Military & Aerospace

Indian Army: The blunted sword
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Issue Book Excerpt: Indian Army After Independence | Date : 19 Mar , 2018

The Buddha story attracted me even in early boyhood,’ wrote Nehru in The Discovery of India. Another Indian whose life made an impact on Nehru was the man known to history as Ashoka. Nehru was no admirer of kings and emperors but then Ashoka was no ordinary emperor. Among the countless monarchs that the world has seen, he alone gave up warfare as an instrument of state policy after a great military victory. The first ten years of Independence have sometimes been compared to the reign of Ashoka.1

Like Ashoka, Nehru was a giant of his age. He was a world figure and towered over everybody else in India. We have seen earlier that India’s foreign policy was entirely in Nehru’s hands. In the shaping of the country’s domestic policy too he played a dominant role. The Ashokan touch was there in both. Even the state emblem – the Lion Capital – was taken from the Sarnath pillar of Ashoka and the Wheel of Dharma was blazoned on the national flag. For his foreign policy, Nehru chose the Buddha’s ‘middle path’: non-alignment and peaceful co-existence. At home too, Nehru’s concern was to repair the backwardness created by centuries of foreign rule.

However, while provision was made for most of the needs of the nation, its security did not receive adequate attention. The Indian sub-continent occupies a strategic position in South Asia. Those who took over from the British in 1947 forgot that this imposed a responsibility which the British had carried till then. The Indian Army of the British period was mainly for internal security; in case of external attack, its strength was just enough to withstand the first shock. Thereafter, as a global power, London could switch over forces at its disposal in other parts of the world. The new Indian Government had no such reserves and therefore, had a duty to make its own armed forces strong enough.

…while provision was made for most of the needs of the nation, its security did not receive adequate attention.

Modern science has made defence a highly competitive field. Weapons and equipment get outdated very soon and a nation can disregard the advances made by others only at the risk of its own security. A farmer using outdated implements may not do as well as his better-equipped counterparts in other lands but he does not risk the security of the state. However, a soldier with an outdated weapon is a risk to his country. A poorly equipped Army, howsoever patriotic, cannot be expected to defend its country against a better-equipped adversary.

Prime Minister Nehru chose to downgrade the armed forces in the matter of priorities for national development. And, as we shall see later, he chose to disregard professional advice when it was offered. History repeated itself. In the case of Ashoka, the foreign invasions came after his death. But Nehru’s India suffered military defeat while he was still the country’s prime minister. Fortunately, the disaster was not as great as the post-Ashokan collapse of the Mauryas. The lesson was quickly learnt and the damage repaired.

There were many reasons for the downgrading of the armed forces. Just as Ashoka had come under the influence of Buddhist teachings and become a pacifist, the thinking of Nehru and his colleagues was conditioned by Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa). In 1947, there were indeed some Indian leaders – though Nehru was not one of them – who thought there was no need for an Army. If non-violence could succeed against the mighty British, why can the same weapon not be used against anyone who should choose to attack peace-loving India, they argued. It was the invasion of Jammu & Kashmir that opened their eyes.

Another reason was the manner in which the struggle against British rule was waged. In his book Defence Without Drift, P.V.R. Rao2 says:

Weapons and equipment get outdated very soon and a nation can disregard the advances made by others only at the risk of its own security.

“In the circumstances in which the Indian leaders came to power, there was an essential antagonism between them and the organs of the Government – the Civil Administration, the Police and the Defence Forces – which had often been utilized by the British Government to suppress the national movement”.

The differences were more pronounced in the case of defence forces as they rarely came into contact with political parties.

The reason that was advanced for economizing on defence was that development must have first priority and that an industrial base was necessary for self-sufficiency in defence equipment. No doubt, this was sound reasoning. After all, the defence of an independent country is rooted in various factors. Among them the most important areas are, sound economy, a good industrial base, institutions for technological advancement and a healthy, united nation. There is, however, no substitute for adequate armed forces, well-trained and well-equipped. Unfortunately, the Government of the day disregarded this basic truth.

The policy-makers forgot that the strength of a country’s armed forces plays a vital role in international politics. After all, they are the ultimate instrument of its national policy. Theodore Roosevelt said in 1901, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far”.3 Vegetius was more specific: “Let him who desires peace prepare for war”, was his dictum. In his scholarly work, “The Theory of Force and Organization of Defence in Indian Constitutional History, Dr. Nagendra Singh has put the issue tersely: “The ability to defend relates to the very existence of the State and is, therefore, a sine qua non of its independence”.

A basic deficiency was the absence of a unified authority that could advise the government on matters of defence and at the same time, co-ordinate and guide the functioning of the three Services. Before Independence, this was the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army. That arrangement was workable in a colonial set-up while the Indian Navy and the Air Force were not adequately developed. The appointment of separate chiefs of the three Services was a natural consequence of Independence. However, the position held till then by the Commander-in-Chief of India, as the man solely responsible for the country’s security, was left unfilled. The lacuna was allowed to remain, though India was, perhaps, the only important country not to have such a post.

Just as Ashoka had come under the influence of Buddhist teachings and become a pacifist, the thinking of Nehru and his colleagues was conditioned by Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence (ahimsa).

The Chiefs of Staff Committee was formed. Its purpose was to advise the Defence Minister on matters that affected the three Services. The senior of the three Chiefs was designated as Chairman of the Committee. This meant rotation of the post, as each incumbent retired on completion of his tenure as chief of his Service. It must be stated here that despite the fact that the Army remained by far the largest among the Services, good relations prevailed among the members of the Committee. However, by its very nature, the Committee remained a paper organization. That this was so can be substantiated from the events of the Indo–Pak conflict of 1965, when the Indian Navy was caught unprepared. At the outbreak of hostilities, the Vikrant was in dry dock undergoing repairs and many of the other warships were reservicing. Evidently, the Chiefs of Staff Committee was ineffective. In any case, a committee cannot be expected to fight campaigns.

