In the recent din in parliament, BJP MP Poonam Mahajan asked a weighty question of the defence minister only to receive a reply that raises more questions than it does answers. The Mumbai North Central MP asked if the Ministry of Defence had “released the official history of the Indian Armed Forces participation in wars” and a long list of military histories that have been released were tabled before parliament with the rankling exception of the Official History of the 1962 war with China.
The famous Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report that investigated the reasons for India’s defeat in the 1962 war with China and has remained a classified document for over five decades also did not find mention in the list of releases. Not releasing the China war history is unsurprising given the cult of secrecy surrounding all information related to the 1962 war, as is evident from the continuing reticence on the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report. What is, however, surprising, is that it is the BJP that had spent years clamouring for the release of the report but is now suppressing it.
BJP’s bipolar behaviour
What is perplexing in this government is the BJP’s bipolar behaviour with it at once calling for making the story of the 1962 war public and then objecting to actually doing so – at times by the same person.
In July 2014, then defence minister Arun Jaitley did a sharp turnaround from his own stated position a few months earlier. In a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha, Jaitley said, “[The] government is aware of reports purporting to disclose part of the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report on the India-China war. This is a Top Secret document and has not been declassified so far. Further, release of this report, fully or partially or disclosure of any information related to this report would not be in national interest.”
This was a sharp contraposition to Jaitley’s stand that he and his party had taken when parts of the highly classified report were posted on the website of Neville Maxwell, the author of the book India’s China War, in early 2014.
It is believed the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report raises questions on then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in the Forward Policy that supposedly resulted in the Indian defeat in 1962, and in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, the BJP had used it to target the ruling UPA. The BJP leaders criticised the Congress-led government for protecting the Nehru-Gandhi family by not making the contents of the report public.
Jaitley even wrote a blog on March 19 to support his claim that the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report be made public, “The first 111 pages having been made public, it is now necessary that the balance pages also be made public rather than allow public opinion be influenced by unauthentic sources. Was a Himalayan blunder of 1962 in fact a Nehruvian blunder?”
The current law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad had in 2014 gone further and held Nehru personally responsible for the debacle. “What are they trying to hide by making the war report classified?” Prasad had asked. “We have a right to know what went wrong. We lost the war because of Nehru.”
In 2015, BJP MP Subramaniam Swamy claimed the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar was on the verge of releasing the Henederson Brooks-Bhagat report. But nothing of the sort happened.
The Congress too in its decades of power has failed to bite the bullet and release the documents on the 1962 war. This level of politicisation of history, any history, can only stem from a deep disrespect for history as a national record.
Reasons for releasing the report
Since the BJP is hardly a guardian of Nehru’s reputation, does the fact that the list of war histories released does not include the Official History of 1962 or the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report mean that Nehru was innocent of all blame?
But should guarding or destroying personal reputations be the reason and aim for studying any war history? Mahajan’s question actually goes on to suggest reasons for studying war histories – to reduce the “wide gap in knowledge base of contemporary military history and war studies in India compared to advances made at global level”; and “the need to re-examine the capture and recording of historical events related to military operations and war records to ensure a higher order of professionalism in the services”.
The military leadership in India has famously remained opposed to releasing the officially stamped 1962 war history, even when a version of it is freely available on the internet. It remains resistant to releasing the report, choosing to hide operational failures of over half a century ago with a cloak of secrecy, instead of embracing the significant benefits to coming clean before the people of this country, as India prepares to engage with the powerful presence of Xi Jinping in China. The long shadow of the 1962 war lingers through constant questions on India’s military capability to counter China in the face of its claims on Arunachal Pradesh.
In 2014, Australian journalist Neville Maxwell, who claims to have a copy of the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report, released 111 pages. A study of the unearthed pages opens a window into India’s role in 1962 and confirm the military’s fears of being embarrassed by their revelations. The sections of the thus far top secret Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report give a fairly detailed account of the Indian establishment’s attachment to the idea of implementing the McMahon Line. But it also reveals the lack of clarity on what that Line was. In a recounting of some of the military miscalculations in the run-up to the war the relevant paragraphs, quoted below, from the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report highlight the confusion:
‘Till the introduction of the “Forward Policy” in December 1961, the policy in NEFA in regard to activities in the vicinity of the McMahon Line was “No patrolling except defensive patrolling is to be permitted within two to three miles of the McMahon Line.”
