The suppression of the Brooks-Bhagat report on the war with China is a betrayal of Nehru’s promise to the nation
The Government of India’s statement in Parliament on May 10, that the Report of the Operations Review Committee on the 1962 War with China, by Lt.Gen. T.B. Henderson Brooks and Brigadier P.S. Bhagat, V.C., will not be published follows an Order of March 19, 2009 by a Bench of the Central Information Commission comprising the Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, and the Information Commissioner, M.L. Sharma on Kuldip Nayar’s application for a copy of the Report.
The Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) had replied to him on June 13, 2008 quoting S. 8(1) (a) of the RTI which reads thus: “‘Notwithstanding anything contained in this act, there shall be no obligation to give any citizen information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence.’ Since the report contained information, which was considered sensitive therefore, same, was regretted.” The vague word “sensitive” does not figure in S. 8.
Bearing on security
The CIC’s Order quoted S. 8(2) but did not act on it: “Notwithstanding anything in the Official Secrets Act, 1923, or any of the exemptions permissible in accordance with sub-section (1), a public authority may allow access to information, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.” The CIC examined the Original Report, including the pages of conclusions at pp. 192-222. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) had told the CIC that the Report “was a part of internal review conducted on the orders of the then Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Choudhary. Reports of internal review are not even submitted to Govt. let alone placed in the public domain. Disclosure of this information will amount to disclosure of the army’s operational strategy in the North-East and the discussion on deployments had a direct bearing on the question of the Line of Actual Control between India and China, a live issue examination between the two countries at present.” The Director General Military Operations, therefore, submitted that the report falls clearly within the exemption of disclosures laid down in Sec. 8(1)(a) of the RTI act read with sec. 8(3).”
The CIC’s Order said: “We have examined the report specifically in terms of its bearing on present national security. There is no doubt that the issue of the India-China Border particularly along the North East parts of India is still a live issue with ongoing negotiations between the two countries on this matter. The disclosure of information of which the Henderson Brooks report carries considerable detail on what precipitated the war of 1962 between India and China will seriously compromise both security and the relationship between India and China, thus having a bearing both on internal and external security. We have examined the report from the point of view of severability u/s 10(1). For reasons that we consider unwise to discuss in this Decision Notice, this Division Bench agrees that no part of the report might at this stage be disclosed.”
Both the MoD and the CIC confused diplomatic embarrassment in “ongoing negotiations” with China with “national security” and concluded that material on “what precipitated the war … will seriously compromise both security and the relationship between India and China.” The CIC concludes from this: “thus having a bearing both on internal and external security.” Books galore have been published in India and abroad on who and what triggered the war without affecting either our “security” or the relationship with China.
Are we sure China does not have a copy of the Report? Most certainly Neville Maxwell has. His book, “India’s China War” (1970), drew on “Material from unpublished files and reports of the Government of India and the Indian Army.” It was a veiled reference to the Henderson Brooks Report. This writer acquired personal knowledge of the fact.
China Quarterly (London) published in its July-September 1970 issue a review-article by this writer on India’s Forward Policy based on the memoirs of Brig. John P. Dalvi, “Himalayan Blunder,” Lt. Gen. B.M. Kaul’s “The Untold Story,” and D.R. Mankekar’s “The Guilty Men of 1962.” Maxwell wrote a lengthy reply to it which the editor, David C. Wilson, sent across for this writer’s rejoinder. In three of the footnotes, the Henderson Brooks report was cited with full references. The writer’s reply explicitly asserted that Maxwell had made his comments party “on the basis of the Henderson Brooks report from which his information is drawn and which is not available to me.” Both the reply and the rejoinder were published together in China Quarterly of January-March 1971. But, instead of the explicit and precise references to the report in the footnotes in the proof, Maxwell’s reply, as published, referred to “an unpublished document.”
On April 14, 2001, the Economic and Political Weekly published Maxwell’s article entitled “Henderson Brooks Report: An Introduction.” What he wrote knocks the CIC’s order for a six and exposes the falsity of the government’s excuses. “The Henderson Brooks Report is long (its main section, excluding recommendations and many annexures, covers nearly 200 foolscap pages).” He quotes directly from the Report which said: “It would have been convenient and logical to trace the events (beginning with) Army HQ, and then move down to Commands for more details … ending with field formations for the battle itself.”