We have observed that after Independence, the status of the Army Chief vis-a-vis the bureaucrats came down considerably. The downgrading was not confined to the Chief. The Army Commanders under him and others down the line, suffered a similar fate. Before Independence, the Chief Secretary of a State ranked with brigadiers. In 1948, he was placed at par with major generals. The downgrading of the status of the Services continued during the ‘Ashokan decade’ and afterwards. In 1951, the Army Chief became junior to Chief Ministers outside their states, to the Cabinet Secretary and to the Secretary-General. The Army Commanders were later made to rank below the Chief Secretaries of the states. This downgrading was not in the matter of protocol and perks only – the complete structure in its role and function underwent a similar change.

These changes were in no way related to the duties performed by the officers concerned, or to the size of their command. The Army Chief, the Army Commanders, and the lower commanders under them performed the same duties as their predecessors before 1948. In fact, the size of their respective commands had increased, as there was an increase in the strength of the Army from time to time. In 1955, the designation ‘Commander-in-Chief’ was dropped but the Chief of the Army Staff remained the de facto Commander-in-Chief of the Army.

Evidently, the progressive downgrading was a result of the lack of appreciation on the part of those who authorized it as to the adverse effect it would have on the rank and file in the armed forces and on the public in general. Seeing their commanders at public functions, like the parades on the occasion of Republic Day, placed below those over whom they previously ranked, naturally hurt the men’s pride. They and the public could not but conclude that the armed forces had been downgraded. This was naturally bad for the Services, where the honour (izzat) that goes with rank means a great deal.Even in terms of badges of rank, there was a progressive upgrading of Police badges, which are of the same design as Army badges. This, in effect, devalued Army ranks. In the case of Sepoys, it may be mentioned that Police constables in missions abroad were given class 3 status, as against Army Sepoys who were given class 4 status.An organizational change that marginalized the role of the armed forces in the decision-making processes of the Government was the assumption of control over the Services by the Defence Ministry. All matters requiring executive sanction or approval had to be referred to the Ministry. The latter made itself responsible ‘to ensure that a uniform policy to the greatest extent possible was evolved and that the decisions taken in respect of one service did not produce repercussions on the other two services’. Gradually, the hold of the Defence Ministry over the Services tightened. A stage was reached where, by usage and convention, all matters, except for routine day-to-day running of the armed forces, were required to be sent for the approval of the Defence Minister.4

There was another cog in the wheel: the Finance Ministry. Even before Independence, the functioning of the armed forces was subject to financial scrutiny. Now any proposal involving expenditure had first to be accepted by officials of the Defence Ministry. Thereafter it would be sent for financial scrutiny and accord. These were, however, only the initial hurdles. Each new scheme had thereafter to get detailed approval of both the ministries before it could be implemented. And, as already stated, every plan and proposal had to be scrutinized for its overall effect on the other Services. No doubt, many a well-intentioned proposal met its death along this tortuous road. After the 1962 debacle, there were attempts to analyse the reasons for it. Among others, the Finance Ministry came in for a good deal of criticism.

The policy-makers forgot that the strength of a country’s armed forces plays a vital role in international politics.

Why did the Service Chiefs not oppose all this? There were many reasons. General Cariappa did stand up, marginally, on some occasions. After him, till Thimayya became Chief, there is no known evidence of protest. It may have been their patriotic spirit that compelled Cariappa’s successors to conform. It was also their inexperience vis-a-vis the officers of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), who manned the Ministry of Defence and other ministries. Though no Indian ICS officer had experience of Defence, the ICS had begun the Indianization process much earlier than the Army5 and its members were well-aqauainted with the corridors of power. They took full advantage of this to gain the upper hand over the Services.

With all these handicaps, how did the Indian Army acquit itself during this period? We have seen how it met the initial challenges to the country’s integrity – first in Jammu & Kashmir and then in Hyderabad. The performance of its peace-keeping contingents brought credit to the country. We have also observed how the Army adjusted itself to the changes that Independence brought about and how General Cariappa infused a new spirit into its officers and jawans; and also how, under his stewardship, the Army gave a lead to the country in certain matters, like national integration, discipline, family planning and the improvement of ecological balance by planting more trees. But what about its professional role?

The answer is that the Indian Army kept playing its part as the ultimate instrument of national policy. Though the Indian Government’s policy of non-alignment and co-existence was a great success in the international field, the disputes with Pakistan could not be resolved. These had their origin in the partition of India and were related to such matters as the division of assets, disposal of evacuee property, sharing of river waters, treatment of minorities and a host of other issues. These problems had no ready solutions. A way had to be found for resolving each by negotiation.

The Jammu & Kashmir dispute, however, was the biggest obstacle in the way of normalizing relations between the two countries. Unfortunately, Pakistan did not comply fully with the terms of the Cease-Fire Agreement. After the delineation of the CFL, she was required to withdraw all troops from the area under her occupation. This Pakistan refused to do. The result was that the CFL became a de facto international boundary, while troops of the two nations continued to face each other all along its 700-kilometre length. Violations of the cease-fire were frequent and UN military observers had a busy time investigating them.

A basic deficiency was the absence of a unified authority that could advise the government on matters of defence and at the same time, co-ordinate and guide the functioning of the three Services.

