Bull in the China Shop: The Indian Army vs The PLA
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Issue Vol. 31.1 Jan-Mar 2016 | Date : 22 Mar , 2017

One would expect that the Indian armed forces, more than fifty years of their confrontation with the PLA, would be pretty knowledgeable not only about their organisational table, capabilities and weaknesses. Most importantly, since understanding of their operational doctrine, tactics and leadership techniques are absolutely essential there would have been a concerted effort to ensure that the officer cadre would be deeply engrossed in studying those military campaigns that give us deep insight in their handling of large scale forces, apart off course, from their latest writings on evolving strategic, tactical and organisational thought. This becomes particularly important in view of the fact that the PLA can currently support and undertake operations from Tibet with approximately 34 Divisions, as per one estimate.

“Let him who desires peace prepare for war” — Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus

Our inability to place the Henderson Brooks Report in public domain is a clear indication of our attitude of preferring to bury our heads in the sand…

There are many who believe that Sino-Indian relations are, slowly but surely, showing an upswing and it is best for us if we continue with the status quo ante with regard to delineation of the border while concentrating on rapidly enhancing our economic ties for our mutual benefit. There are, however, others who take the position that closer economic ties are only feasible as and when substantive progress has been made on the border issue.

Regardless of the viewpoint one supports, the fact is that all negotiations are best done from a position of strength, or in case that is not feasible, from a position of relative equality, if one is not to be short-changed. We also need to accept the fact that we now face a China that is no longer an emerging power, but has now emerged on the world stage and is pursuing her ambitions aggressively with single-minded focus.

This overt aggression and rising nationalism are a cause for concern and it would indeed be irresponsible of our government and the security establishment if we were not to take into consideration all the ramifications it may have and initiate suitable action to protect our sovereignty. Towards this end a more realistic appraisal of the capabilities of our armed forces and the initiation of necessary corrective action to close the gap is an inescapable necessity. However, to look to the future, we certainly need to look learn from the past.

After the initial action initiated to remedy the situation under the able leadership of Y.B Chavan, the then Defence Minister, there was little substantive effort to ensure we continued to maintain both the necessary dissuasive capacity to confront the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or the necessary intellectual and institutional efforts required to ensure successive generations of leaders learnt the important strategic or tactical lessons that emerged from the campaign.

We now face a China that has now emerged on the world stage and is pursuing her ambitions aggressively with single-minded focus…

Our inability to place the Henderson Brooks Report in public domain is a clear indication of our attitude of preferring to bury our heads in the sand in the fond hope that the problem would disappear. As we have repeatedly learnt to our cost, this invariably never happens and problems tend to only increase in complexity and size over time.

Understanding Defeat

The opening skirmish of the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 occurred in the North East and was the attack on September 08, on the isolated Assam Rifles post at Dhola, on the southern slopes of the Thag La ridgeline that was dominated by positions held by the PLA, its loss, a foregone conclusion. However, the more serious business of war commenced at approximately 0500 hours on October 20, 1962, when the PLA commenced its artillery barrage in support of its infantry attack against 7 Infantry Brigade positions along the Southern banks of River Namka Chu. The battalions of the Brigade were deployed in platoons over a 20-km frontage with little mutual support in temporary positions with no overhead cover.

At that time, neither Brigade Headquarters nor any of its higher headquarters was aware of the force level that opposed them. By 0900 hours, the Brigade ceased to exist as a fighting force and within just another ninety six hours, Tawang, a strategic border town approximately 100 km in depth, held by an under-strength battalion, was attacked and captured without a fight. Almost simultaneously, in the North, isolated forward positions in Aksai Chin and the Pangang Tso area were also cleared after brief skirmishs. After an administrative pause of approximately a month, the PLA launched the next phase of its offensive with assault on Walong on November 16, and on the main defences of 4 Infantry Division at Bomdi La, Se La and on the Division Headquarters at Dirang Dzong. Simultaneously on November 20, Chushul came under attack by an Infantry Division.

The reverberations of the defeat of 1962 left an indelible stain on the reputation of Pandit Nehru, who subsequently died a deeply dejected man…

The reverses in the conflict came to be regarded as a stunning and comprehensive national defeat despite the fact that only a very small fraction of either army actually saw combat. The reverberations of that defeat left an indelible stain on the reputation of Pandit Nehru, who is reported to have subsequently died a deeply dejected man. It also resulted in the sacking of Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister, O Pulla Reddy, the Defence Secretary (of whom Krishna Menon used to disparagingly say “he has neither pull nor is he ever ready”2), General P.N Thapar and some other senior officers.

