The 1962 Sino-India conflict shocked India and showed China for what it would eventually become —a military superpower. Fifty years later, BG Verghese recounts the war that gave two neighbours a reason to mistrust each other forever
Fast forward to March 1947 when Jawaharlal Nehru’s Interim Government hosted an Asian Relations Conference in Delhi to which Tibet and China (then represented by the KMT—Kuomintang Party) were invited. India recognised the PRC as soon as it was established in 1949 and adopted a One-China policy thereafter.
In 1951, China moved into Tibet. A 17-Point Agreement granted it autonomy under Chinese sovereignty. This converted what until then was a quiet Indo-Tibet boundary into a problematic Sino-Indian frontier, with China adopting all prior Tibetan claims.
The historic Sino-Indian Treaty on Relations between India and the Tibet Region of China was signed in 1954. India gave up its rights in Tibet without seeking a quid pro quo. The Panch Shila was enunciated, which Nehru presumed presupposed inviolate boundaries in an era of Hindi-Chini-bhai-bhai.
The young Dalai Lama came to India in 1956 to participate in the 2,500th anniversary celebrations commemorating the Enlightenment of the Buddha but was reluctant to return home as he felt China had reneged from its promise of Tibetan autonomy. Chou En-lai visited India later that year and sought Nehru’s good offices to persuade the Dalai Lama to return to Lhasa on the assurance of implementation of the 17-Point Agreement by China in good faith.
Visiting China in 1954, Nehru drew Chou En-lai’s attention to the new political map of India, which defined the McMahon Line and the J&K Johnson Line as firm borders (and not in dotted lines or vague colourwash as previously depicted) and expressed concern over corresponding Chinese maps that he found erroneous. Chou En-lai replied that the Chinese had not yet found time to correct their old maps but that this would be done “when the time is ripe”. Nehru assumed this implied tacit Chinese acceptance of India’s map alignments but referred to the same matter once again during Chou’s 1956 visit to India.
The matter was, however, not pressed. Nehru had in a statement about that time referred to the words of a wise Swedish diplomat to the effect that though a revolutionary power, China would take 20-30 years to fight poverty and acquire the muscle to assert its hegemony. Therefore, it should meanwhile be cultivated and not be isolated and made to feel under siege as the Bolsheviks were in 1917. This postulate was, however, reversed in 1960-62 when Nehru interpreted the same wise Swedish diplomat to mean it was the first 20-30 years after its revolution that were China’s dangerous decades; thereafter the PRC would mature and mellow. This suggests a somewhat fickle understanding of China on Nehru’s part.
The Aksai Chin road had been constructed by China by 1956-57 but only came to notice in 1958 when somebody saw it depicted on a small map in a Chinese magazine. India protested. The very first note in the Sino-Indian White Papers, published later, declared Aksai Chin to be “indisputably” Indian territory ” and, thereafter, incredibly lamented the fact that Chinese personnel had wilfully trespassed into that area “without proper visas”. The best construction that can put on this language is that Nehru was even at that time prepared to be flexible and negotiate a peaceful settlement or an appropriate adjustment. Parliament and the public were, however, kept in the dark.
Though outwardly nothing had changed, Nehru had begun to reassess his position. According to Ashok Parthasarathi, his father, the late G Parthasarathi, met Nehru on the evening of 18 March 1958, after all concerned had briefed him prior to his departure for Peking as the new Indian Ambassador to China. GP recorded what Nehru said in these terms: “So GP, what has the Foreign Office told you? Hindi-Chini-bhai-bhai? Don’t you believe it! I don’t trust the Chinese one bit. They are a deceitful, opinionated, arrogant and hegemonistic lot. Eternal vigilance should be your watchword. You should send all your telegrams only to me — not to the Foreign Office. Also, do not mention a word of this instruction of mine to Krishna (then Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon). He, you and I all share a common worldview and ideological approach. However, Krishna believes — erroneously — that no Communist country can have bad relations with any Non-Aligned country like ours.”
This is an extraordinary account and is difficult to interpret other than, once again, as symbolising Nehru’s fickle views on China, which GP had no reason to misquote.
