Military & Aerospace

1962 The Se La Operation: The Chinese Incursion into India
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Issue Vol. 13.1 Jan-Mar 1998 | Date : 24 Jan , 2019

The Chinese incursion into India in 1962 was the first major war on the subcontinent since the Second World War. There are many lessons to be learnt from this short war from the point of policy, strategy and tactics. It is intended to bring out these points in the course of this article.

The main hostilities in the then NEFA, or the North-East Frontier Agency, in North-Eastern India centered round the Se La (pass).

It was the most important route into the plains of Assam. The pass itself was located on a ridge that emanated from the Eastern Himalayas. The height was just over 13000 feet. It was barren on top. The tree line came to about 12000 feet and there were some dwarf rhododendron bushes creeping up the hillside. The pass itself was rocky. The terrain ahead and north of it, the Se La Plateau, was undulating and visibility was good on the days when there were no clouds or mist. Though partially in the rain shadow the monsoon did affect it. Then the visibility was poor.

It will be seen that there are two river systems in Kameng District. One is on ~the West. Starting from Tibet the Nyam Gyang Chu (Chu means river or stream), goes through Eastern Bhutan becoming the Manas as it enters Eastern Assam. The other goes at a tangent. It starts from the Himalayas and runs South-East later turning down to the South to join the Brahmaputra. This is called the Kameng. It runs through a reasonably wide valley but narrows down at the end of the sketch where it goes through a gorge. There is another pass on a ridge coming down from the Himalayas. Located here is a small township called Bomdi La. It is practically a halfway point between the plains of Assam and Se La.

To the NW of the sketch lies the disputed frontier of the Namka Chu where the first encounter took place. This is located at a point on what the Indian side reckoned was South of the Indo-Tibet boundary. The British had wanted the line of peaks of the Eastern Himalayas to be the frontier separating India and Tibet. Unfortunately this had never been surveyed thoroughly. The reasons were as follows.

  • First of all, Tibet was a British Protectorate and as such no threat was perceived from that country.
  • Secondly, at the time, the early 1900s, China was a weak entity and the British acceptance of its suzerainty over Tibet was to discourage the Russians. The Russians were advancing South-Eastwards in a search for a route to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Thus Tibet being protected, the Russian drive in this direction was halted. A British consulate in Sinkiang established a similar pseudo protectorate there.

The Chinese never signed the Treaty document of 1904 on some excuse or the other, deferring it for another occasion. (The Chinese rarely make treaties which could commit them to some action which they would later not be able to change.)

This document drafted by Lord Curzon and his staff delineated the boundaries between Tibet and China. The MacMahon Line, which was to be the boundary between India and Tibet in the Eastern sector, was drawn along the line of the Eastern Himalayas extending from Bhutan on the West to Burma on the East. It was called the MacMahon Line in honour of the then Surveyor General of India.

This line had been drawn on and along the highest peaks of the Eastern Himalayas. At that time the whole of NEFA was unsurveyed as it was inhabited by hostile tribes. The line of the peaks was therefore drawn from Assam. Hence the alignment was not exact. In some cases there were gaps and the ridgelines were inexistent yet were drawn on the maps. It was believed at that time that all the Eastern Rivers rose south of the Himalayas, except for the Siang (the name of the Brahmaputra as it passes through the mountains into India) and the Lohit (a tributary of the Brahmaputra). This led to miscalculations as will be seen below. The background of the operation itself is like this.

One day in 1961 an officer on patrol arrived on the Namka Chu and questioned the exact location of the frontier. He needed to know the point up to which patrols were to go. Obviously there were no boundary markers. This river continued northwards and then bent westwards. There was a low range of hills some 1000 yards north of the river. Was this the’ point up to which he should go, he asked.

This request was passed on through channels right up to the highest authorities in the land. For some reason the question was distorted to infer that the Chinese were wrongly in’ occupation of Indian Territory. This was leaked to the Parliament where many opponents of the then Defence Minister, Krishna Menon, constantly assailed him as a ‘red’. Though directed against him it was really an attempt to undermine the authority of the then Prime Minister, Mr Nehru.

It must be recalled that the Chinese had indeed occupied the Aksai Chin in Ladakh in the Western sector illegally. As a result the Parliament had been sensitized about what was considered as surrendering territory to them. They belabored the Government for inaction over the Aksai Chin without realizing the enormous terrain and physical difficulties in the Ladakh region. This new information gave them more fuel to attack the Government.

