The war potential of a nation is an equation of manpower, weaponry, state of training and morale, and leadership. The British trained bureaucrat-and-soldier team started working according to this equation rather slavishly, little realising that Indian conditions were entirely different from those obtaining in Britain and needed their own solutions. Although India was, and still continues to be a huge reservoir of manpower, the services introduced a turnover of manpower in a seven-year cycle and increasing the limited army strength in the event of war through a citizen force, called the Territorial Army, on the British model. Neither of these innovations suited the Indian genius and the requirements of short wars.
The politician as well as the soldier walked in a fog without set national goals, and as a result the Indian Army remained wedded to the past.
The Indian soldier comes from a rural background with little education and mechanical aptitude or skill. It takes longer to train him to use modern sophisticated equipment, at times even four to five years. Thus his utility to the service is no more than three or four years, at the end of this period he goes on the reservist list, with liability to be recalled in the event of war. In the prime of life the soldier is thrown into the world of the unemployed to fend for himself. This embitters him, and when war needs him back on active service he gives grudging cooperation. The citizen army has not received such response and has remained under-subscribed.
The average territorial has enrolled to earn a living, and those who were already employed did not relish the idea of military discipline for the additional paltry emoluments it offered. They especially dislike uprooting of families in times of war. The agriculturist found the training period interfering with his cropping seasons. And the inordinate delay in mobilisation militated against the organisation’s use in short wars. The advantage derived from the army of war veterans soon began to peter out, and by the end of the 1950s it had completely vanished. As a result, the Indian Army was perpetually training its manpower, and when war came it fielded half-trained men in battle.
When the British left, the Indian Army was equipped with World War II weapons and other paraphernalia. There were adequate reserves in the various ordnance depots. They had also set up limited war industries to back up the Army by producing small arms and some varieties of ammunition for such arms and artillery, as well as some repair facilities. For understandable reasons, these sensitive industries were the exclusive preserve of the government, and the private sector was restricted to producing common user items like tents, uniforms, marching boots, etc. The military infrastructure in India was established for the conduct of World War II operations in Southeast Asia and had the essential ingredients of an overseas base of colonial power. But with the emergence of an independent India and Pakistan, the power equation in the subcontinent had changed, thus warranting the reorientation of our military infrastructure and defence production. Little or no change took place in this regard however during this period.
In Jammu and Kashmir, when the military commanders thought they had the upper hand and could bring operations to a fruitful conclusion, Nehru went to the UN to seek a ceasefire, which was effected at midnight 31 December 1948.
Training, to be purposeful, should always be task-oriented. It is a process of forging a weapon to achieve national goals when other means fail. Being the last means, it cannot afford to fail, for failure brings a humiliating national catastrophe and as such cannot be taken lightly. It is therefore imperative that the government in power should lay down clear directives about where military power fits national strategy, and what it is expected to achieve in terms of clearcut objectives. Based on the intelligence assessment of the external and internal threat, the military planners go to the drawing board to work out overall strategy and break it down to individual operational plans, laying down objectives, time schedules and so on.
Evaluation of the means required, such as weaponry, equipment and manpower to carry out the tasks then takes place. The commanders next collect the means to train for the tasks ahead. As training progress, snags are often discovered like paucity of resources and inadequacy of military concepts. Both shortcomings are brought to the notice of the higher command, whose job is to make up shortfalls or modify plans within the existing constraints of equipment and state of training of the force.
This was not so in this 1950s. The Government issued vague directives on the role of the services. The Army’s role was “primarily, to defend India against external aggression. Secondarily, to assist the Government, when asked to give such assistance, in order to enable it to carry out its function peacefully.” The only potential aggressor in the early 1950s was Pakistan. But the Government was so cautious in speaking its mind that the Army was asked not to name Pakistan as the enemy in its make-believe exercises. Instead, hostile forces were referred to under a code name.
