Wrong Choosing: Revisiting Nehru’s Decision Making that Led to Indian Military Humiliation in 1962 Sino-Indian War

Written By: Air Vice Marshal Abrar Ahmed

It was October of 1962. Seemingly, humanity was coming to an end through repeat of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, while, Kremlin and White House were busy averting World War-III during the Cuban Missile Crises, China launched a two pronged land offensive, about 1000 miles apart, against India across the Himalayas. The Chinese political aim was to employ military force to re-establish her territorial integrity which had been compromised after the intrusion of Indian army and establishment of 43 border posts across the McMahon Line in North West Aksai Chin region and across Subansiri River in North East Frontier Region (NEFA), India.
Since independence, India was following a ‘Policy of Expansionism’. After successful capture of the independent states of Hyderabad, Junagadh, Munawadar, Kathiawar, Jammu & Kashmir and Goa between 1948 and 1961, India felt confident and experienced to take on China. Therefore, the Indian army was ordered to occupy Chinese territories namely, Tawang and Aksai Chin. Nehru asserting himself as the Indian political visionary leader and named this risky military adventure as his ‘Forward Policy’ against China.

While her smaller and weaker neighbors could not fight Indian expansionist policy, China was strong. Nehru failed to comprehend this and China imposed war on her. India could have halted Chinese aggression, but Nehru failed to use all elements of national power. Nehru’s most crucial mistake was not to use Indian Air Force. To understand the whole perspective of war, the prevalent international environment and domestic situations of India and China are briefly covered in the following paragraphs.
In the context of prevalent international environment at the time, the Cold War was expanding. Besides NATO, SEATO and CENTO had been established to ensue containment policy. India was determined to stay out of Cold War rivalries and had instituted and was a leading member of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Although concerns were being raised at United Nations about Indian military aggressions against her weaker neighbors, U.S. and USSR were silent because both of them wanted India on their side in the Cold War. In the same context, though Indian capture of Goa was not taken well by United States, Kennedy administration took no action against it in spite of Portuguese request.

Domestically, China was facing U.S. supported Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan. Relations with USSR were at low ebb after the exodus of Uyghur Muslims from Sinkiang into Soviet Union resulting in withdrawal of Soviet economic aid and return of Russian military and engineering experts after 1960. In South, China was faced with contradictory Indian slogans and words. Nehru advocated Indians and Chinese are brothers (‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’) and had also signed the Panchseel Agreement on Tibet in 1950. Indian port of Calcutta was being used by China for Tibet bound imports. However at the same time, India had granted political asylum to Dalai Lama and his 100,000 followers and was supporting CIA to train Tibetans for insurgency against China. China thought Indian dubious policy was only meant to gain economic and military concessions from the super powers. Economically, Chinese situation was hopeless in 1962. She had suffered typhoons, floods and droughts and was facing food shortages and even political disturbances in some regions. In spite of all problems, Mao Zedong still enjoyed complete authority. Mao Zedong was concerned about Indian intrusions and decided to gain advantage from Cuban Missile Crisis to retake his lost territory. He employed diplomacy to persuade Soviets to remain neutral and United States not to support Chiang Kai-shek to attack China. Therefore, India could now be dealt with, without any other distraction.

On the Indian side, Nehru was dominating Indian National Congress which was the single largest political entity in India. Poverty, illiteracy, disease, unemployment along with political and economic exclusions were rising but Nehru was focused on concentrating power in his dynasty. He had weakened important national institutions like Foreign, Defense, Interior and Information Ministries. Nehru wanted these institutions to blindly follow his dictates. Nehru sent Army Chief General Thimayya on retirement for voicing concern over manifestation of ‘Forward Policy’ and replaced him by General Kaul who did not belong to a fighting arm. This adversely affected military morale and Generals now abstained from providing worthwhile advice to Nehru on issues of national security. The 1961 capture of Goa had also emboldened Nehru. Therefore, Pakistani President Ayub Khan’s offer for joint Indo-Pakistan defense was arrogantly rejected by Nehru. U.S. backed initiatives to let Britain (head of Commonwealth) help India against China were also dismissed by over-confident Nehru.

