Why Nehru Failed in 1962

M.L. Sondhi

The Statesman, October 9, 1991

In his introduction to “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews”, the noted statesman, diplomat and scholar, Abba Eban, discusses how theorists of civilization ranging from Oswald Spengler to Arnold Toynbee cannot really comprehend the 5,000-year-old Jewish encounter with civilization. His argument with regard to the Jews is even more relevant to Hindus. To paraphrase Eban: Hindu identity refuses to fit the doctrinal mould and thus incurs a great deal of academic hostility.

In facing Hindu civilization, Oswald Spengler faces a question which his theory cannot answer: How can the future of Hindu civilization be charted when its creative vitality transcends the Spenglerian model, according to which it is in the general nature of civilization to be born and to die?

Similarly, according to Toynbee, civilizations evolve from lower to higher forms into which they are absorbed and give up their identity. This view appears to be highly simplistic when we take some of the latest Western researches of the Rig Veda into account. For example, Antonio T. de Nicolas’s work, “Meditations through the Rig Veda”, has led the renowned American philosopher, Patrick Heelan, to make the following comment: “Behind Plato, and constituting Plato’s background is the Rig Veda, proposing a philosophy of many – perhaps four – dimensions to which , if Antonio T. de Nicolas is correct, Plato and the West are themselves extended footnotes.”


Academic hostility to the cultural, social and national attributes of our Hindu identity has led to misleading semantics which have caused confusion in dealing with practical questions. In his book “Misperceptions in Foreign Policy Making: The Sino-Indian Conflict 1959-1962, Professor Vertzberger has shown that Nehru’s failure to understand the cultural factor led him to disaster in dealing with the Chinese.

He points out the serious errors of Nehru and his advisers in the perception of reciprocal relations between India and China, and concludes that “Nehru misread the Chinese evaluation of the situation on both the ideological-philosophical level, which placed India in a broader political-historical context and hence determined the attitude and degree of hostility or friendship of China towards India, as well as the practical level of bilateral relations which concerned the outcome of immediate needs and interests as defined in each period by the conceptual-theoretical Maoist framework. These misperceptions account for Nehru’s blindness concerning the military mistakes of the forward policy pursued against the warning of his own senior military men. It took no less than a war between China and India to inject some dynamism into Nehru’s static thinking on the issue.”

Vertzberger asks two questions which have not been fully answered: (1) Why did Nehru attach so little importance to the warnings of military men on the possibility of a war for which India was not prepared and which would constitute a national disaster? And (2) how did it happen that, in spite of all the evidence, such a deep and unshakeable consensus was formed in Nehru’s close circle? The author attempts to give an answer by discussing the defects in the information network of the Government of India and the social and cultural characteristics of the Indian establishment at Nehru’s time. It is here that Vertzberger himself fails to put the problem in the larger historic perspective.

It is palpably wrong to attribute Nehru’s failure to respond to the external challenge to Hindu political culture or to say that the Hindu cultural characteristic of “the predominance of words over actions” resulted in Nehru’s inept handling of foreign policy matters with China. Nehru’s choices in abandoning Tibet, in failing to decipher Maoist terminology and his dishonesty in withholding the border incidents from the Cabinet, Parliament and the people, were precisely the personality traits of a man who was not fully integrated into Hindu culture and the Hindu civilizational view. Nehru’s failure to solve the problem of Hindu identity is responsible for many of his reflex actions, particularly his inability to get away from sectional self-interest.

The mistakes and shortcomings of Nehru’s China policy should not be passed over in silence, for it is only by drawing a lesson from them that we shall be able to come to terms with the past and spell out the future relationship with the rest of the world. A major problem hindering our present-day understanding of international relations is the lack of a realistic view of the Chinese, Indian and Islamic cultures.

To quote Vertzberger once again: “Nehru’s error was fundamental. As with many myths, that of Asian solidarity had a grain of truth. All Asian nations had shared the fate of being exploited by European societies. Then again, it is difficult to find cultural homogeneity in Asia. The differences between Chinese, Indian and Islamic cultures in Asia are no less basic than those between them and Western culture. Not only are they different, but the Chinese and Islamic cultures in Asia look down upon Hinduism, moreover there has been a tradition of struggle for dominance in Asia among all three that has never been resolved. Chinese culture became principally a mainland culture, whereas the Hindus gained a foothold and influence principally in maritime Asia. Thus, it happened that what should have been regarded essentially as hopes, were interpreted as ‘facts’ in Nehru’s philosophy of Asianism.”

