion or standard of international custom and law. China has the right not to respect any treaty signed under duress however, that does not legitimise their own positions. The mistake made by India in this regard was not keeping track of Chinese maps and making one sided or free concessions. Nehru in that era could have very legitimately asked China to acknowledge Indian borders in exchange of India’s recognition for Communist China and support in international forums.
Chinese aggression towards India should simply be looked at a power play at a neighbour too powerful for Beijing’s liking. China has always had aimed at being the preeminent world power. Many correspondences between Chinese officials also indicate that the Chinese simply went back on their word in 1959, possibly due to India providing refuge to the Dalai Lama and Nehru then meeting the Dalai Lama thus giving him more legitimacy. Chinese troops by this time also began attacking Indian positions in Longju and Kangka Pass.


What the 1962 War showed India, and India would be wise to learn the lesson, is that preeminence in the world cannot be gained without power and that posturing without credibility can lead to an impressive defeat. China successfully called out the Indian bluff of the forward policy. Surely, the Chinese did share their blame for their unwarranted attention, however, foreign policy operators would be wise to realise that the international arena and is anarchical and security only comes from strength. The Chinese claims are mostly dubious and inconsistent with international law yet it was Indian folly to trust the Chinese blatantly.
India was not prepared to face the Chinese in an open battle. This much was made clear by the war hero, General Thimayya, (retired by then and writing for the Seminar). In such a scenario, the forward policy of establishing forward posts seemed foolhardy, with troops which were in no shape for the high altitude warfare they were going to be fighting soon. The Indian position of not giving even a single inch, came crashing down.
This much was admitted by Nehru in a speech in the Parliament after the defeat:

“I remember many a time when our senior generals came to us, and wrote to the defence ministry saying that they wanted certain things… If we had had foresight, known exactly what would happen, we would have done something else… what India has learnt from the Chinese invasion is that in the world of today there is no place for weak nations… We have been living in an unreal world of our own creation.”

Nehru in Rajya Sabha, 1963


Hugh Tinker wrote that “Even his enemies could never accuse him of thinking in any but national terms; caste, creed, town, tongue – none of these loyalties meant anything to him; it was India first and India last.” Nehru made his share of mistakes in office however, it is apparent that it would be difficult to impeach the character of the first Prime Minister of India itself. The purpose of the article is not to discredit Nehru’s legacy, no honest attempt can be made in pursuance of this endeavor. Instead the objective is to educate to ensure they are not repeated.

Views are personal.

Image credits: The Print


Saarthak Singhal is currently pursuing law from National Law University Jodhpur and a Founding Editor at ELS Review.

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