For countless generations the people of India have lived with the belief that the Himalayas, sacred to every Hindu, are an impregnable bastion of their homeland’s Northern borders. With a peaceful and friendly Tibet, only pilgrims and traders have in the past used the passes that pierce the Himalayan wall. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 therefore produced a shock wave in India. There were angry protests throughout the country.
These, however, died down with the dawn of the Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai era and Indians came to believe that China was a friend. Prime Minister Nehru went on a goodwill visit to China in 1954. On his return, he was all praise for China, her progress in all fields and the discipline and energy of her people. Two years later, when Chou En-lai returned Nehru’s visit, the Chinese leader was cheered by large crowds wherever he went.
It was only towards the end of August 1959 that the Indian public suddenly realized that all was not well with the country’s relations with China. The Longju incident of 25 August made headlines in newspapers on 28 August. An Assam Rifles’ post at this small village1 in the Subansiri division of NEFA was attacked without provocation by the Chinese and the men were compelled to withdraw after suffering casualties.
…the Indian Government had been informed of the movement of Chinese troops from Sinkiang to Western Tibet by its agent at Gartok. Whether the Indian Government took any action on this report is not known. But the Chinese continued to use this route to supply their troops in Western Tibet.
Three days after the incident, the Lok Sabha and the Indian public were told by the Government that serious disputes existed between China and India regarding the India-Tibet border and that a large chunk of Indian territory in Ladakh, several thousand square kilometres in area, was under Chinese control. While making a statement on the subject, Nehru told the Lok Sabha that the Government had thought it fit not to make the disputes public, as that would have made their settlement more difficult.
We have mentioned earlier that in their invasion of Tibet in 1950 the Chinese attacked from the East and from the North-West. The force that operated from the North-West had come from Sinkiang, and followed an old caravan route through Aksai Chin, which had been in disuse for long. Aksai Chin means ‘desert of white stones’. It is a plateau about 5,180 metres above sea-level, and is a part of Ladakh, in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. On 17 November 1950, a report appeared in The Statesman to the effect that ‘the Indian Government had been informed of the movement of Chinese troops from Sinkiang to Western Tibet’ by its agent at Gartok. Whether the Indian Government took any action on this report is not known. But the Chinese continued to use this route to supply their troops in Western Tibet.
Later they began to improve it and turn it into a highway. Aksai Chin being barren and uninhabited, neither did India have any border checkposts there, nor was the area patrolled. The Indian Government came to know of the building of this road only in September 1957, after the Chinese Press had jubilantly announced its completion. A sketch of the road appeared in a Chinese magazine; but it was on a small scale, and it was not possible to ascertain by looking at it whether it passed through Indian territory. The Indian Government, therefore, decided to send patrols in the summer of 1958 to investigate; the extreme winter of the region forbade an earlier visit.
In due course, when two reconnaissance parties were sent to Aksai Chin, one was captured by the Chinese. Under an officer of the Corps of Engineers, this party was intercepted by the Chinese at Haji Langer, while on a 3.72-metre wide metalled road connecting Yarkand to Gartok. It was imprisoned for 40 days at a small fort and thereafter released at the Karakoram Pass, ‘after receiving a severe warning that the treatment next time would not be so “reasonable”’.2 The second party came back with the report that the Sinkiang-Tibet road did pass through Indian territory. The Indian Government reacted to this discovery and the capture of its men by sending a protest note to Peking. In its reply the Chinese Government charged that it was the Indian armed personnel who had intruded into their territory .
Earlier, while awaiting reports from these parties, the Indian Government sent a note to the Chinese Government regarding the latter’s maps. These ignored the McMahon Line and showed the India-Tibet border in the East as running along the foothills of NEFA. In the West, they showed the whole of Aksai Chin as Chinese territory. The reply to the Indian Government’s note was delivered on the same day as the reply to its protest regarding the patrol’s arrest. It was a cryptic communication, its gist being that the current Chinese maps were based on the pre-liberation maps and that they had not yet undertaken a survey of the boundary. The note also stated that a new way of drawing the boundary would emerge after consultation with the countries concerned. The Chinese stand only confirmed what Patel had foreseen eight years earlier: the People’s Republic of China had thrown into the melting pot all the past frontier settlements that the Indian Government had concluded with Tibet.
A word about the frontier settlements. For the sake of convenience, the India-Tibet border may be divided into three sectors: the Eastern sector, running from Burma to Bhutan (the McMahon Line); the middle sector, running from Nepal to Demchak (on the Indus River); and the Western sector, running from Demchok to the Karakoram Pass. The most recent settlement was in respect of the Eastern sector. It had resulted from a tripartite conference held at Simla in 1913–14, in which the representatives of the Governments of Tibet, China and India participated. China had exercised suzerainty over Tibet till 1911, when the Tibetans compelled Chinese troops and civilians to leave their country. The British aim at this conference was to get the Tibetans to accept Chinese suzerainty and, at the same time, to ensure internal autonomy for Tibet.