Surrounded by such vagueness, the KCIOs in power interpreted the government directive in their own light and understanding. An unenterprising commander defends the country’s borders by sitting on them in a defensive posture, waits for the enemy to strike, and then plans his counter-offensive to meet the adversary’s thrust. This is a safe course when there is enough warning of the impending attack but intelligence is lacking as regards the enemy’s likely lines of thrust and their potential. But it has the inherent weakness of the likelihood of losing our own territory should there be set backs in battle because of the various imponderables of war.
The courageous commander preempts the enemy attack, carries the war deep inside the adversary’s territory, and by stunning blows either causes such attrition to his force or occupies such sensitive territories of his that the enemy is incapacitated to pursue the war fruitfully. This course required good anticipation on the part of intelligence and a very high state of preparedness in the way of a well-trained army and bold and competent military leadership. Such was not the case, and crossing our borders before the aggressor committed such an offence was unthinkable in Nehru’s “holier than thou” era. So KCIOs chose a third course to implement Nehru’s directive.
In 1954, the newly formed corps under the command of Gen Kalwant Singh, who had been rehabilitated by then, was directed by Army Headquarters to carry out the biggest military exercise after independence to translate the Government’s directive into action. The exercise was set by the British Director of Military Training, and two infantry and one armoured division participated with odd supporting independent formations.
In the prime of life the soldier is thrown into the world of the unemployed to fend for himself. This embitters him, and when war needs him back on active service he gives grudging cooperation.
The setting was typical of the outmoded British method of fighting a defensive war. Initially, a withdrawal was affected against the enemy advance for about 50 miles, using two to three water obstacles as intermediary positions and eventually resting the main position on a major river. After a deliberate buildup, a counter-offensive was launched by one armoured and one infantry division to regain the lost territory, with incidental attrition of the enemy. It was all right for the British to rely on such methods as the territory lost was an alien colony, usually so underdeveloped that the economy of the region was not affected.
And then the wars were so long that there was hope of regaining the territory with the full support of the home base, and even if the territory was eventually lost this meant only a loss of a part of a colony. Uprooting their own people was not involved, only the lives of British subjects being disrupted. In our context, loss of territory meant the loss of the Green Revolution belt of Punjab, the granary of India, and the population involved was the explosive Sikh community, most of whom had been uprooted from West Punjab at the time of partition, and there was speculation whether they would take the same treatment any more. The KCIOs were however oblivious of the realities of the situation and continued to fight outmoded colonial wars. It is a pity that no politician was associated with the exercise, as he would surely have pointed out the political repercussions of these military concepts.
Meanwhile, the United States had committed the United Nations to active war in Korea. India was asked to join the Commonwealth division. Nehru chose to send one filed ambulance company, a medical unit, more as a mission of mercy, displaying India’s self-righteous attitude in power politics. The Indian Army thereby lost the opportunity of a lifetime to see the Chinese Communists at first hand, beating modern weaponry, and perhaps thus missed a chance of gaining experience to face the Chinese in combat later in 1962. It should have been possible to send a few observers with the medical unit, but it was beyond the KCIOs to see so far ahead.
Training, to be purposeful, should always be task-oriented. It is a process of forging a weapon to achieve national goals when other means fail.
The 1950s were eventful so far as India’s armed forces were concerned. Its weapons, as well as its fleet of vehicles, were aging fast and becoming obsolescent. Our organisation of formations and units continued to be those the British had designed to fight their old wars in an overseas theatre. The military higher command had made no effort to present a long-term plan for its modernisation. Military dictatorships had been established in neighbouring Pakistan and Burma after the failure of short-lived democracies, thus setting a pattern for the underdeveloped countries.
As part of the Dulles plan to establish a ring round the communist world, Pakistan had joined both CENTO and SEATO, and as a result was being provided with sophisticated US armament to modernise its forces on a lavish scale. This aid included about 800 Patton tanks, modern guns, Sabre and Starfighter aircraft and B-57 bombers. In addition, a US base was established in Peshawar and sufficient stocks were built up in Pakistan to sustain a first-class war for six months.