The communal strife, bloodshed and the mass exodus of minorities that accompanied the birth of Pakistan overshadowed the relations between the two Governments. The hatred and distrust generated at the time would not wash off. As late as 1969, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was to govern Pakistan for many years, said: “India and Pakistan have been permanently in a state of either enmity or acute confrontation; only the degree of tension has varied”.6

The first Indo–Pak crisis after the cease-fire in Jammu & Kashmir occurred in 1949–50; it ‘was precipitated by a trade-war when Pakistan refused to follow other Commonwealth countries in devaluing its currency’. Some troop movements in Pakistan were reported and, as a precautionary measure, Indian troops in Jammu & Kashmir were alerted. After this crisis had passed over, a more serious situation arose as a result of the influx of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan. There were reprisals in Assam against the Muslims who had crossed the border in search of employment.7 There were communal riots and tension mounted. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, linked the trouble in East Pakistan with the Kashmir question and went about making anti-India speeches. Then, towards the middle of 1951, came reports of the move of Pakistani troops to the Indian border.

The Indian Government was forced to take precautions and troops were moved during July 1951 to concentration areas in Punjab and West Bengal. This had the desired effect. Negotiations on the question of refugees began and an agreement, which came to be called the Nehru-Liaquat Pact, was signed between the two countries. The crisis was resolved, atleast for the time being and, early in 1952, the troops returned to their cantonments.

Thus, during the first three years of Independence, the only external threat that India faced was from Pakistan and the Indian Army was well prepared to meet it. However, by 1950, a shadow had appeared in the North – a shadow that was to darken ominously.

Before Independence, the Chief Secretary of a State ranked with brigadiers. In 1948, he was placed at par with major generals.

The rise of Communist China was one of the major events of the twentieth century. After a long struggle, under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung, Chinese communists overthrew the Kuomintang Government and the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in Peking8 on 1 October 1949. During the civil war, the communists had developed a people’s army superior to all other armies in Chinese history. With this Army as its instrument, the new Government of China began a programme of conquest of outlying territories that had once been a part of the Chinese empire, or were considered by it to belong rightfully to China. Chinese maps of their country gave a fairly clear indication of these ambitions. Among other regions they showed Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and large parts of India’s border areas in Arunachal (hereafter referred to as North-East Frontier Agency [NEFA] as it was called then) and Ladakh, as Chinese tenitory.

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Tibet, a country that had enjoyed independent status for 40 years, was the first to get the attention of the Chinese Army. It was invaded on 7 October 1950, at several points along its Eastern border. Within a few weeks the Chinese were able to open the main highway to Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, after liquidating key elements of Tibet’s armed forces and capturing the major passes on this route. However, the Chinese made their deepest penetration from the North-West. In a surprise move, they overran the Tibetan garrisons at Rudok and Gartok, in Western Tibet. Threatened from the West as also from the East, the Tibetan Government had no hope of continuing the struggle. Accordingly, it signed an agreement which gave China suzerainty over Tibet but guaranteed her regional autonomy. Chinese troops entered Lhasa on 19 November 1951.

The vast tableland of Tibet abuts the Himalayan wall for most of its length. With bases in Tibet, a detemined enemy can infiltrate into India through the Himalayan passes. For ages Tibet had been a friendly neighbour with whom India had cultural and trade relations. During the British regime, the Indian Government had acquired special interests in Tibet. It ran Tibet’s postal and telegraph services besides running a mission at Lhasa, military posts at Gyantse and Yatung and several rest-houses on the Kalimpong-Lhasa road. Pilgrims and traders could travel freely between the two countries.

With China too, India’s relations had been good. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang leader, was on friendly terms with leaders of the Indian National Congress and had paid a visit to India during the Second World War. However, when the People’s Republic of China was inaugurated, the Indian Government was quick to grasp the realities of the situation and India was one of the first countries to recognize the new regime. The invasion of Tibet, therefore, came as a rude shock to the Indian Government. Chinese maps, which had till then been a minor irritant, now assumed a sinister significance. A protest note to Peking had no effect and was virtually rejected.

A dispassionate appraisal of the Indian Government’s policy towards China after the latter’s entry into Tibet shows a duality. The threat to India’s security was obvious. However, while fears and reservations were expressed in private, a facade of brotherly friendliness was outwardly maintained in the hope that this tactic would not unnecessarily provoke the Chinese, who had already humbled the mighty USA in Korea. In his book Witness to an Era, Frank Moraes has stated that when India sent the first cultural delegation to China in 1952, it was led by Prime Minister Nehru’s sister, Mrs V.L. Pandit. Moraes was also a member of the delegation and Nehru briefed it in detail:

“Never forget that the basic challenge in South-East Asia is between India and China. That challenge runs along the spine of Asia. Therefore, in your talks with the Chinese keep it in mind. Never let the Chinese patronize you”.9

B.N. Mullik, Director of Intelligence during this period, is more specific. He says:

“When in 1952, in the early stages of our advent into the field of foreign intelligence we had asked his [Nehru’s] advice about our targets, he had clearly visualized that the two enemies whom India would have to confront would be Pakistan, which would utilize Pan-Islamism in its support, and China, which would use international communism for its ends, and had fixed these to be our main targets in the foreign field. . . . He counselled us not to be led away by the open professions of the Government in these matters, but to judge everything in India’s interests and seek his advice whenever there was conflict”.10

This was naturally bad for the Services, where the honour (izzat) that goes with rank means a great deal.

