Indo-China 1962 war: Who committed blunder and responsible for humilation?


(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

At the outset, let none suffer from illusions over the culpability, responsibility and accountability of Nehru-Krishna Menon duo for the political and military debacle in 1962 India’s China War. The fact that the Chinese unilaterally declared ceasefire and withdrew forces from the foothills of North East Frontier Agency (present day Arunachal Pradesh) to Tibet – North of Manmohan line – was a direct slap on the face of Nehru’s pretensions of “Third World” leadership. What a national shame and disgrace?

Having been commissioned in July 1961, I had the unique distinction of holding the appointment of Officiating Company/Garrison commander of 2nd Battalion the Madras Regiment in Mechuka, Siang Frontier Division (mentioned in the declassified Part 1 of General Henderson Brookes Report). On commencement of withdrawal, I was the Rear Guard Company Commander that covered the withdrawal of the “Garrison” comprising 2/8 Gurkha Rifles and B Wing of 11 Assam Rifles.

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Let me place on record the tragic event at the tactical levels. “Never leave the highway for a by-way” was the sane advise given by Major G D Pimple (survivor of a Maratha Unit in the Battle of Monte Cassino in World War 2 who rejoined 2 MADRAS from NCC to go on pension) before leaving me as Rear Guard Commander responsible to withdraw my column in a safe manner, which was carried out despite 2 Chinese ambush attempts, without rations, forced to abandon Radio Set 62 with expired 12 volt battery and wet blankets during five days trek across high altitude ridge lines prior to meeting rear party detachment from Along meeting us enroute; but with complete command intact with small arms.

Unfortunate that Colonel Eric Taylor, his Adjutant and 2 other officers of 2/8 GR with Major G. D Pimple died (failed to follow his own advise) unable to negotiate snow capped mountain on orders to withdraw on night 18/19 November 1962 – depending on the situation by the Brigade which flew back from Along to Jorhat a day prior.  The command structure collapsed on night 18/19 November 1962.

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Many critical lessons can be learnt even now if Modi-led government declassifies “Henderson Brookes Report of 1962 India’s China War” even after 55 years? After all, Neville Maxwell has placed it on website long ago. It provides a deep insight into the failures of political and military leadership at all levels. So what if the report lay bare politico-bureaucratic strategic bankruptcy and bungling? After all, lessons of the past must form the basis to shape current and future policies and strategies.

Let me highlight important features of the Henderson Brooks Report. At the political level, it clearly exposes Nehru’s despotic-cum-autocratic leadership style was patently flawed and out of sync with the “hawkish” global strategic environment of Cold War era. The US and its allies got involved in the Cold War what with the US implementation of Marshall Plan. “Containment on the Door Steps” of Eastern Bloc – communism – was their avowed policy. Three Western Military alliances were formed: NATO; Middle East or CENTO; and SEATO. Pakistan joined the CENTO and SEATO. The Chinese Civil War, the Korean War (1950–53), the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 brutally crushed by the Soviets, the Suez Crisis (1956), the Berlin Crisis of 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 were major happenings.

Oblivious to the hawkish global environment, Nehru’s strategic vision and foreign policy initiative was based on “Panchsheel – five Principles of peaceful co-existence”. Nehru was not a realist. He was infatuated with non-violence and leftist leanings. Divine instincts or intuitive capabilities shaped his strategic decisions. Nehru had progressively fallen in love with a ‘revolutionary’ China and sacrificed Tibet. On 29 April, 1954, India signed the “Panchsheel” agreement with China at Peking – “Agreement (with exchange of notes) on trade and intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India” and set to last for eight years. Few days later, Nehru emphasized his commitment to Panchsheel at the Asian Prime Ministers Conference at Colombo. Perhaps, Nehru wanted to be a la modern Ashoka – apostle of peace.

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Following Chou En Lai’s visit to India in 1959, the “Hindi-China Bhai-Bhai” policy became the touted position. Bizarre was also Nehru’s championing the cause of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Belgrade in 1961, on the basis of “Panchsheel”.  When the “Panchsheel Agreement” lapsed after 8 years, relations had soured, the provision for renewal of the agreement was not taken up.

Suffice to sum up, Nehru was clouded in foreign policy posture based on the illusion that violence and wars have no place in conflict resolution. Nehru trusted China to honour the Panchsheel and disbelieved Chinese build up of war. Ipso facto, “No loss of inch of territory – patently flawed” was the higher strategic direction, which continues even now.

