1962 India China War - Nehru's Himalayan Blunder and National Humiliation!

Nehru committed “Himalayan Blunders” due to his flawed understanding of “Hawkish” nature of geopolitics, ill conceived historic-geographical strategic views and assumptions, lack of strategic foresight and far-sight and total lack of understanding of wars.

NewsBharati    12-Nov-2021   
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59-years after the 1962 India China war, successive governments have failed to declassify “General Henderson Brooks Report of 1962 India’s China War”. Why? Never too late for successive generations to learn lessons from the past so that strategic blunders resulting in humiliation are not repeated.

Ipso facto, 12-18 November 1962 was the most disastrous milestone in the annals of modern India with a virtual military rout in the Battles of Walong and Sela Pass in the North-East Frontier Agency (present-day Arunachal Pradesh). After reaching the foothills in the Bomdila Sector, the Chinese unilaterally declared a ceasefire and withdrew forces to the North of Manmohan line. It was a direct slap on the face of Nehru’s pretensions of his grandiose posture "Throw the Chinese Out" call given en route to Colombo. And, it set rest to Nehru's claims for the “Third World” leadership.
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Nehru’s idealistic visions and strategic bankruptcy was responsible and accountable for the political and military debacle in 1962 War. Also, current continuing and persisting virtual military strategic deadlock on the LAC is an inherited legacy of the Nehruvian age.

Most importantly, the period of 25-years has been specified in June 2021 as per the recently approved policy on archiving, declassification, compilation, and publication of war and operations histories by the Ministry of Defense (MoD). However, declassification of older wars like the 1962 war is not automatic and will be taken upon a case-by-case basis by a committee.

However, Neville Maxwell's "Henderson Brooks Report” is available on his website. Yet, the Report has not been declassified even after 59-years. Why? Is it due to fear of providing insights into politico-bureaucratic strategic bankruptcy and phenomenal military strategic and tactical bungling at all levels? However, one can learn many critical lessons even from failures in the past for posterity.

Let me highlight with humility my reminiscences of the 1962 India China War having served as a company commander in Mechuka of 2nd Battalion the Madras Regiment in Siang Frontier Division (mentioned in the declassified Part 1 of General Henderson Brookes Report), and survivor as “Rear Guard Commander” to cover the withdrawal of 2/8 GR Battalion. Never in my life can I forget the bombastic announcement made on his way to Colombo heard on my “Japanese made Transistor” (only means to know about Delhi’s policies): “Throw the Chinese out”. Throw the Chinese out with what? With vintage 1889 point 303 Rifles against Chinese PLA shock-wave mass assaults?

Let me also record the shortcomings at the tactical levels. All I could watch on my induction in July 1961 included: poorly equipped and clad troops – 1889 Boer War vintage pt 303 bolt action rifles, heavyweight Wireless Sets 62 with 12 volt Batteries with no recharging facility during withdrawal, no light weight winter clothing or snow boots, blankets, canvas back-packs etc. And, a quarter inch map with blank top half towards McMahan Line marked with a thick line representing almost one mile in space. Most quixotic it was to conduct artillery fire support based on “blank non-surveyed quarter inch maps” until after mid 1965s.

“Never leave the highway for a by-way” was the sane advice given by Major G D Pimple (survivor of a Maratha Unit in the Battle of Monte Casino in World War 2 who rejoined 2 MADRAS from NCC to go on pension) before leaving me as Rear Guard Commander responsible to withdraw the company column in a safe manner. It was carried out despite 2 Chinese ambush attempts, sans rations, forced to abandon Radio Set 62 with expired 12 volt battery and wet blankets during five days trek across high altitude ridge lines prior to meeting rear party detachment from Along meeting us en route; but with complete command intact with small arms.

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Unfortunate that Colonel Eric Taylor, his Adjutant and 2 other officers of 2/8 GR with Major G. D Pimple died (failed to follow his own advise) unable to negotiate snow capped mountain on orders to withdraw on night 18/19 November 1962 – depending on the situation by the Brigade which flew back from Along to Jorhat a day prior. The command structure collapsed on the night 18/19 November 1962.

Let me also briefly highlight the key geopolitics of the 1950s and 1960s. "Hawkish" was the global strategic environment - Cold War era. The US and its allies were involved in the implementation of the Marshall Plan. “Containment on the Door Steps” of Eastern Bloc – communism – was their avowed policy. Three Western Military alliances were formed: NATO; Middle East or CENTO; and SEATO. Pakistan joined the CENTO and SEATO. The Chinese Civil War, the Korean War (1950–53), the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 brutally crushed by the Soviets, the Suez Crisis (1956), the Berlin Crisis of 1961, and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 were major happenings.

