In sharp contrast to its belligerence towards Pakistan, the Modi government has acted with maturity and restraint in the face of China’s induction of troops, artillery and armour into hitherto ‘grey’ areas along the Line of Actual Control around Pangong Lake and the Galwan valley last month. In the month that has passed since the confrontation began, it has become apparent that Beijing’s purpose is neither military nor tactical, but strategic.
What it has lost in the past six years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule – and what it may be looking to regain – is the confidence that India will adhere to the policy and agreements crafted by the two countries over 20 years to enlarge strategic cooperation on international issues – and allow the border dispute to lose its salience till it fades into history.
The string of actions by the Modi government that have caused this rupture were described by me earlier in these columns. Returning to them will not be easy, partly because even tactical retreats are not a part of Modi’s psychological make-up, but also because any such retreat will go against the grain of the hostility ingrained into the Indian psyche by the humiliating defeat India suffered 58 years ago in the 1962 border war.
No defeat is easy for the people of a young, proud nation to live with. But coming to terms with 1962 has been especially difficult because its causes have been assiduously hidden from the people by every successive government. They have done this by refusing to release the Indian Army’s own assessment of the causes of its defeat, prepared by two unimpeachable officers of the Indian army, Lieutenant-General T.B. Henderson Brooks and Victoria Cross holder Brigadier Prem Bhagat. This has robbed three generations of Indians of the understanding they needed to come to terms with it. As a result, Indians remain convinced that China was the aggressor; that 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.
In the years that followed, the only person who wrote an authoritative book contesting this was the Australian journalist and India correspondent of the London Times, Neville Maxwell who, as it turned out, was the only journalist given a copy of the Henderson-Brooks-Bhagat report on the promise that he would use its contents but never refer to it.
In his widely read book, India’s China War, Maxwell squarely accused India of having started the war. Maxwell accused Jawaharlal Nehru of being an “imperialist” who adopted a Forward Policy of defending the borders drawn in Tibet unilaterally by the British and, more questionably, 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, he claims, 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 tried to refute Maxwell’s thesis but, severely handicapped by lack of access to the Henderson-Brooks-Bhagat report and the Chinese foreign office, they were forced to rely upon anecdotal evidence and only managed to dent the edges of his assertions. As a result, Indians have never achieved closure on their humiliating defeat. Instead, as happened to the Germans after their sudden, unexplained, defeat in World War I, the wound has continued to fester. Today, our incomprehension of the past is threatening to poison our future.
Maxwell releases the report
Fortunately for us, in February 2014, Maxwell released the first part of the Henderson-Brooks-Bhagat report on his website. New Delhi immediately blocked his website but not before several copies of the report had already been downloaded and become available on the Internet. This has given us the opportunity to understand the past and put it behind us when we need it most.
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 (now Arunachal Pradesh)”. Its terms of reference were to inquire into “what went wrong with the following: 1. Training; 2. Equipment; 3. System of Command; 4. Physical fitness of the troops; and 5. 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 damning.
The report confirmed that the war had indeed been triggered by India’s Forward Policy and condemned this policy because it violated every canon of the art of war, and scaled new heights of ineptitude. But it also made it clear that the Nehru government adopted this policy only in December 1961. Prior to that, it 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 revealed the extent to which Maxwell had uncritically swallowed China’s version of the conflict in his book.
Till late 1959, the Indo-Tibetan border had remained 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 1959 at Longju on the western edge of NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh), and in October at Kongka La on the Kashmir-Xinjiang frontier, turned it into a ‘live’ border.
The government’s instruction to 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 prevent infiltration”. Both these directives were very far from the Forward Policy that, Maxwell claimed, Nehru had adopted in the early-to-mid 1950s.
Army assumes responsibility
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 upon this, the Army HQ concluded that “any future confrontations would involve troops at no more than company or battalion strength”. To counter the Chinese deployment, therefore, it asked the Western Command to deploy only one brigade and two battalions of the Jammu & 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 J&K Militia. This was hardly an aggressive deployment.
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 Arunachal Pradesh.
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 2-3 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.
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 H-B-R 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. In practice, however, India did concede that demand. 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 then by India. In addition, both countries took care to leave a wide gap between their forces.
Zhou Enlai’s Delhi visit
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 Enlai when he virtually forced himself upon Nehru in New Delhi in February 1960, offered acceptance of the MacMahon line in the north-east in return for a recognition of the existing line of separation in Aksai Chin, and went from one Indian cabinet minister’s home to the next, trying to obtain a consensus when Nehru, inexplicably failed to take the lead.
Nehru’s failure to take advantage of this extraordinary overture must be counted as one of the greatest, and by far the most costly, diplomatic mistake 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, that led Nehru and his advisers to make their second mistake and adopt the Forward Policy.
After Zhou’s abortive trip to Delhi, 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 reinforce them at short notice. An even more striking imbalance developed in the eastern sector. By July 1961, according to the report, China had three full divisions supported by armour and mountain artillery in NEFA, two in the west and one in the east.
But 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 on foot through mountain tracks, or from the air, to face China’s three divisions in Aksai Chin.
Much the same asymmetry developed in the Northeast. In May 1959, the Eastern Command had 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 been detached and sent to Nagaland.
The Forward Policy that led to war
This was the grim imbalance in November 1961 when the government decided to adopt the Forward Policy. Army Headquarters in Delhi ordered 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 were asked to do this without a single additional soldier.
New Delhi’s instructions remained to avoid conflict and fire only in self-defence, but the Henderson-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 HQ ordered it to set up a post on the Galwan river. When it was set up in July, it was immediately surrounded by, according to the H-B-B report 70 (not, as now being maintained, 200 to 300) 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 Chinese forced the supply columns 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 not to pass value judgements, they found it impossible to do so. Their 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 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 created the casus belli for the war. As part of the Forward Policy, the Army HQ had decided to set up one of its forward 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 3-4 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 4 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 the 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.
The report’s relevance today
What should the Indian public learn from the disclosures contained in the Henderson-Brooks-Bhagat report? The most important is that China did not start the 1962 war. We did it, in an act of the image of China as an aggressive, expansionist nation, that the US has done its level best to propagate. The Chinese demonstrated their lack of expansionist intent not only by pulling back in Ladakh to positions not very different from the ones they had occupied before the war, but far more unequivocally by withdrawing from the Tawang tract, which houses the second most important monastery in Tibetan Buddhism – essentially returning Tawang to us.
The report also reveals that China has been remarkably consistent in the terms it has set for a settlement. In Ladakh, the border region recognised by the 1993 Agreement is almost identical to the status quo that was established in 1960 before India’s adoption of the Forward Policy.
Publication by the government of the Henderson-Brooks-Bhagat report is therefore long overdue. This is not only because it will bring balance back into our relations with our most important, and potentially most dangerous neighbour, but also because it will finally allow us to recognise and pay tribute to the incredible heroism of officers like Major B.C. Pant of the 2nd Rajputs, Major Shaitan Singh of the Kumaon regiment and hundreds of heroic soldiers who refused to surrender and fought to the last bullet knowing that only death awaited them, without tasting the faint but bitter aura of defeat that still lingers around that war.