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India’s China War Revisited (3)

Most war accounts that appeared soon afterwards were predictably subjective. Little credible information had been released to public view from either side. In China, understandably, no analytical accounts could be expected. In India, however, with her claims to be the world's largest democracy, the deafening silence was incomprehensible. A stunned nation felt cheated and awaited explanation. Nehru's personal stature being at stake the clampdown seemed to be officially sponsored. Of the Indian accounts that hit the book stalls later, B.M. Kaul's The Untold Story, J.P. Dalvi's Himalayan Blunder, B.N. Mullick's My Years with Nehru, and D.K. Palit's War in the High Himalayas are essentially memoirs based on personal memory devoid of authentic evidence like a war diary. These are primarily aimed at self-redemption crying foul of all else. The much hyped Henderson Brooks Bhagat Report, the only official inquiry ordered in 1963 still remains under wraps. Some of its extracts have been recently leaked as we shall see in a while.

The two non-Indian works extensively quoted are Dorothy Woodman's Himalayan Frontiers and Neville Maxwell's, India's China War. Maxwell's book was initially banned by the Indian government. Natwar Singh, a former senior bureaucrat who worked in Indira Gandhi's PM secretariat when the book was published in 1970 confesses in a recent article dated March 19, 2014, “The ministries of external affairs, home and law had all suggested that the book be banned”. Later, when pirated versions became freely available the ban was relaxed by the government. Indeed, Maxwell himself faced arrest upon entry in India for breach of India's Official Secret Act and was duly warned by the British government to keep out of Indian shores. He did exactly so for eight years “until Morarji Desai as prime minister annulled the charges enabling me to return.”

Maxwell studied Nehru closely from 1959 through the mid-1960s during his tenure as Times correspondent in Delhi. He served twice as the head of the foreign correspondents association which brought him in personal contact with Nehru. He had frequent briefings personally from Nehru and was “charmed by the Nehru charisma”. By Maxwell's own account given to Indian media recently, for his conversion from a liberal anti-Communist to a frank admirer of Maoist China, he “may well be accused of serial amblyopia. The Indian government was highly successful at disguising its actions during the emergence and development of the border dispute with China.... During the 2 or 3 years between my arrival in India in late August 1959 and the mid-60s, I was one of those multitudes totally taken in by the casuistry and dishonesty and successful deceptions of the Nehru government.” His dispatches to London Times at the time had been so one-sided that he became a marked man in Beijing. Talking to South China Morning Post's Debashish Roy Chowdhury on March 31, 2014, he added, “They (the Chinese) said the Times correspondent must be either stupid or hired. I wasn't either but I was blinded by ideology... liberal anti-communism. You'll see the same affecting many journalists today... As American policy continues the Cold War.”

“When the penny began to drop and I saw how we had been misled, I saw it as my responsibility and guilty obligation to set the record straight.” The book did exactly that, challenging the entrenched “aggressive China” notion. It was well received by serious readership around the world. Kissinger read the book in 1971 and, Maxwell believes, it helped change his thinking on China. “While Kissinger was in Beijing, Chou Enlai sent me a personal message... that Kissinger had said to him, “Reading that book showed me I could do business with you people.” Later, in his historic meeting with President Nixon and Dr Henry Kissinger in Beijing on February 23, 1972, Premier Chou surprised his visitors by disclosing that the Panchsheel the famous five principles “were actually put forward by us and Nehru agreed but later on he didn't implement them.” Maxwell recalls a state banquet in Beijing in 1972 by Chou Enlai for President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan. Holding the Pakistani President's hand Premier Chou introduced Maxwell to his honoured guest and thanking him for a fair and objective vindication of China's position, he said, “Your book did a service to truth which benefited China.”

