Why Mao attacked India in 1962
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Issue Vol. 26.3 July - Sept2011 | Date : 06 Dec , 2015

The Dalai Lama arrives in India (West Kameng district of NEFA)

Mao then addressed his colleagues: “It seems like armed coexistence won’t work. It’s just as we expected. Nehru really wants to use force. This isn’t strange. He has always wanted to seize Aksai Chin and Thagla Ridge. He thinks he can get everything he desires.”

It is clear that from the start Mao did not believe that ‘coexistence’ could work. The Chairman continued: “We fought a war with old Chiang [Kai-shek]. We fought a war with Japan, and one with America. During none of these, did we fear. And in each case, we won. Now the Indians want to fight a war with us. Naturally, we don’t have fear. [But] we cannot lose ground; once we lose ground it would be tantamount to letting them seize a big piece of land equivalent to Fujian province. …Since Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him, for us not to fight with him would not be proper. Courtesy emphasizes reciprocity.”

As he has always done in his career, Zhou Enlai agreed with his mentor: “We don’t want a war with India. We have always strove in the direction [of avoiding war]. We wanted India to be like Nepal, Burma or Mongolia, i.e. solve border problems with them in a friendly fashion. But Nehru has closed all roads. This leaves us only with war. As I see it, to fight a bit would have advantages. It would cause some people to understand things more clearly.”

“China needn’t fear isolation, as long as the frontline troops fight well, we will be in an advantageous position…Its better to die standing, than to die kneeling. If China fought successfully, in an awe-inspiring way, this will guarantee at least thirty years of peace”.- Mao

Mao acquiesced: “Right! If someone does not attack me, I won’t attack him. If someone attacks me, I will certainly attack him”.

As often in China, after a few leaders agreed on the direction to take, a larger meeting was called to validate the decision and work out the details.

The meeting was held on the outskirts of Beijing3 on October 6.

Mao chaired the meeting and informed the PLA top brass that it has already been decided to go to war with India: “The purpose of bringing all of you together today is to convene a military [tactical] meeting,” he said.

The Chairman elaborated: “Our border conflict with India has gone on for many years. We did not want war and originally we sought to solve [the issue] through peaceful negotiations. But Nehru is unwilling to talk and has deployed considerable forces, insistently demanding a fight with us. Now, it seems that to refuse a fight is impossible. If we fight, what should be our method? What should this war look-like? Please everyone contribute your thoughts on these policy issues.”

Then Foreign Minister Chen Yi spoke of the diplomatic aspect of the conflict with India. According to Chen, the problem started in 1954 when India published an official map showing the McMahon line as a definitive national boundary4. Chen stated “At present, India occupies or claims 1,250,000 square kilometers of Chinese territory5. Forty-seven Chinese personnel had been killed or wounded in attacks by Indian forces on the border. China had devoted considerable diplomatic effort to achieve a negotiated settlement, but Nehru is unwilling to sit down and talk; moreover he has adopted a provocative forward policy. …It seems we can only meet him [Nehru] on the battlefield.”

Mao then explained why China needed to go to war with India: “A war between China and India is truly a most unfortunate event. [I] have recently been reading books on Indian history and was struck by the friendly, beneficial interactions between China and India in the 7th – 9th centuries6.” Mao recounted the circumstances of the ‘one and a half’ Sino-India wars: “The first war had been in 648 A.D. when a Tang dynasty emperor had dispatched troops to assist the legal claimant to a throne to a subcontinental kingdom — after the other claimant had killed 30 members of a Tang diplomatic mission. A Tang-strengthened force defeated the usurper, who was captured and sent to the Tang capital Changan [Xian], where he lived the rest of his life.”7

Then Mao spoke of the ‘half war’ in 1398 “when Timurlane captured Delhi. This was a great victory, but was followed by the slaughter of over 100,000 prisoners and looting of all precious metals and gems across the land. This was a ‘half war’ because Timur and his army were Mongols from both Inner and Outer Mongolia. Mongolia was then part of China, making this attack ‘half’ Chinese.”

