Leake on Das Gupta and Lüthi, 'The Sino-Indian War of 1962: New Perspectives'

Amit R. Das Gupta, Lorenz M. Lüthi
Elisabeth Leake

Amit R. Das Gupta, Lorenz M. Lüthi. The Sino-Indian War of 1962: New Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2016. Maps. 268 pp. $160.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-138-69320-3.

Reviewed by Elisabeth Leake (University of Leeds) Published on H-Diplo (August, 2018) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51622

Border disputes have been a key source of tension in international relations. This was particularly the case in the twentieth century as a result of the world wars and decolonization that led to the drawing of new borders and renegotiation of older ones. In the midst of border diplomacy, the 1962 Sino-Indian War looms large as one of the key instances where a border dispute broke out into a full military conflict between two neighboring countries, India and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Amit R. Das Gupta and Lorenz Lüthi’s new edited volume, The Sino-Indian War of 1962: New Perspectives, offers a critical addition to the study of this border dispute and its international, regional, and local consequences.

The 1962 Sino-Indian War emerged from a decades-long dispute over the international border between China and China-controlled Tibet and colonial, then postcolonial, India. In their introduction, Das Gupta and Lüthi lay out the reasons that the PRC and India differed in their interpretations of the colonial-era McMahon Line that the British drew to separate the two spheres of influence. The first section of the volume then moves into more detail, providing four chapters on Indian and Chinese approaches to the border dispute and the move to war. Lüthi’s opening chapter on India’s relations with China between 1954 and 1974 provides a clear overview of events for readers who may be less familiar with this region or with the reasons why conflict broke out. Das Gupta’s next chapter takes a narrower approach, considering the critical role played by India’s foreign secretary, Subimal Dutt, in trying to secure a border agreement. These two chapters clearly articulate the more well-known Indian side of the conflict, but it is the next two chapters that will be of particular use to scholars interested in either Sino-Indian relations or China’s foreign policy in the mid-twentieth century.

As Das Gupta and Lüthi note in their introduction, the Chinese perspective on the border dispute has received far less attention than the Indian side. The chapters by Dai Chaowu and Eric Hyer are thus an important contribution to the historiography of the Sino-Indian conflict, and both chapters clearly show how China’s border policy was shaped by domestic, regional, and international concerns. Dai’s chapter is particularly interesting for revealing how Chinese decision making was shaped by concerns that geography favored Indian border claims because supplies to the Chinese in Tibet from the PRC had to travel via India. This is a crucial point. Because so much of the scholarship, as well as public memory, has focused on Indian failure in the 1962 war and ways that Indian leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru approached the border dispute, the Sino-Indian border has not been adequately recognized as a source of Chinese uncertainty and concern. Dai’s and Hyer’s chapters go a long way toward providing a more balanced understanding of how China, alongside India, understood and wrestled with the ongoing border dispute—and why China ultimately opted for military intervention.

The next section of the volume looks at the Sino-Indian dispute in international context, with chapters exploring British and American, Soviet, Pakistani, and nonaligned countries’ approaches to the conflict. These chapters collectively highlight how the 1962 war figured into the global Cold War, how it coincided with and influenced the Sino-Soviet split, how India’s nonaligned allies wrestled with a conflict between two Asian nations, and how Western powers failed to make much headway in gaining Indian sympathy. The authors and editors are to be commended for the breadth of archival research that has gone into these chapters, all of which explore different international aspects of the conflict. Taken together, these chapters clearly demonstrate that the Sino-Indian War was a source of concern for a number of powers across the globe, but many of these foreign parties struggled to articulate support for either the Indians or the Chinese for a host of domestic and foreign policy reasons.

The final section explores in more depth the domestic impacts of the Sino-Indian War within India, considering how the conflict affected state leaders’ approaches to the constitution and the ability to declare a state of emergency that limited individuals’ rights and freedoms, how Indian Communists and ethnic Chinese in India were affected, and finally, how the conflict has been remembered since its fifty-year anniversary in 2012. These chapters clearly highlight how the Sino-Indian War created tensions in India between the country’s stated pledge to democracy and its concerns for its national security. Payal Banerjee’s excellent chapter is a particularly enlightening, important contribution. Banerjee brings attention to India’s largely overlooked ethnic Chinese population, many of whom had come to colonial India with the encouragement of British imperialists. Banerjee shows how the Indian state succumbed to irrational fears that equated the Chinese within India with the Chinese across the border, and thus chose to incarcerate Chinese Indians in camps in Rajasthan. This is an important history that has been clearly overlooked. This chapter, alongside others in this section, clearly demonstrates that in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, Indian leaders prioritized state security over their diverse citizens.

