IDR Blog

Could have India won the 1962 war?
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Sudip Talukdar | Date:30 Mar , 2023 14 Comments
Sudip Talukdar
is an author and strategic affairs columnist.

Although there is  still much speculation about whether India could have won the 1962 war with China, the outcome would have probably been different, had the government of the day, described as ‘criminally negligent’ and mislead by intelligence agencies, heeded saner voices within the military establishment and acted accordingly. Must not the dispensation then bear the ignominy of a devastating defeat it caused to be inflicted upon the Indian Army, which fought honourably, in the numbing cold, without snow shoes, winter clothing, artillery or air support? 

Keeping the Indian Air Force out of the border war must rank as one of the gravest ever lapses committed by any government.

The do or die spirit of the Indian jawan, very much in evidence during the Sino-Indian border engagement and wars fought with Pakistan, is beyond dispute. Nothing catches its essence better than what this columnist had noted in the South Asian Monitor: “In spite of overwhelming Chinese superiority in numbers, equipment and logistics, scattered pockets of Indian soldiers, armed only with vintage Lee Enfield Rifles, some submachine guns and mortars, held off the enemy as long as they could, fighting until the last round and the last man.” If only the political leaders had the foresight to provide the Indian Army, one of the world’s finest, with proper weapons, acclimatized and trained in mountain warfare, it would have given a befitting reply to the Dragon. 

However, keeping the Indian Air Force (IAF) out of the border war must rank as one of the gravest ever lapses committed by any government. Highly motivated air warriors, primed to attack and bomb enemy positions and break his back, despite being hampered by a lack of spares and reverses on the ground, were aghast at the passivity.  Nehru reportedly shot down the proposal of an Air Officer (intelligence) to immediately deploy the IAF in 1962. The cabinet went into a huddle, numbed by the fears of Chinese retaliation and bombing of an industrial complex like Calcutta, along with Tezpur and Guwahati, which pre-empted any likelihood of deploying the IAF.

A panicky prime minster also lost no time in firing a missive to Washington, seeking massive air support, completely oblivious of the fact that the high altitude airfields in Tibet lacked the infrastructure to support or sustain offensive operations against India, which had all the airspace advantages on its side.  The United States, caught in the Cuban Missile Crisis, shot down his pleas as impracticable for obvious reasons.  Given PLA Air Force’s emphasis on air defence, it could not have possibly deployed its offensive strength against Indian cities, according to Air Marshal Ranjit Singh Bedi (retd).The perception about China having active airbases at Rudok, Gartok and Tashigong could not also be substantiated.

Although the Army felt let down, it must not be forgotten that the Intelligence Bureau (IB), following obsolete British era police procedures, surprisingly overlooked a vital piece of intelligence; namely the state of enemy air force, which happened to be at its weakest in 1962. A critical factor that could have helped India turned the tide of war. The habitual folly not only cost the nation dearly then but also 36 years later in Kargil, as it fumbled in the dark for weeks, regarding Pakistani presence on those hill tops. India ended up ceding more than 43,000 square km of its territory to China.  The IAF did have better maintained and more advanced versions like Mysteres, Gnats, Hunters and the Canberras, than the MIG-15s, MIG-17s and some MIG-19s, IL-28 bombers in the Chinese inventory.  

The Soviet pull-out from China in August 1960 resulted in the total suspension of supply of spares, leaving its aeronautical industry in tatters, and eroded the serviceability of its fleet, according to western sources.

Pointedly, IL-28 bombers were the only ones that could have threatened Indian positions in the eastern sector. But then the Soviet pull-out from China in August 1960 resulted in the total suspension of supply of spares, leaving its aeronautical industry in tatters, and eroded the serviceability of its fleet, according to western sources. The withdrawal nearly grounded the fledgling air force and impacted its morale. Besides, the discord with Taiwan also necessitated the mainland’s diversion of large PLA and air force contingents to the island country, which placed a heavy burden on its economy.

