Henderson Brooks Report An Open Secret
Australian journalist Neville Maxwell posted in his blog on March 17 the classified Henderson Brooks 1962 war report, which has been kept secret by the Government of India all these years. What he did was to release a 126-page section of the first volume of the report, which includes an operational review of India’s failure in the war with China in 1962. Predictably, the Indian government has reacted. Though it is not being admitted officially, it is widely shared that because of the government’s intervention, no one in India can now have an access to Maxwell’s blog. I am told that Maxwell’s website is also inaccessible in Britain. But then in this age of information-revolution, no government, howsoever powerful it may be, can suppress information. Alert scholars and media men downloaded the leaked report from other websites that had already downloaded it from Maxwell’s blog before it became inaccessible. And that is how we have been able to print in the following pages the excerpts of this report.
It may be noted here that the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report, also referred to as the Henderson Brooks report, is the report of an analysis (Operations Review) of the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Its authors were officers of the Indian armed forces— Lieutenant-General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier P S Bhagat. They were asked by the then Defence Minister Y B Chavan through the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) J N Chaudhury to prepare a report on what went wrong in 1962. Their report was presented by the COAS to Chavan in July 2, 1963. It contained a great deal of information of an operational nature, formations and deployment of the Indian Army. What Maxwell has released is a section that includes four chapters, but not the still secret second volume, which highlights sensitive correspondence on decision-making in the lead up to the war. The chapters, according to him, show that there were many assessments from commanders on the ground to Delhi, which, if considered by the Nehru government, would have led to a revision of “the Forward Policy” and averted the debacle.
Maxwell, who authored the highly controversial book, India’s China War, based on the report, has explained his decision to release the report, saying he believed he was “complicit in a continuing cover-up” by keeping the report to himself. In his words, “The report continues to be classified by the Indian government, as of August 2013. In April 2010, India’s Defence Minister AK Antony told Parliament that the report could not be declassified because its contents” are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value.
“Those who gave me access to the Henderson Brooks Report when I was researching my study of the Sino-Indian border dispute laid down no conditions as to how I should use it. That they would remain anonymous went without saying, an implicit condition I will always observe, otherwise how the material was used was left to my judgment. I decided that while I would quote freely from the Report, thus revealing that I had had access to it (and indeed had a copy), I would neither proclaim nor deny that fact; and my assumption was that the gist of the Report having been published in 1970 in the detailed account of the Army’s debacle given in my India’s China War, the Indian government would release it after a decent interval.
“The passing of years showed that assumption to have been mistaken and left me in a quandary. I did not have to rely on memory to tell the falsity of the government’s assertion that keeping the Report secret was necessary for reasons of national security, I had taken a copy and the text nowhere touches on issues that could have current strategic or tactical relevance. The reasons for the long-term withholding of the Report must be political, indeed probably partisan, perhaps even familial. While I kept the Report to myself I was therefore complicit in a continuing cover-up.
“My first attempt to put the Report itself on the public record was indirect and low-key: after I retired from the University I donated my copy to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, where, I thought, it could be studied in a setting of scholarly calm. The Library initially welcomed it as a valuable contribution in that ‘grey area’ between actions and printed books, in which I had given them material previously. But after some months the librarian to whom I had entrusted it warned me that, under a new regulation, before the Report was put on to the shelves and opened to the public it would have to be cleared by the British government with the government which might be adversely interested! Shocked by that admission of a secret process of censorship to which the Bodleian had supinely acceded I protested to the head Librarian, then an American, but received no response. Fortunately I was able to retrieve my donation before the Indian High Commission in London was alerted in the Bodleian’s procedures and was perhaps given the Report.
“In 1962, noting that all attempts in India to make the government release the Report had failed, I decided on a more direct approach and made the text available to the editors of three of India’s leading publications, asking that they observe the usual journalistic practice of keeping their source to themselves. (I thought that would be clear enough to those who had long studied the border dispute and saw no need to depart from my long-standing ‘no comment’ position) To my surprise the editors concerned decided, unanimously, not to publish. They explained that, while ‘there is no question that the report should be made public’, if it were leaked rather than released officially the result would be a hubbub over national security, with most attention focused on the leak itself, and little or no productive analysis of the text. The opposition parties would savage the government for laxity in allowing the Report to get out, the government would turn in rage upon those who had published it.
“Although surprised by this reaction, unusual in the age of Wikileaks, I could not argue with their reasoning. Later I gave the text to a fourth editor and offered it to a fifth, with the same nil result. So my dilemma continued – 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. So here is the text (there are two lacunae, accidental in the copying process).”
It may be noted here that Maxwell, who as a journalist was based in India at the time of the 1962 war, did not display in his book the impartiality required of a scholar. His was a biased account, admiring China and blaming India for the war, something that has been challenged by many scholars. Be that as it may, coming back to the Henderson Brooks report, most of its important conclusions have been an open secret for years. Thus it is very surprising why the Government of India continues to keep it classified. Is it because of our blind reverence to Jawaharlal Nehru? Claude Arpi, a great scholar on China and a frequent contributor to this journal, thinks so. Warfare has witnessed many a revolution between 1962 and now. So to argue that the report cannot be released officially because of what the Indian government says “the contents are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value,” is not convincing at all. On the other hand, the release of the report after 25 to 30 years, as is the practice in many democratic countries to declassify secret official records , could have led to a healthy debate, igniting open and honest scholarly interactions over what led to the border dispute and war and what lessons should be learnt to avoid future wars.
In any case, even some official volumes on the 1962 War, brought out by the “History Division” of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), such as Dr. P B Sinha and Col. A Athale authored and SN Prasad edited History of the Conflict with China, 1962, have pointed out how the debacle was due to the absence of instituionalised support for decision-making at the national level. “Well established and well-respected agencies providing politico-military linkages were not just there. It was personality oriented decision-making in the vital areas of national security. That is how Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister and B N Mullik, the Intelligence Bureau Chief, acquired near total control over the national defence policy, and even the disposition of troops in forward areas”, wrote SN Prasad.
One of the principal reasons for the 1962 debacle was the fact that before 1959, none in the then ruling establishment found any fault with the Communist China, mesmerised as they were by the philosophy of Communism and Mao’s brand of Communist practices. In the Communist style, Krishna Menon wanted a committed, or at least pliant, band of army officers in important positions to carry out the ideas of the political establishment. That explained why there was 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 industrialisation 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.
Similarly, 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: “In the years 1959-1960, Lt General SP 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 is worse was that Menon to a greater extent and Nehru to a lesser degree politicised the then Army hierarchy. The then Army Chief, General PN 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 BM 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.
Viewed thus, the content in the leaked report by Maxwell has not surprised me. All the more reason why the report should be declassified officially as it has become an open secret. The report in no way will affect our border negotiations with China; nor will it make us demoralised. On the contrary, it will help us better in preparing against any untoward eventuality.
By Prakash Nanda