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Mainstream, VOL L, No 45, October 27, 2012

1962 War: Leaders Failed India

Wednesday 31 October 2012, by Inder Malhotra


Since the traumatic story of the brief but brutal border war with China is too well known, having been written in minutest details, and indeed is being retold extensively in the run-up to its 50th anniversary, there is no point repeating it here. Suffice it to say that whoever lived through it, as I did, hasn’t forgotten it half a century later. As Jawaharlal Nehru’s official biographer S. Gopal said succinctly: “Things went so wrong that had they not happened it would have been difficult to believe them.” In the heat and humiliation of the moment some quickies were published on the “Guilty Men of 1962”, but these were based more on anger than on facts. The war’s fiftieth anniversary provides an opportunity to discuss the role of the personality factor—on both sides—in the horrific events as they developed.

With the benefit of hindsight it should be clear that had the Indian state been functioning collectively as a modern and effective one should, it would have realised soon after March 1959—when the Dalai Lama fled from Lhasa and was given asylum in this country—that the two countries were moving from the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai era to the Hindi-Chini bye bye era. The trend became even clearer when violent armed clashes began and at Kongka-la in Ladakh the Chinese drew blood for the first time. Meanwhile, in September 1959, in a curt letter to Nehru, his Chinese opposite number Zhou Enlai categorically repudiated the Indian Prime Minister’s claim that China had agreed to accept the “so-called McMahon Line” with a few “minor adjustments”, and that there were no great differences between the two countries on the rest of the border.

All these red signals were ignored because Nehru had somehow convinced himself that while there would be border skirmishes, patrol clashes and even bigger spats, the Chinese would do “nothing big”. For this the iconic first Prime Minister of independent India must take his share of blame. But what about others, especially his top advisers, military and civilians, some of whom later claimed that they knew the Prime Minister’s reading of the situation was wrong? Why didn’t they say so to him at least privately? Their unabashed governing doctrine was that “Panditji knows best”.

On September 8, 1962, the Chinese crossed the Thagla ridge in what was then North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and is now Arunachal Pradesh. Mired in old beliefs and after consulta-tions with military leaders Nehru announced that he had directed the Army to “throw the Chinese out of Thagla” but had fixed no time limit. It was for the “Army to decide”. The age of innocence ended on October 20 when both in NEFA and Ladakh the Chinese came down the Himalayan slopes overrunning manifestly inadequate Indian defences in their way. Having achieved their immediate objective they halted their offensive five days later. So terribly shat-tered was national morale by then the Republic’s President S. Radhakishnan accused his govern-ment of “credulity and negligence”. Nehru him-self told Parliament ruefully: “We were getting out of touch with the reality of modern world and were living in an artificial atmosphere of our own creation.”

The second phase of the Chinese offensive, when it came in mid-November, was even more formidable and furious than the first. In four days flat the Chinese subjected to this country to a humiliating defeat, a combination of a mili-tary debacle and a political disaster. So much so that Nehru, believing that the Chinese could take over the entire eastern India, wrote those pathetic letters to President Kennedy on Novem-ber 19, the blackest day of that Black November. (May I have the impertinence to say that I published them first in November 2010) In any case, these were overtaken by the Chinese declaration of unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal.

Since there was no institutional mechanism for decision-making on national security, who all should be held responsible for the reprehen-sible way in which the Chinese invasion was handled? Before speaking about individuals, let it be summed up that the valiant Indian soldiers fought bravely but were let down by unspeak-ably incompetent Generals and the political leaders that had assigned them the commands for which they were unfit.

On top of the list of those to be held accountable must be the name of Krishna Menon. A brilliant but waspish man, he was also the Prime Minister’s blind spot. As Defence Minister since 1957 he was an unmitigated disaster, insulting Service Chiefs, playing favou-rites in military promotions and appointments and thus politicising the professional Indian Army. Menon even believed that China would never attack India, and Nehru knew it.

An inevitable consequence of this shocking state of affairs was the selection of Menon’s hottest favourite, Lt.-General B. M. Kaul, as the overall commander of the battlefield in the north-east, an appointment that should never have been made. For although Kaul was a first-rate military bureaucrat and a man of exceptional dynamism excelled only by his ambition, he had absolutely no experience of combat. As if this weren’t enough Menon did something incredibly catastrophic. Kaul had fallen seriously ill at the Himalayan heights and was evacuated to Delhi. Menon ruled that his protégé would continue to command the battlefield from his sick-bed in Delhi. The Army Chief, General P. N. Thapar, did not like this at all. But he did not want to cross Menon’s path and was too timid even to overrule Kaul when the latter was woefully wrong. Nehru did nothing.

IT is a measure of the nation’s contempt earned by both Menon and Kaul that Parliament spent more time and energy in ejecting the former from the Defence Ministry than on repulsing the invaders. As for Kaul, when the visiting Senators from America asked the President whether he, too, had been taken prisoner, he had replied: “That, unfortunately, is untrue.”

There were only three other men—Foreign Secretary M.J. Desai, intelligence czar B.N. Mullik and the Defence Ministry’s all-powerful Joint Secretary H.C. Sarin, who had some say in running the war. Mullik’s role was massive and, more enough than not, malignant. If, instead of messing around with the making of policy, he had done his job of gathering intelligence on China, India would not have been taken by surprise and might even have escaped the humiliation.

For, as declassified Chinese documents and eminent researchers like Roderick Macfarqhuar have revealed, at the precise moment when Nehru was saying that the Chinese would “do nothing big”, in Beijing Mao Zedong was planning a carefully calibrated limited punitive operation to “teach India and Nehru a lesson”. Nor was this a hurried and casual decision. Day after day meticulous discussions took place at which all of Mao’s top civilian and military advisers—including Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao et al—were regularly present. At these confabulations it was decided to make Marshal Liu Bocheng the overall commander of the operations against India. The commands of the troops that would march into India went to younger generals of the PLA that had fought MacArthur to a standstill at Yalu, the river dividing China and North Korea, during the Korean War (1950-53). The paramount com-mandment, however, was that no major step would be taken without Mao’s personal approval. The great helmsman was recovering from the huge setback to his leadership following the stark failure of his Great Leap Forward movement that took a toll of 30 million lives in the famine, which followed.

Since Mullik and his minions had no clue to this, how could they have known that at a time when China was isolated, Mao played his cards internationally most adroitly? As Henry Kissin-ger has just reminded us, in his latest book on China, despite relentless shelling of offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, Mao secured an assurance from the United States at informal talks at Warsaw that the US “won’t unleash” Taiwan on the Chinese mainland.

The Sino-Soviet split was a cause contributing to Mao’s war on India. The lesson he wanted to teach Nehru was addressed equally to Nikita Khrushchev who was friendly to India. Mao brought him into line with the skilful use of his foreknowledge of the looming Cuban Missile Crisis. Realising that he could not take on both the US and China at the same time, the Russian leader changed his policy on India and China, no matter how temporarily.

We in this country were shocked and dis-mayed by the Pravda editorial of October 25 that talked of “our Chinese brothers and Indian friends” and advised India to negotiate practi-cally on China’s terms. For his part, Mao timed the start and end of his invasion of India with the Cuban affair in mind. No wonder at the end of it all he chided Khrushchev for “cowardice in the Caribbean and perfidy in the Himalayas”.
(Courtesy: The Tribune)

The author is a veteran journalist who worked in several major newspapers and has written quite a few books on contemporary Indian politics, noted national leaders and international affairs. He continues to contribute in-depth articles in different publications.

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