These conclusions have also been borne out by Wing Commander Jag Mohan Nath’s experiences of flying Canberras in top secret reconnaissance missions over the Aksai Chin and Tibet between 1960 and 1962, uncovering the massive PLA build on the world’s highest plateau, according to a report filed by Claude Arpi.  Nath, the recipient of a bar to Mahavir Chakra, whose citation stated he undertook “a number of hazardous operations . . . over difficult mountain terrain, both by day and night, in adverse weather conditions,” averred that Chinese air force existed only in name. However, the peacenik prime minister and his acerbic deputy, Krishna Menon, dismissed the air warrior’s clinching evidence of Chinese presence. A political leadership, conditioned by decades of agitations and protests during the pre-independence phase and jolted by the latest developments, despite ample warning by Sardar Patel, stood exposed in all its strategic naivety. 

“If we had sent a few airplanes into Tibet,” Wing Commander Nath told Arpi, “we could have wiped the Chinese out and everything could have been different in the 1962 war. The political leadership did not believe me that China had no Air Force. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had used the IAF at that time? The Chinese would have never dared do anything.”  It may be recalled that Jawaharlal Nehru, as the newly minted ‘icon’ of the non-aligned movement, also helped China secure a seat at the UN Security Council, besides virtually legitimizing its forcible occupation of Tibet and ‘gifting’ a huge chunk of territory in J&K to Pakistan.

The IAF could have also disrupted Chinese supplies lines, but for the shenanigans of a myopic dispensation.  Although India did have a few other aces up its sleeve, circumstances conspired to foreclose them. For instance, Major G.C. Khosla of the 13 Dogra, who later commanded and led the unit in the 1971 war, had formed a team to disrupt the long enemy supply lines, extending all the way to Tibet.  He would have utilised the expertise he had gained as the first ever US Army Ranger certified officer from India, to conduct devastating hit and run raids that would have delivered the maximum surprise and shock and shattered PLA morale. But then the sudden declaration of a ceasefire rendered his plans redundant, unfortunately! The Ranger School has been described as the most physically and mentally demanding course in the U.S. Army.

(Incidentally, the younger sibling of Air Officer referred to above, serving as AoC-in-C, Western Command, took the initiative to bomb Peshawar in 1965. His action destroyed Pakistan’s supply depot and lines, but not before incurring Prime Minister Shastri’s displeasure, even while pre-empting a repeat of 1962 engagement. This nugget of information has been provided by SS Aiyer, a reader commenting on a write-up of Air Marshal Ranjit Singh Bedi, in this journal).

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

Post your Comment

2000characters left

14 thoughts on “Could have India won the 1962 war?

  1. It was not so simple as it sounds.

    1) Many aircraft of IAF was grounded in 1962 War because of lack of spare parts. Plz see India’s Quest for Security: Defence Policies 1947-1965
    By Lorne J. Kavic for more.

    2) It is not right to say Nehru neglected military, with limited finances India had then he did what he could to modernize military. Vampires, Hawker Hunters, Canberras, Ouragons, more Dakota, C 119 and C 82 Packet etc were purchased. Helicopter fleet was also established. India also acquired an aircraft carrier (INS Vikrant), 2 light cruisers, few destroyers and frigates for Navy. Army had about 250,000 man which increased to 550,000 in 1962. India also purchased Centurion tanks and Upgraded Sherman tanks in 1950s.

    What else more was possible with limited finances India had then?

    3) The book 1962 War That Was Not by Shiv Kunal Varma explains it best. Constant blunders made it a humiliating defeat. Only in Walong Sector, brilliant junior officers who were given free hand fought and inflicted more casualties on PLA, see 1962 War: The View From Other Side of The Border.

    4) Defeat in 1962 war was rooted in Partition of India, India already suffering partition and burdened with refugees in both West and East, suffering massive food shortage in West Bengal in early 1950s as rice growing fields went to East Pakistan and shock to jute industry as jute growing fields too went to East Pakistan, was simply too weak.