The Chinese too played the same game but did it more astutely. While acting the big brother, they prepared themselves militarily for the attainment of their national aims. The Chinese leadership had a grand design: the establishment of China’s hegemony over South-East Asia, so as to fill the power vacuum created by the British withdrawal. They went about their task with thoroughness and made each move at the time of their choosing, while allaying India’s apprehensions. For example, in September 1951, the Chinese Premier, Chou En-lai, told India’s ambassador that China intended in every way to safeguard India’s interests in Tibet and that ‘there was no territorial dispute or controversy between India and China’.11

In September 1952, the two Governments signed an agreement regarding retention of the Indian Mission at Lhasa, which was converted into a Consulate General. In return, the Indian Government agreed to the opening of the Chinese Consulate General at Bombay. But conditions had changed in Tibet after the Chinese occupation and the agreement did not bring much relief to scholars, pilgrims and traders who attempted, according to the time-honoured custom, to enter Tibet. They suffered many frustrations.

After lengthy discussions, another pact called an Agreement for Trade and Cultural Intercourse was signed between India and China on 29 April 1954. The Panchsheel, or the Five Principles,12 which was to govern future relations between the two countries, formed the preamble to this agreement. Some time before the negotiations began, the Indian Government gave wide publicity to its intention to relinquish its extra-territorial rights in Tibet inherited from the British regime. A day after the agreement was signed, it made a gift of its postal, telegraph, telephone and rest-house facilities to China.

In China as well as India, the agreement was hailed as a great step towards peaceful co-existence. Panchsheel was acclaimed as an ideal basis for relationship between nations and Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai became a popular slogan. Surprisingly, the Indian Government made no effort to settle the question of Chinese maps during the negotiations preceding the agreement. In return for all that India surrendered to the Chinese, they could have been brought round to making a declaration in this regard, accepting existing treaties and customary borders. The Indian leadership missed this opportunity. On the other hand, the Indian Government went out of its way to appease the Chinese. During the British regime, the Government of India had recognized only the suzerainty of China over Tibet. The new agreement referred to Tibet as a ‘region of China’.

It may be mentioned that Police constables in missions abroad were given class 3 status, as against Army Sepoy’s who were given class 4 status.

The boundary issue did, however, come up for discussion at the negotiations. This was in respect of Himalayan passes on the Uttar Pradesh-Tibet border. After some discussions, both sides agreed to incorporate the following words in the agreement: ‘Traders and pilgrims of both countries may travel through the following passes. . . (1) Shipki Pass, (2) Mana Pass, (3) Niti Pass, (4) Kungribingri Pass, (5) Darma Pass and (6) Lipu Lekh Pass’. This was taken to be an indirect recognition that these were border passes.

Strangely, it was in this sector that the first border dispute arose. Bara Hoti is a small trading post, a few kilometres South of the Niti Pass. On 17 July 1954, the Chinese Government sent a protest note to India regarding the presence of Indian troops at Bara Hoti. When talks on this question began, the Chinese persisted in claiming that this place lay North of the pass. Despite Panchsheel this dispute never came to be settled.

The agreement was not fulfilled in respect of the trade agency at Gartok. Difficulties were always put in the way and no permanent agency was ever established there. The Indian consulate at Kashgar was obliged to close down after the Chinese Government moved to exclude all foreign interests from Sinkiang.

What were the Indian Army’s reactions to the events in Tibet? Retired civilian officials who held important posts in the post-Independence period have, in their writings, blamed the Army leadership for the happenings of 1962. S.S. Khera, who was the Cabinet Secretary during the crucial years, has said:

“The Army Chiefs did not appear to have become alive early enough to the threat from the North. Their whole training and mental make-up seemed to shun the possibility of a campaign along the Himalayan heights and on the Tibet border. . . . The Army Chiefs did not consider it a feasible proposition at all even to envisage an armed conflict with the Chinese. They seemed unable to escape the conditioning they had had under the British regime in India. . . . Inhibited in this way, not unnaturally, the Army Chiefs were reluctant to extend their activities to meet the threat across Tibet”.13

Why did the Service Chiefs not oppose all this?

These are very serious charges. If true, they would condemn the Army Chiefs of the time in the eyes of posterity. Fortunately, they are not true and it is most surprising that a senior official of the Government should make such sweeping statements, which bear no relationship to facts. The reality was entirely different.

First, the British were well aware of the danger from the North. That was why they sent a military expedition to Tibet in 1904 and made it a buffer state, although, at that time, the danger was not from China, but from Czarist Russia. The Defence Services Staff College at Wellington is an institution where middle-rank officers of the three Services learn the mechanics of war. At the time of the Chinese invasion of Tibet a distinguished British soldier, Major General Lentaigne, was the Commandant of the Staff College. Brigadier Dalvi, who was a student at the College, recalls Lentaigne’s reaction when the news of the invasion came through. He was so perturbed that he walked into the main hall, interrupted the lecturer and proceeded to denounce our leaders for their shortsightedness and inaction, in the face of the Chinese action. Speaking purely as a soldier and a strategist, he said that India’s back-door had been opened and the Himalayas had become the boundary with a large, powerful and expansionist China. He dwelt on the vulnerability of our Eastern regions due to the concentration of industry and sources of raw materials and said that these would be within range of bombers operating from bases in Tibet.14

According to Dalvi, some weeks after this incident a very senior official’ of the External Affairs Ministry came to give the students of the Staff College a talk on Sino-Tibetan relations. He tried to ‘justify the [Government’s] policy of allowing China to subjugate Tibet’.

I asked General Cariappa in 1979 as to what his reaction was to the Chinese occupation of Tibet; he was, after all, the Army Chief at the time. He stated that after partition Indian troops were withdrawn from the Eastern frontier area and all airfields and Army camps were closed down. The Assam Rifles, who were at that time under the Government of Assam, were responsible for the security of this area. Early in January1951, Cariappa received an urgent message from the Assam Government that large bodies of Chinese troops were operating around Rima, a place North of Walong in the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and was asked if the Army could do something to stop any threat to Indian territory. The only thing that Cariappa could think of was to drop some paratroopers in the threatened area. The drop consisted of two officers and a platoon of men, including one officer and two men from the Engineers. Three Dakotas flew the party to the dropping zone near Walong and, after operating for about three weeks in the area, the paratroopers trekked back to Sadiya.

