Two generations of Indians, including yours faithfully, once brainwashed into believing propaganda and military mythologies. And an establishment that still chooses to hide the truth about the 1962 War from its own people. Let’s be grateful to that 88-year-old relentless journalist and scholar for the partial release of the Henderson-Brooks report — and hope the next government has the courage to do the rest.
I am of the vintage that grew up detesting Neville Maxwell as an utterly contemptible India-hater. Or worse. A pro-Chinese communist toadie, even an unreconstructed Trotskyist who should never have been allowed to set foot in India, least of all accredited as the New Delhi correspondent of The Times (London). And whose treacherous book, India’s China War, you heard, was banned by our government for good reason (these were pre-Shiv Sena years, so it wasn’t actually banned).
How dare a silly, ungrateful (for Indian hospitality) white man blame India for the Chinese “invasion” of 1962? How dare he insult Jawaharlal Nehru, even fellow communist Krishna Menon? What kind of man showed disrespect for Indian soldiers, who fought so bravely against humongous odds and neverending human waves? How dare he, most insulting of all, call it “India’s China War”? Just how could anybody, particularly a white man from a democracy, be so viciously nasty to democratic India as to question the very basis of its territorial claims, the McMahon Line — even to dismiss it as a colonial imposition on Tibet and China?
Remember, we were the children of the Sixties, fed on jingoistic propaganda and convenient military mythologies. We were the Ai mere watan ke logo generation that was easily persuaded to accept the “dus-dus ko ek ne maara (each Indian killed 10 Chinese before falling as he ran out of bullets)” understanding of that war.
Those who were suspected to have helped Maxwell were seen as traitors. Remember, Sam Manekshaw had, among the various “indiscretions” blamed on him, also the insinuation that he helped Maxwell access the Henderson Brooks committee report. Fortunately for India, he survived, thanks to one honourable fellow patriot, whom we know as Lt Gen J.F.R. Jacob and whom his friends, young and old, call Jake, who refused to give evidence against him, and the ever-maligned political class.
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Two outstanding defence ministers, Y.B. Chavan and Jagjivan Ram, cleaned out the Augean stables as the armed forces rapidly rebuilt themselves and the moustachioed, hunched figure of Sam Bahadur in a Gorkha cap became the most abiding personification of Indian generalship, the hero of the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971.
It is curious but utterly true that defeat inspires a lot more literature and storytelling than victory. India is no exception. The stalemate of 1965 produced a few books, the most significant being Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh’s War Despatches. The 1971 campaign produced little of note, except maybe Air Chief Marshall P.C. Lal’s My Years With the IAF. But the debacle of 1962? From disgraced Lt Gen B.M. Kaul’s The Untold Story to Brigadier J.P.
Dalvi’s Himalayan Blunder, the story of the greatest disaster of that war, the 7th Brigade that was pulverised under his command, leaving most of its men killed, wounded or taken PoW — including himself; from Maj Gen D.K. Palit’s War in High Himalaya to the then legendary but controversial intelligence super-czar B.N. Mullik’s My Years with Nehru trilogy, you could fill an entire shelf in a military academy’s library. Most of them were beautifully and convincingly written — maybe the fact that most of these generals had been trained in British academies had something to do with it. But we were also easy to convince, though noted journalist and The Indian Express commentator Inder Malhotra had dismissed this flurry of military literature as “a conspiracy of noise”.
We were hearing the story from our soldiers. A story of betrayal, a stab-in-the-back while screaming Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai. Political, intellectual and strategic discourse, popular culture — all built the same story. Until Maxwell’s book challenged it in 1970. It was widely believed that he had been given access to the secret Henderson Brooks committee report by an “insider”. The most likely “suspect” then was Henderson Brooks, and it did not help that he settled after retirement in Australia — Maxwell’s country.
Henderson Brooks, a wonderfully committed and patriotic officer, then commander of the Jalandhar-based 11 Corps, was hand-picked for the job and assisted by one of India’s most eminent soldiers, then Brigadier P.S. Bhagat, one of the few Victoria Cross winners then living. Nobody proved any insinuation then, but in the cloud of suspicion that persisted even after the decisive victory of 1971, Bhagat was inexplicably passed over, with Gen G.G. Bewoor being given a surprise extension of service. Nobody knows yet what that brilliant soldier was victimised for. He was too honourable a soldier to complain.
