Ch-05 Extracts: Himalayan Misadventure (Indian-China War)

Extracts from Chapter-5
Himalayan Misadventure

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Sweep Under the Carpet

People feel shocked when they learn of the background and the details of the India-China War because under the cover of “national security interests” things have been hidden away from the public, despite such a long lapse of time.

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No democratic country remains so secretive. Both the UK and the USA, as also other democratic countries, make all official documents available after a lapse of certain years, as per their law, so that historians, academics, researchers, experts, leaders and others can study them. This helps writing of correct history, drawing proper conclusions, and learning lessons for the future. It helps countries learn and improve themselves. But, in India, the leaders and the bureaucrats are ever afraid of their incompetence and dishonesty being exposed. They are bothered about their present and their survival, the future of the country is not their business.

You ignore history and its lessons at your own peril and hence, to draw useful lessons for future from the debacle, it is necessary to raise uncomfortable questions.

Any democratic country, worth its salt, would have instituted a detailed enquiry into all aspects of the debacle: “What was the nature of the border dispute? Why the issue was not resolved through talks? Why didn’t India settle it in 1954 itself at the time of signing the Panchsheel? Was Indian position justified? Did Chinese arguments have substance? Why did India change its maps in 1954—on what grounds? Were there solid grounds for India to be so adamant on its stand? Why was the Chinese offer of a swap-deal on McMahon Line and Aksai Chin not accepted? Why was the forward policy adopted? Why the Indian defence preparedness was so poor? Had there been politicisation of the army? Why was the Indian performance in the war so pathetic? What should be India’s stand going forward? How to resolve the dispute? How to strengthen India’s defence?...”.  Accountability should have been established and those responsible should have got their just desserts. The findings of the enquiry should have been made public, along with a road-map for the future. That’s democracy!

But, what happened in practice? Nothing! The government was brazen enough not to set up a comprehensive enquiry. Why let their own mistakes be found? Why punish themselves? Why be made to resign? Why vacate your positions? People don’t deserve to know! It was an autocratic democracy. Don’t disclose—cite “national interest”. Although, it was not national interest, but pure self-interest, that drove the decision. Sweep under carpet whatever is unpalatable. Just put all the blame on the Chinese and on a few scapegoats.

The above would be obvious from the following. During the lull in the war—24 October to 13 November 1962—this is what Nehru said in the Rajya Sabha on 9 November 1962: “People have been shocked, all of us have been shocked, by the events that occurred from October 20 onwards, especially of the first few days, and the reverses we suffered. So I hope there will be an inquiry so as to find out what mistakes or errors were committed and who were responsible for them.” During the lull period India was making its preparations and those in power in Delhi were sure India would give a befitting reply to the Chinese. However, the subsequent war of 14-20 November 1962 proved even more disastrous. Sensing its consequence upon him, Nehru conveniently forgot about the enquiry.

Although no enquiry was set up by the Indian Cabinet or the Government, the new Chief of Army Staff, General Chaudhuri, did set up an Operations Review Committee headed by Lieutenant-General TB Henderson-Brooks, aka HB, of the Indian army—an Australian-born, second-generation English expatriate who had opted to be an Indian, rather than a British, citizen in the 1930s—with Brigadier Premendra Singh Bhagat, Victoria Cross, then commandant of the Indian Military Academy, as a member. However, the terms of reference of the Committee were never published; it had no power to examine witnesses or call for documents; and it had no proper legal authority. The purpose was to ensure it didn’t morph into a comprehensive fact-finding mission that could embarrass the government. Reportedly, its terms of reference were very restrictive confined perhaps to only the 4 Corps’ operations. However, going by the fact that the report, referred to as the Henderson-Brooks Report or Henderson-Brooks/Bhagat Report or HB/B Report—submitted in April 1963—of even such a handicapped Committee has been kept classified and top secret even till today signifies that the Committee went beyond its limited terms of reference, did some very good work and managed to nail the root causes, which the powers that be wanted to remain hidden. Perhaps, had the HB report been made public, Nehru would have had to resign.

