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1962 War: Why keep Henderson Brooks report secret?
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Issue Vol 26.1 Jan-Mar 2011 | Date : 18 Mar , 2014

“Even if the founder of the post-independence dynasty, Jawaharlal Nehru may have emerged in bad light in the Henderson Brooks Report, why put a blanket on the entire archives? Are we living in a modern democracy?

…if one day a stable, confident and relaxed government in New Delhi should, miraculously appear and decide to clear out the cupboard and publish it, the text would be largely incomprehensible…” Neville Maxwell

                           Neville Maxwell: the Authority on the 1962 Conflict

On February 23, 1972 in Beijing, an interesting discussion took place between Richard Nixon, the US President; Dr. Henry Kissinger1, John Holdridge2, Winston Lord3 and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.

The Premier opened discussion about the Panchsheel Agreement4: “Actually the five principles were put forward by us, and Nehru agreed5. But later on he didn’t implement them. In my previous discussions with Dr. Kissinger, I mentioned a book6 by Neville Maxwell about the Indian war against us, which proves this.”

The US President immediately retorted: “I read the book”.

Mr Antony claimed that the report could not be made public because an internal study by the Indian Army had established that its contents “are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value.”

After Kissinger said it was he who gave it to the President, Nixon explained: “I committed a faux pas — Dr Kissinger said it was — but I knew what I was doing. When Mrs Gandhi was in my office before going back, just before the outbreak of the war [1971 Bangladesh Liberation War], I referred to that book and said it was a very interesting account of the beginning of the war between India and China. She didn’t react very favorably when I said that.” Zhou burst into laughter: “Yes, but you spoke the truth. It wasn’t a faux pas. Actually that event was instigated by Khrushchev.7”

“…President Nixon then asked Zhou what Khrushchev had told him. The Premier answered to the Soviet leader’s argument was: “The casualties on the Indian side were greater than yours, so that’s why I believe they were victims of aggression.”

Zhou remarked: “If the side with the most casualties is to be considered the victim of aggression, what logic would that be? For example, at the end of the Second World War, Hitler’s troops were all casualties or taken prisoner, and that means that Hitler was the victim of aggression. They just don’t listen to reason.”

He was so discourteous; he wouldn’t even do us the courtesy of replying, so we had no choice but to drive him out.

Then he quoted again Neville Maxwell who “mentioned in the book that in 1962 the Indian Government believed what the Russians told them that we, China, would not retaliate against them. Of course we won’t send our troops outside our borders to fight against other people. We didn’t even try to expel Indian troops from the area south of the McMahon line, which China doesn’t recognize, by force. But if your (e.g. Indian) troops come up north of the McMahon line, and come even further into Chinese territory, how is it possible for us to refrain from retaliating? We sent three open telegrams to Nehru asking him to make a public reply, but he refused.

He was so discourteous; he wouldn’t even do us the courtesy of replying, so we had no choice but to drive him out. You know all the other events in the book, so I won’t describe them, but India was encouraged by the Soviet Union to attack.”

Thus spoke Zhou Enlai in 1972, giving the Chinese version of the 1962 War, based on the writings of Neville Maxwell.

The Most Well-kept Secret Since Independence

While the information contained in Maxwell’s book originates from the Herderson Brooks Report of the 1962 debacle, this document is today the most well-kept secret of the Indian government.

Does it make sense that an episode commented on by Heads of State of the United States and China in the 1970’s, is still hidden from the Indian public in 2010?

It seems that the official answer is ‘yes’.

In 2008, the Defense Minister, Mr AK Antony told the Indian Parliament that the Herderson Brooks could not be declassified. Mr Antony claimed that the report could not be made public because an internal study by the Indian Army had established that its contents “are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value.”

At first sight it seems strange that this 47 year-old report is still of ‘operational value’. The officials who drafted the minister’s reply may not be aware that another report, the Official History of the Conflict with China (1962)8 prepared by the same Defense Ministry, details the famous ‘operations’ in 474 foolscap pages.

