In the last three weeks, as the Modi government’s dispute with China has become increasingly more acerbic, Beijing has been issuing a series of warnings to New Delhi, the most serious of which has been its observation that India has not learned the lessons of history and has not forgotten its humiliating defeat in 1962. These are a small step away from an ultimatum.
There is more than a grain of truth in Beijing’s assessment. The turnabout in China-India relations, from close strategic cooperation to stark confrontation, has been so swift that it has left Chinese analysts – who are past masters at citing history to buttress current claims – dumbfounded.
In 2014, when India’s newly appointed ambassador Ashok Kantha presented his credentials along with 13 other ambassadors to Chinese President Xi Jinping, he was one of only three diplomats with whom the president held one-on-one talks after the ceremony was over.
One would have thought that this was as unambiguous a signal of the importance that Xi’s government attached to its relations with India as any a government could have given. But what he told Kantha at the meeting was even more significant: he regarded furthering the India-China strategic partnership as his historic mission. What he wished to do was to move India-China relations beyond the bilateral context and deepen cooperation on regional and global issues.
Beijing’s efforts not recognised by India
Xi’s gesture was not an isolated one. India’s Republic Day reception in Beijing on January 26 was attended by Vice President Li Yuanchao. Not only was this extremely unusual but, to the amazement of the European diplomats who were present, Li went on to deliver a short speech extolling the historic relations between China and India.
This too had followed a succession of overtures to India by the new government in Beijing, the significance of which New Delhi either did not, or did not want to, recognise. These included China’s speedy withdrawal of its troops from the Daulat Beg Oldi sector in Ladakh after their initial intrusion in 2013; Xi’s declaration after his meeting with Manmohan Singh at the BRICS summit in Durban in 2013 that he wanted to settle the Himalayan border dispute not “gradually” but “as early as possible”; and his decision, also communicated to Singh at Durban, to make India the first country that his prime minister, Li Keqiang, would visit on his tour of Asia in May 2014.
Since then, Chinese participants at several seminars have mentioned Beijing’s desire to raise the bilateral ties to one of long-term strategic cooperation. But Delhi has reacted to these overtures with considerable wariness. Only a day after Xi’s meeting with Kantha, New Delhi refused to give Chinese ships permission to enter the territorial waters of the Andaman islands in search of wreckage from Malaysian Airlines’ ill-fated flight MH-370, the majority of whose 240 passengers were Chinese. One anonymous military official told the South China Morning Post: “We don’t want Chinese warships sniffing around in the area on the pretext of hunting for the missing jetliner or anti-piracy patrols.”
The contrast between Xi’s overtures and this viscerally distrustful response is so striking that it is difficult to see how the gap in trust can ever be bridged. Yet, bridge it we must if we want to resolve our longstanding border dispute and play a constructive role in the remaking of the chaotic international state system.
As the 1962 war had shown, our Himalayan border is an area where we are at a severe military disadvantage. Diplomacy is, therefore, the only way forward, but its success depends upon building a measure of trust. This is the ingredient that is missing in our relations with China. The reasons, as The Times of India noted on March 24, lie in the border war of 1962.
Understanding cause of 1962 war
To say that the Indian public, its armed forces and most of its policymakers remain traumatised by that humiliating defeat would be an understatement. But the reason why the trauma has endured long after the Chinese seem to have put it behind them is not just that we suffered a defeat, but that we have never understood precisely why the war took place. Indians remain convinced that China was the aggressor. It claimed 140,000 sq km of Indian territory across the entire length of the Himalayas and had begun nibbling away at it as far back as in 1954. But in his widely read 1970 book, India’s China War, Australian journalist Neville Maxwell squarely – and controversially – accused India, and then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in particular, of having started the war.
In Maxwell’s account, Nehru was an “imperialist” who adopted a ‘forward policy’ of defending the borders drawn in Tibet unilaterally by the British, and of trying to evict China from any territory it occupied west and south of these borders through the use of “non-violent force”. The Chinese, Maxwell claimed, were slow to catch on to his designs and continued to believe, until as late as 1961, that he would negotiate the borders in the Himalayas peacefully. They were only shaken out of their stupor by India’s aggressive patrolling and establishment of scores of posts along its definition of the border. From this, Maxwell went on to declare India the aggressor in the 1962 war, and China the victim.