For the Chairman, the morale to be learnt from history: “First, the PLA had to secure a victory and knock Nehru to the negotiating table and second, Chinese forces had to be restrained and principled.”

Marshal Ye Jianying told his colleagues that on his 1957 visit to India, he had met Lt Gen BM Kaul.8 Ye informed Mao that though Kaul had served in Burma during World War II, Kaul had no actual combat experience. Ye said that Kaul seemed “to be a very rigid, [even] if an impressive looking soldier. Still, he was one of India’s most outstanding commanders”.

Mao cut him to say: “Fine, he’ll have another opportunity to shine.”

It was not to be the case.

The Chairman then spoke of the possible isolation of China on the world stage. He did not consider this to be a ‘decisive factor’: “China needn’t fear isolation, as long as the frontline troops fight well, we will be in an advantageous position. …It’s better to die standing, than to die kneeling. If China fought successfully, in an awe-inspiring way, this will guarantee at least thirty years of peace”. In some ways, it was true!

Delhi did not agree to the ‘unconditional ‘negotiations, the ‘occupied’ Indian territory had to be vacated first. Regarding the 20 km withdrawal, it was in India’s disfavor due to the mountainous terrain on India’s side and the flat Tibetan plateau on China’s.

Historian Xu Yan affirmed that the rejection of China’s ‘final’ offer to negotiate, as well as Nehru’s continuation of his Forward Policy, forced Mao and the Central Military Commission to consider ‘a large scale counter-attack’ against India.

On October 3, Beijing had written to Delhi: “The Chinese Government regrets that the Indian Government has once again refused its proposal for speedily and unconditionally holding discussions on the Sino-Indian boundary question. …The Indian Government has also refused the Chinese Government’s reiterated proposal that the armed forces of each side withdraw 20 kilometres along the entire border.”

Delhi did not agree to the ‘unconditional’ negotiations, the ‘occupied’ Indian territory had to be vacated first. Regarding the 20km withdrawal, it was in India’s disfavor due to the mountainous terrain on India’s side and the flat Tibetan plateau on China’s.

When Mao decided to punish India, had the Communist leadership received the Indian answer to the above communication from Beijing?

It is likely that the Communist regime had got Delhi’s answer a few hours earlier. India asked China to vacate the occupied part of the Indian territory in the Aksai Chin area as a precondition. With each side accusing the other of intransigence, a conflict could hardly been avoided.

At the October 6 meeting, Lou Ruiqing, the Chinese Chief of General Staff was authorized by Mao to start ‘a fierce and painful attack on Indian forces. If Indian forces attack us, you should hit back fiercely. …[you should] not only repel them, but hit them fiercely and make them hurt”

The Central Military Commission decided that the main attack would be launched in the eastern sector (NEFA), but Chinese forces in the western sector would ‘coordinate’ their actions with the eastern sector.

It was logical from a military point of view, but also ‘ideologically’ coherent; it was the route that the Dalai Lama had used three years earlier to take refuge in India; it was the best way to show the connection between the two events. Though this is not mention by the Chinese (or Indian) sources, it is clearly an important factor.

When Chinese Generals started to work on the details of the military operations, they soon realized that the campaign could not be sustained for a long time. It was therefore decided to terminate the war “with a unilateral Chinese halt, ceasefire, and withdrawal”.

…Mao had still some doubt. Politically he could not afford to have a semi-victory, a total triumph was necessary to assert his newly recovered position at the head of the Communist State.

Historian Shi Bo9 believes that in view of “practical difficulties associated with China’s domestic situation”, the PLA troops “would quickly disengage and end the fighting as quickly as possible” after achieving their military objectives.

‘China’s domestic situation’ is obviously referring to the power struggle within the Party and the return of Mao to the center stage.

This was wise from the Chinese point of view; further in India, the trauma associated with the conflict would remain for decades.

Mao acknowledged that a war with India presented several dangers:

  • Nehru enjoyed great international status;
  • India was a leader of the non-aligned movement;
  • India enjoyed great international prestige as an advocate of non-violence;
  • Both the United States and the Soviet Union were courting India;
  • India saw itself as the leader of the ‘third force’ in the world.