The conference also fixed the boundary between Tibet and North-Eastern India, running 1,360 kilometres East of Bhutan. This boundary, which later came to be called the McMahon Line, was shown on a map attached to the convention.
The Indian Government was represented at this conference by its Foreign Secretary, Sir Henry McMahon. He found the going heavy: the Tibetans were as reluctant to accept the reimposition of Chinese suzerainty as the Chinese were to agree to Tibet’s autonomy. A compromise was brought about by dividing Tibet into two zones – Outer Tibet and Inner Tibet; while China’s suzerainty over both was recognized, Outer Tibet was to be completely autonomous. Outer Tibet was to include the region skirting the Indian frontier and Lhasa was to be a part of it. A convention incorporating these provisions was initialled by the representatives of the three countries on 27 April 1914. The conference also fixed the boundary between Tibet and North-Eastern India, running 1,360 kilometres East of Bhutan. This boundary, which later came to be called the McMahon Line, was shown on a map attached to the convention. Besides the McMahon Line, this map showed the boundary between Outer and Inner Tibet and also the Sinkiang-Ladakh boundary. Forming part of the convention, the map was initialled by the three representatives.
The conference later ran into trouble when the Chinese Government objected to the boundaries between Outer and Inner Tibet; it wanted more of Outer Tibet under its control but raised no objection to the boundary between India and Tibet as shown on the map attached to the draft of the tripartite agreement. The Chinese Government’s refusal to ratify the agreement resulted in an impasse and deprived it of the opportunity of being acknowledged as the suzerain of Tibet. The latter was now free to sign an agreement on its own with India and this her representative proceeded to do. He, together with the representatives of the Indian Government, signed the convention, including the agreement on the boundary between India and Tibet, as also a declaration barring the Chinese Government from enjoying the rights under the convention so long as its signature to the document was withheld.3
In so far as the Western sector was concerned, all maps issued by the Government of India since 1868 showed Aksai Chin as a part of Jammu & Kashmir. W.H. Johnson, of the Survey of India, had earlier carried out a survey of the region. The map attached to the Simla Convention also showed Aksai Chin within India. In the middle sector, the frontier was defined by long usage as also various treaties and document; the People’s Republic of China had indirectly recognized it under the 1954 Agreement.
A feature common to the border in all three sectors was that, although delimited, it had not been demarcated, i.e. actually marked on the ground. Due to the nature of the border region, it was, in fact, impossible to put markers or boundary posts all along its 3,200-kilometre length. It could however be recognized for most of its length, as the surveyors, who put it on the map, had generally followed the watershed principle.
The stand taken by the Chinese Government in 1958, when replying to the Indian Government’s query, thus caused a good deal of concern. It was serious enough for Prime Minister Nehru to write personally to Chou En-lal. His tone was friendly, and the purport of his letter was that in their talks in 1956 the Chinese Premier had shown his Government’s willingness to recognize the McMahon Line; therefore, the reference in the Chinese communication to surveys and consultations had puzzled him.
Chou En-lai’s reply was cordial, but firm. He pointed out that the boundary between China and India had never been formally delimited, nor had a treaty or agreement been signed on the subject between the Government of India and the Central Government of China. This fact, he said, was responsible for the discrepancies in the maps published in the two countries and that whilst his Government did not hold that the boundary as shown on the Chinese maps had been drawn on sufficient grounds, it would not be right to make changes without surveying the ground in consultation with the neighbours concerned. However, to avoid incidents of the kind that had already occurred, he suggested that both countries should provisionally maintain the status quo.
The Tibetans did not prove to be docile subjects. There had been a great deal of repression after the Chinese occupation of Tibet and revolts were put down with a heavy hand.
Thereafter, the correspondence between the two Prime Ministers continued, its periodicity depending on the convenience of each party. But it produced no useful results, and its tone gradually became bitter. Neither side was prepared to budge from its stand. In his reply, Nehru reaffirmed the legality of the Indian maps. With regard to the disputes, he agreed to the status quo formula but made the stipulation that in case any possession had been secured recently (meaning the Aksai Chin road), ‘the position should be rectified’. Chou En-lai replied to this communication after six months, on 8 September 1959. By then certain events had worsened the relations between the two countries.