“No major security threat other than from Pakistan was perceived. And the armed forces were regarded adequate to meet Pakistan’s threat. Hence very little effort and resources were put in for immediate strengthening of the security of the borders.”

Amongst other things, the ‘official’ Report pointed to the real issue: “No major security threat other than from Pakistan was perceived. And the armed forces were regarded adequate to meet Pakistan’s threat. Hence very little effort and resources were put in for immediate strengthening of the security of the borders.”

Nobody had even thought of China!

The man quoted by Zhou Enlai, Neville Maxwell was the South Asia correspondent for The Times in 1962. He is one of the very few persons to have had (unauthorized) access to the report.

Maxwell commented on Antony’s statement: “Those reasons are completely untrue and quite nonsensical …there is nothing in it concerning tactics or strategy or military action that has any relevance to today’s strategic situation.”

It is worth going deeper into the issue.

What is the Henderson Brooks Report?

A book can help us to understand the background of the Herderson Brooks Report. Between 1962 and 1965, RD Pradhan was the Private Secretary of YB Chavan9 who took over as Defence Minister from the disgraced Krishna Menon after the debacle of October 1962.

Pradhan’s memoirs10, give great insights on the reasoning of the then Defence Minister who ordered the report: “For Chavan the main challenge in the first years was to establish relationship of trust between himself and the Prime Minister. He succeeded in doing so by his deft-handling of the Henderson Brooks’ Report of Inquiry into the NEFA11 reverses.”

Pradhan continues:

[Chavan] learnt some ‘lessons’ that helped him in the conduct of the 1965 Indo-Pak War. In this context, it would be relevant to refer to the Herderson Brooks Report which remains an extremely closely guarded secret till this date12.

Contrary to general expectations the report did not directly indict any political leaders. It was done obliquely.

During one of the debates [in Parliament], the Prime Minister has assured the Parliament that an inquiry will be held into the debacle. After much deliberation, Chavan proposed an inquiry by a committee of two serving army officers rather than a judicial probe or a public enquiry as expected by the Parliament. Further instead of the Defense Minister appointing a committee, he asked the Chief of the Army Staff13 to set-up the same. Accordingly, a two-man committee with Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier PS Bhagat was formed. Both officers had impeccable record of service. Henderson Brooks, an Australian national, had opted to serve the Indian Army after partition and Prem Bhagat was the first Indian officer to be conferred the Victoria Cross during World War II for bravery on the battle field. Their report was presented by the COAS to Chavan in July 2, 1963. The report contained a great deal of information of an operational nature, formations and deployment of the Indian Army.”

As mentioned earlier, the operations are described in greater detail in the Official History of the Conflict with China (1962).14

But Pradhan explains further: “In 1965, it was considered too sensitive to be made public and although outdated today, the report unfortunately remains secret. Pradhan says that he is the only person alive15 who had examined the report16.

The Private Secretary elaborated on the Defence Minister’s sentiments during the following months: “During the conduct of the enquiry Chavan was apprehensive that the committee may cast aspersions on the role of the Prime Minister or the Defense Minister.”

The art of war teach us not to rely on the likelihood of the enemy not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him”¦

“His main worry was to find ways to defend the government and at the same time to ensure that the morale of the armed forces was not further adversely affected. For that he repeatedly emphasized in the Parliament that that the enquiry was a fact-finding one and to ‘learn lessons’ for the future and it was not a ‘witch-hunt’ to identify and to punish the officers responsible for the debacle.

It was a tribute to his sagacity and political maturity that he performed his role to the full satisfaction of the Parliament and also earned the gratitude of the Prime Minister. Some lessons that he learnt are be found in the statement he presented to the Parliament. But it is also a fact that while doing so, he also suppressed certain critical observations. A few words about those might throw light on Chavan’s conduct at political level in the 1965 war.

Contrary to general expectations the report did not directly indict any political leaders. It was done obliquely. On the lack of proper political direction, the committee quoted British India’s first Commander in Chief Field Marshal Robert’s dictum: “The art of war teach us not to rely on the likelihood of the enemy not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; nor on the chance of not attacking but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable”.

