Let’s confront the civil-military trends Henderson Brooks report points to.
Following the country’s humiliation in 1962, the then chief of the army staff (COAS), General J.N. Chaudhury instituted an “operational review” to inquire into the reverses suffered by the army. Established on December 14, 1962, the two-man inquiry committee submitted its report, classified as “top secret”, in April 1963. The terms of reference given to Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks, assisted by Brigadier P.S. Bhagat, were to inquire into “what went wrong” with training, equipment, the system of command, the physical fitness of troops and the capacity of commanders at all levels to influence the men under their command. The inquiry committee was neither mandated to nor did it directly comment on the failures and lapses of the political leadership. And yet, the report provides interesting insights on political decision-making.
On September 2, 1963, the then defence minister, Y.B. Chavan, who had taken over from the disgraced V.K. Krishna Menon, told Parliament that Indian reverses were the result of poor military leadership and high-level “interference” in tactical operations. Other reasons listed for the Indian defeat: the Indian troops’ unpreparedness for mountain warfare and unfamiliarity with Chinese tactics, equipment shortages during training and combat, mountain communications difficulties, inadequate military intelligence, the unexpectedness of the Chinese assault, Chinese numerical superiority. Chavan also said only 24,000 Indian troops had been involved in the fighting.
R.D. Pradhan, who was Chavan’s private secretary between 1962 and 1965, provides some insights on the issue, “During the conduct of the inquiry, Chavan was apprehensive that the committee may cast aspersions on the role of the prime minister or the defence minister. Chavan’s main worry was to find ways to defend the government and at the same time to ensure that the morale of the armed forces was not further adversely affected.” He concluded that Chavan had “earned the gratitude of the prime minister”. The classification of the Henderson Brooks report was clearly politically motivated.
Defence Minister A.K. Antony, answering a question on the report, told Parliament in 2010 that it could not be made public because an internal study by the army had established that its contents “are not only extremely sensitive, but are of current operational value”. This has been contradicted by several army chiefs.
To maintain that a 51-year-old report is of operational value contradicts the doctrine of common sense. The 112 pages selectively leaked and uploaded by Australian journalist Neville Maxwell on his website on March 17 raise serious questions about the conduct and professionalism of the highest levels of the political and military leaderships.
During a discussion on the Forward Policy in a meeting at the prime minister’s office, then director of the Intelligence Bureau B.N. Mullick’s view that the Chinese would not react was bought hook, line and sinker by the others, even though this was contrary to the view of Military Intelligence. The Forward Policy was meant to check the Chinese incursion in Ladakh, but no thought was given to its consequences in the Northeast Frontier Agency (NEFA). The Henderson Brooks report says: “Once we disturbed the status quo in one theatre, we should have been militarily prepared in both to back up our policy.” The Forward Policy was introduced without the means to implement it effectively. It was dependent entirely on the expectation that the Chinese would not react. The fault of the general staff (headed at that time by B.M. Kaul) is also brought out in a section relating to Ladakh, where the report says that “the army was not even prepared to meet a limited operation… No army should be placed at the mercy of the enemy on the off-chance that the latter would not react.”
India’s response to the Chinese build-up was negligible. This almost reads like 2013-2014. It notes that the Srinagar-Leh road had just been completed, and that several forward bases were air-maintained. This continues to be the case in 2014 and that is why we had Depsang last year.
After a meeting in the defence minister’s room on September 22, 1962, the army chief’s assessment was that the Chinese may send more reinforcements to Dhola, or retaliate in Ladakh. The COAS asked for written orders and the following orders were given. The army should prepare and throw the Chinese out as soon as possible. The COAS was accordingly directed to take action for the eviction of the Chinese in the Kameng Frontier division of NEFA (where the Thagla Ridge was) as soon as he was ready. The army headquarters issued the orders to the western and eastern commands.
The Henderson Brooks report is critical of the army HQ for not presenting the political authorities with a written appreciation of the situation and leaving them to make the political decision. “To base major military actions on a doubtful intelligence (that the Chinese will not react) is breaking all precepts of war and inviting sure disaster.”
The report cites Kaul’s testimony to point out that, at a number of meetings held by the defence minister, and attended by the COAS, the chief of general staff (Kaul himself), the IB director, representatives of the defence and external affairs ministries, “the general view was that the Chinese would not provoke a showdown”.
The contents of the report point to three extremely disturbing trends that were in evidence in the 1960s. Some of these have continuing relevance even 52 years later. These merit a full national debate in order to prevent the recurrence of a 1962-type fiasco. They relate to a continuing civil-military disconnect, serious gaps in training and provisioning of equipment, inadequate or flawed intelligence which contributed to bizarre decision-making at the army headquarters and by the political leadership in the ministries of defence and external affairs, and at the PMO.
The author, a retired diplomat, recently joined the BJP. Views are personal