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1962’s unlearnt lessons

India’s evaluation of intelligence and its understanding of other powers’ compulsions hasn’t improved

Written by Inder Malhotra |
November 29, 2010 3:43:56 am

In a country where the powers-that-be stubbornly refuse to release classified documents — including not only the ancient Henderson-Brookes Report on the military debacle in Ladakh and NEFA,now Arunachal Pradesh,in 1962. but also the official history of that war or,for that matter,those of the 1965 and 1971 wars — it is hard,even half a century later,to discuss the lessons,learnt or unlearnt,of the border war with China. However,judging by whatever is already in the public domain,and whatever further information can be gathered one way the other,some broad points can be made.

First,if Jawaharlal Nehru’s reading of the Chinese objectives towards the end of the traumatic clash of arms was grossly exaggerated,it may be partly because he had initially underestimated them in the same measure. For,in September 1962,after the Thagla Ridge incident and clashes and exchanges of fire as well as angry diplomatic notes,his and his government’s conclusion was that while there would be small skirmishes,clashes between border patrols,and violence on some scale,the Chinese would do “nothing big.” Perhaps underlying this belief was the thought that Nehru had expressed in Discovery of India: India was “too big a prize” and therefore if any power tried to invade and conquer it,the invasion would quickly turn into a much wider war.

The institutional backing to this conclusion,if it can be so called,was bizarre beyond belief. In the month of July,Chinese troops had suddenly surrounded the Galwan post in Ladakh,which could be supplied only from air. It seemed that they would liquidate it. But they did nothing of the kind — and,after making threatening noises,withdrew. The government asked,of all people,the powerful and intensely hardworking director of the Intelligence Bureau (the sole spy agency then),B. N. Mullik,to review available evidence and intelligence and determine what the Chinese intentions would eventually be.

He reported that “judging by China’s present behaviour” any major military action by it was unlikely. This top-secret paper was duly seen and signed by the core group,headed by Defence Minister Krishna Menon and including Foreign Secretary M. J. Desai,the army’s chief of general staff (since redesignated the deputy chief of the army staff) and Defence Ministry Joint Secretary H. C. Sarin. None of these worthies asked the obvious question whether the Chinese behaviour could change. Ironically,the same core group had also seen and initialled,around the same time,another report by the self-same IB that ominously pointed out that the Chinese consul-general in Calcutta had told the Communist leaders of West Bengal over dinner that since India was “constantly nibbling Chinese territory and offering other provocations” his country would be “compelled to take strong action.”

Had India’s intelligence establishment not been utterly inadequate,it could probably have got wind of a carefully calibrated military action of limited duration that the Chinese were planning to “teach India a lesson”. Roderick Macfarquhar,the eminent Harvard Sinologist,in the third volume of his trilogy,The Origins of the Chinese Cultural Revolution,has fully documented all the meetings Mao Zedong presided over to minutely plan the entire operation. The legendary Marshal Liu Bochang was given overall military command,with veterans of the 1950-53 Korean War commanding the divisions that fought. Today the intelligence machine is greatly expanded and diversified. We also have had the National Security Council,the National Security Advisory Board and a network of think-tanks for some years. But sadly the system of collection and evaluation of intelligence and that of making policy on national security has improved only marginally. Moreover,Nehru was ill-served by his civilian and military advisers. None ever argued with him,leave alone expressing dissent from his view. “Panditji knows best” was the doctrine of the day.

Lieutenant-General B. M. Kaul’s appointment as the battlefield commander in NEFA was unfortunate. Though a first-rate military bureaucrat and a dynamic individual,he had no combat experience. Yet his clout with the defence minister and even the PM was so great that his superiors in the military thought it prudent not to cross his path. This resulted,on November 17,in the catastrophe of the commander of the once famous 4th Division,Major-General A. S. Pathania,panicking and demanding permission to withdraw immediately. Army Chief General P. N. Thapar,and GOC-in-C of Eastern Command Lieutenant-General S. P. Sen,were present at the corps HQ while Kaul was away,and could not be reached. They did nothing to restrain Pathania. When Brigadier Hoshiar Singh,sitting atop Sela Pass with enough men and equipment and determined to fight,tried to do so,he was threatened with court-martial.

Finally,even today,there is insufficient awareness in this country about the impact on the India-China conflict of both the Sino-Soviet split and the Cuban missile crisis that,to an extent,coincided with the border war. In the first place,Mao’s decision to “teach India a lesson” was addressed as much to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as it was to Nehru. According to Macfarquhar,the Chinese had foreknowledge of the secret deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba “because of their excellent contacts in Havana.” They did not know when exactly the crisis would burst into the open; but they were sure it would. They exploited the situation to their advantage. Khrushchev could not afford to take on both the US and China at the same time. So,to India’s dismay,he did briefly tilt towards China — but reverted to his old broadly pro-India policy after the Cuban showdown that began two days after the Chinese invasion of India was over.

There is no point going over Khrushchev’s extraordinary cordiality to the departing Chinese ambassador,Liu Xiao,the Pravda editorial of October 25 that talked of “our Chinese brothers and Indian friends” and so on. At the end the People’s Daily said: “During the Cuban crisis,the Russians spoke a few seemingly fair words,but when the crisis was over they went back. They have sided with reactionary India against China all the time.” No wonder Mao tauntingly accused Khrushchev of “cowardice in the Caribbean and perfidy in the Himalayas.”

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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