Our narrative of the 1962 border conflict is but a list of self-deprecating ‘never dos’. A force of just three weak Brigades in the Eastern and two in the Western Sectors out of forty odd in the Indian Army at that time, were hastily inducted to occupy disjointed defensive positions with little in terms of depth, fire support, obstacles and manoeuvre elements to offer what bloody resistance the valiant officers and men could. Deserted by fundamental tactical sense in face of political pressure, top Indian commanders had thus left the entire combat zone for as many as five divisions equivalent of the battle-hardened PLA to manoeuvre at will and unhinge their defensive positions before overrunning these. It was a series of hopeless battles fought for military honour by small groups of soldiers under the leadership of spirited young officers who had been left to their devises.
“…a permanent piece of education…,” Pandit Nehru referring to the 1962 debacle.
Who, in his right senses, would ‘celebrate’ a national debacle that rankles the Indian conscience even after fifty years? Recalling those days of late 1962, it is impossible to forget how terrible the trauma was. Shaken out of a fifteen-year long dream-sequence of ‘swadheenta’ (freedom), every citizen of India was seized with grief as the news of the debacle filtered through. The wound upon the collective psyche was aggravated by stories of unimaginable gallantry shown by officers and soldiers of the Indian Army in the face of deprivation, death and defeat and the contrasting breakdown of the ‘will to fight’ among many of the top military leadership. The political leadership, made of personages of impeccable vision and honour, was overwhelmed by the guilt of having invited war on an ill-prepared nation. The nation went into mourning. A fear of revisit of that situation remains palpable in the defence establishment till today.
A disoriented state apparatus slowly proceeded to dismember itself by weakening its own military institution.
How then can one celebrate that event of supreme national failure and have the insolence of casting the 50th anniversary of such a debacle in the haloed mould of a Golden Jubilee! This unusual urge probably emanates from attempts made herein to re-discover strategic wisdom from the ‘lessons’ on hard facts of statecraft taught to us by China. Indeed, the mauling India received at the hands of China in that ‘war’ – a limited border conflict in fact – caused the government to institute far-reaching improvements in its military administration. Articulation of diplomacy too went through a drastic revision. The ‘lesson’ had been learnt well. To the government’s credit, it must also be stated that the neglected and demoralised Indian Army was resuscitated within a short period of just three years so to be able to stand up to its mandate in 1965 War and then exceeding the national expectations in the Bangladesh War of 1971. There is, therefore, good reason for the debacle of 1962 to be seen as a cause celebre, a reminder to our mandarins in South Block – both civilian and military – not to fall back into the pre-1962 abyss ever again.
The purpose of this discussion would, therefore, be served if our apex leadership reaffirms as to what they ‘must not permit’ to happen again in our journey ahead to peace and prosperity. We may start with the post-independence scene.
Post-Independence Turf Grab
The better part of governance in India had been delegated to the ‘natives’ much before the formal promulgation of independence. On the eve of independence therefore, power was transferred to an already astute political leadership. These were persons of highest intellect who yet lacked one important insight into the statecraft – the management and articulation of military power. Thus, having inherited a world-celebrated fighting force in the form of the British Indian Army, they tried to cover the blind spot by turning to those they had befriended – departing British Generals and members of civil service who had provide for the ‘steel frame’ on which stood the British Indian Empire. The former, disconcerted by the unstated question over the loyalty of Indian armed forces and fear of another 1857, which was a strong reason for the British to leave, could not have been generous in their advice regarding nurturing a native military institution. Similarly, so far marginalised in matters of military administration, Indian civil servants were known to be chary of losing an opportunity, as provided by the transfer of power, to ride over ‘headstrong’ military professionals.
How can one celebrate an event of supreme national failure?
Thus fooled by motivated chants whispered into their ears, politicians of the Nehruvian school, in the comfort of the conviction that the armed might had no role to play in their ‘tryst with destiny’, found justification to their cause of marginalising, if not decimating, their newly inherited military institution – it was of no use if one could have one’s way just by “turning the other cheek”. Indeed, brazen presumptions like, “We don’t need a defence plan, our policy is non-violence!”, “We see no military threats, scrap the Army!” and “The police are good enough to meet our security needs”, came to grip the political minds. There was talk of doing away with the Army but first the Pakistan-sponsored tribal invasion of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947- 1948, and then a self-aggrandising urge to arbitrate in international quarrels postponed that event. Finally, China’s belligerent posture on the Indo-Tibet Border since the mid-1950s put paid to that suicidal idea.