In sum, Nehru failed dismally by the criteria of seizing opportunities as the hallmark of great statesman. Nehru’s defence policy posture after gaining independence in 1947 through non-violence was most ill conceived – “Rubbish, total rubbish, we don’t need a defence plan.  Our policy is non-violence. We foresee no military threats.  Scrap the Army.  The police are good enough to meet our security needs”. It explains the reason for the utter under preparedness of the armed forces.

Having recognized Chinese rule over Tibet, had Nehru accepted the “quid pro quo” basis for resolving the border dispute – recognize their claims to Akshai Chin in return of  recognition of Manmohan Line in 1960, the entire scenario would have been different today.  It would have pre-empted China-Pakistan bonhomie and eliminated the ‘two-front” threat that exists today.

Nehru was ignorant of military affairs; lacked depth of military knowledge and experience to wage wars; and had no time for the Generals.  Nehru brushed aside any information that did not fit with his (often wildly inaccurate) preconceptions. No permanent consultative body of experts preparing appreciations and alternatives, no equivalent to the Chiefs of Staff Committee or the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the West.  No overall national aim and end objectives of war.

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Next, the Henderson Brooke’s Report clearly apportions the blame on intelligence failure. Until the induction of forces into Ladakh and NEFA in the aftermath of Longju incident in late 1960, B. N. Mullick, Director of Intelligence Bureau, was the repository of intelligence for all others. Nehru’s view that “China will not be provoked for a show down” was reinforced by Mullick’s assessment that “China would not militarily respond to Forward Posture Policy”, which was accepted as ‘Gospel’ truth by Nehru.

Even the military intelligence assessment during 1959-60 gave the Chinese capability of one Regiment (Brigade) plus with some tanks opposite Ladakh which was later reassessed as one division plus by October 1960.  Similarly, the initial intelligence assessment in late 1959 was one division against Sikkim and three regiments against NEFA. In 1960, the increased Chinese threat assessment was revised to three Chinese divisions with bulk against Tawang.

Let me reiterate that higher direction/grand strategy based on “Forward Posture and No loss of an inch of Territory” was flawed. The three tiered military strategy consisted of “deployment in piecemeal in isolated platoon sized border posts on the watershed to control entry into NEFA” across McMahan line backed up strongly by bases in depth on the second ‘Tier” followed by the “Defence Line: Towing–Bomdila-Ziro-Daporizo-Along-Roing-Tezu-Lohitpur-Hayulang. Due to woeful paucity of troops and grossly inadequate logistics infrastructure, the plan was doomed for disaster by original conception.

Let me trace some data of deployment. Before the issue of “Forward Policy”, 50 Assam Rifles platoons were deployed on 36 outposts to demonstrate “flag bearing” role.

In June/July 1962, “Operation Leghorn” was launched and 42 platoon sized posts were deployed of Macmohan Line. In Tuting Sector, I gave logistic support for Kepang La platoon. Majority of posts were located well away from their bases (on foot or mule tracks 3-10 day march). And, they were tasked to defend the shoulders of passes until the “last man last round”. No artillery or air support. Logistical sustenance was a nightmare.  No troops were available to occupy defensive positions around bases; and no positions were prepared on the third-tier of the Defence Line to wage the battle of “Defence Boxes” based on the classical style of Battles of Imphal or Kohima. Such was the operational bankruptcy.

Image result for nehru and krishna menonDe facto, our troops were not adequately equipped, trained and motivated to wage wars inhigh terrestrial areas as against enemy forces descending from Tibet plateau. No light weight winter clothing or snow boots. Troops were armed with Boer War vintage pt 303 bolt action rifles. Weapons malfunctioned in the cold. Deep snow hampered movement. Even the physical fitness and endurance capability of troops was suspect to sustain 20 miles (32) per day for seven days continuously totally self reliant. They moved from the plains of Punjab. Hardly had they time to acclimatize and undergo pertinent training essential for battles. Troops were unprepared to fight battles in high altitudes.

What followed after China commenced its offensive foray’s was even more bizarre. “Throw the Chinese out” was the political direction to the military leadership which was mutely accepted.

The Henderson Brookes Report also clearly highlights the diminution of authority of Army Command structure. The quality of Generalship that emerged was poor lacking in moral courage. The COAS and the Eastern Army Commander were mere figure heads and the most spineless. Internal personal rivalry among Generals to gain Nehru’s favour and lack of moral fibre, confused loyalties; self interest; escapism; and disillusion came to fore. Generals from Delhi were commanding platoon sized posts and issuing orders countermanding intervening headquarters. Command failures led to phenomenal battlefield confusion with issue of orders to withdraw to be retracted later.