“A special operation instruction was issued by the Army HQ on 1 September, 1959, to Eastern Command. This gave the “intention” as one to establish our rights of possession on our side of the McMAHON Line and to prevent infiltration” (Henderson Brooks: 1963).
This intention was changed into an actual operational order in 1962 and among the first posts targeted to be established was the one at the trijunction between India, Tibet and Bhutan. But the army appeared to be unaware about discrepancies in the maps from the actual ground position:
‘On 27 April 1962, Army Headquarters gave their permission for patrolling as well as establishing new posts up to the McMahon Line, without prior sanction (Army Headquarters letter No 67045/GS/MO1 of 27 April 1962 – Annexure 41).
Originally, the intention of establishing a post West of KHINZAMANE was to establish one at the BHUTAN-INDIA-TIBET TRI JUNCTION, as given in the maps existing in May 1962. These maps showed the TRI JUNCTION at MM 7914.
The border on the map did not run along the watershed but was an arbitrary one running due WEST from KHINZAMANE. The watershed TRI JUNCTION is some four miles NORTH of the one given in the maps then existing’ (Henderson Brooks: 1963).
This confusion over applying the watershed principle to an inaccuracy on the map was further complicated by establishing a post at Dhola and not at the trijunction. This led to the army having to stretch itself further away from its defensive positions in order to secure the Dhola Post:
‘The post for various reasons was not established at the old TRI JUNCTION, but at DHOLA MM 8316. Capt MAHABIR PRASAD of 1 SIKH selected and established the DHOLA Post with a strength of one platoon of ASSAM Rifles on 4 June 1962.
In August 1962, XXXIII Corps brought to the notice of Eastern Command the discrepancy between the arbitrary line drawn on the map and the line as it should be according to the watershed principle (Annexure 42). This letter is important, as it gave the details of the two boundary lines.
The boundary line printed on the maps had considerable inaccuracies, if the watershed principle and usage were to be applied.
According to local inhabitants (graziers) and the political representatives who accompanied the ASSAM Rifles to the DHOLA Post, the accepted/recognized boundary was the one based on the watershed principle. (The letter did not specify as to who accepted/recognized this boundary line). It was, however, common knowledge that the McMAHON Line was based on the watershed principle. The TRI JUNCTION, according to the watershed principle, should be MM 7522 and not as shown in the map MM 7914.
There were three important approaches on the watershed boundary that lead into our area between KHINZAMANE and the recommended TRI JUNCTION MM 7522. The approaches were as under:
Thagla MM 8717
Karpola II MM 8321
MAMDANGLA MM 7822
XXXIII Corps recommended that one post should be established at THAGLA and another at TSANGLE MM 7719 to cover the other two passes. TSANGLE, according to the old boundary, was in BHUTAN. (BHUTAN, incidentally, did raise this question in October, when a representative of theirs approached Corps Headquarters).
The letter went on to give recommendations for establishing these posts and also asked for a survey to be carried out. Pending approval of the recommendations, it was intended to carry out patrolling between KHINZAMANE and the Watershed TRI JUNCTION’ (Henderson Brooks: 1963).
The report has been quoted at some length since it reveals the importance of claiming and occupying the imagined McMahon Line even while the facts on the ground militated against it. The grid references of the Dhola Post were reported incorrectly but this fact was suppressed because it seemed more important to be creating posts and taking position to claim a border. The last paragraph of the letter is of some importance:
“It will be seen from Sketch P attached (Sketch H of this Review) that the DHOLA Post grid reference (MM 8513), as reported earlier, is not correct and should be MM 8316. However, to avoid alarm and queries from all concerned, it is proposed to continue using the present grid reference in the location statement and situation reports until such time the case is finally decided by you. We hope it meets with your approval.”
