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Lessons from the Gate of Hell

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

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 ill with fact. Picture shows Nehru and Defence Minister Y.B. Chavan talking to jawans in December, 1962.— Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES
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 ill with fact. Picture shows Nehru and Defence Minister Y.B. Chavan talking to jawans in December, 1962.— Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

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.

praveen.swami@thehindu.co.in

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.

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