The Tibetans did not prove to be docile subjects. There had been a great deal of repression after the Chinese occupation of Tibet and revolts were put down with a heavy hand. The Khampa rebellion, which began in the spring of 1956 in North-East Tibet, spread to Central and Southern Tibet by early 1959. Thousands of refugees streamed into lndia. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual head, was forced to flee his country. On 31 March 1959, this dignitary entered India and was granted asylum by the Indian Government. He gave out that 90,000 of his countrymen had been killed in the struggle against the Chinese.4 The happenings in Tibet angered the Indian public. The Khampa revolt and the Dalai Lama’s flight to India received world-wide publicity. The Indian people proclaimed their sympathy for Tibet with public demonstrations and there was an outcry in the Indian Press against China. Public indignation reached boiling point after the Longju incident.
The Indian Government had maintained a correct attitude on the revolt in Tibet. Nehru made it clear that what happened in that country was the concern of the Chinese Government. But totalitarian governments are proverbially blind to the freedom of expression enjoyed by the people of democratic countries and the Chinese Government was no exception. The grant of asylum to the Dalai Lama, though in accordance with international practice, displeased the Chinese. Also, the anti-Chinese reaction among the Indian people caused resentment in China. The Chinese even blamed the Indian security forces for the Longju incident. The accumulated bitterness showed in Chou En-lai’s letter of 8 September. He reiterated the Chinese stand and expressed further reservations about the McMahon Line. The Chinese Premier protested against this action. He urged the maintenance of status quo and suggested negotiations for a provisional settlement of disputed areas.
In his reply, Nehru expressed great surprise and distress at Chou En-lai’s change of attitude. He again emphasized the legal and historical basis for the frontiers and suggested that the Chinese must vacate the posts set up by them inside Indian territory before any discussions could take place.
Chou En-lai reiterated the Chinese stand and expressed further reservations about the McMahon Line.
Soon after the Longju incident, the Indian Army was ordered to take over the operational control of the frontier in NEFA, though the Assam Rifles were to continue to man the border posts.5 The Western sector saw a more serious encounter a few weeks later when, on 20 October, the Chinese ambushed a routine police patrol, killing nine and capturing another ten. The incident occurred South of the Kongka Pass, about 64-kilometres inside Indian territory.6 The Chinese later charged that the Indian party had intruded into their area. They returned the captured men but the shooting of the policemen brought a wave of anger throughout India. After the incident, the Western sector was also handed over to the Army.
The Longju and Kongka incidents showed that India and China were on a collision course. In both incidents, the Chinese had used force and inflicted casualties on Indian personnel in Indian territory. The Chinese leadership may have felt a twinge of remorse, for on 7 November, Chou En-lai wrote to Nehru describing the Kongka incident as ‘unfortunate and unexpected,’ further stating that unless the two Governments quickly worked out a solution to the border problem, clashes might occur again. Thereafter, he proceeded to outline a plan for pulling apart the armed forces of the two countries, after which both leaders would meet in the immediate future to discuss the boundary question and Sino-Indian relations generally. But the plan that he put forward was unacceptable to India. According to his formula, the armed forces of both sides would withdraw 20 kilometres from the McMahon Line in the East and from the line up to which each side exercised ‘actual control’ in the Western sector. It would have meant withdrawal by India from her own territory, while the Chinese would have vacated some of the illegally occupied territory.
In his reply, Nehru put forward certain counter-proposals for mutual withdrawals from the borders. These the Chinese leader did not accept but the tone of his letter was now more conciliatory. He repeated his earlier proposal for a summit meeting and at the same time, intimated that after the Kongka incident Chinese troops had suspended forward patrolling in the Western sector. For that matter, India too had stopped forward patrolling in the Eastern and middle sectors and in his earlier letter, Nehru had informed the Chinese Premier of this.
Repeating his earlier proposal for a meeting, Chou En-lai suggested a date only nine days ahead, and China or Burma as the venue. In his reply, Nehru regretted that his ‘very reasonable proposals’ for joint withdrawals in the Western sector had not been accepted. He further said that no agreement would be possible ‘upon principles when there was such complete disagreement about facts’. He further added that it was not possible for him to go out of the country during the next few days.
