I was a ten-year-old, but the memories of the '62 debacle are eidetically etched in my mind; that feeling of helplessness of the elders, their sense of shame, the silent imprecations, the muted curses in private but dignified poise in public, were a temporal marker in the growth of my consciousness as an Indian.
The short war, while it lasted, was an unending season of solemnity and sadness. My father tried to explain to me the enormity of the loss, the depth of our humiliation. I don’t know how much of it sank in me cognitively, but the emotional equivalent seeped through me, as if by a process of osmosis. That moment forever lodged itself like an iron in the soul. My young mind, perhaps in a compensatory behaviour, supported a belief that someday, we will be able to pay back the debt of history.
As I grew up and became wiser in the ways of the world - especially when I became aware of the contretemps of political power play and the metrics of military confrontations - I modified my unstated wish into a more moderate plea: Oh, God, please don’t let us face the same humiliation, at least not in my lifetime.
The recent traumatic events of our soldiers fighting, unarmed, under some weird protocol, against a devious and barbaric enemy, soldiers being clubbed, being pushed off cliffs and dying of hypothermia, though not in same category of misfortunes, are rooted in reasons quite similar. I was reminded of Brigadier Dalwi's lament in The Himalayan Blunder, "This is a record of the destruction of a Brigade without a formal declaration of war". This time round, at least twenty Indian soldiers died, and many more were injured, in an ‘absurd’ engagement, without so much as a chance for our men to fire a shot - something straight out of an Italo Calvino or Kurt Kusenburg story.
In 1962, we had a Prime Minister who felt more at home strutting on the international stage, peddling his peculiar nostrums of non-alignment and Panchsheel to enhance his personal standing in the world. Getting China - which was perceived to be an enemy by everyone else except him - its due place under the sun was his seminal concern. Despite repeatedly being warned of the bellicosity of the Chinese by those who knew, he refused to square up to the reality, because how could he - a man of peace - countenance the thought of war? It seems he was prepared to lose territory rather than lose his face. His paranoia about the military eyeing his ouster led him to deliberately starve it of resources and stunt its growth. Finally, when the moment of reckoning came, he entrusted the conduct of war to those who had no other credential than that they enjoyed his trust: Krishna Menon & General Kaul. But talent for intrigue and currying favour does not come in handy in fighting a war. The rest, as they say, is history.
We have now a high-profile PM who is also a global player, bonding on equal personal terms with POTUS. At the same time, in a seemingly deft act of diplomacy, he sleeps with America’s and our own arch enemy - China. Reportedly, he has established a personal equation with President Xi Jinping. But other than diplomacy, he has also let himself be known as a decisive man of war, and has tried to live by this image. All the spectacular military feats against Pakistan, our idée fixe - are supposed to flow from his iron will.
General Kauls seem to be an undying tribe in the army, and even now, reportedly, an unhealthy proximity between the military and political leadership has grown. And it has consequences. History bears witness that China strikes at an opportune moment (in '62 the world attention was riveted on the Cuban missile crisis, today the world is snowed under the Wuhan Virus avalanche originating from China) and in such a manner that the ‘friend’ feels obliged to cover up for the enemy and go into denial for fear of losing face. 2020 is not 1962, and such matters are independently verifiable. Hence his government has been in denial, and has felt obliged to prevaricate, obfuscate, and tell downright lies to domestic audience. Now that the truth is out the government finds itself hard-pressed to admit and explain the killing of soldiers. From denial, the government has come down to the familiar mournful tune of 'stabbing in the back.' When a war seems to be the only course of action, policy planners seem to have discovered that the national interest is best served by diplomacy, peaceful negotiations and avoidance of war. And China loves, as always, has plotted the mortification of its ambitious neighbour just as it did in '62 ; it is China's way to tell the world who is the hegemon. The situation is still live, and one can’t look into the seeds of the time, but there does not seem to be much cause for joy.
But what about the simulated war being fought with greater seriousness within the borders of the country? Going by the social media posts, one would think that a large number of Indians take the reality of the disputed "Modi jee's 56 inches" quite seriously. The mobilization on both sides is impressive; a sizeable population is attacking their bête noire with all they have: invective, satire, mockery and moralism, and an equal number defending their bête noire with all they have - lies, chicanery, and recourse to the history of Congress. Of course, Mr. Modi’s jugular is quite a prized trophy for his detractors, but it is way too insignificant compared to the Chinese jugular. Of course, political scores need to be settled but not when we are in the process of a debt that the nation owes to history. Admittedly it is a lying, self-obsessed government, but unfortunately this is the only government that we have at the present time, and the conduct of war is in the hands of this government. Persistent questioning is all right, the right to be told the truth is spot on, but this rubbing brings in defenders, the battalion of Bhakts, and the discourse becomes divisive when the call of the hour is to put everything in abeyance. Similarly, the Bhakts who try to hang their "56-inch" on any peg that is available, are sure to bring, in retaliation, the demolition squads in droves.
On Twitter, there was a bare as bone tweet – "twenty soldiers killed in Ladakh." Pat came a retweet form a journalist of repute, a leading light of the left liberal brigade, with the following comment: "Knock, knock, Modi jee, are you there?"
Social media is overflowing with callous and crass remarks and this is just an emblematic example. But little do they realise that they are trivialising the tragic death of our soldiers fighting under impossible constraints. To offset it, there is another example of a paid, commissioned anchor of a Hindi TV channel trying to salvage the image of the government by shifting the blame on to the Army. Whose war are those brave men fighting anyway?
I remember the emotional climate of ’62, and I can definitely say that a feeling pulse in our national heart has atrophied, gone dry. The difference in the public mood between '62 and now is dramatic. In '62, Indian women - for whom gold means a part of their lives - came forward to freely donate it to the national defence fund without demur. (When boycott of Chinese goods is mentioned today, figures and fine economic calculations roll out. This gestures of solidarity against the enemy is not economically feasible, we are told!) The unlettered, untutored masses knew that it was matter of life and death and the nation spoke in a chorus of approval for the nation, for the army. I exclude the communists, because they are a class apart, a different species.
If ever there was a case of not learning the lessons of history, this is the one. Or is it that in a globalised world profit is placed above patriotism? May be some favourable economic deal with the Chinese will act as a healing balm and we will again be dining with the Dragon till such times it makes a decent dinner of us.
Tonight, I will tell my God that He should consider my unstated prayer as withdrawn.
India Today magazine once referred to Manoje Nath, a 1973-batch IPS officer, as being fiercely independent, honest, and upright. Besides his numerous official reports on various issues exposing corruption in the bureaucracy in Bihar, Nath is also a writer extraordinaire expressing his thoughts on subjects ranging from science fiction to the effects of globalization. His sense of humor was evident through his extremely popular series named "Gulliver in Pataliputra" and "Modest Proposals" that were published in the local newspapers.