Military & Aerospace

1962: The Sino-Indian War: Reflections of the Past
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Issue Book Excerpts: The Crimson Chinar | Date : 09 Nov , 2015

The 1962, Sino-Indian war is (rightly) remembered by Indians by its ignominy. While, this is justified, it needs to be heighted that the roots of the debacle lay squarely with the leadership; the war having been lost much before battle was joined. At the same time, it needs to be highlighted that wherever, and whenever directions were clear, despite being ill-equipped, ill-clad and hastily deployed in inhospitable conditions, Indian troops fought well, proving that the Chinese were no supermen – Rezang La being an incomparable example. The problem were ‘lack of nerves’ in the corridors of power in New Delhi and ipso-facto, the ‘enfeebled control’ of higher commanders and not with the soldiers.

The problem were ‘lack of nerves’ in the corridors of power in New Delhi and ipso-facto, the ‘enfeebled control’ of higher commanders and not with the soldiers.

A revisit to this excruciating part of the nation’s history, especially at a time when the brilliance of Diwali radiates across the nation, memories of the Diwali fifty-three years ago when the nation was shrouded by gloom, immortalised by the poignant voice of Ms. Lata Mangeshwar singing ‘Ai mere watan ke logon’need to be recounted to underscore defeatism in ‘being ill-prepared – diplomatically, militarily and emotionally. Mankindshould learn from history, and it is a sad reflection on the state of affairs that there is still reluctance to exhume the skeletons of the past, secreted behindclassified closetsin the (misguided) interests of national security.

Having said that, lessons learnt from ‘open’ sources, remain pertinent even today, especially in view of the dynamics which drive Sino-India relations. This is relevant to highlight, since, it ‘was’ and ‘is’ seemingly ordained by the western world that both Asian powers are natural rivals, hence adversaries – a sentiment reinforced by the ‘deeper than the sea and higher than the mountains’ Sino-Pak relationship. This, may or may not conform to the strategic interests of the India, especially at this critical stage of her strategic progression. Having said that, the right politico-military balance needs to be maintained.

Over three parts, extracts of the book ‘The Crimson Chinar-The Kashmir Conflict: A Politico-Military Perspective’ will be presented with a brief backdrop; this being the first. Though the book perse, deals with the conflict as it unfolded in Kashmir (Ladakh), the issues of the war, which remain unknown or are glossed overare being presented as a series over the week.

The Geo-strategic Environment

The Concurrent Re-emergence of India and China

it was the occupation of Tibet by Communist China when for the first time in their long histories; both civilizations found themselves facing each other across the barren and un-delineated Indo-Tibetan frontiers.

…it was the occupation of Tibet by Communist China when for the first time in their long histories; both civilizations found themselves facing each other across the barren and un-delineated Indo-Tibetan frontiers.

Despite the fact that China and India have been powerful neighbours with overlapping spheres, there was nolegacy of conflict since the mighty Himalayas discouraged social intercourse. Like it had been in the case of the first Kashmir War, the roots of the Sino-Indian War of 1962 can be traced to the omissions and commissions of the British as they had played their Great Game for the domination of Asia; a game which stimulated the creation of spatial buffers. In the case of China, the barren plateau of Tibet provided a formidable geographical buffer; despite being remote and difficult, Tibet was better connected with India than it was with China. It was largely because of this factor that despite the ‘convenient’ acceptance of Lhasa’s suzerainty to Peking, Britain, maintained her grip over Tibet. This legacy, which was inherited by India, was compounded by the ambivalence of ‘traditional frontiers’ and was driven by the dictates of the ‘Cold War,’ which created the circumstances for the Sino-Indian War. At independence, both nations, with their legacies of civilizational greatness exhibited an innate desire to ‘re-emerge,’ however, in physical terms, it was the occupation of Tibet by Communist China when for the first time in their long histories;both civilisationsfound themselves facing each other across the barren and undelineatedIndo-Tibetan frontiers.

Modern China and India had emerged as independent nations after intense struggles; their historiesof colonializationmaking them sceptic of western imperialism. China had emerged as a battle scarred nation who had not only fought the Japanese, but concurrently fought a long and intensely contested revolutionary war which resulted in the reincarnation of China as a Communist nation under Chairman Mao. On the other hand, India gained her independence after an equally longbut peaceful freedom struggle, though she too had fought a fourteen month long ‘infructuous’ war over Kashmir due to British machinations.

The debacle which followed reinforced the lesson of the first Kashmir War (1947-48) that Indians lacked ‘Strategic Vision,’ as well as the political will necessary to safeguard her vital interests.

