By Maroof Raza
As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, it is also a good time to reflect on the geopolitical challenges faced by India in the subcontinent and beyond, even as India remains a beacon of hope in an otherwise hopeless subcontinent.
Sri Lankan economy collapsed recently and Pakistan is trying to stay afloat, somehow. The military junta is ruling Myanmar while both Nepal and Bhutan are facing increased pressure from the Chinese in the Himalayas.
The Tale of Kashmir
While the Indian leadership was grappling with the integration of the princely states into the Indian federation after independence, the invasion of Kashmir unfolded with Pakistan army-backed irregulars racing to capture the Valley.
The mysterious hands that prodded the political elite of the newly created state of Pakistan to launch an invasion of Kashmir in October 1947 were never exposed, but Iqbal Malhotra’s well-researched book: ‘Dark Secrets: Politics, Intrigue and Proxy Wars in Kashmir’, explains this in detail.
He argues, that it was the British establishment that prodded Pakistan’s army to launch the invasion of Kashmir in two parts – Op-Gulmarg to capture the Valley and Op-Dutta Khel to take over Gilgit Baltistan. Nehru’s government launched the Indian army and the Indian Air Force (IAF) to save the Valley and push out the ‘raiders’ from Kashmir, after the ruler of Kashmir acceded to India, in October 1947.
A prolonged campaign followed– from October 1947 into the summer of 1948 – to ‘save Kashmir’ for India, and they did so with immense resolve. However, it was the British officer commanding the Gilgit Scout – Capt William Alexander Brown- who hoisted the Pakistani flag over the capital residency and announced the accession of the Gilgit Agency to Pakistan on November 2, 1947. He was awarded an MBE and the Government of Pakistan posthumously awarded him the Sitara-i-Imtiaz to Brown in 1993.
Dragon in the Himalayas
Modern-day China came into being in 1949, after India’s independence in 1947. Mao first captured Tibet and occupied Aksai Chin and then turned to the Himalayan region as he refused to accept the legality of the 1914 McMohan Line between British India and Tibet. The 1962 Sino-Indian conflict was the outcome of many factors which included Chinese aversion to the increasing US footprint in India to assist the Tibetan cause. Moreover, India’s publication of the maps in 1954 showed Aksai Chin as a part of Ladakh and therefore part of India, making China unhappy.
Furthermore, Nehru’s stand that ‘map or no map’ the McMahon Line was the border in India’s northeast with China, upset the Chinese leadership enough that Mao decided to teach him a lesson.
Since India was seen to be in America’s camp, at Moscow’s signal- when the world got busy with the Cuban missile crisis- China finally attacked India in 1962. The war continued from October 20 to November 19, 1962, when a unilateral cease-fire was announced by China after capturing territories in Ladakh and North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), now Arunachal Pradesh. But it withdrew to roughly where they were launched from.
1962 was a complete blunder as India’s military commanders completely surrendered to the will of civilian leadership – Prime Minister Nehru, defense minister Krishna Menon and Intelligence Bureau sleuth BN Mullick. They ignored all the signs of China’s aggressive intent, and then apparently refused to let the military fight back for fear of upsetting the Chinese.
As newspaper headlines announced the Chinese invasion, they pushed India’s ill-equipped and ill-armed troops into those high Himalayas to fight the Chinese hordes. However, despite the massive odds, Indian troops put up an impressive fight, both in Ladakh and in the NEFA, as argued by this writer in his book ‘Contested Lands: India, China and the Boundary Dispute’ (Westland, 2021).
And though 1962 was called a national defeat, the reality is that the neither bulk of the Indian army nor the IAF was used perhaps for fear of further escalating the conflict. The Chinese invasion destroyed the illusions that Nehru held about his role as a global statesman and India’s standing in Asia.
Wars with Pakistan
While Nehru pursued the policy of “non-alignment” at the height of the cold war, Pakistan captured the opportunity to become a member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954 and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), a resultant grouping from the Baghdad pact which got dissolved in 1979.
After the debacle of the Sino-India war of 1962, Pakistan fancied its chances in 1965 to capture the Kashmir valley through a better-organized quasi-guerilla invasion, unlike their previous disjointed effort of 1947.
However, Pakistan’s plans were at once thwarted by the determined response of the IAF-Army combination. A counter-offensive by India launched across the Punjab border took Indian troops at the gates of Lahore and Sialkot while Gen. Ayub Khan scrambled his forces to save Lahore. A ceasefire saved Pakistan from imminent humiliation. It is another matter that Pakistan later declared the 1965 war a victory while India’s political leadership was too shy to claim a victory. The peace talks at Tashkent left India disappointed.
But the 1965 war carried a lesson across loud and clear: that any Pakistan attempt to take Kashmir would lead to a full-fledged Indian response all along the border.
Again in 1971, a war was thrust upon India while US President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were willing to ignore the Pakistan army’s genocide in what is now Bangladesh. The refugee crisis that followed left India with little choice but to intervene on humanitarian grounds. India’s three armed services all fought the war valiantly. Though the war was about the liberation of Bangladesh interestingly, the post-war accord was about the future of Jammu and Kashmir.
India’s impressive military gains were squandered by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s politico-diplomatic team at Shimla. ZA Bhutto – the man who goaded Pakistan’s generals into genocide and that war – walked away with over 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war (POWs) and a sly smile that he’d out-foxed the ‘victors’ only to give Mrs. Gandhi some hope with the Shimla agreement, had made the earlier the Ceasefire Line (CFL) into the Line of Control (LoC) as a politico-military boundary.
Many apologists insist that the Shimla accord made the Kashmir issue a bilateral matter. But Pakistan has long since abandoned that commitment, whatever India’s official stance on that may be.
On the 76th independence day of India, experts would do well to note that India has achieved so much, despite the distractions brought upon by wars, Pakistan inflicted acts of cross-border terrorism and now the Pak-China nexus on both sides of India’s borders.
Few countries have grown economically and in so many other ways, battling wars and conflicts heaped upon them, like India has done, even as the US and the West had chosen until two decades ago, to ignore India’s peaceful rise, and engaged instead with dubious countries like China and Pakistan. That is one of independent India’s biggest achievements.
(The writer is a commentator on military and security issues based in India. He is also a celebrated author of several books on strategic issues of the Indian Subcontinent. Website: www.maroofraza.com)
Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times