Years after shame of ‘62

EVEN though there has been an avalanche of hundreds, if not thousands, of articles and commentaries on the brief but brutal border war with China in 1962 because of its 50th anniversary on October 20, my view of that trauma may be worth a mention because I lived through it and, like my contemporaries, have not been able to forget it even half a century later.

Secondly, one must carefully look at such monumental and catastrophic events in the past because those who fail to learn from them are doomed to repeat them. At the same time it would be wrong to be preoccupied only with the past. We must look forward also to the future, in the light of lessons, learnt or unlearnt, of 1962 that was, alas, a combination of a military debacle and a political disaster.

Since the history of the month-long war in the high Himalayas has been written in the minutest detail, there is no point repeating what is already too well known. What needs to be done is briefly to catalogue the main reasons for creating a situation in which, in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru’s official biographer, S. Gopal, things went “so wrong that it would have been hard to believe them, had they not happened”.

Without beating about the bush one has to face the fact that Nehru, India’s iconic prime minister, fundamentally misread the situation. Signs of impending conflict between Asia’s two largest countries were clear even in 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and was given shelter in India. Then violent clashes on the disputed border began and the Chinese first drew blood at Kongkala in Ladakh. Meanwhile, Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai repudiated that he had ever told the Indian prime minister that China would “recognize the so-called McMahon Line” with some “minor rectifications”, and that India-China differences on the rest of the border were “minor”.

Yet Nehru convinced himself that there would be border skirmishes, patrol-level clashes and even bigger spats, but the Chinese would do “nothing big”. Shockingly, none of his advisers, civilian or military, dared tell him that he was wrong. They were all slaves to the reigning doctrine: “Panditji knows best”. His decisions like asking the Army to “throw the Chinese out of Thagla” without giving it any time frame or taking stock of its resources were consequences of the core mistake. General J. N. Chaudhuri, who became the Army Chief after the defeat at China’s hands, was right to remark: “We thought we were playing a game of Chinese chequers but it became a Russian roulette”.

It was also the country’s misfortune that Krishna Menon was defence minister, and had been since 1957. He was a brilliant man but also an arrogant and waspish fellow, and because he was the Prime Minister’s “blind spot” he could get away with the worst imaginable excesses. He insulted service chiefs, played favourites in army promotions and appointments and had virtually made the Army his fiefdom.

No wonder a catastrophic consequence of this state of affairs was the appointment of Lt.-General B. M. Kaul, Menon’s “hottest” favorite, as the overall commander of the battlefield in the northeast. This should never have been done because though Kaul was a first-rate military bureaucrat and full of energy, he had absolutely no experience in combat. As if this was not enough something utterly unheard-of was done. Kaul fell seriously ill and was evacuated to Delhi. Against the wishes of the Army chief, General P. N. Thapar, and others concerned, Menon insisted that Kaul would command the war in his theatre from his sickbed in Delhi’s Motilal Nehru Marg.

There was, of course, no institutional arrangement for making national security policy. Consequently, besides Menon and Kaul, only three other men had any say in decisions on the conduct of war. They were foreign secretary, M. J. Desai, Intelligence Czar, B. N. Mullik, and the all-powerful joint secretary in the defence ministry, H. C. Sarin. Mullik’s role was massive and largely malign.

If instead of messing around with policy – which should never be the business of intelligence chiefs – Mallik had concentrated on his job of gathering intelligence on China, may be we could have avoided the humiliation we suffered. For, as Chinese documents since declassified and other available evidence show, Mao and his top advisers were busy planning the carefully calibrated punitive military action against this country.

China’s supreme leader was determined to “teach Nehru and India a lesson” and this he successfully did. Mao must also be given credit for the skill with which he handled the problem of Sino-Soviet split that was a factor greatly in India’s favour and which Nehru hoped to rely on. For this purpose he utilized his foreknowledge of the looming Cuban Missile Crisis. At a regular meeting China and the US used to have at Warsaw, regardless of their bitter enmity, Mao had also secured America’s assurance that it would not unleash Taiwan against him. To all this, alas, we had no clue at all. The key question is whether, despite this bleak backdrop we can be sure that past events cannot recur.

My answer is: yes, we can be. The Army Chief, General Bikram Singh, is entirely right in telling the country that there is no way China can repeat 1962 in 2012 or afterwards. The Chinese know this, too.

After all, the power gap between the two Asian giants is not what it was then. To be sure, the China’s economy is still four times our, and its military might also much greater. But Indian military is equipped well enough to take care of the power the Chinese can bring to bear on us. Along the land border, because of the terrain and its better border infrastructure and mobility China has an advantage. But then we have an edge in the maritime deployments in the Indian Ocean through which pass 70 per cent of China’s colossal energy supplies. Also burgeoning trade and economic relations between the two countries are expected to be a deterrent on the Chinese.

Yet, the one thing to guard against is complacency. Gen. Bikram Singh has candidly admitted that there are still many gaps in our preparedness that must be filled. If we allow a wide gap between our power and that of China to develop, we would be inviting deep trouble.