The class composition of the infantry regiments remained unaltered for the sake of esprit de corps and the peculiar social patterns of India. Thus “non-martial” races were represented in the other arms and services, the frontline infantry and cavalry units continued to be dominated by “martial” races of the north and northwest-Sikhs, Jats, Dogras, Rajputs, Garhwalis and Gorkhas. India’s largest minority community, the Muslims, contributed only a few thousands or so.
On the whole, traditional British influences continued to prevail. In fact, the overzealous “brown sahibs” in the King’s Commissioned Indian Officer (KCIO) now in power made the Army more British in outlook than even the British themselves. A wide range of colourful uniforms to suit different occasions, spit and polish, dinner nights in officers’ messes, drinking toasts, celebrations proudly displaying battle honours won fighting against their countrymen in the service of the British, were carried to such ridiculous extremes that one senior British officer on a visit to India remarked: “Surely you are more British than we are at the moment.”
This consideration was constantly hampered by politicians who had suffered sometimes at the hands of the army in the freedom struggle, and consequently still harboured resentment against it, and by the civil servants, who to display their supremacy over the defence services suddenly blossomed into armchair strategists with vague conceptions of the problems at hand, and above all by the army hierarchy, which displayed utter bankruptcy of thought and vision required to cope with such problems of far-reaching consequence.
A comparative lull in military commitments after the Jammu and Kashmir operations induced a felling of complacency in the hierarchy. Lack of vision and dearth of desire to improve matters prevailed, and the officer class remained content with routine, wearing the halo of rank secured quite undeservedly. Little was done in the way of long-term planning to work out the size and shape of army required to meet the looming threats or tactical concepts to suit Indian strategic needs, or training for the tasks ahead. The Army was being groomed more and more for ceremonial functions than for the business of war.
Consistent with Nehru’s neutralist policies, it was called upon to go abroad on peacekeeping missions under the United Nations Charter. India was initially represented in the UN forces in Korea by one field ambulance on a mission of mercy so as not offend the Chinese and the Russians and yet side with the Americans. Later, Indian contingents went to Korea, Indochina, Gaza, Cyprus, Yemen and the Congo, where their conduct, turnout and discipline were deservedly appreciated. This image of international policemen won acclaim abroad, and at home there were frequent calls to meet the requirements of aiding the civil authorities to combat flood and drought, as also control riots and communal disturbances.
Counterinsurgency operations in Nagaland remained a constant commitment without achieving much success. The only sizable military operation launched in this period involving use of the three services was against the Portuguese enclaves of Goa, Daman and Diu on 17 December 1961.1 One division and an independent brigade group were used against an opposition of no more than a battalion group or so to ensure success. Preparation of the operation reportedly took about a month, and the movement of troops to their launching sites paralysed civil railway traffic to the extent that some mills in Ahmedabad had to be closed temporarily because coal was lacking. All roads leading to Goa were choked with columns of artillery, trucks, and tank transporters, leaving no room for other traffic.
It was said that lack of coordination between the services led to our aircraft engaging Army columns and naval ships. Logistically, some of our troops went without rations for 48 hours because of a breakdown in the supply system in a two-day operation. These shortcomings were brought to the notice of the authorities concerned, but very little corrective action resulted. As later events revealed to Nehru’s horror, the Army’s effectiveness as a fighting force was marginal.
The reasons for the politicians’ antipathy to the Army were not far to seek. The emergence of military dictatorships in neighbouring countries and the advice of the chief of Indian intelligence had put caution in Nehru’s mind about strengthening a monster which might swallow him one day. Efforts were made at the political level to keep the Army weak by starving it of good leadership and modern weaponry and equipment. Dissension was created in the higher command to spark disunity and infighting. The Lok Sahayak Sena (National Volunteer Force) was established in 1955,2 outside the control of the military with the declared aim of reducing dependence on the standing Army, with little realisation that a half-trained peasant militia could in no way be a credible substitute for or a check on a regular modern army.
As a result, the politician opted for the development of “the visible instruments of power” in the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy, which took away most of the funds available for defence at the cost of the army.
Nehru’s successors however continued the efforts to create such a force in the garb of paramilitary organisations to counter any Army intentions of grabbing power on a flimsy belief. Such fears were unfounded, but they were unfortunately fanned continuously by vested interests for selfish reasons. This unpatriotic behaviour thwarted the growth of the Army.
