Saturday, October 20, 2012

Sidelining Army Was A Grave Error



An air of unreality surrounded India’s policy processes at that time relating to the higher defence management. It is unclear whether the Indian Army was consulted on the military and strategic implications of Nehru’s Forward Policy

by P.R.Chari

FIFTY years should be long enough to forget India’s humiliation in the Sino-Indian border conflict of 1962; but its traumatic memory still haunts the armed forces and informs the timidity of South Block in dealing with China. Hence, it is important to review the process of higher decision-making in the area of national security that evolved after Independence, but signally failed at that critical juncture.

Indian troop movements in Assam during the conflict (left) and jawans patrolling in the forward areas. The Army believed an offensive-defensive strategy was required vis-a-vis China due to the poor state of India’s preparedness in the border areas

Any such inquiry immediately hits a road block, which is inaccessibility to official records. The familiar complaint remains unaddressed that the files relating to the debacle in 1962 are securely locked up in the record rooms of the Government of India, which includes Army Headquarters, Ministry of Defence, Ministry of External Affairs, Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Secretariat. So do the operational records like after-action reports and regimental histories relating to the conflict. It would be naive to expect that they will ever be transferred to the National Archives and become available to the serious historian and researcher. Ironically, the official history of the conflict, prepared after great effort and expense by the Historical Section of the MOD remains under wraps.

Varying Accounts of the War

Then we hear the familiar litany that the Henderson-Brooks report, submitted in mid-1963, is yet to be made public. An application was filed some two years back seeking its disclosure under the Right to Information Act. It was rejected by the Defence Minister claiming that an internal study had confirmed that the contents of the Henderson Brooks Report "are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value." It would be difficult to improve on that bit of legerdemain. However, several regulars in the seminar circuit claim to have seen the report, and inform that it spares nobody—Nehru, Krishna Menon, Ministry of Defence, Army Headquarters, several Generals involved in the conflict, the Indian National Congress and the Opposition parties. Naturally, the governments-of-the-day of all hues are reluctant to hurt themselves and their icons by disclosing the report. Truth, consequently, has perforce to wear a mask.

How do the commentariat apportion blame for India’s debacle in 1962? They fall into two broad categories. There are those who indict China for its unprovoked treacherous attack on an innocent unsuspecting India. And, those who believe that India’s feckless actions—an amalgam of Nehru’s naiveté, Krishna Menon’s insouciance and B.M.Mullik’s activism provoked the violent Chinese reaction. The many accounts of the Sino-Indian border conflict can similarly be classified. First, we have the military accounts by participants like General B.M.Kaul that were designed for self-exculpation, but also indicting others involved. Second, we have more objective accounts by civilians like P.V.R Rao, Brigadier Dalvi and General D.K.Palit which maintain fair objectivity. Thirdly, we have the factually accurate accounts of Neville Maxwell, B.M Mullik and S. Gopal, who had access to official records. There are scores of other analysts who have noticed aspects of the 1962 conflict for making their personal interpretations.

Visible Structures, Invisible Processes

There is no controversy, however, that the higher defence decision- making system established in India after Independence was suggested by Lord Ismay on the lines of the British pre-war establishment; it was recommended by Lord Mountbatten and accepted by Nehru. The system that evolved and obtained in 1962 had both visible structures and invisible processes. An early decision was taken to reduce the salience of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army by designating the heads of the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force as their respective Commanders-in Chief. A committee system of functioning was then established. At the Cabinet level the Political Affairs Committee of the Cabinet was charged with all matters relating to defence and national security. In the Ministry of Defence (MOD) the highest policy making body was the Defence Minister’s Committee. Headed by the Defence Minister, it included the other Ministers in MOD, the Commanders-in-Chief of the three Services, the Defence Secretary and the Financial Adviser. Other committees dealing with defence electronics, and coordination of personnel and supply issues functioned under the Defence Minister’s Committee. Co-equal committees dealt with matters relating to production and supply, pensions and defence R&D.

The Chiefs of Staff Committee functioned as the apex coordinating body between the three Services. It was chaired in rotation by the Chief who had served the longest on the Committee; an inherently unsatisfactory arrangement since the Chairman of this vital Committee had no fixity of tenure. Under the Chiefs of Staff Committee there were functional committees concerned with joint training, joint planning, joint communication electronics and other inter-Service matters.

Poor Civil-Military Relations

At the administrative level every Directorate in the Services Headquarters was replicated in the wings of the MOD; hence segments of both establishments dealt exclusively with each other. Proposals emanating from the Directorates in Services Headquarters would be processed by the designated Wing in the MOD, with the Ministry of Defence (Finance) entering the picture if any financial angle was involved. A silo system of governance was thus obtaining in this triangular administrative system. It was time-consuming and inefficient. Interminable delays were in-built into this system with innumerable meetings being held to resolve disagreements. Issues unable to be resolved at any level were transferred to progressively higher levels to reach a decision, adding to delays.