The PRC always maintained that Tibet was a part of China. The idea of a Greater China was to unite the Mongoloid race under one nation. China remained emphatic to redraw the borders, calling them “accidents of history” imposed by external powers when China was weak. The PRC also proclaimed to "liberate" the Tibetans from a theocratic feudal system and made it a top priority to incorporate Tibet, peacefully or by force. Mao in December 1949 ordered that preparations be made to march into Tibet at Chamdo to induce the Tibetan Government to negotiate.

Understanding of the five historic defining events holds the key to the reasons for the current 13 border disputes. They include: 1) China exercised sovereignty over Tibet through a local governor throughout 19th century; 2) British invaded Tibet in 1903 and the Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia and then to China; 3) an unequal treaty signed converted Tibet into a British protectorate in 1904; 4)after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Tibet became de facto independent under a British protectorate; AND (5) Followed a tripartite conference in March 1914 in Shimla with British and Tibetans agreeing on a common border - the famous McMahon Line demarcated on a quarter inch map sans surveyed relief features on top half portion which the Chinese initialed the main document, but did not ratify it.

Yet another historic highlight is the meeting of the Tibetan delegation with the PRC’s ambassador General Yuan Zhongxian in Delhi on 16 September 1950. Yuan communicated a 3 point proposal that Tibet be regarded as part of China, that China be responsible for Tibet’s defense, trade and foreign relations.

When in October 1950, Mao's troops marched into Tibet, Lhasa appealed to the United Nations. India, though recognizing Tibet's autonomy ('verging on independence' as per Nehru's words), began to vacillate and was unable to stand up in favor of their peaceful neighbor against Red China. The Tibetan delegation signed the 17-Point Agreement “under duress” on 23 May 1951 in Peking authorizing the PLA presence and Central People's Government rule in Political Tibet. The Dalai Lama formally accepted the 17-Point Agreement in October 1951. Less known is El Salvador sponsoring a complaint by the Tibetan government at the UN, but India and the United Kingdom prevented it from being debated.

Finally in 1956, Tibetan militias in the ethnically Tibetan region of eastern Khams started fighting against the government. When the fighting spread to Lhasa in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. The PRC government subsequently repudiated the 17-Point Agreement and dissolved the Tibetan Local Government.

Viewed in such an environment, Nehru’s strategic vision and foreign policy initiative - Panchsheel – five Principles of peaceful co-existence – based on his idealistic or “Divine instincts or intuitive capabilities” was based on non-violence: wars and violence have no place in conflict resolution. Perhaps, Nehru wanted to be a la modern Asoka – apostle of peace in the hope of a Nobel Peace Prize.

On foreign policy front, India sacrificed Tibet on 29 April 1954 when the “Panchsheel” agreement with China at Peking and "Agreement (with exchange of notes) on trade and intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India" was signed. Nehru trusted China to honor the Panchsheel. Worst followed during and after Chou En Lai’s visit to India in 1959 what with the “Hindi-China Bhai-Bhai” politico-media hype. More intellectually bizarre was Nehru’s championing the cause of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Belgrade in 1961, on the basis of “Panchsheel”.

Shocked and surprised I was at Nehru’s total ignorance of ‘military affairs’ and knowledge of how battles are waged at the ground level. Nehru’s defense policy after gaining independence in 1947 was also ill conceived. His stated defense policy “Rubbish, total rubbish, we don’t need a defense plan. Our policy is non-violence. We foresee no military threats. Scrap the Army. The police are good enough to meet our security needs”. No clear cut political end objective of border confrontation with China. “No loss of inch of territory and throw the Chinese out” was the higher strategic direction or obsession. By conception, the political end objectives were grandiose considering the ill-equipped, trained and commanded Army.

Nehru disbelieved Chinese intrusions in Barahoti in 1954 followed by Chinese violations of territorial integrity in Damzan (November 1955), Nilang (May 1956), Shipki La (September 1956), Khurnak Fort in Ladakh (July 1958), Lohit Frontier Division – NEFA (Sept-Oct 1958) and so on.

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Admittedly, there was intelligence failure. Until the induction of forces into Ladakh and NEFA in the aftermath of Longju incident in late 1960, B. N. Mullick, Director of Intelligence Bureau, was the repository of intelligence for all others. Nehru’s view that “China will not be provoked for a show down” was reinforced by Mullick’s assessment that “China would not militarily respond to Forward Posture Policy”, which was accepted as ‘Gospel’ truth by Nehru.

Even the military intelligence assessment during 1959-60 gave the Chinese capability of one Regiment (Brigade) plus some tanks opposite Ladakh which was reassessed as one division plus by October 1960. Similarly, the initial intelligence assessment in late 1959 was one division against Sikkim and three regiments against NEFA. In 1960, it was revised to three Chinese divisions with bulk against Tawang.

Less publicized is “General Thimmayas” resignation in protest to Prime Minister Nehru due to Defense Minister Krishna Menon refusal to consider his plans for preparing the Army for the forthcoming Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. The full story of the episode is still shrouded in mystery.

