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The past as prologue

Remembering the military debacle of 1962 is not enough. India must ensure its security from a fundamentally adversarial China

Written by Inder Malhotra | Published: October 20, 2012 2:28 am

Remembering the military debacle of 1962 is not enough. India must ensure its security from a fundamentally adversarial China

There are two reasons for me to add to the tsunami of words on the 1962 border war with China that ended in a military debacle and political disaster 50 years ago. One,I lived through the trauma my generation is unable to forget; and two,it is not enough to moan the past — ensuring our security from the fundamentally adversarial northern neighbour is more important.

The army chief,General Bikram Singh,is entirely right in declaring that China would never be able to repeat 1962. The Chinese learnt this as far back as 1967 when the Indian army thrashed them in a spat in Sikkim at Nathu La. Even sharper was the message in 1986 at Sumdourong Chu. General K. Sundarji,wrongly blamed for having “acted on his own”,checkmated Chinese designs without firing a shot. He let them sit pretty at a post they should not have set up and deployed Indian troops on surrounding heights. “We have reversed the Namka Chu situation,” he told me.

Today,the gap between Chinese and Indian power is much less than then,but there is no room for complacency. Economically and militarily,China continues to be far ahead of us. More importantly,it makes no bones about its “supremacy” in Asia. Its assertiveness about its claim on the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh verges on aggressiveness. However,to determine what we need to do to maintain our current confidence vis-à-vis China,it would help to look back on the dark days half-a-century ago.

At the root of everything going absolutely wrong was the woeful misreading of Chinese intentions. Inexplicably,Jawaharlal Nehru had convinced himself that while there would be border skirmishes,patrol-level clashes and even somewhat bigger spats,the Chinese would do “nothing big”. No one,not his civilian and military advisers,nor his inveterate critics,questioned this judgement. “Panditji knows best” was the governing doctrine.

The personality and role of Krishna Menon,defence minister since 1957,enjoying complete immunity for all his excesses because of being the prime minister’s “blind spot”,was the second cause of our humiliation. By insulting service chiefs and playing favourites in top military appointments,he had done incalculable damage to the cohesion and morale of the army.

A catastrophic consequence was that,after the decision to “throw the Chinese out of Thag La”,Menon gave overall command of the battlefield in the Northeast to his “hottest favourite”,Lieutenant General B.M. Kaul,a first-rate military bureaucrat but totally bereft of experience in combat. He then compounded this folly by insisting that the seriously ill Kaul,evacuated to Delhi,would continue to command the distant battles from his sickbed! Apart from Menon and Kaul,only three other men,all of them Menon’s acolytes — foreign secretary M. J. Desai,Intelligence czar B.N. Mullik and the defence ministry’s all-powerful joint secretary,H.C. Sarin — were allowed any say in the conduct of war. Had Mullik,instead of messing around with policy that was none of his business,done his job of collecting intelligence on China,the course of events might have been different.

Against this bleak backdrop,the India-China power equation is far more reassuring today and our intelligence has greatly improved. China’s deployments across the disputed border are much,much greater than India’s. But the Chinese know that India’s defensive capacity along the border is more than adequate. However,India has no offensive capacity while the Chinese ability to go on the offensive is ample.

Yet the possibilities of a Chinese offensive in the high Himalayas are considered remote,because unless Beijing can be sure of a full military and psychological victory,it would have no use for a military attack. And although Chinese infrastructure at the land border is superior to this country’s,they also have to take account of India’s maritime power in the Indian Ocean,through which pass the bulk of China’s energy supplies. They also have to worry about serious revolts in Tibet and Xinjiang.

In 1962,we did not have a clue to the thoroughness with which Mao Zedong and his top military and civilian advisers had planned the carefully calibrated,limited operation that they eventually delivered to “teach Nehru and India a lesson”. Nor to the skill with which he had turned the Sino-Soviet split (highly advantageous to India) upside down by using his foreknowledge of the looming Cuban Missile Crisis. At the regular,if informal,talks with the US at Warsaw,he had also secured America’s assurance that it would not “unleash” Taiwan on him,as Henry Kissinger has reminded us in his latest book.

This time round,the international power play is arguably to India’s advantage. Beijing dislikes the growing warmth between New Delhi and Washington. But it is aware that America has shifted the “pivot” from West Asia to East Asia or the Indo-Pacific region,as it is often called. China has tense relations with its other neighbours,such as Japan and South Korea,with whom we have good bilateral relations. China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea have caused deep resentment in Vietnam,the Philippines,Brunei and so on.

Burgeoning trade and economic relations are a deterrent to belligerence because those who trade heavily do not usually trade blows. But then look at the extent to which China went in its dispute with Japan,though at the end both sides calmed down.

The one thing we have to worry about is the “gap in our defences”,of which General Bikram Singh spoke so candidly. We are dismally slow to fill these. The report of the Task Force on National Security has yet to be published. But,to the best of my knowledge,it has emphasised that “asymmetry in Chinese and Indian power” would expose us to grave danger.

Incidentally,the Chinese aren’t doing anything on the 50th anniversary of the 1962 War and have indeed been arguing with us that we should avoid scratching old wounds that have healed. They have no answer,however,when asked why they “keep observing the anniversary of Japanese occupation of Manchuria and of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident”.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.

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