Chinese incursions at Longju and Khizemane in Arunachal Pradesh and the Kongka Pass, Galwan and Chip Chap Valleys in Ladakh followed through 1959. The Times of India broke many of these early stories. There was a national uproar. It was while on a conducted tour of border road construction in Ladakh in 1958 with the Army PRO, Ram Mohan Rao, that I first heard vague whispers of “some trouble” further east. We however went to Chushul — where the airstrip was still open — and the Pangong Lake unimpeded.
The Khampa rebellion in Tibet had erupted and the Dalai Lama had fled to India in 1959 via Tawang where he received an emotional welcome. The Government of India granted him asylum, along with his entourage and over 100,000 refugees that followed, and he took up residence with his government-in-exile in Dharamshala. These events greatly disturbed the Chinese and marked a turning point in Sino-Indian relations. Their suspicions about India’s intentions were not quelled by Delhi’s connivance in facilitating American-trained Tibetan refugee guerrillas to operate in Tibet and further permitting an American listening facility to be planted on the heights of Nanda Devi to monitor Chinese signals in Tibet.
China had by now commenced its westward cartographic-cum-military creep in Ladakh and southward creep in Arunachal Pradesh.
The highly regarded Chief of Army Staff, Gen KS Thimayya, began to envisage a new defence posture vis-à-vis China in terms of plans, training, logistics and equipment. However, Krishna Menon, aided by BN Mullick, the IB chief and intelligence czar, who also was close to Nehru, disagreed with this threat perception and insisted that attention should remain focussed on Pakistan and the “anti-imperialist forces”. Growing interference by Krishna Menon in army postings, promotions and strategic perspectives frustrated Thimayya so much that he tendered his resignation to Nehru in 1959. Fearing a major crisis, the PM persuaded Thimayya to withdraw his resignation, which he unfortunately did at the cost of his authority. Nothing changed. Mullick and Menon sowed in Nehru’s mind the notion that a powerful chief might stage a coup (as Ayub Khan had done in Pakistan). For long, this myth was a factor in the government’s aversion to the idea of appointing a Chief of Defence Staff.
In 1959, en route to Dhaka, President Ayub of Pakistan, in a brief stopover meeting with Nehru in Delhi, had proposed “joint defence”. Joint defence against whom, was Nehru’s scornful and unthinking retort? Yet Nehru was not oblivious of a potential threat from the north, as he had repeatedly told Parliament from the early 1950s that the Himalayan rampart was India’s defence and defence line. He had somewhat grandiloquently and tactlessly proclaimed that though Nepal was indeed a sovereign nation, when it came to India’s security, India’s defence lay along the kingdom’s northern border, Nepal’s independence notwithstanding! Yet he had been remarkably lax in preparing to defend that not-quite-so-impenetrable a rampart or even countenance his own military from doing so.
However, almost a decade later, Himalayan border road construction commenced under the Border Roads Organisation and forward positions were established. This Forward Policy, though opposed by Lt Gen Daulat Singh, GOC-in-C Western Command, was pushed by Krishna Menon, de facto Foreign Minister, and equally by BN Mullick, who played a determining role in these events, being present in all inner councils. Many of the 43 new posts established in Ladakh were penny packets with little capability and support or military significance. The objective appeared more political, in fulfilment of an utterly fatuous slogan Nehru kept uttering in Parliament and elsewhere, that “not an inch of territory” would be left undefended; though he had earlier played down the Aksai Chin incursion as located in a cold, unpopulated, elevated desert “where not a blade of grass grows”. In August, Nehru announced that Indian forces had regained 2,500 square miles of the 12,000 square miles occupied by the Chinese in Ladakh.
