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Updated: March 21, 2014 01:36 IST

Lessons from the Gate of Hell

Praveen Swami
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TRENCH VIEW: The notion that Jawaharlal Nehru allowed the Indian military to degenerate towards its defeat is an article of faith for many commentators on the war. Like much faith, though, it sits fill with fact. Picture shows Nehru and Defence Minister Y.B. Chavan talking to jawans in December, 1962.
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TRENCH VIEW: The notion that Jawaharlal Nehru allowed the Indian military to degenerate towards its defeat is an article of faith for many commentators on the war. Like much faith, though, it sits fill with fact. Picture shows Nehru and Defence Minister Y.B. Chavan talking to jawans in December, 1962.

The online release of the Henderson Brooks report has led critics of Jawaharlal Nehru to sharpen their swords. But their assumptions are wrong

From inside India’s western-most outpost, in that bleak winter of 1962, troops would have stared out across the sheet of ice at the shattered ruins of their retreating army, and at their the foes beyond. Murgo, it was called by the Yarkandi tribesmen who guided caravans across the great Karakoram pass, the Gate of Hell. The attack they must have feared never came. Chinese troops reached the line they claimed to be their border, just east of Murgo — and then stopped. For two generations since, soldiers have faced each other, prepared to kill on the roof of the world.

The online release this month of the first volume of the most closely-held 1962 war secret, Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier Premindra Bhagat’s searing indictment of the conduct of operations, has stoked deep fears Indians have nursed for over fifty years.

For critics of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, on the right of Indian politics, the release of the Henderson Brooks report has been an occasion to call for a more muscular military policy — holding him responsible for eviscerating India’s armed forces in the build-up to the defeat. Every historical text, though, has a context, and the context to this one shows that this would be precisely the wrong lesson to draw.

Scapegoating Nehru

The notion that that Mr. Nehru allowed the Indian military to slowly degenerate towards its catastrophic defeat in 1962 is an article of faith for many commentators on the war. Like much faith, though, it sits ill with fact. From 1947 to 1962, the Army expanded from 280,000 to 5,50,000, the doyen of Indian security studies K. Subrahmanyam pointed out in a 1970 paper. Expenditure on defence rose from Rs. 190.15 crore in 1951-1952 to Rs. 320.34 crore in 1961-1962 despite the enormous financial constraints that a fragile, just-born nation faced.

The Army, by the eve of the 1962 war, had acquired a division of state-of-the-art Centurion tanks and two regiments of AMX-13 light tanks which fought at Kameng against Chinese troops who had none, but could not prevent the routing of Indian troops. The Air Force bought six squadrons of Hunter fighter-bombers, two squadrons of Ouragons, and two of Gnat interceptors—all equipment far superior to anything flown by their adversary. The Navy had acquired an aircraft carrier, three destroyers, and eleven spanking new frigates.

Mr. Nehru might indeed, as critics contend, been an instinctive dove, but if this is true, the record suggests he also believed in keeping his talons sharp. Yet, India lost the war. “So long as we cling to these myths to explain away the debacle,”Mr. Subrahmanyam concluded, “the reasons for the debacle will not be adequately investigated and correct lessons drawn.”

The real problem wasn’t that India didn’t have an Army that could fight. It was that it ended up fighting the wrong kind of war, with consequences even the best-resourced militaries have faced.

Lessons to be learnt

So what went wrong? In 1957, China completed driving a road across the Aksai Chin plains, linking Xinjiang and Tibet. Land of little value now became a critical strategic asset for China. Following the 1959 revolt in Tibet, Chinese fears that India was aiding rebels added to tensions. Indian patrols headed to the Aksai Chin were detained, and on one occasion, fired at. In India’s North-East Frontier Area, troops received warnings to vacate their positions.

Then, in October 1959, Chinese troops opened fire on Indian border police at Kongka, in Southern Ladakh, killing nine and capturing 10.