As stated earlier, there was an assumption that the rivers in this area flowed down to Bhutan rising on the Indian side of the Himalayas. This was not entirely correct. The Nyam Gyang Chu, later to become the Manas River, also rose in Tibet. The Namka Chu was a tributary of this river.

It was from this point that the hostilities began. No one checked the authenticity of the allegations which seemed to indicate that the Government was giving in to the Chinese and allowing annexation of territory.

Mr Nehru was an experienced politician but gave in to the demand of the Opposition and ordered the armed forces “to throw the Chinese out of Indian territory“. This public declaration awakened the Chinese. Though relations were somewhat strained over the Aksai Chin they were still in being.

The Chinese were suspicious about Indian intentions over Tibet. Having occupied the whole territory they were determined to hold it at all costs. Preparations which they had made to achieve this aim were in hand. They had a head start of nearly five, years. Roads were developed. It must be noted that the engineering problems were difficult from the Chinese side onto the Tibetan Plateau. Thereafter the terrain was undulating with wide valleys. This meant that once on the Plateau, progress on road construction went rapidly. Hence they had built up in sufficient strength to cope with any threat from India before the Se La operation. It was appreciated that they had a division South of Lhasa facing this access with another in the Lhasa area itself.

It must be noted that till this time they had never claimed Tibet. Suzerainty over it had been accepted by the British but not direct occupation and rule. The Chinese had made no comments on this aspect in the negotiations with the British. The disagreement on the Treaty of 1904 was over the boundary of outer Tibet with China. This did not include Lhasa since Outer Tibet lay North-East of it.

The army now comes into the picture once more. The corps commander responsible for the area was asked to give his appreciation how to deal with the situation. He submitted a short one. In this he stated that communications to the frontier were not developed and that serious action should await the road under construction reaching into the area. This was pooh poohed. It was taken as a sign that he had developed cold feet. The army commander then removed him from the command of that area. He was posted to some innocuous job at Delhi. It is a pity that his views were not given due consideration.

One must admit that the road communications were yet not developed further than Towang, some 50 kilometres from the site of the disputed area. Even this road was at the time fit for light vehicles only-path fit for marching troops connected Towang with the Namka Chu. Usually it was used by patrols periodically. Even for them it was rough going. The altitude of the Namka Chu area was over 13500 feet. Operations there required acclimatized personnel.

The army commander went to see the divisional commander. This officer was reluctant to move at the time of the year then prevailing. It was September and the monsoon was still in full swing. This meant that it was raining heavily in the plains and the lower hills. The roads were covered with slush and were hardly fit for any form of traffic even up to Bomdi La.He was overruled. His forward brigade, which had a small detachment at Towang, was ordered to move. The rest of this brigade, which was at the foot of the Se La Pass, was to move up as well. His division was to concentrate forward.

The Se La was the watershed in this region. Though covered with cloud for most of the year it was generally dry. As the winter approached it would begin to snow there. Most of the road construction organization was also based at different camps along the road. It was manned by army engineer officers with a large number of civilian workers. These men were all plainsmen and needed special clothing and acclimatization to do their job.

Many of them were later commandeered to w.ork as porters to carry loads to the possible battle area and later to clear dropping zones (DZs) when aircraft were used to drop supplies. This was vital as the lines of communication did not exist for any large force. In fact the original appreciation was that it would be better not only to build up troops but also to place supplies for any hostilities.

Delhi was the scene of much movement and intrigue. The then Chief of the General Staff (CGS) was a great go-getter. He was ambitious. His relations with Mr Nehru were very good. They were both somehow related to each other. Both were Kashmiri pundits or Brahmins. He was able to therefore get things done rapidly without regard to the usual red tape and delays implicit in the functioning of the bureaucracy.

Kaul, to give the CGS a name, was from the Army Service Corps, having been seconded to it during the Second World War in the Middle East. His rise had been meteoric after Partition. From divisional commander he rose rapidly to the appointment of CGS. He was constantly at loggerheads with other officers who had been the long way round. They dwelt on his lack of operational command. He countered by quoting his work in the Kashmir Valley during the operations there in 1948. In fact he had no operational command at that time but worked as a liaison officer with the civil authorities.