    Nehru fearing food shortage in West Bengal had to allow Chinese rice to be sent to PLA in Tibet through Kalimpong in return of receiving Chinese rice to feed West Bengal in early 1950s. It allowed PLA to enter Tibet proper but West Bengal was also saved from starvation. What Nehru could’ve done differently? Let West Bengal starve?

    If whole of Bengal remained with India in an alternate historical timeline (just as whole of Odisha or Assam is in India without need to partition them), wealth of entire Bengal could enable India to prepare.

  2. Sandeep Balakrishnan of the Dharma Disptach, has come up with one of the finest and most hard hitting critiques on Brigadier JP Dalavi’s ‘The Himalayan Blunder.’ He describes it as “an unacknowledged classic that rips apart Nawab Nehru’s betrayal of India in painfully brutal detail…. The rest of the work is basically a blow-by-blow enlargement of the factual trajectory of Nawab Nehru’s fatal misadventure that culminated in Dalvi’s humiliation…. But Dalvi’s distinction lies in the fact that as a survivor and victim of Nawab Nehru’s treachery, he mustered the courage to unmask the Nawab’s betrayal in all its nakedness. Dalvi’s book endures as a fine and emulatory work of national service. The service is twofold: one, as an honest soldier, Dalvi paid a posthumous tribute of pride and honour to all his fellow-soldiers who fell for no fault of theirs. Two, as a writer he has exhibited the highest standards of intellectual integrity by allowing raw facts to tell the story.

  3. Sudip Talukdar has written a very hard-hitting and accurate essay on one of the saddest episodes in recent Indian history. My heartfelt compliments to him.

    I cannot understand the ridiculous observations of one of the readers. He wants to blame our valiant warriors in olive green, while absolving the criminal and venal conduct of Nehru, Menon and their acolytes. What a pathetic frame of mind!

  4. We can’t revers history but we can win back lost territory , if we become economic power resulting in becoming potent military power ! We need 75-85 squadron modern fighter IAF, backed by UCAVs, Anti UCAV devices, Unmanned stealth Bombers, B-21 type manned bombers and 5 lac strong well equipped high altitude expert infantry to prevent any misadventure by our both enemies ! If we develop modern warfare technologies to zap enemy we can reclaim our lost territory !

  5. This is unadulterated nonsense relaying lies, half truths and myths about the 1962 war. Documents exist to show that political leadership, including the PM had a very limited role in the conduct of the war..All major decisions, operational and tactical, were taken by the military leadership at different levels..The defeat in the Tawang sector in particular, was squarely the doing of the local Brigade commander..who later wrote a book consisting of half truths to absolve himself from all responsibility. The author here is one of those relaying those half truths. I have interviewed officers who fought in those battles, who have testified about the adequacy of “food, shoes and uniform”. However Indians love believing this type of nonsense about ALL the wars and battles we lost since medieval times.

    • The facts are incontrovertible and speak for themselves. They need no certification from apologists of Krishna Menon and Nehru. Their sordid role in the most ignominious defeat inflicted on the Indian Army in 1962 is very well documented, but apologists will always have us believe otherwise. It is very easy for the ill informed to blithely dismiss Brig Dalvi’s book, Himalayan Blunders as ‘half truths’ when the body of evidence he has presented is overwhelming and incontestable, which happens to be the most authentic account of the Himalayan debacle. Is he aware of Col GC Khosla and his plans to sabotage Chinese supply lines, or the experiences of Wing Commander Jag Mohan statement who flew into Tibet and Askai Chin on top secret reconnaissance. I am amazed by his claims of officers who vouched for adequate ratios and supplies. Will he also deny how Major Shaitan Singh and Col DS Thapa of Kumoan and Gorkha regiments fought and checkmated vastly superior PLA forces with nothing more than antiquated Lee Enfield Rifles, submachine guns and LMGs, a few mortars????

      • Sir, You have amply dealt with the subject matter and the1962 war veteran with the likes of Major Dhan Singh Thapa, and Major Shaitan Singh PVC (P) who won the Param Vir Chakra for showing exemplary leadership and valour.
        The Indian Army was only lightly armed with obsolete World War weapons to defend.
        They could not expect any reinforcement or artillery or air support.

