Thursday, October 18, 2012



There was no institutional mechanism for decision-making on national security. Indian soldiers fought bravely but were let down by unspeakably incompetent generals and the political leaders that had assigned them the commands for which they were unfit Inder Malhotra

SINCE the traumatic story of the brief but brutal border war with China is too well known, having been written in minutest details, and indeed is being retold extensively in the run up to its 50th anniversary there is no point repeating it here. Suffice it to say that whoever lived through it, as I did, hasn't forgotten it half a century later. As Jawaharlal Nehru's official biographer S. Gopal said succinctly: "Things went so wrong that had they not happened it would have been difficult to believe them". In the heat and humiliation of the moment some quickies were published on the "Guilty Men of 1962", but these were based more on anger than on facts. The war's fiftieth anniversary provides an opportunity to discuss the role of the personality factor — on both sides — in the horrific events as they developed.

With the benefit of hindsight it should be clear that had the Indian state been functioning collectively as a modern and effective one should, it would have realized soon after March 1959 — when the Dalai Lama fled from Lhasa and was given asylum in this country - that the two countries were moving from the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai era to the Hindi-Chini bye bye era. The trend became even clearer when violent armed clashes began and at Kongka-la in Ladakh the Chinese drew blood for the first time. Meanwhile, in September 1959, in a curt letter to Nehru, his Chinese opposite number Zhou Enlai categorically repudiated the Indian Prime Minister's claim that China had agreed to accept the "so-called McMahon Line" with a few "minor adjustments", and that there were no great differences between the two countries on the rest of the border.

All these red signals were ignored because Nehru had somehow convinced himself that while there would be border skirmishes, patrol clashes and even bigger spats the Chinese would do "nothing big". For this the iconic first Prime Minister of independent India must take his share of blame. But what about others, especially his top advisers, military and civilians some of whom later claimed that they knew the Prime Minister's reading of the situation was wrong? Why didn't they say so to him at least privately? Their unabashed governing doctrine was that "Panditji knows best".

On September 8, 1962, the Chinese crossed the Thagla ridge in what was then North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and is now Arunachal Pradesh. Mired in old beliefs and after consultations with military leaders Nehru announced that he had directed the Army to "throw the Chinese out of Thagla" but had fixed no time limit. "It was for the "Army to decide". The age of innocence ended on October 20 when both in NEFA and Ladakh the Chinese came down the Himalayan slopes overrunning manifestly inadequate Indian defences in their way. Having achieved their immediate objective they halted their offensive five days later. So terribly shattered was national morale by then the Republic's President S. Radhakishnan accused his government of "credulity and negligence". Nehru himself told Parliament ruefully: "We were getting out of touch with the reality of modern world and were living in an artificial atmosphere of our own creation".

The second phase of the Chinese offensive, when it came in mid-November, was even more formidable and furious than the first. In four days flat the Chinese subjected to this country to a humiliating defeat, a combination of a military debacle and a political disaster. So much so that Nehru, believing that the Chinese could take over the entire eastern India, wrote those pathetic letters to President Kennedy on November 19, the blackest day of that Black November. (May I have the impertinence to say that I published them first in November 2010) In any case, these were overtaken by the Chinese declaration of unilateral cease-fire and withdrawal.
Since there was no institutional mechanism for decision making on national security, who all should be held responsible for the reprehensible way in which the Chinese invasion was handled? Before speaking about individuals, let it be summed up that the valiant Indian soldiers fought bravely but were let down by unspeakably incompetent generals and the political leaders that had assigned them the commands for which they were unfit.

On top of the list of those to be held accountable must be the name of Krishna Menon. A brilliant but waspish man, he was also the Prime Minister's blind spot. As Defence Minister since 1957 he was an unmitigated disaster, insulting service chiefs, playing favourites in military promotions and appointments and thus politicising the professional Indian Army. Menon even believed that China would never attack India, and Nehru knew it.

An inevitable consequence of this shocking state of affairs was the selection of Menon's hottest favourite, Lt.-General B. M. Kaul, as the overall commander of the battlefield in the northeast, an appointment that should never have been made. For although Kaul was a first-rate military bureaucrat and a man of exceptional dynamism excelled only by his ambition, he had absolutely no experience of combat. As if this weren't enough Menon did something incredibly catastrophic. Kaul had fallen seriously ill at Himalayan heights and was evacuated to Delhi. Menon ruled that his protégé would continue to command the battlefield from his sickbed in Delhi. The Army Chief, General P. N. Thapar, did not like this at all. But he did not want to cross Menon's path and was too timid even to overrule Kaul when the latter was woefully wrong. Nehru did nothing.