He suddenly arrived in the Eastern sector with a group of officers specially selected by him. This was called the Special Task Force and he let it be known that he took orders only from the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister.

He took charge immediately. Arriving by air he was transported to the Namka Chu by helicopter. Here the first lot of troops were arriving. Most of them were already acclimatized and were reasonably clothed to meet the rigours of winter which had already begun. He ordered them to cross the Namka Chu and capture the high ground immediately behind it.

The terrain was open. The river was a fordable stream. This was done and the troops rapidly deployed. As the advanced they came under heavy fire and after some moments the forward momentum died down. It was obvious that there were at least two to three Chinese battalions in the zone. They were dug down and prepared.

The Prime Minister’s statement in Parliament had not gone unheeded by the Chinese commander. His main garrison lay some 60 kilometres away in their winter stations. The Tibetan Plateau was generally level and the construction of roads was well in hand. It began some five years previously and the forces there were properly prepared. The total force was acclimatized and clothed for operations in that weather and altitude. It took them not more than five days to be operational on the frontier. This gave him much leeway and was a major advantage to him. Some of the troops had fought in Korea against the USA and were battle-ready in consequence. Obviously the stemming of an unplanned and impetuous attack was of little import to them. All the men were armed with automatic weapons. The Ak-47 was a light rifle with a good volume of fire.

It must be noted that the Chinese did their best to negotiate a deal over the frontier at this point in time. They sent a political officer to the bridge’ over the Namka Chu. He came with a board on which he had written that the Indians had already crossed the border and that they should send someone to negotiate before taking any other action. This was of course – never done. Maybe it would have given a little “extra time for preparation. Even a few days might have enabled a more balanced build-up. The forces arrived without any heavy weapons and all this could have been catered for if the advance” was not to be a headlong rush into the disaster which now faced them.

It is said that the Indian Defence Minister met his Chinese counterpart in Geneva earlier that year and this man had stated that there was no reason for hostilities between” the two countries. Maybe this lulled the Government into a false sense of complacency. This will probably never be known. In any case the launching of any operation needs careful planning. This was not done. One of the principles of Clausewitz advocated just this in his treatise On War.

The Indian Army at that time was living under a delusion that having fought in Kashmir was enough experience to face any enemy. Promotions in the time of Kaul depended on things other than professional. He wanted to show and flaunt his power; his power with the Prime Minister and other important functionaries in the Government. He gathered a lot of fawning subordinates, many of whom were efficient. He showed that even the latter could gain promotions through his patronage. This upset the officer’s corps. It made a mockery of the system of selection for promotions.

The initial setback shocked Kaul. It was unexpected. He left the battle area immediately after the attack, partially sick due to the high altitude, and returned to Delhi. His initial appreciation of a short, snappy operation, he realized, was wrong. He could not return in triumph to the capital and confound all his critics as he had believed when he started out.

In the next two days the forward troops saw the Chinese holding their “orders” groups in the open with their commanders pointing out objectives and so on. Unfortunately this did not galvanize the defenders into action. Instead -of preparing themselves to face an all-out assault they concerned themselves with more mundane things. One of the principles of battle is to provide for the safety of the force at all times. This was neglected. It is agreed that the zone was rocky and that positions could not be dug in but other preparations which would have served equally well were ignored.

The enemy attacked in the early hours of the morning three days later. They did not respect Indian territory which in any case they claimed as their own. The defending troops and commanders were not ready to meet it, and they soon surrendered to the enemy.

The air supply operation had been in full swing. Kaul’s influence at Delhi started a massive air drop operation. But it did not convince the Air Force of coming to the assistance of the force with combat aircraft. It remained out of the war from the very outset. Supply aircraft and helicopters however did a great job. They flew for long hours in bad weather but without any effect on the operations.

The reluctance of the Air Force to fly combat missions could be due to airfields not being fully operational in the zone of the conflict. There was also a wrong idea of the size and capability of the Chinese Air Force in Tibet.

The whole force was destabilized by this Chinese offensive action. It streamed into India through Bhutan.

A frantic reorganization of the theatre of operations took place. Since most of the forward units had temporarily disintegrated fresh troops were brought in from all over India. Some came from Nagaland, others from the Punjab.

