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  Opinion   Columnists  21 Nov 2022  Mohan Guruswamy | The 1962 India-China war: In dubious battle

Mohan Guruswamy | The 1962 India-China war: In dubious battle

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Nov 22, 2022, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Nov 22, 2022, 12:00 am IST

Governmental decision-making still characterised by ad hocism and a tendency to grandstand


I was in school in 1962, but the events of September, October and November are still etched in my mind. They still tell me of a collective national leadership can misjudge a situation and propel the nation to consequences that will forever haunt it. It is not just the government, but the Opposition too that must be held guilty. See our polity today. Have we learnt any lessons?

On September 8, 1962 the China’s People’s Liberation Army surrounded a small Indian Army post at Tsenjang on the northern end of Namka Chu stream just below the disputed Thagla ridge at the Indo-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction. The Indian post came to be established as a consequence of the asinine “Forward Policy” that was adopted by the Indian government after the Sino-Indian border dispute began hotting up, particularly after the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959.

On September 10, the then defence minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, conveyed his decision that the matter must be settled on the field, overruling the vehement objections of the then Army Chief, Gen. P.N. Thapar. Gen. Thapar warned that the Chinese had deployed in strength and even larger numbers were concentrated at nearby Le, very clearly determined to attack in strength if need be. He warned that fighting would break out all along the border and that there would be grave repercussions.

But orders are orders, and consequently the Army’s Eastern Command ordered Brig. J.P. Dalvi, commanding 7 Brigade, to “move forward within 48 hours and deal with the Chinese investing Dhola”. Having imposed this order on the reluctant Army, Krishna Menon left for New York on September 18, but not before slyly conveying to the press that the Indian Army had been ordered to evict the Chinese from Indian territory. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was also abroad, having left India on September 7 only to return on September 30.

The Indian Army was under pressure but Gen. Thapar was still not prepared to bow to sheer stupidity. On September 22, at a meeting presided over by deputy minister K. Raghuramiah, Gen. Thapar once again warned the government of the possibility of grave repercussions and now demanded written orders. He received the following order signed by H.C. Sarin, then a mere joint secretary in the defence ministry: “The decision throughout has been as discussed at previous meetings, that the Army should prepare and throw out the Chinese as soon as possible.”

Under the previous Army Chief, Gen. K.S. Thimayya, the Indian Army had developed a habit of winking at the government’s impossible demands often impelled by its fanciful public posturing. The posturing itself was an outcome of the trenchant attacks on the government in Parliament by a galaxy of MPs. One particular MP, the young Atal Behari Vajpayee, was particularly eloquent in his quest to put Jawaharlal Nehru on the defensive. He and others like Lohia, Kripalani and Masani would frequently thunder that every inch of sacred Indian territory must be freed from the Chinese and charge the government with a grave dereliction of its duties.

Nehru finally obliged by initiating the stupid “Forward Policy” and resorting to the use of more extravagant language to signal his own determination to the Indian public. A general summed this policy succinctly by writing: “We would build a post here and they would build one there, and it became a bit of a game, to get there first!”

Jawaharlal Nehru returned to New Delhi on September 30 and was furious that the Chinese were still not thrown out from the Thagla ridge. He was tired of the Indian Army’s refrain of grave repercussions. He shouted at the hapless Army Chief: “I don’t care if the Chinese came as far as Delhi, they have to be driven out of Thagla.” Unlike Gen. Thimayya, Gen. Thapar was possibly a more obedient soldier, probably even less understanding of the government’s compulsions and hence took its orders far more literally and seriously than it deserved.

The government’s reaction was a typical instance of political and bureaucratic chicanery and cunning. It ordered the establishment of 4 Corps, culled out from 33 Corps, and appointed Maj. Gen. B.M. Kaul, a Nehru kinsman and armchair general who never commanded a fighting unit before. Maj. Gen. Kaul was from the Army Supply Corps and earned his spurs by building barracks near Ambala in record time. He was a creature peculiar to Delhi’s political hothouse and adept in all the bureaucratic skills that are still in demand here. He had the Prime Minister’s ear and that’s all that mattered. And so off he went, a dubious soldier out seeking dubious battle and dubious glory that might even propel him to much higher office. Welles Hangen, in his book After Nehru Who?, had profiled B.M. Kaul as a possible successor. The rest is history, a tale of dishonour, defeat and more duplicity about which much has written about.

Sixty years is a long time ago and the memory of 1962 is now faint. But what should cause the nation concern is that the lessons of 1962 still do not seem to have been learnt. If at all anything, the Indian Army is now an even greater and much more misused instrument of public policy. Governmental decision-making still characterised by ad hocism and a tendency to grandstand.

But does anyone of consequence in India, including in the Indian Army, commiserate these days over the futile and quite unnecessary loss of over 7,000 lives, so much of humiliation as a consequence of so much of foolishness by men holding high offices? In 1962, the lyricist Pradeep wrote the now famous song whose first line runs: “Aye mere watan ke logon, zara aankh mey bhar lo paani, wo shaheed hue hain unki, zara yaad karo qurbani”. When Lata Mangeshkar sang this song to an audience that included Jawaharlal Nehru, it is said that tears flowed from every pair of eyes. The song still has that magical quality, but few now seem to know what train of events caused those poignant words to be written and what emotions put that enduring magic in Lata’s voice.
If the politicians cannot find the time or the attention span to read some of the numerous books and articles written on the subject, they should at least listen to the song and shed a tear for our fallen warriors. We owe them that much for they have, as Kaifi Azmi had written in 1964: “Kar chale hum fida jaan aur tan sathiyon, ab tumhare hawale watan sathiyon!”

Tags: people’s liberation army, dalai lama, jawaharlal nehru, indian army, atal behari vajpayee