Old Whine, New Bottle

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Border politics The Parliament resolution passed by Jawaharlal Nehru has made it nearly impossible for India to settle the border dispute with China
Border politics The Parliament resolution passed by Jawaharlal Nehru has made it nearly impossible for India to settle the border dispute with China. Photo: AFP

The conventional narrative of Indian history says that in 1962, China thwarted our hand of friendship, dismantled the idea of “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai” and launched an unprovoked attack on Indian territory, leaving the subcontinent shell-shocked and betrayed.

Last week, Australian journalist Neville Maxwell released a section of the still classified Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report that challenges this narrative. Complied by Maj Gen Henderson Brooks and Brig PS Bhagat on the order of the then CoAS, Gen JN Chaudhuri, the report blames the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies for the conflict and the subsequent loss. The document brings out the mistakes made at a political and military level as well as the infighting and failures at a planning and command level.

Even though, 51 years have passed since India suffered its only military defeat, this report has remained a top-secret classified document. However, over the years, its substance has been published by Maxwell, who was the The Times’ correspondent in India in the 1960s and a copy was apparently leaked to him in 1963.

With polls less than a month away, Maxwell’s leak on his website (which was blocked in India within hours) has been met with the expected backlash from the BJP, which has already made the dynastic rule of the Nehru-Gandhi family an election issue. “What are they trying to hide by keeping the war report classified?” asked BJP spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad. “We have a right to know what went wrong. We lost the 1962 war because of Jawaharlal Nehru.”

However, as veteran journalist BG Verghese (who was in Tezpur during the debacle) pointed out in his TEHELKA article (The War We Lost, 13 October 2012), “There is no military secret to protect in the Brooks-Bhagat report; only political and military ego and folly to hide.”

Though not in common knowledge, much of what has come out over the past week (apparently from the classified report) is known, including Nehru’s poor policy decisions, namely the Forward Policy. A lot of the mistakes have been highlighted in a range of books written by people directly involved in the 1962 war and those on the sidelines, like Maxwell. However, this leaked report gives a sort of official face to “known truths” that have been doing the rounds for decades.

The report pins the bulk of the blame on the Forward Policy adopted by Nehru, and for this reason, Maxwell points to India as the aggressor. Though opposed by Lt Gen Daulat Singh, GoC-in-C Western Command, the policy was pushed by the then defence minster Krishna Menon and IB director BN Mullick.

The policy directed Indian troops to patrol, have flag displays and establish posts as far forward as possible without considering the terrain, altitude, supply chains, manpower and on-ground capabilities. As a result, many of the 43 new posts established in Ladakh were small in size, usually comprising 10 jawans with very limited ammunition, no mountain- warfare training, poor communication set-up, irregular supplies, no winter clothes and rubber-soled shoes to combat the freezing temperatures.

“My uncle died along the Arunachal Pradesh-China border not from Chinese bullets but from the cold. They had nothing to protect them from the freezing temperatures,” reveals a retired government official in Meghalaya.

The policy was based on the faulty assumption that the Chinese would turn a blind eye to Indian patrols and border outposts. However, the Chinese did react.

In 1959, the Dalai Lama had fled to India via Tawang along with his entourage and more than 1 lakh refugees and the entire lot was granted asylum by the Government of India (GOI). Left smarting, China then had to deal with India’s tacit support to an American-led Tibetan refugee guerrilla operation as well as allowing an American listening facility to be set up on Nanda Devi to monitor Chinese signals in Tibet. India’s political and border posturing in the face of China’s fully constructed highway across an uninhabited section of Aksai Chin (which neither the British nor India had administered since it was first claimed in 1863), the Chinese challenge to the McMahon Line would have further aggravated the Chinese, especially after India rejected the status quo border settlement offered by the neighbouring country.

The result: a lesson in humility in the form of a rapid military onslaught that stretched well across India’s perception of her borders and then a unilateral ceasefire.

Had the GOI acted on its intentions and prepared the ground to face the Chinese, things might have panned out differently. However, what made matters worse was the disconnect between the army and the government and well as the commanders on ground and senior military officials in command and army HQ. Both Ladakh and Northeast Frontier Agency had a minimum requirement of 12,000 additional troops, but reinforcements were not sent. For example, Tawang had just a depleted brigade while China had two divisions in the same sector.

Backseat driving of the defence policy forced commanders to choose defensive positions based on political compulsions rather than military realities. Troops were compelled to station along river valleys and watercourses, making them easy targets rather than setting up on dominating and defensible ridgelines.

What added salt to the wounds was the politicisation of the senior leadership of the armed forces. While Menon continued to meddle in military matters, the confidential report and many officials and writers have been sharply critical of the role played by Lt Gen BM Kaul, a distant relative of Nehru and Menon’s favourite.

He was first the chief of general staff at the army HQ and then commander of the hastily raised IV Corps at Tezpur just before the Chinese invasion, despite his lack of combat experience.

His inability to ward off political pressure and his haphazard decision-making led to confusion down the ranks on the eastern front and a rapid retreat of troops, in many cases, without facing a single bullet. Still, many Indian Army officers and soldiers fought and died gallantly despite the unfavourable odds.

Most of what has come out in the report is known, but another open secret largely kept from Indians is that our borders were never really established. Our borders as they are drawn on an official GOI map are based on maps and claims made by the British. Aksai Chin, a largely uninhabited 37,000 sq km of Ladakh, which the Chinese claims as theirs, was never administered by the British or by India. The GOI wasn’t even aware of the road the Chinese had built in 1951.

Our border to the east is governed by the McMahon Line, a result of a tripartite agreement signed by China, Tibet and the British in 1914. The meeting was an attempt by the British to create Tibet as a buffer to protect its interests from a growing China. However, the Chinese never accepted that agreement, despite their emissary’s signature.

India unilaterally adopted these boarders without going through the complete process of a political agreement between the countries followed by a joint survey and joint delineation on a map and then on the ground.

The 1962 debacle has left an indelible mark on India’s psyche. However, the ramifications are much larger than just an emotional and psychological wound. The Parliament resolution passed by Nehru, “that every inch of land would be reclaimed” has made it nearly impossible for India to settle the border dispute with China. Political mistrust aside, if China was to offer a border agreement accepting the status quo (as it did in 1957 and 1980) India would need to amend the Constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority, which seems impossible in today’s political environment.

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