Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Short History of the 1962 War and its Lessons

Cross posted on Tarikh Par Tarikh

On Tuesday, Nevile Maxwell, a former journalist with The Times, posted in Delhi, published sections of the Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report on his personal website. The report was an investigation into the 1962 military debacle and is still classified as ‘Top Secret’ by the Government of India. Maxwell wrote that he was publishing the report on his website after efforts to release it to the Indian press had failed with editors backing out. “So my dilemma continued,” he wrote. “Although with the albatross hung, so to speak, on Indian necks as well as my own. As I see it now I have no option but, rather than leave the dilemma to my heirs, to put the Report on the internet myself.”

The release of the document, by itself, is no great addition to our understanding of 1962. Maxwell has had the report with him for many decades and uses it as one of the principal sources for his book, India’s China War. His account, already widely disseminated, would now be open to be scrutinised alongside its principal primary source thus adding more weight to his narrative. Till now, the report being classified, we had to take Maxwell’s word for it.

Nevertheless, the release of the report does raise some important points.

The first thing it does is lay bare the almost autocratic way in which the government in our country functions. The lifeblood of any democracy is information, on the basis of which the electorate can make decisions. This level of secrecy—the Henderson Report has been under wraps for more than 5 decades now—is odd for a country that calls itself a democracy. Most Western countries, even organisations such as the CIA, declassify documents after more than 30 years. This is just one example of the paternalism which the Indian state has inherited seamlessly from the Raj. Our government still has a tendency to rule rather than govern which is why it can so easily keep this report away from the prying eyes of its own citizens. With regard to 1962, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that communist China has been more open than democratic India.

The other thing this hullabaloo does is bring 1962 back into the spotlight. The renewed interest in India’s greatest military debacle would help shape India’s response to further conflicts, hopefully in the correct manner. Till now, with very little information available (and Maxwell’s views under heavy criticism), the debate around 1962 has been severely hampered. One half of the efforts have been spent in proving Nehru’s contention that China “stabbed us in the back”—the official Indian view of the war. The other half, critical of Nehru, have blamed his appeasement of China for the defeat. Surprisingly, even this half unquestioningly accepts Nehru’s version of Chinese perfidy, only berating Panditji for letting down his guard.  As luck would have it, both stances are largely incorrect.

In 1947, as India emerged as a free country, it saw that its borders with its largest neighbour, China, had been left largely undefined by the British. In the eastern sector (now Arunachal Pradesh), the border was demarcated by the McMahon Line, an agreement formalised between British and Tibetan representatives at the Simla Conference of 1914. The Chinese do not formally recognise this line. They argue that the Tibetans were not sovereign in 1914 and hence did not have the authority to decide a border. In the western sector, things were even fuzzier. As late as 1950, India itself had produced maps marking the border in this sector as “undefined”.

Initially, this ambiguous border wasn’t an issue. China emerged from World War II a broken country torn apart by civil war. The power equation between the two countries can be judged from the fact that for the Bandung Conference, Nehru sent over an Air-India aeroplane to fly Zhou Enlai (China’s first premier) to Jakarta. This unusual aircraft lending was done because at the time, strife-torn China did not even have an airline.

However, in 1950, China invaded Tibet, bringing itself to India’s doorstep and very soon built itself up as a stable power. Around the same time as India and China committed themselves to the lofty (but, as time would tell, hollow) principles of Panchsheel, friction emerged between the two countries with regard to the border. Matters were more or less settled on the eastern sector. Even though China did not formally accept the McMohan line (and still does not), the area had been under Indian control for some time and Zhou Enlai had stated that “now that it is an accomplished fact, we should accept it”. In the western sector though, India, curiously, used a shaky treaty from 1842 to unilaterally claim a fixed boundary (the Kashmir-China boundary shown in Indian maps today). This is an area that the British has never really had any jurisdiction over, neither de facto nor de jure. China, on the other hand, claimed it had controlled the area for over two centuries and, most importantly, it had certainly been under Chinese control since 1950, ever since it invaded Tibet. When India first drew a definite border for Aksai Chin (articulated in Nehru’s letter to Zhou in 1959) China was already in control of Aksai China for almost a decade (roughly mapping to its present area of control).

This maximalist claim by India, the weaker side, might strike one as odd but starts to make more sense when taken to be a bargaining counter. India wanted China to formally accept its claims in the east in return for which it would accept China’s claims to Aksai Chin. This claim was therefore never meant to be an actual military posture—just a diplomatic bluff. The logic of democracy married with jingoism, though, put paid to Nehru’s strategy. Once the border in the west had been demarcated and put on a map, it took a life of its own. Public opinion staunchly opposed the idea of a barter, or even the ceding of an inch of Indian land—which now included Aksai Chin, a region which had never been in India’s control but was now a part of the country by the occult powers of cartography. Nehru himself acknowledged this pressure lamenting that “if I give them that I shall no longer be Prime Minister of India”. President Radhakrishnan also warned that the maps could not be changed “if only because public opinion will not tolerate this”.