It is a measure of the nation's contempt earned by both Menon and Kaul that Parliament spent more time and energy in ejecting the former from the Defence Ministry than on repulsing the invaders. As for Kaul, when the visiting Senators from America asked the President whether he, too, had been taken prisoner, he had replied: "That, unfortunately, is untrue".

There were only three other men - Foreign Secretary MJ Desai, intelligence czar BN Mullik and the Defence Ministry's all-powerful Joint Secretary HC Sarin, who had some say in running the war. Mullik's role was massive and, more enough than not, malignant. If, instead of messing around with the making of policy, he had done his job of gathering intelligence on China, India would not have been taken by surprise and might even have escaped the humiliation.

For, as declassified Chinese documents and eminent researchers like Roderick Macfarqhuar have revealed, at the precise moment when Nehru was saying that the Chinese would "do nothing big", in Beijing Mao Zedong was planning a carefully calibrated limited punitive operation to "teach India and Nehru a lesson". Nor was this a hurried and casual decision. Day after day meticulous discussions took place at which all of Mao's top civilian and military advisers - including Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai, Lin Biao et al — were regularly present. At these confabulations it was decided to make Marshal Liu Bocheng the overall commander of the operations against India. The commands of the troops that would march into India went to younger generals of the PLA that had fought MacArthur to a standstill at Yalu, the river dividing China and North Korea, during the Korean War (1950-53). The paramount commandment, however, was that no major step would be taken without Mao's personal approval. The great helmsman was recovering from the huge setback to his leadership following the stark failure of his Great Leap Forward movement that took a toll of 30 million lives in the famine, which followed.

Since Mullik and his minions had no clue to this, how could they have known that at a time when China was isolated, Mao played his cards internationally most adroitly? As Henry Kissinger has just reminded us, in his latest book on China, despite relentless shelling of offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu, Mao secured an assurance from the United States at informal talks at Warsaw that the US "won't unleash" Taiwan on the Chinese mainland.

The Sino-Soviet split was a cause contributing to Mao's war on India. The lesson he wanted to teach Nehru was addressed equally to Nikita Khrushev who was friendly to India. Mao brought him into line with the skilful use of his foreknowledge of the looming Cuban Missile Crisis. Realizing that he could not take on both the US and China at the same time, the Russian leader changed his policy on India and China, no matter how temporarily.

We in this country were shocked and dismayed by the Pravda editorial of October 25 that talked of "our Chinese brothers and Indian friends" and advised India to negotiate practically on China's terms. For his part, Mao timed the start and end of his invasion of India with the Cuban affair in mind. No wonder at the end of it all he chided Mao for "cowardice in the Caribbean and perfidy in the Himalayas".

ON November 7, 1950 – twelve years before the Chinese attack -- the then Home Minister of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, wrote a 2,323-word letter to Jawaharlal Nehru, giving his assessment of the developments across the Himalayan frontier and cautioning Nehru about the imminent threat from China. The following is the complete text of the letter:

My dear Jawaharlal, 

Ever since my return from Ahmedabad and after the cabinet meeting the same day which I had to attend at practically fifteen minutes' notice and for which I regret I was not able to read all the papers, I have been anxiously thinking over the problem of Tibet and I thought I should share with you what is passing through my mind. 

I have carefully gone through the correspondence between the External Affairs Ministry and our Ambassador in Peking and through him the Chinese Government. I have tried to peruse this correspondence as favourably to our Ambassador and the Chinese Government as possible, but I regret to say that neither of them comes out well as a result of this study. 

The Chinese Government has tried to delude us by professions of peaceful intention. My own feeling is that at a crucial period they managed to instill into our Ambassador a false sense of confidence in their so-called desire to settle the Tibetan problem by peaceful means. There can be no doubt that during the period covered by this correspondence the Chinese must have been concentrating for an onslaught on Tibet. The final action of the Chinese, in my judgement, is little short of perfidy. The tragedy of it is that the Tibetans put faith in us; they chose to be guided by us; and we have been unable to get them out of the meshes of Chinese diplomacy or Chinese malevolence. From the latest position, it appears that we shall not be able to rescue the Dalai Lama. 