There is no doubt that this edited volume provides a number of important contributions to scholarship on the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the border dispute that led up to the conflict, and its subsequent consequences within India. Yet there are several points that the editors might have considered further. For example, they could have included a conclusion that brought together the different strands of thought introduced in each chapter. Equally there are issues that have been overlooked that future scholars might explore further as well.

In regard to India, it would have been helpful for the Sino-Indian dispute to be further contextualized. Dai does this in his chapter regarding Chinese policy, so corresponding reflection on India’s other border disputes would have been useful. The Sino-Indian perimeter was not India’s only disputed international border. As many of the contributors mention, Indian approaches to their Chinese border were informed by the Kashmir conflict. The Kashmir conflict, in many ways, was also a border dispute—where should the border between India and Pakistan lay in this region?—though one that Indian leaders framed in terms of international law, rather than colonial precedent. Similarly, India ran into border problems with Bangladesh after its establishment in 1971, and India’s border with Myanmar (then Burma) was still being demarcated in the twenty-first century. By exploring the Sino-Indian border dispute in the context of other local border negotiations, it is perhaps possible to think further about how Indian policy toward China was shaped by other regional dynamics.

Secondly, the people of the border region are largely absent from this book. While Das Gupta and Lüthi’s volume clearly demonstrates the ways in which this conflict created numerous diplomatic tensions both within the region and abroad, the section on the conflict’s domestic consequences might have been expanded. The work of Banerjee and Subho Basu, on Indian Communists, could be complemented with consideration of how Indians and the Chinese living along the McMahon Line were—or were not—affected by the border dispute and subsequent war.

It is worth noting that many of India’s citizens in border regions have been treated differently from Indians living in the country’s heartlands. Those living in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA, now Arunachal Pradesh) were historically considered underdeveloped, with corresponding political and legal implications. Bérénice Guyot-Réchard’s 2016 work Shadow States: India, China and the Himalayas, 1910-1962 on the Sino-Indian borderlands is a particularly excellent example of work that could have been built upon. Even today, a government-issued permit is required to enter the state. Moreover, in the field of borderland studies, scholars often make the point that state understandings of borders and locals’ experiences of living near these borders frequently differ.[1] This was certainly the case for the residents of NEFA and Assam, areas invaded by the Chinese during the 1962 war. Less than two months before war broke out, Indian officials were still reporting on the ease with which locals from NEFA traversed the border into Tibet and China in pursuit of older economic and cultural relations. Thus, one of the interesting questions with any border dispute is how much does it affect those living closest to the border? And how does this inform state practice? Those borderland Indians most directly affected by the war have largely been left out of this edited volume, indicating additional avenues through which scholars can and should pursue understanding of the Sino-Indian War’s domestic consequences.

In total, Das Gupta and Lüthi’s edited volume is successful in setting out a number of new perspectives on the 1962 Sino-Indian War and its significance in a number of different contexts. It is an excellent source for students and scholars learning about the conflict for the first time, as well as those who seek numerous perspectives on its domestic, regional, and international consequences. This edited volume is not exhaustive in its coverage, but it makes some very important contributions, particularly in the included scholarship about Chinese approaches to the conflict. It also clearly demonstrates that this is a conflict that deserves and requires additional scholarly interest to enable us to fully understand its significance for local Chinese and Indians as well as the international community.


[1]. See Michiel Baud and Willem van Schendel, “Toward a Comparative History of Borderlands,” Journal of World History 8, no. 2 (Fall 1997): 211-242.

Citation: Elisabeth Leake. Review of Das Gupta, Amit R.; Lüthi, Lorenz M., The Sino-Indian War of 1962: New Perspectives. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. August, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51622

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