Indian scholars and analysts have tried to refute many of Maxwell’s theses for more than four decades. But they have been severely handicapped by lack of access to the Indian army’s report on the causes of the military debacle, written by Lt General Henderson Brooks and Victoria Cross holder Brigadier Prem Bhagat. Maxwell, on the other hand, was given a copy of the report, which he did not put out in the public domain but used liberally to prove his thesis – a thesis that accepted the Chinese version of events as uncritically as it rejected the Indian.
Forced to rely upon anecdotal evidence to refute Maxwell, scholars such as K. Subrahmaniam and Inder Malhotra have only managed to dent the edges of his assertions. As a result, Indians have never achieved closure on their humiliating defeat. Instead, as it happened to the Germans after their sudden, unexplained defeat in the First World War, the wound has continued to fester. Today, our incomprehension of the past is threatening to poison our future.
For Indians, closure will only come when they too have read the Brooks-Bhagat report and used its solid factual base to draw their own conclusions. But if the government had continued to have its way, the report would have remained in limbo, possibly forever. However, in February 2014, Maxwell did the Indian people an inestimable service by releasing the first part of the Brooks-Bhagat report on his website. New Delhi’s immediate reaction was the inexcusable one of blocking his website. But, fortunately for us and our future, by the time it did so, several copies of the report had already been downloaded and are now available on the Internet. This at last gave the Indian people an opportunity to understand the past and put it behind them.
The report does not speculate upon the political causes of the war. Its mandate was solely to conduct an “operations review” of the causes of “the reverses suffered by the army, particularly in the Kameng division of the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA)”. Its terms of reference were to inquire into “what went wrong with the following – training, equipment, system of command, physical fitness of the troops and capacity of commanders at all levels to influence the men under their command”.
But Brooks and Bhagat concluded very early on that to carry out their mandate they needed first to examine the “developments and events prior to the hostilities, as well as the balance, posture and strength of the army at the outbreak of hostilities”. Their conclusions were so damning that they caused the report to be buried. The sections of the report now available to us give an insight into why this happened.
Insights from the Brooks-Bhagat report
The report confirms that the war was indeed triggered by India’s forward policy, and condemns it because it violated every canon of the art of war and scaled new heights of ineptitude. But it also makes it clear that this policy was adopted only in December 1961. Prior to that, the Indian government had adopted a defensive policy that was intended to maintain the status quo in the Himalayas and avoid conflict to the maximum extent possible. In so doing, it also reveals the extent to which Maxwell had uncritically swallowed China’s version of the conflict in his book.
Till late 1959, the report points out, the Indo-Tibetan border was a dormant one. The army was not even involved in policing it – the task had been left to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. But two violent clashes – in August at Longju on the western edge of NEFA, and in October at Kongka La on the Kashmir-Xinjiang frontier – turned it into a ‘live’ border.
The government’s task for the army was “to restrict any further Chinese ingress into Indian territory in Ladakh” and “to establish our rights of possession on our side of the McMahon Line and to prevent infiltration”. Both these directives were very far from the forward policy that Maxwell claimed Nehru had adopted in the early-to-mid 1950s.
Following the army’s assumption of responsibility for policing the border, the army headquarters issued an “intelligence appreciation” of the Chinese forces in both regions. This was followed by “operational instructions” to the Eastern Command in December 1959, and to the Western Command in February 1960.
In Ladakh, the intelligence appreciation estimated that the Chinese would deploy one regiment plus a few tanks. Based on this, the army headquarters concluded that any future confrontations would involve troops at no more than company or battalion strength. To counter the Chinese deployment, therefore, the Western Command was asked to deploy one brigade and two battalions of the Jammu and Kashmir militia. In fact, the area was so remote that by the end of 1960, the Western Command had only been able to deploy one infantry battalion (one third of a brigade) and the Jammu and Kashmir militia.
In the eastern sector, the intelligence appreciation prepared in 1959 estimated that China had one division facing Sikkim and Bhutan, up to two regiments on the McMahon Line in western NEFA and one regiment in eastern NEFA. However, it concluded that China was in no position to launch an offensive because it was still “consolidating its hold on Tibet”. So the Eastern Command deployed just one infantry division in NEFA. It also had a division in Nagaland, and two brigades west of NEFA but, given the vast distances, the mountainous terrain and the absence of roads, these were in no position to reinforce the troops in NEFA within any meaningful period of time.
The operating instructions to the two commands were also similar – establish posts, patrol the areas in between, show the flag, but avoid confrontations. In the eastern sector, the orders were explicit: there was to be no patrolling closer than two-three miles from the McMahon Line. There was to be no aggressive action on any count; if Chinese patrols were encountered south of the line, they were to be told to withdraw. The troops were to fire only in self-defence.
