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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Tough words from Thagla

In 1962,armymen and politicians in Delhi ignored the warnings from soldiers at the front.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
August 1, 2011 3:07:29 am

Stunned by the October 10 Chinese swoop at Tse Jong and increasing Chinese deployments at heights surrounding the 7 Division in the vulnerable Namkachu valley (‘How rude reality set in at Thagla’,IE,July 18),Lt Gen Kaul realised that alarming signals to army headquarters were not enough for the “complete rethink” he wanted of the government. So he informed Delhi that he wanted to report personally to the prime minister and the defence minister.

Being the man he was,he walked almost all night,crossing the high Hathung-la,to reach a spot where a helicopter could pick him up. By then he had caught a nasty chill,but seemed not to care. On October 11,he reached Delhi just in time to go straight to a late-night,high-level meeting at Nehru’s residence at Teen Murti Bhavan.

In a forceful presentation,he argued that not only was it “impossible to drive the Chinese across the Thagla Ridge with my existing resources,” but also that “it would be impossible to hold the Namkachu river front.” In reply to a question from intelligence chief B.N. Mullik,he confirmed that the Chinese could “make a breakthrough at any time or place of their choosing”. Whereupon Lt Gen J.S. Dhillon,who was officiating in Kaul’s place as the Chief of General Staff (CGS),remarked loudly enough: “He has developed cold feet.”

At this stage,Lt Gen L.P. Sen,GOC-in-C of the Eastern Command,who had earlier rejected similar views from Lt Gen Umrao Singh,intervened vigorously to contest Kaul’s position. He said that the Namkachu front “could be held and should be held.” In a defensive action,he emphasised,a brigade could “hold back a division.” Sen conceded,however,that the plan to evict the Chinese,codenamed Operation Leghorn,could be postponed. The army chief,Gen P.N. Thapar,concurred with Sen fully.

Nehru then declared: “I do not want the troops to commit suicide and I don’t want them to be put to unnecessary risks. But in all fighting there is some risk that has to be accepted.  If it is considered that this (Namkachu) position can be held,then it should be held and there is no reason why we should retreat and yield further territory to the Chinese”. The meeting — the only one at which the usually voluble Krishna Menon didn’t utter a word — dispersed,with all participants heaving a sigh of relief.

What happened the next day still remains a subject of dispute. There are different versions of what Nehru said to the pressmen assembled at Palam airport on October 12 before he left for Colombo. Since I covered it for The Statesman,I can reaffirm that the prime minister did use the words: “I have ordered the army to throw the Chinese out of Thagla,” adding that the place was south of the McMahon Line. Having said that,he immediately proceeded to qualify his statement: “I have fixed no deadline… It is entirely for the army to decide the timeframe.” He then pointed out that winter was about to set in,and that the Chinese supply base was just on the other side of Thagla,while India’s was far away. However,what appeared in the national and international press the next morning played up only the “order to throw the Chinese out.” China lost no time in exploiting this.

On returning to Tezpur,Kaul disregarded both his illness and the Delhi decision on October 11. Once again,he started sending pessimistic signals to army HQ. The most desperate of these arrived on October 16. It demanded that,“giving preference to discretion over prestige,” Tsangle,an important but isolated post around which the Chinese forces had been reinforced,should be vacated. He repeated that,from Namkachu,Indian soldiers should withdraw to Hathulang-la,Tsanghar and other higher places. And he added,for good measure,that if the supply position remained as “precarious” as it was,it might lead to “starvation and desertion of Assam Rifles personnel.” Brigadier D.K. Palit,director of military operations,who took the message to Thapar found the army chief “quite agitated,” and muttering that Kaul had “lost his nerve”.

Around 11 pm,Menon and Thapar,carrying the Kaul telegram with them,reached Mullik’s residence. There it was decided that the trio,together with H.C. Sarin,a joint secretary in the defence ministry,should fly to Tezpur immediately. Their plane took off at 1 in the morning of October 17 and,after picking up Sen at Lucknow,reached Tezpur at daybreak.  

A marathon meeting in Kaul’s map room followed. He reiterated all his arguments for withdrawing from the “untenable” Namkachu front,and for vacating the Tsangley position. The entire IV Corps Staff was even more vehemently in favour of immediate withdrawal,as was the inspector-general of the Assam Rifles. But Krishna Menon told them firmly that Indian public opinion “would not tolerate any further surrender of Indian territory and,therefore,no further Chinese advance into India should be allowed.” Thapar and Sen argued that Tsangley was too important strategically to be vacated. This was really the end of the argument,though the civilian VIPs made a show of withdrawing from the map room “so that the generals could deliberate and take a military decision.”

However,the story of October 17 did not end there. Shortly after Menon and his cohorts had left,Kaul’s illness suddenly took a turn for the worse. He had high fever and great difficulty in breathing. Military doctors evacuated him to Delhi,where it was diagnosed that he was suffering from acute pulmonary oedema. Yet he was not hospitalised,but allowed to stay in bed at his house,5 Motilal Nehru Marg.

When Palit arrived to inquire about Kaul’s health,he found that Menon,Thapar and Mullik were already there. Thapar came out and ordered him to signal all concerned that Kaul would continue to command IV Corps from his sickbed. Always an intrepid soldier,Palit protested to the chief that this was an absurd arrangement. Half irritated,half embarrassed,Thapar replied: “The defence minister has ordered this.”    

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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