On his (Chou En-lai) way to India, he signed a boundary agreement with Burma which recognized the McMahon Line alignment principle in so far as the Sino-Burmese border was affected
Although the Indian Government had rejected the Chinese proposal for a summit meeting, the border situation now became less tension-ridden due to the mutual restrictions on patrolling. The Chinese stopped patrolling the McMahon Line and due to the winter, Indian patrol activity in the Western sector also stopped. However, certain developments later led to a change in Nehru’s stand on a meeting with the Chinese Premier. There had been a thaw in the cold war. It was also considered that India’s refusal for a meeting might be taken as a negation of her own stand at world forums that problems between nations should be settled by negotiation. Towards the end of December, the Chinese Government sent a long note which, while supporting the Chinese stand on the border dispute, concluded with an expression of China’s ardent desire that the two countries stop quarrelling, quickly bring about a reasonable settlement of the boundary question and on this basis, consolidate and develop the great friendship of the two peoples in their common cause.7
The tone of the note prompted Nehru to invite Chou En-lai to India. The week-long visit of the Chinese Premier took place in April 1960 and he came with a large delegation. On his way to India, he signed a boundary agreement with Burma which recognized the McMahon Line alignment principle in so far as the Sino-Burmese border was affected. In India, the Chinese Premier’s talks with Nehru and many other Indian leaders produced no worthwhile results, Nehru having made an advance commitment to the Indian public that he would not compromise on any issue. Nevertheless, two important decisions were taken: firstly, that officials of the two Governments would meet to collate all the historical evidence and prepare a report listing the points of agreement and disagreement to enable further consideration of the problems; secondly, that during the period these data were being examined, every effort would be made to avoid friction and clashes.
The ensuing months saw much activity by the officials of the two Governments. They held meetings in Peking, Delhi and Rangoon between June and December 1960. Both sides produced voluminous reports. But as could be expected in the circumstances, these merely elaborated the arguments already employed by the two Governments in their earlier correspondence and discussions. In fact, the Chinese complicated the situation further by producing a map that was at variance with a map that their delegation had produced during Chou En-lai’s visit to Delhi in 1956. The new map claimed more territory as Chinese. All the same, a joint report of the meetings of the officials was published in February 1961. This did not bring the two countries any nearer to a solution of the dispute but, throughout 1960 and till the summer of the following year, the borders remained free from serious incidents.
Having taken the stand that the border as shown on the country’s maps was in accordance with treaties and long usage and that minor adjustments could be considered only after the Chinese had vacated illegally occupied territory, the Indian Government had to choose between two courses. It could sit quietly and do nothing, or take armed action to evict the Chinese from occupied territory.
In case it did nothing, the Chinese would be free to consolidate their earlier gains and grab more territory. In fact, they had been doing just that. Having established control over a part of Aksai Chin, they had been nibbling deeper into Indian territory in the Ladakh region. A military operation to throw them out of Aksai Chin was not feasible at the time and the only logical course was to stop further Chinese infiltration. This was to be done by moving Indian posts into forward areas not under Chinese occupation. The instructions to Indian personnel were not to get involved in a clash with the Chinese while doing this. This would keep India within the agreement reached at the April summit meeting.
A military operation to throw them out of Aksai Chin was not feasible at the time and the only logical course was to stop further Chinese infiltration.
After the Kongka incident, Nehru was severely criticized for his Government’s inaction and appeasement of China. Newspapers, as also some political leaders, expressed themselves in favour of a stronger line with the Chinese. One of the opposition groups called upon the Government to give up non-alignment and join military pacts against China and rearm. Nehru refused to be rattled by all this criticism. He was a man of peace. He abhorred war and repeatedly declared that a war between India and China would be disastrous to both. But he was equally keen to tell his countrymen and the world that his attitude towards China did not spring from a feeling of weakness. He often gave assurances that India was militarily strong. Speaking in the Lok Sabha on 25 November 1959, he said:
“I can tell this House that at no time since our Independence, and of course before it, were our defence forces in better condition, in finer fettle, and with the background of our far greater industrial production. .. to help them, than they are today. I am not boasting about them or comparing them with any other country’s, but I am quite confident that our defence forces are well capable of looking after our security”.8
This was a very confident statement and it must have reassured the Indian public about the country’s defences. But politicians do sometimes, for the sake of expediency, make statements which they know to be incorrect. It is possible that his Defence Minister had misinformed him but the statement that Nehru made to the Lok Sabha was certainly not based on reality. Let us examine the situation in the Army at the time.
First of all, there is no such thing as absolute security. No country, not even the USA or the USSR, could at any time claim absolute security. Even within this limitation, was India capable of ensuring her security in November 1959, or even in 1962, when the crunch finally came? The answer is: ‘No’.
Before a country can talk about its security, she has to identify her potential enemy or enemies and assess their aims and capability. Thereafter, she has to muster a capability for retaliation on a scale that would act as a deterrent. The identification of potential enemies and the assessment of their aims are the responsibility of the country’s political leadership. The acquisition of the capability for retaliation is, however, a long and complex process in which her political and military leaders have to work in close concert. It involves the mobilization of public opinion, reorientation of national industry to particular defence tasks, establishment of operational bases, recruitment drives, rearmament, import of equipment not available indigenously, preparation of operational plans, training of the armed forces for the type of missions they would undertake, accumulation of reserves of food, arms and ammunition and much else.
…was India capable of ensuring her security in November 1959, or even in 1962, when the crunch finally came? The answer is: “˜No.