Surprisingly, some others, who were certainly guilty of unprofessional conduct such as Brigadier D.K Palit, the Director – Military Operations, ended up being promoted. Incidentally, Brigadier Palit spared no efforts to hamper subsequent investigations of the Henderson Brooks Committee that was set up on the orders of the new Chief of Army Staff, General J.N Choudhury. More than half a century later when we again face a seemingly assertive China, it may be worth pondering if we have imbibed any of the lessons from the earlier debacle.

In the Official History of the 1962 Conflict with China, the Chief Editor, Dr S.N Prasad, comes to the interesting conclusion that the chief reason for our defeat was that the political establishment was unable to avoid a war while it was in the process of transforming the military establishment. He believes Pandit Nehru and Krishna Menon saw the military as, “a close-knit professional body, deliberately isolated from the citizen. Its predominant motive force remained espirit de corps and not identification with the people.

Someday it may even act like the Praetorian Guard of the Roman Empire.

Pandit Nehru was fully cognizant of the Chinese threat since the early 1950s and had openly mentioned it in the Parliament in 1959…

The Indian Army trained and fought like the British Army, unimaginative, elephantine, rule-bound and road-bound… Perhaps he wanted to model it after the PLA, more egalitarian, flexible and closer to the people…Such basic changes required a committed or at least a pliant, band of army officers in key positions. So mediocre Thapar was selected instead of the doughty Thorat as Army Chief and Bijji Kaul was made CGS…To carry out this transformation of national defence set up, a decade of peace was absolutely essential. For establishing indigenous weapons manufacture, money had to be found by cutting arms imports. The armed forces would be short of equipment and stores for several years till the new arms factories started producing. The officer cadre was a house divided till the new breed fully took over.

A period of transition was inevitable, during which the fighting machine would not be fully efficient and would be vulnerable…Therein seems to lie the basic cause of the debacle of 1962. India failed to avoid a war during the transition period. Lulled by faulty political assessment and wrong intelligence assessments, the country got caught in a war when it was least prepared.”3

Prasad is certainly partially correct in his observations, especially regarding the insecurity and the unfounded fears of the political establishment of the forces staging a coup that led to it being “outsourced” to the civilian bureaucracy to control, which continues to be followed even to this day.

It can also be argued that the retention of the British Indian Army with its ethos and traditions was a deliberate choice that Nehru and the political leadership made at Independence, based on their self-interest. He had the choice of remodeling it on the lines of the Azad Hind Fauj, an army that was certainly nationalistic, egalitarian and close to the people. At the very least, he could have retained the services of those who had experience in senior ranks, as Pakistan went on to do, and had commanded INA Divisions and Brigades, Training Establishments, Intelligence Establishments and the administrative and logistic services, experience that Indian officers of the British Indian Army sorely lacked. That Pandit Nehru did not do so on the advice of Mountbatten and preferred to permit British officers to continue holding senior ranks is another matter.

There seems to have been individual ad hoc views about the Chinese threat and the timing of their attack…

Some analysts, including the late K Subrahmanyam suggest that Nehru should not be solely blamed for the fiasco. He puts forward the argument that Nehru, unlike the manner in which he is usually portrayed, may have, “abhorred war but would not hesitate to fight to defend his country’s interests”4 as his actions in Hyderabad, Goa, Kashmir and the Congo clearly showed. He goes on to suggest that Nehru was fully cognizant of the Chinese threat since the early 1950s and had openly mentioned it in the Parliament in 1959. Earlier in 1954, he had stated to D R Mankekar that, “the two Asian giants were bound to tread on each other’s corns and come into conflict, and that would be a calamity for Asia. That was an eventuality that we all strive hard to avert.”5

As per him it was Nehru who initiated action to enhance equipment profile and capabilities of our armed forces by increasing the defence budget from US$2 billion in 1950 to US$4 billion in 19606 and the armed forces strength from 2.8 lakh in 1949-1950 to 5.5 lakh in 19627.