The parachute action had its effect and the threat of Chinese intrusion into Indian territory was removed for the time being. However, taking a long-term view of Chinese presence on the Northern borders, Cariappa appreciated that they might create trouble on the McMahon Line, the boundary between NEFA and Tibet. He felt that the remedy was to place NEFA and the Assam Rifles under the Army for the purpose of defence. His intention was to stabilize the McMahon Line in the same way as the British had done in the case of the Durand Line on the North-West Frontier. He wanted to establish posts all along the boundary and garrison them with the Assam Rifles. At the same time, he wanted to open up the wartime airfields, roads and military camps right up to the Chinese border. Accordingly, he took the matter to the Defence Minister, who told him to discuss it with the Prime Minister.The next day, Cariappa was called up by Pandit Nehru. Major General Daulat Singh was then officiating as Chief of the General Staff. Cariappa took him along. Cariappa outlined his plan for NEFA to the Prime Minister. Having listened to him, Nehru asked for the reason for all these measures. When Cariappa mentioned that the Chinese might have designs against this region, Nehru flared up, thumped hard on the table and said: “It is not the business of the Commander-in-Chief to tell the Prime Minister who is going to attack us where. In fact the Chinese will defend our Eastern frontier. You mind only Kashmir and Pakistan”. Cariappa walked out of the Prime Minister’s office, very disappointed.

Prime Minister Nehru could brush aside the Army Chief’s advice. But there was a man in his Government whose advice he could not ignore. He was Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Deputy Prime Minister. Unfortunately, he died in December 1950. Had Patel lived a few more years, India might have been spared the ignominy of 1962. A month before his death, on 7 November 1950, he wrote a long letter to Nehru, giving a masterly exposition of the threat that India faced on account of Tibet’s invasion and recommended certain measures to meet it. He said that the attitude of the Chinese Government was unfriendly and its policy expansionist. He further said that the invasion of Tibet would bring the Chinese Army to the gates of India and throw into the melting pot all past frontier settlements with Tibet. He pointed out that the Himalayan passes offered several ingress routes and that the population in most of the border regions bore affinity to the Tibetans – factors which the Chinese would exploit to achieve their ambitions.

The invasion of Tibet, therefore, came as a rude shock to the Indian Government.

In his advice to the Prime Minister, he stressed the following:

  1. Urgent need to formulate a defence strategy.
  2. Appraisal of the strength of the armed forces and, if necessary, reconsideration of the retrenchment plans for the Army.
  3. Long-term co-ordination of defence needs, such as an assured supply of arms, ammunition and equipment.
  4. Improvement of communications in the border regions, including rail, road, air and radio.
  5. Policing of border posts, and building of an intelligence network in the threatened regions.15

According to Mullik (My Years with Nehru – The Chinese Betrayal), Patel’s letter was circulated to the ministries concerned. Later, a small committee was formed to visit NEFA and recommend places near the frontier where the Assam Rifles would be deployed. At the same time, another committee was formed under the chairmanship of Major General Himmatsinghji, Deputy Minister for Defence. It had representatives from the Army,16 the Air Force, the Ministries of Home, External Affairs and Communications and from the Intelligence Bureau. The Government also sanctioned the Indo-Tibet Border Force for manning the checkposts on the frontier less the Norh-East.

The Himmatsinghji Committee submitted its recommendations in two parts: on the Sikkim, Bhutan, NEFA and Burma border in April 1951, and on the Ladakh, Himachal, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh border in September that year. The committee’s recommendations included the reorganization and redeployment of the military forces in the area, some increase in the infantry and supponing arms, the development of certain airfields and the setting up of a radar network on the Eastern frontier. The committee also recommended considerable increase in the Assam Rifles and other armed police units for larger concentrations at vulnerable points, from which effective patrolling could be regularly undertaken. So far as intelligence was concerned, it recommended the abolition of the military intelligence organization in the field and its amalgamation with the Intelligence Bureau, the reorganization of the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureaus at Calcutta and Shillong and the formation of an Intelligence Corps. The Committee also recommended the extension of civil administration into the interior of tribal areas along the borders and the establishment of a cadre of Frontier Service officers.

Never forget that the basic challenge in South-East Asia is between India and China.

The Committee brought to light grave shortcomings in the security of India’s borders and in the administration of regions that lay close to them. According to Mullik, the Cabinet accepted all its recommendations and told the departments concered to implement them. This was where the hitch came.

Many factors affected the implementation: paucity of funds, difficult terrain and the absence of a sense of urgency. The last factor was the main reason for the state of unpreparedness in 1962. This is evident from the fact that the Border Roads Organization was set up only in 1960, nine years after the committee had sent in its recommendations, though the building of roads in the strategic regions should have received top priority. In the early fifties, NEFA and Aksai Chin must have seemed far away to those sitting in New Delhi.

The net result of the labours of the Committee, in so far as the immediate future was concerned, was an increase in the strength of the Assam Rifles, besides the growth in the importance of the Intelligence Bureau. A beginning was also made towards the extension of civil administration in NEFA, but nothing tangible was done for preparing the Army for the­ defence of the border. On the other hand, contrary to Patel’s advice, the retrenchment plan for the Army, formulated earlier, was put through, and about 50,000 men were sent home in 1951. This rundown was to some extent compensated by the integration of the state forces. In 1953, the Indian Army comprised between 325,000 and 350,000 officers and men of all categories, organized into seven divisions (4, 5, 10, 19, 26 and 27 Infantry Divisions, and 1 Armoured Division), two independent brigades (2 Armoured and 50 Para), administrative Headquarters, depots and installations.

