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Chinese shadow darkens
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Issue Book Excerpt: Indian Army After Independence | Date : 13 Mar , 2018

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.

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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.

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