This is completely at odds with veteran journalist, Kuldip Nayar’s, description of events when General Thapar approached the Prime Minister to apprise him of the poor state of the Army, after the Defence Minister refused to accept his assessment or advice with regard to training, weapons and equipment. That General Thapar did not stand up for what he believed in as he confessed to Nayar subsequently when he stated “Looking back, I think I should have submitted my resignation at that time. I might have saved my country from the humiliation of defeat.”8

While Nehru may have been cognizant of the Chinese threat as early as 1951, he certainly did not take it seriously. The very fact that he and the Defence Minister chose to be out of the country in September 1962 and that his orders for dealing with the Chinese incursions were conveyed to the Army Chief by a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Defence certainly bear this out.

Two other critical issues that adversely impacted during this period were intelligence failure and adoption of the so-called “Forward Policy”…

The two other critical issues that adversely impacted during this period were intelligence failure and adoption of the so-called “Forward Policy”, which as per some commentators, showed India’s aggressive intent and is certainly held to have been instrumental in provoking the Chinese, leading to the subsequent conflict9. Subrahmanyam’s take on the issue is certainly interesting and at odds with what general perceptions would have us believe. The crux of his argument is that the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which at that time a sub-committee of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, was non-functional and all intelligence reports received from the Intelligence Bureau were never assessed. In fact, he believes that this was a grave failure of the bureaucracy, both civil and military, as they did not understand the essential difference between intelligence reports, which pertain to current issues, and intelligence assessments that also suggest future scenarios.

He even goes on to say, “In the writings of Lt Gen Kaul and others who appear to have derived their information from senior military officers, there is no evidence to suggest that the process of decision-making in respect of national security policy was well understood by them. There seems to have been individual ad hoc views about the Chinese threat and the timing of their attack, but there was no attempt to pool all this information by the JIC, which had this responsibility and to derive an assessment regarding the nature and magnitude of the threat…”10

With regard to the controversial “Forward Policy”, Subrahmanyam makes two very simple arguments. Firstly that with the Chinese constantly shifting their claim lines and moving troops forward, the Government of India had little choice but to push towards its own claim line and establish its presence there. He does not touch on the fact that some of the positions occupied by us were North of our claim line, such as the one at Dhola. He also goes on to point out that during discussions on the “Forward Policy” both the External Affairs and the Defence Ministries erred in asking B.N Mullik, Director Intelligence Bureau, to prepare an assessment of the likely Chinese course of action instead of having the JIC prepare such an assessment, disregarding an elementary principle of intelligence assessment that the intelligence gathering agency must never be asked to assess its own information.

Another critical aspect that was certainly responsible for the 1962 debacle was the issue of border infrastructure…

He goes on to suggest that Mullik’s assessment of Chinese reaction to the “Forward Policy” was based on the flawed assumption that the Chinese would continue to react as they had earlier, an assumption that was not contradicted by either the military leadership or bureaucrats of the External Affairs Ministry. In this he is incorrect as it (OP ONKAR) was opposed by the then GOC 33 Corps, Lt Gen Umrao Singh, on grounds that necessary administrative steps would require to be taken before the policy could be implemented, though his protest was overruled and the operation conducted as directed.11

Another critical aspect that was certainly responsible for the debacle was the issue of border infrastructure. There was an absence of suitable roads, permanent telephone lines, forward airfields and staging areas. Consequently, troops were forced to march for days with only what they could carry with little hope of replenishment. Artillery support was, therefore, non-existent, communications were rudimentary and there was little scope for moving reserves to the point of decision, the fundamental requirement for any defensive battle. Some attempts were made to take corrective action by 1959, but the time available was certainly not enough to meet all critical infrastructure needs.

While the failure to construct roads and other administrative, logistic and communication infrastructures and even permanent defences could certainly be blamed on lack of political involvement or will and bureaucratic bungling, it may be worth recalling that the primary reason for this was the concept of battle that the military leadership had advocated. It had been visualised that lack of infrastructure would force the PLA to develop axes required for supporting their offensive.

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Given the difficulty in road construction in mountains, not only would the PLA have great difficulty in progressing operations, but such activity would give away their offensive thrust lines and force levels. Unfortunately, poor operational and tactical planning along with poor leadership at the operational levels resulted in what should have been a well conducted defensive operation turning into a rout.

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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

Brig Deepak Sinha

is a Military Veteran and was formerly with the ORF, and now is member of The Peninsula Foundation, a Chennai based Think-Tank.