As we have seen earlier, throughout the period after Independence, India’s political leadership told the Army that the only external danger to the country was from Pakistan. The Indian Army was well prepared to meet that danger. After all, Pakistan, including her erstwhile Eastern wing, was one-third the size of India.
China was quite a different proposition. Till late in 1959, China had never been identified as a potential enemy. Whatever might have been Nehru’s private views, as expressed to people like Frank Moraes or his Intelligence Chief Mullick, the Army had been told repeatedly that no military preparation against China was necessary. It was only towards the end of 1959 that the Indian Government made a belated start and ordered some fresh raisings. It was apparently on the strength of these that Nehru made the assertion that the defence forces were ‘well capable of looking after our security’. Raising a few battalions could hardly ensure security against a country that had given a shattering blow to the USA and her allies in Korea. Also, the new units would need time to take shape. Unfortunately, politicians and bureaucrats are apt to count their chickens before they are hatched. Once the raising order has been signed, they treat the new units as an accomplished fact.
As I have brought out in the previous chapter, India’s armed forces had suffered from neglect since Independence. The damage could not be repaired overnight. In fact, the mismanagement of the armed forces did not cease even when the Government began its belated efforts to counter the Chinese threat. The result was the debacle of 1962.
…the new team brought no change in India’s defence posture vis-a-vis China. Like Nehru, Menon had leftist leanings and had faith in China’s good intentions.
Two notable events occurred in India’s defence set-up in 1957. These were the appointment of V.K. Krishna Menon as Defence Minister and the take-over as Chief of the Army Staff by General K.S. Thimayya. Till the border clashes of 1959, the Defence portfolio did not have much political importance. The country’s pacifist approach and the low priority given to the development of its armed forces were responsible for this. Politicians who counted looked for portfolios like Home, Finance and Industry. Barring one or two exceptions, the Defence Ministers till 1957 were weak or indifferent men and senior officers of the armed forces often got the impression that their demands for better equipment fell through owing to the inability of the Defence Minister to pull his weight. All this changed with the arrival of Menon.
Though he had no particular qualification in the field of defence, Menon was a man of great intellect, a dynamic personality with an incisive wit. He spent a major part of his life in the United Kingdom working for India’s freedom. His biggest asset, however, was his close friendship with Nehru who depended upon him for advice and assistance in foreign affairs. In fact, in the years that followed, Menon led most of India’s delegations to the UN and the affairs of the Ministry of External Affairs took up a good deal of his time.
Thimayya had had a distinguished career. Like Cariappa, he was a Coorgi. Commissioned into one of the Indianized battalions of the Kumaon Regiment in 1926, Thimayya had led a battalion of his regiment in one of the hardest fought actions of the war in Burma and was awarded the DSO. For a short period he commanded a brigade in action—the only Indian to have this opportunity before Independence. After the war, he commanded the Indian brigade that formed part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. We have seen the dash and daring with which he commanded his division in Jammu & Kashmir. His role as Chairman of the Neutral Nations’ Repatriation Commission in Korea brought him international recognition for fair play and firmness. Tall and imposing, Thimayya had a colourful personality. He was as popular with the rank and file as with officers.
In so far as the Indian Army was concerned, the Thimayya-Menon team seemed to be a godsend, at least in the initial stages. The two men established a good working relationship. Menon gingered up the whole defence set-up; decisions came more quickly; ordnance factories picked up speed in production and new plants came up. Whatever else he did, Menon will always be remembered as the man who put India’s defence forces on the road to self-sufficiency. We have earlier mentioned the loss of many major military cantonments as a result of the partition and the consequent shortage of accommodation for troops and their families. Menon authorized many new barracking and housing schemes, and got them completed in quick time.
However, the new team brought no change in India’s defence posture vis-a-vis China. Like Nehru, Menon had leftist leanings and had faith in China’s good intentions. Writing of this period, Khera said:9
“There also appears to have been very little information, and what little there was, was scrappy, about the intentions of the Chinese, their objectives, their plans and their preparations. No one seems to have been able to assess, or even to recognize significantly, the real state of the military threat that was looming menacingly across India’s Northern border during the 1950s”.
Like Cariappa, Thimayya also warned the Indian Government of the danger from China and of the need for preparation. As we have mentioned in the previous chapter, Nehru himself was aware of the threat from that quarter. However, he somehow believed that the Chinese would never go to the extent of starting a war to backup their claims. Such a course would tarnish their image in the world, he argued. Events like the building of the Aksai Chin road and the arrest of Indian personnel should have acted as alarm bells. Apparently they did not.