The Americans were instrumental in curbing Pakistani attempts to advance into the area vacated by troops now moved to the NEFA. This the Pakistanis now rue. Had they taken the opportunity at that time, especially when the Indian Army was beaten at the Namka Chu, they would have been the most dominant force in the subcontinent.

It must be realized that unlike European armies Indian regiments were not mixed but continue with the class composition decreed by the British. Hence they were self-contained units in a way autistic in their isolation. Moving units from different areas brought together a miscellany in field formations down to brigades. While in the German Army in the Second World War men from all over could be formed into cohesive units and formations in a few days this was not possible in India.

Commanders were posted in to take the place of those in whom the higher-ups had lost confidence. Many of them were outstanding leaders but with lack of knowledge of the troops and the subordinate commanders. In all this mess a new corps commander came in to take the place of General Kaul. General Harbaksh Singh was a bold and daring commander. He had distinguished himself in Malaya and in Kashmir. Going round the troops he inspired them with his personality and his drive. His pep talks to them were well received.

Kaul had been admitted to hospital suffering from high-altitude sickness. His equals and superiors sniggered at this. He had cold feet according to them. Kaul, though not well, returned to the zone unexpectedly, in order to show them that they were wrong. His replacement was sent off to another post.

This was to be a major setback. The troops became demoralized on learning that Kaul was back. According to them he would lead them into another defeat and disaster. Most of the new commanders were not so affected. It was the rank and file which saw his return as a disastrous portent. In the dispersion of units and subunits and the difficult terrain the regimental officers were not able to convince them otherwise. The future of the operation was therefore not very promising with men looking over their shoulders for an escape route.

Maybe the same happened at the Yalu River during the Korean war. General MacArthur had outlived his usefulness and was replaced. But he was instead a bold and daring commander with a lengthy experience of war.

Kaul had made many enemies in his then meteoric career. Maybe his enemies saw this as a chance to observe his downfall. The Government would have been better served to let Harbaksh continue in command. Friction occurs in any big organization but it is to be avoided at critical moments in a country’s history. It must be noted that MacArthur with all his faults was a great general who failed at a difficult moment to hold the Chinese onslaught. His ambition too got the better of him since he had confronted the highest civilian authority in the USA.

It must be noted that in Kaul’s absence the operations to detain the Chinese were successful. Those units who belonged to the division initially, and had remained in the Towang-Se La area, acquitted themselves with credit.

The administrative build-up went well and there was sufficient wherewithal to’ hold out against the Chinese for some time.

There was debate whether the defences should be based on Se La or they should be further in the rear that is at Bomdi La. Politically this would not have been acceptable. Militarily it was better to adopt the second alternative-that is to let the Chinese stretch their necks out and let them be lopped off when they were far from their logistical base. But it was too late.

Harbaksh was all for the “forward stance”. His new divisional commander did not agree to this. He wished to opt for the Bomdi La position.

The deployment now was like this.

  • A reinforced brigade in the Se La position with three battalions on the plateau in front of the pass itself. These positions were some 2000 yards ahead. There was field artillery support to this force. It was however in the process of arriving in the zone.
  • A battalion from this brigade was ahead of the position and was acting as the screen.
  • Another brigade was being built up in Bomdi La. It was again an ad hoc formation with a collection of units from different areas as was the advanced force.
  • The divisional headquarters for some unknown reason sited itself in the middle that is between Se La and Bomdi La. The location was an old road construction campsite in the valley dominated by high ground on the North and the South. It had a battalion in the area for its protection. Since it was soon in the midst of a battle it could not exercise any command and. control over other troops.
  • The corps headquarters remained in Tezpur in the location of the divisional headquarters before the operations. General Thapar and General Sen located themselves there as well. One of them was the Army Chief of Staff, while the other was the commander of the Eastern Command. They sat in the shadow of General Kaul. They observed but did not interfere.

The biggest blunder was now committed. The divisional commander, as stated earlier, wished to take a stance based on Bomdi La. He was opposed to General Harbaksh who wanted to maintain a forward posture based on Se La.

The principal factor was one of time. The Chinese were rapidly developing the road from Tibet down to Towang. They used a considerable amount of explosives for this. Their idea was to construct a road for the movement of medium-sized vehicles. It is interesting that they were able to start this so speedily. Obviously they had it all planned beforehand. Previous planning also comes to the fore as will be seen later.