It is said that similar aid was offered to Nehru, but he spurned it as his neutralist idealism did not approve of such pacts. The rapid buildup of the Pakistan Army was however a constant irritant to him and he tried to fight it on the diplomatic front, but US aid continued to pour into Pakistan, unabated. To gain parity in equipment, Nehru very reluctantly bought a few British Centurion and some French tanks to replace the aging Shermans. Some artillery units were raised to remove the existing imbalance in supporting arms at a considerable cost, which Nehru felt he could ill afford to divert from the economic development of the country.
But the Government was so cautious in speaking its mind that the Army was asked not to name Pakistan as the enemy in its make-believe exercises.
Apart from this marginal requirement plan, apathy towards the armed forces continued. It was felt that Nehru was getting fearful of military power, which might swallow him and his much cherished democracy some day. Meanwhile, West Asia was the scene of the Arab-Israel war of 1956, and this set the trend for future wars. It showed that, fearful of the escalation of hostilities into a global war, the big powers would limit the duration of small wars to no more than two or three weeks. Time schedules being tight, political objectives have to be secured at lightning speed, and this required a highly trained and hard-hitting fighting machine under a competent and mentally agile higher command capable of taking swift decisions to suit the tempo of modern warfare. Our command however took only an academic interest in the Six-Day War as the Indian Army continued to fight according to outmoded doctrines in its exercises and war games.
At this stage, Nehru appointed a controversial figure, his close friend and confidant Krishna Menon, as Defence Minister. Gen Thimayya, affectionately known as Timmy, was then Chief of Army Staff. He was not much of a military brain, but he was certainly a soldier’s general. The troops loved him, and he inspired more confidence among the ranks than any other general of his time. The men looked up to him as a pillar of strength. He was no match for Menon in intellect and vision, but he was certainly not to be browbeaten either by him or Nehru so far as the interests of the Army were concerned.
Thimayya projected a dual threat from China and Pakistan. Menon dismissed this as a fantasy. Thimayya pleaded for replacement of the aging inventory, and Menon proposed setting up an indigenous production base. When Thimayya respectfully pointed to the lead time required for our production to materialise, Menon retorted that there would be no war tilt then, and so replacement of the inventory could wait. Thimayya advocated securing Western arms as the Indian maintenance and repair services were oriented in that direction, but Menon stood for Eastern bloc weaponry.
When Thimayya recommended certain higher command appoint- ments, Menon vetoed them and brought in Lt Gen B.M. Kaul, another controversial figure, as Quarter Master General. This is said to have been done to erode the Chief’s influence in the Army. All this apparently had the full accord of Nehru.
One afternoon Menon called Thimayya at very short notice for a meeting in his office. The message was conveyed to the Chief at a local golf club, where he was playing a match. Menon drew Nehru’s attention to this incident to brand Thimayya as a playboy. When Nehru casually mentioned this incident sometime later Thimayya replied: “Well, sir, you should be happy that I only play golf. Unlike others, I don’t sit under a neem tree and plan your overthrow.” The induction of Kaul, a relation of Nehru, sharpened the differences between the Government and the Chief and ultimately led to Thimayya submitting his resignation. On Nehru’s personal appeal he withdrew it. But this was a big mistake, for by doing so he lost the sympathy of the angered public and the confidence of the soldier. Menon’s supremacy over the armed forces was finally established, and this was soon to lead the country to disaster.
In 1959 the Dalai Lama’s flight from Lhasa1 completed the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Our intelligence reported the building of the Sinkiang-Lhasa highway through the Aksai Chin plateau in the Indian territory of Ladakh. Nehru kept this information hidden from the public, hoping to have the intrusion vacated through diplomacy. Enraged by the Indian grant of political asylum to the Dalai Lama, China refused to recognise the Indian delineation of the international boundary and was in no mood for a settlement.2 As a result, thought started to be given in South Block to a potential military threat from China. Military intelligence estimated that apart from their holding forces the Chinese could muster three to four divisions for an offensive in the east and up to a division in Ladakh. Since Nehru was very reluctant to augment the strength and capability of our forces at the cost of economic development, Menon and his secretariat, while accepting the threat, discounted its probability. As a precautionary measure, one division was however moved to the east and a brigade to Ladakh in the hope that this would keep both the public and the military brass quiet, at least for a while.