In spite of being saved by our neighbours from committing that kind of ‘suicide’, a disoriented state apparatus slowly proceeded to dismember itself by weakening its military institution. Thus was perpetrated the lie that British rule was perpetuated through the British Indian Army – actually that role was played by its civil services and police – and therefore, the Army was a force of the aliens. Innuendo from power-brokers, ‘whispered’ to the political masters and yet for the entire country to hear, went on to propagate the looming of a ‘military coup’. The problem so invented was then sought to be prevented by distancing the military hierarchy from policy-advisory role, undermining their authority, promoting acquiescing favourites in top command positions and investing on police organisations, these being traditionally amenable to political expediencies1. Thus emerged a governing apparatus that discarded the role of military power and along with it, military men from their politico-diplomatic calculations2. With the military institution atrophied thus, the stage was set for the catastrophic war of 1962, a debacle that paid put to India’s political, diplomatic and economic aspirations for half a century.
Political leadership needs to understand that the military hierarchy stands outwitted by the inter-cadre coalition of ‘common-cause’ bureaucrats…
The first lesson of the 1962 debacle was that it was important for the political leadership to understand that when it came to jostling for space and power, the military hierarchy stood outwitted by inter-cadre coalition of ‘common-cause’ bureaucrats. They also needed to appreciate that while building up institutional military spirit was a long and tedious process, just some signs of neglecting dispensation was enough to undermine it. Therefore, as the bureaucratic instinct of usurpation of cadre-advantages was a fact of life, it was incumbent upon the political leadership to be the fair arbitrator in fostering balanced equation among state institutions. Politicians, therefore, may not overlook inter-cadre turf race when it impacts the military institution, and use their authority to protect its sensitivities – for the good of the nation.
Obviously, this lesson has not been learnt. South Block’s instinct of marginalising the armed forces is again on show. Nuances of military preparedness – both tangible and intangible – is decided by bureaucrats, scientists and auditors, while politicians would rather not intervene on an issue which is outside their focus towards ‘power’. Finding themselves cast aside, military leaders in increasing numbers are taking leave of the hard path of their ‘calling’ and freeing themselves from the hoary compunctions of the ‘spirit’ of soldiering. Sadly, the military institution is again in a state of profound anguish, as it was prior to 1962; it seems to be once again on the verge of weakening its war-winning asset – the élan of exclusivity. Restitution measures from the state as well as from within the military fraternity are urgently called for.
Military Factor in Statecraft
From time immemorial, great nations have factored military recourse into the articulation of political power much before this principle was formally propagated by Sun Tzu, Chanakya, Machiavelli, Clausewitz and Morgenthau. Institutional experience of thousands of years in statecraft and near-continuous engagement in war-fighting since the mid-nineteenth century had thus prompted the post-World War II leadership in China – Guomintang nationalists and their successor Communists – to factor military power as a pillar of their political aspirations. Indeed, expansionist territorial ambitions had been a common persuasion of all Chinese regimes at all times. They also understood that claimed territories could be secured either by the threat or actual use of armed might; no country was expected to cede territory in charity.
South Block’s instinct of marginalising the armed forces is again on show…
It was therefore only natural that within a year of settling the Civil War in its favour in 1949, Communist China first invaded Tibet in 1950-1951, and then proceeded to extend her grip over the outlying areas of Tibet and East Turkmenistan while building up an elaborate logistic infrastructure to consolidate her territorial sovereignty. Consequently, the policy of physically occupying the claimed but un-demarcated swathe of open-usage areas astride the Indo-Tibet Border belt was put in practice during the mid-1950s. India meanwhile had already declared her sovereignty over much of these areas, with good reasons, and therefore responded by inching her border posts northwards3. Thus started a race, chequerboard game of establishing new ‘flag’ posts, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian Army trying to beat each other in establishing control over their versions of the borderline. And in matching steps with her growing military preparations, territorial claims that China had been ‘mumbling’ so far were now being asserted firmly. Thus went past the 1950s. Indeed, India’s so called ‘Forward Policy’ was actually the only recourse at her hand to beat China to her gain of ‘adverse possession’ over Indian territory4. In hindsight, therefore, it is clear that a clash of some kind between China and India on the boundary issue was more or less inevitable.