While Harbaksh was there, the divisional commander took no action. When the command reverted to Kaul he began to take action. The first one was to call up the brigade commander at Se La on the phone and tell him to withdraw.

At this time the enemy was in contact with the defences at the Se La Plateau, some 2000 yards ahead of the brigade headquarters. The guns were deployed in the vicinity of the headquarters but not in action. They were 25-pounder field artillery, the workhorse of the Second World War. Battalion mortars were of the 3-inch variety, inaccurate and generally unsafe. There were no belt-fed medium machine guns. Small arms firepower was intrinsic to the bolt action rifles of .303-inch bore and the light machine gun which used the same ammunition.

The brigade commander had given the order for the screen troops to withdraw late in the afternoon. They were then in the process of complying with this order. The battalion employed on this task had carried out its task effectively and well. When they passed through the forward defences of the main body of the brigade, the troops asked them what they were doing. “Withdrawing on orders” is what they said. There was a hubbub in the area immediately. Troops began to get out of their trenches and hurry back. Others joined in. The defences were evacuated within a short time without any orders from above.

Most of the troops had heard that there was talk of a general withdrawal. The telephone conversation between the brigade and divisional commanders had not gone unnoticed. Such conversations in clear are dangerous and rumours can be passed down to units and formations rapidly. An already panicky force takes shelter in occurrences of this type. Draconian measures are necessary sometimes to stop the rot.

As per the circumstances already explained the troops expected that orders were therefore on the way.

Commanders on the spot need to control such situations by being especially alert at such times. If other troops are ordered to withdraw local commanders must ensure that their own commands comply with the orders to stand fast until told otherwise.

Confusion spread. Troops had moved in from different locations for the operation. They had no previous contact with the others on their right and left. Mistrust therefore reigned all round.

It would have been better for the divisional commander to come forward and talk to the brigadier personally out of earshot of the others. That is if there was a real need for a withdrawal. He should have realized that the troops were panicky and catered for this. He should have understood the time factor as well. The enemy’s outflanking forces were already on the move and would arrive on the main road in a matter of hours.

The brigadier was a battle-experienced man but new to the situation and to the units. The rapport that should exist between him and the unit commanders did not yet exist. He did reiterate that a withdrawal at this stage was impractical. He would carry out a retrograde movement on the next day. But the situation was taken out of his hands by the undesired retreat and panic. His headquarters location was crowded with a mob of troops from the forward defences.

When one of the commanding officers reported to him he was asked why he had left his position. The officer said that this was on orders from his headquarters. This man was disabused of this assumption and instructed to return to his original position. In the darkness he could not find his troops but he manfully went back with a small escort. In the process of moving forward he was ambushed by the enemy who, though taken aback, was following up closely. Maybe the Chinese received information about the disorderly retreat and the ongoing situation. The existence of a quisling cannot be ruled out. Someone then ordered the artillery to back off the mountain and return to Bomdi La. This was another vital mistake. Had they remained they would have held off the Chinese while other plans were made. As they came to the valley below they were ambushed by the enemy and thus written off for the rest of the operation. The guns were returned, none the worse for wear, by the Chinese at the end of the hostilities.

While confusion reigned at Se La the divisional headquarters itself came under attack. The chief staff officer came to the commander and told him that he could not be held responsible for the defence of the headquarters any longer and asked for orders to withdraw. These were given but with the enemy in contact all control was lost in the dark. It was only the signal regiment which under its commanding officer returned to Assam in good order. All the rest straggled into base over the next few days.

The brigade at Se La began to slowly descend during the night. The guns had been lost I and their crews dispersed.” One of the battalions in better order than the rest was ordered to clear the force from the road. The attack failed and increased the desperation of the troops to escape death or capture. Many of them went South through the forest and jungle to the plains of Assam. Others diverted through Bhutan into Assam and West Bengal. Thus the major part of the force was lost without a fight.

In the meantime Kaul was busy in another sector far to the East hoping to win a small victory and regain his reputation.

