Military & Aerospace

India's China Syndrome
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Issue Book Excerpt: Hinduism & its Military Ethos | Date : 21 Oct , 2017

The first major test of the Indian armed forces came in 1962 when India was involved in a border conflict with China. In 1914, an Englishman, Sir Arthur Haney McMahon tried to define the border between India and Tibet (China) on the highest watershed principle. The effort was only partially successful, as the central Chinese government of that time did not ratify the agreement. In the late 1950s, the border dispute between India and China (who had incorporated Tibet) started simmering. Some border posts were set up by the Chinese; India considered it as incursions in Indian territory.

Around October 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru gave a public statement that he had asked the armed forces to get the offensive posts vacated. In the event, it appears that China took the initiative. Before the Indians could act, the Chinese attacked over the Eastern border. Skirmishes also occurred in the Western (Ladakh) region, where the Indian troops gave an extremely good account of themselves.

The actual reasons for the 1962 debacle were: Failure of higher direction and control at Army HQs and Ministry of Defense, almost total failure of generalship at the field level, and failure of the troops to do what they are trained and expected to do, i.e. stand up and fight.

But in the East, the Indian army, for some inexplicable reason, failed to offer any credible resistance. There were unconfirmed reports of battalions and even perhaps a brigade, giving up their positions (hard facts are difficult to come by). The Chinese forces advanced with extra-ordinary ease. It was not the defeat, but the manner of defeat which was most humiliating. Matters were made worst by the Chinese declaring a unilateral ceasefire on 21 November 1962; the Chinese withdrew to their original positions.

The Indian nation was staggered beyond belief; no one had imagined that such a situation could develop. The great visionary Nehru himself was forced to declare that they had been living in a dream world of their own making. Nehru could not survive the shock, suffered a stroke and died in 1964.

After the great debacle, the market was awash with books mostly written by (defeated) generals and Intelligence top brass, whose failures in the first instance had resulted in the disastrous situation. Their first (in fact only) priority was to blame everyone else, except themselves. There was a liberal use of words like ‘if’ and ‘but‘. Over the centuries, Indian (read Hindu) commanders never learnt the basic lesson that ‘victory’ speaks for itself and does not have to rely on ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.

Every type and manner of imaginary and untenable excuses were trotted out for the defeat and the humiliation, e.g.:

  • Lack of Intelligence
  • Lack of acclimatization
  • Shortage of equipment; proper (winter) clothing and boots were stressed
  • Inadequacy of all types and manner of resources

The (trusting) Indian public was led to believe that the troops could not fight due to inadequacy of equipment; till date (2009), most Indians believe that that was the case. That it was not so is proven by the fact that the Indian troops fought well on the Western front, where the winter was much more severe.

At this stage, it would be relevant to record some views of Napoleon Bonaparte, the great French general. Napoleon was made a major-general at the age of 26, and given command of some 40,000 French troops, one of the most ill-equipped army of those days. Napoleon was asked to conquer Northern Italy, which France had been trying to occupy unsuccessfully, for a century or so. There were some two hundred thousand Italian and Austrian troops in Northern Italy at that time. Napoleon addressed his troops with words somewhat on the following lines — ‘I know you have neither food nor clothing, nor boots; but, we are going to win in any case’. (These are not his exact words, but only convey the sense.) Napoleon went on to conquer Northern Italy with that army. The moral of the story is that generals may fight many times with adequate equipment; but sometimes they may have to do that with inadequate equipment. That is the nature of war, which must be won under all circumstances.

Admiral Sureesh Mehta, serving Chief of the Naval Staff made a statement on 10 August 2009. He went on to publicly proclaim that India was no match for China and the gap was so wide that it was unbridgeable. What an admirable self-goal to be achieved by the Admiral?

The actual reasons for the 1962 debacle were:

  • Failure of higher direction and control at Army HQs and Ministry of Defense
  • Almost total failure of generalship at the field level
  • Failure of the troops to do what they are trained and expected to do, i.e. ‘stand up and fight’.

