India’s ostrich-like approach to archival material makes 1962 war an unresolved moment in history.
Substantial parts of what is said to be the Henderson Brooks report on military operations leading up to and during the 1962 India-China war have been put online, causing a stir. Predictably so. Ever since Chinese troops breezed across the McMahon Line into Indian territory before abruptly withdrawing, India’s sense of vulnerability has not been mitigated.
The overhang of the episode draws in part from questions about India’s military preparedness in the face of China’s periodic assertions of claims to Arunachal Pradesh and also the lingering shock of that invasion. The latter is particularly exacerbated by the fact that India’s leadership has never quite levelled with the people in an open accounting for what exactly happened, and how. The silence of the political leadership is best evident in the refusal to declassify the Henderson Brooks report, to even make available portions of it to scholars.
Neville Maxwell, a journalist who reported on the war and whose account, India’s China War, was long believed to have drawn on a reading of the report, has unilaterally made a copy available. The report, commissioned in the aftermath of the war by the then army chief, General J.N. Chaudhuri, and prepared by Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier P.S. Bhagat, was submitted in April 1963.
This is the first time the contents have been spilt (online, as it happens, and therefore freely available) and it requires an enlightened response from the executive and politicians in the midst of the election campaign. Across time, the lesson that needs to be taken is not the roll call of culpability — though that’s a matter for necessary study. Nehru, in fact, paid politically for his coterie’s Himalayan misadventure, and never recovered his earlier stature.
There needs, instead, be a thorough reading of the report and the manner of its eventual public availability for a tutorial on India’s inexplicably ostrich-like approach to archival material. If today we are reacting to the report as if it were still 1963, given the lack of clarity on military assessment of operational details, it reflects the state’s reluctance to allow access to material essential for proper history writing, the kind of history without which there cannot be coherent and informed public debate.
There is no point in the BJP now holding forth on why the report was not declassified. In its years in power (1998-2004), it too did precious little to open up access to official documents. But then, why blame the opposition when the Congress-led government is not doing enough to raise the level of debate.