A series of Sino-Indian white papers continued to roll out. The Times of India commented on 15 August 1962: “Anyone reading the latest White Paper on Sino-Indian relations together with some of the speeches by the prime minister and defence minister on the subject may be forgiven for feeling that the government’s China policy, like chopsuey, contains a bit of everything — firmness and conciliation, bravado and caution, sweet reasonableness and defiance… We have been variously informed… that the situation on the border is both serious and not-so-serious; that we have got the better of the Chinese and they have got the better of us; that the Chinese are retreating and that they are advancing…”
Backseat driving of defence policy continued to the end of Thimayya’s tenure when General PN Thapar was appointed COAS over Thimayya’s choice of Lt Gen SPP Thorat, Eastern Army Commander. In the circumstances, Thorat had produced a paper advocating that while the Himalayan heights might be prepared as a trip-wire defence, the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) should essentially be defended lower down at its waist which, among other things, would ease the Indian Army’s logistical and acclimatisation problems and correspondingly aggravate those of the Chinese. The Thorat plan, “The China Threat and How to Meet It”, got short shrift.
The Goa operation at the end of 1960 witnessed two strange events. The new Chief of General Staff (CGS), Lt Gen BM Kaul, marched alongside one of the columns of the 17th Division under Gen KP Candeth that was tasked to enter Goa. Thereafter he and, separately, the Defence Minister, Krishna Menon, declared “war” or the commencement of operations at two different times — one at midnight and the other at first light the next morning. In any other situation such flamboyant showmanship could have been disastrous. However, Goa was a cakewalk and evoked the mistaken impression, among gifted amateurs in high places, that an unprepared Indian Army could take on China.
Kaul’s promotion to the rank of lieutenant general and then to the key post of the Chief of General Staff (CGS) had stirred controversy. He was politically well connected and had held PR appointments but lacked command experience. The top brass was divided and the air was thick with intrigue and suspicion. Kaul had inquiries made into the conduct of senior colleagues like Thorat, SD Verma and then Maj Gen Sam Manekshaw, Commandant of the Staff College in Wellington.
Even as the exchange of Sino-Indian notes continued, Nehru on 12 October 1962 said he had ordered the Indian Army “to throw the Chinese out”, casually revealed to the media at Palam Airport before departing on a visit to Colombo!
A new 4th Corps was created on 8 October 1962 with head-quarters at Tezpur in western Assam to reinforce the defence of the Northeast. Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh was named GOC but was soon moved to take over 33 Corps at Siliguri and then moved again to the Western Command. Kaul took charge of 4th Corps but appeared to have assumed a superior jurisdiction because of his direct political line to Delhi. Command controversies were further compounded as at times it seemed that both everybody and nobody was in charge. Thapar and Gen LP Sen, now at Eastern Command, also went to recce and reorder defence plans along the Bomdila-Se La sector. At the political level and at the External Affairs Ministry, the adage was “Panditji knows best”.
KAUL WAS here, there and everywhere, exposing himself in high altitudes without acclimatisation. No surprise that he fell ill and was evacuated to Delhi on 18 October, only to return five days later.
Following Nehru’s “throw them out” order, and against saner military advice and an assessment of ground realities, a brigade under John Dalvi was positioned on the Namka Chu River below the Thagla Ridge that the Chinese claimed lay even beyond the McMohan Line. It was a self-made trap: “It was but to do or die”. The brigade retreated in disorder after a gallant action, while the Chinese rolled down to Tawang where they reached on 25 October.
The London Economist parodied Rudyard Kipling. In a pithy editorial titled “Plain Tales From the Hills”, the text read, “When the fog cleared, the Chinese were there”!
A new defence line was hurriedly established at Se La.
I was not in the country during the Namka Chu battle but returned soon thereafter and was asked to go to Tezpur from Bombay to cover the war.
Nehru was by now convinced that the Chinese were determined to sweep down to the plains. The national mood was one of despondency, anger and foreboding. Only one commentator, the late NJ Nanporia, editor of The Times of India, got it right. In a closely reasoned edit page article, he argued that the Chinese favoured negotiation and a peaceful settlement, not invasion, and that India must talk. At worst, the Chinese would teach India a lesson and go back. Critics scoffed at Nanporia. I too thought he was being simplistic. A week or 10 days later, in response to his critics, he reprinted the very same article down to the last comma and full-stop. Events proved him absolutely right.
