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It’s nice to finally have the report. But let’s not swallow it uncritically.
Neville Maxwell’s decision to make public parts of the Henderson-Brooks Report on the 1962 war is welcome and long overdue. Few documents in the contemporary history of India are swathed in as much mystique as the Henderson-Brooks Report. Commissioned in the wake of the debacle, the report has never been officially declassified. Replying to a question in Parliament a couple of years ago, Defence Minister A.K. Antony said that the report could not be released as its contents “are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value”. Later, in response to a request for the report under the Right to Information Act, the army headquarters reiterated this position. The army also claimed that reports of internal inquiries are “not even submitted to the government”.
In fact, the Henderson-Brooks report was sent by the army chief to the defence minister in July 1963, who in turn forwarded it to the prime minister. Moreover, its contents are quite well known thanks to Maxwell’s own book, India’s China War (1970), as well as the unpublished official history of the war that was leaked many years ago.
However, the government’s mindless refusal to declassify the report has strengthened the belief that it is the “definitive” account of the war. While the report is a very useful document, it can hardly be the last word on the subject. Indeed, it is more useful for what it tells us about the Indian army’s attempts to institutionally cope with the humiliating defeat of the 1962 war rather than why it occurred in the first place.
The report was commissioned as an “Operational Review” of the army’s performance in the war. From the outset, though, the two-member committee comprising of Lieutenant General Henderson-Brooks and Brigadier Prem Bhagat sought to go beyond this narrow remit. Their efforts to do so were hampered by their lack of access to any documents in the army headquarters or the ministries of defence and external affairs, let alone the prime minister’s secretariat.
Nor did the committee call for testimonies from some key military protagonists. Despite its limited base of documentary evidence, the report told a damning tale. The problem, however, was in the explanation that seemed to emerge from the report.
At bottom, the report told a cautionary tale of meddlesome politicians, compliant military leaders and an ensuing, if avoidable, catastrophe. The underlying message was evident: if only we had had generals capable of “standing up” to overbearing and strategically ignorant political leaders, we could have averted this ignominious outcome.
It is not difficult to see why this interpretation was so congenial to an Indian army smarting from the defeat against China and continued…