“crossing our borders before the aggressor committed such an offence was unthinkable in Nehrus “holier than thou” era.
Our rail and road system ended at the foothills in the east. Between the foothills and the Himalayan watershed lay the hitherto closed area of the mountainous region of the Northeast Frontier Agency. Only foot and mule tracks led to the Himalayan passes. Induction of a sizable force in the area thus presented a major problem of maintenance from the administrative bases established at railheads and roadheads in the plains.
The politician and the military higher command were getting impatient at the slow pace of induction without considering the practical difficulties involved. The higher command failed to enunciate the concept of mountain battle against the Chinese and to evaluate the wherewithal required to fight it. No effort was made to review the organisation, equipment and establishment of the infantry division inducted for the purpose. It was left to the local commander to improvise on an ad hoc basis whatever was desired, but his troops should reach places known to the general public on the map so as to placate a vociferous parliament.
Lt Gen Thorat, then army commander in the east, submitted in his appreciation that an extensive roadbuilding programme should be undertaken in the region to enable the deployment of our heavier weapons with proper administrative backing. He did not want the roads to go right up to the international border, but to leave a belt of about 20 to 30 miles undeveloped between Chinese Tibet and our roadheads. He hoped that when battle was joined with the Chinese he would have the advantage of quicker buildup, while because of the barrier of the undeveloped belt the Chinese would suffer the proportionate disadvantage of indifferent communications. Making use of the local superiority in favour of the Indian Army he would achieve a decision in battle.
The KCIOs were however oblivious of the realities of the situation and continued to fight outmoded colonial wars.
Little did Thorat know the roadmaking capability of the Chinese, and he failed to realise that they had all the time at their disposal to develop roads to the locale where the Indian Army was expected to give battle. Thorat had no means to intervene in the process, especially in the undeveloped region, as the Indian Army was neither trained nor equipped to undertake such tasks. An extensive roadmaking programme was undertaken all over the border areas, but no notice was taken of Thorat’s tactical concepts because the credit of Thimayya and his close associate Thorat with Menon was low by then.
Thimayya’s retirement gave Menon the much-sought-for opportunity to overhaul the entire military higher command according to his wishes. The politically acceptable Kaul emerged as the power behind the throne. He installed the mediocre Thapar as puppet Chief and himself became Chief of General Staff, responsible for all policies and planning for operations, intelligence and training in the Army. Sen took over from Thorat in the east, and Daulet Singh went to the Western Command. Kaul, although a KCIO, was unlike most KCIOs. He neither smoked nor drank, played no games, not even polo or golf, did not dance, was not seen in the capital’s social haunts and, unlike his ilk, was openly and fiercely nationalistic in outlook.
Due to his Army Service Corps and public relations background, he was not considered much of a soldier. But he had a burning personal ambition, to the extent that he saw himself as the man of destiny on the Indian horizon. By skilful manoeuvring of promotions and appointments he had managed to establish a considerable personal following of favour-seekers in the Army. As happens in such cases, to preserve his image as a decision-maker, Kaul surrounded himself with mediocrities and revelled in the naked and most unabashed flattery of his court.
Essentially a man of action, he enunciated what came to be known as the “forward policy” against the Chinese and tried it out in Ladakh and elsewhere. He was playing a game of military chess in the barren mountains of Ladakh. The Chinese had established some posts in what we claimed as our portion of Aksai Chin. Kaul ordered some Indian posts to be established to neutralize the Chinese tactical advantage.
The rapid buildup of the Pakistan Army was however a constant irritant to him and he tried to fight it on the diplomatic front, but US aid continued to pour into Pakistan, unabated.