On 24 October, Chou En-lai proposed a 20 km withdrawal by either side. Three days later, Nehru sought the enlargement of this buffer to 40-60 km. On 4 November, Chou offered to accept the McMahon Line provided India accepted the Macdonald Line in Ladakh approximating the Chinese claim line (giving up the more northerly Johnson Line favoured by Delhi).
By now I was in Tezpur, lodged at the Planter’s Club, which was now a media dormitory. The Army arranged for the press to visit the front in NEFA. Scores of Indian and foreign correspondents and cameramen volunteered. Col Pyara Lal, the chief Army PRO, took charge. On 15-17 November, we drove up to Se La (15,000 feet) and Dirang Dzong in the valley beyond before the climb to Bomdila. Jawans in cottons and perhaps a light sweater and canvas shoes were manhandling ancient 25-pounders into position at various vantage points. A day earlier, we had seen and heard Bijji Kaul’s theatrics and bravado at 4th Corps Headquarters and were shocked to see the reality: ill-equipped, unprepared but cheerful officers and men digging trenches to hold back the enemy under the command of a very gallant officer, Brig Hoshiar Singh.
We had barely returned to Tezpur on 17 November when we learnt that the Chinese had mounted an attack on Se La, outflanking it as well. Many correspondents rushed back to Delhi and Calcutta more easily to file their copy and despatch their pictures and footage. Military censorship delayed transmission. I discovered later that between the Tezpur Press Officer’s inability to handle much copy and censorship, few if any of my despatches reached The Times of India and those that did, had been severely truncated.
Even as battle was joined, Kaul disappeared from Tezpur to be with his men, throwing the chain of command into disarray. The saving grace was the valiant action fought by Brigadier Navin Rawley at Walong in the Luhit Valley before making an orderly retreat, holding back the enemy wherever possible. Much gallantry was also displayed in Ladakh against heavy odds.
The use of the Air Force had been considered. Some thought that the IAF had the edge as its aircraft would be operating with full loads from low altitude air strips in Assam unlike the Chinese operating from the Tibetan plateau at base altitudes of 11,000-12,000 feet. However, the decision was to prevent escalation.
On 18 November, word came that the Chinese had enveloped Se La, which finally fell without much of a fight in view of conflicting orders. A day later, the enemy had broken through to Foothills (both a place name and a description) along the Kameng axis. Confusion reigned supreme.
Kaul or somebody ordered the 4th Corps to pull back to Gauhati on 19 November and, as military convoys streamed west, somebody else ordered that Tezpur and the North Bank be evacuated. A “scorched earth” policy was ordered by somebody else again and the Nunmati Refinery was all but blown up. The district magistrate deserted his post. A former school and collegemate of mine, Rana KDN Singh, was directed to take charge of a tottering administration. He supervised the Joint Steamer Companies, mostly manned by East Pakistan Lascars, to ferry a frightened and abandoned civil population to the South Bank. The other modes of exodus were by bus and truck, car, cart, cycle and on foot. The last ferry crossing was at 6 pm. Those who remained or reached the jetty late, melted into the tea gardens and forest.
The Indian press had ingloriously departed the previous day, preferring safety to news coverage, as it happened again in Kashmir in 1990, when at least women journalists subsequently redeemed the profession. Only two Indians remained in Tezpur, Prem Prakash of Visnews and Reuters, and I, together with nine American and British correspondents. Along with us, wandering around like lost souls, were some 10-15 patients who had been released from the local mental hospital.
THAT WAS the most eerie night I have ever spent. Tezpur was a ghost town. We patrolled it by pale moonlight on the alert for any tell-tale signs or sounds. The State Bank of India had burned its currency chest and a few charred notes kept blowing in the wind as curious mental patients kept prodding the dying embers. Some stray dogs and alley cats were our only other companions.
Around midnight, a transistor with one of our colleagues crackled to life as Peking Radio announced a unilateral ceasefire and pull back to the pre-October “line of actual control”, provided the Indian Army did not move forward. Relieved and weary, we retired to our billet at the abandoned Planter’s Club whose canned provisions of baked beans, tuna fish and beer (all on the house) had sustained us.