Early in January1951, Cariappa received an urgent message from the Assam Government that large bodies of Chinese troops were operating around Rima, a place North of Walong in the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and was asked if the Army could do something to stop any threat to Indian territory.

In the autumn of 1953, there were reports of Chinese activity in the area inhabited by the Tagins, about a day’s march beyond Daporijo, in NEFA. When an Assam Rifles patrol was sent to investigate, some 300 of the tribesmen attacked its camp in the night. They killed 26 of the party, including the officer in command and a civil official who accompanied him. The remaining 72 men of the party were taken away as hostages, together with all the weapons of the patrol. To rescue the hostages, the Assam Rifles were ordered to mount an operation, with Daporijo as base. However, this place had no landing ground at the time and despatch of troops by land would have taken weeks. By then the hostages would, in all probability, have been massacred. A landing ground was, therefore, quickly built at Daporijo by dropping about a company-strength of paratroopers (infantry and engineers) on 4 November. The action against the Tagins was thereafter taken in hand.

Incidents like this and the one at Walong should have spurred the Indian Government to hasten its preparations for a possible showdown with the Chinese. But it was then busy with the negotiations that brought about the 1954 Agreement. According to Mullik, Nehru’s suspicions regarding Chinese intentions were aroused on account of their attitude during these negotiations and within a few months of its signing he ordered that frontier posts should be set up. Obviously, the recommendations of the Himmatsinghji Committee in this regard had not been implemented till then. Things moved slowly during the ‘Lotus Decade’. It is interesting to note that the Indian Government wanted to sign an agreement for 25 years, but the Chinese limited it to eight years.

The Army carried on with its routine existence from day to day on the premise that it had only to worry about defence against Pakistan. To save money for the country’s development, the Army was told to economize on expenditure. All sorts of ways of saving money for the Government were thought up. The Director of one of the services at Army Headquarters went so far as to dismantle and dispose of a factory that manufactured jerricans. He brought about a sizeable saving by issuing petrol and kerosene oil to units in bulk, in 200-litre barrels or from kerbside pumps, instead of jerricans. For this he was publicly praised by the Finance Minister. However, the result of this short-sighted economy was that in the 1962 operations in NEFA, there were no jerricans for dropping supplies of kerosene oil to the troops operating on the snow-clad Himalayan slopes. The Air Force had perforce to drop this commodity in 200-litre barrels and the jawans were expected to carry them up and down mountain slopes to their bunkers.

Such instances could be multiplied ad nauseum. Saving on defence became a fetish in India during this period. The Government went so far as to impose a cut in the men’s rations. The Army was told to make do with what equipment it had and to improvise for what it did not have. In fact improvisation became a routine in the Army. Among the lower echelons, it came to be known facetiously as doing things on Jai Hind basis.

Even the annual manoeuvres were largely run on Jai Hind basis. An officer who served with the prestigious 1 Armoured Division for three years (1956–59) says:

“All our vehicles were of Second World War vintage and had seen hard service. The progress of the Divisional column was marked by broken-down vehicles and by the time you reached your destination one-third of the vehicles had been written off. . . .I remember how a column of 40 bridging vehicles was represented by a single lorry flying a chequered flag. When a bridge was required to be “constructed”, this vehicle was given priority and it used to roar grandly down the road, bypassing all the vehicles on the convoy. What a farce! . . . A minefield was represented by two tapes laid on the ground and we used to carry out a mimicry of clearing mines, which were not there. Sometimes, even this was not done; if it would take eight hours to clear a lane, this time was merely added on paper, and the exercise continued”.17

A glaring example of the myopia among the policy-makers of the time was the move of Headquarters Eastern Command from Ranchi to Lucknow. NEFA was, and still is, a part of this Command’s responsibility. At a time when the threat to this region had become apparent, it would have made sense if this Headquarters had been moved further East, so as to be nearer the possible scene of operations. It was instead moved further West, perhaps because of the availability at Lucknow of better accommodation and other amenities for officers. Nearness to Delhi may have been another consideration.

After Cariappa, the first decade of Independence saw two more Army Chiefs, not counting Thimayya who took over in May 1957. Cariappa was succeeded by General Rajendrasinhji. Scion of a princely family of Kathiawar, he was commissioned after graduation from Sandhurst. While serving with 2 Lancers in the Second World War, he earned praise for his part in the hard-fought action at Meikili against Rommel’s Panzers. His gallantry brought him the first DSO to be won by a Sandhurst-trained Indian. To the high office of C—in—C he brought a princely dignity, sincerity and a sense of fair-play. Quiet by nature, he did not have Cariappa’ s swank or his messianic zeal. His tenure lasted a little less than two years. His successor, Shrinagesh, was an infantry soldier from the Kumaon Regiment.

The parachute action had its effect and the threat of Chinese intrusion into Indian territory was removed for the time being.

It is interesting to note that the first three Chiefs did not have much difference in the matter of age or seniority. In fact, Cariappa was younger than his successor. Both Shrinagesh and Rajendrasinhji received their education in the United Kingdom. Shrinagesh served in Burma during the Second World War though he did not see much action. A good speaker and administrator, he held many gubernatorial posts after retirement from the Army in May 1957.­

All that can be said of the tenure of these two Chiefs is that, like good soldiers, they carried out the policies of the Government of the day. They did all they thought was good for the Army, within the financial limits imposed by the Government. Regimental traditions were preserved; so were officers’ messes, with their sacrosanct customs, except that the health of the Head of State was drunk in plain water instead of port or sherry. The morale of the troops was excellent. Good discipline was insisted upon and maintained. So were good turnout and drill. Hindi words of command were introduced. They sounded as impressive, and produced as good results, as the English commands that many generations of Indian soldiers had become used to.

