MOHAN GURUSWAMY | 12 NOVEMBER, 2018
Nov 14, 1962: The Birthday Present for Jawaharlal Nehru
We never had it so good??
On October 24, 1962 having wiping out the 7 Brigade commanded by Brig. John Dalvi at Thagla in the then NEFA, the Chinese issued a statement that after the predictable recriminations made three proposals.
These were: 1. Both sides agree to respect the line of actual control (LAC) as of November 1959 and withdraw their forces twenty kilometers from that line. 2. If India agreed to (1), the Chinese agreed to withdraw to the north of the McMahon line in the eastern sector. (This was significant considering the PLA was quite deep inside NEFA.) 3. That the two Prime Ministers meet, either in New Delhi or Peking to seek a friendly settlement.
On the very same day a statement was issued by New Delhi rejecting these proposals. India took the position that China immediately “vacate the aggression”, which in effect meant going back in Aksai Chin, an area in their possession since the early 1950’s. In the eastern sector they were signaling that they would go well behind the McMahon Line.
The Russians backed down over Cuba on October 28, 1962 and agreed to withdraw their missiles. On October 29 the US Ambassador, John Kenneth Galbraith, called on his friend Jawaharlal Nehru and offered, “any military equipment India might need” in its fracas with China. These started arriving within five days and soon there were as many as eight USAF and RAF flights a day each disgorging twenty tons of hardware.
Ironically only a few weeks before this Jawaharlal Nehru while rejecting a suggestion of India seeking western arms aid equated the acceptance of military aid with joining a military bloc and declared that India would never accept this “even if disaster comes to us on the frontier.” That disaster visited the 7 Brigade in October when it was decimated by the PLA at Thagla ridge. But it was a small one compared what was to visit the 4 Division in November.
The lull that followed the quick Chinese advances to Tawang and Walong in the east and to the gates of Chushul, instead of causing the national leaders to introspect and inject some realism in them took them on new flights of fancy. The defeats gave rise to a wave of jingoism and euphoria since seen only once after that, during the Kargil conflict.
The Lok Sabha praised the “wonderful and spontaneous response of the people of India to the emergency.” Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, always with a way with words, said: “the blood of our martyred jawans is becoming the seed of a new, virile nation that is being born in our country.” Little wonder then that Nehru commented “we never had it so good.”
Instead of taking stock of what went wrong on the run up to the stinging defeat at Namka Chu our leaders persuaded themselves that could beat the Chinese back. The decision that was to send 7 Brigade into dubious battle was taken by people at the highest level overlooking all advice of commanders on the frontline. The leaders were oblivious of the facts.
The jawans fighting at heights of 12-14000 feet had only cotton tunics and one blanket each to fight off the cold, and ancient .303 rifles with about forty rounds each to fight off the Chinese. The massive airlift of western small arms did little to change this reality. Instead of seeking a respite and allowing the military leaders the option of choosing the time and place for the next battle, the politicians, both, in parliament and in the Indian Army pressed on for another round.
After the initial debacles in NEFA, Lt.Gen. BM Kaul, who was hastily appointed commander of the newly created IV Corps, had returned to his familiar battlegrounds in New Delhi stricken with pulmonary edema. Lt.Gen. Harbaksh Singh took over from him. Harbaksh Singh after studying the changed tactical position of his troops decided that the next point of defence would be Bomdila. But Kaul, now recovered, replaced him after hardly four days. Kaul returned with the DMO, Brig. DK Palit, in tow. Palit, who later wrote a somewhat self-serving yet eminently readable book on the 1962 war, was a favorite of Kaul and a man quite well versed with the functioning of the Delhi durbar. Palit had earlier commanded the now ill-fated 7 Brigade and could claim intimate knowledge of the terrain.
Military logic, given the availability of troops and supplies, demanded that they be concentrated in Bomdila. Factoring this, the Indian Army’s three-tiered defence plans for NEFA prepared in 1959 by Lt.Gen. Thorat called for at least four brigades. In 1961 Lt. Gen. LP Sen who took over Eastern Command from Thorat determined that he would need two divisions or six brigades to do the job. After the debacle at Namka Chu, 4 Division had only two brigades to do the job! But Kaul and Palit, fresh out from New Delhi, put out the word that Se La which was a good sixty miles ahead of Bomdila and nearer Tawang must be held. The politicians could not afford its loss.
November 14, 1962 was the Prime Ministers seventy-third birthday and Kaul ever conscious of the import of such events wished to make him a befitting present. He launched an attack in the Walong sector to push the Chinese back over to the other side of the McMahon line. This was probably the stupidest order he was to ever give. The PLA had a full division lying in wait at Rima while the Army’s new 2 Division just had three battalions designated 11 Brigade at Walong. The PLA retaliated massively. 11 Brigade fought bravely but was all but wiped out by November 17 even as newspapers in Delhi were hailing the attack!
The decision to confront the Chinese at Se La led to the thinning of the forces at Bomdila, which was now defended by just six companies. Kaul and Palit did not envisage the possibility of the Chinese bypassing Se La in any great strength. But this is just what they did. They took the path known as the Bailey Trail, named after the British officer who rediscovered the traditional Yak herder’s route to Tawang. 4 Division with its main defence centered in Se La was much too thinly spread and the PLA began hacking at its rear. By the time orders went out for 62 Brigade to evacuate Se La, it was too late. They were cut off and its commander Brig. Hoshiar Singh fell fighting on November 17. The next day the divisional headquarters at Dirang Dzong, between Se La and Bomdila fell. On November 20, Bomdila fell. The rout in NEFA was complete.
Jawaharlal Nehru made a broadcast to the nation that night. His broadcast had a special place for the people of Assam. He said: "Huge Chinese armies have been marching in the northern part of NEFA. We have had reverses at Walong, Se La and today Bomdila, a small town in NEFA, has also fallen. We shall not rest till the invader goes out of India or is pushed out. I want to make that clear to all of you, and, especially our countrymen in Assam, to whom our heart goes out at this moment."
Later that night Nehru made an urgent appeal to the USA for intervene with air strikes against the Chinese on Indian territory. Mercifully the Chinese announced a unilateral cease-fire on 21 November and a bigger war was averted.