The writer is aware that he would be criticized and pilloried for writing the last factor above, which would be projected as a reflection on our gallant soldiers and an effort to break their morale. The writer, however, believes that there must come a time in the history of nations when they must stand up and face ‘cold and hard’ facts, howsoever unpleasant these may be; that requires courage. The remedial actions can start only after such an acceptance of reality.

Understandably, following the debacle, there was turmoil in India; some generals, including the Chief of the Army Staff, were eased out. The Minister of Defense was asked to go. But care was taken not to touch any bureaucrat at the Ministry of Defense. An inquiry was undertaken; but its report was kept under wraps. Soon everything was forgotten and things fell into the earlier easy groove.

The 1962 fiasco was a failure of fundamental and basic nature. It should have called in question everything connected with the armed forces. There was a requirement for a change in the very mindset of the armed forces and its controlling establishment. Wholesale changes of management structure, procedures and training patterns were called for. That is easier said than done; so, we are where we always were, i.e. nowhere. It would be a monumental error to think that we learnt any lesson from the 1962 debacle.

India’s China Syndrome

Caveat: India and China are neighbors, both aspiring to become global powers. The two can go on their aspirational route without having to step on each other’s toes. Nothing that is stated below may be taken to infer that the conflict between the two is unavoidable, or likely.

Bharat (India) is suffering from a besieged psyche and psychology of victimhood. We are happy to project ourselves as victims.

Presently, India suffers from the China syndrome. In TV debates on China, one sees a galaxy of retired diplomats and generals, and other busy-bodies; they are undoubtedly a set of most prescient men of India. What happens in TV studios is series of tired monologues symptomatic of a nation without any iron in its soul. The primary emphasis is to project China as some sort of a super military power. All sort of dooms-day scenarios are painted for India. That is just a manifestation of the Indian (read Hindu) ‘defeatist mindset’, in this case linked to the 1962 defeat.

The root of the 1962 debacle lay in the failure of the Indian army to put up a fight against the Chinese in the Eastern sector. As that was too shameful to be publicly admitted, a propaganda war was unleashed to project China as a vastly superior military machine, against which we could not have succeeded, even if we had tried. Attributes were assigned to the Chinese army, which it did not posses. The following types of deceptively disguised statements were let out:

  • Chinese came in wave after wave — what could we possibly do?
  • Chinese had vastly superior armaments.
  • Their Generals out-foxed ours.
  • We were shivering with cold.

The media, always hungry for news, picked up the theme and started playing it around, with a degree of vehemence. At the same time, (defeated) generals came out with a series of books, plugging the same line, i.e. projecting the Chinese army as a ‘super human’ one. The Government refused to give the authentic version. Even after about half a century, the official Henderson Brooks Inquiry report is under wraps.

The bitter truth is that the above types of statements were substantially untrue; in fact, most were patently false. There is no evidence to support the oft-repeated theory that the Chinese came in waves. It is highly unlikely that the Chinese had an overwhelming numerical superiority. For all we know, overall numbers might have been even in our favor; at least should have been. We were fighting in our own backyard.

With that type of mindset, we are projecting China as a sort of super power. No doubt, China is a formidable military machine; but, so are we.

However, the general public had no option but to believe the make-believe stories told to them by the media and the books penned by the generals. The result was that over time, the concept of the (perceived) superiority of the Chinese army got lodged in our subconscious. It was in keeping with that mindset that Admiral Sureesh Mehta, serving Chief of the Naval Staff, and Chairman of the ‘Chiefs of Staff Committee’ made a statement on 10 August 2009. He went on to publicly proclaim that India was no match for China and the gap was so wide that it was unbridgeable. What an admirable self-goal to be achieved by the Admiral?

Now, there is nothing new or novel about our investing our adversaries and tormentors, with super human attributes. We have been doing that from the days of the Ghaznis and Ghauris, Baburs and Abdalis. The sad and bitter truth is that we were always defeated in our conflicts with invading armies. Our response was to project those upstarts as masters of ‘vastly superior military machines’, against which we could not have succeeded. We had the following types of thought processes, even if we might not have made formal statements to that effect:

  • Oh, Ghazni was a great Sultan; he was even a greater general; we stood no chance against him.
  • Prithviraj had let Ghauri go after capturing him (as per our version). Ghauri did not reciprocate that act of kindness. How mean of him!
  • Abdali was ruthless, and always winning. What could we have done?
  • Clive was a civilian clerk. He had no business to turn himself into a great general, and start defeating Indian generals.