However according to the PLA’s calculations, China was militarily far superior to India (Indian forces were not prepared and their strength was 1/6th of the Chinese troops).

Beijing anticipated some negative reactions from Washington and the Western world in general (and perhaps even from Moscow), but the long-terms benefits of a severe, but limited blow, would compensate and ultimately bring peace for several years between the neighbours.

The Final decision

Apparently Mao had still some doubt. Politically he could not afford to have a semi-victory, a total triumph was necessary to assert his newly recovered position at the head of the Communist State. His ideological high stand on the agriculture policy had to be backed by a resounding victory against the ‘arrogant’ Prime Minister of India and the insult inflicted by the Dalai Lama when he took refuge in India three years earlier. The affront had to be avenged.

  • Till the last minute, Mao had some hesitations:
  • Should China permit Indian forces to advance a bit further into Chinese territory under the Forward Policy to show the world that China acted in self defense?
  • What should be the main objective of the attack against India?
  • Should the attack focus on the Aksai Chin in the West, the main bone of contention between India and China?
  • From a military point of view, an attack in NEFA had better chance to succeed as larger formations could concentrate in the area which was more accessible with easier lines of communication and supplies.
  • To prove Nehru’s stubborn and hegemonic attitude, NEFA was ideal as Nehru would then be compelled to agree the McMahon Line was not an ‘established fact’, but a disputed border and only negotiations could achieve a lasting peace and the settlement of the border issue.
  • Further winter was approaching fast, should the operations be postponed for a few months (July-September was the best period for military operations)? The Tibet Military district had warned that the snow in winter could trigger ‘great difficulties’ in moving supplies and reinforcements across the high passes.
  • The Army intelligence informed the leadership that presently [in October 1962] the military balance tilted heavily in China’s favor. It might not be the case in a few months time.

Considering all these points on October 17, the Central Military Commission met and issued the formal order to ‘exterminate the ‘Indian aggressor forces’. It was termed a ‘self defensive counter-attack war’.

What followed on October 20 on the slopes of Thagla ridge is history.


  1. Roderick MacFarquhar, The origins of the Cultural Revolution, Volume III (New York, the Columbia University Press, 1997). Chapters 12 and 13, (Mao changes the Signals and War in the Himalayas, Crisis in the Caribbean) are particularly enlightening.
  2. The Beidaihe Conference ended on August 26 after 3 weeks of intense ‘ideological’ debate, marked by the unexpected come back of Mao. The first consequence was the ‘leftisation’ of the foreign policy.
  3. To this new meeting held at Xishan (Western Hills).
  4. Chen Yi’s assertions are contrary to the facts. At the time of signing the Panchsheel Agreement in 1954, Zhou Enlai declared “all matters ripe for settlement have been discussed.”
  5. In NEFA, China still claims Arunachal as its own territory (the so-called Southern Tibet).
  6. Mao refers probably to the Chinese pilgrims such as Faxian (395–414) or Xuanzang (629–644) who visited India.
  7. This is of course the Chinese version of the event.
  8. Lt Gen BM Kaul was appointed Corps IV Commander a few days earlier.
  9. Shi Bo, editor, Zhong yin da zhan jishi (Record of events in the big China-India war) Beijinjg: Da di chubanshe, 1993.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Claude Arpi

Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

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15 thoughts on “Why Mao attacked India in 1962

  1. Ex.Prime Minister Nehru and Defense minister had neglected the Army. after Independence, Nehru purchased an Aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. Air craft Carriers are the costliest defense equipment, which are required only if we fight a war far away from our country, where fighter planes cannot travel such a long distance,The guided missile boats performed better than Aircraft carrier and other warships in 1971 war. Missile boats crossed all barrier and attacked Karachi. Port.. Smt Indira Gandhi did not give much importance to our Navy during her meeting with the three Service chiefs during the 1971 war. During the period of Indira Gandhi, they could not change her policy.Perhaps she did not give importance to Navy knowing that China cannot attack India without a permanent base in Indian ocean. This is a proof of her farsightedness! She had taken special interest in developing missiles because strategic points in Chinese mainland cannot be destroyed without long- range missiles, as it is far away from LOC. Only by increasing other assets we cannot fight against China. But after her death India purchased another Air Craft carrier in 1987 during Raiv Gandhi’s period. It is unfortunate that majority of the Defense officers have no clear idea about our actual defence requirements and do not know what is happening in the world. The defense policies followed by all the previous Governments were to make this country one of the biggest military powers in the world and not a developed country like Japan, South Korea, Australia and Canada.

