Refusing To Learn Lessons Of 1962
In the closing days of 1961, the armed forces of the Republic of India launched Operation Vijay (“Victory”), which in 38 hours eliminated the Portuguese presence from Goa. Portugal’s crusty dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, had refused several requests from Delhi that he emulate the example of France and the UK, both of which bid adieu to their colonies in India with dignity. As the small Portuguese garrison had no air force, and only an outdated sloop as its navy, it was a simple matter for the Indian Army, navy and air force to defeat the forces mustered by Governor Vassalo e Silva, who had been ordered to hold out for as many days as possible, so that Salazar could bring to bear international pressure on India to withdraw.
The US, since the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, favoured Europe even in the matter of colonies (for example, seeking to preserve French privileges in Vietnam). Hence, there were angry noises even from the Kennedy administration about the effrontery of an Asian country resorting to force against a European. The Europeans were, of course, completely on the side of Salazar, saying that India ought to have continued to accept Portuguese rule in Goa, despite an overwhelming majority of citizens there wanting to be free.
Less than a year after their triumph over a force that was best described (in media at the time) as Lilliputian, the military was faced with a much deadlier foe, the People’s Liberation Army. After two attempts to get Jawaharlal Nehru to accept the status quo as the international boundary failed in 1961, and the tensions created by the Red Carpet welcome given to the Dalai Lama and his followers since 1959, Mao Zedong decided to accept the advice of Defence Minister Lin Biao to “teach the Indians a lesson”. In October 1962, waves of PLA soldiers overwhelmed one under-manned and ill-equipped Indian Army position after the other, and began sweeping down towards the plains of Assam.
Sadly, while the Goa operation had been left to the military to handle, the Chinese move was handled directly by Prime Minister Nehru, who had earlier appointed a close relation, Lt-Gen BM Kaul, as the Corps Commander in the east, with orders to “throw out the Chinese”. Despite his impressive lineage, the general was clueless when it came to warfare, being concerned mainly with logistics and supply during his none-too-distinguished career.
General Kaul and “Commander-in-Chief” Nehru launched one disastrous move after the other, all of which ended in a comprehensive defeat that is even today a stain on the military. For obvious reasons, the failure of the Higher Command in 1962, was documented by Lt-Gen Henderson-Brooks and Lt-Gen PS Bhagat soon afterwards. Unlike the Goa—or earlier—operations, where different wings of the military were involved, the conflict between the PLA and the Indian Army was conducted on both sides only through use of the Army. The Indian Air Force was not used at all to push back the PLA, despite the fact that at that point in time, the PLA had only a few obsolete MiG-15s and an even smaller number of MiG-19s in operation in the sector.
These would have been no match for the Hunters and Mysteres of the Indian Air Force, which could have been used against Chinese troops coming into the plains through the narrow mountain passes. Although more junior IAF officers wanted to do battle with the PLA, their seniors went along with Nehru’s view that “We could not risk the bombing of Calcutta in retaliation” for Indian use of the Air Force. Such a fear was baseless, as the PLA (at that point in time) did not have bombers capable of reaching Calcutta from the much fewer bases that were then present in those parts of China that fronted India.
If in the 1947-48 war with Pakistan Nehru relied on a foreign advisor (Lord Louis Mountbatten), this time the “military expert” consulted by him was US Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, whose only knowledge of the military came from war movies. The sage Glabraith warned Nehru that there would be “remorseless bombing” by the Chinese on Indian cities, if he dared unleash the IAF on the PLA. A jittery Nehru thereupon instigated the notorious command to “blow up all civil aircraft” in the eastern sector and “fly out all serviceable (military) aircraft”. The IAF was made to exit the battlefield without undertaking a single sortie, despite its superiority over the PLA air arm active in the conflict. Had the IAF been used, the PLA would not have been able to enter Tawang and other regions, thereby humiliating the Indian armed forces, and in particular the 4 Division. As Brigadier J P Dalvi wrote, it was a “Himalayan blunder” by Nehru, for which he placed the blame on Defence Minister Vengalil Kumaran Krishna Menon, who had to quit.
It was Nehru who was responsible for refusing to allow professional military expertise into the functioning of the Union Ministry of Defence, which is staffed purely by civil servants with no knowledge of the requirements of an armed force. Even fifty years ago, war needed the seamless working together of the Army, Navy and the Air Force, something that the present bureaucratically-created walls between the two services make difficult. The 21st century mandates an armed force very different from that of the early part of the previous century.
In view of India’s location and coastline, the Navy needs to be the pre-eminent force, exactly as was the case with the UK in the past and is the case with the US now. However, this is a capital-intensive arm, and the only way that it could ever get the number of ships needed to fulfil its continental tasks would be if the US were to hand over about forty vessels to the Indian Navy, including at least two aircraft carriers. Such a move will need to await regimes in Washington and Delhi that better recognise the need for the US to play with India the same role as it did with the UK during 1939, of giving the tools needed to “finish the job”. However, at present, such cooperation is a long way off. Years ago, when a group of strategists from both sides called for the USS Kitty Hawk to be handed over to India, the lobby in Delhi that wanted the huge benefits that came to them through purchase of the carrier “Admiral Gorshkov” from Russia combined with India-phobic elements in the Pentagon to veto the move.
Unfortunately for India, neither the career civil servants nor the politicians who run the Defence Ministry, have any strategic vision. Their attention span is only from deal to deal, of which there have been several. More than $40 billion has been committed by India in recent times towards defence purchases, while local production continues to be the monopoly of the state sector, which is known for inefficiency. The Defence Research & Development Organisation has turned into a place where scientists and others hibernate, with projects taking tens of years to get completed. By the time they finally get completed, they are out of date.
In 1962, India was far ahead of China both in technology and economically. However, poor management from the Indian side has resulted in Beijing now being far in advance of Delhi in almost every particular. Unlike the Indian side, which is content to buy technology and materiel from foreign providers without allowing the Indian private sector to compete, in China every foreign collaboration has been finalised with an eye to self-reliance. As a result, the items being produced in China are in many respects equal to that being turned out in the US and Europe, including stealth fighters and nuclear submarines.
In India, the state-run defence production establishment functions as an assembler of items procured from abroad, and which may be stopped at any time. The importance of the defence establishment to the political class may be gleaned by the fact that the Sonia-led UPA has appointed a former Defence Secretary as the Central Vigilance Commissioner, despite the fact that the ministry is a cesspool of graft. The new CVC can be expected to look after the interests of his patrons as diligently as he did in his previous assignment.
Only in the Nehru system of administration do administrators monopolise the entire machinery that has been set up to identify corruption in their ranks. In each public enterprise, the anti-corruption department reports to the top management, which in almost all cases is itself mired in graft. Corrupt officials and politicians find it convenient to have only one of their kind holding all sensitive posts, as both have come together for their common benefit. If in the process, national interests suffer, so what?
By MD Nalapat