Much has been made of their ‘concurrent re-emergence.’ It has been opined that with the independence of ‘democratic India’ and birth of a ‘Communist China,’exacerbated by the filling up the intervening space of Tibet and concurrent aspirations, their intersay relations cannot but be adversarial.John Garver, has commented on this ‘adversarial’ relationship. “A sense of urgency exacerbated this clash. In the second half of the twentieth century,India and China re-emerged with a strong sense of lost time and grievance against the world order that had denied them their rightful place for too long. Both countries wanted to put things right as quickly as possible.”[1]

Overview of the Sino-Indian Border War of 1962

The Sino-Indian war of 1962 war was unique in a number of ways. While purportedly, it was a war precipitated by conflicting territorial claims, it was a war for which China had prepared for and had won before the conflict was joined. It was also a war where India despite receiving adequate battle indicators, refused to read the writing on the wall and consequently, had very little to counter the threat which was becoming inevitable since 1950. India and the west dubbed it as Chinese Aggression, while the Chinese called it their ‘Counter Attack in Self Defensive on the China-India Border,’[2]implying that it was a reaction to Indian provocation and a defensive action taken in accordance with her professed doctrine of ‘active defence.’[3]For India, this was a war where for first time Indian and Western strategic interests converged, though this did not translate as collusive strength. On the other hand, this was a war when China, especially after the split with the Soviets, had enemies all around and was extremely vulnerable. However, she took advantage of the time window to pre-empt India’s strategic competition and stamp her pre-eminence in the region. The Indian leadership could neither fathom the intent nor appreciate the gravity of the situation. The debacle which followed reinforced the lesson of the first Kashmir War (1947-48) that Indians lacked ‘Strategic Vision,’ as well as the political will necessary to safeguard her vital interests. It was left to the Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung to teach the fundamental lesson that ‘Power comes from the barrel of a gun.’ In the real world, victory may be sought through diplomacy, but it is successful only when it is backed by military power. This is a fundamental lesson that India can ignore at her peril.

India demonstrated a dichotomous mismatch in her Aims and the Means, relying on bluster, goodwill and divine intervention.

In Kashmir, the Chinese were already in occupation of Aksai Chin before the war, the territory which mattered for her continued grip over Tibet. Since, she already controlled most of what she coveted, there seemed to be little point for her to go to war for – yet she did, and this reinforces the point that the war was initiated by China for not so obvious reasons. For China, Aksai Chin lay at the heart of the dispute and the raison d’être for the immediate conflict as it was only through this vital route that she could maintain her forces. However, since there was very little left of this desolate wilderness that she was not already occupying, hostilities in Ladakh were limited to demonstrative tactical battles, synchronised with the punitive actions in the east. The remoteness of the terrain in Eastern Ladakh entailed long and difficult lines of communications for both sides and this factor, coupled with the harsh weather conditions forced the Chinese to choose achievable objectives while the Indians defended to the best of the ability of the limited forces she had there. However, when war eventually broke out, unlike the debacle in the east, the withdrawal in Ladakh did not result into a rout though it was true that Ladakh was a side show and China did not press home her advantage.

This was a war which highlighted Chinese consistency of her perceived strategic aim(s) and displayed her determination to ensure them. Conversely, India demonstrated a dichotomous mismatch in her Aims and the Means, relying on bluster, goodwill and divine intervention. In South Asia, her aim was to dominate Tibet in order to pre-empt any imperialistic power from exploiting China’s weakness. After a century of humiliation, civil war and rebellion, China’s strategic priority was to secure her underbelly and this was her compulsion to occupy Tibet. It needs to be pointed out that this was undertaken at great risk to her security, as she was concurrently preoccupied with Taiwan, Korea and with America. The ‘liberation’ of Tibet, and the security this would provide China had always been high in the strategic priorities of Chairman Mao and within months of the establishment of the Communist regime in Peking, he proclaimed that Tibet had to be ‘liberated’ and there was an urgency to do so since China required time to build up against the more ominous threat of America, Nationalist KMT and the Japanese on her eastern sea board. China’s pre-eminence could only be ensured if India was not allowed to attain the stature of being a ‘near equal’ in South Asia, especially in military and economic terms. Chairman Mao was of the view that “If Tibet is not under firm Chinese control and Britain and other (India) imperialists were allowed to continue their presence there, Tibet would become a base from which the imperialists could menace China’s west. Counter revolutionary forces based in Tibet might join with similar forces elsewhere, possibly leading to a counter revolutionary victory on a nationwide scale…in the event of a war between China, India and the Soviet Union, Tibet’s location would make it extremely important.”[4]

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The statement reiterated the apprehensions of Chairman Mao, and in the Chinese eyes the subsequent CIA sponsorship of the unrest in Tibet was seen as being facilitated by India and thus she had no doubts that India was culpable. From her perspective, the Indo-American nexus brewing trouble for China in her backyard mandated that India’s imperialistic ambitions needed to be nipped in the bud.