This was done at considerable expense as all the posts could only be maintained by air. Daulet Singh objected to this policy on military considerations. He pointed out that before needling the Chinese in this manner it was necessary to build up depth tactical areas in strength so as to meet likely thrusts should the Chinese decide to react. For that Western Command had neither the resources nor the capability. He further argued that to push a forward posture in the hope that the Chinese would not go to war with India on the border issue was militarily unsound and should be resisted. Much against Daulet Singh’s judgement, Kaul’s will, with the full backing of Nehru, prevailed and set India on a collision course with China.
Between 1960 and 1972 Kaul pushed his forward policy all along the Indo-Tibet border with vigour, sacrificing strength in the depth area. Although very close contact was made with the Chinese in the process, almost leading to comical situations where the Indian and Chinese troops showed their eyes to each other, except for a single incident on the UP-Tibet border in the central sector, in which a police inspector was killed, no shooting incident occurred. Mean while, Nehru continued to seek a political solution to the problem, but despite his conciliatory mood it defied a solution acceptable to the Indian public, now getting restive at Nehru’s apparent inaction. While Kaul, the great salesman, was peddling his forward policy to the politician, Malik, India’s intelligence chief, assured Nehru that China would not go to war with us on this issue.
Emboldened by these assurances, Nehru adopted a tough attitude. On the reported Chinese intrusion across the Namka Chu near the McMahon Line in NEFA, he declared as he left on a visit to neighbouring Ceylon “I have ordered my Army to throw the Chinese back.” Accordingly, Kaul was appointed task force commander in the field. There was a little background to this appointment. Kaul had asked Gen Umrao Singh, commander of the corps and operationally responsible for the area, to send his assessment of the task. Umrao Singh, well known in army circles for his incom petency, had been promoted only on Kaul’s instructions as they were friends for long and Kaul, now in power, could bestow favours.
Umrao Singh’s staff submitted their appreciation of the task and stipulated the prerequisites in terms of additional resources and the time schedule for the operation. Kaul, knowing his friend’s professional weakness, felt that Umrao Singh was only dragging his feet. For this, as also to stifle the whispering campaign against him for not being a fighting soldier, he decided to take up personal command in the field. It was made clear that this arrangement was only temporary as his place as Chief of General Staff was not filled. Dhillon, a hanger-on in Kaul’s court, took over in an officiating capacity.
Kaul was given unprecedented powers, to the extent that on his arrival in NEFA he sent Umrao Singh and his headquarters packing elsewhere and raised another corps headquarters with handpicked staff for himself. With his characteristic drive, he pushed the leading brigade located at Tawang forward to the Namka Chu and deployed them in penny packets along a thin line of about eight miles frontage. He had neither the resources nor the time to build up in the rear. So when the Chinese struck with about a division the position fell in no time, ending in a disastrous local defeat while Kaul lay sick in New Delhi where he had gone on a visit. Gloom enveloped the entire nation and the neutralist Nehru pleaded for and accepted timely US military aid with gratitude. Most of the brigade was captured and the rest fell back in a disorganised manner.
It was felt that Nehru was getting fearful of military power, which might swallow him and his much cherished democracy some day.
Maj Gen Harbakhsh Singh was flown in to take over the battle. He decided to organise a divisional defended sector well in the rear with one brigade group at Sela, a formidable position on the pass, and another in depth at Bomdila, so that any outflanking move around Sela could be contained. Since the only road to Bomdila ran through Sela, it was felt that as long as Sela held this would deny its use to the Chinese. Thus the Chinese force in contact with the Bomdila defences, denied maintenance, could be defeated in detail.
To make up for the losses, 4 Infantry Division, operating in the area had suffered, Dhillon was scraping the barrel for manpower and material from all over India, and as a result ill-equipped units and detachments collected from here and there to make up ad hoc formations were thrown into battle. Mercifully, the Chinese did not pursue and gave about a fortnight to the Indian Army to settle down for the coming battle on ground of its own choosing.
