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The Pied Pipers of 1962

October 18, 2012

FOR the record, it was 50 years ago to the week that the world stood terrorised, facing annihilation. The Cuban missile crisis began on Oct 16, 1962, when President Kennedy was handed U2 photos showing Soviet nuclear missiles being installed in Cuba.

History’s worst nuclear close call ended on Oct 28, 1962, after Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles on guarantees that the US would not invade Cuba. A secret understanding required Washington to also pull out its missiles from Turkey.

That week was a double whammy for India. Chinese troops attacked its border posts on Oct 20, starting a month-long armed conflict between the Himalayan neighbours.

Indian resistance collapsed within days and the standoff ended with Beijing’s unilateral declaration of ceasefire on Nov 20 and a quick withdrawal of troops.

Leading the charge in both instances were some of the most charismatic figures that ever lived. Khrushchev and Kennedy, Nehru and Mao Zedong. They were the Pied Pipers who led their blind and mesmerised followers to the precipice of terrible mayhem.

We were innocent then. In 1962, Indians constituted a strange mélange of ideological influences. There was Nehru of course, but there was affection for Mao and Kennedy too. Warmth for Nikita Khrushchev seemed contrived, and may have been aided by a powerful communist movement in India. Marshal Tito, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Ho Chi Minh were the other leading heroes.

There was grief in my family in Lucknow when Kennedy was killed in 1963. There was joy when the Soviets put the Sputnik in orbit in 1957 and applause again when Yuri Gagarin rode into space four years later.

The American Library in Lucknow, located near an old building known as China Gate, distributed soft vinyl records of Kennedy’s inaugural speech of January 1961. The words were repeated in classrooms, often with attempts to copy his distinctive Boston accent.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Nobody thought or knew then that reference to “any price” would turn into a real nightmare by October 1962. That there was a pugnacious Kennedy Doctrine to thwart communists in Latin America, as the Eisenhower Doctrine had advocated for the Middle East and the Truman Doctrine prescribed for Europe, was not a thought that came easily.

On the contrary, Kennedy was associated in Indian consciousness with canisters of American milk powder and ghee that were distributed free in schools. A village in Rae Bareli (now Sonia Gandhi’s parliamentary constituency) was one of its recipients.

The local Congress MLA charged with its distribution was rumoured to have kept aside some for his children and he lost the 1962 election.

PL480 was an American scheme of the Kennedy era that brought shiploads of wheat to feed a starving nation. Rupees raised from the soft loan were invested in real estate in Delhi and many American diplomats today live in the most posh areas thus secured. Robert Vadra was not born then.

Nehru was the father figure who could do no wrong. When he called out to his countrymen for help in 1962, women competed with each other to surrender their jewellery to the state coffers.

In those days, Indian middle classes didn’t count their material gain as they do today. People didn’t know or they didn’t care much about interest rates. There were government bonds to fund the border war, and they were trusted like Nehru’s promise.

“Freedom is in peril. Defend it with all your might,” the embattled prime minister exhorted his people. His call was carried above the masthead of the National Herald, Lucknow’s best newspaper that he founded and once edited.

The message carried his signature, which lent urgency and credibility to the cause. The Chinese had attacked India, Nehru’s India. And he needed help. Period.

Little did we know then that his poorly conceived ‘Forward Policy’, was seen even by his admirers such as Neville Maxwell as an act of aggression, a poke in China’s eye.

Nehru’s refusal to respond to China’s preference to discuss the border dispute flowed from a fatal miscalculation. He leaned on the two superpowers to thwart any retaliation from Beijing. But the Chinese shrewdly chose a moment to strike when the world was busy confronting a far bigger looming disaster, with its epicentre in the remote Bay of Pigs.

Nehru’s notion of freedom and Kennedy’s idea of liberty masked a prohibitive cost their unquestioning followers were willing to pay. It might be difficult to imagine today the heartbreak after the 1960s euphoria when it dawned on an entire generation that their heroes suffered from the gambler’s tick that comes from the belief he would win the next round. In the Kennedy-Khrushchev confrontation there wasn’t going to be a second round. As for Nehru, he died a defeated man.

I have memories of metre-gauge trains packed with Indian soldiers that passed right behind our house in Lucknow. They were cheered when they headed to NEFA, the colonial era North Eastern Frontier Agency since named Arunachal Pradesh.

The troops were cheered as they headed home, quite unlike the treatment cricket teams get after losing a series abroad. That’s how we were in 1962, entranced by our heroes like the besotted and gullible children of Hamelin.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.