War behind closed doors

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New perspectives reveal the largely unknown history behind the Sino-Indian war

The 1962 Sino-Indian war, long forgotten by the world, continues to cast a long shadow over India’s foreign and security policy-making. In some ways, it remains shrouded in myth and mystery, for the only official inquiry, the Brooks-Henderson/Bhagat Report on India’s catastrophic defeat in the war, has remained locked away, seen only by  very few in the military hierarchy over the past 50 odd years.

Sino-Indian war.Indian Link

Two recently published books have suddenly brought the conflict into the limelight – although they have been written from entirely different perspectives. Bruce Riedel’s new book, JFK: The Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, CIA and the Sino-Indian War (Brookings Institution Press, 2015) explains why the world has forgotten that war. ‘Forgotten’ is perhaps not quite the right word; the world never quite registered the conflict in the first place because at the very moment China was invading India in 1962, the American U-2 spy planes had spotted Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. So huge was this looming Cuban Missile Crisis in the context of the Cold War – and it grabbed the headlines all over the world – that the Chinese invasion of India went completely under the radar. John Kenneth Galbraith, US Ambassador to India at that time, wrote, “The same week – almost the same day – that the superpowers confronted each other in Cuba, the two great Asian powers were locking horns over the Himalayas.”

Riedel is the Director of the Brookings Intelligence Project, had worked for the CIA, and was National Security Advisor to four US Presidents.

Sino-Indian war.Indian Link
Bruce Riedel

He identifies three main reasons behind China’s aggression, and most serious scholars of the subcontinent will be familiar with them. First, he points to the CIA’s clandestine support of the Tibetan people (mainly among the Tibetan refugee population in India) in their resistance to Chinese occupation as a factor that partly precipitated the Sino-Indian War. Although this may come as a surprise to many Indians, this was actually first brought to the world’s attention by Allen Whiting, another CIA operative, in his book The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence, published in 1975.  Riedel expands on this, and tells us how the United States, beginning in 1957, trained and parachuted Tibetan guerrillas into Tibet to fight Chinese military forces. This covert operation may well have been the proximate cause of China’s invasion of India in 1962. Riedel explains that the United States did not end its support, and training of Tibetan exiles well into the 1970s – when relations between the United States and China were normalised.

Sino-Indian war.Indian Link

The second reason that Riedel identifies is the Chinese wish to humiliate Nehru as they viewed him as trying to arrogate to himself the leadership of the Third World which they wanted as theirs. The third was India’s so-called “Forward Policy” in the Himalayas – both of which have been dealt with in-depth by Neville Maxwell in his famous expose India’s China War, published five decades ago.

Most of us know that Nehru had been disdainful of the US, and had crafted the policy of Non-Alignment to keep it at arms’ length; he had also been firmly behind the Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai sloganeering. Yet when China invaded India, it was to the US that Nehru went rushing for direct American Air Force intervention, asking President John F. Kennedy to provide India with fighter jets to stem the Chinese aggression, to strike in Tibet. Neither were Chinese ‘Bhais’ nor was the US malevolent as Nehru had projected. At the end of the war, his reputation was in tatters and his humiliation complete. He died a broken man a few months later.

Riedel tells us that it was India’s fear of China, and the prospect of a resumption of its war with that country, that haunted the final weeks of Kennedy’s life. He draws on newly declassified letters between Kennedy and Nehru, along with the diaries and memoirs of key players and other sources.

Sino-Indian war.Indian Link

We also learn how Ambassador Galbraith played a crucial role in the crisis. Most in India are unaware of the seminal role that the US played in stymieing Chinese advances through India’s North-east. Galbraith urged Washington and the President to respond generously. Within days, 10,000 US servicemen had arrived in India; eight flights a day of US and British weapons were sent to Calcutta; and a US aircraft carrier was diverted to the Bay of Bengal. Having advanced with ease into northeastern India, it was then that Mao abruptly declared a ceasefire. Another Riedel revelation is that China had wanted Pakistan to simultaneously attack India. JFK managed to get Pakistan to stay out of the war by keeping it engaged in diplomatic talks.

