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Updated: November 6, 2012 00:31 IST

The unlearned lesson of 1962

K. Shankar Bajpai
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We lacked statecraft 50 years ago. But we are no better today, as our bad habits persist while the vitiating pressures have become even more alarming

Our extensive retrospection on the drubbing we contrived to suffer in October-November 1962, ought to be as salutary as it is necessary, but the right questions must be asked — and by the right people. What went wrong, who were the villains, can there be a repeat, are we better prepared — all these carry many lessons but the comprehensiveness of our failures points to an equally comprehensive weakness: we could not behave as a state capable of looking after its affairs. Beyond material strengths, it is how one functions that counts. Without underestimating all that we have since achieved, we must realise that our bad habits have not improved while the vitiating pressures have become even more alarming.

Assess challenges

Any state expecting to be taken seriously must first organise itself to behave seriously. Assess the challenges you may face, distinguish between the imminent and contingent, inform yourself as fully as possible on relevant data, with specific intelligence on what the sources of challenge might be up to, assess the capabilities — of yourself and others — calculate whether you have or can develop those capabilities up to required levels, whether you need to temporise or seek external balancing arrangements, not least consider how the global situation might affect your interest; then plan, prepare, implement. These elements of statecraft are so rudimentary, they shouldn’t need enumeration, but statecraft is precisely what we have lacked: 1962 was the culmination of many years of what might most politely be called amateurishness in all these respects.

Just how badly we lacked the two essentials of statecraft — careful judgment and appropriate action — were underlined by two different authors of our debacle. Jawaharlal Nehru himself confessed to the first, telling Parliament on October 25: “We were getting out of touch with reality in the modern world, and were living in an artificial atmosphere of our own creation.” Today’s realities are no less compelling, but no less lost in “the artificial atmosphere” we persist in creating for ourselves. Is there any part of our political spectrum in the least interested in learning from any aspect of 1962?

On our second failure, just how unbelievably we acted is brought out vividly, if unintentionally, in B.N. Mullik’s Chinese Betrayal. The title itself ‘betrays’ a fault: the shocked, hurt, accusatory blaming of others, blind to one’s own responsibility. What did the Chinese ‘betray’, except our folly? They behaved as states do and we did not: work with care and calculation towards chosen ends. In that process, they made fools of us but whether that reflects their duplicity or our ineptitude is quite a question.

Still apparently revered in our intelligence ranks, Mullik, virtually the first Indian head of the Intelligence Bureau, depicts a handful of courtiers milling around as though trying to anticipate what a Shahinshah would like. As in a court, a mere handful of favourites appear to run everything — Defence Minister Krishna Menon, Foreign Secretary M.J. Desai, Defence Joint Secretary Harish Sarin (a fine officer caught in a quandary) and, of course, our ubiquitous author, with the Army Chief and some others periodically roped in. The Cabinet hardly mattered, the Secretary General, External Affairs, and the Defence Secretary had no role, no structured, systematic decision-making process was ever attempted — the Defence Minister’s daily meetings, triggered by September 8, seem to have been occasions primarily for Mr. Mullik to poke his nose into Army affairs.

Mullik records innumerable examples of egregiousness. “By August 1962 [Lt. Gen. B.K.] Kaul and Krishna Menon were practically not on speaking terms.” On September 17, KM accordingly rejects Mullik’s urgings to call Kaul back from leave as CGS. But on October 1, he somersaults, appointing Kaul Corps Commander against Mullik’s professed objections. The only reason — the Minister thought it would please Nehru to see a fellow Kashmiri appointed. Then comes surely the most bizarre conduct of battles in history: the front Commander evacuated from the front, issuing orders to it from his sick-bed 1000 km away in Delhi, with the Defence Minister, the Army Chief and the great IB Director in nightly attendance.

Confusion in Assam

The episode that would be most farcical of all, were it not the most heartbreaking, was the withdrawal of civil administration from northern Assam. Mullik recalls the Cabinet ordering the civil administration to remain in place. He arrives with Home Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tezpur to learn that, instead, it has been ordered out of all the north. Rushing back to Delhi, he discovers the Assam Governor persuaded Cabinet Ministers to change their original orders — but the Prime Minister has no idea how the change was made! To cap it all, our hero decides to leave the IB and return to Assam to organise guerrilla resistance when the Chinese moved in — apparently forgetting that a ceasefire and withdrawal had been proclaimed three days earlier.

One day he is recommending various Army appointments, even a new Army Chief, another he is flying off to the front to have his say on operations, shuttling back and forth thrice in the crucial week. As late as two weeks before the Chinese attack of October 20, he is insisting that the only real danger is Pakistan, where “Ayub was on the prowl”; seven years after being proved wrong, he still insists he was right. That he had no business being involved in any of these things, but sticking to providing intelligence, never enters his mind.

