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  Opinion   Columnists  15 Dec 2022  Abhijit Bhattacharyya | 1962 to 2022: No lessons learnt on tackling China

Abhijit Bhattacharyya | 1962 to 2022: No lessons learnt on tackling China

The writer is an alumnus of the National Defence College, and the author of China in India.
Published : Dec 16, 2022, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Dec 16, 2022, 12:00 am IST

One only hopes that 60 years from now, history won’t repeat itself in 2082

General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Eastern Command, Lt Gen MM Naravane, review the security situation and operational preparedness in the border areas of Arunachal Pradesh, in Tawang. (PTI file photo)
 General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Eastern Command, Lt Gen MM Naravane, review the security situation and operational preparedness in the border areas of Arunachal Pradesh, in Tawang. (PTI file photo)

Six decades after the 1962 Chinese invasion, it’s time for a proper historical narrative, not just partisanship through the political prism. The guilty men of 1962 weren’t confined to just one or two individuals -- it’s a sordid story of disoriented mandarins of Delhi’s diplomatic corps; ignorant, indifferent and ill-informed intelligence chiefs (first British, then Indian); a complacent corps of civil servants (led by the relics of the Raj), otherwise known as the ICS “steel frame”, and malleable three-star and four-star soldiers, some “Sandhurst-trained”, who ran independent India in its early years.

All of them collectively, through wrong advice and assessments, inexperienced in statecraft, misled Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and defence minister Krishna Menon and made a mess, leading to a catastrophic and humiliating political-military disaster for India at the hands of China’s Communist dictator Mao Zedong.

Such was the indelible impression created on the Indian psyche that even today the who’s who of India derive vicarious pleasure, mercilessly disparaging and castigating the Nehru-Menon duo at the drop of a hat. They forget neither of the two was in the superhero mould, like an Atlas or Hercules in Greek mythology, who could hold up the sky for eternity.

Nehru and Menon were undoubtedly at the helm in New Delhi. But they relied on the counsel of their erudite advisers, as suggested in Kautilya’s Arthashastra, but got led astray. The mandarins were clearly not up to the task, and collectively showed conspicuous incompetence, ignorance, lack of knowledge and accurate information, which was vital to prosecute the war with the enemy on an inhospitable frontier.

The first signs of impending incompetence were uncannily detected by India’s first home minister, the redoubtable Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. He expressed extreme unhappiness and annoyance with the conquest of Tibet by the CPC and its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) militia, and put it on record, in November 1950, questioning the professionalism of India’s envoy to Beijing: “Our ambassador has been at great pains to find explanations or justification for Chinese policy and actions. As the external affairs ministry remarked... there was lack of firmness and unnecessary apology... made to the Chinese government on our behalf”. How prescient was Sardar Patel? How puerile was India’s ambassador to Peking (now Beijing)? The Indian State had entered the wrong lane of the politico-diplomatic game, facing a ruthlessly unscrupulous and hostile CPC-PLA. Sardar Patel died soon afterwards, and the inexorable march of ignorance and incompetence in New Delhi’s corridors of power gained galloping speed to embarrass India’s polity at every step.

This was particularly true of the terrain and geography where the war would be fought. The entire military command, along with the ministry of defence bureaucrats, failed to detect, identify or locate a 26-km fast-flowing rivulet Namka Chu at 16,000 feet, where the first volley of the PLA-CPC’s fire would wipe out four crack units of the Indian Army in just three hours on the fateful morning of Saturday, October 20, 1962.

Brig. Dalvi, the 7 Brigade commander, was distraught: “We sat within the sight of Bridge I with a solitary field sketch spread out in front of us. This sketch was the only ‘map’ available as there was no accurate Survey map of this area. The 1/4-inch editions were very old and vaguely based on details provided... It showed Namka Chu flowing from north to south, whereas it actually flowed from west to east”. Was this ignorance or arrogance?

Earlier, in May 1962, the field sketch was drawn by an Assam Rifles lance naik. He tried hard, but as he “ran out of foolscap sheet”, made an inadvertent error on the distance between places on the rivulet. As a consequence, the on-the-spot commander failed to convince his bosses in Delhi. “The sketch became an immutable, accurate document, guiding decisions by top brass... from the government to the sector commander. It wasn’t replaced by a Survey map and it misled higher formations and the Army Headquarters”. All this based on wrong information!

That was the “performance” of the diplomats, ICS officers and sundry other top brass in the shaping of China policy. Former Imperial Police officer B.N. Mullick, who served as a legendary director of the Intelligence Bureau, offers this sensational (wrong) claim in his magnum opus My Years with Nehru (Volume 1): The Chinese Betrayal -- that deserves a close, careful map reading. See Page 278: “The Karakash river, which had its origin north of Kun Lun mountain and flowed into Shyok and finally into the Indus, and Chang Chenmo river, which took rise in the lakes in western Tibet and followed a similar course, were both north and east of Karakoram range, which therefore was not the watershed”.

The first and foremost gross misinterpretation of geography by the author, Nehru’s intelligence chief for a record 14 years, is that Karakash river doesn’t “flow into Shyok and finally into the Indus”. The origin of the Karakash river... is a glacier east of Karakoram Pass, north of the main Karakoram range and west of Kun Lun mountain. The Karakash flows from south to north -- north of the Karakoram range. In fact, the Karakash is the only important river originating from north of the Karakoram mountain. Almost all other important rivers in the region (Chip Chap, Galwan and Chang Chenmo) flow in north or north-east-south to west axis.

Unlike the Indus, Chang Chenmo doesn’t take rise in lakes, though it takes a rise in western Tibet, like the Indus. Thus, taking into account the total picture of region around the Karakoram mountain system it wouldn’t be wrong to state that the Karakoram does form the natural watershed between the extreme corner of north-eastern Ladakh and acute south-west angle of Tibet.

Nehru, therefore, was the unluckiest to have an incompetent, ignorant bunch of “yes men” courtiers, masquerading as professionals. In 1965, Lal Bahadur Shastri was luckier, with a better-equipped, battle-hardened professional like Gen. J.N. Chaudhuri advising him. However, Indira Gandhi was the luckiest, with a professional par excellence like Gen. (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw as her friend, philosopher and guide in 1971.

A close study of what went wrong in 1962 is particularly important as the Dragon hasn’t changed its colours -- the CPC-PLA aggression goes on unabated, with 400 Hans pouncing on 20 Hindustan soldiers in the Yangtse area near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh on December 9, 2022. This just two years after 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a similar attack in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley in June 2020. One only hopes that 60 years from now, history won’t repeat itself in 2082. Sardar Patel must be turning in his final resting place!

Tags: british, indo-china ties, jawaharlal nehru, sardar vallabhbhai patel, people’s liberation army