Galbraith forged a role that is a lesson for ambassadors the world over. For a full week after China’s invasion, he received no letter, call or telegram from Washington as it was completely preoccupied with the Cuban crisis. Kennedy entrusted the US response entirely to Galbraith. It was a shrewd – and correct – decision, for it was the Ambassador who crafted a calibrated and successful response to the Chinese attack entirely on his own.

Quite fortuitously, Shiv Kunal Verma has just come out with a book on the same subject, 1962: The War That Wasn’t (Aleph, 2016). Riveting in both style and substance, this book chronicles the story of an army that was let down by some of its senior officers – many of whom were political appointees – as well as their political masters. The book also documents the early history of the regions, especially NEFA, which along with Ladakh, was the main theatre of the War, and the goings-on in the Indian Army, including political meddling which led to India’s catastrophic defeat. Verma was a guest at the The Hindu’s Lit for Life last month. He was the first to film the Kargil War (1999) and has written extensively on the Indian armed forces, including the Assam Rifles, Siachen, and the North East.

Sino-Indian war.Indian Link
Shiv Kunal Verma

What motivated Kunal Verma to write about the Sino-Indian war? His father, Major Gen AK Verma, was in the Army, and his battalion, the 2 Rajput, was completely wiped out in the 1962 War – 282 men died in one hour. His father survived because he was posted elsewhere at that time. He later distinguished himself as the commander of the Indian Army’s 18 Rajput during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. “It got me interested in military history and, ever since, I have been documenting the history of the Armed Forces,” says the author. This close family association with the army seems to have given Verma a certain advantage: for though he knows the military intimately, he does not shy away from exposing events as they unfolded – as he has not himself served in the army.

In this book, Verma shows us how those who stood and fought the battles, despite every kind of handicap, were repeatedly let down by those who should have been holding their hands in Nam Ka Chu, Bum-la, Tawang, Se-la, Thembang, Bomdila – all in the Kameng Frontier Division of NEFA.  For example, C Company of 13 Kumaon, led by Major Shaitan Singh, fought to the last man and last round at Razangla at 1,600 feet, before being overwhelmed. Of the 123 jawans, 114 were killed, including the company commander. This was a battle which has no parallel in the annals of modern military history.

Sino-Indian war.Indian Link

The main cause of India’s defeat at China’s hand was Jawaharlal Nehru’s naïve faith in the India-China friendship, and a refusal to even consider views to the contrary emanating from the army – no matter how well informed they were. It was perhaps Nehru’s skewed idea of what civilian control entailed.  When General KM Cariappa brought to Nehru’s notice in early 1951 that some Chinese troops were apprehended with maps showing parts of the North East Frontier Agency as part of China, he retorted, “It is not for the Army to decide who the nation’s likely enemies would be.”

In 1959, General Thimmayya had flagged a Chinese attack: Nehru and Menon ignored him again. This was compounded by wanton interference in internal army matters, favouring those that the duo liked – or those that reflected their political views – over officers who had combat experience or could assess threats on the ground.  In 1960, then Chief of the Eastern Command Lt Gen SPP Thorat, held an exercise, code named ‘Operation Lal Quila’, in Lucknow, to assess the Chinese threat. It was attended by all Principal Staff Officers from the Army HQ, who unequivocally demonstrated that with the troops, weapons and equipment available at that time, a Chinese attack could not be contained, and the ‘forward policy’, advocated by the Defence Minister and General Officer commanding the North East, Lt Gen BM Kaul, (a Nehru appointee with little experience of battle), was not practical.  In 1961, General Thimayya handed his resignation to Nehru following differences with the Defence Minister Krishna Menon over the issue, saying, “With the present state of the Army, I can hardly assure success. We are not prepared. All my efforts …have failed for the past 24 to 30 months to make the Armed Forces a viable defence force.”

Nothing was done on Gen Thimayya’s recommendations, and indeed when he left, Thorat was not considered for promotion: in his place Gen Thapar was appointed as the Army chief and Lt Gen Kaul as the Chief of General Staff.

Both backed the ill-fated ‘forward policy’. In the aftermath of the humiliating defeat, the duo, along with Menon, resigned in ignominy.