In the midst of the 1962 Indo-Chinese war, one of the most astonishing letters in the annals of diplomacy since World War II was dispatched to the White House. The desperation in the November 19 cry for help from Jawaharlal Nehru to John F Kennedy was so stark that it rattled the Americans. Nehru wrote, “We have to have more comprehensive assistance if the Chinese are to be prevented from taking over the whole of Eastern India. Any delay in this assistance reaching us will result in nothing short of a catastrophe for our country.”
What the prime minister was requesting was 12 squadrons of supersonic fighters and radar installations, all to be manned by the US Air Force. Dean Rusk, then US secretary of state, “was not in the least convinced Nehru and his advisors were themselves fully aware of what they were asking for,” writes Rudra Chaudhuri in his iconoclastic book Forged in Crisis on Indo-US relations since Independence. As Rusk, who opposed US intervention in Vietnam, correctly saw it, this was an invitation to join the war, not merely a military alliance.
The rest, of course, is well-known, if still puzzling, history. Having punished India, the Chinese government announced a ceasefire to take effect from November 22 and withdrew. Less well known is that the day before, a US team of 24 led by Averell Harriman, an assistant secretary of state, had left for India.
Former Indian External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh (R) with Strobe Talbott
The Americans had set out with the plan of seeking an agreement between India and Pakistan in return for the military succour they were going to provide. By the time they landed, however, the likelihood the Chinese army would take over the Brahmaputra region was fast receding.
As soon as the Americans arrived in India, they went to pay a courtesy call on Nehru. Meeting the statesman who, just days before, had asked the US to go to war on India’s behalf ought to have been an emotional — or at the very least gracious — affair. Not a bit of it.
“Roger Hilsman, director of the State Department’s bureau of intelligence and research, recalled how the welcome was anything but warm. ‘It was pro forma, it was withdrawn, it was very limited.’” As Chaudhuri pungently observes, “Unlike only a few days before, when (Nehru) had pleaded for American assistance, he was now reluctant to even admit asking for aid. This undoubtedly did little for a group of advisors who had flown for 18 hours in response to Nehru’s appeal.”
Reading passages like these, one marvels that India and the US have sustained a relationship at all over the years, let alone what will be grandiloquently and incorrectly be described over the next few days of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US as a strategic or special relationship.
Whatever its faults as a weakened superpower today, its tilt over the years towards Pakistan and its transgressions fighting the “wrong enemy” in Afghanistan, the US has also been exceptionally patient in its dealings with India. Handling Nehru’s switch in moods and temperament during the height of the Indo-Chinese war could not have been easy or the uninspiring aftermath of the civil nuclear deal, but the Indo-US relationship was built on such a solid bedrock of relationships and values that it can withstand almost anything.
One of the premises of this remarkable book is that the Indo-US relationship is the defining relationship India has in the foreign policy arena. We are reminded that one of the only things on which Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill disagreed was the urgency of independence for India. “Notwithstanding the typical trials and tribulations experienced in a relationship between two nations,” writes Chaudhuri there is an “elasticity” to the association that “makes allowances for temporary incidents of botched diplomatic forays.”
This book likely went to press before the arrest of Devyani Khobragade prompted India’s excitable media and politicians to declare the US Public Enemy Number One: Arnab Goswami shrieked with outrage while former foreign minister Salman Khurshid refused to accept a conciliatory call from US Secretary of State John Kerry because he was at a dinner.
Yet, less than a year later, Modi will enjoy a private dinner with Barack Obama at the White House and all the pomp allowed within the protocols of a working visit. The prime minister in turn is overlooking being persona non grata in the US for the past decade or so. This is the very definition of a robust relationship, in large part because it has been such a long one.
Author Rudra Chaudhuri
Chaudhuri shows how often India and the US agreed to disagree, dating back to the Korean War in the 1950s. Nehru may have fallen asleep during his first meeting with US ambassador Chester Bowles in 1951, but after a subsequent meeting, the American would observe that Nehru was “right” about Korea.
Fast-forward to the early seventies where this book argues that scarcely a couple of years after Henry Kissinger had sent the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal in 1971, relations were more or less on even keel again. Kissinger is quoted as praising Indira Gandhi as “tough”, someone who would not in a fit of “pique” become a satellite of the Soviets.
Also in 1973, India’s ambassador to the US was arguing that a tilt can only be temporary and not permanent. “The shift from non-alignment to engagement is not a clear cut story about older and newer ideas, but the interlinking and meshing of older and newer ideas,” observes Chaudhuri.
Viewed through this prism, one can make sense of how India’s nuclear tests in 1998 paradoxically “did more than anything else to bring our two nations together than anything else”, as an American is quoted as saying. The historic civil nuclear deal between the two countries aside, Chaudhuri provides this illustrative statistic. “(Jaswant) Singh and (Strobe) Talbott met fourteen times in ten locations in seven different countries,” the first meeting being just a month after the tests.
This is a masterly survey of Indo-US relations that is authoritative yet accessible. Chaudhuri joins a small club of Indian writers such as Ramachandra Guha who are as adept at dipping into the memoirs of leading figures of the time as combing archives of newspapers to paint a Fauvist picture of a complex and more than occasionally combative relationship.
The only jarring notes in the book are frequent references to Indian “elites” without explaining what this species is and incorrectly identifying Edward Luce, the Financial Times columnist and its former India correspondent, as the founder of Time and Fortune magazines. The legendary Henry Luce is likely gnashing his teeth in his grave.
As the American diplomat Teresita Schaffer pointed out in a book on Indo-US relations some years ago, India is more than likely to vote its own way on UN resolutions; in 2007, she calculated India sided with the US less than 15% of the time.
With the number of Indians who have relatives in the US or have studied there multiplying as are Silicon Valley-style start-ups in Gurgaon and Bangalore founded by returning migrants from the US, few countries in the world are as entwined with the America as India is today.
In coverage ahead of the Modi visit, News X may somehow have deduced that Vice-president Joe Biden is pro-Pakistan ahead of the Modi visit, but the reassuring conclusion of this book is that while India will never be an ally of the US, the two countries will always be friends.
Forged in Crisis: India and the United States since 1947
Author: Rudra Chaudhuri
Publisher: Harper Collins
Price: Rs 699