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10 thoughts on “Bull in the China Shop: The Indian Army vs The PLA

  1. The political portion of the report is in public domain unofficially. That is the portion which blames Nehru and Menon. That is what public wanted to know.

    The failure of the generals at SELA pass, and not BM Kaul but a hell of a lot more not guarding the back and side doors and unfortunate withdrawal from SELA is key reason not releasing the other portion of the report. They want to protect their senior and may be retired colleagues name for being poor generals.

    Tell me Brigadier Sahib, what is your interest in running down your colleagues names by releasing the report. Who is going to gain what? All the lessons of that 1962 war have been taken. There is a living testament of 1965, 1971, 1999 war. What else do you want?

  2. Hy Brig Deepak Sinha,

    “Excellent speakers, great moderators, and a perfect organization. So there was a lot of input, great conversations with different people and you could see well-known faces again. : It’s worth it! ”

    thanks for share with us thanks

  3. Further to my post I would add the following facts and events already available in the archives which throw a completely different picture of the Army and the crucial role of political leadership of the nation at that time in history. In 1959(?) three military chiefs – Thimayaa, Air Chief and the Navy Chief – submitted jointly resignations to the Government.. For what reasons? Obviously with matters relating to Chinese activity in the Himalayas. The PM Nehru called a meeting with the military chiefs and after protracted assurances to mend the way things were managed to pacify the military chiefs to take their resignations back. And the dispute ended there in public eyes. In the aftermath of 1962 the Calcutta Statesman brought out a supplement “The Black November” on the debacle where a number of senior army officers recorded their side of the war. In my recollection this is the gist: the Army has warned the Government as late as 1958 (Lt Gen Thapar) of the impending Chinese aggression. In fact the Army intelligence predicted three routes in the Himalaya and in the event the attack came through two of them. Ever since 1954 on a regular pattern, skirmishes were taking place between the Indian army personnel and the Chinese PLA (Kongka Pass). But the authorities in Delhi stayed mum in spite of protests by the military. Of course there were many more such incidents happening beyond the public record. On the international arena the Americans had been repeatedly warning the world that the Chinese were expansionists, but the Indian diplomats were dumb not to absorb the message. Military operations require long time planning, gathering resources and political determination to “win” war. All such elements were totally missing for India. In my books it is the political masters of the nation on whose shoulder the blame must fall squarely for that Black November. The soldiers did best in their individual capacity against unsurmountable odds.

    • Correction to my post : read “Lt Gen Thorat” in place of “Lt Gen Thapar” where it appears referring to the article in the Calcutta Statesman’s supplement. ! Further to note, the American policy makers realised Chinese expansionism from their experience in the Korean war. A number of Indian diplomats did take part in the negotiations following that war as part of the UN team. And they did warn Delhi about the Chinese intentions against India and how double speak they were. All that fell on deaf ears of the PM Nehru. It will be a good idea if IDR publishes a scanned copy of that Calcutta Statesman “The Black November” retrieving from the archives in 1963. That will throw proper light on the Army’s real position on the Himalayan frontier in the pre-1962 days. Doubtless there was gross interference in the military affairs by the political masters in Delhi which led to incompetent army commanders being promoted which led to the disaster. On the Indian side the war was being led by the politicians in reality sitting in Delhi rather than giving the responsibility at the Army’s professional hand.

  4. Author has brought up certain issues which affect IIndo-China relations and our security. Improved relations cannot be a sine qua non for trade, economic ties, investments, development works of mutual benefit. There can be no two opinions regarding importance of carrying forward dialogues between India and China to resolve border disputes, though China is known hard bargainer and we cannot expect favourable outcome so soon. While Forward Policy was certainly not the answer to the looming Chinese threat, yet when we look back, there was hardly any other viable option at that point of time, more so in our assessment China was unlikely to go on offensive. The weakest link or hurdle in our preparedness even today is our poor infrastructure. China has god-gifted advantage of terrain and stable mountain/ plateaus. Massive rails and roadways network in Tibet give distinct advantage to China. Most of our road projects are delayed, way behind schedule and caught up in myriad of problems viz. environmental clearances, land acquisition, poor quality construction and graft. Most of the roads have to be repaired every year because of substandard quality, poor drainage and design. Need for tunnels exist at numerous place to ensure all the year round connectivity. Our tenuous lines of communication are so susceptible to vagaries of nature that it can seriously jeopardize our ops. It will take decades to match the level of Chinese infrastructure.