The two senior officers at Tezpur were very concerned about the safety of the divisional headquarters and the troops from the Se La position. They ordered the brigade commander at Bomdi La to move forward and clear the road. This force was an ad hoc one. Two additional units were on the way from Nagaland. They were about three hours’ marching distance away. He wanted to wait for them to arrive before taking any action. He was overruled. Then he blundered. Instead of moving his reserve he pushed out his most forward unit. This one clashed with the advancing Chinese and was soon dispersed. The whole position then fell like a pack of cards. As they retreated they met the reinforcements on the way up and together they all fell back to the Assam plains.

The whole operation was a disaster. Strategically the battle was lost before it began. Tactically nothing was retrieved out of it.

It was only General Manekshaw who learnt the lessons from this debacle. When he was the chief of the army staff under Mrs Gandhi he made careful preparations for the success of the operations for the independence of Bangladesh. Formations were kept together and trained in the area of the operations. All was carefully planned and prepared. The operation then depended on the skill of the tactical commanders. This they showed.

A previous operation against Pakistan in 1965 was conducted in the same allez allez way as the one against the Chinese. Leadership was better. Those units who had trained together conducted themselves with aplomb. And then the fact was that the enemy was a known one. The operation was conducted for the defence of the Punjab and Kashmir both cherished in their own way. This provided the motivation.

It must be seen that the German Army committed itself to the war in Europe by stages. Firstly it went into the Sudetenland and Austria where no opposition was to be met. It had studied the tactics suggested by Liddell Hart carefully, and the officers perused all the literature they could of the mobile operations by the Mongols in the fourteenth century. They were thus well prepared for the war. It will be remembered that the British were not. It took them some four years before they had confidence in facing the Germans. A similar situation occurred against” the Japanese. Unfortunately now time is at a premium. War commences at short notice and lasts for only a little time.

The Indian Army had been lulled into complacency by its successes in Kashmir and Hyderabad. It was rotted through intrigue at the highest levels. But the core was good and it recuperated rapidly and in time for the operations against Pakistan in 1965 as stated above. The latter expected to emulate the Chinese and secure an easy victory for themselves. This was not come by and it was they and their military government which sued for peace at the end.

It will be seen from Sketch 1 that the Chinese hit the transversal trajectory of the road back from Se La to Bomdi La at various points behind the main Se La position. The forces used could have been about a battalion on each route. Observers from the Se La Plateau defences saw the enemy streaming off to the East with animals and porters. Maybe it was this information which panicked the divisional commander.

The Burma campaign against the Japanese in the Second World War saw the enemy constantly hooking around defences and coming up from the rear. It was only after a year that it was realized that the cut-off force itself was isolated till its main body could open an axis to it. Unfortunately this lesson was forgotten. The divisional commander had fought in Italy where such an experience had not taken place.

The brigade commander who was later killed during the retreat was wiser. Had he been given his way the force would have remained at Se La and fought it out there. It was a difficult position to attack. There was sufficient ammunition and rations. The airlift was working well and the clearance of the DZ was being carried out effectively.

This was Harbaksh’s idea too, but he was moved away. Kaul played no part in this battle. The area he went to was another sad defeat. He was removed from command and from the Army as well. Nehru did not want him to suffer thus and sent him on a diplomatic mission. But he could not live with his disgrace. Menon was also shifted at the insistence of the MPs in Parliament.

It was seen that it was difficult to dislodge the Chinese once they were established in position. They brought down a hail of fire which effectively stopped the ill-prepared attacks launched on them. In attack they were not tested in the sense that at Namka Chu they overran an unready defence. The consequences were grave however. The figure now arose of the invincible Chinese bogeyman. This led to a severe inhibition in facing him.

Once again the idea of an invisible helping hand comes to mind. How were the Chinese able to plan at such short notice and dispatch three columns East of Se La with guides and possibly maps if they had not obtained them through surreptitious methods well before, the hostilities? Obviously they had been preparing for an invasion for some time. Even the fact that they were able to build the road quickly shows that they had a trace ready for development. Help from Indian communists charmed by the theories of Marx or in reality Mao cannot be ruled out.

The locals reported that the Chinese who captured Bomdi La ravenously attacked the supply dumps soon after arrival. This is an indication that they were at the end of their own rations. Resistance for one or more days might have reverted the tactical situation. But there is always some hurry for unknown reasons. Calm patience sometimes is better than a rush. The FBI used to teach their rookies what they called “a slow hurry”.