  2. The Author is very articulate while researching on the events that led to Indo China war in 1962. How war of words creates tension on both side & how decisively Mao has pulled the string to a full fledged war against India by taking advantage of Indian Premier’s relatively less involvements in protecting its boundaries from any foreign aggression. In 1962, India’s defense prepared at its infant level & not in a position to fight a full fledged war. However, Mao was adamant as there is prolong hunger in China & leaders are relatively less powerful to protest against this decision of Mao. And, as the story progress, I have noticed that Mao had no options open as he had enemies inside his administration. On the other hand, Indian counterpart was very weak & unorganized & in that case provoking Chinese Army by proxy firing was a blunder on Indian part.
    The RESULT was visible & thousands of Indian Army lost their lives fighting Chinese in NEFA ( Present Arunachal Pradesh) & they progressed upto Tezpur.

  3. Chinese were super powers even during 14th Century. The British author and retired submarine lieutenant-commander Gavin Menzies has written a book (1421: The Year China Discovered the World) in which he claims that the Chinese sailed to America before Columbus. There is another book from the same author titled “1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance”. Zheng He (Cheng Ho) voyages commanded a fleet of 317 ships, almost 28,000 men, their arms and supplies. The Malabar port of Calicut was a stop over in medieval times and was the key link in the Indian Ocean. He oversaw seven voyages that touched upon Calicut between 1405 -1433. The Chinese had discontinued voyages around the early 16th century? China was prosperous, self-complacent, self-sufficient and isolated until the European arrived. Initially the Chinese emperor banned the European products. Hence Opium provided the perfect product in building a customer base through use, abuse, and addiction. It was cheaply produced in India. China lost two opium wars against Britain because the drug addicted chinese army was no match for the British. The Japanese had a free walkover during WWII. The west was clever in playing the double agents game with China. The communist revolution in China was planned by CIA and the Western elites at Yale. CIA trained Mao Zedong’s Red Army in China and the Viet Minh in French Indochina. The west found it easy to control china further using the same opium strategy combined with eugenics under Mao. The present China is a family-run business. The best way to gain a foothold in China is through princelings or revolutionary families that constitute the political elite and dominates the Chinese economy and wealth. Greed is the driving force behind the protectionist walls of the state-owned economy and money is the language. India should handle China more diplomatically than military strength. Understand and learn from the tactics used by Brits

    • Most of the info in the beginning of the comment is only a theory which is yet to be established. First thing is that India and China had a common border because of ILLEGAL occupation of Tibet by the Chinese to which stupid Nehru kept quiet and laid the foundations of 1962 war. Forget about placating the Chinese thugs because they are inherently liars and untrustworthy. India needs to develop defence capability and infrastructure to counter this yellow peril. This is also a misconception that Brits only used diplomacy to rule the nations. Unlike India they were very aggressive in their military campaigns. It was British military aggressiveness and will to win at all costs that helped them to stay in India in 1857, WIN Afghan war, Boar war, Khartoum and Gorkha war. Nehru was an established fool and a coward in every sphere of administration whether diplomacy or preparing for war.

  4. Its a good read if one wants a peep into the goings on ‘on the other side of the hill’ before the India-China war broke out on 20th Oct 1962. The author, Claude Arpi, solely concentrates on the single issue of the re-emergence of Mao on the communist China scene after the debacle of the Great leap Forward & Cultural Revolution heralded by the Great helmsman Mao as the reason for the China-India war. In my view, having worsted the Japanese during WWII and having given the US a bloody nose in Korea, the Chinese were now loathe to accept the rise of newly independent India on the world stage as an alternative to it in the immediate neighborhood of Asia & in the world beyond. As Mao himself let on, they needed the 30-40 years of untrammeled hegemony to build themselves up economically, militarily & politically before the logical next step for global dominance.