  5. The study presented here misses the main point, that is the political awareness and the moral standing of the Indian citizens for upholding the fundamentals for nationhood. If it were any European state, the very next day the Chinese struck unopposed and military debacle followed for India, the Prime Minister (Nehru and others in that context) would have been shown the door out in the parliament. But nothing happened to their career – Nehru went on holding his position with cosmetic changes here and there. This is the point the former defence minister George Fernandez once made emphatically in a different issue – the Indian nation has no shame. Until and unless that realization dawns in the general mass, history will repeat itself. There is no point of pointing fingers at Army commanders in their field action (although I do not condone dereliction of duty) as if they were the sole culprits for the drubbing received in the hands of the Chinese. No wonder things are going on with the political masters at the helm and the bureaucratic hierarchy as business as usual.

  6. On becoming COAS, VCOAS or DGMO, it is expected that they must be reading the classified part of the REPORT. However it seems they have been going off to sleep afterwards instead of tkaing steps to rectify the mistakes.

  7. I am having difficulty trying to comprehend what you are saying. Everything about 1962 war with China and the rout is pretty well known. It is one sided story on placing the blame on political leadership. That may not be the whole truth. The forward commanders did err in not guarding the trails which the Chinese took to bypass SELA and the division headquarters 40 miles away. That in military terms is inviting enemy to come in and beat me and in this case thr Chinese gave a good beating. But if these trails had been guarded to prevent Chinese from using them, then imagine three thousand Chinese troops have travelled on mountain roads with scant rations for three days are hungry and tired. Any fighting to gain access the trails would have been Chinese disadvantage. A hungry and thirsty man cannot fight for too long. They would have surrendered in large numbers to Indian troops. In short an error in judgment of not guarding the trails is as much a factor in defeat as political error of Nehru/Menon.

    If you still consider that Chinese were better off, I agree. But battle errors if had not been done then Indian troops had a fighting chance of fighting withdrawal like the US Marine division in Korea, as you mentioned above.

    Some how, after Part 1 of Henderson Brook report made into public domain with only purpose to malign Nehru/Menon. Actually military commanders share the same amount of blame of dereliction of duty in the battlefield. That discussion in Part 2 of the HB report is kept under the wraps, because military leadership today do not want focus on them……..

  8. Well I don’t think we have moved very far as far as the Military preparedness is concerned. There was a rush of issues put forward after the Kargil incident but it has all fizzled away as has happened before. The nation and its armed forces love to slumber till the next kick. We are out of equipment, the Infantry soldier is a little better than the WW II Indian Soldier. Our war making capability is highly diminished. We are an elephantine entity in World War II attire. Our Armed Forces have had little changes and we have remained a Pakistan centric Army, defeating them grandly in every war game. The India Armed Forces need an organizational metamorphosis, we have to break away from the World War II model and move on to counter the Chinese head on. We have to reorg and re-equip and re model our forces to fight the Chinses and in an offensive mode. Infrastructure development has also to take off simultaneously to support the re-organised armed forces. If we prepare for the Chinese, Pakistan automatically gets accounted for. But sadly we aren’t making much headway and the tidings are ominous.

  9. We have the sanction for the Mountain Corps…but nothing much to show on ground. We have the sanction for ground infrastructure…but once again…nothing much to show on ground. Luckily, the IAF has managed to position a few squadrons of Su30 ac in the Eastern airlfields and get some ALGs commissioned, with some more in the pipeline…to be commissioned by the end of the year. The unfortunate part is that the ac are having perpetual servicabilty issues….and hile the transport ac may land at the advanced landing grounds…what after that.
    Have we learnt anything after the humiliating defeat of 1962……for how long will we contnue with the ostrich attitude.
    China maybe busy in the SChina Sea, but it has not closed the Tibetan chapter….the making of a consolidated Western Command, is an indication. Let us not be fooled with pleasantries being exchanged at the border outposts that all is well. It is not….and indications are aplenty.
    It is up to the people who matter to understand the Chinese…their psychology….their modus operandi……strategic and diplomatic…but will the people in the Indian establishment…political….bureaucrats…and military….ever learn.?…..a million dollar question.

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