In the sphere of organizing formations and units, with the exception of chipping and chopping establishments here and there for a few men and some items of equipment, there was no change in the basic Second World War organisations inherited from the British. But an academic interest was maintained in changes being effected in Western armies, and also in the US sponsored Pakistani Army. There was talk of going in for brigade groups in preference to the orthodox divisional organisation, but this proposal froze at the stage of discussion. Except for very minor changes in establishments, necessitated by either paucity or introduction of new equipment, things remained as antiquated as inherited.
The need was felt for specialized units and formations for operations in the mountainous and jungle terrain of the Himalayan region, especially after the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950-51. The proposal was mooted in the form of a Himalayan border defence requirements study carried out under the chairmanship of Lt Gen Kulwant Singh. He recommended that a start should be made in raising or reorganizing an experimental formation or units for effective surveillance of the border. This proposal was however pigeonholed because interest in it was lacking at the political level.
Gen Thimayya also felt the necessity to evolve a doctrine embracing concepts, techniques and drills to fight the Chinese in the Himalayas and proposed the issue of a training manual in this regard. Material was to be drawn from the British and American experience of fighting the Chinese in Korea. On learning of this project, Nehru intervened and stymied it. Later, Maj Gen PS Bhagat, then Director of Military Intelligence, educated the Army about the characteristics of the Chinese soldier, their organisations, their tactics, their equipment and their logistics in the garb of an exercise enemy called Chandal Forces.
This was a courageous and purposeful attempt to circumvent a shortsighted government directive. Bhagat was to suffer for this patriotic contribution at the hands of Nehru’s daughter much later. Any suggestion for preparing for this contingency was scoffed at by politician and bureaucrat alike. Nehru was convinced that a Chinese threat in the Himalayan region was very remote, and he considered any anticipatory action on the part of India would be tantamount to provoking China, a situation he wanted to avoid at all costs. This rigidity on the part of Nehru and his advisers however started softening after the Chinese encroachment in Aksai Chin, especially after its revelation to Parliament.
Thimayya was permitted to make a long desired study of Italian Alpine troops in the Mont Blanc area on the invitation of the Government of Italy. On his return, he submitted a report recommending that some mountain divisions should be raised, and he suggested how they should be organized, trained and equipped. He conceived the deployment of lightly equipped and mobile screens near the border, backed by strong defences of conventional forces based on roadheads where superior strength could be brought to bear on the aggressor, who was facing difficulties created by indifferent communications.This proposal was also rejected outright for reasons which had lost their relevance with the shift in China’s Himalayan policy. Ever anxious for a peaceful settlement with Peking, Nehru turned down the proposal with the excuse of not overburdening the national economy with unproductive defence expenditure. In spite of this rebuff, Thimayya went ahead with establishing facilities in the shape of a high-altitude warfare school in March 1962.
The class composition of the infantry regiments remained unaltered for the sake of esprit de corps and the peculiar social patterns of India.
To muffle the constant conflict between the Army hierarchy and the Government on the requirements of the Army, Nehru brought in the pliable Lt Gen PN Thapar as Chief of Army Staff in preference to the more competent and war-tried Lt Gen SPP Thorat, DSO, who was unceremoniously retired. But the real power behind the throne was Lt Gen BM Kaul, Nehru’s own man, nicknamed the Politician’s General. Thimayya, on whom the Army had set its hopes, was as a result rendered ineffective. The professional stature and the popularity he enjoyed in the Army, and also in the country at large, was proving an embarassment to the Nehru-Menon combination.
On the eve of the border conflict in October 1962, the Army was about 550,000 strong, comprizing nine infantry and one armoured divisions, an independent armoured brigade and a parachute brigade, with some loose infantry brigades and battalions. This regular force was theoretically backed by a reserve of 250,000 officers and men serving on seven-year engagement, but out of them no more than 30,000 could be counted as frontline reinforcements. There were large numbers of Central Reserve Police and other paramilitary forces with hardly any war potential. The Territorial Army consisted of 180 units with an actual strength of 419,580 which would take months to mobilize. The Lok Sahayak Sena of some 619,000 existed only on paper.
