Literary Review

The past that wasn’t

1962: The War That Wasn’t; Shiv Kunal Verma, Aleph, Rs. 1,000.  

The title of Shiv Kunal Verma’s latest provoked me into thinking the author had attempted to challenge historical data by unfixing it from its moorings. It takes courage and a lot of daring to rewrite history, that too of the 1962 Chinese aggression on India, which for the most part lies consciously forgotten. It was a war we lost. That ignominy is best buried. Writing must be celebratory, we feel, especially when we speak of national pride. That is one possible reason no one was expected to re-think the Chinese debacle. However, Verma takes up that challenge. For Indians who know their history, no more tragic event took place in the entire 20th century than the 1962 Chinese invasion.

This is a book about how Jawaharlal Nehru, with his starkly conflicting prejudices and ineptitude, failed to prevent the conflict, utilising and manipulating the nationalist sentiment to wage a war against an insurmountable enemy, without the calculations of advantage and risk. This provokes future historians to explore the point at which policy and presentation, war and political discourse, come together as propaganda.

Verma admits that the very methodology of writing history is flawed: “As you move away from the war itself, the chain of events gets more distorted, since everyone’s perceptions of the war change. All one can do is come as close to the truth as possible, because it is vital to know what happened, where the weak links exist.” It is a point where information and lies, vilification and exaggeration merge.

History often verges on the speculative, the conjectural. Foundational histories are always suspect. All objective posturing comes out in the open sooner or later. Nevertheless, Verma has laboured on his research for three decades, undertaking the arduous task of visiting East Sikkim, parts of Kumaon and Garhwal, Lahaul and Spiti and the remote corners of Ladakh, interviewing many who lived through the war, scrutinising archival material so as to “peel through various layers of history, rumour, myths, half-truths and outright lies to understand why events played out the way they did.”

Verma’s concern, apart from the losses of other battalions located across the northern frontier as well as the remote frontlines in Ladakh, is the military tragedy at Namka Chu, a small rivulet in the Kameng Frontier Division of the North-East Frontier Agency, on October 20, 1962, when 283 soldiers died, and hundreds were wounded or taken prisoners.

India suffered a humiliating defeat in a war that lasted a month. The concept of ‘positional war’ that Lieutenant General B.M. Kaul envisaged and which none of his officers understood was mere rhetoric. A few days before the war, General Kaul, camping on Namka Chu, had come up with an imprudent plan of taking over the Thagla Ridge, when one of his junior commissioned officers, Dashrath Singh of 2 Rajput, questioned the military wisdom of such a move with Indian forces located in the valley and the Chinese breathing down their backs. Having never experienced combat warfare, Kaul had no answer. He threatened the Subedar with a court-martial. The next morning, Indian troops launched the attack only to beat a hasty retreat. Kaul escaped to New Delhi to confabulate with his patron, Nehru. A stiff-necked general had sacrificed combat effectiveness at the altar of the party line.

Had Lieutenant General S.P.P. Thorat, DSO, Eastern Commander, taken over as army chief, Verma reckons, things would have been different. Not many know that he had predicted, three years ago, that the Chinese would invade in 1962. In positing that the worst would not have happened if reasonable caution and common sense had dictated prudent assessment of the dangers posed by the confrontation, war historians like Verma tend to rely on the testimony of one soldier against that of another, which too is a flawed approach. History is replete with military strategists and political leaders with divergent and equally-misguided courses responsible for shocking military catastrophes.

Will Verma’s history be the ultimate one? It won’t. The unsung heroes are dead or suffer from unsubstantiated and false reportage, while one more historian glorifies, in his scholarship and research, another version of the truth. Sadly, many stories remain untold.

A few soldiers who survived found their way back to the plains and safety, and were even decorated; many others who were forced to spend over nine months in some godforsaken Chinese prisons in sub-zero temperatures, surviving the long, endless ordeal in scanty winter clothing and a diet of food consisting of merely rice and radishes, never got to tell their stories.

Who do we believe? As soon as a phenomenon is seen or a story heard, narratives take on another colour. War histories remain replete with contradictory information, one-sided accounts and prejudicialhearsay. The dates of the death of army officers change from one page to the next. And the reports on officers who rose to the ranks of Generals become lionised.

Many more histories will be written about the war, leaving generations to wonder why we fought the war at all. The bitterness of many stakeholders is understandable. However, historians like Verma would do well to be aware that the flow of information in a war zone is controlled by military and political authorities who wish to see the media adopt an expedient perspective. The questions to be asked are: how much censorship took place and what alternative sources were found by war historians; was the media at the time echoing the official version or was it objective to an extent. Are historians oblivious to the inherent deception of historiography based on the fallibility of the historical record, as well as to methodology that resorts to selective and interpretative processes of archival material that is always partial or biased? Unfortunately, Verma, like other historians before him, must be read with a pinch of salt, for they all remain victims of the ravages of history-telling. The remains of the past are always incomplete and suffer from inevitable distortion in the very attempt to present a coherent account of an inchoate past. All historical work is necessarily tentative.

Shelley Walia is Professor and Fellow, Department of English and Cultural Studies, Panjab University.

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Printable version | Nov 18, 2020 12:24:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/shelley-walia-reviews-1962-the-war-that-wasnt/article8509119.ece

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