The Henderson Brookes Report provides a scathing indictment on General B M Kaul, an Army Supply Corps Officer, woefully ill equipped either tactically or strategically to wage wars first as Chief of General Staff at Army HQs and later as the ill fated IV Corps commander.  General Kaul wanted to prove that he had the mettle to implement the political directive of “throw the Chinese Out”.  So, he moved with skeletal staff and raised the Corps HQs overnight. Then, Kaul took piggy back ride on a Khampa porter to the battle scene in Dhola pass and fled from the scene feigning sickness to Delhi and conducted battle from sick bed. Never ever such rank cowardice that got condoned.

In retrospect, let me highlight lessons of 1962 India’s China War. Lack of understanding of background realities prevents political breakthroughs by both sides – China and India.

Eight historical defining events or landmarks are recounted to provide a historical perspective of the border dispute. One, throughout 19th century, China exercised sovereignty over Tibet through a local governor.  Two, the British invaded Tibet in 1903 and the Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia and then to China. In 1904, an unequal treaty signed converted Tibet into a British protectorate.  After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the regions comprising the present-day Tibet became de facto independent under the control of the Government of Tibet, supervised by the British under a British protectorate.

Three, in March 1914, a tripartite conference was convened in Shimla to settle the border issue.  The British and Tibetans agreed on a common border demarcated on a quarter inch map sans surveyed relief features on top half portion: the famous McMahon Line was born. However, the Chinese only initialed the main document and did not ratify it.

Four, the PRC and their predecessors the Kuomintang had always maintained that Tibet was a part of China. The idea of a Greater China was to unite Mongoloid race under one nation. China remained emphatic to redraw the borders calling them “accidents of history” imposed by external powers. The PRC also proclaimed to “liberate” the Tibetans from a theocratic feudal system and made it a top priority to incorporate Tibet, peacefully or by force. Mao in December 1949 ordered that preparations be made to march into Tibet at Chamdo to induce the Tibetan Government to negotiate.

Five, On 16 September 1950, the Tibetan delegation met with the PRC’s ambassador General Yuan Zhongxian in Delhi. Yuan communicated a 3 point proposal that Tibet be regarded as part of China, that China be responsible for Tibet’s defense, trade and foreign relations.

Six, in October 1950, Mao’s troops marched into Tibet.  Lhasa appealed to the United Nations. India, though recognizing Tibet’s autonomy (‘verging on independence’ as per Nehru’s words), began to vacillate and was unable to stand up in favor of their peaceful neighbor against Red China. Tibetan delegation signed the 17- Point Agreement “under duress” on 23 May 1951 in Peking authorizing the PLA presence and Central People’s Government rule in Political Tibet.  The Dalai Lama formally accepted the 17 Point Agreement in October 1951. Seven, El Salvador sponsored a complaint by the Tibetan government at the UN, but India and the United Kingdom prevented it from being debated.

Finally in 1956, Tibetan militias in the ethnically Tibetan region of eastern Kham started fighting against the government.  When the fighting spread to Lhasa in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. Both he and the PRC government in Tibet subsequently repudiated the 17 Point Agreement and the PRC government in Tibet dissolved the Tibetan Local Government.

In retrospect, expressed in Nehru’s language, his foreign and defence policies were “Rubbish, Rubbish”. Of course, there appears to be a refreshing change in foreign policy – no more NAM. However, “Not to lose an inch of Territory” remains India’s higher direction/grand strategy. It reflects rank politico-strategic bankruptcy. How can army hierarchy evolve any worthwhile military strategy based on “No loss of an inch of Territory”? And, military strategy continues to be “watershed deployment”. Is the current hierarchy also indulging in “jingoistic rhetoric”?

And, the lessons are explicit for those who appreciate realities. Pending border dispute resolution, political decision-makers need to review the direction of “No loss of inch Territory” to allow operational flexibility and freedom; and specify a clear “Grand Strategy with end objectives defined”.  Next, military strategy needs review to exploit the terrain features. Finally, training for fighting in high altitudes and logistic support must be maintained at efficient levels. Armed Forces must be prepared to wage high intensity war based on enhanced threat scenarios on various well defined ingress avenues.