The end result was that when Zhou Enlai flew to India in January 1960 (this time, presumably, in his own aircraft) he was ready to negotiate the border but Nehru was in no position to cede land from areas that had already been demarcated by his government as India’s. To further press home the public opposition to any ‘concessions’ to China, Zhou’s visit was marked by protests and demonstrations including a massive dharnaa staged by the Jan Sangh outside Nehru’s residence (it is therefore, ironic, that today the BJP criticises Nehru for 1962—a mistake he committed partially by giving in to pressure from the Hindutva wing). The east-west ‘barter’ first thought up to solve the problem—the ‘logical solution’ as per Neville Maxwell—was a nonstarter. India would not, could not, shift from its claims either in the east or the west.

In spite of these reverses, it still did not mean conflict was inevitable. In fact, the situation in 1960 is also the situation today—India holds the McMohan line and China holds Aksai Chin.

What eventually lead to war was something known as Nehru’s Forward Policy.

In November 1961, the Government, under massive public pressure, issued instructions to the Army to set up posts all along India’s claim lines and "especially in such places as might be disputed". This bizarre strategy, known as the Forward Policy was based on completely misplaced intelligence from the IB that the Chinese were unlikely to use military force against India even if they were in a position to do so. NB Mullick, part of Nehru’s coterie, supplied this fantastic assessment. At Army HQ, Nehru’s other two acolytes, Lt General BM Kaul and Army Commander, Thapar accepted this order rather than, as should have been done, protest it from a military point of view.  Valid and urgent objections from the Western Command (in-charge of operations in Aksai Chin) stating that it severely lacked forces to carry out the task (much less face the Chinese should they retaliate) were summarily overruled by Army HQ.

Matters reached a head in June 1962 as India established a post in the eastern sector at Dhola, which lay around 1.5 kms north of the McMohan line. As explained by Brigadier John Dalvi in his seminal war memorial, Himalayan Blunder, “the Thagla-Dhola area was not strictly territory that we should have been convinced was ours as directed by the Prime Minister, Mr Nehru, and someone is guilty of exceeding the limits prescribed by him.”

By September, China had attacked and taken over the post. Political compulsions now forced the government to act and attempt to evict the Chinese from Dhola—a move not short of suicide given the strength of the Chinese, the climate and the harsh geography of the area. When the army resisted this move, the government promptly replaced the intransigent General Umrao Singh (XXXIII Corps) with General Kaul, sweeping aside all opposition to its plans. The Indian force that was eventually sent to evict the Chinese from Dhola was heavily attacked by some 800 Chinese troops supported by heavy mortars. For the first time, the fiction the IB had spun, that the Chinese would not retaliate with force, came crumbling down. General Kaul’s first shocked reaction to the Chinese action is said to have been “Oh my God! You are right, they mean business.”

By 20 October, the Chinese had launched major offensives in the west as well as the east, citing “self-defence” against India’s aggression; ironic because India’s Army was in no possession to defend itself much less be aggressive. The false bravado of the Forward Policy had collapsed.

Within a month, the Chinese had swept through the west and east and, having achieved their war aims, declared a unilateral ceasefire. They withdrew to the Line of Actual Control as it existed in 1959 (and still more-or-less exists today), which maintained the McMohan line in the east but also firmly kept Aksai Chin with them. As might be noted, this is a compromise that, at one time, the Chinese were willing to do at the negotiating table. India’s Forward Policy had achieved nothing other than a humiliating defeat for its army. While 1962 laid bare the army top brass and political leadership, it must be pointed out that most Indian Army units showed exceptional courage in the face of almost impossible odds, fighting a far-more well equipped enemy as well as their own bumbling leadership.

India has a lot of lessons to learn from this debacle. One is the double-edged sword that media attention is in a democracy. Media and public pressure plays a remarkably important role most of the time but in 1962 it also forced Nehru’s hand, compelling him to take unsound decisions such as the Forward Policy. This lesson is as valid today as it was in ’62, maybe even more so given how much more stronger the media is as compared to 5 decades back. The 2013 Daulat Beg Oldi incident is a case in point. Defence minister AK Antony protested the media reaction, insinuating that television news media overplayed the face-off by showing old footage of Chinese “incursions” on what is still an undemarcated boundary—a situation similar to 1962.

It also calls for a reappraisal of Nehru—something both his supporters as well as critics need to do. In 1962, Nehru’s position of being “stabbed in the back” was clearly a bit misleading. During the war, he flatly contradicted a lot of the qualities he is admired for: Third World solidarity, non-alignment (Nehru appealed fervently for US support in 1962 and was turned down) and democracy (removed all opposition to his 1962 policies, staffing every level with ‘yes men’). His critics, mainly from the Right, also seem to have gotten the wrong end of the stick. For example, in his book Are We Deceiving Ourselves Again? Lessons the Chinese Taught Pandit Nehru But Which We Still Refuse to Learn,  Arun Shourie paints Nehru as a Sinophile, a Kumbaya-singing peacenik who was fooled by the wily Chinese, thus, ironically, buying into the Government’s excuse of being “stabbed in the back”. Of course, as we see, Nehru was hardly fooled by his own rhetoric of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai. Nehru understood realpolitik very well, thank you, and could, be aggressive (in this case, over-aggressive) as and when needed.

But of course, given our ostrich-like attitude towards history—will the Henderson Report ever be declassified?—it remains to be seen how much we learn from this incident.

First published on NewsYaps

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