Prior to military invasion, China made multiple futile diplomatic and non-lethal military attempts to convince India to roll back her 43 out of 60 military posts established on Chinese soil. Nehru frustrated China by refusing to even recognize these territorial disputes. Initially China decided to employ diplomacy backed by military. Therefore, a Chinese Army battalion surrounded an Indian post inside Tibet border to simply cut off its supply line without firing at it. However, the Indians began supplying this post with Mi-4 helicopters thereby totally diluting the effect of Chinese move. After this incident, China decided to employ military backed by diplomacy. Hence in a final diplomatic signal, China told India to come to Peking on October 15 and discuss the issue or choose to play with a fire that might consume India. Indian military and intelligence reports of likely Chinese invasion were also disregarded by Nehru as mere skepticism.

The eventual calibrated Chinese advance from October 20 to 24, 1962 recaptured all areas occupied by Indian soldiers while still respecting the McMahon Line. This action resulted in minor Indian losses with no mentionable Chinese loss. Having defeated entrenched Indian Army, Mao Zedong again offered political negotiations. Nehru dismissed the Chinese offer and vowed to fight back. He declared national emergency, imposed war tax and created war hysteria against China and began seeking U.S./USSR support against China.

Chinese were closely monitoring Indian military dispositions. When Indian Army began concentrating for counter offensive by November 14, 1962, China launched its full military might and mauling two Indian divisions, captured territories 50 kilometers in depth, forcing population evacuation from entire Assam. Similar advance resulted in capture of whole of Aksai Chin. This second offensive also lasted from November 17 to 20, 1962 but it was fast, brute and unstoppable and resulted in death of almost 1400 Indian soldiers, more than 1000 wounded and another 4000 POWs.1 This shattered India, and panic gripped Delhi where people feared that it was only a matter of time before Chinese Army will parachute into Delhi and burn it as forewarned by Mao Zedong. China however, without asking for negotiations again, declared unilateral ceasefire on November 21 and also moved its forces 20 kilometers behind McMahon Line dictating India to do the same lest China resumes the offensive.

India possessed a strong Air Force consisting of Hunters and Mysteres for Air Defense and Canberra aircraft with a bombing range of 2000 miles. Similarly, Tezpur, Guwahati, Bagdogra, Hasimara and Dibrugarh airfields could readily support air operations in the theatre of war. Chinese main Lines of Communication (LoC) in the entire war zone were very vulnerable to Indian air action. On the contrary, due to discontinuation of Soviet military assistance, China severely lacked in aircraft, fuel, and ammunition. Moreover, small air strips in Tibet being at high altitude were not feasible for combat air operations. Indian Air Force, therefore, could interdict LoC, target fuel, ammunition and ration depots and also provide Close Combat Air Support to Indian troops. But Nehru elected not to apply air power only to ward off the possibility of Chinese retaliatory strategic bombing, notwithstanding the fact that Chinese PLAAF did not possess such a capability.

Indian military defeat raised many important questions about Nehru’s assumptions, his assessment of ends-ways-means, his appreciation of Indian and Chinese domestic situations and, most important of all, his entire decision making during the war. The critical evaluation of Nehru’s strategic analysis and decisions pertaining to this war are as follows:

a. Faulty Assumptions. Nehru’s decisions, actions, parliamentary and media conversations reveal under mentioned assumptions.
i. China will not react militarily to Indian border provocations.
ii. Superior Indian Army will defeat PLA.
iii. China is internally too weak and embroiled to fight a war with India.
iv. In a Chinese imposed war, USSR and USA will support India.
v. If India uses Air Force, China will undertake strategic bombing.