The refrain of our argument throughout history has been somewhat on the following lines:

‘Defeat was really not our fault; they (our tormentors) were just too powerful.’

Bharat is suffering from a besieged psyche and psychology of victimhood. We are happy to project ourselves as victims. Let us explain by an example. In July–August 2009, the Indian Prime Minister issued a joint statement with his Pakistani counterpart. The statement contained a line that the Pakistan Prime Minister said that they had some threat perception in Balochistan, a border province of theirs. There was no reference, not even a remote one, that that threat was from India.

But all hell broke loose in India. The main Opposition Party, the BJP, walked out of Parliament, and went to complain to the President. Their contention was that Pakistan was trying to imply that that threat could be from the Indian Intelligence Agency R&AW, and that any such suggestion was preposterous. India can never do such a thing; we are a paragon of morality, and satya (truth). In any case, we are ahmisic (non-violent), and worshippers of shanti (peace). So, how can anybody dare imply to the contrary? We are the quiescent type; we cannot be active. We have never been the doers; only things have been done to us. We can only be victims; we are not used to any other role. That was the pith of their protestation and argument.

China has some 15 countries around its periphery. With the exception of Russia, all those countries are small; in fact, some are tiny. If those countries were to go by the Indian example, they would have no reason even to exist.

With that type of mindset, we are projecting China as a sort of super power. No doubt, China is a formidable military machine; but, so are we. Bharat is a humongous country, and is no push over. Being an ex Air Force man, the author would like to record his opinion that our three major weapon systems in Mirages, Mig 29, and Su 31 are the most formidable. In fact, awesome may be a more appropriate word, keeping in view our capability for mid-air refueling. These are amongst the best weapon systems in the world; and so are the men manning these machines. It is possible (but not necessary) that we need some additional numbers. The numbers will get looked after in due course; that aspect need not be over emphasized. The author also ventures to say that the Indian army is also generally well equipped; their T 90 tanks are among the best in the world, and so are the Bofor guns. Upgradation of weapon systems is a continuous process; we do not have to emphasize that in an out-of-the-way fashion, and project that as our weakness.

Let us have a look around. China has some 15 countries around its periphery. With the exception of Russia, all those countries are small; in fact, some are tiny. If those countries were to go by the Indian example, they would have no reason even to exist. Their faces would be forever bereft of a smile; but, we know that that is not the case. Those countries are living with honor and dignity. We have the example of the tiny Vietnam standing up to the formidable Chinese army.

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Nothing stated above should be taken to mean that we ignore or sleep over external threats to our security. Rather, those threats should be the main focus of our national attention, which presently, these are not. But for that, we do not have to beat our chest in public over our perceived weaknesses, especially at the official (including highest Defence) levels. India is a big country, it must learn to think and act big.

The Indian Armed Forces are capable of taking on any world class military machine, provided we can get our mental act together; some 90% of our problems is in our mind.1 It may be relevant to quote an Urdu couplet here:

Khud hi ko ker buland itna              Raise yourself to a level,

Ki her taqdir se pehle                        Above all others;

Khuda bande se khud puchhe       So, God himself will ask

Bta teri raza kya hai                           Tell me, what do you wish to be?


1.  Of course, problems of the mind are almost impossible to tackle.

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16 thoughts on “India’s China Syndrome

  1. Poorly conceived article. The author need to read more about himalayan blunder. I ca comprehend his lack of military matters, beong a flier. May i ask him…the soldiers gave their account despite, where was the Air-force. Saying that Nehru died as his heart faild that too after 2 years…because of this if an unprofessional assessment !!

  2. No excuses, admit the fact that Nehru, Menon and incompetent Gen. Kaul were responsible for the debacle. Troops were not clothed or armed properly and Air Force was not used. PERIOD. THEY ARE TO BLAME! Tibet was given on the platter and UNSC seat given to China.