        The outcome of 1962 Sino-Indian war seemed foregone. Could the handful of men, pitted against the foe’s overwhelming might, withstand the sheer weight of numbers and vastly superior firepower?

        But the enemy, which had every conceivable odds stacked in its favour, did not reckon with the tenacity of the beleaguered defenders, held on their posts, battling the desperate enemy that reinforced the assault with bazookas and several heavy caliber machine guns.

        Both Major Shaitan Singh and Major Dhan Singh Thapa did salvage some national pride, from the ashes of its bitter defeat, against insurmountable odds.

      • In the aftermath (1963?) of that war, the Calcutta Statesman brought out a great supplement “the Black September (or November?)” that had brilliant contributions by a number of retired Generals of that era. It succinctly recorded how the Indian Army was alerting the higher authorities in Delhi all the time as China was planning to attack India since 1953 in all details – the Konga Pass incident, Chip Chap Valley clash and so on. But every time the masters in Delhi rebuffed the Army by saying that they could deal with and solve the incidents by diplomacy ignoring the Army advice. This was glaring bankruptcy of India’s statecraft blind to the fundamentals that no diplomacy can succeed without being backed up by military prowess. I am afraid we are witnessing the same on India’s northern border under the Modi Raj’s policy vis a vis China. Endless negotiations going on which lead to nowhere while China consolidates its landgrab – salami slicing of Indian sovereignty.

        If you could retrieve that Calcutta Statesman Supplement somewhere from the ashes of that daily Calcutta newspaper now defunct, it will be a great job to republish that in IDR. By the way, one cannot forget that also there had been utter incompetence by a number of Indian Generals in the battlefield – Gen Pathania (?) in Sela Pass withdrawal comes in mind.

        • What about Generals TN Kaul, PN Thapar and some others of their ilk who led the Army down badly. In fact Field Marshal Manekshaw described the latter as a ‘nalayak’ twice in an interview available on the YouTube! He happens to be the father of a well known anchor, who loves Pakistan!

    • India has always been a country of hero worshippers who fail to see true facts of their contrived heroes. Here one such worshipper claims to have interviewed well-fed and clothed Indian Army Officers in the 1962 war against the Chinese. Our man went there and interviewed well-fed and clothed soldiers and probably found them sleeping after heavy meals. How much injustice can one perpetrate on those who shivered in one angola shirt, a single blanket, with a bolt action rifle of second world war vintage who fought till the end? Battle of Rezangla; 114 bodies were counted including that of Maj Shaitan Singh, five were wounded and one escaped to convey the message to the Battalion Headquarters. He should also tell the readers how many weapons were bought for the Indian Army from independence till 1962. The only army equipment that was bought was second-hand jeeps from Britain in 1948 when Krishna Menon was India’s High Commissioner to London. This deal of Rs 80 lakhs was signed by Menon by breaking the protocol and was a scandal. Whatever money exchanged hands is still unknown. For his stellar contribution to the Jeep scandal, Menon was elevated to be the defense minister of the country paving for the destruction of the Armed Forces and the defeat of our pristine civilization. Here the ‘Hero Worshipper’ absolves the entire political leadership and bureaucratic bunglers and heaps all the blame on the Indian Army. How naïve a person can be? Has he read “India’s China War” by Neville Maxwell? Why was the book banned in India? Why is the Henderson Brooks Report still undercover? If all was well; why did Nehru make Krishna Menon a scapegoat and told him to resign? If the entire bungling was done by the Army; why no one was booked other than the Army Chief who voluntarily resigned? Why did he not sack the Army/Corps/Division Commanders?
      Our Hero Worshipper should read the two letters written by Nehru on 19 Nov 1962 to JFK literally begging. What a shame!

      • It seems your brain is fogged by narrow Indian provincialism when addressing the writer as “bongoli babu” instead of being civil while oblivious to the reality that a “bongoli babu” was finally appointed to become the “saviour” of India’s Armed Forces at the end of that war General Jayanta Nath Chaudhury.

More Comments Loader Loading Comments