As Harbakhsh Singh was getting down to the task, Kaul staged a comeback with the tacit consent of Nehru. Along with him came some highly decrated fresh blood in Pathania to command the division and Hoshiar Singh to take charge of the Sela brigade. He asked for Korla also, but he could not be made available readily. Kaul felt these great fighters would do better than educated and articulate officers like Dalvi, (commander of the ill-fated brigade at the Namka Chu position) with whom he had difficulties earlier. Little did he realise at that time that these gentlemen had won decorations as company and battalion commanders, but higher command needed leaders of different calibre and mettle. Pathania set up his divisional headquarters at Dirang Zong, between the two brigade-defended sectors at Sela and Bomdila, and waited for the coming battle.
Thimayya projected a dual threat from China and Pakistan. Menon dismissed this as a fantasy.
Meanwhile, the Chinese pushed their Tibetan road system to link up with our roadhead at Tawang and built the road from Bomdila to Tawang in about ten days along an alignment our engineers considered almost impossible. After an adequate build-up, the Chinese, bypassing Sela, cut the road to Bomdila at two points. Pathania sent out troops to remove the blocks, thus denuding the Bomdila defences. Soon after, the Chinese struck Bomdila. Pathania lost control of the battle even before it had started, and as a result the units under him upstuck, shed their heavy weapons and equipment and made their way to the foothills, charting their individual courses.
Very few units retained their entity in the race backwards, and 4 Infantry Division, once a premier fighting formation, was reduced to shambles. This was a humiliating defeat and a naked failure of Nehru’s policies. Though Kaul became the scapegoat, he was not the only one to blame for this catastrophe. It was the result of years of neglect of our armed forces by the politicians in power and the utter bankruptcy the military higher command revealed in preparing for the contingency. The Indian Army was neither organised nor equipped nor trained to fight an enemy like the Chinese, who had gone through two decades of war and were disdainful of the Western methods of warfare to which the Indian Army was wedded.
Analysing our conduct with hindsight, I can say there was nothing really wrong with the concept of holding bottlenecks in depth along the line of communications in strength so long as a hard-hitting mobile force was available to operate off the roads, using these defended areas as pivots to destroy the enemy in contact. The main flaw in Kaul’s handling of the situation was that he did not have a mobile force, and so when the necessity arose he started denuding his depth-firm base. Moreover, the formation commanders were oversensitive to roadblocks. Instead of fighting from prepared positions they upstuck, ending in a disorganised race for the rear areas through successive ambushes, more so when the Indian Army remained roadbound. Above all, the leadership, as also the soldiery, had no heart in the fight. A decade of spit and polish and internal politicking in the higher command had sapped the fighting spirit of our Army.
Thimayya replied: “Well, sir, you should be happy that I only play golf. Unlike others, I dont sit under a neem tree and plan your overthrow.”
Luckily for India and the higher command, the conflict remained localised, and the Chinese unilateral cease fire saved further embarrassment.1 Thanks to US assurances that Pakistan would not capitalise on India’s trouble with China, it was possible to move some troops ranged against Pakistan to face the Chinese. Otherwise, things would have been more difficult and beyond the control of the military higher command.
As a result of this humiliating defeat, heads rolled. Menon, Kaul and Thapar moved off stage, and ironically, Chaudhuri and Manekshaw, two generals whom Kaul had planned to ease out of the organisation, came to power. Chaudhuri took over as Chief and Manekshaw as a corps commander.2 The task fell on Chaudhuri to expand, reorganise and train the postwar army to face the double threat from China and Pakistan. Aid poured in from the US, Britain and other Commonwealth countries. The force level was raised to 26 divisions, out of which eight would be mountain, 17 infantry and one armoured, and indigenous production of defence requirements was speeded up to provide self-sufficiency in small arms and connected ammunition. A tank factory was set up and progress was made in developing an Indian mountain gun.