Besides the Aksai Chin road, the Chinese were at this time building a network of roads in Tibet. They had begun work on strategic roads and airfields soon after they marched into that country. The lateral all-weather roads that they laid in the Tsangpo Valley could take the largest military vehicles. From these, feeder roads ran South, some of them reaching within a few kilometres of the McMahon Line. While the Chinese were building the infrastructure that could enable them to launch their forces across the Himalayas, the Indian Army was differently engaged. In 1958, a crack formation, 4 Infantry Division, was building residential accommodation for itself at Ambala. More than 1,400 houses were built using troops as labour. When the whole complex was ready early in 1959, Nehru performed the inaugural ceremony with great fanfare at a mammoth gathering that included the three Chiefs. The Divisional Commander was Major General B.M. Kaul, an up-and-coming officer who had family ties with the Prime Minister. Kaul had undertaken to build the houses for the division quickly and he completed the project in record time.
The idea of troops building their own quarters was not new. At times, this had been done during the British period. However, this sort of work was not entrusted to active formations. In retrospect, it seems odd that this division, once the pride of the Indian Army, should have been building houses at a time when a powerful neighbour was building roads on Indian territory and had thrown an open challenge to India by arresting her personnel. Not only did 4 Division build houses for itself, it helped to build a vast pavilion in August 1958 for an exhibition in Delhi. This formation was not alone in building quarters for itself. Not to be outdone by Kaul, some other commanders also started similar projects at different military stations in 1959.
Besides the Aksai Chin road, the Chinese were at this time building a network of roads in Tibet.
Another curious event of 1958 was the visit to India of a Chinese military delegation led by Marshal Yeh Chiangying. One would have thought that the Indian Government would not permit a close inspection of its defence installations and the operational procedures of its fighting formations by a potential enemy, unless it was to overawe him. But the Indian Army could hardly have been expected to produce that effect on the Chinese, reputed to have the strongest infantry in the world. As it was, the delegation was taken round important training establishments. To show how the Indian Army fought, 4 Division, the formation that was to bear the brunt of the Chinese invasion in 1962, was ordered to lay on a demonstration at Ambala. In his autobiography, General Kaul recalls that he was anxious to give as good an account as possible of his country and its Army to the Chinese and, with much effort, organized an exercise that showed an infantry battalion in attack. He used tanks, the whole divisional artillery, medium machine guns, mortars and aerial bombardment. The Army and Air Force Chiefs were present at the demonstration and so were students from the Defence Services Staff College and its commandant.
Before Independence the British had kept politics out of the Indian Army. Discussion of politics was taboo in officers’ messes and the jawans and jcos were carefully insulated from political influence. The British may have sequestered the Army in imperial interest but the practice they established is usual in democratic countries. General Cariappa and his successors adhered to this policy, and the Indian Army remained apolitical, though in most other countries newly freed from colonial rule, the Army had taken to politics and even taken over the reins of government in some cases. It would have been in the interests of the country if the Indian Army had been kept free from politics and left to follow the established procedures and traditions without interference from the politicians, This was particularly desirable as the latter had no experience of soldiering or war. Unfortunately, this interference began with Menon and surfaced into public view in 1959 after Kaul’s promotion to Lieutenant General. The event created a furore in the Press and in Parliament.
It would have been in the interests of the country if the Indian Army had been kept free from politics
A graduate from Sandhurst, Kaul had been commissioned into the Rajputana Rifles, but had transferred to the Army Service Corps for personal reasons. In his autobiography, Kaul tells with great satisfaction how, at Nehru’s instance, he got deeply involved in Kashmir politics and had a hand in the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953. Kaul was then a Brigadier.10 He received many other assignments from Nehru which were not a part of his military duty. In the process, he acquired prestige and influence beyond his rank.
There were two vacancies in the rank of Lieutenant General in 1959. The accepted practice was for a committee of senior officers, presided over by the COAS, to recommend names to the Government. The committee’s recommendations were based on a detailed assessment of the officers who fell in the line of promotion; it was also the usual practice for the Government to accept them. On this occasion, Thimayya sent up a panel of three names: P.S. Gyani, P.P. Kumaramangalam, B.M. Kaul. The names appeared in that order, indicating the committee’s preferences. Kumaramangalam and Kaul had been commissioned on the same day but Gyani was senior to both. However, the cabinet, acting on the Defence Minister’s advice, promoted Kumaramangalam and Kaul. When Gyani’s supersession provoked public criticism of the Government, it was given out that Gyani’s promotion could not be cleared for the time being as he had not commanded a division.11
On promotion, Kaul was appointed Quartermaster General at Army Headquaners. There is no doubt that he had great administrative ability, a clear head and a capability for physical endurance. The qualities fitted him admirably for his new assignment. But Kaul also had ambition; a good quality in itself, but he had it in a measure that could lead him out of his depths. Now that he had moved to Delhi, he could meet Nehru as often as he liked. In his autobiography he relates how he used to go and meet the Prime Minister in the evenings, when the latter was in a relaxed mood. His relationship with Nehru made him a favourite of Menon. In fact, Kaul had a readier access to the Defence Minister than his superiors.