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Not Taking Responsibility

Such was the economy practised in sharing information with the public, the media, and even the parliament, and such was the economy with truth in Nehru’s democratic India that the blame came not on Nehru, the principal person responsible, but on Menon. Such was the ignorance of the opposition that Kripalani and others asked Nehru to take over the defence portfolio from Menon! The poor fellows had no idea that the disaster both in the foreign policy and in the defence was actually thanks to Nehru. Menon became Defence Minister only in 1957.

Krishna Menon was reluctantly made the scapegoat. COAS Thapar resigned. BM Kaul resigned. But, not Nehru.

Writes JP Dalvi in Himalayan Blunder: “When the inevitable disaster came Nehru did not even have grace or courage to admit his errors or seek a fresh mandate from the people. He did not even go through the motion of resigning; he merely presented his trusted colleagues and military appointees as sacrificial offerings...

“Instead of gracefully accepting responsibility for erroneous policies, the guilty men sought alibis and scapegoats. In any developed democracy the Government would have been replaced, instead of being allowed to continue in office and sit in judgement on their subordinates...

“We must also learn that a democracy has no room for proven failures. This is not a matter of sentiment. Mr Chamberlain was removed after Hitler invaded France in May 1940 with Cromwell’s classic plea, ‘For God’s sake, go’. Mr Anthony Eden was forced out of office after the disastrous Suez adventure of 1956...”

Nehru initially fended off pressure from a section of the Congress and the opposition for removal of Menon and played his old game of a threat of his own resignation. Nehru had threatened to resign on several earlier occasions to have his way safe in the knowledge that people would back off. But, not this time. When he found that the trick won’t work and he himself would have to go, he quickly backed off and asked Menon to resign. Nehru actually remonstrated with those who criticised him, and later even took revenge against some!

What was the alibi offered to the gullible public? The nation was told that the borders were well-settled, and that the unprovoked attack from China was what the innocent India got for doing all the good to China. Even Rajaji, otherwise in opposition to Nehru by then, blamed it on the treachery of the Chinese. Perhaps, at that time Rajaji did not know all the details.

You do a Himalayan blunder, but you receive sympathy—Nehru, the poor chap, was stabbed in the back by the Chinese! How publicised misinformation can turn the scales. Everyone remembers a popular song of those times penned by the poet, Pradeep, and sung by Lata Mangeshkar. It went like this: "Aai mere watan ke logo, jara aankh me bhar lo paani, jo shaheed hue hai unki, jara yaad karo kurbani..." The song is invariably played on August 15 every year. Lata told in an interview when she had sung that song in Nehru's presence, Nehru had wept! So sensitive was he!! Again, additional praise. But, who was responsible for his own tears and tears in the eyes of crores of Indians, in the first place? Had sensible policies been followed, this huge tragedy that befell the nation, and the consequent tears, could have been avoided.

Israel’s Example

 Here is an example—in glaring contrast. Israel successfully repelled the combined attack from Egypt and Syria in 1973—what has come to be known as the Yom Kipper War. After its decisive victories against the Arabs in 1967, Israel was a little laid back and unprepared, thinking there wouldn’t be any further wars. The attack of 1973 therefore came as a surprise to it. Still, after the initial setbacks and panic, it rose to the challenge. Golda Meir  was the president then. Even though Israel’s ultimate victory was spectacular and decisive, they immediately instituted an enquiry to fix responsibility for the initial setbacks and the panic reaction, and the lapses that led to the attack coming as a surprise. The preliminary report took just a few months and was released on April 2, 1974—it actually named names of those responsible. Several top-ranking staff were asked to resign. Golda Meir was not named, but taking overall responsibility, she resigned on April 10, 1974—after mere eight days of release of the report, which was only a preliminary report!

This, even though Israel, under Golda Meir,  had actually won the war and turned the tables on the Arab countries that had attacked them! But here, even though India lost pathetically, Nehru government instituted no enquiry, Nehru did not even make a gesture of an offer to resign, and the report of the Committee set up by the army was kept under wraps on the specious pretext of “national interest”—Israeli government could have also pleaded “national interest” to suppress its report. So much for our democracy!!

