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The unlearned lesson of 1962

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)

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2020 9:06:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-unlearned-lesson-of-1962/article4055276.ece

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