Let us not just blame individuals: the whole system, if one can call it that, was sheer Alice-in-Wonderland. Every leader specially trusts someone, consulting him/her even on extraneous matters, but such wholesale meddling, or Krishna Menon’s manipulations and prejudices, which most of all undermined the Army morale and efficiency and corrupted policy, are the hallmarks of old, personalised, court-style government. Lately, the fashion has grown to criticise Panditji for everything that went, or is, wrong with us. Given his surpassing command of the country he cannot, of course, be spared: even allowing for the still underestimated intrigues to misuse the China crisis to unseat him (with no little encouragement from external sources), his responsibility for mishandling is undeniable. He was so great, we owe him so much, and need his kind of approach to building up India so badly, noting his faults is no diminution of his stature, but that is not our Indian way: our heroes are faultless, our villains wholly evil. Such attitudes leave no scope for objective, dispassionate, impersonal thinking.

Of course individuals matter — in India far more than in countries where institutions and methodical processes minimise the idiosyncratic — but to let them take over or bypass institutions and run things by whim is to sink back into medieval ways. In that respect, how different is today from then? Despite our successes in consolidating democracy, we have still not accepted the concept of the state as an entity intended to serve all of society and demanding the loyalty of all citizens above all their other affiliations. For us, the state is the ruler, which readily leads into the habits of the Mughal court habits so prevalent by 1962, that they more than anything else led to our humiliation — much as at Plassey. They are now rampant.

Contrast in attitude

There is a lesson even in the contrast between our commemoration of what happened 50 years ago and China’s studied silence. We are spared the mortification of her celebrating a victory, not because what weighs so heavily on us was a minor episode to the Chinese: enough has come out to indicate how purposefully they planned their major enterprise (though misreading us too). The current show of indifference represents the calculated pursuit of national ends, as against our excitable, ad hoc ways.

From misreadings of what might happen, to the north-eastern chaos following defeat, how we handled affairs then displays a state simply not organised to cope with major challenges. Doubtless, we now have more professionalism in many ways. The NSA and the NSC apparatus constitute a vast improvement; there is also an incipient strategic community to guide public opinion. But public opinion has become less open to guidance, political circles have become even more impervious to facts, reality or sense, and our politico-administrative complex is more cumbersome, unproductive and parochial. Whether our military are better equipped, or have the required infrastructure or intelligence inputs, etc., are vital questions but secondary to our overriding concern: how mature is the Indian state now?

One only has to ask to start worrying.

(K. Shankar Bajpai is former Ambassador to Pakistan, China & the U.S., and Secretary, External Affairs Ministry)

Keywords: Sino-Indian war

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I truly agree with the Jay Ravi (commentor). One should appreciate the
sacrifices that our soldiers made. At that time even warnings given to
Mr. Nehru he did nothing and our soldiers paid for it. They don't have
enough weapons, equipments, clothes, lack of supplies and information
about enemy strengths. Instead they fought bravely. All faults are of
administration and even today where we stand (/are). Lal Bahadur
Shashtri is best PM ever India got. In 1965 where we lagged behind
Pakistan in both economy and power, he still gave us victory. Indian
Parliament is still not concerned of engagement with external affairs.

from:  Vikash Bharti
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 13:19 IST

@Harish,
Your statement that "Nehru and Krishna...were living in dreams that China would never attack India" should read "Nehru and Krishna...were living in dreams that China would never COUNTER-attack India". It is now well established, based on both recounts by Indian as well as international sources that the historical fact was in 1962, India attacked first in pursuing the Forward policy, which was followed by Chinese counter-attack.

Another point you made that "India's first failure was Nehru's stand not to raise the invasion of Tibet by China in the UN General Assembly" is baseless. He did not make it an issue because Nehru knew that it is a historical fact that Tibet is within China's sovereignty. Search youtube for "Why We Fight: "Battle of China (ca. 1944) 1/5", which is a documentary made by the US government.

from:  jimi
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 11:05 IST

Perhaps, Nehru didn't, but we see dogma in the idea of democracy, and
how we practice it. I mean, is democracy, like religion, where in the
past, we didn't know about religion, and today we see, perhaps, some
fault in our perception of religion, whereas, democracy, we see a
problem, in how we practice it, but we feel, that democracy is such an
essential element in our lives, that we must practice it in a way
which is bad for us, to show that we really believe in it? At least, a
person can choose to say, that he does not know, if religion is good
or not, or that he doesn't know if God exists, if he is atheist, or a
believer. In a democratic nation, if a person sees that his practice
of democracy is harmful to himself, he sees himself as a patriot, for
being democratic.

