Reminiscences of 1962 India’s China War
by G B Reddy on 21 Nov 2017 3 Comments

At the outset, let none suffer from illusions over the culpability, responsibility and accountability of the Jawaharlal Nehru-Krishna Menon duo for the political and military debacle in 1962 India’s China War. The fact that the Chinese unilaterally declared ceasefire and withdrew forces from the foothills of the North East Frontier Agency (Arunachal Pradesh) to Tibet - north of McMahon line - was a direct slap on the face of Nehru’s pretensions of “Third World” leadership. What a national shame and disgrace.


Commissioned in July 1961, the writer was appointed Officiating Company / Garrison Commander of the 2nd Battalion, Madras Regiment, in Mechuka, Siang Frontier Division (mentioned in the declassified Part 1 of Henderson Brookes Report). On commencement of withdrawal, I was the Rear Guard Company Commander that covered the withdrawal of the “Garrison” comprising 2/8 Gurkha Rifles and B Wing of 11 Assam Rifles.


To put the tragic event at tactical level: “Never leave the highway for a by-way” was the sane advise of Major G.D. Pimple (survivor of a Maratha Unit in the Battle of Monte Cassino in World War II) before leaving me to withdraw my column in a safe manner, which was carried out despite two Chinese ambush attempts, without rations, and 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 en route; but with complete command intact with small arms.


Unfortunately, Colonel Eric Taylor, his Adjutant and two other officers of 2/8 GR with Major G.D. Pimple died (failed to follow his own advice), unable to negotiate the snow-capped mountain on orders to withdraw on the night 18/19 November 1962, depending on the situation. Brigade Headquarters located at Along had moved by air to Jorhat on 17 November 1962. Orders were given to both battalions - 2/8 GR with B Company 2 MADRAS and Wing Assam Rifles deployed at MECHUKA; 2 MADRAS less B Company with AR Wing located at TUTING, to withdraw on their own decisions. In other words, the command structure collapsed at tactical/operational level on the night of 18/19 November. All communications were snapped and everyone was left to fend for himself.


Many critical lessons can be learnt even now if the Modi-led government declassifies the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report of India’s China War even after 55 years. Neville Maxwell placed it on his website long ago. It provides deep insight into the failures of political and military leadership at all levels. It lays bare the politico-bureaucratic strategic bankruptcy and bungling; but lessons of the past shape current and future policies and strategies.


The Henderson Brooks Report exposed Nehru’s despotic leadership which was out of sync with the global strategic environment of the Cold War years. The US Marshall Plan had Containment on the Door Steps of the Eastern Bloc (communism) as avowed policy. Three Western military alliances were formed: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization (originally the Baghdad Pact or Middle East Treaty Organization) and Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. Pakistan joined the CENTO and SEATO. The Chinese Civil War, Korean War (1950–53), Hungarian Revolution (1956, brutally crushed by the Soviets), Suez Crisis (1956), Berlin Crisis of 1961, and Cuban missile crisis of 1962 were major events.


Oblivious of the hawkish global environment, Nehru’s strategic vision and foreign policy was based on “Panchsheel – five Principles of peaceful co-existence”. Nehru was infatuated with non-violence and leftist leanings. He was fascinated by ‘revolutionary’ China and sacrificed Tibet. On 29 April 1954, India signed the “Panchsheel” agreement with China at Peking, “Agreement (with exchange of notes) on trade and intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India”, which was to last for eight years. A few days later, Nehru emphasized his commitment to Panchsheel at the Asian Prime Ministers Conference at Colombo.


Following Chou En Lai’s visit to India in 1959, the “Hindi-China Bhai-Bhai” policy became entrenched. Nehru championed Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Belgrade in 1961, on the basis of “Panchsheel”. When the Panchsheel Agreement lapsed after eight years, relations had soured and the provision for renewal was not taken up.


Nehru’s defence policy of non-violence was most ill-conceived: “Rubbish, total rubbish, we don’t need a defence plan. Our policy is non-violence. We foresee no military threats. Scrap the Army. The police are good enough to meet our security needs”. This fully explains the reason for the utter under preparedness of the armed forces.


Having recognized Chinese rule over Tibet, had Nehru accepted quid pro quo for resolving the border dispute, by getting recognition for the McMahon Line in 1960, the China-Pakistan bonhomie and two-front threat would have been pre-empted. Nehru was ignorant of military affairs and had no time for Generals. He brushed aside any information that did not fit with his (often wildly inaccurate) preconceptions. He had no permanent consultative body of experts to prepare plans, no equivalent of the Chiefs of Staff Committee as in the West.


The Henderson Brooks Report puts the blame on intelligence failure. Until the induction of forces into Ladakh and NEFA in the aftermath of Longju incident in late 1960, B.N. Mullick, Director, Intelligence Bureau, was the repository of intelligence. 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” (in Mullick’s own account, he reported the army’s unhappiness with this policy, but Nehru had the last word. Many believe that he and Gen. Kaul tried to justify themselves later; but many contradictions still persist).


