1962: A Gandhian War

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Nehru’s Forward Policy was built on Satyagraha
Neville Maxwell has struck again: in leaking the Henderson- Brooks report, Maxwell’s assertion that Jawaharlal Nehru was responsible for the 1962 debacle is made incontrovertible. After all, a high-level Indian Army report backs Maxwell’s thesis. However, neither explains the awkward detail of why Nehru mounted the Forward Policy that unleashed the dogs of war when he knew full well India’s incapacity to defend itself.

The question has become an enigma because the China war isn’t viewed in its appropriate intellectual context. That is the relationship between Nehru and his mentor Mahatma Gandhi, who invented the politics of satyagraha. Though its greatest success was India’s liberation, satyagraha’s first international application was the country’s Forward Policy. Its architect, Nehru, began as a standard-issue modern–a product of a Western intellectual landscape–but under Gandhi, ended up incommensurable with modernity. As Nehru wrote in Towards Freedom, ‘Gandhiji was very difficult to understand; sometimes his language was almost incomprehensible to an average modern.’ Nevertheless, Nehru sought Gandhi because he ‘admired the moral and ethical side of our movement and of Satyagraha’ and ‘the belief grew upon me that, situated in India and with our traditions, [satyagraha] was the right policy for us… A worthy end should have worthy means leading up to it.’

As inheritor of Gandhi’s mantle and, hence, a satyagrahi, Nehru subscribed to the truth that is non-violence—insofar as non-violence is possible in a world where the very act of living is violent. To be truthful, Nehru, and by extension India, had to convert violence into non-violence in a truthful way, that is non- violently. In doing so, he assumed what any satyagrahi does— that a unifying morality entwines all. It was a conduit to attack the violent, but in a manner and with a purpose so radically different that it is relatively non-violent. The difference lies in the violent inflicting violence to create irrevocable boundaries, while the satyagrahi maintained non-violence by refusing to cooperate in violence and absorbing the opponent’s violence to elicit sympathy from him. However, no satyagraha could tolerate death, for that both refutes truth and weakens it in the never- ending battle with the violent.

This intellectual context meant Nehru’s China policy was driven by his commitment to truth. To accede to Chinese aggression would have betrayed truth. Moreover, Nehru had to refute untruth in a truthful manner. He, therefore, sought to elicit a moral response, hence the Forward Policy whose point was not to fight and win, but recklessly suffer, to elicit the response Gandhi provoked in the British who ultimately sympathised with Gandhi and retreated. To conduct the Forward Policy also meant that Nehru had to ensure that India was not extinguished by Chinese aggression, because then something far more significant would die: the truth. In short, not only did Nehru have to strike China, but had to do it from a position of weakness. This is why it called for the same ‘reckless courage’– Gandhi’s phrase–demonstrated by every satyagrahi during the fight for independence.

Perplexingly, analysts have never contemplated this homespun explanation of the enigma of India’s Forward Policy. Gandhi, however, predicted Nehru’s actions when he wrote: ‘You cannot divide water by repeatedly striking it with a stick. It is just as difficult to divide us. I have always said... Jawaharlal will be my successor. He says whatever is uppermost in his mind, but he does what I want. When I am gone he will do what I am doing. Then he will speak my language too.’

Ignoring the Mahatma’s insight, our analysts instead seek to contain Nehru within the West’s intellectual landscape. In doing so, they judge a book by its cover and walk into an intellectual dead-end. As Henry Kissinger wrote, ‘India is a democracy, by far the best functioning and genuine free system of the nations achieving independence following the Second World War. Its ruling group speaks excellent English... Almost all of its leaders have studied in Western universities. Yet Americans have great difficulty in coming to grips with the way Indian leaders approach foreign policy.’

The reason why Americans have ‘great difficulty’ is the same as why Forward Policy remains an enigma. In both cases, India’s rationality is understood in a peculiarly Western manner because India’s leaders appear Western. Hence Nehru’s concern, inherited from Gandhi, and about means matching ends, is ruled out-of-court, because the West is limited to Liberalism or realpolitik. The a priori dismissal of Nehru’s concerns is why neither Liberalism nor realpolitik can account for Indian policy, and so the concoction: Liberal realpolitiker. However, this is an impossible fabrication because the premises of the inventors of the two schools of thought–John Locke and Thomas Hobbes–are contradictory and fundamentally irreconcilable. Moreover, Christianity animates both. For Locke, the premise is that the belief in Christ makes all people equal and sensible. Hobbes’ premise is that people were neither equal nor sensible and required a king to keep them in check. Though basally contrary to Locke, Hobbes’ Christianity shines through. He merely transfers the Christian morality tale, where Christ unites all, to a secularising world where the king fulfils Christ’s role.

The intertwining of Western religion with the two strands of Western rationality and their disagreement about the very nature of man fatally undermines the notion of a Liberal realpolitiker. In any case, the claim is historically tendentious when applied to people overwhelmingly not Christian. Moreover, Nehru made non-violence an absolute while Hobbes and Locke operate on the basis of violence: Hobbes uses violence to control people, Locke relies on a delusive apparition to seduce people. Interlinked with this is another crucial difference: Nehru’s avowed aim was to match ends with means whereas for Europe means are sacrificed for ends. Furthermore, to assume Indians to be Liberal realpolitikers replays the supposed immaturity of Indians to rule themselves. Hence, the Anglo-Saxon overlord remained to teach the East how to be rational.

Finally, there is a practical issue. To assume Indians to be Liberal realpolitikers demands that our rationality was deleted and replaced by an import by a handful of Europeans in about 200 years. In combination then, to assume we operate in terms of Locke or Hobbes is a case of imperial overreach, which instead of convincing, defiles both.

Evidently, the import of delusive categories and their careless application has deformed the study of Indian foreign policy. It is time our analysts develop the self-confidence to judge Indians as capable of formulating their own rationality. There is no logical alternative. The assumption that Nehru and his successors Westernised themselves has led analysts and foreign diplomats to unpack Indian foreign policy using Western concepts. But these have been unable to provide an intellectually coherent explanation for the war and Indian policy since then. What this points to is only one possibility—Indians possess a unique political culture. It began with Gandhi: satyagraha.

Deep K Datta-Ray is the author of the forthcoming book The Making of Indian Diplomacy: A Critique of Eurocentrism (OUP, New York)