Two important events intervened before 1962 that greatly reduced the influence of the armed forces in higher decision-making. The first occurred in 1955 when the three Service Acts were amended. The title Commander-in-Chief that had imperial connotations was dropped, and the Service Heads were re-designated more simply as Chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force. Simultaneously, Nehru proposed the establishment of Service Councils on the pattern of the Army Council in the U.K. in which the Chiefs of Staff and their Principal Staff Officers would be members, and function as the chief advisers to the Defence Minister. As narrated by former Cabinet Secretary, S.S.Khera, this proposal was initially accepted by the Service Chiefs, but they changed their minds on discovering that this arrangement was devised in the U.K. to curb the influence of the Duke of Cambridge, who was a Service Chief, but also Queen Victoria’s cousin. Thereby, the Service Chiefs consciously chose to be operational heads of their Services outside the MOD; this had far-reaching effects during the 1962 crisis, since they were not part of any institution within the higher defence decision-making process.

Junking Army Chief’s Opinion

The second event was the face-off between General Thimayya and V.K.Krishna Menon, which ended badly for the image of the armed forces. Early signs of their inter-personal differences had surfaced when two military exercises in the Eastern and Western sectors had concluded that the Indian army would be unable to stem an offensive by China, given the forces and logistics available to both countries. Thimayya’s dissuasive strategy called for an additional three divisions and some augmentation of the ITBP and Assam Rifles. An offensive role for the Indian Air Force was envisaged. Menon’s reaction to these proposals and their underlying premises was to admonish Thimayya for extravagance and shelve the proposal. At the conceptual level, Thimayya believing that an offensive–defensive strategy was required with both military and diplomatic efforts being pursued vis-à-vis China due to the poor state of India’s preparedness in the border areas. Menon placed his faith in Sino-Indian friendship, despite the contrary proof placed before him. In the event, Thimayya felt compelled to resign, but withdrew his resignation within a day after being given some vague assurances by Nehru. Curiously, the Naval and Air Force Chiefs had gone along with Thimayya’s plans to resign, but backed off. Parliament was thereafter informed by Nehru that the principle of civilian control over the military was sacrosanct and that the General had acted irresponsibly. This unfortunate episode diminished Thimayya’s image, strengthened Menon’s position, but, overall, had the effect of lowering the influence of the Indian Army in the decision-making process. Therefore, the Indian armed forces had become marginal to defence decision-making before the Sino-Indian conflict.

In the decision-making processes relating to national security before 1962 the armed forces had got marginalised. The civilian bureaucracy in the relevant Ministries of External Affairs, Defence, Finance and Home Affairs fared somewhat better. But the national security apparatus was completely dominated by Jawaharlal Nehru, who bestrode the scene like a colossus, with Krishna Menon and B.M.Mullik as his chief advisers and executors of policy. P.V.R. Rao, a former Defence Secretary reveals that Nehru was "aged and worn out". His trusted adviser, Krishna Menon, was pathologically allergic to the United States, which limited Nehru’s options, especially as he was also unprepared to approach the Soviet Union, lest a high political price be extracted by Moscow. This resulted, Rao says, in "a deliberate playing down of the threat posed by China, a policy of drift with regard to Defence and a complete lack of recognition of the magnitude or urgency of the danger." B.M. Mullik’s activism at this juncture becomes explicable because he was operating in a policy vacuum.

The chronicles of those times make clear that Nehru was his own Foreign Minister, and laid out India’s foreign and national security policy almost exclusively. Krishna Menon was his sounding board-cum-policy-executor. Non-alignment was its leitmotif, but has a pronounced leftist bias and inclination towards the Soviet bloc. In this milieu Nehru’s policy towards China was founded on the belief that India needed to maintain good relations with China at all costs despite its unfriendly actions like laying claims to Indian territory and supporting Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. Deviations from this prevailing orthodoxy were frowned upon, and did prejudice career prospects, which served as a cautionary tale for others. Consequently, detailed analyses by Indian military and foreign service personnel at that time regarding Chinese force increases in Tibet, their dispositions across the Indian border, improvements in the communications networks,, suppression of internal dissent, and insidious Han-ization of Tibet were brushed aside, and the authors of these analyses reprimanded. Sardar Patel’s clairvoyant assessment of the Chinese threat, immediately after Independence, was all but forgotten in the euphoria of a new orthodoxy that decried any perception of a threat from China.

