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SHIV KUNAL VERMA | 25 JANUARY, 2016

1962:The War That Wasn't


“Having destroyed its combat readiness by tampering with the military hierarchy, the Indian Army was deployed in both NEFA and Ladakh as a glorified police force. More than half-a-century later, shorn of the myths and half-truths, this is a superbly told story that needs to be understood by future generations” : General VK Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs & Former Army Chief on the book

The Citizen brings you extracts:

Since the end of August 1959, the defence minister had been taking every possible opportunity to further humiliate Thimayya. As the Karam Singh drama unfolded, Menon decided to further up the ante against the hapless army chief. The announcement on 1 November that the army would take control of Ladakh, akin to the earlier statement made vis-à-vis NEFA after the Longju incident, was perhaps aimed more at Thimayya than the Chinese. For the political survival of both Prime Minister Nehru (and Defence Minister Krishna Menon) it was now important that the dovish image Nehru had so carefully cultivated, even to the extent of lying to his people over half a decade about the Chinese intentions, had to be replaced by a hawkish one.

Indian leaders who had not been blindsided by the Panchsheel Treaty and the ‘Hindi Chini bhai-bhai’ propaganda had regularly voiced their concern since the early 1950s. In April 1959, after the Chinese crackdown on Lhasa, Ram Manohar Lohia was vocal in saying India simply had to take its head out of the sand: ‘When the “Baby Murder” in Tibet took place nine years ago most of the people who today are raising a hue and cry over the second instalment of Chinese assault on the Tibetan people were, as far as I remember, silent. Something ought to have been done then, something ought to have been said. Which, however, does not mean that nothing should be said now. But while saying it, people should not forget their weaknesses; as they say, when the peacock dances it should do well to be aware of its legs.’

But these warnings had fallen on deaf ears. By then, in the corridors of power in New Delhi, there were too many political games being played; games that would all contribute to the fate of the Indian soldiers who were then soon to be committed in both NEFA and Ladakh.

Even though the prime minister had committed the army into NEFA after the Longju incident in August 1959, there was no actual movement on the ground to support the statement for three months. However, the incident in Ladakh in October and the government’s fresh declaration that the army now had control of the Western Sector as well, forced Thimayya to reluctantly step aside and watch helplessly as Kaul took on the job with a coterie of his hand-picked officers who were loyal to him. Once 4 Infantry Division was asked to unstick itself from Ambala and, along with three of its brigades, move immediately to NEFA, Thimayya discussed the matter with both his Western and Eastern Army Commanders—Lieutenant Generals Pran Thapar and S. P. P. Thorat. The COAS asked Thorat to conduct a full- scale exercise at the Eastern Command HQ in Lucknow. It was Thimayya’s last-ditch effort to make Nehru and Krishna Menon see the entire picture and take on the Chinese in a manner where India could have a reasonable chance to defend itself.

Thorat’s suggestions dated back to 1958, a full four years before it all fell apart on 20 October 1962 on the Nam Ka Chu. Thorat wasn’t some desk officer sitting in an obscure corner of the Ministry of Defence; he was the Eastern Army Commander. Further, he had the army chief, Thimayya, fully backing him. Accordingly, on 17 March 1960, Thorat held Exercise Lal Qila which further elaborated on the magnitude of the threat from China and the vast area over which India would be vulnerable. Though the event was attended by almost all senior officers and others in the decision-making loop, the bottom line was that the warnings from the army commander and the army chief were ignored. Over the next thirty- six months, arbitrary decisions with little or no military logic would be taken that would effectively seal the fate of the army.

Lal Qila was a two-part assessment of the situation vis-à-vis China, with the possible reactions of both West and East Pakistan and the implications of the conflict on Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. The first part dealt with the situation on the ground as on March 1960 (the present) and the second part was a projection of the situation in 1961 (the future).

Point by point, under sixty-four different sub-heads, the assessment and outline plan spelt out the situation on the ground and the options available to both sides.Thorat pointed out that while so far the threat had been from Pakistan, now there was no doubt that China also posed an equal threat on the country’s northern and northeastern borders. He went on to enumerate the various incidents that had led to this conclusion:

China’s refusal to accept the McMahon Line as the international boundary, the various incursions into Indian territory in UP, NEFA and Ladakh, and the fact that diplomatic and political solutions had not worked. He also pointed out that the army might need to render assistance to Nepal and Bhutan as China had laid claim to some of their territories as well. He then listed the army’s responsibilities in the area: the setting up and maintaining of strong posts along the border so as to control all routes of entry into India through Tibet and Nepal. While Thorat could not call on Army HQ reserves at this time, he didn’t need to consult civil authority in the Naga Hill Tracts Agency (NHTA) before taking military action either. This, at best, would give him a strategic reserve of a brigade if and when the need arose to pull troops out of Nagaland and commit them into NEFA.

Thorat’s appreciation of the situation got more and more alarming as he focused on the emerging communication network in Tibet. Ever since the PLA marched into Lhasa in 1950, the emphasis had been on building roads—both strategic and tactical. China was connected with Tibet, Tibet with Sinkiang, Sinkiang with Pakistan and so on, often through areas that were until then considered almost inaccessible. While these were the larger and more prominent arteries that were causing concern in India’s Parliament, a smaller but deadlier network was being built and working its way southwards to threaten Ladakh, UP, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, NEFA and even NHTA.

Special Intelligence reports (available not only to the army and the defence minister but also to the prime minister’s office) were constantly feeding in information that could hardly be ignored.