The military intelligence assessment in 1959-60 gave Chinese capability of one Regiment (Brigade) plus with some tanks opposite Ladakh, which was later 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, the increased Chinese threat assessment was revised to three Chinese Divisions with bulk against Tawang.


The grand strategy based on “forward posture and no loss of an inch of territory” was flawed. The three tiered military strategy consisted of deployment in piecemeal in isolated platoon-sized border posts on the watershed to control entry into NEFA across McMahon line, backed by bases in depth on the second tier, followed by the “Defence Line: Towing-Bomdila-Ziro-Daporizo-Along-Roing-Tezu-Lohitpur-Hayulang. Woeful paucity of troops and grossly inadequate logistics infrastructure doomed the plan from the start.


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 of McMahon Line. In Tuting Sector, I gave logistic support for Kepang La platoon. The majority of posts were located well away from their bases (on foot or mule tracks 3-10 day march) and tasked to defend the shoulders of passes until the “last man last round”. With no artillery or air support, logistical sustenance was a nightmare. There were no troops were available to occupy defensive positions around the bases, and no positions prepared on the third-tier of the Defence Line to wage the battle of “Defence Boxes” based on the classical style of the Battles of Imphal or Kohima. Such was the operational bankruptcy.


Our troops were not adequately equipped or trained to wage wars in high terrestrial areas against enemy forces descending from the Tibet plateau. They had no lightweight winter clothing or snow boots, and were armed with Boer War vintage .303 bolt action rifles. The weapons malfunctioned in the cold and deep snow hampered movement.


Even the physical fitness and endurance capability of the troops to sustain 20 miles per day for seven days continuously, totally self-reliant, was suspect. They moved from the plains of Punjab with no time to acclimatize and undergo pertinent training to fight in high altitudes.


What followed after China commenced its offensive foray was even more bizarre. “Throw the Chinese out” was the political directive to the military leadership, which was mutely accepted.


The Henderson Brooks Report highlights the diminution of authority of the Army Command structure. The Chief of Army Staff and the Eastern Army Commander were mere figureheads and the internal rivalry among Generals to gain Nehru’s favour compounded problems. Generals from Delhi were commanding platoon-sized posts and issuing orders countermanding intervening headquarters. Command failures led to phenomenal battlefield confusion with issue of orders to withdraw, only to be retracted later.


The most scathing indictment is of Gen. B.M. Kaul, an Army Supply Corps Officer, woefully ill-equipped tactically and strategically to wage wars, first as Chief of General Staff at Army Hqrs, and later as the ill-fated IV Corps commander. 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 reached the Corps Hqrs overnight, took a piggyback ride on a Khampa porter to the battle scene at Dhola Pass, and fled to Delhi feigning sickness and conducted the battle from a hospital bed. This rank cowardice was condoned.


With hindsight, there are eight main defining events of India’s China War, which are pertinent to the border dispute. One, throughout the 19th century, China exercised suzerainty over Tibet through a local governor. Two, the British invaded Tibet in 1903 and the Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia and then to China. In 1904, an unequal treaty converted Tibet into a British protectorate. After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the regions comprising present-day Tibet became de facto independent under the control of the Government of Tibet, supervised by the British under a British protectorate.


Three, in March 1914, a tripartite conference was convened in Shimla to settle the border issue. The British and Tibetans agreed on a common border demarcated on a quarter inch map sans surveyed relief features on top half portion: the famous McMahon Line was born. The Chinese only initialed the main document and did not ratify it.


Four, the People’s Republic of China and the predecessor Kuomintang 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 was determined to redraw borders that were “accidents of history” imposed by external powers. Beijing declared it would “liberate” Tibetans from a theocratic feudal system. Mao in December 1949 ordered that preparations be made to march into Tibet at Chamdo, to induce the Tibetan Government to negotiate.


Five, on 16 September 1950, the Tibetan delegation met the Chinese ambassador, Gen. Yuan Zhongxian, in Delhi. He communicated a three-point proposal that Tibet be regarded as part of China and that China be responsible for Tibet’s defense, trade and foreign relations.


Six, 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 Nehru said), began to vacillate. The Tibetan delegation signed the 17-Point Agreement “under duress” on 23 May 1951 in Peking, authorising the People’s Liberation Army’s presence and Central People’s Government rule in Tibet. The Dalai Lama formally accepted the 17-Point Agreement in October 1951.


Seven, El Salvador sponsored 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 Kham rose against the government. When the fighting spread to Lhasa in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled. Both he and the PRC government in Tibet subsequently repudiated the 17-Point Agreement and the PRC government in Tibet dissolved the Tibetan Local Government.


Clearly, Nehru’s foreign and defence policies were gibberish. While there appears to be a refreshing change in foreign policy, no more non-alignment, but the policy of “not to lose an inch of territory” reflects politico-strategic bankruptcy. How can army hierarchy evolve any worthwhile military strategy based on “no loss of an inch of territory”?


Pending border dispute resolution, political leaders need to review the no loss policy to allow operational flexibility and freedom, and specify a clear grand strategy with end objectives defined. The military strategy must be reviewed to exploit terrain features.

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