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The Henderson Brooks morality play

It’s nice to finally have the report. But let’s not swallow it uncritically.

Updated: March 20, 2014 3:53 pm
Implementation of the ‘forward policy’ of Jawaharlal Nehru’s government resulted in a humiliating defeat to China in the 1962 war. (PTI) Implementation of the ‘forward policy’ of Jawaharlal Nehru’s government resulted in a humiliating defeat to China in the 1962 war. (PTI)

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 Moreover, its contents are quite well known thanks to Maxwell’s own book, India’s China War (1970), as well as the unpublished official history of the war that was leaked many years ago.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 the subsequent bouts of recrimination. For one thing, it shifted the attention from the army’s performance as a whole to the shoulders of a few incompetent and complaisant commanders and their political superiors. For another, it helped make the case that henceforth politicians should stop “interfering” in professional military matters. Although the report was never released, these conclusions percolated through the Indian strategic establishment. In the aftermath of the war, politicians did become quite chary of intruding into the operational domain of the military — a state of affairs that arguably continues to date. And the morality play scripted in the report became the conventional wisdom on the causes of the debacle.

With hindsight and the benefit of more documentary evidence, it is clear that this narrative is at best problematic and at worst downright wrong. To be sure, it was the civilians who crafted the “forward policy”, whereby small detachments of troops were stationed in areas claimed but unoccupied by the Chinese.

Yet, the available evidence shows that from late-1959 until the adoption of the forward policy, the military advocated a strategy of “defence in depth” — they sought to hold defensive positions far behind the boundary claimed by India. This strategy was obviously incapable of countering Chinese incursions near the boundary — incursions that were the main cause for concern to the political leadership and the main source of domestic political pressure on the government.

The military’s inability to come up with proposals to meet these intrusions gave civilians the upper hand in the formulation of strategy. If the military went along with the forward policy, it was not simply because the civilians rode roughshod over them, but because they had no alternatives to offer and no professional judgement that applied to the situation.

It bears emphasis that this vacuum in military thinking was evident from 1959, when the boundary dispute turned hot. It is comforting but misleading to assume that senior generals like K.S. Thimayya and S.P.P. Thorat had any better ideas to deal with this situation than their successors like P.N. Thapar (army chief in 1962). Nor is it the case that officers like General Thapar were “courtier soldiers” installed by Krishna Menon and Jawaharlal Nehru. After all, it was the military system that had elevated him to the top. Thapar was the seniormost amongst the candidates for the slot — he had served as independent India’s first director of military operations and had performed well subsequently.

This is not to argue that the politicians bore no blame for the defeat. The buck undoubtedly stopped with the prime minister. But a dispassionate assessment would underline the fact that the army also bore an institutional responsibility — one that cannot be attributed merely to a few bad generals. The simple fact is that, from 1959 to 1962, the Indian army’s professional capacities at all levels were put to the test — and found badly wanting.

Nehru once observed that the defeat against China was “a permanent piece of education”. But history offers no straightforward lessons. The search for new evidence has to be complemented by the development of new perspectives. Fifty years on, it should be possible to approach the subject without the passions of that period. It is nice to have the Henderson-Brooks report, but it would be a pity if we were to uncritically swallow it and reinforce the received wisdom.

The writer is senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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