19 October 2012

1962, NEFA & Sino-Indian Relations - Some Random Thoughts

This year marks the 50th anniversary of India’s ignominious defeat in the Sino-Indian War of 1962. While the mainstream newspapers – as is their wont – are doing stories on the subject (which will again fade away into oblivion after a couple of months), targeted mostly for the lay readers to whom the human dimension appeals more than the cold analysis of the causes of failure, I am more interested in the latter.

I, as a kid, had heard stories of 1962 from my father and, as an adult interested in military history, have read whatever scraps of information I could find on internet as well as some of the numerous books written by the generals and historians on the subject.

I also have a personal connection to the NEFA theatre of 1962 war. My grandfather (on father's side) had fought in NEFA during those cold, bleak months of October and November 1962. Since I and my father don’t seem to know the name of his parent regiment, it is almost impossible to know whether he fought in Kameng sector or Walong sector (these 2 sectors saw some of the fiercest battles in NEFA) or elsewhere. Long before coming across narratives in newspaper reports & internet, from my father, I had heard stories about how soldiers were on verge of starvation, fought with clothing which was absolutely inadequate for the cold of Bomdi La and Se La and how the survivors escaped through Bhutan to evade capture from Chinese. Brigadier J.P. Dalvi’s brilliant book has some photographs and description of this barren, desolate and inhospitable terrain.

The Hendersen Brooks – Bhagat report which went into the military causes (political & diplomatic aspects were outside the ambit of the inquiry) of the defeat remains a classified document. The Government of India recently stated in the parliament that the report cannot be declassified since it has the potential to jeopardize relationships with a neighbouring nation. An RTI query by noted journalist Mr. Kuldeep Nayyar elicited a similar response from CIC. This is where we come across “security implications” that favourite catchphrase of our politicos and babus who are otherwise inept in any kind of meaningful strategic thinking and lack the wherewithal to implement the strategy. One of the authors of the report, Lt. Gen T.B. Hendersen Brooks eventually settled down in Australia and with his help, historian Neville Maxwell has published the summary of more or less the entire report which is freely available with a little bit of help from Google. The causes of defeat are well-known and most of the independent analysts and authors, who don’t have an axe to grind, seem to agree upon the board contours of the causes.

The background of Sino-Indian conflict, border disputes, prelude to 1962’s war and causes of India’s defeat have been covered by many competent authors and analysts. A.G. Noorani’s essay in Frontline is a good introduction to the subject for a lay reader. Internet sources like Bharat Rakshak.com offer brilliant descriptions of individual battles and acts of valour and self-sacrifice by the officers and jawans of Indian Army in face of insurmountable odds.

Amongst the books, two stand out – Brig. John Dalvi’s Himalayan Blunder and Neville Maxwell’s India’s China War. Brig. Dalvi’s book is a must read for anyone remotely interested in the subject. The author commanded the 7 Infantry Brigade of 4 Division (one of the most distinguished divisions of British Indian Army in WWII), had to bear the anguish of seeing complete disintegration of his brigade, was captured by PLA and was held as a PoW by the Chinese for close to 7 months. So, this account is as first-hand an account as they come. The book is scathing in its attack on the inept political and military leadership of the time. It starts all the way down from Nehru’s naiveté about Chinese intentions even after China’s attack on Tibet in 1950 and Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 to the brilliant and abrasive defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon, whose communist sympathies were well-known, to Intelligence Bureau Chief and Nehru’s confidante B.N. Mullick, whose intelligence assessment formed the basis of India’s foolish, bumbling and finally, suicidal ‘Forward Policy’. It also doesn’t spare the spineless Gen. P.N. Thapar and the incompetent and inept Lt. Gen. B.M. Kaul (the quintessential villain of 1962) who went on to command a corps specifically created for him (IV Corps) and had the ears of Nehru on all matters military when even a cursory glance at his military background tells that he had no combat experience. (Though he was commissioned in infantry, when most of Kaul’s contemporaries in combat arms were cutting their teeth in Mesopotamia or Arakan in WWII, he spent most of his time in Army Service Corps – the logistics & supply arms of the army) The book also gives sympathetic portrayals of professionally competent men like Lt. Gens. Umrao Singh, Harbaksh Singh, Maj. Gen. Niranjan Prasad who were browbeaten and whose professionally sound military advice was ignored by their superiors for fear of antagonizing powers-that-be. The book touches upon personalities like Gen. K.S. Thimmayya, the charismatic general who had resigned in protest of Krishna Menon’s interference in senior military appointments only to subsequently withdraw it on Nehru’s insistence, Lt. Gens. S.P.S. Thorat & D.S. Verma, who were sidelined by Kaul and his cabal (Verma was hounded even after his retirement to the extent that he emigrated to the UK) and independent India’s greatest military hero, Gen. Sam Manekshaw.

Brig. Dalvi’s evocative account of The Battle of Namka Chu makes this book a particularly fine read. The book is rich on anecdotes and also has an aside which will warm the hearts of many Bengalis. While providing rich tributes to the men in his command, Dalvi gives the account of Jemamdars Bose & Biswas who keep on firing from vintage Indian rifles till the time they were silenced by much superior Chinese machine gun fire. Dalvi cites this as a fine example of valour in face of immense odds and lambasts those who doubt the martial prowess of Bengalis.

Unsurprisingly, the book was banned as soon as it was published (sometime in 1969). I am not sure whether it is still banned (given present government’s reluctance to de-classify the archives) but I found my copy in a 2nd hand book shop of Bangalore.

