China invaded India in 1962. Though there is a view that the exact date of invasion was October 10, the most acceptable one is October 20, 1962. The war ended on November 19, 1962, following the unilateral Chinese withdrawal. The one-month long war saw India’s humiliation and territorial gains by China. Over the last 50 years, the Chinese have consolidated these gains. In this week’s cover story we have highlighted how a Lt. Colonel in the Indian Army, who later rose to become a Major General, fought the war and was captured by the Chinese as a prisoner of war (POW). I think it is always important to remember past wars if a nation wants to avoid wars in future.
In 1962, China was not a great military power as it is today. But it still went for a war against India because of three principal reasons. First, there was that tremendous sense of Chinese insecurity in Tibet, particularly after the Dalai Lama crossed over to India and established the government-in-exile to internationalise the issue of China’s illegal occupation of his land and be a rallying force for Tibetans’ resistance against Beijing’s rule inside Tibet. Obviously, China saw (and it continues to see) India as a troublesome factor behind the Tibetan unrest.
Secondly, the war against India was a diversionary strategy on the part of the then Chinese supremo Mao Zedong, whose politico-economic policy of “The Great Leap Forward” was proving to be a disaster for the Chinese people, thus strengthening his opponents in the Chinese Communists Party such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Wars, after all, unite the countrymen like nothing else and if the country comes out victorious, then it strengthens the position of the leader like never before.
Thirdly, despite China being a communist country, Mao (and all his successors so far) never gave up the country’s past culture in which the concept of “Middle Kingdom” (that China is the centre of global civilisation and all the nations must acknowledge its political and cultural supremacy by paying tributes) is deeply ingrained. That means China will not allow any other nation, at least in Asia, to be as important as it is. Obviously, Mao did not like the global attention and importance that India’s then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was drawing at that time. In fact, in a recent Global Times (the publication of the Chinese Communist party) article, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has written, “Mao wanted to wake him (Nehru) up from the superpowers’ influence by giving him a heavy punch, so that he would come to his senses and end the war. War is an extreme means of communication between civilizations” and that “Liu Shaoqi is reported to have told Colombo conference representatives in January 1963 that the Chinese had to show the Indians that China was a great power and, for this reason, had to ‘punish’ India once”.
What about India’s defeat? In my humble opinion, there were four main reasons. First and foremost was the fact that there was at that time a sense of great ideological arrogance on the part of the Indian leadership, which was highly idealistic, devoid of any sense of ground realities. If Mao believed in the concept of Middle Kingdom, Nehru thought of a world where the militaries should be disbanded. On the other hand, his Defence Minister Krishna Menon and the dominant faction within the undivided Communist party, the then principal opposition party, were so mesmerised by the philosophy of Communism and Mao’s brand of Communist practices that they could never find any wrong with China, even after 1959 when the Chinese asserted their territorial claim and had a series of systematic and planned incursions into the Indian territory. In fact, they supported the Chinese claims in more senses than one.
Of course, by 1959 Nehru had realised that his past trust of China was a blunder and decided to strengthen the controversial ‘Forward Policy’, which called for establishing posts in the disputed areas often behind Chinese forward posts and had been continuing since 1954 despite repeated protests by the Chinese Government. Nehru was supremely confident that his policy of nonalignment would prove very effective in getting support from both the United States and the then Soviet Union, thus deterring China from planning any major attack on India. But, as subsequent events proved, Nehru’s was a too utopian worldview.
Secondly, there was a monumental failure of Indian intelligence in assessing that China was planning a major attack on the country. According to the 1992
Ministry of Defence’s Official History, Military Intelligence’s assessment in 1959 was that a “major incursion” by the Chinese was unlikely, given the fact that at that time India’s pace of industrialization was much better than that of China and that Chinese military was not capable enough “to sustain any major drive across the ‘great land barrier”. The assumption of Chinese in-action in event of crisis was also firmly supported by the then Intelligence Bureau Director BN Mullick, who, many argue, was totally incompetent for the job, which he got for his proximity to Krishna Menon. In fact, the IB totally identified itself with the view emanating from the South Block bureaucracy (Ministries of Defence and External Affairs) that a limited and high intensity war with China was “structurally impossible” in a nuclearised bipolar system; because any misadventure by China would lead to global nuclear escalation, a spectre that would deter a conflict on the Himalayan border.
Thirdly, as Defence Minister Krishna Menon repeatedly ignored the pleas of the Army for funds so as to improve the manpower and weapon systems. For instance, the aforesaid official version behind the 1962 debacle states that: “In the years 1959-1960, Lt General S P Thorat, GOC-in-C Eastern Command, had made an appreciation about the magnitude of Chinese threat to Indian borders in the Eastern Sector and had made projections about his requirements to meet that threat. But the Army HQ as well as the Defence Minister paid little heed to Gen Thorat’s appreciation. It was not even brought to the notice of the Prime Minister.” It has been argued by experts that in 1962, “the Indian Army of 280,000 was short by 60,000 files, 700 anti-tank guns, 5,000 radio field sets, thousands of miles of field cable, 36,000 wireless batteries, 10,000 one-ton trucks and 10,000 three-ton trucks! Two regiments of tanks were not operational due to lack of spares. Indian troops were using .303 rifles which had seen action even before World War I (not II). In contrast, Chinese troops were equipped with machine guns/ heavy mortars/ automatic rifles”.
What was worse that Menon to a greater extent and Nehru to a lesser degree politicised the then Army hierarchy. The then Army Chief, General P N Thapar was a great acolyte of Menon and simply rejected every request for better arms and strategies coming from below. Officers with sound military advice were replaced with those who were submissive and carry out the orders. For instance, the command of the newly formed IV Corps was given to Lieutenant General B M Kaul, who had never commanded an active fighting outfit! His military strategies were highly flawed. So much so that the official history blamed Kaul for frequently ignoring the chain of command. The report accused him of directly approaching the Chief of Army Staff, bypassing the GOC-in-C and also giving orders directly to junior officers, bypassing a chain of middle officers. In fact, the politicisation of the Army was a key factor behind the 1962 debacle.
Fourthly, another important factor, which many analysts and defence experts believe could have altered the outcome of war, was India’s decision of not using the air force. The Indian Air Force (IAF) was not used for any offensive action and was only confined to air dropping supplies to the troops. In fact, none other than our present chief of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne , said on October 5 that the outcome of the 1962 war with China would have been different had the Air Force been used in an offensive role. Lamenting that IAF was confined only to providing transport support to the Army, Browne said “these are open and glaring lessons we should have imbibed”.
Former Air Vice-Marshal A K Tewary, in an article in Indian Defence Review, has said that “in the final analysis, the use of combat air power would have turned the tables on the Chinese and the 1962 war could well have been a debacle for China”. He has blamed the then IB Director B N Mullick for an exaggerated assessment of attack by Chinese bombers on Indian cities if India had used the air force.
Viewed thus, the best lesson that we can learn from our 1962 debacle is that India must never lower its guard and must deploy sufficient military and logistics capabilities to respond to any surprise from the Chinese side. This is particularly so when China is rapidly upgrading its own capabilities and logistics in Tibet. But then war preparedness can never remain static in this age of fast-changing technologies. It is a constant process, which we can ignore only at our peril. And for determining this process, we must give our military the necessary freedom, something that was denied in 1962, leading to disaster.
By Prakash Nanda