But what may strike the students of politics of the 1950s and 1960s, is that China coupled military force as an instrument of political power to foster a condition that she was unable to bring about by other means. India, on the other hand, believed in using her military power to deny fruition of her adversary’s use of force. In other words, in India’s understanding, the military institution was meant to be used, not in the form of a proactive ‘power’ of change but only as a reactive ‘force’ to undertake ‘police action’ so to say, to discourage the adversary from using force to address contentious issues. This conceptual difference manifested in 1962 when Chinese strategists defined an ‘end state’, devised deliberate and infallible plan of operations, built up for war to the point of over-insurance, and then hit hard when ready. India, on the other hand, pushed up small detachments of military personnel armed with minimal wherewithal to man isolated ‘posts’ under the extra-ordinary presumption that the even if prodded, “the Chinese would never attack.”5
Mired in poverty and backwardness, there was much politico-economic merit in India’s disavowal of military power in articulation of her statecraft. However, our founding fathers failed to distinguish their urge for peace with the politics of power-play. They deceived themselves with the simplistic notion that elaborate preparations need not be made when recourse to use of force had been adopted aversely and for defensive purpose. They banked on pious ‘hope’ against ‘realities’ of real-politick.
A certain level of understanding of war among the political leadership is necessary…
The second lesson learnt from the 1962 debacle was that whether or not a nation factors military power into its statecraft, maintenance of a judicious level of military preparedness was a mandatory responsibility, and that deliberate preparations and planning were imperatives even when military operations are launched with limited aim. The lesson was visible till the late 1980s.
Looking at today’s state of cost-ineffective defence budget, archaic expenditure procedures, stale defence industry, stagnant research and development, regressive personnel management and disjointed modernisation schemes, the question looms: has the lesson diffused over time? No doubt, many steps are underway to ameliorate the disconnect but the sweep and the pace of reforms are just not adequate.
Political Understanding of War
1962 highlighted a contrast in the exercise of political control over the war. Chinese political leaders with Mao in the lead ensured that the military plan was enmeshed with diplomatic postures from time to time and political objective of the war dictated the scope and pace of the military operations6. The PLA was fully provisioned, acclimatised and built up to overwhelming strength over the years, leaving nothing to chance. The most experienced Generals were placed in command and every bit of information regarding the terrain as well as Indian dispositions, weaponry and strength was collected to build up a clear intelligence picture. Mao Zedong himself approved the ‘rules of engagement’ and the offensive plans before leaving it to local commanders to execute in the manner they considered fit. It was so that even for their superiority, the PLA displayed utmost restraint till ordered to engage, and when engaged, hit so ruthlessly as to instil shock and awe. All principles of war were strictly adhered to, for the strategy analysts to mark this war as the most perfectly executed ever by the PLA.
We lost because we pawned our military acumen and with it, the nerve to keep the struggle alive…
In contrast, besides occupying distant ‘posts’ that were selected off the map, little political control was exercised by the Indian government to manage the impending crisis, besides of course, annoyed dismissal of professional concerns and playing favours. The army brass, ever on back-foot due to trust deficit, easily gave-in to the pressure to advance towards the claimed border alignment – the effort was limited only by the capacity to keep troops supplied with subsistence rations and fuel. No doubt, military commanders have to give in to their political masters even against their professional judgement but then adverse contingencies are to be anticipated and catered to. Indians, however, had no such ‘Plan B’.
Once engaged in an unanticipated conflict, political and military leaders failed to appreciate that military operations cannot be called off halfway, at the first signs of setback. Indeed, the reverses in the Western and Walong Sectors were but usual experiences in the initial stages of defensive warfare. Truly, therefore, just one set of serious reverses – that is astride the Tawang-Se La-Bomdila Axis – had caused these leaders, all formidable in their past reputation, to panic. While one might be inclined to mark the politicians for undermining the military ‘spirit’ in peace and then exposing their own ‘soft belly’ in war, the loss of fighting spirit among higher military leadership in 1962 was shocking – the formation commanders were distinguished World War II veterans after all.
Ironically, whereas diplomacy is meant to avert war, and failing in that, to strengthen the war-effort, in this instance, Indian diplomacy managed to aggravate China’s belligerence. By repeated refusal to engage in substantive parlays, New Delhi made it easier for Beijing to implement her long decided plan to, as their diplomats proclaimed with a straight face, “counter-attack in self defence”! It is difficult to decide which of the two ‘performances’ was more bizarre.
Lesson number three of 1962 was that a certain level of understanding of war among the political leadership was necessary, as indeed was the need for mutual trust between politicians, diplomats, intelligence heads and the military brass. In the aftermath of 1962, the lesson was well assimilated. Today, however, there is discernable isolation among these pillars of the state – the lesson has not survived. The military leadership has turned professionally more emphatic though.