  3. leave aside the rest of the facts and fiction what I don’t get is what exactly was the air force of this country was doing that it could not intervene as I understand the air force was in much better shape (both in experience and training) at the time. As far as Napoleon was concerned his Grande Armee’ had nearly a million best equipped soldiers when he invaded Russia and everyone knows how that turned out for him or France’s reputation in Europe moral of this story was it the very nature of wars that generals have to fight at a disadvantage but even the mightiest army and general can be reduced to ashes if you just are willing to give it your best so Indian Army’s incompetence should not be left unpunished and the government be left to explain Armed forces incompetence in doing just one job it has been entrusted with i.e protecting the sovereignty of my country’s borders. Winning a war with Pakistan and then gloating about it is like Muhammad Ali winning a boxing match with me and then celebrating that win quite frankly is kind of lame and stupid .The only fact that remains now is that the only time India faced a well equipped force(both in no. and weapons) it LOST and hid behind silly excuses. Even today the Army is not ready to defend this country and not everything is government’s fault the Army has not been able to normalize the situation in Kashmir till date (even helped fan the anger in kashmir I’m not saying all the reports of rape and deaths are true but in this age falsifying just everything is not possible so even if 1 of the report is true then it just tells of the lack of discipline among the soldiers).Army was not able to prevent Kargil from happening I mean they even gave a splendid reason and projected themselves as the victim by saying there was a “unsaid or unwritten understanding and Pakistan broke that agreement….” Aweee!! poor you..well guess what! Army was supposed to be there because they saw Pakistan as an enemy state and they needed to make sure that they did not cross into my territory under any circumstances and then they are arrogant enough to celebrate it as a victory which happened due to their negligence in the first place.So the need of the army is to employ more of the lot which is motivated to protect the nations for the nation not because he/she needs a job and Army is as good as any and generals should be able and worthy to lead an army and not there because he happens to be related to the bloody prime minister or is there for the sole purpose so he can one day swindle a big defence deal because then he is potentially killing more soldiers than an enemy state cause then he swindles a deal it becomes known to the public then after all the lengthy years of testing and negotiations it gets canceled and then they probe for 10-20 more years and then they start the whole process again by severely damaging the operational readiness of the forces.

  4. The rank and file of the army cannot be blamed for the debacle. Soldiers on the battle field act as per orders of their commanders; if ordered to fall back, can the soldiers be expected to disobey and fight? The blame squarely lies on the political leadership (Nehru & Menon) and Gen. Kaul and his chosen few. Please do not ignore or forget 13 Kumaon (the Battle of Rezang La) and others who fought valiantly.

  5. Well what the Author has said about “Psyche” is absolutely true. We Indians always have had that problem. The truth also is that we are quick to give excuses for failures. We have been giving excuses for centuries. We refuse to accept that by character we were submissive, cunning and deceitful ; it was because of these qualities we were exploited and defeated by every invader that came to India. We have made heroes out of no body? Porus lost the war but he is made to look like a Hero in school text books. That’s the kind of stuff we are made off. Now coming to the Indian Military; in a democracy it’s the government which is the supreme authority. Nehru was a pacifist; he went in for a ceasefire in 1947 when the Pakistanis were being driven out of Kashmir. That is one of the biggest blunders in diplomacy and in Indian history. Nehru was of the view that armed forces were only tools of violence and force. After seeing the turn of events in Pakistan, Nehru was always scared of a military takeover in India and much to the delight of the bureaucracy kept the Armed Forces on low ebb. He was almost romancing China and was utterly stupid not to get alarmed when China occupied Tibet and Sinkiang. He had no strategic vision and once the Chinese came in and occupied our territory in Aksai Chin he in utter panic and against any sane advice ordered an unprepared and ill-equipped Army to throw them out. For those that don’t know and would like to belittle our soldiers; the two Battalions who were at the fore front of facing the Chinese were equipped with a single blanket and 50 rounds of ammunition. No wonder it was over so fast and soon for 7 Brigade at Dhola. Coming to the present day we still haven’t learnt the lessons form 1962. Our Army is again ill-equipped and our preparation to fight a war along the Northern borders is inadequate. We do not have strategic vision in this country. We have to wake up; our National Security is being compromised by the by the politicians.