b. Failure to Develop ‘Ends-Ways-Means’ Paradigm. Nehru’s end objective was Indian territorial expansion into China and Tibet using the military instrument. However, he did not seek specialist military advice in the event of Chinese military response. The honest advice given by General Thimayya was brushed aside. The diplomatic instrument was employed reactively and no assurances were sought from super powers due to Nehru’s Non-Aligned Movement policy initiative. Even economic homework to support defensive war effort was lacking as evident from the panicky imposition of war tax after first Chinese attack. The media (information tool) was directed mainly at domestic audience. Letter to U.S. President seeking immediate air intervention was meaningless without offering anything in return.

c. Imperfect Appreciation of Chinese Political Will and Domestic Situation. Nehru heavily relied on Indian ambassador in China and U.S. ambassador in India to develop his evaluations about Chinese inability to fight a war due to their domestic problems. He neglected using his intelligence tools, aerial reconnaissance and advice from neutral foreign diplomats in Delhi. His strategic blunder lay in his inability to assess ‘Chinese political will’ to defend their homeland which was amply manifested in Mao Zedong’s statements. Moreover, the recent Korean War had vividly demonstrated this aspect when China engaged nuclear capable U.S. Hence, it was naive to militarily encroach on Chinese territory without inviting war.

d. Skewed Decision Making. This is the most crucial area where Nehru simultaneously lost a number of wickets to a single Chinese spin ball. Following faulty decisions led to stumbling of (Clausewitzian trinity) Indian Government, public and Armed Forces.

i. Nehru’s rebuffal of the Chinese offer for political negotiations after initial setback of October 20-23, without having military means to defend against similar recurrence in future.
ii. Scapegoating Indian defense minister for ‘Forward Policy’ failure.
iii. Seeking USAF intervention without first using Indian Air Force.
iv. Soliciting U.S. intervention made a mockery of his NAM initiative.


Nations have to protect their interests at their own peril, super powers like to use others rather than get used by others, the territorial integrity is still a vital interest of all nation states, therefore, an infringement on territory will invite military response, and notwithstanding all of the aforesaid, when a war is imposed on a nation state, the least its leadership can do is to use its armed forces in defense of motherland.

e. The Decision “not to use Indian Air Force”. The decision of not employing Indian Air Force caused national pain and anger and remains widely debated since the 1962 war. It was this single decision that could have changed the course of history and kept Indian pride intact. Apparently, Nehru had amassed too much political authority in him. From the military standpoint, the depository of all military and political authority in a single person often leads to major disasters as is evident from Napoleon’s Waterloo and Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa.

Nehru’s assumption like General Lee (of U.S. Confederate forces during American Civil War) and actions like Hitler were amazingly confusing. While facing military defeat on the battlefield he chose not to accept Chinese offer for political negotiations. He was seeking 12 squadrons of U.S. combat aircraft while his own Air Force was sitting idle. Many Indian Air Force Chiefs now claim that employment of Indian Air Force could have changed the outcome of this war. However, this claim cannot be fully substantiated. Similarly, Indian Army officers who were in the fight also say the same. The military inquiry into this war by Lt Gen Henderson Brookes remains classified to-date, probably to protect the Nehru dynasty whose fourth generation is now actively engaged in Indian politics of the so called “democratic India”. Looking at Nehru through Thucydide’s lens, his Forward Policy landed India to the fate of defeated Mytilenians but Mao Zedong’s (like Diodotus) declaration of unilateral ceasefire saved India from further destruction and humiliation.

Nations have to protect their interests at their own peril, super powers like to use others rather than get used by others, the territorial integrity is still a vital interest of all nation states, therefore, an infringement on territory will invite military response, and notwithstanding all of the aforesaid, when a war is imposed on a nation state, the least its leadership can do is to use its armed forces in defense of motherland. Nehru probably found it too hard to live with his failure in this war and died soon afterwards, in 1964.


The writer is Commandant Air War College Faisal (Karachi).
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