He faded away, like good generals of yore, to head the faraway Damodar Valley Corporation. Never seen on any stage again, except probably the golf course. Not in politics, not in courts and definitely not muckraking. For heaven’s sake, Bhagat was a soldier’s soldier, one of the finest India has produced. That is precisely why he had been chosen to assist Henderson Brooks. But Maxwell’s shadow has hung over both for six decades.
Although the reason their report is still classified “top secret” is not because it has anything of current tactical value — the lame excuse Defence Minister A.K. Antony gave to Parliament. It is to protect our carefully crafted and preserved mythologies of 1962. And it wasn’t just to protect the reputation of Nehru. Political decision-making wasn’t even in the inquiry’s remit. My information is that the Central Information Commission, under Wajahat Habibullah, called for the report following Kuldip Nayar’s repeated RTI requisitions for it. They found nothing wrong with making it public.
But the veto came from the army. Which is surprising, given that several former chiefs and veterans’ associations have demanded that it be made public.
Maxwell lives near Sydney and is now 88, which makes him a year older than L.K. Advani, and he is just as irrepressible. He never hid his left leanings, but it would be unfair to see him as an India-hater, though two generations of Indians have been brainwashed into believing that. I, too, hated him, and more so after I found his book in my small-town college library, where I would escape from Botany, Zoology and Chemistry.
One of my closest friends then had lost his father along with Brigadier Hoshiar Singh (MVC and probably the only modern military hero after whom a road is named anywhere in Delhi outside the cantonment), in the chaotic retreat to Bomdila. So any suggestion that India was anything but wronged, and its army betrayed by all, was an outrage. So strong was the indoctrination of the Sixties that, I confess, when Maxwell once got in touch with me in the early mid-Eighties and asked that I apply for a Reuters scholarship at Oxford, which he curated (particularly as he said he had seen my reporting for The Indian Express from the Northeast), it did not take me any time to say no.
I had been a reporter for almost a decade already, but my reaction to Maxwell was still one of embarrassingly non-journalistic hostility and suspicion. So let me now offer him an apology and a thank-you note.
Because age, experience and certainly the confidence inspired by an increasingly secure strategic environment help you see things differently, today it is possible to see Maxwell as a relentless, persistent scholar and journalist, still fighting to reveal the truth about one of the most crucial periods of our history as he knew it — obviously from us in this case. It is just that we have chosen to hide the same truth from our own people all these decades. You can only hope his doggedness, and now this partial release, will leave no excuses for South Block anymore. In fact, the NDA should promise to make the report public if elected to power.
If Maxwell is able to help us Indians face that bitter family secret and thereby find closure for 1962, in my book he will be listed as a friend of India, not an enemy. As for his allegedly red-hot left ideology, it has already been swept away in the entire world, India, and even more notably, in China.
Postscript: If you thought only the Indians and Pakistanis built super-military mythologies or wrote gallantry citations like commando comics, look elsewhere too. Some Chinese accounts of 1962 have now been published and translated into English. Two books deserve to be noted. One written by Chinese scholar Wang Hongwei, A Critical Review of the Contemporary Sino-Indian Relations, and the other, Recollections of the Sela-Bomdila Debacle, by Maj Gen Jaidev Singh Datta, a 1962 veteran of that sector, which also draws from many published Chinese accounts.
Many of the Chinese claims of PLA heroism would embarrass even the scriptwriter of a Sunny Deol war film. My favourite is the story of soldier Yan Shi Jin of the 33 Regiment, who “killed one Indian soldier after another” near Sela, exactly in Sunny Deol fashion, but unlike him, died in the end. How, we are not told. He was given a citation for Meritorious Service 1st Class, one of the PLA’s highest awards. More importantly, he was also granted his “last wish”, apparently expressed to his comrade as he breathed his last. That he should be made a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party posthumously. Of course, we have it on the authority of the PLA historian, the wish was granted! Proof, if any was needed, that the Chinese can be even more stupid than us.