    Today as Chinese nuclear submarines prowl around the Indian Ocean & possibly the Pacific, as they create ‘island’ air bases in their back yard, the South China sea & as they declaim about the ‘one belt- one road’ projects , set up their own version of the IMF & World Bank etc- we can surmise that though a bit delayed on schedule the Great Helmsman & his successors are right on track!! In all of this another little nugget- Mao was 69 at the time he launched the war whereas Nehru was already 73 years old – 4 years younger. Nehru dies in two years, in 1964 at age 75 whereas Mao lived on to reach 83 years of age when he died in 1976. The state of health & the problems faced by both in running their governments must have also taken a toll on their thought processes. Both were also reputedly great valentines when it came to women!!

  5. Nehru provoked the Chinese. He forced an ill prepared Indian Army, to occupy forward positions which were disputed, He was under the false impression that China will not retaliate.

    • Nehru had unfortunately put his faith in an incompetent vengeful buffoon, Krishna Mennon. This moron if he had, had his way would have ended the military career of then Brig. Sam HFJ Manekshaw, who turned out to be India’s Greatest Soldier in history. Just goes to shows how important it is for leaders to have that ability to choose the right people for the job. Nehru’s trust in Krishna Mennon was the sole factor that lead to the Chinese debacle beside of course his naivety in trusting the treacherous Chinese. Stupid ‘Hindi Chini bhai bhai’ slogan turned out to be the biggest joke on India in history.

    • This lie gained currency due to Chinese poodle known as Maxwell Neville and is far from truth. Can you explain why Chinese were even in Tibet when it was not their territory. Sardar Patel cautioned Nehru on this but Nehru’s suffered from limitless stupidity and Mao confirmed it by commenting that Nehru is an useful idiot.

  6. The article is good .Especially the fact finding etc in it ……….. But it does not reflect the Actual reasons of the Sino-indian War , which was ” Weaponization pressures from Nato countries to sell more weapons to newly independent countries like India & Pakistan so that both newly independent countries Forget that they have just gotten rid from 200 years of British-Anglo Rule ” & ” External Western country pressures on Chinese leaders like Mao to Dilute the newly formed India as a county’s standing on the economic stability cycle which was suppose to start good within India at that time ” .. these were the only 2 Sole reasons for the both Wars done with India at that time and bigger one was 1962 Sino-india which we still consider as a “Weaponisation war ” done by weaponization countries as external exerted pressure on China -India at that time .

  7. Why Mao attacked India in 1962 ?
    It is obvious that Mao was Han-Racist who thought that Hans sobs superior to everyone else. A person like that does not need any reason to attack. You should state the obvious instead of trying to give long explanations.

  8. A well written and thought provoking article! Sino-Indo relations were quite cordial in the mid 1950’s, when the “Panchsheel” was signed, marked by slogans such as “Hindi -Chini bhai bhai”i.e., Indians and Chinese are brothers. The relations nose dived because of Nehru’s folly of providing asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959. It appears, THIS was the main reason for the Chinese invasion of India in 1962. Relations between the two countries can never be normalised as long as the Tibetan government in exile continues to function from inside India. Till date it is difficult to fathom Nehru’s mind which made him commit such an inexcusable blunder resulting in an intractable conflict with a neighbour three time its size!

  9. It is great article but the bottom line was Mr. Nehru was not prepared. His Communist defense minister never thought that India can be attacked from north. Even the school books prepared by the commi impressed NCERT were teaching Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai and in geography lessons kids were taught that Himalaya was the natural wall of defense! The domestic compulsion of China has not reduced, the aim of reducing Chinese population is the reason for the next war with India. Two benefits are there – in the war reduce population is the guarantee and opportunity to gain some more land mass to settle Chinese people . Tibet is the great example of grabbing land mass changing demography.

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