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‘Army Generals, not Nehru and Krishna Menon, responsible for 62 war defeat’

There was delusional complacency among key figures in the Army top brass during the 1962 China war, reveals the ‘Top Secret’ Henderson Brooks-P.S. Bhagat report recently leaked by an Australian journalist.

VISHAL THAPAR  New Delhi | 22nd Mar 2014

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in official visit to China, shakes hands with Chinese President Mao Zedong on 12 October 1954 in Beijing. AFP

ire a few rounds at the Chinese, and they will run away!" This was the Deputy Chief of General Staff at Army Headquarters reassuring India's Eastern Army Commander, Lt General L.P. Sen, who was sizing up to the magnitude of the task in September 1962, after the Defence Secretary issued written orders to the then Army Chief, General P.N. Thapar, to "throw out the Chinese".

To further comfort a bewildered Lt General Sen, the Deputy Chief of General Staff elaborated on his assurance: "Our experience in Ladakh has shown that a few rounds fired at the Chinese would cause them to run away."

This, when India was staring at its worst military debacle, and probably its biggest humiliation as an independent nation.

It's not just the shocking, delusional complacency among key figures in the Army top brass of that time that is revealed by the "Top Secret" Henderson Brooks-P.S. Bhagat report into the 1962 debacle, outed recently by journalist Neville Maxwell. The report by two very distinguished Army officers, kept in wraps by the government for 51 years, also explodes popular Indian mythology about the 1962 "Chinese aggression".

Lt General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier (later Lt General) P.S. Bhagat bust the dearly propagated belief in India that it was an innocent victim of wanton aggression by the Chinese. Instead, the report suggests that India played a clumsy, ill-thought out role in providing both provocation and justification to China to start a war against it.

The other unexpected revelation is that it's not the political leadership comprising Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his favourite, Defence Minister Krishna Menon who are the principal culprits. Very surprisingly, it puts the onus for the debacle on the Army brass itself for disastrous leadership.

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The report lambastes Army Headquarters for not only allowing itself to be “hustled into ill-prepared operations that could only lead to disaster”, but even ignoring sound military advise from its commands not to go in for a misadventure.

The report lambastes Army Headquarters for not only allowing itself to be "hustled into ill-prepared operations that could only lead to disaster", but even ignoring sound military advice from its commands not to go in for a misadventure.

Henderson Brooks and Bhagat, who were tasked with an operational review into by General Thapar's successor, General J.N. Chaudhuri, into the reverses suffered by the Army, go to the extent of holding Army headquarters responsible for distorting the political directive by the Nehru government and going in for a war without the means to fight it.

PM Jawaharlal Nehru interacts with soldiers at Charduar in November 1962.

At the heart of the report is Nehru's "Forward Policy" initiated in 1961 to establish Indian military posts in Chinese-held areas in Ladakh. In directly taking on the might of the Chinese, the military leadership allowed itself to be led by a stunning assessment by the Intelligence Bureau that the Chinese would not react to a show of strength by India.

"A meeting was held in the PMO on 2 November 1961 and was attended among others by the Defence Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Chief of Army Staff and the Director Intelligence Bureau (DIB). It appears that the DIB was of the opinion that the 'Chinese would not react to our establishing new posts and that they were not likely to use force against any of our posts even if they were in a position to do so'," the report states.

The Army leadership shockingly acquiesced, ignoring perhaps common sense, and even its own in-house assessments about Chinese military build-up and aggression all along on the disputed boundary. This was contrary to military intelligence assessment of 1959-60, which clearly indicated that the Chinese would resist by force any attempts to take back territory held by them.

On 26 August 1959, the Chinese overran the Indian post at Longju in NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh), claiming that it was in Chinese territory. Two months later, they ambushed an Indian patrol at Kongka La, very close to the Indian post at Hot Spring in Ladakh, making similar territorial claims, although this post was 40-50 miles on the Indian side.

These two incidents were not just a signal of China's military arrival in Tibet, but a demonstration that they would back their claims by force after a proclamation by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, declaring Chinese ownership of 40,000 sq km of territory in Ladakh and NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh). The Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report notes that these incidents transformed a dormant border into a live one.

Post Zhou Enlai making an open claim over parts of Ladakh and NEFA, there was an unprecedented military build-up by China in Tibet. In 1960, it increased its military strength by three times in this region.

The Chinese posture was war gamed by Indian Army's Western Command, which was then responsible for defending Ladakh. "This brought out that a minimum one division (about 15,000 troops) was required to meet the Chinese threat in Ladakh. Recommendations emerging from this war game were forwarded to Army HQ ... no decision on this was given by Army HQ," the report discloses. The strength of Indian troops was less than one-fifth of this requirement.

Indian soldiers in a bunker at forward area of NEFA in1962.

The report makes the sensational disclosure that Army Headquarters deliberately suppressed a critical part of the government's directive for action against China: that a military build-up was a pre-requisite to taking them on. Headquarters pushed a "fight-with-what-you-have" approach. This is what the government directed: "Efforts should be made to position major concentration of forces along our borders in places conveniently situated behind the border posts from where they can be maintained logistically and from where they can restore a border situation at short notice."

A force build-up was clearly approved by the Nehru government. Without build-up, any move forward would put India at the mercy of the Chinese, the report states. If the government's decision had to be implemented in its entirety, it could only be done after the induction of a sizeable force. Western Command had already indicated that a mini of a division was required for the effective defence of Ladakh.