from:  Aditya Mookerjee
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 10:23 IST

Even now our military might and combat preparedness are not up to the
level of the Chinese. And the bitter fact is that we are not going to
achieve that parity with them in the near or distant future. We are
still looking towards the West for importing High-Tech military Hardware while the Chinese have become self sufficient in all
respects. They are excelling in the art of 'Reverse engineering' to
help them duplicate what ever they want. So when military solution to
the problems with China is out of question from our end, then it is
only through the diplomacy that we have to solve the problem. That
means it is only by adopting a 'Give and Take' policy that we can
bring our border dispute with China to a close.

from:  T.Sathyamurthi
Posted on: Nov 3, 2012 at 09:34 IST

I cant understand why the author is trying hard to defend nehru.Its he who led india to defeat ,and not the jawans equipped with low standard guns and clothing.All that was required was that peaceful negotiations acceptable to both.Chinese would be satisfied if india had accepted the chinese desperate need for the road to tibet to aksai chin ,which is vital for their tibetian strategy. Nehru ,on the fear of losing his image in india, opposed that.Some times decisions against public interest should be taken by the government to safe guard it interests in future, like 1991 reforms where people where aganist it when implemented.Instead nehru chosed the other path which lead to lose of death and pride

from:  vishnu
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 22:49 IST

The most important lesson learned or to be learned is do not pick a fight when you are not ready to fight. Since 1962, India improved their military strength but weakened internally with widespread corruption. As a country, India will implode with all the corruption and China can simply sit and watch. The anti-corruption movement is the most important event that must succeed for a stronger India.

from:  KVR
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 22:14 IST

I hold Jawaharlal Nehru squarely responsible for 1962 debacle and several other foreign policy misfortunes even today. Nehru and his foreign minister Krishna Menon totally mishandled China and failed to take steps to protect India from the time when it invaded Tibet. By 1962 Nehru have been a PM for 15 long years of independent India so he was not a newbie who is trying to figure out his job or India's challenges. Then Nehru also took Kashmir issue to the UN in 1948 that resulted in a resolution calling for referendum an issue India still has to deal with today. But I'll give him the benefits of the doubt given that he was PM for a year when he took the issue to UN and he acted out of naivete and inexperience. Let us just say that foreign policy was not Nehru's forte when it came to protecting India's national interests.

from:  Joyjit Dutta
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 22:12 IST

I agree with the author that we ought not to have been so naive as to believe that the Chinese would not attack us. Honestly has nobody read anything about Chinese history? Even now we must be alert and watchful. Importantly the psychological message needs to be delivered in no uncertain terms that we are prepared for any eventuality against any aggressor in defending our land, come what may. Hats off to our brave jawans.

from:  Samir Mody
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 21:03 IST

To be honest, there has never been an Indian government or PM that could inspire
confidence in his leadership. Note my deliberate emphasis on "he". The only PM
that seemed to be capable of taking decisions, whether for good or for bad was
Indira Gandhi and that explains the resounding victory in the '71 war.

She may have been as corrupt as our leaders today but her obsession was mainly
with power rather than mine which explains why the kind of things that happened
during her time did happen.

Let's cast a look around. We see not a single politician in any party capable of
running the nation without looking like a blundering buffoon. 60 years and
counting and we haven't produced another Sardar Patel yet.

from:  Vivek
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 18:51 IST

I really don't want to undermine someone of the author's stature, but back then, we were a state who had no knowledge of ruling themselves for past millennium or so and we have just 15 years of independence.We don't have that many people(by stature) who can rule a country as vast as India.Secondly, if we don't go far backwards we can see that our same Indian system as a united state failed in 1999 kargil war,Mumbai incident. We did the same kind of mistakes as mentioned in the above article. It doesn't matter, that, we won those war, what is disheartening is that we are discussing the 1962 not all the incidents.

from:  Navendu
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 18:29 IST

Mr.Bajpai, first let me compliment you on an excellent article! Thank you! India did not have any idea of what statecraft is nor we had statesmen worth their salt. Only, people in position and holding power even without being in position with big ego! As you are an insider I would like to ask you whether VKK was not an isolated figure even before the disgraceful outcome of the war? You must have certainly read The Ambassador's Diary by Galbreith. That clearly showed how much the U.S. wanted to shunt him out. Nehru's friendship alone kept him in the cabinet. No friends otherwise! As a defense minister he could be accused of only defense under-preparedness. But that was also the National policy till the Chinese attacked. At least he did not write a book to whitewash himself as the Himalayan Blunder of B K Nehru! All the other players had their version of the story. Is there any version of VKK? I would have liked to get the information if there is any.

