A recent visit in the forward areas of the Tawang sector opened my eyes wider. Though I have been studying different aspects of the 1962 border war with China for years, it is only by seeing the terrain of the tragic confrontation which turned into a debacle for the 7th Brigade of Brigadier John P. Dalvi, that one can realize the utter incompetence of some of the ‘political’ generals who conducted the battle of the Namkha chu on behalf of the senior leadership in Delhi.Two conclusions came immediately to mind: first, the disaster wass entirely of the Indian political leadership’s making, particularly from Prime Minister Nehru and a small clique of sycophants around him (such as VK Krishna Menon, BN Mallik, Gen PN Thapar or Lt Gen BM Kaul).Seeing the scene of the battle, makes you understand that a similar defeat can’t happen anymore. I shall further elaborate on this later.
What is flabbergasting is that the ‘culprits’ of 1962 never bore any consequences. In his Himalayan Blunder, Brig Dalvi wrote: “General Pran Nath Thapar resigned on ‘grounds of health’ – the hackneyed euphemism for what the British call ‘the bowler hat’. He was rewarded with the Ambassadorship to Afghanistan. Lt Gen BM Kaul, the Commander of the ill-conceived and ill-fated IV Corps, was compelled to seek premature retirement – a bitter pill for Mr. Nehru to swallow – as Kaul was widely believed to have been his protégé and military confidant.”
The Forward Policy
One often speaks of the Forward Policy decided by the government in 1961, as being the trigger for the war; according to Dalvi, during a meeting in the autumn of 1961: “at which Mr. Menon, General Thapar and General Kaul were present. Studying a map showing recent Chinese incursions, Mr. Nehru is reported to have said that whoever succeeded in establishing a post would establish a claim to that territory, as possession was nine-tenths of the law. He then asked if the Chinese could set up posts why couldn’t we?”
Gen Kaul later claimed that “(Nehru) was told that owing to numerical and logistical difficulties, we could not keep up in this race with the Chinese. …China with her superior military resources could – operationally make the position of our small posts untenable.”
But wisdom did not prevail.
Seeing the narrowness of the gorge between the Hathungla and the Thagla ridges and the small nallah (the Namkha chu) running between the two giant massifs even a child would understand that the Himalayan stream was not the best defensive place (or even offensive). But Delhi stuck to its guns: “Chinese have to be evicted.”
In his Himalayan Blunder, Brig Dalvi recalled: “My appreciation of September 1962 is a pivotal document. It is capable of various interpretations by different people. Gen Kaul has used copious extracts to weave a claim of reprieval for his impatience and haste between 5th and 10th October (1962). He has manipulated passages to insinuate that he was on occasion a helpless spectator of events …and that he was compelled to implement the defective plans devised at the tactical level. ”The politicians (including the ‘politician’ generals) are masters are justifying their foolishness and blunders, Dalvi recalled: “(Kaul) has muted his role in moving 7th Brigade to the Namka Chu. …He omits the antecedents of the Appreciation and how it came into being, but quotes excerpts to achieve his ends. He has attributed some parts to Gen Umrao [33 Corps Commander] and others to the Brigade Commander.”
Kaul later justified his decision for accepting to be associated with what he called the Government’s final desperate gamble: “I was thus expected to perform a miracle and begin operations immediately. I could hardly start bickering (sic) about the obvious handicaps at a time when India found herself in a precarious situation and therefore decided to cross my fingers, make the best of my lean resources (one brigade) and face the situation as best I could.” The truth was that to force the 7th Brigade to set up posts near the nallah and hope to defend India’s position from there, was criminal.
Kaul and his patrons in Delhi did not know anything about the Chinese tactics.
The Chinese author Jianglin Li, who has masterfully recorded the movement of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) after the 1959 Tibetan uprising, wrote: “By analyzing many memoirs, autobiographies and biographies, openly published, classified or semi-classified, I found out that the 12 large scale battles fought in central Tibet from March 1959 to early 1962 were in fact conducted as a thoroughly organised military training, beyond the actual requirements of a counter-insurgency operation …commanders were testing the battle strategies best suited to the terrain.”
She cited battles which were clearly fought to gain “experience of fighting with the large unit encircling tactic and carrying out policies in pastoral regions. …It has been proved by many experiences that carrying out encirclement is the most effective method to wipe out large numbers of rebel bandits.” Encirclement was extensively used by the PLA during the border war with India, but Kaul had never heard of this and insisted on climbing the Thagla ridge from the narrow nallah (using log bridges).
Beginning of October 1962, orders were flying over the ridges, “have all the troops of 7 Brigade moved to Tsangdhar?” asked Kaul. Tsangdhar was a high altitude plateau used as a dropping zone.
When the officer answered, “Not yet, Sir”, Kaul demanded: “Why not? It was my definite order that the troops must be in position by the evening of 7th October .”
The newly-appointed Corps Commander then threatened: “How dare you disobey my orders, you are the Brigade Major. I have given an assurance to the Prime Minister that I will carry out the operation.”
In these conditions, it was difficult for Brig Dalvi to ‘disobey’ and realign his forces to better strategic positions, for example on the top of the Hathungla.
Why things are different today
The debacle of 1962 will not be repeated for several reasons.
Today, a brigade commander can take an immediate ‘strategic’ decision on the spot; as the chain of command is clear and respected, the brigade commander first refers to his Division commander who in turn will consult the Corps and Army commanders. Eventually final orders will have to come from the Army HQ in Delhi and the Ministry of Defence.
Today, there is no question of being ‘friends’ with the Prime Minster.
Further, India has tremendously invested in the infrastructure (though the Chinese side has an easier access to the LAC). Having visited the area for the first time in 1996, I have witnessed the unbelievable changes; in a couple of months time, the tunnel below Sela pass will be opened, shortening the journey between Assam and Tawang by one hour.
Another factor is that the Air Force (IAF) will be used; it was recently reported in the aftermath of the Galwan Valley clash in June 2020, that the Indian Air Force airlifted more than 68,000 army soldiers and a variety of military equipment to Eastern Ladakh along the LAC); PTI commented: “This swift deployment was facilitated by a combination of strategic airlift capabilities and increased surveillance measures.”
Would China adventure to cross the LAC, it would have to deal not only with the Indian Army but with the IAF too.
A visit to the historic spots of the 1962 tragic events convinces you that China cannot advance even a few meters without being inflicted heavy casualties. Is
Xi Jinping ready for this? Certainly not.
After all what did the Emperor gain in Eastern Ladakh?
Did the Darbuk–Shyok–DBO Road get blocked or stopped? The answer is ‘no’.
Did China gain strategic advantages in Galwan or Pangong tso areas? No.
Did Beijing manage to intimidate India with their Information Warfare? No.
Did the Ladakh ‘adventure’ bring any economic gain to China? The answer is again ‘no’.
Did the operations of May 2020 enhance the prestige Chairman Xi or the PLA? Not in India at least.
The above explains that it is today difficult for Beijing to walk out of the imbroglio and return to prior to the beginning of the confrontation.
Perhaps the Chinese leadership did not expect that the Indian Army would conduct negotiations; Indian soldiers know the value of even a few meters on this range or that ridge.
In conclusion, a look at the terrain and at today’s defence preparedness as well as the change of mindset makes you confident that 1962 debacle cannot and will not be repeated. The incident in the Yangtse sector in December 2022 is another proof of this.