Under such ego centric Nehruvian political leadership, the quality of Generalship that emerged was poor, lacking in moral courage. Phenomenal “Crisis in Higher Command” prevailed. The COAS and the Eastern Army Commander were mere figure heads. Battlefield confusion was real with the issue of orders to withdraw to be retracted later. Generals from Delhi were commanding platoon sized posts and issuing orders countermanding intervening headquarters.

Next, the Henderson Brooks Report provides a scathing indictment on General B M Kaul, a Nehru Crony, an Army Supply Corps Officer, woefully ill equipped either tactically or strategically to wage wars first as Chief of General Staff at Army HQs and later as the ill fated IV Corps commander. General Kaul wanted to prove that he had the mettle to implement the political directive of “throw the Chinese Out”. So, he moved with skeletal staff and raised the ill fated Corps HQs overnight. Then, Kaul took piggy back ride on a Khampa porter to the battle scene in Dhola pass and fled from the scene feigning sickness to Delhi and conducted battle from sick bed. Height of cowardice!

The three tiered military strategy, doomed for disaster by original conception, consisted of “deployment in piecemeal in isolated platoon sized border posts on the watershed to control entry into NEFA” across McMahan line backed up strongly by bases in depth on the second ‘Tier” followed by the “Defense Line: Towing–Bomdilla-Ziro-Daporizo-Along-Roing-Tezu-Lohitpur-Hayulang.

Before the issue of “Forward Policy”, 50 Assam Rifles platoons were deployed on 36 outposts to demonstrate “flag bearing” role. In June/July 1962, “Operation Leghorn” was launched and 42 platoon sized posts were deployed on the McMahon Line. And, they were tasked to defend the shoulders of passes until the “last man last round”. No artillery or air support. Logistical sustenance was a nightmare.

No troops were available to occupy defensive positions around bases; and no positions were prepared on the third-tier of the Defense Line to wage the battle of “Defense Boxes” based on the classical style of Battles of Imphal or Kohima. Woeful military operational under preparedness!

Furthermore, troops were not physically conditioned to sustain 20 miles (32) per day for seven days continuously totally self reliant ‘A La’ General Wingate’s “Chindits” of Burma War. Troops who moved from the plains, had no time to acclimatize and were unprepared to fight battles in high altitudes.

In sum, Nehru committed “Himalayan Blunders” due to his flawed understanding of “Hawkish” nature of geopolitics, ill conceived historic-geographical strategic views and assumptions, lack of strategic foresight and far-sight and total lack of understanding of wars. The lessons are explicit for those desirous of appreciating without prejudice and bias failures at “Grand Strategy or Higher Political Directions” and “Military Strategy, Operational Art doctrines and tactical concepts” of battles.

By the criteria of seizing opportunities as the hallmark of great statesman, Nehru failed dismally. Had Nehru accepted the “quid pro quo” basis for resolving the border dispute – recognize their claims to Akshai Chin in return for recognition of the Manmohan Line in 1960, the entire scenario would have been different today. Modi and the NDA have inherited a politico-diplomatic-military impasse/deadlock. The window for quid pro quo settlement was squandered five decades ago. In the prevailing toxic and vicious internal politics, such an initiative is almost committing "Political Hara-kiri/Suicide".

In hindsight, “Rubbish, Rubbish” were Nehru’s foreign and defense policies. Viewed holistically today, the India-China confrontation may be viewed as 'Clash of civilizations – Aryan-Dravidian vs. Mongoloid', or, “Clash between two ideologies – Communism vs. democracy” for gaining Asia-Pacific hegemony in pursuit of national interests before embarking in pursuit of global hegemony as the middle kingdom. Prepare to face such an eventuality; or perish at least in the short and midterm contexts.

Meanwhile, China has augmented its military capabilities with developed lines of communications running parallel and close to the border on both banks of Tsang Po River (Brahmaputra), that confers a significant advantage for concentration of forces at intended thrust lines.

The military strategy continues to be based on “Not to lose an inch of Territory” dictating watershed deployment. How can army hierarchy evolve any worthwhile military strategy based on “No loss of an inch of Territory”? Is the current hierarchy also indulging in “jingoistic rhetoric”?

Pending border dispute resolution, political decision-makers need to review the direction of “No loss of inch Territory” to allow operational flexibility and freedom; and specify a clear “Grand Strategy with end objectives defined”. Most importantly, China is catching up and racing ahead of even the USA on the military technology front and conducting "Hybrid Warfare". Next, military strategy needs to exploit terrain features. Armed Forces must be prepared to wage high intensity war based on enhanced threat scenarios on various well defined ingress avenues. Finally, training for fighting in high altitudes and logistic support must be maintained at efficient levels. Armed Forces must be prepared to wage high intensity war based on enhanced threat scenarios on various well defined ingress avenues.

Never too late even now for the Modi-led government to declassify “Henderson Brooks Report of 1962 India’s China War” even after 59 years to avoid failures to learn from its lessons.