From multiple Cold War sources, among them the Central Intelligence Agency’s declassified history of the 1962 war, it is clear that the Chinese were hoping to push Mr. Nehru to accept a deal: swapping Aksai Chin for what is now Arunachal Pradesh. Mr. Nehru, the evidence suggests, was preparing Indian public opinion for such a swap. The Kongka incident, though, made it near impossible.

Mr. Nehru responded by authorising what has come to be known as the ‘Forward Policy.’ From December 1960, the Henderson Brooks report records that India began establishing small posts deep inside Chinese-held territory, opening up the prospect of “our eventual domination of the Aksai Chin highway.” By the summer of 1962, small pickets of Indian troops, often less than platoon-strength, were holding positions face to face with Chinese positions. India had little logistical infrastructure to support them, and no way to bring forward reinforcements to sustain these positions.

The positions served no military purpose. Their role, instead, was to serve as a bargaining chip in eventual negotiations. Mr. Nehru acted in the belief China would not use force to evict the Indian positions.

His guess was wrong, but not unreasonable. Fearing the United States’ military presence in East Asia, Mao Zedong warned his generals not to “blindly” take on India, despite China’s military superiority.

The Soviet Union was also working to rein in Beijing. In China for negotiations with Mao Zedong in October 1959, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had delivered a testy message of protest against the Kongka clash. “You have had good relations with India for many years. Suddenly, here is a bloody incident, as result of which Nehru found himself in a very difficult position.” In October 1963, Mr. Khrushchev again told the Chinese ambassador to Moscow to avoid military action, arguing it would push India into the United States’ embrace.

Finally, the Army itself didn’t come up with viable alternatives to the Forward Policy for leaders besieged in Parliament and pilloried by the media. Lieutenant-General Daulet Singh, General-Officer-Comanding of the western Army advocated, the official war history records, that “the only safe course would be to leave for the time being the Chinese in possession of the Indian territory they had already grabbed, and to consolidate the areas still in Indian possession by pushing roads forward, building up strong bases and inducting a division of troops into Ladakh.”

“This strategy,” the scholar Srinath Raghavan has pointed out, “was obviously incapable of countering Chinese incursions near the boundary — incursions that were the main cause for concern to the political leadership.”

Last year, Indian and Chinese troops faced-off near Daulat Beg Oldi in Ladakh, in the worst flare-up of tensions in decades. Fears of growing Chinese nationalism, backed by military might, have spurred Indian military acquisitions. Narendra Modi, who may be India’s next Prime Minister, has cast China as an expansionist threat, a sentiment shared by many in other parties.

Mr. Nehru must take the blame for calling it ‘wrong,’ but responsibility also lies with the ill-informed public debate and media hyper-nationalism that drove his choices. India can’t afford to have to learn the same lessons again.

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If any body wants to under the Indo China war he has to have a look
at the Northern and Northeastern borders through Google Earth and get
a feel of the topography . The Indian side roads have to wind through
several thousand meters of steep hills with ribbon width which is
difficult even for a jeep to maneuver. In Chinese side the terrain is
fairly flat and they have made good roads for keeping their supply
line open . In the last war the element of surprise was on Chinese
side . Currently that is not the case. We know Chinese have claim on
Arunachal Pradesh and Pakistan has on Kashmir .The terrain on both
borders are not suitable for tanks and field guns which waste precious
ammunitions with no effect . What we need is small arms sophisticated
and lot of ammunition which are relatively cheaper and easy to
transport in high altitude forests . When our army chief complains
that we have shortage of ammunition we know that something is wrong
with the Govt . Can BJP correct this ?

from:  sbalaraman
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 22:19 IST

The bottom line is that the Indian leadership was and is a product of a colonial mindset that was convinced that with Western and Soviet backing they can stare China down. But China is not a nation of shopkeepers like Nawaz Sharif and Zardari.

from:  Tipu Qaimkhani
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 21:15 IST

"True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain,
hazardous, and conflicting information." said Winston Churchill. Mr.
Swami must be commended for bringing out the other side of the coin to
the forefront regarding the 1962 war debacle, for which Nehruvian
foreign policy had drawn much flak. Also the author's conclusion that
our foreign policy decisions must not be based on ill-informed public
debate and media-hyper nationalism or recently domestic political
compulsions is a right observation, otherwise we might risk making
foes of our neighbours and strategic partners.

from:  Siddhi Bangard
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 14:25 IST

Well Mr. Swami, you argue that the Army itself did not offer an alternative, but it
did as you put it yourself, maintaining the status quo and building up supply lines
to the frontier posts, rather than risking provocation and war which hurt more than
any incursions.