The Henderson Brooks Bhagat Report, the official inquiry into the debacle, remains a mystery. As the government was repeatedly grilled in the Parliament, even by the treasury benches, the new defence minister, Y.B. Chavan, proposed an inquiry by a committee of two serving army officers rather than a judicial probe or a public enquiry as expected by the Parliament. This was an ingenious move to confine the inquiry to matters military thus keeping the person of Nehru and his role in the debacle out of its purview. Further, instead of the defence minister appointing a committee, he asked the Chief of the Army Staff to set-up one. Accordingly, a two-man committee with Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier PS Bhagat was formed. Both were career officers with an impeccable record of service. Henderson Brooks, an Australian national, had opted to serve the Indian army after Partition while Prem Bhagat was the first Indian officer to be conferred the Victoria Cross for bravery during World War II. Their report was presented by the COAS General J.N. Chaudhury to Chavan on July 2, 1963. The report contained a great deal of information of an operational nature, formations and deployment of the Indian army. Only two copies of the highly classified report were made and kept under top security in the defence ministry. Commenting on the report in Indian Defence Review, January/March, 2011, Claude Arpi writes,” Between 1962 and 1965 R.D. Pradhan was the private secretary to Y.B. Chavan who took over as Defence Minister from the disgraced Krishna Menon after the debacle of October 1962. Pradhan's memoirs give great insight into the motives of Chavan. For Chavan the main challenge in the first years was to establish a relationship of trust between himself and the Prime Minister. He succeeded in doing so by his deft handling of the Henderson Brooks Bhagat Report of Inquiry into the NEFA reverses.”

Successive governments, Congress, BJP or coalition, have kept a tight lid on Henderson Brooks Bhagat Report under the pretext of security of national interests, never mind if each clamoured for its declassification while in opposition. Though demands for the report's publication have surfaced frequently, the government has remained unyielding, offering only an occasional dispassionate riposte. The Manmohan Singh government has been no exception. When some excerpts of the report were leaked in the Indian media on the eve of the golden jubilee of the debacle in October 2012 there was an uproar in the parliament and the media. Even noted senior military veterans including General VP Malik, former COAS, lent their robust voice to the popular demand for publication rubbishing the national security phantasy. The government didn't buckle under nonetheless. "Based on an internal study by the Indian army, the contents are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value," Defence Minister A.K. Antony told the lower house of Parliament in a written reply. However, what "operational value" the document may still have after the lapse of 52 years – and how it may threaten national security – continues to boggle the minds of contemporary strategic thinkers and policy pundits. More so, as the other official report, the 'Official History of the Conflict with China (1962)' prepared by the same Defence Ministry, details the famous 'operations' in 474 foolscap pages. The 'official' report discussed, inter alia, the real issue relating to national security. “No major threat other than from Pakistan was perceived. And the armed forces were regarded adequate to meet Pakistan's threat. Hence very little effort and resources were put in for immediate strengthening of the security of the borders”. Nobody had even thought of China!

Commenting on Antony's statement, Maxwell remarked, “Those reasons are completely untrue and quite nonsensical... there is nothing in it concerning tactics or strategy or military action that has any relevance to today's strategic situation.” Disillusioned with Indian government's inertia he concludes, “Even if the founder of the post-independence dynasty, Jawaharlal Nehru may have emerged in bad light in the Henderson Brooks report, why put a blanket on the entire archives? Are we living in a modern democracy?...If one day a stable, confident and relaxed government in New Delhi should, miraculously appear and decide to clear out the cupboard and publish it, the text would be largely incomprehensible... "The reasons for the long-term withholding of the report must be political, indeed probably partisan, perhaps even familial," he added – a reference to Nehru, the patriarch of the ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has dominated India's political matrix for over a century.