  6. Excellent article!

    The only problem is the Urdu couplet at the end. It is meaningless. Besides, the implication of the couplet is ambiguous. In one sense, Iqbal is suggesting that the ego be raised very high! This is obviously very anti-spiritual and very anti-religious.

    But, Marshal Nehra is right, the Indian mentality needs a change — but haven’t people been saying that already for a thousand years? Modifying genes is not easy!

  7. The Marshall has written an excellent article that must be seriously understood by all Indians, military people, bureaucrats, and politicians. He has brought out the real truths of the Indian psyche.

  8. The Air Marshal clearly does not know his Armed Forces. He is right in only one point that we must get our mental act together. My knowledge is that no soldier, airman or sailor is ever going to fight under corrupt and undeserving Generals, Marshals and Admirals. The poor man willl be dead or injured and no one will look after him. Certainly not this country.
    When nations are at war, it is not the military alone that counts. We must see the nations in totality. I have been to China many times and one can sense their resolve in what ever they do. China was worse off than India from 1950 – 1980. Now India willl take at least a hundred years to catch up. They have sent a man into space and India is still fiddling with the foreign made LCA.
    The Air Marshal should know that the MiG 29s and Sukhois don count for much if cowards are flying them. The IAF never wanted to participate in Kargil.
    Also I cant name anybody amongst our top leadership who can remotely be compared to Napolean. Napolean did not play golf and was certainly not corrupt.

  9. Please explain the propagated myth – “For a war lost in 1962, how come Nehru suffers shock and dies of heart attack in 1964 ?” That must have been one lengthy shock and heart attack to have permeated for over two years before registering on ECG.

    • Yes, you idiot! How do you know whether Nehru had an ECG or not? It is clear that Nehru was a defeated man after Oct 1962 and started getting very sick in the subsequent year (1963). You have no idea about how the body works, and what the relation is between the autonomous nerves and heart. Why should death from shock be sudden, as you project, and not prolonged?

    • its not necessary for all psychosomatic illnesses to develop and manifest immediately. It takes months and sometimes many years for it to slowly create nervous system disturbances till it results in a heart attack, brain hemorrhage or stroke or paralysis or gastric ulcer or asthmatic attacks. All of these are manifestations of Mental / psychosomatic illnesses. So, its very likely that what the author said is true. Everything is not filmy like Bollywood movie style

  10. I am not sure how much research Air Marshal Nehra did on 1962 war but definately he has not read any book about it. If he gets some time, he can read “Himlayan Blunder” by Brig Dalvi, “War in High Himalyas” by Maj Gen Palit, “When Generals failed”, Indian Army after independance” by Major Praval….and number of books that talk about the failure of generals to stand upto political insanity of setting up BOPs without any means of maintaining them. Forget about fighting a war on the frontier. Not one such books has given any reason that can suggest Air Marshal Nehra that Army did not fight well. May be he forgot fate of 7th Brigade & 13th kumaon in Rejang La. Or may be he does not know about these. Every book is holding Maj Gen Pathania (4th Div commander) , Lt. Gen Kaun (4th Corp Commander), Lt. Gen Sen (GOC-in-C Eastern Army) & COAS Gen Thapar for the debacle of SeLa when Brig Hoshiyar Singh was adament to stay on top of Se La with his 62nd Brigade to fight out chinese but Gen Pathania had lost nerve. And Gen Kaul never had the nerve so entire 4th Div & 4th Corp collapsed when 62nd brigade was forced to retreat. IT WAS NOT SOLDIERS & FIELD COMMANDERS BUT GENERALS WHO FAILED.

    • You quack like a duck! You missed the fundamental point of the Air Marshall’s article. He already said that defeated generals wrote books and talked nonsense. They largely came to their own defense. Their work is scarcely reliable. You don’t read with concentration, do you?!

      In fact, you didn’t even read the books properly. All those books admitted that the Indian army did not fight well.

  11. The Chinese believe in the theory that “Two tigers cannot coexist on one mountain” either one has to remain and the other eliminated forever, Yes, India should be the tiger that remains and China eliminated. Our audacity and cruelty should go hand in hand, that China remains under our boots crushed for generations to come.

    Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war !!

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