Besides, the Chinese attacks were not a surprise since the Chinese Premier Zhou
Enlai had been trying to defuse tensions for years and had even warned Nehru
explicitly that his forward policy risked provoking a full-fledged war, something
Nehru was not gambling on. All this was available for reading on "The Hindu"
website as part of "The China Files".

Nehru's conduct in face of Zhou's warning was certainly reckless. This of course
does not imply that having a hawk like Modi would help. India cannot match China
on the battlefield without suffering a catastrophe. Discreet diplomacy and tough
negotiations are the need of the hour, especially given the rise of nationalistic
sentiment in India and China.

from:  Vivek
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 13:28 IST

Brigadier Dalvi's book, Himalayan Blunder vividly illustrates how
India under Nehru was wrong from A to Z. The main theme of the book is
the total disconnect between the ground reality perceived by the field
commander and those sitting in New Delhi. War is not fought with pouch
ammunition and rucksack ration. India was ill-prepared to tackle
Chinese aggression then and is equally ill-prepared now. India has not
heeded the wake up call of 1962 till now adequately. Yes, Mr.Praveen
Swamy is right on one thing. No more hyper-nationalism and rhetoric.
Only quiet diplomacy and thorough and methodical revamping of the
border security.

from:  Syed
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 13:24 IST

I guess Praveen Swami made his point. Yes we had bought lot of equipment and we were improving our capability but there were lot of mistakes in the political leadership side. like not having open discussions with the three defense arms (Army, Aiforce and Navy). were we ready for the forward policy, how it could have been improved. would suggest people to read "himalayan blunder" by brig jp dalvi. Dalvi was there in the center of action as he was deployed in NEFA.

Leadership, Courage and Planning were totally lacking from GOI. I would not blame Nehru for everything but yes he is morally responsbile as he chose his cabinet and support staff (even a general without good experience was put as head of the army) which lead to the debacle and loss of akshai-chin...

The sad fact is China is still arm-twisting india in these borders and we are still ruled by similar people with similar traits as in 62 war :( .

from:  shyaam M.
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 11:08 IST

This article is typical example of biased and narrow view of
narrative. Jawaharlal Nehru stands tall in historical perspective on
many front.This nation owe a lot to him what it is today.But the
debacle of 1962 war rest considerably with him.Why not with repeated
warnings by his field commanders he initiated correct measures.Writer
talks about acquiring latest aircraft like hunters and Ourogans but
they were not used to cut off the supply line of advancing Chinese.The
henderson brooks report must be analysed in correct perspective and
for god sake must not blame the forces.

Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 10:23 IST

The fact is that Mr Praveen Swami is being extremely economical
with truth and is playing footsie with facts. He is correct that
Indian Army strength had risen from 3,50,000 in 1951 to 5,50,000 in
1962. But he intentionally suppresses the fact that entire increase of
2,00,000 soldiers as also the tanks was directed against Pakistan. In
so far as deployment on Indo- Tibet border was concerned it was
limited to one Infantry Brigade in Ladakh against One Division of
Chinese and IV Corps at Tezpur with only one Infantry Division in
Tawang Sector against three divisions of the Chinese. There were no
(NO) regular troops to defend Sikkim or other areas of Arunachal
Pradesh. Cosequently troops trainjed and equipped to fight in Plains
of Punjab were rushed helter skelter to North East to implement
`Froward Policy' of Nehru.