Maxwell does not deny his knowledge of the contents of the mystery report. Indeed, he openly accepts having benefited from the document in compiling his 1970 treatise. He has been sporadically accused of 'stealing' classified official information or being the prophet of India's dissolution, an indefatigable stalker of Jawaharlal Nehru's shade or an evangelizing crusader for Mao Zedong's social engineering 'gifts', et al. On his part, Maxwell quietly continued to lobby for the report to be made public in India's larger national interest. Maxwell, now 88 and living in Australia, finally made his Snowden-like release of the report on his blog in March 2014. In his forthright talk to South China Morning Post, quoted above, he recounts his frustration at not seeing the report declassified after more than half a century. Says he,” I had been trying for years to get the report on to the public record. In 2012, I'd made the text available to several newspapers in India…. Well, they agreed it should be made public, but they thought that had to be done by the government. If the press did it, the result, they said, would be a fierce row; accusations of betrayal of national interest, fierce attacks on the journalists who had leaked… In short, nothing good, a lot bad….So it had begun to look as if the report might never be published, and I thought that would be dreadful, wasting all the efforts of the authors, denying historians access to a crucial aspect of that unnecessary but hugely consequential border war so I decided to do it myself.” BG Verghese, an eminent and respected journalist who covered the debacle from close quarters at Tezpur, comments in his piece 'The War we Lost' in Tehelka.Com of October 13, 2012, “The report brings out the political and military naiveté, muddle, contradictions and in-fighting that prevailed and failures of planning and command. There is no military secret to protect in the Henderson-Brooks Report; only political and military ego and folly to hide. But unless the country knows, the appropriate lessons will not be learnt”. As to his motives in leaking the report on his blog, Maxwell says,” I hope to achieve what I had been trying to do for nearly 50 years! To rid Indian opinion of the induced delusion that in 1962 India was the victim of an unprovoked surprise Chinese aggression, to make people in India see that the truth was that were mistakes by the Indian government, specifically Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, that forced the war on China. (Emphasis added). My putting the report online now deprives the government of India the excuse they've used to keep it secret; the false claim that it was to preserve national security. It's clear to anyone who reads the report that it has no current military or strategic significance. So there is no good reason for the government to persist in refusing to declassify the whole report, including Volume Two, which I never saw. Of his close relations with Nehru, he says,” That access and friendliness shows, to my shame, in my reporting of the dispute with China as that developed – throughout I took the Indian side, never seeing what should have been obvious, that China was not aggressive but was consistently trying for a settlement on mutually beneficial terms”.

“The government reacted predictably, and foolishly”, writes Natwar Singh. He opines, “By blocking it, the government lent the blog huge popularity that Maxwell wanted.” The blog and attendant leaks are now talk of the town. He adds, “What was needed was to find out how the author obtained top secret documents. This was clearly a breach of law. No one was hauled up. The names were not a secret”. He laments,” No such action was taken….as far as I remember.”

The report is particularly scathing of Nehru's policy which contributed to India's defeat. "We acted," says the report, "on a militarily unsound basis of not relying on our strength but rather on believed lack of reaction from the Chinese.” It gives a blow-by-blow account of India's flawed military plans, uninspiring army leadership and the disastrous implementation of the "forward policy" of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's government that climaxed in the fateful debacle. Avoiding fierce criticism of political and military leadership, the Henderson Brooks Report records, “So far effort has been made to keep individual personalities out of this review. General Kaul, however, must be made an exception, as, from now on, he becomes the central figure in the operations, and important signals and orders from him are on a person-to-person basis, both to higher as well as lower formation commanders. Military strategy and planning were thrown overboard and General Kaul issued orders on personal whims shifting platoons from one location to another unmindful of rudimentary considerations of time and space in an inhospitable mountainous environment.” Was the Indian government, and more so the Indian army, prepared for war with China?

We have seen above how Nehru had been consistently fed with lies. Imaginary conquests were filed back intermittently from the battlefront duly padded at each echelon along the way. The Indian side was confident that war would not be triggered and made little preparations. India had only two divisions of troops in the region of the conflict. In August 1962, Brigadier D. K. Palit, Director Military Operations, claimed that a war with China in the near future could be ruled out. Even in September 1962, when Indian troops were ordered to "expel the Chinese" from Thag La, Maj. General J. S. Dhillon expressed the opinion that "experience in Ladakh had shown that a few rounds fired at the Chinese would cause them to run away." Because of this, the Indian army was completely unprepared when the attack at Yumtso La occurred.