Report refutes Maxwell’s claims
Maxwell cites India’s refusal of a Chinese proposal for a mutual withdrawal of forces by 20 km after the Kongka La clash as proof of Nehru’s imperialism, but the Brooks-Bhagat report suggests a different explanation. Kongka La was 65-80 km inside what India considered its territory. Thus, agreeing to a 20 km separation from this point would have been tantamount to ceding the rest of the territory to China. However, in practice, India did precisely that: except at one point (Demchok), it kept its troops west of “the Chinese claim,” a line proposed by the Chinese in 1954 but not accepted by India. In addition, both countries took care to leave a wide gap between their forces.
In 1960, possibly after then premier Zhou Enlai’s failure to make Nehru agree to renegotiating the border, the Chinese began to build up their forces in both sectors. By October 1960, they had more than one division in Ladakh, including supporting armour, and had built roads and tracks to all their western outposts, greatly improving their capacity to strengthen them at short notice. An even more striking imbalance developed in the eastern sector. By July 1961, China had three full divisions supported by armour and mountain artillery in NEFA, two in the west and one in the east.
In October 1960, therefore, the Western Command asked that its forces in Ladakh be built up to a full division. But instead, for reasons that the report does not analyse, it did not get a single additional unit of any size. In December 1961, therefore, the Western Command had only one regular and two J&K light infantry battalions without armour, without even mortars and medium machine guns, without access roads, supplied wholly from the air to face the Chinese forces in Aksai Chin.
Much the same story was repeated in the Northeast. In May 1961, the Eastern Command submitted an Emergency Expansion Plan that involved raising five more divisions for different parts of the Himalayan frontier. But although it kept pressing New Delhi for more troops for the next two years, it got none. Therefore, to man NEFA’s 900 km border with Tibet, it had a single division minus a brigade that had, for reasons unknown, been detached and sent to Nagaland.
India’s Forward Policy
This was the grim imbalance in both sectors when the government decided in November 1961 to adopt the Forward Policy. The army headquarter’s directives required the Eastern and Western Commands to set up scores of new outposts and push patrols as close as possible to the India-defined border in Ladakh and to the McMahon Line in NEFA. But both the commands had to do this without a single additional soldier.
New Delhi’s instructions remained to avoid conflict and fire only in self-defence, but the Brooks-Bhagat report leaves readers in no doubt that the Forward Policy was, in military terms, both irresponsible and indefensible. In Ladakh, it increased the number of outposts to 60 and located most of them in positions that overlooked the Chinese road through Aksai Chin. This was a situation that Beijing was virtually guaranteed not to tolerate. It demonstrated this by setting up its posts opposite the Indian posts and frequently surrounding Indian posts. This led to five armed confrontations. The most serious occurred on the Galwan river.
In May 1962, overriding the objections of the Western Command, the army headquarters ordered it to set up a post on the Galwan river. When it was set up in July, it was immediately surrounded by 70 Chinese soldiers. The Western Command advised against supplying the post through a land route and doing so only from the air, but New Delhi overruled it once more and ordered it to use the land route. The supply columns were forced back day after day for four days. In all, the siege of the Galwan post lasted for 12 days.
In NEFA, the Eastern Command set up 24 new posts. Many of these were up to 14 days’ march from their bases. This created a logistical nightmare and put the troops at risk of death through exposure, disease and starvation. The Chinese responded by setting up posts opposite the Indian posts. This brought the troops into eyeball confrontation. By late summer 1962, therefore, the entire border had become a powder keg.
Although Brooks and Bhagat did their best to stay within the narrow confines of their terms of reference, they found it impossible to do so without shedding some light on why the government ordered an army, which had been enfeebled by being stretched ever thinner, to initiate hostilities against a vastly superior force that had all the advantages of terrain and logistics on its side. Its conclusion was damning: “Against all evidence of increasing military disadvantage, and all the warnings that the Chinese gave us by actions like those at Galwan and Dhola, the government had convinced itself that when forced to choose between going to war against India and withdrawing, the Chinese would withdraw.” Their indictment of the forward policy approaches the heights of literature: “The Art of War teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy not coming but on our readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking but on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.”
In the end, it was New Delhi that provided the casus belli for the war.
