Every Indian citizen believes that the 1962 attack on our Himalayan frontier by China was an act of betrayal. Nehru’s Congress government’s effort at playing the duplicitous propaganda game was shameful, even though successful. It convinced the public that the Chinese, with a sudden ‘unprovoked aggression,’ had caught India unawares in a sort of Himalayan Pearl Harbor.
For the full story of the Hindi-China Bhai Bhai saga, one has to delve into Chinese Premier Zhou’s visit to India in 1960. Zhou arrived on April 17 on a two-day visit, he held seven one-to-one exchanges with Nehru, with only interpreters present. He put forth six points which he hoped would be endorsed by both the Prime Ministers. At the meeting, Nehru raised no objection as they seemed innocuous and unobjectionable. The first principle read: “There exists a dispute with regard to the boundary between the two sides.” Our maps of the early 1950s were imprecise; Nehru’s early statements about Aksai Chin, that “not a blade of grass grows there”, pointed to this. In the East, the McMahon line was always our bottom line.
Over 2000 officers and soldiers had died and hundreds had been taken prisoners, when the Chinese simultaneously attacked Indian positions in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh in October 20, 1962. In the aftermath, the Government of India in 1963 appointed Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier Prem Bhagat to prepare a report on the reasons for the defeat of the Indian Army. The report was duly submitted to the Ministry six months later. Till now, it was known that only two copies of the report existed: one copy in the office of the defence secretary on the first floor of South Block; the other in a vault within the Directorate General of Military Operations (DGMO) on the same floor. However, it seems, that Brooks had made a third copy which he carried with himself when he immigrated to Australia after his retirement. The recent disclosure of the report seems to be from this copy.
Lt General Prem Bhagat passed away in 1975 and Lt General Henderson Brooks in June 1999 in Australia. All the main protagonists they named in the report are dead. The Indian government has held up the declassification of one of India’s most classified documents, the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report. Officials who have read the complete report say that it is a frank and straight report which squarely indicts senior Army generals for India’s worst-ever military defeat.
Lieutenant General Brooks states in his preface that he has specifically been directed not to look at the political events in the run up to the war. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is not mentioned but his appointee, Defence Minister V Krishna Menon is implicated in the report. Veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar had said that he had insisted the NDA government release the report during his six-year stint as a Rajya Sabha MP. The refusals from the government were firm and consistent. Then Defence Minister George Fernandes said it was “not in the public interest” to reveal the document.
In 2005, Nayar tried to get the report under the RTI Act. Sometime in 2006, the then Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, whose father had served as a General in the Army, visited South Block on a quiet Sunday and read one of the two copies of the report. The CIC would decide, after reading the report, whether it could be put out in the public domain. Habibullah later told a friend that he was extremely disturbed by the contents.
The report said the most significant reason of India’s defeat is that the political leadership of that time failed India. It was not Chinese betrayal, but the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon’s arrogant belief that they would solve the crisis through diplomacy and that China would not dare attack India despite the latter’s ‘Forward Policy’.
The declassification of the Henderson-Brooks report will help the country to understand the blunders committed by the political, military and diplomatic leadership of the day. Is it not high time we rethought our total clampdown on India’s China records? Why should the bulk of official papers of the Nehru and Indira Gandhi eras be treated as private documents? When regimes in Beijing and Moscow opened their historical records, must democratic India fear its own past? It is not just the Henderson-Brooks report. The MoD has also been sitting on the Himmat Singhji Committee report that was submitted in 1951. The report chaired by Major General MS Himmat Singhji, deputy defence minister, was set up by the Union government. It recommended strengthening India’s border defences with Tibet following the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
On the 50th anniversary of the India-China war, the BJP had demanded that the Henderson Brooks report be made public and a National War Memorial be set up in memory of the martyred soldiers. The UPA government is following the “same elusive and self-destructive course” that was adopted by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Let us hope the BJP, once it comes to power, will reveal the skeletons that have been rumbling in the corridors for years.