Mere talk of dedication to the unity and integrity of India will not solve the major problem hindering a real Hinduistic cultural and civilizational revival in Asia. In this context, it is important to note that since Nehru’s time while we speak of cultural and spiritual effulgence of India when the role of Hinduism and Buddhism in shaping the course of human history in Asia is recalled, we , at the same time, tend to bury our heads in sand when India’s encounter with the historic reality of the years of Islamic conquest and the harsh facts of Chinese expansionism in Asia are concerned.

If we want to avoid further shocks to Indian society from the hostile external environment, we should give up our sense of complacency and clearly articulate the authentic frame of values enshrined in our civilization. We should recount its history through the centuries, including periods of both stable and unstable national life. Our central beliefs will be strengthened and not weakened if we determine clearly both the compatibilities and incompatibilities of the Hindu identity and other identities.

Hindus who are not used to imposing their ideas on others by force will only accentuate the trend towards conflict if they do not analyse the perpetual recurrence of war and violence in civilizations where the unresolved dilemmas of history still prevail on account of different social and religious comprehensions of war and violence. Professor Quincy Wright in his monumental work, “A Study of War”, gives the following analysis of Muslim conquests: “Islam carried on wars of conquest in the seventh century. The new religion by fixing attention upon common symbols had inspired many of the Arabs with a missionary zeal. Mohammed’s preaching would probably not have been successful if the Arabs had been a contented people. They were harassed by pressures upon their frontiers from Persia to the east, Abyssinia and Yemen to the south, and the Eastern Empire to the west, by inter-tribal hostilities arising from traditional feuds, and by the increasing difficulties of making a living, perhaps due to a drying up climate and to overpopulation.


“A new ideal, falling upon a soil fertilized by unrest and discontent, provided the opportunity for political leaders to create a state. Mohammed, Abu Bakr, Omar, and Othman, from A.D. 622 to 656, saw that internal strife could be stilled and political unity preserved by directing aggressive and acquisitive impulses externally. Their military ability, utilizing the technique of light cavalry, made it possible to use war as an instrument of political power until the area of conquest became too large and the burden of administration too great.

“But with all their military ability they would not have succeeded had not the traditional thinking of the Arabs regarded war as a natural procedure, had not the doctrine of jihad justifying wars for the spread of Islam been accepted, and had not adequate casus belli been sufficiently stabilized by the refusal of surrounding tribes, kingdom and empires to accept formal offers to become Muslims.”


History Began with the Vedas

If we reflect on West Asia’s contemporary condition, we can only reaffirm that the Islamic countries continue to use war as an instrument of political power, and their use of the doctrine of jihad has strategic consequences and implications for non-Muslim countries. Both with regard to China and the Islamic world, our morale will continue to suffer until we develop a national consensus on our responsibility to sustain the most significant and dominant Hindu cultural values.

Our understanding of history should create a sense of pride and dignity related to Hindu creativity. Here neither Toynbee nor Spengler will be able to help us, but we can examine the role of Hindu civilizational values in terms of the renewed spirit and enthusiasm by which Hindu aspirations triumphed and the memories of an ancient glory which sustained the continuity of the civilization even when the political scenario came under the shadow of malevolent forces.


In order to understand the place of Hindus in the destiny of mankind we must, therefore, have a comprehensive chronology which is not only a list of battles and wars, but explains the turning points of Hinduism as a world civilization. The fact must be faced that Hindus have advanced the freedom, spiritual dignity and welfare of the human family, but from time to time they have come up against violent breaches of their civilizational order by external forces. Even when they lost some of their possessions to the aggressor, they never allowed their civilization to collapse and every failure, injustice or betrayal was soon compensated by the renewed power of Hindu culture elsewhere, sometimes transcending the geographical borders of the subcontinent.

