Sixty years ago, on the night of 19/20th October 1962, ill-equipped and ill-clad Indian troops on the NEFA front, were subjected to intense Chinese attacks, that wiped out many front-line Indian positions overnight. Communist China’s attack had occurred, just as the world was engrossed with the Cuban missile crisis and the possibility of a nuclear war.
And it ended just after the US and USSR agreed to a truce. China withdrew its troops unilaterally, on 20th November, exactly a month after it had invaded India. But wwhat had led to the debacle of 1962 is worth recalling, not just to honour the memory of those brave men who fought on those Himalayan heights gallantly, but also for the sheer incompetence with which India’s political and military leaders performed that led at least one memoir to be titled ‘The Himalayan blunder’.
India’s political leaders had simply lulled themselves into believing that a confrontation was unlikely as China had been appeased enough, and had been won over, especially after the Panchsheel Agreement of 1954, by which India recognised ‘Tibet as a region of China’.
This left the Tibetans friendless, except for the covert initiatives of the CIA that began around 1954, but without Nehru’s knowledge, as Panditji was obsessed with his non-aligned agenda, and was averse to covert activities. But the clock for the 1962 conflict had begun to tick, in the late 1950s, once the American hand became known to the Chinese.
The CIA, always on the lookout to play the ‘great game’, began engaging with Tibetans in the Indian town of Kalimpong – a hangout for Tibetans and spies – near Darjeeling, more so with the Dalai Lama’s brothers there and in the US. Soon Tibetan volunteers were picked up, and the CIA trained them in the US in guerrilla warfare, armed them with mortars, machine guns, etc. and launched them to harass Chinese troops on the Tibetan plateau.
Transmitted messages from America’s Secretary of State and the US embassy in Delhi, had further got China’s back up. And when the Dalai Lama escaped from Chinese troops in Tibet – with American assistance – into India in March 1959 and was given exile along with his followers by India, it infuriated the Chinese leadership in Peking (now Beijing) that saw the Tibetan issue as their internal matter following China’s occupation of Tibet in 1952. Pandit Nehru claimed he wasn’t in the know about this matter, but China didn’t care.
The downward slide in Sino-Indian relations was soon hard to reverse, as China began a steady military build-up in Tibet of ground and air forces. Lots of Soviet assistance was provided, following a deal between Mao and Khruschēv, since China had stood up as Moscow’s proxy against the US in the Korean war. But all these signs were ignored by India’s defence minister Krishna Menon and Nehru’s intelligence Czar, BN Mallik, as also IAFs air photographs of China’s military and nuclear facilities at Lop Nor in Tibet.
And as China made claims beyond what India recognised as its traditional boundaries with Tibet – whether at Aksai Chin or south of the McMahon line – an increasingly aggressive Pandit Nehru – under pressure at home – announced that the boundaries with China were settled, ‘map or no map’. And then he ordered the Indian army ‘to throw out the Chinese’ from Indian territories.
A visit by the Chinese premier, Chou en-Lai in 1960 and the ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’ sloganeering during his visit to India wasn’t good enough. Nor was the Chinese proposal of a ‘swap deal’ to settle the boundary dispute, with China keeping the Aksai Chin area and India the area south of the McMahon line. Nehru however dismissed all the repeated calls by military commanders to prepare for the worst, as war mongering. But when teams of i’ll equipped military men were sent beyond the disputed boundary on the Himalayas, to set up look out posts under its ‘forward policy’. But China soon thereafter responded with a severity, that left India’s leadership in shock.
WHEN CHINA ATTACKED
As China attacked in October 1962, Indian army’s front-line units were routed on the NEFA front. In eastern Ladakh, our army put up a much better show, holding on to most of their frontline positions. Though there were many exceptional acts of gallantry by Indian soldiers, most of the generals failed their men, with the exception of Lt Gen(s) Daulet Singh and Bikram Singh in Ladakh and Umrao Singh in 33 Corps in Siliguri.
But the dismal roles of General Thapar, COAS, of Lt Gen LP Sen GOC Eastern Command– who chose to stand aside as the civilians in Delhi interfered and made a mess of things –can never be condoned. Most shocking was the conduct of the pompous GOC of 4 Corps in Assam, Lt.Gen BM ‘Bijji’ Kaul, seen by everyone as Pandit Nehru’s man. Unsuited for the job he’d opted for; he was asked to ‘throw the Chinese out’. But Kaul rushed off to Delhi when the first wave of Chinese attacks came, to report to his political masters about the invasion of NEFA, and stayed back feigning illness, as the Chinese hordes attacked Indian positions right across the McMahon line.