In concept, organisation, establishment, turnout, traditions, the Indian Army “continued to reflect its development as an adjunct to the imperial British military system.” As brought out earlier, Army weapons and ancillary equipment dated back to the second World War and even earlier. Signal communication equipment was also of the same age and functioned sluggishly even in stabilized conditions. Operational contingency planning catered for meeting the Pakistani threat against Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan with precautionary measures against East Pakistan, and to counter the contingencies of Chinese attacks in Ladakh, Sikkim and NEFA, but without matching preparations.
The Army was adequately prepared for conventional operations against the Pakistan Army, similarly organized, but of less strength. The Army was ill prepared to fight in the Himalayas. Neither was there sufficient strength nor means available to induct it in times of need. The infrastructure to support large scale inductions was woefully deficient, and so was the development of roads and tracks. The Army was half-heartedly equipped and trained for action on the plains, but was not attuned to the requirements of mountain warfare against a tough opponent like the Chinese.
A comparative lull in military commitments after the Jammu and Kashmir operations induced a felling of complacency in the hierarchy.
Above all, the politicians’ antipathy to the services, the country’s “pacific image” in international affairs and infighting among the generals had eroded its will to fight over the years. The fiasco it suffered in the Chinese invasion in 1962,was the result of years of neglect by the politicians, compounded manifold by the bankruptcy of the higher Army leadership. But the humiliation the nation suffered at the hands of the Chinese opened a new chapter for the services, ushering in a period of serious development.
In the wake of its humiliation, the nation clamoured for punishment of those guilty of neglecting the country’s defence. Krishna Menon became the first target. Initially, Nehru came out in his defence, but bowed later to popular demand. Within a day, Menon was downgraded to the portfolio of defence production and was eased out of the cabinet soon after.2 So vociferous and antagonistic was public opinion that at one time even Nehru felt insecure. Y.B. Chavan, the energetic Chief Minister of Maharashtra and a much younger man, was brought in as Menon’s replacement.3
The nation was appeased for the time being, and all attention was concentrated on improving India’s war potential in the shortest time possible. Before the Chinese unilateral declaration of ceasefire Nehru had appealed to all nations, including the US and Britain, to come to India’s aid.4 The appeal was favourably responded to and urgently required arms, ammunition, telecommunication and snow equipment and other war material, mostly from Western countries, were flown in. Highpowered American and British military missions were established in India to co-ordinate the massive flow of supplies and generally advise the Indian higher command on combating the Chinese menace.
Major changes in the Indian military hierarchy followed. Lt Gen “Muchu” Chaudhuri, who was on the verge of retirement, was hurriedly brought into replace “the puppet chief” Thapar,5 and Nehru’s crony Kaul’s resignation was accepted. Manekshaw, whom Kaul once plotted to throw out of the Army, took over the troubled front. Kaul made an unceremonious exit from a badly blemished career. Chaudhuri had an onerous task in undoing all that had gone wrong since independence, and to do so fast enough to meet a renewed threat if China, despite pressure from the Colombo powers, decided to violate the ceasefire. In Pakistan, Bhutto was needling Ayub for not exploiting India’s difficulties to grab Kashmir and settle other outstanding issues.
India had almost bared the entire Punjab to reinforce the east against the Chinese with three divisions. It was India’s good fortune that Ayub failed to act, otherwise the war might well have ended in a bigger debacle on both fronts. At the bidding of the Western powers, the Kashmir issue was reviewed with a view to arriving at a mutually acceptable settlement.6 but Sardar Swaran Singh’s incessant talking without yielding an inch in negotiations with Bhutto staved off a crisis for India and enabled it to regain a military balance in the west. Although no more than one division came in contact with the advancing Chinese, the gloom of defeat enveloped the entire army. Demoralisation, aggravated by self-realisation of inadequacy, was rife and the soldier looked for a redeemer like the rest of the populace.
- Asian Recorder, Vol VIII, No 50, “Chinese Army Disposition,” p. 4930.
- Asian Recorder, Vol VIII, No 49, “Mr V.K.K. Menon Resigns as Defence Minister,” p. 4926.
- Ibid, p. 4927.
- Asian Recorder, Vol VIII, No 48, “Arms from USA and Britain,” p. 4915.
- Asian Recorder, Vol VIII, No 50, “New Chief of Army Staff,” p. 4931.
- Asian Recorder, Vol VIII, No 33, “Security Council Debate on Kashmir Issue,” p. 4734.