from:  P P Rajagopalan
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 18:28 IST

No one mentions the secrecy surrounding those official reports yet to see the light of the day.What is contained in those reports? Why not try and make them public for really true lessons to be learnt from this blunder.
Authour is right abolut the fact that we indulged in to jingoism [ Forward policy] as if WE were ready to invade China.When Chinese did that we called it betrayal.We should have started seriously prepraing from [atleast] the day Chinese occupied Tibet.Are we ready now? Pl see the conditions of border roads around Tawang in Arunachal, as seen from the photos published in media.This is inspite of the BRO being around since decades.After 1962, we should have transformed Arunachal in to a heavenly abode.
With the leadership that we have,we can only await disasters.

from:  Jitendra Desai
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 17:31 IST

From the time I could remember, none of our politicians (credits to
split in proportion to the period of rule by the parties) are keen in
protecting India or Indian interests. The only thing I believe they
care about is making their pockets full - through selling the
livelihood of our common citizens or selling the lives of the common
man and our jawans. So, in the absence of any incentives from
strengthening our security (to their pockets), it is an utopian dream
to even hope them do safeguard the interest of nation. The people, who
can bring them to task, unfortunately are lost in their own oblivion
and their consciousness marred by communal propaganda and
entertainment. If my readings of the attitude of the political brass
and the people are correct, a armada of sacrificial lambs would be
sent to the border - then our lands sold to Chinese with no benefit
for India. Commissions and Omissions will be covered-up and people
will be fooled by sanctimonious propaganda again...

from:  Bharat
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 15:02 IST

Nehru and Krishna Menon made a mockery of the Indian Army and were living in dreams that China would never attack India.Great leaders(in history) have shared a common trait : they have a fair idea of the ntentions of their neighbours and know that peace comes from strength and not from mere submission to the neighbour's proposals(In this case,Communist China's expansionist interests).India's first failure was Nehru's stand not to raise the invasion of Tibet by China in the UN General Assembly(which would have acted as a buffer state for India). Secondly, the Indian Army was grossly underprepared and Air Force was not used.As a consequence we lost our sovereign region of Aksai Chin to China.And, adding insult to injury, China gained a high on the moral grounds at the end of the war.All this because of some extraordinarily ordinary leadership.And even today, our preparedness for any eventuality is servile(with China having air drills in the Tibet region).Have we really learnt anything?

from:  Harish
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 14:54 IST

Politics and defense are two separate entities and they need to work in
harmony for the proper and safe working of a nation's territory.And what
happened in 1962 was the complete failure of this machinery.We need to
learn out of this.At that time our armies were ordered to march forward
with necessary material with them.Orders are easy to made and hard to
obey if not made with proper conscience and coherence.

from:  Mayank Kanga
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 12:25 IST

This country precipitated great selfless ethical leaders during the freedom struggle. Since then, there have been few and far between any semblance of that quality of leadership. I do not see any coming up in the near future, so we will either be prodded by external powers or meander on somehow buffeted by unsavoury winds from all directions till some sort of calamity strikes. Pity the common man.

from:  naveen
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 12:23 IST

I totally agree with Shri Shankar Bajpai. In fact most of the present youth are not aware of the facts of the past, of Independence struggle or of at least 1962 War. Most of the youth ( with apologies not all) is jammed in Cell Phones, Internet chatting and dating and tranquilizers. Our present Cinema, Literature and society is mostly aimed at men and women sexual movements in dancing, writings and movement. People are more and more drowned in mockery. No one cares when some one dies before their eyes in accidents and in blasts. See the Bombay attacks by Pak. how deliberately they entered the economic capital and how simply top police officials were assassinated along with innocent public. See how the Parliament has been attacked and see how the culprits are not yet punished. There is a total failure in the system itself. The scams are not scaring public.

from:  PRASAD
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 12:08 IST

With all the confused arguments and a bigoted mind, this article is a
travesty and insult to the 7000 jawans who were sacrificed. the author
states.. "He was so great, we owe him so much,.......Such attitudes
leave no scope for objective, dispassionate, impersonal thinking". So
much servility in one stroke. "Objective, dispassionate, impersonal
thinking" is what this article lacks. Sending jawans to the Himalayas
without winter clothes, with merely 100 rounds of ammo knowing fully
well that they won't return -- millions of Indians would consider
these to be borne out of sick and criminal minds. One would have
expected at least a few words in memory of those who gave their lives-
- instead we get a spirited defence of a set of facile, incompetent,
bigoted, arrogant "leaders".

from:  Jay Ravi
Posted on: Nov 2, 2012 at 03:48 IST
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