 “the Higher Direction of War and the actual command set-up of the Army were obviously out of touch with reality”.

There was another observation: “the Higher Direction of War and the actual command set-up of the Army were obviously out of touch with reality”. In a way, this was an indirect indictment of the political leadership and the manner in which the operations in NEFA had been handled. Chavan found these observations a very harsh judgment on Pandit Nehru’s handling of India’s relations with the People’s Republic of China and for which many felt at that time that he was so much wedded to the Panchsheel that he refused to believe that China had some other intentions. By accepting that comment publicly, he did not want to cause any more anguish to the Prime Minister who was already shattered by the perfidy of the China’s leadership in subscribing to the Panchsheel but all the time preparing to attack India.

At the same time, he did not want to formally reject this observation because that might further aggravate the morale of the very same senior officers on whom he depended to get the army into shape to face any future aggression. He decided to suppress those observations.Pradhan’s conclusions were that: “So far as the Parliament was concerned he [Chavan] performed so ably that at the end of the debate, the leader of the opposition profusely thanked him for his candid reply. That way, politically, Chavan established his own identity. He also earned trust and confidence of the Prime Minister for the manner in which he handled the most severe indictment that the Prime Minister had to face in his long parliamentarian career. The report was a grant education for the novice defence minister. He made copious notes in red ink to help him understand that military jargon. Those ‘two observations’ would offer guidelines to Chavan to shape his own role as Defence Minister. He also earned kudos of his service chiefs for not carrying ‘witch-hunt’. His relation of mutual trust to each one of them was crucial to conduct the 1965 War as evidenced in his Diary.”

The fact that “the report was a great education for the novice defence minister” is important to keep in mind, because it was the main purpose of the work of Herderson Brooks and Bhagat.

The Facts

On April 1, 1963 in reply to a question, the Defence Minister announced in Parliament that an inquiry into the conflict in NEFA had been instituted: “Thorough investigation had been ordered to find out what went wrong with:

For Chavan the main challenge in the first years was to establish relationship of trust between himself and the Prime Minister. He succeeded in doing so by his deft-handling of the Henderson Brooks Report”¦”

  • our training;
  • our equipment;
  • our system of command;
  • the physical fitness of our troops and
  • the capacity of our Commanders at all levels to influence the men under them”.

There was no question of witch-hunting; the Report was just to help “derive military lessons” and “bring out clearly what were the mistakes or deficiencies in the past, so as to ensure that in future such mistakes are not repeated and such deficiencies are quickly made up”

The Defence Minister affirmed that the Army Headquarters had already [in April 1963] learned “from their observations — there are competent people there, professionally very able people — made their own studies about the problems and drawn certain lessons and efforts are being made on the basis of those lessons…”

He added that it was necessary to “improve the quality of planning for the campaigns and those well-thought-out plans will have to be backed by logistic supplies rather well-prepared in advance”.

He specifically mentioned the importance to have a closer understanding, collaboration and cooperation between the Army and the Air Force. He also said that “the physiological and psychological problems of acclimatization of troops at high altitudes were seriously engaging the attention of the Government”.

He pointed out that the Indian Army was “traditionally… trained and taught to think in terms of fighting on plains”, adding that closest relationship between officers and men were now being inculcated.

He stressed the importance of an intelligence system for the Army, “the machinery for intelligence cannot be created overnight. It required very thorough planning. It is a very complicated process… There is a feeling that there is no intelligence system in our country. Possibly this is a misunderstanding. There is a very effectively working intelligence system in India… We can claim to have our own eyes”.

The House was also informed that a chain of airfields was being constructed at various places of strategic importance.

The Inquiry Report17 was submitted to the Chief of the Army Staff on May 12. 1963. It was finally handed over to the Defence Minister on July 2.

At that time, Chavan stated in Parliament that the “the contents were not disclosed for considerations of security” and because they were likely to “affect the morale of those entrusted with safeguarding the security of our borders”.