The immediate reason for China to go to war with India was the growing unrest and her rising frustration of not being able to control the volatile Khampas in Tibet. In her perception, this  was directly attributable to the ‘external hand’ for which she held India responsible and attributed the increase in unrest due to the secret war fuelled by America to India as she felt that Indians ‘had to’ be covertly and/or overtly involved. Since there was little that the Chinese could do against America, even symbolically, it was against India that a demonstration of power would stamp her pre-eminence in Asia. Hence, while she prepared for the war against the ‘imperialists,’ she also prepared for a war against India, a war which she would initiate at the time and place of her choosing. The immediate provocation became the ill-fated ‘forward policy’ initiated by India which needed to be challenged as this became a case of ‘loss of face’ and therefore could not be allowed to go unchallenged. Hence, when viewed from her point of view, the war against India was in continuum of the ongoing socialist struggle against the imperialist west and this was a war which had started for her in Korea;[5]the Indo-Tibetan frontiers merely became the new cold war frontline, while the legacy of unsettled borders and the Indian provocations on the frontiers became the excuse for showing India her place, while simultaneously marked the coming of age of a resurgent China.

The immediate reason for China to go to war with India was the growing unrest and her rising frustration of not being able to control the volatile Khampas in Tibet.

Till the dawn of the sixties, the lessons of the first Kashmir War had not been fully realised by India, let alone been absorbed. The Defence Services had been put under the ‘guillotine’ and this had kept them embroiled in trying to preserve existing force levels and the structures inherited on independence. Force development, modernisation and even basic equipping remained distant from their thoughts, as the trend was on ‘downsizing.’

The post of the Supreme Commander, vital for providing a single point for advice and generating synergy for the defence effort had died a natural death after the winding down of the office of Field Marshal Auchinleck and similarly, the Higher Defence Organisation, the DCC, established soon after independence had also fallen into disuse. The Government insisted on maintaining a minimum force, capable only of ‘defence’ against Pakistan; China as yet another adversary was never factored in the Indian strategic calculus. Similarly, building up institutionalised structures for the ‘higher direction of war’ and ‘perspective planning’ remained distant dreams. At the Government level, the reverberations of the Prime Minister’s aversion to ‘things military’ were showing and the Defence Minister, brilliant but highly opinionated had the persona of a man who brooked no dissent. Since he was considered a personal nominee of the Prime Minister, he was allowed to ease out just the military leaders India needed when the criticality of 1962 arose and in their place, he filled up the appointments with unquestioning minions.

As commented by the then Indian Cabinet Secretary to the GOI: “The internal lines of communications in the highest echelons of the country’s defence apparatus were clogged with mutual dislike and suspicion. There was grave weakening of the foundations upon which a cogent defence apparatus could be planned, assembled, organised and deployed.”[6]

Even while the Chinese occupation of Tibet was underway, America extended feelers to India to intervene and block the Chinese ingress route(s) into Tibet. As per Mr. Maxwell, President Truman wanted India to create a second front against the Chinese in order to facilitate the American task in Korea and Taiwan, and for this he offered to airlift an Indian Brigade Group.[7]  On the other hand, India who had recently emerged from the first Kashmir War did not/could not join hands overtly with the Americans.[8]

The Defence Services had been put under the ‘guillotine’ and this had kept them embroiled in trying to preserve existing force levels and the structures inherited on independence.

Notwithstanding, the Americans took up the challenge and supported the Champak resistance against the PLA occupation of Tibet and it was this secret American war that peaked in 1958-59 that frustrated the Chinese. The final loss of face for the Chinese was the asylum India extended to the Dalai Lama and then the public feting of his arrival in India. The perceived role of India in this war coupled with the seemingly provocative acts on the frontiers, in accordance with the Indian forward policy, provided the immediate reason for China to teach their southern neighbours a lesson in real politicks.

Surprisingly, the Chinese threat was not even included in the defence policy which emanated in the form of the Chiefs of Staff Paper of January, 1961. Even the task which was spelt out essentially was, “to be prepared for and to resist external aggression, mainly from Pakistan.”[9]While the priority for Pakistan was understandable, given the experience of 1947-48, yet the timing and urgency of evolving the paper had been the grave situation that was developing due to the belligerence of China and it was therefore surprising that this immediate and more ominous threat was simply wished away. Not only was the military and the nation handicapped by the lack of material preparation, but importantly, the lack of psychological preparation proved even more damaging.