In a section titled 'Fictionalization of the Army', Maxwell is probably closer to the truth in his assessment. He traces in punishing detail, the poor professional standing of Lieutenant General B.M. Kaul and the negative role played by him. He says, “At the time of independence Kaul appeared to be a failed officer, if not disgraced. Although Sandhurst-trained officer for infantry service, he had eased through the (Second World) war without serving on any frontline and ended it in a humble and obscure post in public relations. But his courtier wiles, irrelevant or damning until then, were to serve him brilliantly in the new order that independence brought. After he came to the notice of Nehru, a fellow Kashmiri Brahmin and a distant kinsman, there was no holding back”. Boosted by the Prime Minister's steady favouritism, Kaul rocketed up through the army structure to emerge in 1961 at the very summit of army headquarters. Not only did he rise to hold the key appointment of chief of the general staff (CGS) supplanting more capable and senior officers, but worse, he behaved like the de-facto chief of army staff (COAS). Worse still, as several Indian writers concur with Maxwell, senior Generals out-did each other to keep him in good humour so as to win Nehru's favour. General Kaul was already having a glad eye on the top military post in New Delhi. His 'close relations' with Nehru, folklore in the army and political circles at the time, are a part of history. BG Verghese recounts two events from the Goa operation at the end of 1960 showing an ambitious Kaul in poor light. “The new Chief of General Staff (CGS), Lt Gen BM Kaul, marched alongside one of the columns of the 17th Division under Gen KP Candeth that was tasked to enter Goa. Thereafter he and, separately, the Defence Minister, Krishna Menon, declared “war” or the commencement of operations at two different times – one at midnight and the other at first light the next morning. In any other situation such flamboyant showmanship could have been disastrous. However, Goa was a cakewalk and evoked the mistaken impression, among gifted amateurs in high places that an unprepared Indian Army could take on China.” Kaul had also inquiries made into the conduct of senior colleagues like Thorat, SD Verma and then Maj Gen Sam Manekshaw, Commandant of the Staff College in Wellington.”

In 1962, at his bidding Kaul was appointed as the General Officer Commanding (GOC) IV Corps. With no experience of commanding an infantry formation in peace or war, Kaul was to head the newly raised IV Corps at Tezpur, He started directing minor actions on the frontline right from his chair of CGS in Delhi. When John Dalvi, Commander 7 Brigade, requested for artillery Kaul's famous words, "Determined infantry do not need artillery," resonated the Indian rank and file for several years. During his first visit to the front line, he was so exhausted that he had to be man-lifted by a soldier. After fussily instructing the brigade commander to move a platoon here and a platoon there, he uttered another of the Indian Army's 'Famous Last Words' when he told the brigade commander before leaving the front:“It's your battle now.” 7 Brigade was routed at Namkachu. When war came, Jawaharlal Nehru for the first time in his life faced a situation he could not handle. His letters to Kennedy are, in the words of B.K. Nehru, "pathetic".

He could hardly contain his sorrow or shame. The next "telegram was so humiliating that I found it difficult to prevent myself from weeping." Nehru was broken and bewildered. His letter to John F Kennedy seeking US military assistance after the fall of Bomdila was abject and pathetic. He feared that unless the tide was stemmed the Chinese would overrun the entire Northeast. The Chinese, he said, were massing troops in the Chumbi Valley and he apprehended another “invasion” from there. If Chushul was overrun, there was nothing to stop the Chinese before Leh. The IAF had not been used as India lacked air defence for its population centres. He, therefore, requested immediate air support by 12 squadrons of all-weather supersonic fighters with radar cover, all operated by US personnel. But US aircraft were not to intrude into Chinese air space. One does not know what inputs went into drafting Nehru's letter to Kennedy. Almost in elegy, Verghese makes a pithy comment, “Non-alignment was certainly in tatters.” He adds, “Pakistan had been urged by Iran and the US not to use India's predicament to further its own cause (in Kashmir) and kept its word. But it developed a new relationship with China thereafter and went on to amicably conclude a border alignment with her along the Karakorums in the north. The aftermath of the war consumed Nehru from within; he died within two years.