"The Government who politically must have been keen to recover territory, advocated a cautious policy; whilst Army HQ dictated a policy that was clearly militarily unsound. Had the whole of the Government directive been conveyed to the commands, it's almost certain that the Western Command would have brought out their inability to implement the 'Forward Policy' till an infantry division as asked for by them had been inducted into Ladakh. There is, therefore, no doubt that the implementation of the Forward Policy, in the manner it was done, was carried out deliberately by Army HQ without the necessary backing, as laid down by the Government," the report infers.

Henderson Brooks and Bhagat meticulously deconstruct the anatomy of India's defeat. As many as 60 poorly manned, poor defended posts were set up by India in Chinese held territory in a forward probe. Most of these posts were manned by less than 10 troops. This "further dispersed our meagre resources and depleted out strength in the vital bases. Thus, whereas we needed added strength at our bases to back up the new posts, we now had weaknesses".

Worse, this forward posture forced a strong reaction from the Chinese, who with their much greater resources and elaborate road network set up stronger posts adjacent to India's, and virtually surrounded most Indian posts. This set off eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations, resulting in mounting tensions. By end-July 1962, tension had reached a pitch where a small incident could spark off widespread hostilities.

The dispersal of Indian troops to these badly-defended forward posts depleted more than half the garrison force in Ladakh. They were also ill-equipped. 114 Infantry Brigade had no artillery guns nor heavy mortars, and only one medium machine gun platoon.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and The Dalai Lama pose on 25 April, 1959 after their meeting in Mussorie. The Dalai Lama was invited by the Indian government along with his family, members of his court and the high Tibetan dignitaries, after his escape fr

As tensions mounted and clashes increased, the Western Command in early-1962 strongly advised that India take a step back, pleading that India did not have the means to fight the Chinese: "It is imperative that political direction is based on military means. If the two are not correlated, there's a danger of creating a situation where we may lose both in the material and moral sense much more than we already have. Thus, there's no short-cut to military preparedness to enable us to pursue effectively our present policy aimed at refuting the illegal Chinese claim over our territory."

The recommendation from the ground level fighting forces: Keep the Forward Policy in abeyance until such time that our strength in Ladakh was built up compatible with the Chinese. "As the prevailing military situation in Ladakh was unfavourable, it was vital that we did not provoke the Chinese into an armed clash. A satisfactory political solution should be sought for the surrounded Gulwan Post," the local commanders pleaded.

But Army HQ disregarded this word of caution. The military leadership "did not consider it likely that the Chinese would resort to any large scale hostilities in Ladakh, and argued that the increasing Chinese assertion justifies the Forward Policy", the report states. It sidestepped the urgent demand for troop build-up, saying there was no airlift facility to enable a beef-up. Instead, it ordered escalation. On 20 September 1962 — a month before the outbreak of the war — it ordered that no further surrounding of posts by the Chinese or occupying of dropping zones would be tolerated.

When tensions spread to NEFA in the Eastern theatre, the Army Chief, General Thapar, for the first time, advised caution after India's Dhola post was surrounded and armed clashes followed. At a review meeting chaired by the Defence Minister amidst growing "evict the Chinese from NEFA too" cries, the Army chief warned of Chinese retaliation in Ladakh if India took action in Dhola. But the Foreign Secretary again shockingly claimed that the Chinese would not react very strongly in Ladakh. "He considered that operations for eviction of the Chinese from NEFA should be carried out, even at the expense of losing some territory in Ladakh." The Army chief fell in line and the Defence Secretary issued orders: "The Army should prepare and throw the Chinese out, as soon as possible. The COAS (Chief of Army Staff) was accordingly directed to take the action for the eviction of the Chinese from the Kameng Frontier division in NEFA, as soon as he's ready." In another bizarre twist, these secret orders found their way into a Times of India report.

Henderson Brooks and Bhagat question Army Headquarters orders to desolate, poorly-manned and ill-equipped forward posts in enemy-held territory to "fight it out". "Orders to fight it out to these far flung, tactically unsound and uncoordinated small posts bring out vividly how unrealistic these orders were. It is orders such as these that were issued; time and again that brings doubt to one's mind whether General Staff Branch at Army HQ were in touch with the reality in the ground," the report states.

The report also puts the spotlight on the bizarre consequences of creating a new corps under a distant relative of Nehru, Lt General B.M. Kaul, to evict the Chinese in a jiffy. Kaul was not from the Army's combat stream.

"The methodical planning and logistical support insisted upon by 33 Corps (the formation in charge of defending NEFA) found no favour with the authorities. 33 Corps, therefore, had to go. Instead, 4 Corps was formed with the express purpose of expediting operations in the Dhola area. It was a means to bring in a new commander buoyed up with the idea that he could evict the Chinese in a matter of days. The formation of a new corps could never otherwise be justified as a sound military move," the report records. The report holds Kaul responsible for the decimation of 7 Brigade in Dhola area, and not re-deploying it when he should have.

The rout of this key troop formation had a snowballing effect, and led to the falling apart of India's war effort to a humiliating defeat. There are graphic accounts of the unravelling of an entire division (No. 4) under Kaul because of poor leadership.

Of the 16 battalions available to this division, only six could put up a fight. This disgrace led to the fall of Bomdilla, an enduring symbol of India's defeat.

 
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