The helpless attitude of the Army was reflected in what General Thimayya wrote in the July 1962 publication of Seminar. “Whereas in the case of Pakistan I have considered the possibility of total war, I am afraid; I cannot do so in regard to China. I cannot even, as a soldier envisages India taking on China in an open conflict on its own… It must be left to the politicians and diplomats to ensure our security.”[10] It is important to mention that it was India who forwarded her own version of the Sino-Indian boundary. Aksai Chin, which had earlier been shown as ‘un-defined,’ was now unambiguously included as part of India, without qualification and ambivalence and this was explicitly done under orders of the Prime Minister with the aim to remove any ambiguity of the Indian claim. The forwarding of this map coincided with the time that India extended her control to the McMahon line and included the physical taking over of Tawang, which till then had been physically administered by Tibet and the expelling of the Tibetan officials from there had drawn sharp responses from both Tibet and China. These provocations were bound to have been seen by China as further manifestations of the growing Indian belligerence.

Realistically speaking, India who had been exposed in the first Kashmir War had done little in the interlude of fourteen years to correct the adverse military situation.

Realistically speaking, India who had been exposed in the first Kashmir War had done little in the interlude of fourteen years to correct the adverse military situation. To quote Mr Mankekar,[11]though not in the context that writer has put it may be relevant. Commenting on the Indian Army’s performance in Kashmir in 1947-48 he wrote, “The Indian Forces were plunged into action, hastily, in driblets, ill prepared and ill equipped. They had no intelligence of the terrain or enemy movements. They had no supporting arms other than bare rifles. Fighting for the first time in snow clad Himalayan heights, against odds, the jawans wrote a new, brilliant chapter in their annals.” The commendation of the jawans by Mr. Mankekar is gratifying. However, what is not justifiable for the nation is the fact that Mr. Mankekar could well be writing on the state of affairs of the Army’s induction in battle in 1962 and not 1947, since nothing had really changed.

The years of neglect had only weakened the military and this was and remains the nub of the larger question. The Indian forces remained unprepared and were pushed into an unwinnable position. Thus, the shortage of funds, adversely affected the weapons availability and there were shortages all around. “The Army faced material shortages in all spheres – arms, ammunition, equipment and GeneralStaff reserve holdings. In addition, there were major voids and gaps in the Order of Battle, especially in the supporting arms and the technical services. Even field formations were under strength.”[12]



[1]Garver John W, p-14, Protracted Conflict, Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001.

[2] Burkitt Laurie, Scobell Andrew, Wortzel Larry M, p-328, The Lessons of History, The Chinese PLA at 75, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, as available on the net.

[3] The first application of the doctrine of ‘Active Defence’ by China was in Korea and that war was initiated by her as a pre-emption against the emerging American threat. She was to later apply the same template against India.

[4]Garver John W, p-14, Protracted Conflict, Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2001.The author has quoted from John F Avedon, ‘In Exile from the Land of Snows,’ New York, 1984.

[5]The Chinese entered the Korean War on the side of the North Koreans, as her own strategic compulsion. The very terming of the war as ‘War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea’ is indicative of her concerns.

[6]Khera SS, India’s Defence Problem, as quoted by Singh Jasjit, Air Commodore (Retd), p-78, Defence from the Skies: Indian Air Force through 75 years, Centre for Air Power and Knowledge World, New Delhi,2007. Mr Khera being the Cabinet Secretary of the GOI during the Sino-Indian War was in a unique position to comment on this malady.

[7]Maxwell Neville, notes at p-71-72, India’s China War, Natraj Publishers, Dehradun, 1970.

[8]When asked in 1950, what troops India could spare for Tibet, General Cariappa could only offer only one InfantryBattalion, which obviously would have been grossly inadequate for the intended task in Tibet.

[9] Palit D K, Major General (Retd), p-78, War in High Himalaya: The Indian Army in Crisis, 1962, Lancer International, New Delhi, 1991.

[10] Subramanium K, p-48, India and the World, Selected Articles from IDSA Journals, Vol-I: Strategic Thoughts – The Formative Years. Editor N S Sisodia & Sujit Dutta, IDSA, Promilla and Co, New Delhi-Chicago, 2005.

[11]Mankekar D R, Preface, Guilty Men of 1962, The Tulsi Shah Enterprise, Bombay, May, 1968.

[12] Palit D K, Major General (Retd), p-78, War in High Himalaya: The Indian Army in Crisis, 1962, Lancer International, New Delhi, 1991.


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