19 November 1962 was the darkest day in the history of post-independent India. On that day as the famed 4th Indian Division of the Indian Army disintegrated and abandoned its defences in the Sela-Bomdila area of Arunachal Pradesh, PM Nehru lost his nerve. In a cringing letter to President Kennedy of the USA he wrote, and I quote, “Vast Chinese armies are poised to march into Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Digboi oil fields are threatened. Chinese have concentrated opposite Chumbi Valley. Due to the situation in Ladakh, the whole of Punjab is threatened, unless immediate military aid is given it will be a catastrophe.” (accessed at the President Kennedy Library in Boston,USA.)
India’s long-held non-aligned foreign policy ended that day. The situation on the ground, though grim, was much exaggerated and the then US Defence, Secretary MacNamara, was openly skeptical and wanted an independent assessment. In fact, in Ladakh, due to the military commanders prudent actions, defences protecting Leh were strengthened and the Chinese were nowhere near capturing Ladakh. To state that the Chinese were posing a threat to far away Punjab was absolutely absurd. The military ace who advised the PM must get a medal for military inaptitude and outrageous stupidity.
The military dimensions of the 1962 conflict were puny. On the Indian side just about two and half division were involved and on the Chinese side 3 -4. Yet the psychological impact on the political set-up was immense and it continues to influence Sino-Indian relations to date. Unfortunately, the ‘actual’ happenings that led to this debacle remain under a tight security blanket. Govt’s have consistently denied making public the enquiry ordered by the Army HQ to look into the reasons of the military failure purely at the tactical level – the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report.
As a Joint director of War History division Ministry of Defence, this Report was in my custody for over two years (1988-89) and was extensively used by me to write the official history of that war. The report went into ‘immediate’ military causes only and left a larger picture out. It also did not discuss the non-use of offensive air support.
I was recently (5-6 Oct 2023) in Leh to attend a seminar on the historical perspective of Ladakh. I covered the fighting in Ladakh in 1962 in my presentation. It was here that it hit me. The glaring contrast between dogged resistance in Ladakh, at Galwan post by the Jats, at Rezangla by the Kumaoinis and by the Gorkhas at Chushul to the disorderly flight and utter rout at Sela. None of the books on the 1962 conflict, and there are at least a dozen or more, have highlighted the contradictions between the fierce resistance put up in Ladakh and Walong and the capitulation of 4 Division (except the 7 Brigade that fought bravely on the Namka Chu river) and what caused it?
I was fortunate to be able to interview many veterans who were participants in that war. Memories of one particular interview that I did in 1988 have stuck in my mind even after 40-odd years. The company commander at the Nymkadong feature, in the rear of Sela defence, is worth a recall. On 16 Nov 1962, as he reported Chinese columns bypassing his position, he received a call from the battalion adjutant. No, it was nothing about operational matters but to ask the officer as to ‘why he had still not given completion report on the purchase of the ceremonial sword’ as mandated by the then Army Chief! Talk of dark comedy amid a war! Incidentally, his company defences had no artillery support as the 25 pounder field guns located at Dirang Zong in the valley were out of range. Despite this, to do ‘khanapurti’ (ticking the boxes), he was allotted an Artillery OP. A young Second Lieutenant, who had not even done his basic Young Officers Course. The company commander decided to employ him as a patrol leader. This young lad, while on a patrol was ambushed by the Chinese and killed. At the very moment the Chinese were bypassing Sela defences, the divisional headquarters was celebrating ‘Zozila Day’ victory of 1947-48 Kashmir war. To have a ‘proper’ celebration, the battalion had sent a platoon to the rear at Misamari (nearly 200 kms to the rear) and got all its silver trophies!
The destruction of the military ethos of the Division had begun at Ambala, when as a Divisional Commander, then Major General BM Kaul had used troop labour to build accommodation for the soldiers. For over a year or more, troop labour was used. In the prevailing atmosphere, Kaul was hailed as a great General and feted by Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister. As a close relation to the PM, Kaul was in the habit of bypassing normal channels and approaching the PM directly. Another activity of those times was involving soldiers in the ‘Grow More Food’ campaign. Vacant land in military cantonments was to be used for agricultural farming by soldiers.
Non-military activity had begun to occupy the centre stage in the Indian Army. It is this Army that died an inglorious death on the bleak Himalayan heights in 1962.
As global anarchy in the 21stCentury is leading to an unstable world, Armed Forces will do well to remember the cardinal lessons of 1962. The job of the Armed Forces is to defend the Nation in times of war and prepare for such an eventuality during peace time. The Army is meant to PROTECT democracy, not practice it. Gender justice, ecological rejuvenation or economic development of border areas, is not the primary task of the Armed Forces. At best it can supplement the efforts of other government agencies, not supplant them.
Equal opportunity for individuals is a laudable goal but cannot supersede the goal of military efficiency. In case of conflict between the two, maintaining war-winning capacity trumps individual rights. Individual rights and aspirations cannot be permitted to jeopardise national security. The judicial and political arm of state should be mindful of the slippery slope that led to 19 November 1962.