In spite of the political upheavals which are a gloomy chapter of Hindu history, what is remarkable is that the Hindu inheritance of today is based on the uninterrupted cultural activity of Hindus and Buddhists and the maintenance of the dynamism of our common civilization. This characteristic can only be understood today by relating the Hindu identity to the large canvas of experience shared by the Hindu and Buddhist countries. Professor K. Swaminathan, editor of the Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi, in his essay, “Buddha and Bharat,” gives a new message of Hindu identity as related to its universal vision: “Sanatana dharma and Buddha dharma are correlative and complementary. Myths and rituals abound in the more ancient and still popular forms and have an aesthetic and instrumental value, but the sum and substance common and essential to both are metaphysics, morals and methods of meditation….No wonder, therefore, that Vivekananda and Gandhi, like Jayadeva before them, assert that Buddha was a Hindu of Hindus, a perfect exponent and exemplar of Sanatana Dharma.”

Elsewhere, Professor Swaminathan has called attention to the importance of the time-chart given by Heinrich Zimmer in his excellent book, “Philosophies of India”, which places Sri Ramakrishna opposite Darwin, and Ramana Maharishi opposite Einstein, thereby suggesting that the permanent reality of Hinduism is fully relevant to the versatility and change of the modern world, i.e., that Sri Ramakrishna epitomized the summation of Hinduism through his adoption and transmutation of several sadhanas into one transcendent unity, and that Ramana Maharishi with his inquiry into the individual self found a route to the transcendent in a manner most suitable to the contemporary world of relativity and flux.

Another chronology relating the growth of Hinduism to historical events has been attempted by Solange Lemaitre, a French disciple of Swami Siddheshwarananda of the Ramakrishna movement. This civilizastional chronology, not artificially restricted by the present geographical borders of the Indian state, provides a continuous historical memory which indicates that our national existence today is not something artificial or mechanical, but is based on the life-giving principles of the Vedic civilization which has continued in one form or another right till the present day. The chronology starts with the Vedas and goes on to the Upanishads and the epics. The birth of Buddha in B.C. 556 is placed near the notable historical events of the birth of Lord Mahavira, the death of Lao Tse, Buddha’s sermon at Varanasi and the death of Confucius.

The beginning of the historical period proper starts with the Mauryas and is followed by the invasion of Alexander, the conversion of Asoka to Buddha Dharma in B.C. 260 and the advent of the Kushana dynasty with Kanishka as the protector of the Buddhist communities. The transition from Nagarjuna to Bodhidharma suggests both religious and cultural transmission to the rest of Asia. The Gupta dynasty beginning in A.D. 320 and the resurgence of the cult of Vishnu show an upward ascent. In other words, from Vedic times to the Gupta period, Hinduism flourished either successively or together both in India and in countries which shared the spiritual and cultural self-renewal of India.

Towards the end of this period, history further unfolded in Muhammad’s Hijrat to Medina in A.D. 622 and the Arab victory over the Persians in A.D. 642 at Mehavand and the installation of the Omeyad dynasty in Damascus in A.D. 661. The next period is listed as the Rajput period and in India the advent of local monarchies accompanied the decline of Buddhism. Buddhism and beliefs derived from Hindu culture took strong roots in Tibet. The spread of Bhakti in the 9th century is evidence of a revitalized Hindu culture, but events elsewhere start casting their shadows on India.

The Crusades have started and, in 1187, Saladin recaptures Jerusalem. The 12th century sees the Muslim onslaught on India and, in the 14th century there is a Turkish-Afghan monarchy in Delhi. Islam is for the time being victorious over both Hinduism and Christianity for, in 1453, Constantinople is taken over by the Turks and the Christians are driven out.

The next period is that of the Mughals, but the content of the chronology is wider. In 1642 the fifth Dalai Lama becomes the priest-king of Tibet and begins the construction of the Potala in Lhasa. In the larger historic perspective, this is a consolidation of the same universal vision and a response of the Hindu-Buddhistic identity to an external challenge.

The final part of the chronology relates to contemporary Hinduism. But the first entry is the establishment of Shinto as 1769, since the cosmic and theological meanings of Shintoism and Hinduism are closely related. After this, there is the appropriate resurgence of Hinduism in Nepal. The chronology concludes by mentioning important religious and spiritual personalities in the following order: Ram Mohun Roy (1772-1833), Keshub Chunder Sen (1838-1884), Swami Dayananda Saraswati (1824-83), Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa (1836-86), Swami Vivekananda (1862-1902), Ramana Maharishi (1879-1950) and Sri Aurobindo (1872-1951). It also mentions the great revival of Buddhism in Japan beginning in 1890.