Maxwell’s comments on the Report are noteworthy. “The report includes no surprises, and its publication would be of little significance but for the fact that so many in India still cling to the soothing fantasy of a 1962 Chinese aggression… Even in the dry, numbered paragraphs of their report, HB/B’s account of the moves that preceded the final assault is dramatic and riveting.” Its main author was one of the most distinguished soldiers we have known, Brigadier Prem Bhagat, holder of a WWII Victoria Cross, who Maxwell describes as “a no-nonsense, fighting soldier, widely respected in the Army,” going on to say that “the taut, unforgiving analysis in the report bespeaks the asperity of his reproach” — that explains its suppression. It is a damning document. Henderson Brooks settled down in Australia after retirement. On March 19, 2009, the CIC made its Order apparently unaware of this revealing article published on April 14, 2001. If Maxwell were to put the report online, no red faces will be noticed in South Block. They will be covered with egg.
The suppression is a betrayal of a solemn promise to the nation. On November 9, 1962, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru solemnly promised the Rajya Sabha: “People have been shocked, all of us have been shocked, by the events that occurred from October 20 onwards, especially of the first few days, and the reverses we suffered. So I hope there will be an inquiry so as to find out what mistakes or errors were committed and who were responsible for them.”
The inquiry, though conducted internally, was intended to allay public disquiet and to fix responsibility. On September 2, 1963, Raksha Mantri Y.B. Chavan informed Parliament about the Report claiming “this inquiry is the type of inquiry which the Prime Minister had in mind when he promised such an inquiry to the House in November 1962.” But “publication of this report which contains information about the strength and deployment of our forces and their locations would be of invaluable use to our enemies. It would not only endanger our security but affect the morale of those entrusted with safeguarding the security of our borders.” In 1963 this was understandable. In 2009 it was not. He made a tantalising reference to “the higher direction of operation. Even the largest and the best equipped of armies need to be given proper policy guidance” — the leadership’s role.
What CIC Wajahat Habibullah said in a press interview on August 24, 2010, provides the clues: “The Report reveals the incompetence of the military top brass. But that was not why we rejected the plea for its disclosure. [We] felt that the Report hinged on the questions which are still items of negotiation between India and China.”
This is no ground at all. The issue is not the alignment of the McMahon Line but China’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh. But the alignment is relevant to “what precipitated the war of 1962,” as his order puts it. That is known to all. On September 12, 1959, Nehru candidly told Parliament that in “some parts” the McMahon Line “was not considered a good line and it was varied afterwards by us.” In June 1962, the Dhola Post was set up within that line but beyond the map line — an area of 60 sq.miles. On September 8, Chinese troops took up positions dominating it. Responding to public anger, Nehru ordered their eviction. China replied with a massive attack on October 20. Maj.Gen. Niranjan Prasad who commanded the 4 Division at Tezpur had doubts about the Line in that area.
Inquiries in other countries
The CIC’s Order, based on unreal fears inspired by patriotic fervour, flies in the face of a record of such inquiries in democracies.
In Britain: 1. It defeated Russia in the Crimean War (1853-6) but the heavy cost prompted an inquiry 2. A Royal Commission inquired “into the Dardanalles operations.” Its Report was debated in the House of Commons on March 20, 1917, while WWI was on. 3. The Franks Committee inquired into the Falklands War of April 1982. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and three predecessors gave oral evidence. The Report was published in January 1983. 4. The Butler Report on the Iraq invasion was followed by Lord Chilcot’s inquiry which is still at work.
In the United States: 1. The Senate Armed Forces and Foreign Relations Committees jointly inquired into Truman’s foreign and defence policies in May-June 1952 after he sacked Gen. Douglas MacArthur while the war was on. Top officials were grilled. 2. Defence Secretary Robert McNamara set up on June 17, 1967, the Vietnam Study Task Force. Its Report ran into 47 volumes known as the Pentagon Papers. Copied illegally, they were published by The New York Times on June 13, 1971, during the war. The Supreme Court upheld the paper’s right to publish them. Justice Hugo Black’s remarks are relevant to our case. “The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no security.” 3. Congressional Reports on the 9/11 attack are public documents.
In Israel: 1. It set up a Commission of inquiry, headed by Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan into the killings in Palestinian Camps in Sabra and Shatila in Beirut in September 1982. 2. A Commission of inquiry by the President of the Supreme Court, Shimon Agranat, inquired into the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Its Report was published after 20 years, but published all the same. 3. Judge Eliyahu Winograd’s Commission censured Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and top army brass in its Report on April 30, 2007, for launching the Second Lebanese War in 2006. Heads had rolled after all these probes — Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon, Menachem Begin. 4. The State Comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, a watchdog, censured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in June this year for mishandling the 2010 raid on a flotilla in May 2010.
Does the Indian citizen deserve less?
(A.G. Noorani is a lawyer, author and commentator. His latest book, Article 370: A Constitutional History of Jammu and Kashmir, was published by Oxford University Press in 2011.)