Book Review: India’s China War by Neville Maxwell – Dinesh Sapkota

India’s China War

By Neville Maxwell

Natraj Publishers, 2013(Revised and Updated Edition), 595, ISBN: 9788181581464

Maxwell’s India’s China War discloses the veiled facts of Indo-China war of 1962 explaining overall diplomatic and military endeavors going around two decades, 1950 to 1970. This book is all about the McMahon Line and Aksai Chin, initially disputed, border lines of India and China. India claimed Aksai Chin as part of Ladakh which was administered by China as part of Xinjiang Autonomous Region. McMahon Line is a result of 1914 Simla Accord between Tibet and Britain which draws the 550 miles (890 km) long North Eastern border of British India and Tibet. China invariably rejects the legitimacy of McMahon Line arguing that Tibetan government did not have sovereignty to sign any kinds of accord but India insists it as an ‘axiomatic’ (pp. 69) fact. Maxwell, The Time correspondent of South Asia (1959-1967), presents protagonist India in an antagonistic way leaving great systematization of the facts meticulously.

On the one hand, this book brings mysterious facts of war out of the Defense Ministry of India, and on the other, it has demolished the so-called truth built by sand alone. This is an outcome of adamancy of Indian establishment who had been omitting the real fact, happened in battle field of NEFA (North Eastern Frontier Agency), from the people. Chou En-lai often purposed to Nehru to settle border dispute through negotiation as China had achieved with Burma, Nepal and later Pakistan. However, Nehru turned down the proposal and clutched his stand of ‘no question about the alignment of India’s boundaries’ (pp. 104) and asserted the withdrawal of Chinese from Indian territory. Author awesomely describes the India’s immature diplomacy in general and Nehru’s indecisiveness in particular. Nehru was obsessed by the success of independence movement, public support, victory over Goa and other small military endeavors and underestimated strength of People’s Liberation Army. In spite of ill-equipped, unaccustomed and lesser number of army, India deployed its Jawans for the Operation Leghorn (pp. 346) to evict Chinese from ‘Indian sacred land.’

The book appears successful in achieving its goal of depicting ‘India’s China War’ by providing irrefutable facts throughout the pages. Maxwell excavates proof of thorough-defeat of Indian army against Chinese and presents it in a convincing and authoritative manner.  The minute description of small places, but strategically significant, and the pretext of events has made the author stand apart from the other such books on this topic. Another  amazing capability is that he presents the events that occurred around the 1962 war, without going long back and predicting future, in 550 pages, indeed grippingly. His closed observation of Indian politics and diplomacy privileged him to have good knowledge for such descriptive war history. Most of sentences are constructed in simple past tense. Simple worlds and phrase make it readable to every interested reader. It does seem more historical description than academic.

Overall juxtaposition of events, ideas, facts and events description is quite artful. He introduces at first the  McMahon Line and Aksai Chin.  How these places become disputable? What was the role of imperial Britain? What was the status quo of border? What India and China wanted initially? Justification of title is being given as ‘avoiding anything wordy and academic’ and its idea come in Oxfordshire where “China War” was mentioned for the ‘memorial plaque dating from the early 1840s’ (pp. xv). The chapter Historical Introduction, The Limits of Empire introduces the Aksai Chin and McMahon Line. Part I puts forth description of the Indian ambitions of making clear her claimed land and its beginning. Part II briefly explores the Forward Policy of India towards north for the confrontation. Part III shows Chinese inclination of peaceful settlement of dispute and China’s disillusioned about the possibility of peaceful engagement. Part IV, The Border War, describes war around Khinzemane, Thag La, Dhola, Namka Chu River and other ridge and rivers. Part V bitterly explains the defeat of India Army and its withdrawal  from Tezpur, near to Gowahati. China unilaterally ended the war and declared ceasefire on November 21st, 1961. Last part of book gives information about minister Krishna Menon and generals like Kaul, Thaper, Pathania, Delvi et al after war. At last, Nehru clandestinely agreed for the peaceful settlement and send message to Zhau En-lai through Mrs. Bandaranaike.

Many descriptions are there in-between chapters. Maxwell describes the internal politics of India. Communist cadres were looked down upon after the beginning of the war. Nehru’s ideas of non-alignment pathetically failed when he took step towards war against China. Nehru’s waning reputation has been presented in the book sympathetically. Moreover, his appeal to the Kennedy for the air strike in Indian land against Chinese Army buried his non-alignment ideology into the graveyard. Nehru did not get efficient support from Opposition, Russia, even from his good friend Nasser. His request for the air help is highly datable in Indian political spectrum but author presents fair facts from US side.

Part IV, The Border War, is more impressive. It ridiculously exposes the Nehru’s ignorance of India’s strength in spite of Soviet clear statement that was ‘India, which is militarily and economically weaker than china’ (pp. 329). This chapter details all the battle field like, ‘ [n]either Thag La ridge or Khinzemane is identified on the map… latitude of 27o 44′ 30”N.’ (pp. 334). The strength of each and every brigade and battalion has been described here. Sometime dual and sometime unclear order from Army Head Quarter and Generals’ low morale lightened the technical weakness of Indian Army. Media from both countries are referred in this chapter. Chinese account of first shooting, happened on September 20th, incident describes the first attack from ‘more than sixty Indian soldiers closed in on them from three directions’ (pp366).  This is the chapter where all the humiliating defeats are being described.

As other author, Maxwell also had to depend on the government owned newspapers, radio and its declarations for the information from the Chinese side. He lived in India. He reported from South Asia. He did not have access to Chinese information and geography. He had good relation with Indian elites. So, it iss this book’s limitation that it cannot be authorized officially from China in spite of Zhou En-lai’s acclamation. One skepticism in the possibility of prejudice of Maxwell is always alive because he was one-sidedly informed.

Sentences, paragraphs, citations and notes are successful to create image in the mind. These are powerful expression of facts which creates stubborn image of Nehru, war-image and dim but positive image of China. Embedded maps are very much useful to understand the geography of battle or disputed territory.

This book is very much useful to the readers who are interested in international relations, war, politics, history, diplomacy and especially India-China relations.


Dinesh Sapkot is a student of M.A International Relations 2nd Semester, SAU.


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