On September 2, 1963, the Defence Minister spoke again and disclosed that the Inquiry Committee had not confined its investigations to the operations in NEFA alone but examined the “development and events prior to hostilities as also the plans, posture and the strength of the Army at the outbreak of hostility”. Further, a detailed review of the actual operations both in Ladakh and NEFA had been carried out “with reference to terrain, strategy, tactics and deployment of our troops”.

It is clear that the decision of Lt. Gen. Herderson Brooks and Brig. Bhagat to go into “development and events prior to hostilities as also the plans” embarrassed the Government18.

Summary of the Recommendations of the Report

In the Parliament, Chavan gave a summary of the main recommendations of the Report:

Training

It was found that “our basic training was sound and soldiers adapted themselves to the mountains adequately”. But troops had not been prepared for a war with China and hence they had “not requisite knowledge of the Chinese tactics and ways of war, their weapons, equipment and capabilities”.

There was “an overall shortage of equipment both for training and during operations”,

“Toughening and battle inoculations” were recommended, as also training in leadership” and correct “concept of mountain warfare”.

Equipment

There was “an overall shortage of equipment both for training and during operations”, though “the difficulty in many cases was that while the equipment could be reached to the last point in the plains or even beyond it, it was another matter to reach it in time, mostly by air or by animal or human transport, to the forward formations who took the brunt of fighting”. It further noted: “The speed with which troops were inducted from the plains to high altitudes and the lack of proper roads and other means of communication — road transport was both inadequate and weak for the steep gradients in mountainous terrain — added to the problems of logistics”. It was nevertheless stated that “our weapons were adequate to fight the Chinese and compared favourably with theirs”.

It was recommended that the deficiency in equipment, particularly equipment required for mountain warfare be made up and the modes of communication which could make the equipment available to the troops at the right place and at the right time be improved.

System of Command


‘Basically’ nothing was wrong with the system and chain of Command provided it was exercised in the accepted manner at various levels. It was revealed that “during the operations difficulties arose only when there was departure from accepted chain of Command”. Such departures occurred mainly owing to “haste and lack or adequate prior planning”. The Inquiry revealed “the practice that crept in the higher Army formations of interfering in tactical details even to the extent of detailing troops for specified tasks”.

Maxwell will elucidates about this tactical aspect.

Physical Fitness of Troops

It was encouraging to find that “our troops, both officers and men) stood the rigours of the climate, although most of them were rushed at short notice from plains. But it was stated “they were not acclimatized to fight at the heights at which some of them were asked to make a stand”.

Capacity of our Commanders

By and large, it was found that the “general standard amongst the junior officers was fair… At Brigade level, but for the odd exception, commanders were able to adequately exercise their command. It was at higher levels that shortcomings became more apparent.19 It was also revealed that some of the higher commanders did not depend enough on the initiative of the lower commanders…”

“ He (Chavan) also earned kudos of his service chiefs for not carrying “˜witch-hunt. His relation of mutual trust to each one of them was crucial to conduct the 1965 War as evidenced in his Diary.”

The Inquiry spent time on the question of military intelligence and procedures and higher direction of operations. The Committee’s conclusions were that “the collection of intelligence in general was not satisfactory. The acquisition of intelligence was slow and the reporting of it vague… The evaluation may not have been accurate”.

The field formations had little guidance on the Chinese build-up and troop deployment and movements. The Report further stressed that “much more attention will have to be given, than was done in the past, in the work and procedures of the General Staff at the Services Headquarters, as well as in the Command Headquarters and below, to long-term operational planning, including logistics as well as to the problems of co-ordination between various Services Headquarters “.

The Defence Minister told the Members of the Parliament that the reverses suffered by the Army during the 1962 operations were “due to a variety of causes and weaknesses”. The Chinese attack “was so sudden and in such remote and isolated sectors that the Indian Army as a whole was really not tested. In that period of less than two months… only about 24.000 of our troops were actually involved in fighting”.