The Growing Dispute Over Territory

The files of those times, incidentally, offer revealing vignettes of Krishna Menon’s complex personality. He was rude and insulting towards the civil and military officials working with him, but servile in his dealings with Nehru. It seems Krishna Menon would send for officers at all hours of the day and night, but keep them waiting in his ante-room while he went about his other business. Neither would he offer them a seat. Such uncultured behaviour was wholly unacceptable in the defence apparatus, where courtesy towards colleagues was an ingrained tradition. Krishna Menon’s boorish conduct towards other officers contrasted sharply with his indulgence of Lt Gen B.M. Kaul, who openly flaunted his proximity to Nehru. Nehru was aware of the problems that Krishna Menon was creating. Why he did nothing to restrain Menon remains a mystery to this day Coming to the Sino-Indian border dispute, it is well-known that China had not rati?ed the Simla Agreement of 1914 that sought to establish the McMahon Line as the border between Tibet and India in the Northeast. While recognising China’s sovereignty over Tibet in 1954, India could have insisted upon the demarcation of its undefined borders with the latter country to avoid future complications, which was unfortunately not thought necessary. The border problem was compounded by the obtaining reality that India could point to a boundary line based on British interpretations. China was unable to counter these claims due to the primitive state of its own cartography, and its reliance on Kuomintang maps. Hence China was unwilling to commit itself to any precise claims regarding the border alignment about which it only had vague and hazy understanding. India’s argument, however, that well-recognised historical and civilizational boundaries required no further definition raises uncomfortable questions about which history or civilization was being relied upon—Hindu, Muslim or British.

The growing dispute between India and China over these boundaries acquired a new prescience after the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959. In this surcharged atmosphere B.M. Mullik’s activism, which found expression in his ill-conceived ‘forward policy’, acted like a fuse. It was based on the conviction that China would advance into the disputed border areas wherever there was no Indian presence. But, they would be deterred if Indian personnel were already established there. Mullik firmly believed that the Chinese would not use force to overrun Indian posts even if they had the capability. This reckless policy found favour with Nehru and Krishna Menon.

S. Gopal perceptively asks: "No one questioned either the credentials of the Intelligence Bureau to provide advice rather than information, or the unjustified jump in the logic of its argument, that Chinese reluctance to engage in confrontation in the past necessarily guaranteed such inactivity in the future." Neville Maxwell corroborates this belief in China’s quiescence despite Indian provocations, caustically adding that "The source of that faith was Mullik, who from the beginning to the end proclaimed the oracular truth that, whatever the Indians did, there need be no fear of a violent Chinese reaction." What evolved thereafter was a wild game of checkers with India and China hurriedly establishing posts in unoccupied areas all along the disputed border. In fairness to Nehru it should be added that he wished these forward posts to be supported by major concentrations of forces in the rear. But, no such forces were available.

Defence Ministry’s Failures

An air of unreality surrounded India’s policy processes at that time relating to the higher defence management. It is unclear whether the Indian Army was consulted on the military and strategic implications of the ‘forward policy’. Undoubtedly, they were aware of its formulation and involved in its execution. But, they were obviously not provided the necessary resources to deal with any foreseeable contingencies. It would be recollected that the forces requested by General Thimayya after a detailed study of a likely clash with China along the Sino-Indian border was unceremoniously shelved by Krishna Menon some years earlier. The ground situation was obviously not reviewed, nor was the Indian Army asked to restate their requirements. Nor was it consulted on the feasibility of executing the orders issued by the Prime Minister and, later, the Ministry of Defence, to evict the Chinese from Indian territory. Were any operational plans available to execute this order? Was the logistical support available to sustain these operational plans like roads and communications, war wastage reserves, transport, clothing, weapons and equipment, and so on?

Clearly, no assessment had been made by the Ministry of Defence of these requirements, much less to establish them. Most importantly, the troops were not psychologically conditioned to treat China as the enemy. Indeed, the ‘bhai-bhai’ syndrome continued to beguile them. India’s high policy was thus based on the triple premises that India would continue to be leery of negotiations, but was willing to risk confrontation, while remaining militarily and psychologically unprepared to defend against a Chinese attack. This serendipitous policy of travelling hopefully in the expectation that agreeable results would come about was pushed to its limits.

India’s vulnerability was evident to all, including the Chinese. But, the all-encompassing belief animating pursuit of the forward policy was that, whatever the circumstances obtaining and the situation unfolding, the Chinese would not retaliate. When the ultimate denouement occurred, and the swift and well-planned attack by China in October 1962 took place, it created a huge shock in all adjuncts of India’s decision-making process. The course of that conflict is too well known to need rehearsing, but it is marked by Nehru’s bravado in informing the press in Madras, en route to Colombo, that he had ordered the Indian Army to throw the Chinese out of Indian territory.

The judgment is inescapable that the Menon-Nehru-Mullik trio bears primary responsibility for the disaster in 1962. But, the sobering recollection would be more accurate that this disaster reflected a national failure by all adjuncts of the higher defense decision-making process, which the Henderson Brooks Report is believed to have indicted.

The writer is a Visiting Professor, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi

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