‘This, in effect, meant that the post was actually NORTH of the McMAHON Line as then marked on the map. The location as given out MM 8513 was just SOUTH and MM 8516 just North of the Line. Dhola Post was established NORTH of the McMahon Line as shown on maps prior to October/November 1962 edition. It is believed the old edition was given to the Chinese by our External Affairs Ministry to indicate the McMahon Line. It is also learnt we tried to clarify the error in our maps, but the Chinese did not accept our contention. The General Staff must have been well aware of this; and it was their duty to have warned lower formations regarding the dispute. This was not done, and the seriousness of the establishment of DHOLA Post was not fully known to lower formations’ (Henderson Brooks: 1963).
Healing a scar
The above incident highlights the failure of the higher command structures in the Indian army and the constraints under which the armed forces operated on the ground. That is perhaps the lesson of this particular report and debating it may go some way in fixing lacunae in military operations. In any case, the war history of a country must be a matter of public record, but in releasing the history of the 1962 war and the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report, the government will be taking the first important step in healing the deep-rooted scar of defeat in the Indian psyche.
As the new foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale launches on a course correction in India-China relations, a great beginning would be to come clean on India’s part in 1962 and to prepare the people of India to confront uncomfortable truths. Any deal on the boundary question will involve give and take and an understanding of India’s past inflexible positions on McMahon Line is essential to a future agreement. Disclosures on Doklam, a mere border skirmish and in no way comparable to the ravages of 1962, may have set the tone for coming clean and negotiating from a position of clarity. Nearly five months after the Indian army had been declared the winner in the 73-day Doklam contest, Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat disclosed on January 12 that “a number of Chinese soldiers are still present in Doklam plateau”.
The same honesty would qualify to end the secrecy on the Official History of the 1962 war and the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report.
List of publications of Official Histories of the Indian Armed Forces in World War 2:
1. The Retreat from Burma 1941-42.
2. The Reconquest of Burma 1942; Vol.I.
3. The Reconquest of Burma 1944-45; Vol.II
4. The Arakan Operations 1942-45.
5. Campaigns in South East Asia 1941-42.
6. Campaign in Western Asia.
7. The North African Campaigns 1940-43.
8. East African Campaign 1940-41.
9. The Campaign in Italy 1943-45.
10. India and the War.
11. Expansion of the Armed Forces and Defence Organisation 1939-45.
12. Defence of India-Policy & Plans.
13. Post-War Occupation Forces: Japan & South East Asia.
14. Technical Services: Ordnance & IEME (Indian Electrical and
15. The Corps of Engineers 1939-47.
16. Indian War Economy.
17. The Royal Indian Navy 1939-45.
18. History of the Indian Air Force 1933-45.
List of publications of Official History of Indian Armed Forces during the post-Independence period:
1. Operation Polo – The Police Action Against Hyderabad, 1948.
2. Operation Vijay – The Liberation of Goa and other Portuguese Colonies in India, 1961.
3. The Congo Operation, 1960-63.
4. History of the Custodian Force (India) in Korea, 1953-54.
5. History of Operations in Jammu & Kashmir, 1947-48.
6. Operation Shanti – Indian Army on Peace Mission.
7. Military Costumes of India.
8. Bharatiya Sainik Vesha – Bhusha (Hindi).
9. Stories of Heroism (Param Vir Chakra and Ashoka Chakra Winners).
10. Stories of Heroism (Param Vir Chakra and Mahavir Chakra Winners).
11. Veerta Ki Kahaniyan (Param Vir Chakra Aur Mahavir Chakra Vijeta).
12. Terrific Responsibility – The Battle for Peace in Indo-China (1954-75).
13. Dushkar Dayitva – Hind-Chin Mein Shanti ke Liye Sangharsh (1954-75).
14. Stories of Heroism (Ashoka Chakra and Kirti Chakra Winners).
15. Veerta ki Kahaniyan (Ashok Chakra Aur Kirti Chakra Vijeta).
16. The India-Pakistan War of 1965: A History.
17. The India-Pakistan War of 1971: A History.
18. Saga of Valour (Param Vir Chakra and Ashoka Chakra Winners).
Sonia Trikha Shukla is an author is an Adjunct Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies.
This article draws on a study of the released pages of the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report that this author worked on for a paper presented at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study to mark the centenary of the 1914 Simla Conference.