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 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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