Unfortunately, this interference began with Menon and surfaced into public view in 1959 after Kaul’s promotion to Lieutenant General.
There was a good deal of criticism of Kaul on the score that he had spent the formative years of his career in the Army Service Corps and not with any of the fighting arms. Perhaps to counter this criticism, he often volunteered to go on risky missions which were not connected with his duties. After the Longju incident, he made an offer to Nehru that he (Kaul) would ‘go there and return with a detailed report’. The offer was accepted and the Quartermaster General of the Army spent the ensuing three weeks journeying to and from the Subansiri region of NEFA. He could not go to Longju though, as it was in Chinese hands.
In August 1960, hostile Nagas attacked a military post at Purr and destroyed a bridge on the mule-track that linked the post to its base. This cut off the garrison from help by ground forces. The Air Force was immediately ordered to keep the garrison supplied by air-drops. However, one of the Dakotas on an air-supply mission was hit by small-arms fire from the hostiles. After it forcelanded in a paddy field, the Nagas captured its crew, and thereafter played hide-and-seek with the rescue parties. The situation called for an emergency conference in Delhi, presided over by the Prime Minister. The upshot was that both Nehru and Menon suggested that Kaul should go and bring back ‘an eye-witness account’. After a hazardous air clash in stormy weather, he landed at a helipad in hostile territory a few kilometres from Purr and thereafter directed the operations that ended with the rescue of the hostages.
Kaul revelled in these impromptu missions. December of that year saw him ‘testing’ over Ladakh a Russian helicopter that the Government intended to order for the Air Force. After flying in the vicinity of the Karakoram Pass, the machine had to forceland due to malfunctioning in a valley some distance from Leh. Kaul and his companions, including the Russian pilot, were later rescued by Air Vice-Marshal Pinto. In this case, Kaul had been flying the helicopter against Menon’s instructions and questions were raised in Parliament about the flight.
Such self-imposed tasks showed Kaul’s courage and toughness. To civilian superiors, the bravado perhaps proved his capacity for high command, which requires much else besides personal bravery. War is the ultimate test of generalship and a commander directing a battle has to display certain qualities, which alone decide who is to be the victor, other things being equal. The making of a combat general is a complex process. It does not consist merely of holding certain appointments and doing some courses at military schools of instruction.
It is, in fact, the sum total of what the man has gone through as a combat leader, right from platoon commander onwards. A battle imposes terrific stresses on the commander – mental as well as physical – and he brings to bear on its outcome what he has learnt of strategy, logistics, tactics and man-management. Actual combat is the best school for learning the art and science of military leadership. In peace, the only alternative is realistic manoeuvres. But, we have observed how unrealistic the Indian Army’s periodical exercies were at this time. As the reader will see, when the time came, Kaul could not stand up to the stress and strain of battle and failed to make effective use of his resources.
That event was still some time hence. Kaul alone was not responsible for the reverse of 1962; he was only one of the actors in that drama. We have earlier spoken of the decline in the prestige of the armed forces after Independence. Menon’s period as Defence Minister saw it at its lowest ebb. His methods of dealing with senior officers bred cliques. Kaul’s direct dealings with Menon and Nehru damaged the discipline and morale of the officer cadre. Kaul relates (in his autobiography) how his own seniors sometimes asked him to put in a word in the right quarters when they wanted something done for themselves. His relationship with the Prime Minister and the rapport he had with the Defence Minister gave him special leverage. He seemed to hold so much power that observers of the Indian scene began to mention him as a possible successor to Nehru, or a military dictator on the pattern of Colonel Nasser of Egypt.12
Kaul alone was not responsible for the reverse of 1962; he was only one of the actors in that drama.
Menon was a striking figure with his aquiline nose and a tall, lean frame. He was quite unorthodox in his life-style and methods of work, kept no regular meal-hours and existed on tea, coffee and occasional snacks. He worked hard and all hours of the day and night seemed to be his working hours. He would send for senior officers at his residence on Sunday afternoons and at odd hours on other days and nights, ‘to discuss what he described as urgent problems but which were sometimes only trivialities’. At conferences in his office, he would collect as many senior officers as he could lay hands on to make the event look imposing: Service Chiefs, Secretaries of various ministries, the Chief of the Intelligence Bureau, and others.