from:  Kanu
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 10:13 IST

Typical Fabian socialist rambling. The main reason for India not growing
as expected after liberation is Nehru and Nehru alone followed by his
parivar and this was aided to a large extent by MK Gandhi who
deliberately overruled the cabinet decision to make Sardar Patel as PM

from:  Venkat
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 10:04 IST

Mr. Modi, in his opinion is very much true and the tendancy of learning the same lesson again and again would keep India in the backfront till we understand the reason behind attack or any such unwanted intrusion/activity by China. Mr. Modi rightly coined the term "exapnsionist threat" which is what the reason in this case. It is very true that China believes in small step of its soldiers as giant step for its nation.

from:  Anoop Mishra
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 09:52 IST

Thanks to Praveen Swami for this informative article on history of 1962 war. Mr. Swami is
right in warning us not to learn wrong lessons from the 1962 wishes though that
the GOI will release all reports and other documents on the subject so that Indians know
what went on and possibly why. That is the only way for us to have the possibility of drawing
the right conclusions and possible lessons.

from:  Virendra Gupta
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 08:58 IST

Nice read and analysis. However, the English used is too complicated for
laymen like me; examples: "and at their the foes beyond","The notion
that that Mr. Nehru", and "might indeed, as critics contend, been an
instinctive dove", etc.

from:  Mubuku Grappa
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 08:50 IST

I agree with the analysis. The author says that Nehru acted in the belief that China would not use force to evict the India positions. I must say that the assumption, though valid under normal cirumstances, failed as India could not anticipate an international crisis of an abnormal magnitude that occured during the same time. The Chinese advances into India territory commenced on 20th October 1962 and the war lasted till 20th Nov. 1962, when China declared a cease fire. The Cuban Missile Crisis occured during the same period. It began on 22nd October 1962 with a speech made by John F. Kennedy and ended on 28th October 1962. But the discovery of the Soviet missiles in Cuba was made by the US intelligence on 14th October. So it seems that the Chinese had an inkling of a looming international crisis and took advantage of the fact that two major superpowers were engaged in an unprecedented duel. The Soviet Union acted belatedly but till such time the damage was done.

from:  Pramod Patil
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 08:30 IST

"...ill-informed public debate and media hyper-nationalism drove
Nehru's choices"?? I can't believe this. My understanding is that he
pretty much made his own decisions, at least that's what I've heard
both his supporters and detractors say. In any case, one hopes that
present day actions will be taken on their own merits, and not by using
past mistakes as excuses.

from:  Madhusudan
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 08:12 IST

Praveen Swamy has not taken sides in analysing briefly the contents of revelations and
highlighting what went wrong-
the main issues were Nehru's belief in VK Krishna menon( with communist ideologies)
irking Chinese by Supporting Dalai Lama ,not listening to some good advices and caution
from some Military chiefs of the time.That the defeat lead to Nehru's ill health and demise is
well known. Praveen swamy has given a point to ponder- by adding a sentence about the
future prime minister's view on China!! -good article.

from:  krishnanTV
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 08:02 IST

Again thanks to Swamiji for the excellent article. Yesterday, I said that proper channel being the bane of Indian administration.
Gen. Thorat in an article in "The Illustrated Weekly
of India" said that he prepared a report for Nehru to warn him of the dangers. Nehru refused to consider it, and told him to see Krishan Menon, the then Defence Minister. menon refused to listen, probably due to his communistic leanings. After the debacle, Nehru called Thorat and got a copy of the report.
Earlier, Gen. Thimmaya and the his two counterparts in the Navy and Air Force resigned on this, but after being persuaded withdrew. Also Gen. Cariappa said that a delay to fight the Chinese would make matters more difficult. Nehru condemned Gen. Cariappa.
In this lies the drawback that elder people and those in authority have a long way to to develop a constructive and co-operative team with those younger and under them. But Indira, listened to Manekshaw on Bangladesh.

from:  Jayananda Hiranandani
Posted on: Mar 21, 2014 at 04:44 IST
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