The 1962 war – product of many failures
As part of the forward policy, the army headquarters had decided to set up a post at the tri-junction of the Bhutan, India and Tibet border, but in August 1962, it was informed by the Eastern Command that although the McMahon Line broadly follows the watershed, the tri-junction was not located upon it, but three-four miles south of it. Chinese patrols had been coming south of the watershed till the tri-junction shown on the maps, so New Delhi decided to move its Dhola post four miles north to the tri-junction on the watershed. However, to “avoid alarm and queries from all concerned”, it decided to continue giving it the map reference of the old tri-junction. On September 8, the Chinese surrounded the Dhola post with 600 soldiers.
The Eastern Command’s immediate response was to send an order to the local units to “link up” with the Dhola post, i.e force a way through the Chinese encirclement. This was followed by a spate of top-level meetings, chaired by defence minister Krishna Menon in New Delhi and the army chief in Tezpur, Assam. At these meetings, the 33rd Corps, which had the immediate responsibility for NEFA, recommended sending two battalions to encircle the Chinese who were laying siege to Dhola from the south. But this sensible and realistic proposal was brushed aside at both meetings and the army was ordered to clear the Chinese out, using force if necessary. When Indian troops attempted to carry out this suicidal order, they gave China the invitation to attack in strength that it was waiting for.
Lessons from the Brooks-Bhagat report
What should the Indian public and its representatives learn from the disclosures contained in the Brooks-Bhagat report? The most important is that China is not the aggressive, expansionist nation that two generations of Indians have been reared to believe. In Indian eyes, China committed its original act of aggression when it began to build a road connecting Tibet and Xinjiang through Aksai Chin in the mid-1950s. But the term “aggression” presupposes the existence of recognised and clearly demarcated national boundaries. Aksai Chin, however, fell in no-man’s land between the Karakoram and the Kuen Lun mountain ranges where no recognised border existed. Based upon trade and travel routes, the Chinese considered the Karakoram range to be the traditional frontier between Ladakh and Tibet, but the boundary line that India had inherited from the British lay further east along the Kuen Lun mountains. Topography and hindsight show us that this alignment lost its raison d’etre the moment China annexed Tibet, for the British had chosen it with the specific purpose of blocking the valleys between the two ranges that could have given Russia easy access to Tibet, and thence to India and southern China, through Tibet. This alignment was, therefore, a product of The Great Game, and became history when China annexed Tibet.
It also became a claw stuck into China’s underbelly, for it lay athwart the road it needed to build to connect Tibet to Xinjiang. Given Aksai Chin’s importance to China and unimportance to India, the Ladakh border could have been settled easily through negotiation. But there is no record of the Chinese ever having formally raised this issue before starting to build the Tibet-Xinjiang road.
However, having secured its basic requirement, China went to great lengths to demonstrate its desire for a negotiated settlement. The lengths to which it was prepared to go were demonstrated by Zhou when he virtually forced himself upon Nehru in New Delhi in February 1960, and went from one Indian cabinet minister’s home to the next, trying to obtain a consensus. Nehru’s failure to take advantage of this extraordinary overture must be counted as one of the greater, and by far the most costly, diplomatic mistakes India has made. For the hostility that Zhou encountered, and the humiliation to which he was subjected by ministers such as Morarji Desai, almost certainly triggered the rapid build-up of Chinese forces in the east and the west, which led Nehru and his advisers to adopt the forward policy.
But even then, the Chinese exhibited a strong preference for the use of “non-violent force”. Thus they surrounded but did not attack the Galwan and Dhola posts. The message, again, was that they preferred to settle the dispute through negotiation, although the price would almost certainly be higher.
The report also reveals that the Chinese have been remarkably consistent in the terms they have set for a settlement. In Ladakh, the terms of the 1993 Agreement for Peace and Tranquility in the Border Regions, including the pulling back of troops by both countries to create a non-militarised border zone, are almost identical to the status quo that was established in 1960. This was also true of NEFA (now Arunachal) till 2006 when, without any warning, the Chinese went back to describing the whole of the state as a disputed area and calling it ‘Southern Tibet’.
The role of public opinion
By putting the blame for the war squarely upon the forward policy and, therefore, by implication upon Nehru, the Brooks-Bhagat report has also forced us to re-examine the prevailing belief that Nehru’s bloated sense of his own importance made it impossible for him to believe that the Chinese would ever attack India. This is simplistic to say the least, for it leaves out one crucial ingredient in the decision-making process: the role played by public opinion in tying his hands and leaving him with very few options.
