Sino-Indian war of '62: A politically-determined military disaster

On October 20, exactly 50 years ago, India was attacked by China across the Macmahon Line in the eastern Himalayas and the Macdonald line in the west. A few pertinent questions have been raised in retrospect. One: was India taken by surprise? Two: who was to blame – politicians or generals? Three: have we learnt our lessons?

That war definitely took the Indian nation by surprise. Nehru should have seen it coming. The military knew it was coming and that they were not prepared. Indian diplomacy should have known, but was unfortunately, neither prepared nor allowed to do anything about it. Their constant refrain was ‘Panditji knows best.’ Did they have no role to play?
The Indian nation was not allowed to know it was coming. Even Parliament was deliberately kept in the dark. China did not surprise us. Nehru surprised himself and he surprised the nation with his naivete.

The genesis of this war lay in Chinese annexation of Tibet in 1959. Nehru voluntarily and unilaterally recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and that too without a quid pro quo. As the sole political authority he allowed himself the self opinionated delusion that as long the homilies of Panchsheel agreement were in place, China will never go to war with India. He is personally guilty of many misjudgments and decisions which can only be termed as naive and foolish.

China literally annexed Aksai Chin during 1956 -57 but Nehru kept it secret from the Indian Parliament till 1959. It was a fait accompli he accepted and knowing fully well that he could not hope to get it back. He called it a ‘desolate wilderness where not a blade of grass grows’. When Pakistan was being forced to accede Aksai Chin to China and Ayub Khan proposed joint defence (obviously against China ) Nehru gave him a cold shoulder, throwing Pakistan, for ever,  into China’s lap. The situation could have been retrieved at least partially, when Chou en Lai offered a deal in 1960 to resolve the border issue by recognising the McMahon Line in the east in return for the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh but Nehru showed total lack of political foresight and leadership in the face of hue and cry by a public fed on empty rhetoric. China, perhaps wisely, saw this as political intransigence on his part and decided to teach India a lesson in international diplomacy and war. The die was truly cast. Nehru’s response came in the form of the infamous forward policy against persistent professional military advice.  

Growing interference

General Thimayya had envisaged a new defence posture vis-a-vis China. However, Krishna Menon, aided by B N Mullick, decreed that attention should remain focused on Pakistan. The duo sowed in Nehru’s mind the notion that a powerful chief (of the Army) might stage a coup. (This phobia persists even today in spite of the military’s consistent record). Growing interference in Army postings, promotions and strategic perspectives drove Thimayya to resigning, in 1959. Appointment of P N Thapar as COAS in preference to Lt Gen S P P Thorat , Kaul’s appointment as CGS and inquiries against Thorat, S D Verma and others at his behest completely destroyed the military command structure.  

On the ground, the Army was starved of weapons, equipment, training, even clothing. There were no maps of the border and no reconnaissance or studies were encouraged. Defence of India was made contingent on personal diplomacy of Nehru.

Chinese incursions and incidents in Arunachal and Ladakh continued through 1959. The forward policy resulted in almost daily skirmishes. Kaul was made GOC of the newly raised 4 Corp. A brigade was hurriedly pushed to the Namka Chu River. There were no contingency or reinforcement plans. On October 20 China attacked simultaneously on both fronts with a 5:1 preponderance of strength. In five days flat India had lost an additional 3,000 sq km of territory.

China offered ceasefire and peace talks albeit from a position of strength offering mutual withdrawal to positions 20 km either side of the  claim line giving India an opportunity to bide time and recoup but Nehru refused to negotiate. His response was even more foolish. “I have asked the army to throw the Chinese out.”

A new defence line was hurriedly established at Se La. On November 17 the Chinese mounted an attack on Se La and outflanked it as well. Se La fell without much of a fight because of conflicting orders. Kaul was not available in his command post to monitor developments or give orders. Confusion reigned supreme.

1962 was a  truly a politically-determined military disaster. President Radhakrishnan called it “Governmental credulity and negligence.” Nehru himself confessed as much. Any attempt to blame military leadership is motivated and mischievous.

The third question is more significant. The Henderson Brooks report is still gathering dust in the absence of political courage. So where are the lessons learnt?

In this era of globalisation India and China are competitors kindling peer rivalry. Each wants to maximise its strength and influence by outsmarting the other. In the process, political relations have soured considerably. Even if it were not China’s intention to provoke a war, we must not relax in defence preparedness because China’s military capacity empowers it to do so. China has maintained a steady expenditure of 6 per cent of GDP throughout the last five decades whereas India’s defence expenditure has steadily fallen to 2.3 per cent of GDP. Nehruvian smugness on defence issues has continued unabated.

Stated or apparent intentions of an adversary are often deceptive. Diplomacy must therefore be aimed at realistic assessment of intent and serious counter actions to make the environment favourable to ourselves. Are we on the ball diplomatically? India and China have a history of friendly relations over centuries. Can our diplomacy turn hostility into healthy complimetarity? But till that happens we must sweat in peace to deter war.

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