In dubious battle at heaven’s gate

We seem to have learned nothing as a country from the Indian Army’s defeat and dishonour in 1962

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:12 pm IST

Published - October 13, 2012 12:13 am IST

121013 -Lead - Remembering 1962

121013 -Lead - Remembering 1962

On September 8, 1962, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army surrounded a small Indian Army post in Tsenjang to the north of the Namka Chu stream just below the disputed Thagla ridge at the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction. The Indian post came to be established as a consequence of the asinine “Forward Policy” which was adopted by the Indian government after the Sino-Indian border dispute began hotting up, particularly after the flight of the Dalai Lama to India. The Chinese couldn’t have chosen a better place than Tsenjang to precipitate a military conflict with India. For a start, Tsenjang was to the north of the de facto border, which at that point ran midstream of the Namka Chu. The PLA also commanded the high ground. By surrounding Tsenjang, the Chinese had flung down the gauntlet at India. India walked right into it, chin extended.

Government warned

On September 10, the then Defence Minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, conveyed his decision that the matter must be settled on the field, overruling the vehement objections of the Army Chief, General P.N. Thapar. Gen. Thapar warned that the Chinese had deployed in strength and even larger numbers were concentrated at nearby Le, very clearly determined to attack in strength if need be. He warned that the fighting would break out all along the border and that there would be grave repercussions. But orders are orders and, consequently, the Eastern Command ordered Brigadier J.P. Dalvi commanding 7 Brigade to “move forward within forty eight hours and deal with the Chinese investing Dhola.” Having imposed this order on a reluctant Army, Krishna Menon left for New York on September 18 but not before slyly conveying to the press that the Indian Army had been ordered to evict the Chinese from the Indian territory. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru too was abroad having left India on September 7 only to return on September 30.

The Indian Army was under pressure but Gen. Thapar was still not prepared to bow to sheer stupidity. On September 22, at a meeting presided over by the Deputy Minister, K. Raghuramiah, Gen. Thapar once again warned the government of the possibility of grave repercussions and now demanded written orders. He received the following order signed by H.C. Sarin, then a mere Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Defence: “The decision throughout has been as discussed at previous meetings, that the Army should prepare and throw out the Chinese as soon as possible. The Chief of Army Staff was accordingly directed to take action for the eviction of the Chinese in the Kameng Frontier Division of NEFA [North East Frontier Agency] as soon as he was ready.” It was unambiguous insomuch as it conveyed the government’s determination to evict the Chinese, but by leaving the Army Chief to take action when he was ready for it was seeking to pass the onus on to him. With such waffling skills, it is no small wonder that Sarin rose to great heights in the bureaucracy.

Pressure from MPs

Under the previous Army Chief, General K.S. Thimayya, the Indian Army had developed a habit of winking at the government’s impossible demands often impelled by its fanciful public posturing. The posturing itself was an outcome of the trenchant attacks on the government in Parliament by a galaxy of MPs. One particular MP, the young Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was particularly eloquent in his quest to put Jawaharlal Nehru on the defensive. He and others like Lohia, Kripalani and Masani would frequently thunder that every inch of sacred Indian territory must be freed from the Chinese and charge the government with a grave dereliction of duty. Nehru finally obliged by initiating the stupid Forward Policy and resorting to the use of more extravagant language to signal his own determination to the Indian public. A general summed this policy succinctly by writing: “we would build a post here and they would build one there and it became a bit of a game, to get there first!”

Nehru returned on September 30 and was furious that the Chinese were still not thrown out from the Thagla ridge. He was tired of the Indian Army’s refrain of grave repercussions. He shouted at the hapless Army Chief: “I don’t care if the Chinese came as far as Delhi, they have to be driven out of Thagla.” Unlike Gen. Thimayya, Gen. Thapar was possibly a more obedient soldier, probably even less understanding of the government’s compulsions and hence took its orders far more literally and seriously than it deserved.

Within the Indian Army, there were serious reservations about the efficacy of the government’s orders. The GOC, Northern Command, Lt. Gen Daulat Singh, warned the government that “it is imperative that political direction be based on military means.” The 33 Corps, which was responsible for the sector, sent its candid opinions on the order. Its Brigadier General Staff, Jagjit Singh Aurora, who later won enduring fame as the liberator of Bangladesh, called up his friend Brigadier D.K. Palit, the then Director of Military Operations, and berated him for issuing such impractical orders. Not only were the Chinese better placed in terms of terrain, men and material, the Indian troops were woefully ill-equipped, ill-clothed and had to be supplied by mule, trains or airdrops. They were acutely short of ammunition. The objective of evicting the Chinese from Thagla itself was of no strategic or tactical consequence. The nation clearly needed a greater objective to go to precipitate an unequal war.

Bureaucratic chicanery

The government’s reaction was a typical instance of political and bureaucratic chicanery and cunning. It ordered the establishment of the 4 Corps culled out from 33 Corps and appointed Maj. Gen. B.M. Kaul, a Nehru kinsman and armchair general who had never commanded a fighting unit earlier. Gen. Kaul was from the Army Supply Corps and earned his spurs by building barracks near Ambala in record time. He was a creature peculiar to Delhi’s political hothouse and adept in all the bureaucratic skills that are still in demand there. He had the Prime Minister’s ear and that’s all that mattered. And so off he went, a dubious soldier seeking dubious battle and dubious glory that might even propel him to much higher office. Welles Hangen in his book After Nehru Who? profiled B.M. Kaul as a possible successor. The rest is history, a tale of dishonour, defeat and more duplicity about which much has been written.

Fifty years is a long time ago and the memory of 1962 is now faint. But what should cause the nation concern is that the lessons of 1962 still do not seem to have been learnt. If at all anything, the Indian Army is now an even greater and much more misused instrument of public policy. If in 1962, it was a relatively small army with 1930s equipment, it is a million man army in 2012 with 1960s equipment. Let alone the Chinese PLA, almost every terrorist and insurgent in Jammu and Kashmir has better arms and communication gear than our soldiers. Even the Border Security Force has superior logistics, vestments and small arms. We persist in benchmarking against the Pakistanis when we should be benchmarking against the Chinese, if not the Russians and Americans.


Governmental decision-making is still characterised by ad hocism and a tendency to grandstand. It was this tendency that cost us so many lives in Kargil when we went into quick battle mostly to assuage public opinion and for domestic political gain, without thinking through the tactics. It is only the unquestioning soldiers of the Indian Army who will still charge like the Light Brigade.

But does anyone of consequence in India, including in the Indian Army, commiserate these days over the futile and quite unnecessary loss of over 7,000 lives, so much of humiliation as a consequence of so much of foolishness by men holding high offices? In 1962, lyricist Pradeep wrote the now famous song whose first line runs “ aye mere watan ke logon, zara aankh mey bhar lo paani, jo shaheed hue hain unki, zara yaad karo qurbani .” When Lata Mangeshkar sang this to an audience that included Jawaharlal Nehru, it is said that tears flowed from every pair of eyes. The song still has that magical quality, but few now seem to know what train of events caused those poignant words to be written and what emotions put that enduring magic in Lata’s voice.

If politicians cannot find the time or the attention span to read some of the numerous books and articles written on the subject, they should at least listen to the song and shed a tear for our fallen warriors. We owe them that much for they have, as Kaifi Azmi wrote in 1964: kar chale hum fida jaan aur tan sathiyon, ab tumhare hawale watan sathiyon !

(Mohan Guruswamy is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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