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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Grave mistakes after Galwan

How Indian intelligence blew it,misreading China’s intentions?

Written by Inder Malhotra | July 4, 2011 12:21:55 am

After the intriguing,indeed startling,incident at Galwan where in July 1962 the Chinese menacingly surrounded the small Indian post for a week but did nothing to overrun it (‘The long march to war’,IE,June 20),policy-makers did something astoundingly disastrous. They asked the highly influential director of Intelligence Bureau,B. N. Mullik,to tell them what exactly the Galwan episode meant. The IB’s job is to provide the government with the intelligence it can collect,not to evaluate it. What followed was even more bizarre.

For Mullik reported back that “judging by the Chinese behaviour so far” it was unlikely that they would use force to demolish Indian posts once they had been established. The Chinese,he added,would also go on moving their posts as far south as possible,and this might lead to “minor clashes”. Five of the top policy-makers,headed by Krishna Menon,initialled the top-secret report but it occurred to none of them to ask whether the pattern of Chinese behaviour could change. Ironically,as Chinese documents declassified over the years reveal,at that very moment the Chinese leadership was engaged precisely in revising its policy. Mao amended his earlier orders to his troops to be “restrained”,and hinted at “tougher measures” in the offing.

This was by no means all. Around the same time,the IB also reported that the Chinese consul-general in Calcutta (now Kolkata) had invited some Communist party leaders to dinner and told them that India was continuing to “nibble away” at Chinese territory and offering “other provocations”,and therefore “strong action” would have been taken. Once again none of the five wise men asked the intelligence czar how his two reports could be reconciled. And so it went on.

In retrospect,it is also clear that the Chinese were simultaneously trying to keep India confused about their intentions. For,while Mao and his cohorts were planning to deliver the “big blow” that eventually came on October 20,on the sidelines of the Laos conference in Geneva,Marshal Chen Yi,the Chinese foreign minister was telling Krishna Menon that the two countries should start talking to “avoid conflict and tension”. Coming from him such conciliatory noises were doubly surprising because during the abortive Nehru-Zhou summit in April he was even more intransigent than his prime minister. Indeed,at one stage Vice-President Radhakrishan had to tell him: “You talk like a marshal,not like a foreign minister”.

In the month of September,what India still regarded a game of “one-upmanship” shifted from Ladakh to the eastern sector in NEFA (North East Frontier Agency),now called Arunachal Pradesh. Some weeks earlier,this country had set up a fairly strong post at Dhola not far from the tri-junction of India-China and Bhutan. On September 8,the Chinese came down the Thagla ridge in force and established an even stronger post that threatened Dhola and other smaller posts in the valley of Namkachu river. India was enraged because it firmly believed that Thagla was unquestionably to the south of the McMahon Line. The Chinese insisted,equally emphatically,that the strategically vital ridge was to the north of the “so-called McMahon Line”.

The sophistry behind the Chinese arguments was that,pending a settlement of the “boundary dispute”,they were willing accept the so-called McMahon Line as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) but only as depicted by McMahon on the map attached to the Simla document,not as drawn by India on its official maps. They rejected India’s repeated explanation to them since 1960 that the McMahon map was on a very small scale and was drawn with a thick nib. There could therefore be conflicting interpretations of the line he drew. However,the Simla Convention had clarified that the line was based on the watershed principle,and Thagla ridge was clearly the watershed in the relevant region.

By now it is well established that by the time the Chinese climbed over the Thagla ridge,Mao had taken the decision to “teach India a lesson” and all preparations for this were in full swing. Han Suyin,a writer sympathetic to China,had recorded that she received a message from the Chinese authorities at that time saying: “We know there would have to be a show of force sometime or the other,but don’t worry — Sometimes it is necessary to do a little fighting to unblock people’s minds”. (Emphasis in the original.)

The chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army had asked the chairman for heavy reinforcements to enable him to deliver the desired shattering blow,and these were being deployed briskly.

Sadly,Indian intelligence,then a monolith headed by Mullik,didn’t have the slightest whiff of this,which explains the subsequent confusion in Indian responses and the country’s shock and surprise when the Chinese finally struck in a big way.

All through the summer of 1962,Nehru,Menon and their military and civilian advisers had been fretting that something had to be done to stop and reverse the criss-cross of Chinese and Indian border posts in Ladakh but only after “due preparation”. But when the Chinese started replicating the pattern in NEFA,the policy-makers felt that time had come to act or “at least appear to act”,in the east at least. 

Sometime between September 11 and 17,Krishna Menon secretly ordered the army to evict the Chinese from the south of the McMahon Line,“as far as possible”,and to maintain the Dhola post under all circumstances even after the advent of winter. For this purpose,a whole battalion was sent to reinforce Dhola. This done,Menon left the next day for the annual session of the UN General Assembly,publicly declaring that while the Chinese action was unacceptable “no major crisis” should be anticipated.

Several senior officers of the Eastern Command,most notably commander of the XXXIII Corps,Lieutenant-General Umrao Singh,questioned the government’s directive on the ground that Indian forces in NEFA were in no position to take on the Chinese that had superiority in numbers,equipment and logistics. This was to lead to another disastrous decision.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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