Our Ambassador has been at great pains to find an explanation or justification for Chinese policy and actions. As the External Affairs Ministry remarked in one of their telegrams, there was a lack of firmness and unnecessary apology in one or two representations that he made to the Chinese Government on our behalf. It is impossible to imagine any sensible person believing in the so-called threat to China from Anglo-American machinations in Tibet. Therefore, if the Chinese put faith in this, they must have distrusted us so completely as to have taken us as tools or stooges of Anglo-American diplomacy or strategy. This feeling, if genuinely entertained by the Chinese in spite of your direct approaches to them, indicates that even though we regard ourselves as the friends of China, the Chinese do not regard us as their friends. 

With the Communist mentality of "whoever is not with them being against them", this is a significant pointer, of which we have to take due note. During the last several months, outside the Russian camp, we have practically been alone in championing the cause of Chinese entry into UN and in securing from the Americans assurances on the question of Formosa. We have done everything we could to assuage Chinese feelings, to allay its apprehensions and to defend its legitimate claims in our discussions and correspondence with America and Britain and in the UN. 

Inspite of this, China is not convinced about our disinterestedness; it continues to regard us with suspicion and the whole psychology is one, at least outwardly, of scepticism perhaps mixed with a little hostility. I doubt if we can go any further than we have done already to convince China of our good intentions, friendliness and goodwill. In Peking we have an Ambassador who is eminently suitable for putting across the friendly point of view. Even he seems to have failed to convert the Chinese. Their last telegram to us is an act of gross discourtesy not only in the summary way it disposes of our protest against the entry of Chinese forces into Tibet but also in the wild insinuation that our attitude is determined by foreign influences. It looks as though it is not a friend speaking in that language but a potential enemy. 

In the background of this, we have to consider what new situation now faces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet, as we knew it, and the expansion of China almost up to our gates. Throughout history we have seldom been worried about our north-east frontier. The Himalayas have been regarded as an impenetrable barrier against any threat from the north. We had a friendly Tibet which gave us no trouble. The Chinese were divided. They had their own domestic problems and never bothered us about frontiers. In 1914, we entered into a convention with Tibet which was not endorsed by the Chinese. We seem to have regarded Tibetan autonomy as extending to independent treaty relationship. Presumably, all that we required was Chinese counter-signature.

The Chinese interpretation of suzerainty seems to be different. We can, therefore, safely assume that very soon they will disown all the stipulations which Tibet has entered into with us in the past. That throws into the melting pot all frontier and commercial settlements with Tibet on which we have been functioning and acting during the last half a century. China is no longer divided. It is united and strong. All along the Himalayas in the north and north-east, we have on our side of the frontier a population ethnologically and culturally not different from Tibetans and Mongoloids. The undefined state of the frontier and the existence on our side of a population with its affinities to the Tibetans or Chinese have all the elements of the potential trouble between China and ourselves. Recent and bitter history also tells us that Communism is no shield against imperialism and that the communists are as good or as bad imperialists as any other. Chinese ambitions in this respect not only cover the Himalayan slopes on our side but also include the important part of Assam. They have their ambitions in Burma also. Burma has the added difficulty that it has no McMahon Line round which to build up even the semblance of an agreement. 

Chinese irredentism and communist imperialism are different from the expansionism or imperialism of the western powers. The former has a cloak of ideology which makes it ten times more dangerous. In the guise of ideological expansion lie concealed racial, national or historical claims. The danger from the north and north-east, therefore, becomes both communist and imperialist. While our western and north-western threat to security is still as prominent as before, a new threat has developed from the north and north-east. Thus, for the first time, after centuries, India's defence has to concentrate itself on two fronts simultaneously. 

Our defence measures have so far been based on the calculations of superiority over Pakistan. In our calculations we shall now have to reckon with communist China in the north and in the north-east, a communist China which has definite ambitions and aims and which does not, in any way, seem friendly disposed towards us. 

Let us also consider the political conditions on this potentially troublesome frontier. Our northern and north-eastern approaches consist of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal areas in Assam. From the point of view of communication, there are weak spots. Continuous defensive lines do not exist. There is almost an unlimited scope for infiltration. Police protection is limited to a very small number of passes. There, too, our outposts do not seem to be fully manned. The contact of these areas with us is by no means close and intimate. The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. 

Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongoloid prejudices. During the last three years, we have not been able to make any appreciable approaches to the Nagas and other hill tribes in Assam. European missionaries and other visitors had been in touch with them, but their influence was in no way friendly to India or Indians. In Sikkim, there was political ferment some time ago. It is quite possible that discontent is smouldering there. Bhutan is comparatively quiet, but its affinity with Tibetans would be a handicap. Nepal has a weak oligarchic regime based almost entirely on force: it is in conflict with a turbulent element of the population as well as with enlightened ideas of the modern age. In these circumstances, to make people alive to the new danger or to make them defensively strong is a very difficult task indeed and that difficulty can be got over only by enlightened firmness, strength and a clear line of policy. 

I am sure the Chinese and their source of inspiration, Soviet Union, would not miss any opportunity of exploiting these weak spots, partly in support of their ideology and partly in support of their ambitions. In my judgement the situation is one which we cannot afford either to be complacent or to be vacillating. We must have a clear idea of what we wish to achieve and also of the methods by which we should achieve it. Any faltering or lack of decisiveness in formulating our objectives or in pursuing our policies to attain those objectives is bound to weaken us and increase the threats which are so evident.

Side by side with these external dangers, we shall now have to face serious internal problems as well. I have already asked Iengar to send to the External Affairs Ministry a copy of the Intelligence Bureau's appreciation of these matters. Hitherto, the Communist Party of India has found some difficulty in contacting communists abroad, or in getting supplies of arms, literature, etc., from them. They had to contend with the difficult Burmese and Pakistan frontiers on the east or with the long seaboard. They shall now have a comparatively easy means of access to Chinese communists and through them to other foreign communists. Infiltration of spies, fifth columnists and communists would now be easier. Instead of having to deal with isolated communist pockets in Telengana and Warrangal we may have to deal with communist threats to our security along our northern and north-eastern frontiers, where, for supplies of arms and ammunition, they can safely depend on communist arsenals in China. 

The whole situation thus raises a number of problems on which we must come to an early decision so that we can, as I said earlier, formulate the objectives of our policy and decide the method by which those objectives are to be attained. It is also clear that the action will have to be fairly comprehensive, involving not only our defence strategy and state of preparations but also problem of internal security to deal with which we have not a moment to lose. We shall also have to deal with administrative and political problems in the weak spots along the frontier to which I have already referred. 

It is of course, impossible to be exhaustive in setting out all these problems. I am, however, giving below some of the problems which, in my opinion, require early solution and round which we have to build our administrative or military policies and measures to implement them. 

       a)    A military and intelligence appreciation of the Chinese threat to India both on the     frontier and to internal security. 

        b)   An examination of military position and such redisposition of our forces as might be necessary, particularly with the idea of guarding important routes or areas which are likely to be the subject of dispute.

           c)    An appraisement of the strength of our forces and, if necessary, reconsideration of our retrenchment plans for the Army in the light of the new threat. 

          d)   A long-term consideration of our defence needs. My own feeling is that, unless we assure our supplies of arms, ammunition and armour, we would be making our defence perpetually weak and we would not be able to stand up to the double threat of difficulties both from the west and north-west and north and north-east. 

         e)    The question of China's entry into the UN. In view of the rebuff which China has given us and the method which it has followed in dealing with Tibet, I am doubtful whether we can advocate its claim any longer. There would probably be a threat in the UN virtually to outlaw China, in view of its active participation in the Korean war. We must determine our attitude on this question also. 

       f)    The political and administrative steps which we should take to strengthen our northern and north-eastern frontier. This would include the whole of the border, ie. Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal territory in Assam. 

       g)    Measures of internal security in the border areas as well as the states flanking those areas such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Assam. 

        h)    Improvement of our communication, road, rail, air and wireless, in these areas and with the frontier outposts. 

        i)     The future of our mission at Lhasa and the trade posts at Gyangtse and Yatung and the forces which we have in operation in Tibet to guard the trade routes. 

         j)    The policy in regard to the McMahon Line.

These are some of the questions which occur to my mind. It is possible that a consideration of these matters may lead us into wider question of our relationship with China, Russia, America, Britain and Burma. This, however, would be of a general nature, though some might be basically very important, e.g., we might have to consider whether we should not enter into closer association with Burma in order to strengthen the latter in its dealings with China. 

I do not rule out the possibility that, before applying pressure on us, China might apply pressure on Burma. With Burma, the frontier is entirely undefined and the Chinese territorial claims are more substantial. In its present position, Burma might offer an easier problem to China, and therefore, might claim its first attention. 

I suggest that we meet early to have a general discussion on these problems and decide on such steps as we might think to be immediately necessary and direct, quick examination of other problems with a view to taking early measures to deal with them. 

Vallabhbhai Patel, 

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