The Indian public had never accepted Nehru’s tame acceptance of China’s annexation of Tibet and was viscerally hostile to China. It had been enraged by the discovery of the Aksai Chin road, and alarmed by the incidents at Longju and Kongka La. The publicity that surrounded the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet and arrival in India in April 1959, and the stories of Chinese atrocities brought by his followers had rekindled the anger of the people. Malhotra, who was then the political correspondent of The Statesman, has given a graphic account of the pressures that this generated upon Nehru:
“Before and during the failed summit, bitter domestic discord raged in this country, at times theatrically. Nehru had to brush aside strident demands that there should be no welcome for Chou Enlai throughout his stay. Despite the chill, all courtesies were maintained. But on the demand for the exclusion from the negotiations of his protégé, the controversial defence minister Krishna Menon, Nehru had no option but to yield. However, when Menon did manage to have a pow-wow with Chou Enlai, popular rage knew no bounds.”
The dangers that democracies face from ill-informed public opinion is, therefore, the second lesson to be learned from the debacle of 1962. Nehru knew that he had used up most of his political capital getting Indians to accept China’s annexation of Tibet. When China began to build its Tibet-Xinjiang road without even informing, let alone reaching an agreement with India, and when a spate of revelations of the oppression the Chinese had unleashed upon Tibet gained currency after the Dalai Lama’s arrival, he felt unable to concede any more ground.
Even at this point, Nehru wanted to do no more than establish a new de facto line of separation between Tibet and Ladakh. But finding himself caught between the renewed Chinese military build-up in Aksai Chin and NEFA, and a rising “bunker mentality” at home, he may have felt that showing the flag to establish red lines was the only option left, at least to buy time till things cooled down. What is more, had the Chinese Communist Party not entered a period of crisis at that precise moment, he just might have gotten away with it.
Crisis in China
What Nehru failed to take into account, and what Maxwell does not even mention, are the changes that were taking place within China that were pushing it towards a Grenada-style “small winnable war”. In 1959, the Great Leap Forward had just started, so the Chinese were content to stake out the territory they needed for the Aksai Chin road. But by 1962, it had failed.
China’s leaders had cut down tens of thousands of acres of forests for firewood, produced worthless junk in its backyard furnaces and plunged an already poor country into famine. Lacking a national food market, Beijing had been forced to sit helplessly by as 16 million people starved to death. In 1962, therefore, Mao Zedong knew that the Communist Party’s Mandate of Heaven was in tatters and needed something to shore it up. New Delhi’s September 21 order to push the Chinese off the Thagla ridge must have come as a gift from heaven.
To sum up, the 1962 war was not a product of Chinese expansionism (if one rules out its annexation of Tibet). Nor was it a product of Nehru’s or India’s imperialism. It arose out of China’s attempt at consolidation. China tried repeatedly to nudge India towards a negotiated solution, but did not realise that no democracy could afford to negotiate from a position of weakness. On his part, Nehru was not the puffed-up peacock that his present-day critics make him out to be, but a visionary leader who failed to make his people accept his vision, fell foul of public opinion and lost his capacity to lead the country at a crucial time on a crucial issue. The major error that both countries made was not to perceive the visceral link between foreign and domestic policy. China never understood how public opinion could impede the search for a negotiated solution; Nehru did not have the faintest inkling of how much China’s natural aversion to conflict had been eroded by the failure of the Great Leap Forward.
The 1962 war was a product of these failures, but these are failures typical of young nations. Both countries have learned immensely valuable lessons from it. This became apparent in 2009, when after three years of increasing acrimony, renewed aggressive patrolling and frequent intrusions across the Line of Actual Control, and an unambiguous ultimatum by China to prevent the Dalai Lama from visiting Tawang, it was then premier Wen Jiabao who took the initiative to meet Manmohan in Thailand and arrest the drift towards a repeat of 1962.
What is even more significant, both governments realised that public opinion, inflamed by the international media, was the main impediment to peace and arrived at the brilliantly innovative decision to ban the international, and limit the local media’s presence, in Tawang, while allowing the Dalai Lama to continue his trip unimpeded.
When India is on the verge of a conflict that can destroy the status that has taken five decades to rebuild after 1962, it is imperative that the present policymakers take some time off to actually read the Brooks-Bhagat report and accept the damning indictment of the Indian government’s irresponsibility in 1962 that it contains.
A version of this article first appeared in Tehelka on April 14, 2014.