When Opposition asked… Nehru answered the questions on China in Parliament

A look at the 60-year-old parliamentary proceedings sheds light on the kind of deliberative democracy at work in the early years of the republic. Unlike today, the PM made it a point to put off other official appointments to be present in the House.

Several books have been written to criticise former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s handling of India-China relations. Most such critiques came after Nehru’s death. During his lifetime, Nehru was his best defender. On the 131st birth anniversary of India’s first prime minister, let us look at the way he tackled the China debate in Parliament on the eve of the first border war and its aftermath. Parliamentary records show that six decades ago, Nehru gave full opportunity to the Opposition to grill his government.

This was amid the 1962 debacle when Chinese troops launched an all-out attack on the northern borders. As a committed parliamentarian, Nehru sat through the debates and replied to the members on behalf of both the defence and foreign ministers. In 16 months between August 16, 1961, and December 12, 1962, Nehru, who also held the foreign affairs portfolio, made as many as 32 statements and interventions in Parliament on China. He spoke over 1.04 lakh words on the India-China border dispute, running into well over 200 printed pages. The government under Nehru did not argue that free debates on the floor of Parliament would hamper war efforts.

As many as 165 members spoke during the Lok Sabha debate on Chinese aggression (November 12-14, 1962). Opposition members assailed the government for lack of military preparations. Nehru was present throughout. He repeatedly assured the members that he would place “every scrap” of paper on the border issue before the House. Compare this with the last (2020) monsoon session, when the government objected to the Opposition demand for debates on the Ladakh face-off. Neither the Prime Minister nor the foreign minister came to the House. As a result, the whole China debate was reduced to a monologue by the defence minister.

Ranged against Nehru in those days were opposition stalwarts like Hem Barua, Nath Pai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, N G Ranga, Balraj Madhok, H V Kamath, Acharya Kripalani, Frank Anthony, Mahendra Pratap Singh, Brajraj Singh, Maniram Bagri and Mahavir Tyagi. In those Satyayuga days of Indian democracy, they sought and got the details of the war preparations and progress of the talks with foreign governments.
Nehru came under severe attack in the Lok Sabha on November 8, 1962, for India’s support for China’s admission to the United Nations. “It is not a question of our likes and dislikes,” the PM explained. “It is a question, which will facilitate Chinese aggression and misbehaviour in future.” When P K Deo sought an assurance that there will not be any more talks with the Chinese until they end aggression, the PM said: “I want freedom of action. I say, first of all, that nothing can happen without this House being informed. Secondly, we should agree that nothing should be done which, in the slightest degree, sullies the honour of India. For the rest, I want a free hand.” (Lok Sabha August 14, 1962).

During the Lok Sabha debate on December 5, 1961, on Chinese incursions, Swatantra Party members insisted the government scrap the Five-Year Plans and divert the resources to the border. Nehru said: “If I get together all engineers and others and dump them in Ladakh what are they to do there?” Next day, he told Congress’s Sushila Nayar: “If we scrap the Five Year Plans, we scrap India, surrender to China.” Fifty-three years later, Narendra Modi scrapped the five-year plans and ended up in a steady fall of GDP, manufacturing and exports for the next three years in succession.

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Nehru also had a dig at the right-wing MPs critical of his “inaction” on Kashmir to prevent the takeover of POK. He narrated a less-known episode on how Ladakh was almost lost to Pakistani invaders in 1948-49. He told the Lok Sabha on August 14, 1962: “The route to Ladakh, the Zoji La pass, was captured by the Pakistanis…Our army did something which deserves to be recorded in the annals of warfare, that is, they went up to Zoji La Pass with tanks and drove out… the Pakistanis out of a large part of Ladakh.”

On May 3, 1962, Nehru also revealed in Rajya Sabha that towards the end of 1960, he had made a surprise visit to Murree and Pindi in Pakistan to meet President Ayub Khan. “I thought I might discuss this Chinese question with president Ayub Khan… I showed them our confidential maps as to where we thought the Chinese were and where we were, and asked what position of the Chinese was on their side of the border.” Pakistan’s foreign secretary “said he knew nothing about those matters at all”. In the Rajya Sabha (August 22, 1962), Nehru elaborated: “Whatever our differences were on Kashmir, I thought it would be advantageous to have a uniform policy with regard to the Chinese aggression…”

Soon after, he revealed his secret talks with Ayub Khan, the bad news came from Peking on May 4. The two countries had decided to hold negotiations to settle the border dispute between China and the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. In his reply to the Rajya Sabha debate on August 22, 1962, Nehru said: “It is very surprising that Pakistan which is a champion standard-bearer against Communism should now try to club with China.”

A look at the 60-year-old parliamentary proceedings sheds light on the kind of deliberative democracy at work in the early years of the republic. Debates were long and winding and the government side did not rush through with bills and resolutions. Unlike today, the PM made it a point to put off other official appointments to be present in the House. As against this, during the last monsoon session, the incumbent prime minister was present only on the first and last day.

Opinion | Under Modi government, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have ceased to be key places for debate

This article first appeared in the print edition on November 14, 2020 under the title ‘When Opposition asked’. The writer is a senior journalist who covered Parliament from 1978 for national dailies.

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