Next morning, all the world carried the news, but AIR still had brave jawans gamely fighting the enemy as none had had the gumption to awaken Nehru and take his orders as the news was too big to handle otherwise! Indeed, during the preceding days, everyone from general to jawan to officials and the media was tuned into Radio Peking to find out what was going on in our own country.
1962 was a politically-determined military disaster. President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan said it all when he indicted the government for its “credulity and negligence”. Nehru himself confessed, artfully using the plural, “We were getting out of touch with reality… and living in an artificial world of our own creation”. Yet he was reluctant to get rid of Krishna Menon, (making him first Minister for Defence Production and then Minister without Portfolio but brazenly carrying on much as before) until public anger compelled the PM to drop him altogether or risk losing his own job.
Nehru was broken and bewildered. His letter to John F Kennedy seeking US military assistance after the fall of Bomdila was abject and pathetic. He feared that unless the tide was stemmed the Chinese would overrun the entire Northeast. The Chinese, he said, were massing troops in the Chumbi Valley and he apprehended another “invasion” from there. If Chushul was overrun, there was nothing to stop the Chinese before Leh. The IAF had not been used as India lacked air defence for its population centres. He therefore requested immediate air support by 12 squadrons of all-weather supersonic fighters with radar cover, all operated by US personnel. But US aircraft were not to intrude into Chinese air space. One does not know what inputs went into drafting Nehru’s letter to Kennedy. Non-alignment was certainly in tatters.
Tezpur limped back to life. On 21 November, Lal Bahadur Shastri, then Home Minister, paid a flying visit on a mission of inquiry and reassurance. He was followed the next day by Indira Gandhi. Nehru had meanwhile broadcast to the nation, and more particularly to “the people of Assam” to whom his “heart went out” at this terrible hour of trial. He promised the struggle would continue and none should doubt its outcome. Hearing the broadcast in Tezpur, however, it did not sound like a Churchillian trumpet of defiance. Rather, it provided cold comfort to the Assamese, many of whom hold it against the Indian state to this day that Nehru had bidden them “farewell”.
I remained in Tezpur for a month waiting day after day for the administration to return to Bomdila. This it did under the Political Officer (DM), Major KC Johorey just before Christmas. I accompanied him. The people of NEFA had stood solidly with India and Johorey received a warm welcome.
THAPAR HAD been removed and Gen JN Chaudhuri appointed COAS. Kaul went into limbo. The Naga underground took no advantage of India’s plight. Pakistan had been urged by Iran and the US not to use India’s predicament to further its own cause and kept its word. But it developed a new relationship with China thereafter.
The West and the US had been sympathetic to India and its Ambassador, John Kenneth Galbraith, had a direct line to Kennedy. However, the US was also preoccupied with growing Sino-Soviet divide and the major Cuban missile crisis that boiled over in October 1962.
The COAS, Gen Chaudhuri ordered an internal inquiry into the debacle by Maj Gen Henderson Brooks and Brigadier PS Bhagat. The Henderson-Brooks Report remains a top-secret classified document though its substance was leaked and published by Neville Maxwell who served as The Times’ London correspondent in India in the 1960s, became a Sinophile and wrote a critical book titled India’s China War. The report brings out the political and military naiveté, muddle, contradictions and in-fighting that prevailed and failures of planning and command. There is no military secret to protect in the Henderson-Brooks Report; only political and military ego and folly to hide. But unless the country knows, the appropriate lessons will not be learnt.
India did not learn the lesson that borders are more important than boundaries and continued to neglect the development of Arunachal and north Assam lest China roll down the hill again. However, given the prevailing global and regional strategic environment and India’s current military preparedness, the debacle of 1962 will not be repeated.
Many have since recorded their versions of what happened in 1962: Kaul, Dalvi, DK (Monty) Palit (who served under Kaul as Director of Military Operations), Neville Maxwell, S Gopal in Volume III of his Nehru biography, SS Khera, Principal Defence Secretary and Cabinet Secretary (in his India’s Defence Problem), YB Chavan (as retold in his biography by TV Kunhi Krishnan), and others. Each has a tale to tell. But the truth, differently interpreted, though widely suspected, remains the greatest casualty of 1962.