Only problem with Brig. Dalvi’s book is that it hasn’t passed through the hands of a competent editor and it assumes a certain degree of knowledge about command structure, field formations, combat arms and regimental organization of Indian Army, on part of the reader. While no appendices are provided to explain how companies, battalions, brigades, divisions & corps are related for the benefit of lay reader, acronyms like GSO-Grade I, QMG etc. fly thick and fast. Here, my friend S, whose more than half of family and friends happen to be in the forces, came to my rescue. Also, Dalvi’s book deals only with the action in NEFA and has no account of battles fought in the Western sector i.e. Ladakh.

Ladakh sector had seen The Battle of Chushul at Rezang La, which goes down in the annals of Indian military history as one of the most heroic last stands where the 120-strong 'C' company of the 13th Kumaon (which has the distinction of receiving one of the highest number of Param Vir Chakras), commanded by Maj. Shaitan Singh, PVC (Posthumous), had fought almost to the last man and last round (Casualty figure amounted to 108 in a company of 120 men). There is a stirring and stark memorial to this sacrifice erected by the Kumaonis in Chushul which I wish to visit someday.

A contentious point about 1962 was who attacked whom first. After the unilateral ceasefire, the Chinese claimed that it was Indians who attacked first in NEFA – that’s where the official hostilities began on 20th Oct 1962 – and they retaliated in self-defence. Dalvi is categorical that it was the Chinese who first crossed the Namka Chu River in the Kameng sector of NEFA. The McMohan Line which India even today considers as the de facto border in the eastern sector – and which is not recognized by China even today – runs along this rivulet.

While I have read some excerpts, I am yet lay my hands upon Neville Maxwell’s book. From the reviews I have read, it seems to place the blame of the debacle squarely on the Indian side. While there is a general consensus amongst scholars of all hues on Indian side’s grandstanding in absence of any military might to back them and inadequate preparations, what Maxwell apparently does is exonerating China completely for committing the wanton aggression.

There are other books like Lt. Gen. Kaul’s self-deprecating The Untold Story and Maj. Gen. D.K. Palit’s War in High Himalayas. Dalvi doesn’t have many kind words for Palit either.

What is most disturbing about 1962 is how towns like Tawang simply fell to the Chinese and how swift their advance was to the planes of Assam like the proverbial knife cutting through butter. Stories of how Tezpur became a ghost town on the news of advancing Chinese troops and how currency notes and official papers were burnt by Tezpur’s government officials before leaving the town for safety still gives me goose bumps.

Then, there are debates raging even today about why IAF was not asked to provide Close Air Support (CAS) to our troops on the ground. Some say that IAF of the day was not trained to operate in the hilly terrain of NEFA and carry out precision bombing, though all analysts agree that IAF’s inventory in 1962 was as good as – if not better – than the comparable toys of the Chinese of the day. Also, considering the thin deployment Chinese fighters and bombers in Tibet in those years, it would have been relatively easier for IAF to conduct offensive operations in Tibet as a counter for China to halt its ground offensive. Some analysts are of the opinion that it was the civilian leadership (Nehru, particularly) who never gave the orders for use of air power for fear of, what was even after Oct 20th considered as local hostilities, escalating into a full-fledged war and of Chinese retaliation which could have included bombing on cities like Calcutta. In fact, during the entire course of war, the Air Chief was not consulted even once.

While today’s Indian Army is much better – both in terms of weaponry and doctrine – and the IAF is a far cry from the Hunters and Vampires of 1962, things haven’t changed much in relation to Chinese military might. Two mountain corps has been raised for defensive purposes and Ministry of Defence has approved the raising of two offensive mountain corps as well but the road and rail infrastructure remains woeful, thus resulting in massive challenges in quick troop mobilization. Supply lines are still maintained by air drops or pack mules. Border Roads Organisation (BRO) which is responsible for building roads in these far flung areas is steeped in corruption (as is the wont of many organizations involved in infrastructure development activities) and faces challenges ranging from land acquisition to absence of helicopters to ferry bulldozers and materials required for road building.

While this is the sorry state of affairs on the ground, our mandarins at Ministry of External Affairs and the babudom of South Block are often devoid of meaningful strategic ideas and start crawling when China only expects India to bend. Engaging in realpolitik with the successors of Qing dynasty and Chiang Kai Shek demands an astute and shrewd understanding of Chinese psychology and negotiation skills which is often missing at the Indian side.

Take the instance of border disputes. The Chinese had already built a highway linking Xinjiang with Tibet through Aksai Chin – an area claimed by India – way back in 1951 whose existence was not known to Indians for almost half decade. It is well-understood at both the sides that the Chinese needs are stronger in western sector though their case is weaker there while India’s security imperatives are more important on eastern sector but our case is weaker in this sector (China had refused to recognise the McMohan line in the treaty of 1904). China may have been open for such a ‘give and take’ settlement a couple of decades back before its rise as the economic powerhouse of the world. However, our grandstanding during the Nehruvian era and rhetorical stands of not letting go even an inch of our territory didn’t allow us to settle the disputes while China more or less settled most of its inherited borders with its other neighbours. Today, with a wannabe-superpower China with largest standing army in the world, they don’t need to compromise.

So, while there is no resolution in sight for border disputes and host of other issues, the Government of India still thinks Pakistan as enemy number 1 and hopes to form the fulcrum of Uncle Sam’s ‘shifting of the pivot to Asia’. The strategic community keeps on breathing fire in the seminar circuit of the capital and the mandarins have the nth round of discussions over chai-biskoot, only to read from hashed press releases after the meeting. While this farce gets played in Beijing and New Delhi, the unquestioning jawan mans the border in Arunachal and Ladakh with the hope that like 1962, he won’t be let down by his leaders and asked to be cannon fodder for Chinese.

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