Chavan also pointed out that in both Ladakh and Walong troops, fought with daring and courage20.

A week later the Defence Minister presented to Parliament a 3,500 word statement on defence preparedness. He confirmed that the “expansion of armed forces, expansion of their training facilities, modernization of their equipment and re-fitting them to step-up their operational efficiency’ was in progress.21

Forty-Seven Years Later

Today the Government is breaking its own laws to keep the Report as well as the entire corpus of related diplomatic correspondence, notes, briefings, and reports under wraps. Why?

Even if the founder of the post-independence dynasty, Jawaharlal Nehru may have emerged in bad light in the Herderson Brooks Report, why put a blanket on the entire archives?22 Are we living in a modern democracy?

…and this despite the fact that in 2005, the Right to Information Act was passed with fanfare by the Indian Parliament.

While Wikileaks daily provides us with fascinating details of the present NATO Af-Pak policy, the Government in Delhi is stuck on its antediluvian position; India is today one of the few nations which refuses to declassify archival material and this despite the fact that in 2005, the Right to Information Act was passed with fanfare by the Indian Parliament. In fact the law seems to have indirectly helped those who do not want India’s history to be known.

Article 8(1)(a) says: “There shall be no obligation to give any citizen, (a) information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offense.”

This paragraph, interpreted by bureaucrats and politicians, is enough to make all the files of the Ministry of External Affairs, Defense, Home and PMO inaccessible to the general public.

The Neville Maxwell Interpretation

As we have seen from the dialogue between Nixon, Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, the only ‘authoritative’ source of information for the 1962 conflict seems to be Neville Maxwell. At first sight, this is logical since he is one of the few scholars or analysts to have read (and studied) the Herderson Brooks Report

In 2001, the author of India’s China War wrote a long paper in the Economic & Political Weekly: Henderson Brooks Report: An Introduction in which he elaborates on his theory: “When the Army’s report into its debacle in the border war was completed in 1963, the Indian government had good reason to keep it Top Secret and give only the vaguest, and largely misleading, indications of its contents. At that time, the government’s effort, ultimately successful, to convince the political public that the Chinese, with a sudden ‘unprovoked aggression’, had caught India unawares in a sort of Himalayan Pearl Harbour was in its early stages and the report’s cool and detailed analysis, if made public, would have shown that to be self-exculpatory mendacity.”

He (Chavan) stressed the importance of an intelligence system for the Army, “the machinery for intelligence cannot be created overnight. It required very thorough planning”¦”

For the past 45 years, this theory has gone around not only amongst the Chinese and US leaders23 but also some Indian intellectuals, that the conflict was triggered by Nehru’s policies, more particularly his Forward Policy.

Maxwell admits: “the report includes no surprises and its publication would be of little significance but for the fact that so many in India still cling to the soothing fantasy of a 1962 Chinese ‘aggression’. It seems likely now that the report will never be released. Furthermore, if one day a stable, confident and relaxed government in New Delhi should, miraculously appear and decide to clear out the cupboard and publish it, the text would be largely incomprehensible, the context, well known to the authors and therefore not spelled out, being now forgotten.”

Notwithstanding the fact that the British journalist believes that nobody has enough knowledge today to understand the background of the 1962 War, it is probably a fact that the Report itself does not contain anything really new24.

In his Introduction, Maxwell first goes into the ‘Origins of Border Conflict’ and explains: “But in the Indian political perspective war with China was deemed unthinkable and through the 1950s New Delhi’s defence planning and expenditure expressed that confidence. By the early 1950s, however, the Indian government, which is to say Nehru and his acolyte officials, had shaped and adopted a policy whose implementation would make armed conflict with China not only ‘thinkable’ but inevitable. From the first days of India’s independence, it was appreciated that the Sino-Indian borders had been left undefined by the departing British and that territorial disputes with China were part of India’s inheritance.”

