Institutions and nations rarely if ever learn from successes, but it is possible and necessary to learn from institutional or national failure. This is particularly true of military operations. Today, 50 years since India and China went to war, there is vigorous public debate regarding India’s humiliating defeat. It is vital that the “how” and “why” of the failure are brought to light so that India, as a mature democracy, can learn from them. The “who” issue is unimportant since all the principal political, bureaucratic and military actors of the debacle are dead.
Much has been written about the 1962 debacle having heartbroken Prime Minister Nehru, but little or no attention has been given to the heroism of the officers and men who died during or as a result of that fateful military operation.
It is but natural that Indians view China as the aggressor. A section of the media has argued that the debacle was due to failure of the generals in higher military command, and steered clear of even hinting at blame on the political leadership of that time. Divergently, Neville Maxwell, in his book “India’s China War”, has expressed an opinion that was and is still resented in Indian society. He argues1,2 that India was the expansionist aggressor which used armed force imprudently, over-ruling the advice of military field commanders, while China was the aggrieved party. However, veteran journalist T.J.S.George3 wrote, “… we should never make the mistake of assuming that Maxwell wrote the damn-India book at the behest of China”.
Retired army officers form yet another body of opinion. They still refer to “62” as the year of Chinese aggression, and believe that while higher military command was certainly to blame, the political leadership interfered in military decisions and placed political favourites in charge of field operations, inevitably leading to defeat.
Perhaps there are other shades of opinion, but on one issue there is no divergence – the troops and junior commanders on the ground were matchless in spite of being under-equipped, and logistically and operationally over-stretched in carrying out orders that were militarily flawed. There appears to be broad agreement on four other points: One, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had misplaced faith in China as a friend, which would not attack India; two, defence minister Krishna Menon was arrogant and had a strong dislike and distrust of his own military; three, Intelligence Bureau chief B.N.Mullick told Nehru what he wanted to hear rather than the truth; and four, army chief Gen P.N.Thapar did not stand up for his field commanders, and Lt Gen B.M.Kaul whose kinship with Nehru catapulted him to undeserved field command met with ignominy soon after.
Much has been written about the 1962 debacle having heartbroken Prime Minister Nehru, but little or no attention has been given to the heroism of the officers and men who died during or as a result of that fateful military operation. It is heartening that at least now, on 20 October 2012, the defence minister and the three defence service chiefs laid wreaths at India Gate in belated memory of the brave soldiers of 1962.
Report on the debacle
The debacle led to Lt Gen Henderson Brooks and Brig P.S.Bhagat being ordered to prepare a report (the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat or HB-B Report of 1963) on the whole matter. The HB-B team was given terms of reference such that the role of the political leadership could not be questioned. The HB-B Report is understood to be frank, forthright and critical of the operational and logistic failure of higher military commanders and staff officers and, notwithstanding the terms of reference, of political interference in matters of military appointment (for example, appointing Prime Minister’s favourite Lt Gen B.M.Kaul as GOC 4 Corps with the task of evicting Chinese intrusions in NEFA, over the head of GOC 33 Corps, Lt Gen Umrao Singh, who was fully conversant with frontline conditions) and tactically unviable penny-packet troops deployment. It is said that there are only two copies of the Top-Secret-classified HB-B Report, one with Army HQ Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) and another with the Defence Secretary.
What is vital today is to know what went wrong and how it went wrong, so that we learn from past mistakes, and are not again humiliated as a nation.
There have been demands for declassifying the HB-B Report, including in 2006 by veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, using the Right to Information Act. The CIC ruled that “no part of the Henderson Brooks report might at this stage be disclosed”. One writer has even suggested that Army HQ is blocking its declassification because the army is itself to blame for the debacle.4
Irresponsibly pinpointing responsibility
In most countries, documents of 30 years vintage are declassified and made available to scholars, serious students and strategic thinkers. The HB-B Report is a crucial document, but there are surely several other documents of that vintage (including the 1951 Maj Gen M.S.Himmatsinghji Report on how to militarily strengthen India’s Tibet border following China’s occupation of Tibet) that will need to be released for study.
Kuldip Nayar’s demand for the HB-B Report and demands even now, are met with the response that secrecy must be maintained “in the national interest”, or because it contains information of “operational value”. That could be a reason to push the blame for the 1962 debacle on the military, as appears to be happening at present.
In modern times, wars are not fought only between the militaries of countries, but between nations. With India’s military under civilian control according to the Constitution of India, responsibility to prosecute war in the best interests of the country rests with the combined executive-legislative-intelligence-bureaucracy-military. It would be unfair to lay the entire responsibility on any one of them or hold any one of them solely accountable.
The strategic community, journalists and politicians can endlessly argue as to who did what wrong and why, causing the 1962 debacle, even though it really does not matter today. What is vital today is to know what went wrong and how it went wrong, so that we learn from past mistakes, and are not again humiliated as a nation.
It is vital for national security that all documents, articles, studies and reports on events leading upto and pertaining to the 1962 Sino-Indian border dispute and armed conflict, be immediately and fully declassified with unrestricted access to academicians and serious students of strategy. As for the HB-B Report, a special responsibility to declassify it in the national interest rests with both MoD and Army HQ.
- Neville Maxwell; “Henderson Brooks Report: An Introduction”; Economic & Political Weekly, April 14-20, 2001.
- Neville Maxwell; “China’s India War – How the Chinese saw the conflict”; Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 28, July 2, 2011.
- T.J.S.George; “No Need to Bribe a British Journalist”; Mainstream, Vol XLIX No 17, April 16, 2011.
- Sandeep Unnithan; “Army Holds Up Declassification of Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report”; <http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/army-holds-up-declassification-of-the-henderson-brooks-bhagat-report/1/225260.html>; IndiaToday.in; October 18, 2012.