Earlier, in October 1959,Thorat had recommended a three-tier defence for the Eastern Sector, specifically NEFA. Subsequently referred to as the Thorat Plan, the suggestion was to establish small outposts as close to the McMahon Line as possible with the sole intention of keeping watch and giving early warning. These outposts were under no circumstances to get drawn into a battle, but were to fall back before the Chinese could advance. The second tier was to consist of strong delaying positions, which would force the enemy to halt, deploy and fight. This would lead to a delay, as the Chinese would have to regroup and bring their supply bases ahead before attempting to move forward.

Thapar and Sen, the two men at the top of the military pyramid, knew that they were under the boot of the ambitious Kaul. It was therefore natural that sooner or later they would both rebel, and when they did, it had equally disastrous implications. When Kaul scuttled back to New Delhi from the Nam Ka Chu Valley on 10 October, having realized the Chinese were firing real bullets, it was perhaps the last chance for the Indians to wake up. At that point, the troops should have been moved out of the riverbed and redeployed on the Tsangdhar Ridge where they would have had a realistic fighting chance. Kaul was shaken enough to realize he had blundered, and was willing to admit it. Nehru agreed, saying he did not want even one man to lose his life, when Sen and Thapar decided to dig in, insisting that 7 Brigade needed to hold its ground.

With the abandoning of Tawang, the sacking of Prasad and the non- availability of Kaul, it was vital that Bogey Sen as the Eastern Army Commander take charge. At this stage, it was imperative that Thorat’s defensive line along the Manda-la Heights–Bomdila axis be put into place. Instead, both Thapar and Sen let the histrionics of their DMO take centre stage and, on a whim, declared Se-la the next line of defence. All the new commanders—Major General Anant Pathania, Brigadiers Hoshiar Singh, Cheema and Gurbax Singh—were selected by Thapar and rushed forward.

After the disaster on the Nam Ka Chu, where the Kaul-Sen-Thapar trio successfully helped implode an infantry brigade in a matter of a few hours, Thapar needed to stand up to political interference in matters that were now purely military. The appointment of Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh as the new corps commander was widely welcomed by the men. By now JCOs and officers (letters home were censored by the IB, and daily reports on the morale of the troops were filed as a matter of routine) were openly critical of Kaul, holding him directly responsible for the Nam Ka Chu fiasco. However, when Nehru told Thapar to reinstate Kaul and send Harbaksh to XXXIII Corps instead of Umrao, Thapar acquiesced without a murmur.

The three weeks spent by the Indians on Se-la told its own story. The new GOC of 4 Division, Anant Pathania, shifted his Division HQ as far back as he could. Kaul having given him permission to do this, no one in Army HQ knew that 4 Division was located at Dirang Dzong. Once again Kaul was guilty of severe misjudgement. He simply assumed that having captured Tawang—or rather having had it presented to them on a platter—the PLA would shut shop for the winter. Palit, who insisted on making Se-la the defence line, on the other hand, seemed to be clueless about the actual state of the alternate routes that linked the Mago Valley with both Dirang Dzong and Bomdila; as we have seen these allowed the Chinese to get behind the Indians.

Brigadier Hoshiar Singh seemed to be an exception to the rule, simply because he was at least talking of fighting the Chinese should they assault Se-la. However, tactically, he needed his GOC and corps commander to help him fight the battle. Since mid-November Kaul had focussed on the Walong Sector and seemed to have forgotten that Se-la existed, while Anant Pathania in Dirang Dzong was too far removed from the front lines to have a realistic appreciation of the situation, let alone contribute positively to its defence. In the near absence of these two personalities, Hoshiar Singh was left more or less on his own. When the Chinese attacked on 17 November, the Garhwalis at Nuranang were outstanding, losing only two men as a single company held the Chinese at bay till 4 p.m. in the afternoon. Instead of reinforcing their success, Hoshiar Singh allowed himself to be browbeaten by HQ 4 Division who ordered him to withdraw.

At the tactical level, there were obviously no rehearsed plans for a fallback, and in reality, there were no real defences to fall back on. Once he decided to withdraw the Garhwalis, Hoshiar Singh pulled the plug on his own plan of holding Se-la to the last man. 2 Sikh LI was the first to lose its nerve, and as its troops bolted, they took the bulk of 1 Sikh with them. Hoshiar Singh tried to stop them, but once panic sets in, the game is over.

The events of 18-19 November were as appalling. 4 Rajput was supposed to cover 62 Brigade’s withdrawal from Se-la but the company commander, Major Nair, had upped and gone without orders. Had the Rajputs been in position as they were expected to be, the Chinese could have never ambushed the convoy that was commanded by Major Brahm Sat. In the aftermath of the operations, almost all these men got away scot-free because in the overall collapse, there was no one left to ask any meaningful questions.

The gallant Hoshiar Singh and his officers still tried to get to Bomdila, not aware that the men who were supposed to be behind them were long gone. Eventually, two days after the official ceasefire, Hoshiar Singh was murdered by the Chinese as were quite a few others. The story was much the same in Bomdila where after having the Chinese on the ropes at Thembang, Kaul bullied and threatened Gurbax Singh into thinning his defences and pushing forward with a mobile column to clear the road to Dirang Dzong. What happened afterwards, who ran where, is of little consequence.

1962: The War That Wasn't

Shiv Kunal Verma

Hardcover: 512 pages
Publisher: Aleph Book Company (27 January 2016)

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