Much of Neville Maxwell's fresh evidence is based on the Indian record which was previously classified and unavailable. First person accounts have lent weight to India's own 'dirty laundry'. Maxwell's verdict is categorical; it sets the record straight, “India's China war was a unilateral act of passive-aggressive folly by Jawaharlal Nehru's government. China is the aggrieved party. With the 'forward policy' India became the aggressor in 1962.” India's forward policy opened flood gates of American military aid but tore into shreds India's – and Nehru's – high priest role in the Non-Aligned Movement and world politics. Nehru's intransigence nearly plunged the region – indeed the world, into an inferno as history now reveals. As Premier Chou told President Nixon in 1972, he had sent three personal telegrams to Nehru before the outbreak of hostilities to agree to resume talks but to no avail. He asserted that China did not try to expel Indian troops from south of the McMahon line and insisted on a negotiated settlement. On October 14, an editorial in People's Daily had issued China's final warning to India: "So it seems that Mr. Nehru has made up his mind to attack the Chinese frontier guards on an even bigger scale.... The heroic Chinese troops, with the glorious tradition of resisting foreign aggression, can never be cleared by anyone from their own territory... History will pronounce its inexorable verdict... At this critical moment...we still want to appeal once more to Mr. Nehru: better rein in at the edge of the precipice and do not use the lives of Indian troops as stakes in your gamble."

Emboldened by massive supplies flown in by the United States Air Force through October-November, Nehru rejected talks with characteristic disdain. In Washington, Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor were no less bellicose: they advised President Kennedy to use nuclear weapons should the US intervene. As the leader of a non-aligned country having good relations with both parties, Mrs. Bandaranaike offered to mediate in the dispute. Her offer was readily accepted by Chou Enlai. Nehru, under the influence of his 'hegemonic megalomania' rejected it out of hand. What made the Chinese accept the Sri Lankan offer, besides its fairness, was her decade-old relationship as a trade partner, a country which had withstood US pressure including sanctions under the Kem Amendment of 1950 and the Battle Act of 1951, and recognition of the fact that there was dissatisfaction in the island over the hegemonic treatment by India over the issue of Indians in Sri Lanka. The very night Chou Enlai received Mrs. Bandaranaike's letter, China announced a ceasefire on the border. US Ambassador John Galbraith advised Nehru to accept the ceasefire offer though the latter had declared that India would fight back however arduous the task was, however long it might take. India's pride was shaken if not shattered altogether. After the humiliation India was looking for friends in the neighbourhood to support her. Sri Lanka was much in view for her rising international stature. Prime Minister Sirimao Bandaranaike was in no mood to denounce the Chinese action. Whether or not she was influenced by growing evidence that India herself was to blame for the Chinese military response is not clear. But such views on India's responsibility were expressed by people like US Ambassador John K. Galbraith and even by K.M. Panikkar who was India's Ambassador to Moscow and later her Defence Secretary. Mercifully, however, the world was saved from the edge of the precipice, thanks to the sagacity of China's leadership. Premier Chou Enlai declared a unilateral ceasefire, effective midnight November 21, ordering withdrawal twenty kilometres back from the line of contact. As Chou told Nixon later, Chairman Mao ordered the troops to return to show good faith. China's good faith remains to be reciprocated. (Concluded)


The writer is a visiting faculty at NDU, Islamabad, a former DG ISPR and a former diplomat. [email protected]

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