In Delhi- where the deployment of frontline troops and battle plans were being handled – there was shock and confusion. But the decision of Nehru not to use the IAF, at the advice of his intelligence chief BN Malik, on the assumption that it would upset the Chinese further, and that the Chinese fighters could wipe out Calcutta and other cities – claims that had no basis – remains one of the major strategic errors of that conflict.
Heads did roll after the conflict, and it is said that Nehru’s soul (and his ambitions) died after that war. Pandit Nehru’s lackeys would argue thereafter that China had stabbed India in the back. But any historian will tell you that there were enough warnings from the late 1950s of what Mao and his communist leadership were planning to do, to teach India ‘a lesson’. The Chinese, had a score to settle.
Even now, they hold India responsible for the harsh atrocities heaped on them by the British colonialists, as they saw India as an extension – even after India’s independence – of the British empire, an empire that had turned China into a nation of opium addicts, destroyed many of the palaces (albeit with Indian troops under British commanders) and made China bankrupt.
POST WAR REPORT
A post war study, ordered by Gen Thapar’s successor, Gen JN Chaudhuri, known as the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report, was asked to look into what all went wrong in the debacle in NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh). The report apparently doesn’t examine the battles in Ladakh, as Indian troops generally held the line there. It apparently puts the blame on the generals, and not so much on the civilians, as that wasn’t in their mandate, say those in the know.
Though the study wasn’t mandated to comment on the role of the political leaders, but it has apparently remained locked in the vaults of South Block for fear that by inference the finger for India’s failure would point at the politico-military leadership in Delhi (i.e, Pandit Nehru and his team). And when two non-Congress Governments had the chance to make its findings public, two defence ministers, the late Jaswant Singh and Arun Jaitley, chose to let sleeping dogs lie!
But even then, the Indian army seems to have learnt lessons from that conflict in 1962. A few examples would support this view. For one, as early as 1967, when the Chinese began muscle flexing in Nathu La and Chola, in Sikkim, the GOC there, Maj Gen Sagat Singh, told his superiors that he wouldn’t accept any Chinese intrusions beyond his fenced boundary. And when they did mock Indian soldiers and reminded them of 1962 through loudspeakers on the front line, and then fired at an Indian fence-mending party, Sagat let his troops mow down the Chinese, handing them 340 casualties with a message that India wasn’t India of 1962.
The Chinese thereafter went quiet for 20 years till 1987, when they once again intruded around Somdorong Chu on the McMahon Line. The then army chief Gen Sundarji, in a swift response airlifted troops and surrounded them, leaving Rajiv Gandhi’s government in a flux. But it soon led to a quiet Chinese withdrawal, followed in 1988, with the much-publicised visit of Rajiv Gandhi to Beijing, which eventually led to a series of bi-lateral diplomatic initiatives.
And as India’s swift response to Chinese intrusions in 2020 have shown, that New Delhi would be willing to trade blows – as our troops did in the Galwan valley – if push came to shove. And this time the use of air power wasn’t ruled out, either.
THE WAY FORWARD
Where we still have to learn from the past is to understand Chinese intentions better. Experience shows that China respects those with a resolve, and are willing to stand up to its bullying, unlike how our leadership in the 1950s were appeasing China. And as the recent stand off on the LAC has shown us, no amount of diplomatic dialogue will get Beijing to give up control over Aksai Chin. It is strategically important China, being a source of the key rivers in that region, of uranium and from where the all-important highway G 219 passes, linking capitals of two of China’s most vulnerable regions, Kashgar in Xinjiang and Lhasa in Tibēt.
As China gets more assertive, India could either try and match its build up on the Himalayas, and hope that its friends in the QUAD, especially the US, would stand in, in the event of an escalation. Or be prudent to find a solution to the boundary dispute, that has lingered on for six decades. One option is to consider the swap proposal of 1959-60, suggested by the Chinese, that’ll let China keep Aksai Chin and allow India to keep Arunachal Pradesh (earlier NEFA) by both sides accepting the boundary lines on an ‘as-is-where-is’ basis. As there are strong leaders in both China and India now, they could do such a settlement of the boundary and survive politically.
It is said that after the 1962 conflict, policy makers in South Block were willing to do so, but then some Nehru loyalists blocked this move, as they didn’t want to betray the legacy of Pandit Nehru ! Surely the BJP wouldn’t harbour such sentiments.