Behind the facade of peacetime ceremonials and nicely kept messes, however, there was a certain hollowness. Appearances came to mean a good deal more than reality. The official history of the Regiment of Artillery has an interesting incident of this period. Some British officers had come to attend a regimental reunion and were taken round the Artillery establishments in the Nasik-Deolali area. ‘When they looked in at the expensive carpet and curtains in a Commandant’s office, one of them was overheard remarking in an aside – “Very nice, but will it fight?”18

Initiative was discouraged instead of being encouraged. It is normal military practice to study the organization and tactics of other armies and especially those of a possible enemy. During the early fifties, when Nehru heard that a pamphlet on the Chinese Army was being prepared at Army Headquarters, he at once had it stopped.19

While war clouds were gathering for India on her Northern borders, there were other developments that affected her security environment adversely. The growth of communist power in Europe and Asia led the United States and her allies to adopt a strategy of containment. The formation of the (NATO) in 1949 had been the first step in this direction. But this, organization, comprising a combined force from signatory nations, was meant chiefly for the defence of Westren Europe. During the mid-fifties the containment was extended to West Asia and South-East. Two organizations were created for this purpose. Like NATO both were sponsored by the USA. The (SEATO) had as its members Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and the USA. The (CENTO) consisted of Britian, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and the USA. Membership of these organizations gave Pakistan modern weapons and equipment in return for bases on her soil. India too was invited to join these alliance, but refused: such a step would have compromised the policy of non-alignement. With American equipment for Pakistan’s armed forces, the balance of military power on the Indian sub-continent began to change.

The insurgency in the region later became a complex affair, involving not only local politics but also covert foreign aid to the insurgents.

The Indian Government decided at this stage that it was not going to be drawn into an arms race with Pakistan. But to prepare the people for a struggle against external aggression, a citizens’ Army was created. Initially called the National Volunteer Force, it later came to be known as the Lok Sahayak Sena. The Government planned to train 500,000 citizens over a period of five years. Training camps were set up at various places, chiefly in the Punjab and Army instructors were posted to help train the volunteers. Somehow the idea failed to catch the public imagination and the scheme was later abandoned after a good deal of money had been wasted.

It was perhaps American aid that made the Pakistans more aggressive in 1956. They created incidents, may be to test Indian reaction. Early that year their troops occupied Chhad Bet, in the Rann of Kutch and opened fire on an Indian patrol that was sent to investgate. The Indian brigade at Ahmedabad took prompt action and forced the Pakistanis to quit. Their attack at Hussainiwala was more serious.

At this border-post, on the Sutlej River, near Ferozepur, both India and Pakistan had some troops. On the night of 18/19 March, Pakistani troops made a sudden attack on the Indian position, held by 4 Jammu and Kashmir Rifles. The attack was beaten back and the Pakistanis were dislodged from the area they had occupied. During the fighting, Lance Naik Sunder Singh showed great presence of mind and courage of the hightest order in silencing an enemy maching gun. His bravery won him the Ashoka Chakra class 1.20

There were provocative incidents on the East Pakistan border also. Such occurrences only increased the tensions between the two countries. Some attempts had been made after the signing of the Nehru-Liaquat Pact to bring about a rapprochement. But every time the negotiations came to a dead-end on the question of Kashmir. Pakistan wanted the settlement on her own terms.

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Besides the tension with Pakistan and the difficulties with the Chinese, the Indian Government had a revolt on its hands in the Eastern region. The Nagas had been restive for quite some time. By 1954, they were in open revolt. The civil authorities failed to cope with the situation and in 1956 the Army was ordered to deal with it. The insurgency in the region later became a complex affair, involving not only local politics but also covert foreign aid to the insurgents. How the Indian Army tackled the insurgency is the subject of another chapter but the commitment there, as also the build-up in Pakistan, brought a small increase in the strength of the Indian Army.


  1. “The frequent evocation in India of the symbols pertaining to the golden era of Ashoka in the decade following Independence is significant”., P.V.R. Rao in Defence Without Drift, p. 9.
  2. He was Defence Secretary from 1963 to early 1967.
  3. He won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1906.
  4. The Defence of India and South-East Asia, by Lieutenant General P.S.Bhagat,vc, P. 64.
  5. At the outbreak of the Second World War, 50 per cent of the ICS officers were Indian, while in the Army only 10 percent of the officers were Indian, At the time of Independence, many government departments had ICS officers as secretaries, while the highest rank till then attained by any KCIO was that of Brigadier.
  6. The Myth of Independence, by Z.A. Bhutto, p. 80.
  7. The Indo-Pakistani Conflict, by Russell Brines, p. 82.
  8. Now Beijing.
  9. Witness to an Era, by Frank Moraes, pp. 220 & 21.
  10. My Years with Nehru - The Chinese Betrayal by B.N. Mullik, pp. 80–85.
  11. Himalayan Battleground, by Fisher, Rose and Huttenback, p. 83.
  12. These principles were non–interference in each other’s internal affairs; respect for each other’s territory and sovereignty; efforts for each other’s benefit, forswearing of aggression; and adherence to the ideals of co-existence.
  13. India’s Defence Problem, by S.S, Khera. In his book My Years with Nehru - The Chinese Betrayal Mr B.N, Mullik has also made disparaging remarks about the Army’s leadership.
  14. Himalayan Blunder, by Brigadier J.P. Dalvi, pp. 15&16.
  15. Patel’s letter has been published and quoted extensively. In Brigadier Dalvi’s book it appears as an appendix.
  16. Lieutenant General Kalwant Singh was the Army’s representative.
  17. Major General R.M. Rau, avsm (retd) in a letter to the author.
  18. History of the Regiment of ArtiIIery, published by Artillery Directorate, Army Headquarters, p. 179.
  19. India’s Quest for Security, by Kavic, p. 95.
  20. At that time there were three grades of this award: Class I, II and III. Later, the three grades were redesignated as Ashoka Chakra, Kirti Chakra and Shaurya Chakra.
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7 thoughts on “Indian Army: The blunted sword