Nobody disagrees with the first part of this statement: in the government circles, a conflict with China was unthinkable in the 1950’s25, but it is a wrong interpretation of the history to say that India “adopted a policy whose implementation would make armed conflict with China not only ‘thinkable’ but inevitable”. India merely took steps to defend her borders.

Nehru was naive, in the early 1950, he thought that there was no border issue. It was not the case for his Chinese counterpart.

I have written elsewhere on the issues of the Sino-Indian border dispute26, which, for Nehru was not ‘disputed’ or even ‘disputable’. Nehru was naïve, in the early 1950’s, he thought that there was no border issue. It was not the case for his Chinese counterpart. It is enough to quote the words of Zhou Enlai when the Panchsheel Agreement on Tibet was signed in April 1954, the Premier said: “all the issues ripe for settlement had been solved”. In other words, Zhou knew that the border issue was ‘unresolved’. The problem was not due to ‘India’s inheritance’ as Maxwell put it, but to Communist China’s new territorial claims, unknown to Nehru in 1954.

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About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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7 thoughts on “1962 War: Why keep Henderson Brooks report secret?

  1. The army has been behind its withholding. The command failure has been discussed at length in the Henderson Brook report.

    There is nothing to be gained by discussing it. India lost the battle at many levels including political but more specifically at the military level. All these generals including Kaul, Thapar, Umrao Singh, LP Sen failed the common company commander, who was at the receiving end of the orders.

    As I said before, had Brigadier Hoshiar Singh held his post at SELA for three days more and not abandoned the fortress or he had sent a battalion to guard the back done entry of Bailey Trail, the Chinese hungry and out of ammunition would be surrendering to Indian troops.

    The above happened at other places including Twang, Bomdila and other places.

    The political masters failed with bad judgement. The military masters failed at the command level.

    The Henderson Brook report would lay it bare, which the army does not wish to happen. I do not blame them. They have given a good account of themselves in 1965, 1967 (Nathula), 1971 and more recently in 1999.

  2. I do agree with the comments of K Khorana. However, I do feel that the report should be released so as to identify mistakes and institute timely corrective interventions. I agree that while judging decisions, the context in which they were taken must be considered. However it would be extremely difficult to paint a favourable picture of General Kaul howsoever hard one may try!

  3. I think the establishment resists its release to “protect” the Nehru-family from the resultant fall-out as Nehru may then be held responsible for many more blunders that he committed as our first PM. This will adversely effect interests of those who run the establishment today.
    It has taken Wajahat Habibullah rather long to discover the capabilities of military brass during the 62 war. He perused the report and went with the establishment as CIC when in office a couple of years ago but made no comment.

  4. The fact is that the Report concerns the Army more than the politicians.

    Lt Gen HB, (then a Corps Commander) and Prem Bhagat (then a Brig), were not in a position to comment on the government or its grand strategy and failures.

    Then problem was/is that the failure of the Army also reflects failure and incompetence of the government. The politicians in that sense are more sensitive than the Army…..To them, lessons are less important than political survival!

  5. Frankly, hoo-haa about Henderson-Brooks Report is all a tamasha. The report is irrelevant today. In any case, if still curiosity needs satisfaction, read two books (Indias China War by Maxwell and Himalayan Blunder by Brig John Dalvi) and you can write your own H-B Report!!

    It would e fair to say that failures should throw up lessons for future NOT scapegoats for any kind of cover up. Decisions were taken in certain set of circumstances, political and economic, prevalent in the country at the time.

    It’s so easy to sit in comfort of an air conditioned library and indict personalities of that era.

  6. The answer lies in our national motto: Satameva Jayate. The truth MUST be known. Unless we know what happened (and to a lesser degree who did what) history may well repeat itself. Any witch-hunt would be impractical since many, or most, of the dramatis personae would have transited into Eternity. But the shortfalls in the system can certainly be rectified.

  7. Everybody knows that Neville Maxwell was a communist and had a history of communist leanings. His book is considerably anti-India because he was fundamentally pro-China in is communist outlook. Whereas, India’s China War has some good insights, it cannot be trusted fully as a reliable or credible document.

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