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Ill-conceived Forward Policy

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India went ahead with its plan of physical presence on the frontiers. It began building forward check-posts under its hare-brained Forward Policy—which was  actually a “bluff” masquerading as a military strategy. Their locations were as per the border unilaterally determined by India, and not as per mutual discussions with China. There was, therefore, a possibility of China's objection, and even Chinese action to demolish the posts. The fact was that the boundaries were not settled, so what was say within Indian boundary for India, may have been within Chinese boundary for China. If you had not settled the boundaries, controversies were bound to arise. But, rather than negotiating a boundary with China and reaching a peaceful settlement, Nehru-Menon & Co in their wisdom—their Forward Policy—convinced themselves that it is they who would determine the boundary, and in token thereof, establish their posts, like markers. That China could object, and then attack and demolish those posts, and even move forward into India did not seem to them a possibility. Why? Because, reasoned Nehru: any such "reckless" action by China would lead to world war, and China would not precipitate such a thing! That what they were themselves doing was also "reckless" did not apparently strike the wise men.

Arun Shourie quotes Nehru in ‘Are we deceiving ourselves again?’: “It is completely impracticable for the Chinese Government to think of anything in the nature of invasion of India. Therefore I rule it out... It is necessary that the system of check-posts should be spread along this entire frontier. More especially, we should have check-posts in such places as might be considered disputed areas...As Demchok is considered by the Chinese as a disputed territory, we should locate a check-post there. So also at Tsang Chokla...”

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What should have been done post-Independence

India should not have allowed Tibet, which was a buffer with China, to disappear as an independent nation. The seeds of the conflict were sown when China annexed the de-facto independent Tibet, and India meekly acquiesced.

That blunder having been done, however, looking to the dispute on the Ladakh-Tibet border and the questions on the McMahon line in the northeast, the following sensible steps should have been taken in the fifties:

Step-1: Both India and China should have taken stock of the fact of unsettled borders, and let the public in both the countries know of the same, lest there be any wrong impression, false propaganda, and unwarranted politics.

Step-2: A team comprising experts from both the countries should have done ground survey and should have tried to define the boundaries.

Step-3: Those areas that the expert-team failed to resolve could be left for further discussions at a higher level, where they could have been resolved in a spirit of give and take.

But, were these sensible steps taken? Unfortunately, no! Contrary to expectations, one is shocked to learn that while China was agreeable for these sensible steps, India was not! Nehru had other ideas!! What? Why? We would take up, as we proceed further.

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The Guilty Men

Nehru was, without doubt, the principal person responsible for the major failures that proved very costly for India: (1)allowing Tibet to be erased as a nation—without registering protest; (2)not ensuring a peaceful, negotiated border settlement with China despite (a)an overlong comfortable timeline of over a decade to settle it, (b)a spate of golden opportunities that presented themselves like the occasion of signing of the Panchsheel or his visit to China or  the numerous visits of Zhou Enlai to India, (c)willingness of China to reach a negotiated settlement, and (d)even initiatives by China in that direction—ignored or soft-pedalled by India; (3)neglect of military requirements and external security, and politicisation (jointly with Krishna Menon) of the army; (4)implementation of the harebrained forward policy without appreciating what it could lead to; (5)being undemocratic and dictatorial in (a)not involving others in the decision making process, (b)not letting the parliament and the public know the truth on the border issues, and (c)misleading the parliament, the media and the public at large on many vital aspects; (6)the pathetic debacle in the war; and (7)not ensuring the boundary question was settled during his lifetime, even after the war, when China was willing to discuss it.

Next to Nehru, but much below him, the person most responsible for the rout  was Krishna Menon. Of course, if, for the blame, Nehru was at number 1, Krishna Menon came at number 11, there being none in-between. Krishna Menon was only a protégé of Nehru, with no standing of his own, and he could not have done anything that Nehru didn’t want. Writes Kuldip Nayar in Beyond the Lines: “I once asked why he [Krishna Menon] didn’t tell his side of the story. He said: ‘My story must die with me because I would have to lay the blame on Nehru, and I do not want to do so because of my loyalty to him.’”

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FOUNDATIONS OF MISERY, Part-1: India, 1947-64

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