  1. Sir,
    Our priority is border terrorism .The dual policy of J&K Govt is the cause of this . It is high time that India should take over J&K like other states ,no special status.
    DrRCRout(Ex CaptAMC)

  2. “Panch Shila” is the cause for subjugation for over 1200 years . It means five stones which became mill-stones around the neck of the Nation. These were Budha,Mahavir, Ashok, Gandhi and Nehru. Budha abdicated kingdom on seeing mortality, Ashok left the country on seeing bloodshed in war. Mahavir was sage. Gandhi conducted himself like hermit and called off even agitation against after one solitary incident of violence at Chouri Choura. Nehru was nurtured in luxury and never knew struggle. He romanticized himself as a Fabian socialist, which is crypto-communism. He maintained rabid reds in his inner circle like Krishna Menon, and introduced communism in Indian political template. The perfidy of Krishna Menon in fake purchase of used jeeps during 1947 Kashmir skirmish, had crippled the defensive assault of army. He was rewarded with not only stopping further inquiry, but also with defence ministry. The communists got encouraged under patronizing rulers to show loyalty to aggressors from 1962 onwards. The pro-China communists have captured political landscape as well as education, the JNU is the breeding ground for treason. The left-liberal-secular discourses are only fig leaf for communists and jehadists. These outfits are controlled by same coterie of Stalinists who wear different hats of secularists, human rights activists, civil liberties protoganists, environmentalists, and crusaders of women’s rights etc. These persons form NGOs, non-profit organizations and engage in funding all anti-national activities including but not limited to defaming the ideological cum political opponents for decades. Unless the cancer of communism is excised from the body politic and the society, there would be no salvation for this ancient Nation.

  3. In response to the Major’s piece, I want to express that people don’t see the army personnel as inferior in status to the administrative service. I don’t compare the two services, at all. I never wanted to be a civil servant, but I did want to join the army. How does one compare the two services, at all? They are as different as chalk and cheese. If the civil servant feels he is superior to his military counterpart, I am sure that his military counterpart has a similar sentiment.
    I feel, that the armed forces must refrain from communicating excessively with civilian institutions.
    About the Sino-Indian war, it admittedly looks as if China waged a conflict with India, just because she was sure to win the same. There was no Indo-Chinese enmity, and it seems that China didn’t want India to engage her diplomatically, as the govt. under Pt. Nehru had begun to criticize China in international view. It seems that administrative represents of the Indian govt. were becoming increasingly concerned that China would attack India after Tibet, because China was feeling that India was behind the Tibetan unrest in a major way. The Dalai Lama was given home in India, and he was the leader of the Tibetan people. Perhaps, Pt. Nehru was being advised by his advisers and the advisers didn’t know what was going to happen. When any nation doesn’t want to engage another in military conflict, but engage nonetheless, the nation could use positive diplomatic channels to do so. It seems, that Pt. Nehru’s administration lost faith and confidence in the foreign policy, before the rest of India did.

  4. The comment in the article that Nehru was not one of those leaders who wanted to disbaned Army is Not Correct. In fact he disliked Army to the level of HATE.The first C-in-C of Independent India – was called by Nehru and asked him to draw a plan to disband Army. On being Questioned how he intends keeping existence of India without Army, his reply was, Police.

  5. Jabberlal Neckscrew, which expression includes his heirs, successors and assigns and all their cronies, Amedkar and Patel downwards was an unmitigated disaster for India’s national security, sovereignty and integrity. As for Ashoka, he violated the Treaty of Bharatha (that had held sway from some 12,000 years ago) that had replaced the Rajasooya with the Consensual Ashwamedha Yajna to massacre his brothers and his fellow treaty adherents (like the US waging war, by surprise, on NATO) and re established the Raja Sooya. He was declared an out caste (open prison) by the Supreme Council of Kashi and so became a Budhist and then destroyed all the Dravido Aryan Temples (his Saranath is the oldest structure in his erstwhile empire) and Gurukulas and drove Brahmanism under ground thus eradicating caste mobility and the possible re integration of out castes at any subsequent Ashwamedha Yajna. He constructed “time capsules” in the form of edicts that replaced truth with a History of convenience. He replaced the Swasthika of the Constitution of Aryavartha with his Chakra (pre Ashokan Budhist and Jaina temples still carry the Brahmin Rik Vedic Swasthika of Aryavartha rather than the the Chakra of Ashoka in places as far away as Tibet and Japan e.g. Nara, Kamakura, Asakusa etc). India never recovered from his dismantling of the military might of the the Aryas under the treaty of Bharatha. It was Adi Shanakara whose ancestors had fled to the deep South to escape Ashoka’s brtal persecution who revived Sanskrit, Brahma Suthras, Vedas and so on, but India’s military back had been broken by Ashoka, and the subsequent Islamic invasions found an Indo Aryan plain divided among jealous, greedy, warring princelings who fell easily to the brutal onslaught. Nehru’s role model? Indeed! There could be none better.

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