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Mainstream, VOL L No 44, October 20, 2012

The 1962 War

Wednesday 24 October 2012, by Kuldip Nayar


The India-China war in 1962 is 50 years old. Yet the question that remains unanswered is whether it was a military debacle or a political hara-kiri. It is true that our defence forces were vanquished and got a thorough beating. But are they to blame or the political masters who pushed them into the war when there were no preparations?

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru cannot escape the blame because he is the one who ordered the Army to throw out the Chinese who had occupied our territory despite our protests and even threats. That he should give an order which was untenable is the highest irresponsible act. That he did not know the realities on the ground does not absolve him of the blame, but instead piles more responsibilities on his shoulders. As a Prime Minister it was his business to know and act accordingly.

My hunch is that he was aware of our defence unpreparedness. He might have not known that the soldiers were not acclimatised or did not have shoes and arms to fight at the heights. But he knew that India did not have enough weapons and enough trained soldiers for the type of operation that China would demand.
Probably, the Prime Minister was too depen-dent on his Defence Minsiter, Krishna Memon, who nourished a pet thesis that a communist country would never invade a developing country that was trying its best to keep the Western bloc led by America and the Eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union from fighting. That Krishna Menon proved unreliable is beyond doubt.

BUT Nehru’s tragedy was that Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai, who swore by friendship with him had proved to be more unreliable. Ultimately, it was he who ordered his forces to attack India on October 20. Twice betrayed, Nehru could not survive the blow and he died in his bathroom in less than one-and-a-half years after China’s attack and the unilateral ceasefire that came about 20 days later in November.

It is not that the Army did not caution the government that it was not prepared for a war, much less against China. General P.N. Thapar, then the Chief of the Army Staff, sent a long report to the Prime Minister to acquaint him with the woeful conditions in which the armed forces were. Thapar warned that the war thrust on the ill-prepared army would result in a disaster. He proved to be right.

Unfortunately, the note never reached the Prime Minister, not till Thapar himself told him that he should have considered the note. Krishna Menon had kept back the note because it would have given Nehru a realistic picture of the armed forces. Menon had promised about the country’s preparedness to face any challenge and had even claimed that the Defence Ministry’s ordnance factories were producing the weapons for their requirement. He could not contradict himself.

Perhaps it is all there in the Henderson Brooks report on India’s 1962 debacle which the government refused to divulge in public interest. Even the Central Information Commission has refused to intervene and the matter has been pending before the Supreme Court for years. It is time that the government made the report public because the weaponry has changed and the tactics have changed and even the mode of war has changed since 1962. But political reasons come in the way of the publication of the report.

People like Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was then the Home Minister, raised the question that the unilateral ceasefire offered by the Chinese should not be accepted. His reasoning was that the ceasefire was a soft option and would lull the nation into complacency. But if the ceasefire had not been accepted even at the expense of some more territory going to China, the nation would have been steeled and one day got back all the territory which the Chinese had occupied. His plea was rejected by Nehru because he always went for soft options and earned the name of India being a ‘soft state’ in the world.

I recall the Army officers fighting at the heights welcoming the ceasefire. Shastri, whom I accompanied to the forward areas, had asked me to inquire their reaction to the ceasefire. Without exception they, almost a dozen of them, said they had gone too soft and had no heart in fighting. Even in trenches, they thought of clubs and restaurants rather than the enemy’s tactics.

“You should think of recruiting new officers whose mind would be on war,” said one officer. “We are no good. We have grown too soft. The country needs determined soldiers. I hope the government would also wake up to the paucity of weapons, training and even walking shoes,” added the officer.

However, the 1962 war helped India to expand the Army and arm it to the extent it was possible to do with the help of America. This preparation came in handy in the 1965 war when India clashed with Pakistan. Whether it was a draw or whether India won the war, at least it washed off the stigma of collapse before the Chinese in 1962.

Tikha Khan, then the Pakistan Army Chief, commented after the 1965 war that India could have walked into Pakistan because it had very little to defend itself but even with small resources “we were able to keep the Indian forces at bay and did not allow them to occupy any city of ours, especially Lahore, on which they had riveted their eyes”.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is

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