There were many locals in Bomdi La. -It was a small market town and the area near about was more settled than other parts of the Kameng District. The Chinese wooed them for political reasons and did them no harm. It is doubtful whether they would like Chinese occupation of their territory. They are mostly Buddhists and the repression of their co-­religionaries in Tibet could not be to their liking. They might sit on the fence but India is in a much better situation to help them and to provide them sustenance.

As stated earlier, enveloping forces themselves are cut off till the main axis opens. This was the lesson of the Burma Campaign in the Second World War. That it needed relearning is an example of the neglect of history.

Strategically it must be stated that the Chinese won the first round. They were not prepared to officially accept the MacMahon Line even in 1904 when they were weak. They would certainly not do so when they were strong. Demarcation of the border as suggested by their civilian representative at the Namka Chu could only be a local accommodation. The Indian Prime Minister was thus in a quandary. One might say that “throwing out the Chinese” from their own claimed territory appeared senseless.

The Chinese held the winning card all the time. This was strengthened by the ineffective operations of the Indian Army. A stout defence would have changed the situation.

The Chinese decreed a unilateral cease-fire. The Government accepted this tacitly. There was a lack of confidence all round. The most affected were the military. The latter were not willing to take any risks and did not enter into the Kameng District for fear of restarting the conflict. Many of the senior officers lost confidence in the fighting quality of the troops. This had some effect on the operations against Pakistan in 1965. Those officers who had been in the NEFA in 1962 feared that the troops would not fight.

General Chaudhuri, who took over from General Thapar, took immediate steps to rebuild leadership at all levels especially at the troop commands level. One thing was clear and that was an ad hoc operation similar to that of Se La was not within the capability of the troops. It was seen that a similar result nearly occurred in the Punjab in 1965. But the motivation was much greater there than in the NEFA in 1962. Obviously careful preparation is, and was, a prerequisite. At least it is essential for the command of battalions and above.

Maybe national pride hinders the acceptance of blame. Military commanders learn from their mistakes as well as from their successes. Now that more than 35 years have passed since this operation took place it might be worthwhile studying it exhaustively. ­

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2 thoughts on “1962 The Se La Operation: The Chinese Incursion into India

  1. Not clear to whom this article is directed. There is no reference to documents in the archives – thus it raises the concern that the thesis presented here is just the author’s own version for which no research has been undertaken. Why the documentation by Brig Dalvi, who did take part in the war in Eastern Sector, is not to be taken on board ? Why the article by Lt Gen S.P.P.Thorat, which appeared in the Calcutta Statesman’s special edition in the aftermath of the 1962 war, is to be discounted? I recall, that Gen Thorat wrote there that the Army had already warned the Government in Delhi in 1959, that the Chinese are planning to attack and forecast three routes for their onslaught. And the Government in Delhi dismissed such advice. In the event, the Chinese attack came along two of the three routes foretold by the Army. On a different note, the author writes: “They were not prepared to officially accept the MacMahon Line even in 1904 when they were weak. They would certainly not do so when they were strong. Demarcation of the border as suggested by their civilian representative at the Namka Chu could only be a local accommodation” . The reality is the Chinese have accepted the same MacMahon Line in toto for settling their border demarcation with Burma.

  2. This is the first time ever performance or lack of it, of command & control at SELA debacle has been discussed in so many details.

    Previous attempts have been to malign Nehru and Menon. Maxwell Nyville excelled in it. Others wrote books upon books like Himalayan Blunder, Untold Story etc. all trying to justify their stupid and silly actions.

    At SELA, it was military failure and failure of command and control. Lack of experience was one reason but that was compounded by lack to supervisory action of command structure including Gen Sen, Thapar, Harbaksh Singh etc. None of them had operated as a unit and hence differed in their assessment of the situation. The brigade commander at SELA is to be partially blamed. He left pathways leading to SELA unguarded or lightly guarded. Chinese took these trails and prevailed. But, had the army units stuck to their positions at SELA then hungry and tired Chinese troops after three days of march on the trails would be surrendering to Indian troops.


    A stupid withdrawal was ordered and it turned into a rout. Hungry Chinese troops looking for supplies got everything they wanted and Indian brigade got slaughtered.

    For permanence, Chinese victory at SELA has etched on the Indian psyche and only because the generals, all of them were not in sink.

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