According to Kaul, “There was seldom any agenda or minutes of his meetings as he was allergic to both”. After everyone had assembled, “he would appear bored, as if riff-raff were sitting around him uninvited, and sometimes dozed off perhaps because of overwork or due to the sedatives he had taken earlier”. Kaul is full of praise for Menon’s intellect, out his remarks about his patron’s temperament are anything but complimentary – “quick-tempered, stubborn and always at strife with someone. . . sceptical. . . with many whims and caprices and at times suspected his friends of disloyalty. . . made many enemies by his arrogant behaviour”.13
The Service Chiefs resented Menon’s ways and it was not long before his off-hand and arrogant behaviour ate through the initial cordiality with which his appointment as Defence Minister had been greeted. Besides the interference in promotions and the schism that he created, his complacency towards Chinese encroachments in Ladakh caused great concern to Thimayya and other senior officers. The Chinese were building up their potential while India talked. According to Kavic, the three Service Chiefs decided in July 1959 to bring the whole question to the attention of the Prime Minister who they thought, was not being properly briefed by Menon. Thimayya was to make the approach.
Thimayya showed his letter of resignation to the Naval and Air Force Chiefs who unsuccessfully sought to dissuade him from pursuing the matter.
The Army Chief is said to have met Nehru at a garden party late in August, after which he was invited to the Prime Minister’s house. In the course of conversation at the Prime Minister’s house, Thimayya explained the situation. A few days later Menon sent for Thimayya and criticized him for taking the matter to Nehru. Thimayya then made his views clear to Menon: “In a series of regular meetings with Menon at 2.30 p.m. on subsequent days, Thimayya recognized that the Defence Minister had no intention of amending his conduct”. He decided to resign.14
Thimayya showed his letter of resignation to the Naval and Air Force Chiefs who unsuccessfully sought to dissuade him from pursuing the matter. The latter was delivered at Nehru’s residence on 31 August. That afternoon, at a meeting with Menon, Thimayya informed the Defence Minister of his letter of resignation and refused the latter’s ‘urgent request’ to withdraw it before it came to Nehru’s attention.
In so far as the Government was concerned, the Army Chief could not have chosen a more awkward moment to force a showdown with Menon. The Longju incident had taken place only a few days earlier and the Defence Minister was already facing heavy weather over the Government’s defence measures. Also, President Mohammad Ayub Khan of Pakistan was arriving the next day (1 September) to discuss a plan for joint defence with India. After all, the Chiefs had suffered Menon for long and Thimayya could have waited till the Pakistani President’s visit was over. Though in this respect Thimayya’s action was unwise, Nehru’s handling of the situation was also not above reproach.
Thimayya’s humiliation was a severe blow to his prestige; indirectly, it was a blow to the prestige of the Indian Army too. He had withdrawn the resignation at Nehrus request,
The Army Chief was called to the Prime Minister’s house at 1900 hours (31 August). According to Kavic, Nehru asked Thimayya to withdraw his resignation on the grounds that Menon was scheduled to leave for the UN shortly he would thus be out of the way for a time and promised that he would look into every one of Thimayya’s complaints after the meeting with Ayub. Convinced that Nehru sincerely meant to investigate the matter and take action to confine Menon’s conduct to the proper scope of a Minister Thimayya withdrew his resignation.
Somehow the resignation story got into the Press on 1 September, in banner headlines. The opposition parties in Parliament were quick to take advantage and ask questions. Instead of giving the House a correct picture of the circumstances leading to Thimayya’s resignation and its withdrawal, Nehru called the Army Chief’s action as ‘peculiarly unwise’ and imputed it to the temperamental differences, which were ‘trivial and of no consequence’. While berating Thimayya for his action, he praised Menon’s handling of the Defence Ministry.
Thimayya’s humiliation was a severe blow to his prestige; indirectly, it was a blow to the prestige of the Indian Army too. He had withdrawn the resignation at Nehru’s request, which was accompanied by certain assurances. He certainly did not deserve a public dressing-down for this. It has been said that in case Thimayya had resigned a second time, and stuck to it, the history of the next few years might have been different. But Thimayya did no such thing; and the only lesson that the episode had for his brother officers was that it was unprofitable to raise objections to the way defence matters were handled by the civil authority.
This incident strengthened Menon’s position. That did not, however, mean that Thimayya ceased to exercise his authority. He refused to accept Menon’s suggestion that Kaul be appointed Chief of the General Staff.15 The refusal was based on Kaul’s lack of qualifications and experience needed for this post.
When the time came for Thimayya to retire he, in accordance with a long-standing practice, recommended that Lieutenant General S.P.P. Thorat should be his successor. Thorat was however, junior to Lieutenant General P.N. Thapar. In fact, Thapar and Thimayya were commissioned on the same day. Thimayya is said to have based his recommendation on the relative merit of the two officers. In the event, the Government disregarded Thimayya’s recommendation and named Thapar his successor.