Milan Machove says “The way to truth takes the form of dialogue, as all genuine thinkers since Leibntiz, Lessing, Kant and Hegel have known; but perhaps we can go further and say that truth consists in dialogue”. The Hindu identity is rooted in the dialogue which commenced with the Vedas and was maintained by all the successive traditions in our heritage. The further evolution of international society requires a wide-ranging dialogue.


Hindus and Buddhists constitute the overwhelming majority of mankind, and with the unity of the world brought about through modern communication, they can come together to ensure the spiritual growth of mankind. The Sanskrit word, Dharma, has a breadth of meaning which alone can express the vastness of human unity. The criteria and standards of Hindu identity cannot be defined by those who are dazzled by European colonialism, Islamic fundamentalism or Chinese monolithic expansionism.

In order to develop the cultural, social and national attributes of the Hindu identity, we must have a vision which extends from India to the shores of Japan and Java and Sumatra, and which does not relate the history of Hinduism to a few battles and wars which we lost to some invaders. The Hindu identity is a living communication which is appropriate to the age which is dawning. It is not obscurantist or reactionary; it is the precursor of a world civilization.

Letters to the Editor

What price Hindu identity To-day?
The Statesman, 25.10.1991

Sir, - M.L. Sondhi’s two part article, “Hindu Identity” (October 9-10 and 10-11), seeks to provide hope to those who may have doubts about the efficacy of this identity. It deftly tries to use the inchoate idea of Hindu cultural continuity to settle scores with the supposed enemies of Hinduism. But it is the height of absurdity to argue that Nehru’s inability to understand China’s intentions before the 1962 war was due to the “personality flaws ‘of a man’ who was not fully integrated into Hindu culture and the Hindu civilizational view”.

Questions relating to integration into Hindu, Muslim, Christian or other kinds of religious culture have little relevance to the muscle-flexing of a xenophobic nation, guided by the principle that power flows out of the barrel of a gun. Nehru was an idealist in the manner of Woodrow Wilson.

That Mrs. Gandhi proved more than a match for uneasy and hostile neighbours was not due to her deeper Hindu orientation. As a latter-day Elizabeth I or Catherine the Great, she couldn’t care less about such delightfully vague abstractions. A sure instinct for the national interest reinforced her capacity for hitting the challenger where it hurt most. Nehru was more genuinely Hindu in his inspiration (see his will and testament), which was held against him by political analysts like Michael Edwards.

As for Hindu-Buddhist affinity, it exists more in a fertile Hindu imagination. The Buddha not only denied the divinity of the gods but undermined the authority of the Vedas. He tried to provide a firm foundation for social ethics and personal morality, unrelated to theological belief and religious affiliation. It was to the eternal credit of Shankaracharya to have absorbed all that was serviceable in the Buddha’s teachings and, after meeting the challenge of Buddhism, to have brought about its disappearance from the land of its birth.

The belief that Hindus and Buddhists have been living like brothers in South or South-East Asia may be a figment of the imagination of Hindu pressure groups. They are brothers only like Abel and Cain in Sri Lanka and Burma. Neither China nor Japan can be strictly described as Buddhist today. As for the so-called extension of Hindu India in Cambodia, Thailand, Sumatra and Bali, the “Hindu brethren” there would not like to be reminded too often and too loudly of their “debt to ancient India”.

Yours, etc., D. Anjaneyulu, Madras

Quest of Power

Sir, - M.L. Sondhi argues for the unity of the Hindu and the Buddhist world as a bulwark against the Semitic hordes to save and promote human civilization. Girilal Jain has argued elsewhere for a Christian-Hindu alliance against Islamic fundamentalism. But both have many things in common – a sense of historic humiliation, a deep seated inferiority complex and a vision of the subcontinent as the exclusive homeland of Hindu Rashtra.

An eternal religion (Sanatan Dharma whose message is timeless and universal) should not be so earth-bound, certainly not to a particular part. Dharma has to be liberated not only from its Indo-centricity but from its guardians – the Brahmins – before it can become “the precursor to a world civilization”.

Mr. Sondhi’s quest is limited. He is more anxious to establish the legitimacy of his Hindu ethos than to affirm his human (or even Indian) identity. The object and purpose of his quest is power, and not civilization. - Yours, etc. Syed Shahabuddin, New Delhi.
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