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Lessons from 1962: Is 50 years not enough?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 13 Nov , 2012

Indian troops forming a man-tow for artillery over rough mountain terrain during 1962 War

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.

Various opinions

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.

National security

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.

References

  1. Neville Maxwell; “Henderson Brooks Report: An Introduction”; Economic & Political Weekly, April 14-20, 2001.
  2. Neville Maxwell; “China’s India War – How the Chinese saw the conflict”; Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 28, July 2, 2011.
  3. T.J.S.George; “No Need to Bribe a British Journalist”; Mainstream, Vol XLIX No 17, April 16, 2011.
  4. 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.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen S G Vombatkere

retired as major general after 35 years in the Indian military, from the post of Additional DG in charge of Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ.

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3 thoughts on “Lessons from 1962: Is 50 years not enough?

  1. We have known this for a while as a family & that is Neville Maxwell has little clue when discussing the HB-B report & in particular slandering off the highest of deceased officers.These are the facts of the matter & they remain undisputed.
    Rgds
    Chris

  2. I am a bit appalled at this paper. What we need is that until Henderson-Brook report is declassified, we should stop making any reference to Neville Maxville’s cock and bull story. He was previously and after, well known to be left leaning journalist with strong dislike for India’s independence and Nehu in particular. He started with that background and wrote a novel about India’s debacle in 1962.

    The Thagla Ridge deployment was Nehru’s creation and he was wrong in his judgement. He wished to clear the Chinese from Indian territory. Any body tell me – What is wrong with that, if you believed that Thagla Ridge is Indian territory? Only thing wrong with this order was that Nehru had bad intelligence reports and an over ambitious geneal in BM Kaul, who argued that he was upto the job.

    What is not right in November of 1962 was the deployment of the Army from Tawang to SELA and to Bomdilla. It is the Brigadiers and the Colonels who deploy the fighting men and not Nehru & Menon. They were the in-competent one. How could they ever leave the Bailey Trail unguarded. Nothing would have happened on the scale what happened in November of 1962, if instead of a company guarding the Bailey Trail, there was a battalion gaurding it. Chinese would either not used it to reach Bomdilla or would have suffered a major disaster with 800 of their men with supplies in Indian hands and SELA fortifications still safe.

    Do not talk about Nehru & Menon’s failures to mask the failures of Dalvi/HoshiarSingh/Parshad/Kaul etc. The whole command structure failed the little guy soldier who was waiting to do his job without woollen clothing to pounce upon the Chinese at SELA.

    If you have to hang anybody quite literally, these are the men to be stripped off the ranks and previlieges.

    • Harry Sud is only partly correct. Neville Maxwell is biased but Nehru and Menon bear the maximum blame for not preparing/equipping the Army adequately before ordering it to face the Chinese in defensive battle let alone for launching offensive ops at high altitudes against vastly superior PLA- in numbers and weaponary. Nehru-Menon duo had no experience in conduct of war. They should have sought the expert advice of professional greats like Thimayya and Thorat. Unfortunately, Nehru-Menon did not like those generals and placed spineless, pliant and totally inept generals Thapar and Kaul at the Army high command.
      Nehru’s opponent was MaoZedong, among the wiliest and most battle hardened leaders of the PRC. Unlike Manekshaw telling the redoubtable Indira Gandhi in April 1971 that the Army was not ready for war with Pakistan yet, Thapar failed to tell Nehru in Sep 1962 that we were not ready for war with China. The PLA was a battle hardened force that had been in warfare for 35 years and had fought the mightiest power, the USA to stand still in the 1950-53 Korean War.
      We had very little clue about the PLA concept of ops, their organisational structures. During the ops, the problem was compounded by the DMO from New Delhi interfering with conduct of ops by field commanders. The situation was heavily loaded against Dalvi, Hoshiar Singh and other formation commanders.
      We were so ill prepared and ill equipped that defeat was almost inevitable. However, despite the humongous odds, our officers and men at unit, sub unit level fought most heroically against the PLA, and man to man gave them as much as we got.
      In the Battle of Walong Oct-Nov ’62, as part of my Battalion,I myself fought at Trijunction (13500 feet). We could have stemmed the tide of the Chinese but had very negligible artillery support and had no reinforcements to replace casualties. The failure was primarily of top political leadership compounded by military high command.

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