When WhatsApp becomes the chief source of information, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that India was a mere 15 years old as a free nation when China invaded in 1962. An impressionable teenager, whose population was 45 crores, whose GDP was a mere $4,200 crore.
On the other hand, when China intruded into Ladakh this year seizing land and strangling soldiers, independent India was a full grown adult, a real senior citizen if you will, all of 73 years old. India’s population is now 130 crores; its GDP in excess of $3 trillion.
But the manner in which India and Indians have responded to the Chinese incursions, 58 years adrift, provides a grim commentary on the manner in which Indian democracy has matured.
In 1962, the man at the helm of affairs was a learned liberal. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was in his third term, and at 73, not quite in the pink of health.
When the news of the Chinese invasion broke, the Opposition parties pushed the government to advance the Parliament session so that the issue could be discussed threadbare. The government listened and a united response was formulated.
Within the ruling Congress party, and in the Opposition benches, there were discordant voices at the manner in which the issue was being handled by defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon, whose resignation was sought and obtained.
The defence chiefs had the spine to act independently. The press went hammer and tongs at PM Nehru and Krishna Menon. Nehru actually made public all his correspondence with China to clear the air but ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’ was history.
Contrast that with 2020 when a so-called “strongman” is in charge. Narendra Modi is 70 years old, in his second term in office. In the three months since the Chinese were spotted in the heights of Ladakh, the BJP-led NDA government has shown how lightly it treats Bharat Mata.
On June 2, defence minister Rajnath Singh admitted that the Chinese had come into India in large numbers. But even after 20 Indian soldiers were killed on June 15, the prime minister insisted noone had intruded into Indian territory and there were no intruders on Indian soil. Yet, the two countries are in “mutual disengagement” just now.
As opposed to 1962, Parliament has not met, Coronavirus providing a handy excuse to short circuit democracy. The decision-making process is opaque. The Army is virtually run out of the Prime Minister’s Office by a former policeman who is now national security adviser (NSA).
The government’s spin masters send reporters notes intended not to send a message to the Chinese but at driving divisions in the Opposition ranks. Vast sections of the news media have been mostly silent and pliant, painting a scenario far removed from the reality on the ground.
The Modi regime thinks it can manage China by managing the headlines.
The former Union minister and Congress MP, Jairam Ramesh—who introduced the portmanteau word “Chindia” in which he envisioned the two ancient Asian civilisations leading the world together in the third millennium—has just written a stellar biography of the brilliant V.K. Krishna Menon, who is largely seen as the “fall guy” for the debacle.
In this episode of J-POD, the journalism podcast, Jairam provides much needed perspective on how the media conducted itself then—and what the Modi government can learn from 1962. And, as the Chinese dig in and hawks in the government, Army and media pine for action, Jairam Ramesh believes the only way forward for the two nuclear power is a negotiated settlement.
# “The overwhelming opinion in the media in 1962 was there should be no negotiated settlement, we should not give in. The media was perhaps the sentiment in Parliament as well.
# “The ‘mahol’ (climate of opinion) was against a negotiated settlement, and the media was reflecting the mahol. The media was not kowtowing to Jawaharlal Nehru. He was being criticised in newspaper after newspaper.
# “In 1962, the media was far less subservient to the government than it is today even though the government was headed by a titan like Nehru, it had a huge majority. It was not easy times for them.
# “The media at that point of time was merciless, it was critical of Nehru. Nehru did not avoid the media, he spoke to the media, he gave press conferences, and most importantly, Parliament was in session.
# “The media was completely anti-Krishna Menon and Krishna Menon hated the media. He was the one who invented the word “Jute Press”.
# “The best commentary in 1962 was not so much in the newspapers as ‘Shankar’s Weekly’. Week in, week out, Shankar Pillai who was very very close to Nehru, and very close to Krishna Menon also, lampooned them mercilessly. Today if anybody were to lampoon our prime minister in that fashion, there would be sedition charges.
# “Major Gen J.C. Chaudhuri, who later became General, became Army chief in November 1962, taking over from Gen Thapar. For 10 years he was writing anonymously in The Statesman under a byline called “By a Military Correspondent”.
# “On September 1, 1959, The Statesman ran a exclusive story on the resignation of Gen K.S. Thimayya, Admiral Katare, and Air Marshal Mukherjee, and it was written by Chaudhuri, a serving Army general.
“# In his autobiography, Chaudhuri accepts the fact that he didn’t have official permission. Can you imagine this today? A general talking like Thimayya would have been sacked. A general writing like this would have been sacked.
# “The government has become one giant echo chamber.
# “There has been a determined effort to control the narrative, a single minded pursuit, of not the truth but managing the narrative, managing the headlines.
# “This is not nationalism, this is jingoism. There is no questioning by the media. A journalist like Ajai Shukla is portrayed as “anti-national”. You can disagree with Ajai or Sushant Singh (of The Indian Express) but you cannot question their patriotism, their motives. You can discredit them. You don’t discredit them professionally, so you discredit their personal credentials. This is the worst type of argumentation you can think of.
# “In the 1960s, Nehru put all his correspondence with the Chinese in the public domain. What prevents the government from doing that, rather than briefing their favourite journalists and favourite TV channels.
# “Take the country into confidence. Educate the people, ‘this is what has happened, and this is what we require your support for’. What better way of doing it than through Parliament? Why not an authoritative statement on behalf of the government of India? Bring out a white paper.
# Gen Hooda has raised questions, Gen Panag has raised questions, Gen Malik has raised questions, and you look at the way Gen V.K. Singh talks. A man who can call the Indian media “presstitutes”, imagine what frame of mind he is in. Serious people have raised questions. You cannot dismiss their concerns. It is the responsibility of the government to respond to these concerns. Who will respond?
# “The media is no longer independent of the executive. It is no longer an independent entity. You have people who are speaking. These are voices in the wilderness.
# “In 1962 you didn’t have social media, you didn’t even have television. Both social media and television have added to the sense of irresponsibility of national debates. The media should be an instrument of calming, soothing, of bringing temperatures down, actually it is being the reverse.
# “We have to create a climate of opinion in our country that we have to negotiate a settlement. The prime minister has to create it, Parliament has to create it, every political party has to create it, the media has to create it. If India has to occupy its rightful place in the world community, it must negotiate a settlement on the border with China.
# “We will have our differences with China, we will be in competition, we may also be confrontation, but I hope we will not be in conflict. There will be avenues for cooperation. We have to understand each other. China has invested far more in understanding India than India has. There are more Chinese journalists in India than Indian journalists in China.
# “Modi doesn’t take Parliament seriously at all. India is becoming an illiberal democracy. We have all the external trappings of democracy—political parties, Parliament, elections—but the soul of a democracy has vanished. Ved Pratap Vaidik wrote a column in Dainik Bhaskar, ‘Lok tantra ki shehnai bandh ho raha hai, ek tantra ka top chal raha hai.’“
# “Modi is trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. He has enough cheerleaders, he has enough drumbeaters. Gen Singh is a drumbeater. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar has become a drumbeater. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is a drumbeater.
# “Whether people are actually convinced or not, I have no evidence, but I know a lot of people who have been Modi’s supporters, are doubtful of the claims he is making in relation to what has happened on China, that he is not telling the full story. Whether he is able to ride this out, only time will tell.
# “Shatrughan Sinha has the best description: “It’s a one-man show, two-man army”.