1962: Let truth prevail

To lay the entire blame for the deterioration of Sino-India relations on Nehru is highly unfair

The Henderson Brooks Report remains in the news, but for the wrong reasons. A number of military historians and strategic analysts have made their views public on the “leaked” report. Even though the report was restricted to specifically examine the military aspects of India’s China debacle, many writers and commentators exclusively blame Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s “forward policy”. They forget that the political leadership makes strategic decisions that are based primarily on advice and inputs from intelligence agencies and top military commanders.

The Henderson Brooks Report holds the following dramatis personae primarily responsible for the debacle Krishna Menon, the controversial defence minister, for taking decisions arbitrarily; B.M. Mullick, director, Intelligence Bure-au, for inaccurate intelligence analysis; Lt. Gen. B.M. Kaul, Chief of General Staff and later corps commander, for his inadequate operational experience to lead the corps; M.J. Desai, foreign secretary, for his wrong analysis that the Chinese would not react to India’s “forward policy’; Brig. D.K. Palit, DMO, Army HQ, for his faulty assessment that the Chinese were not in a position to undertake military operations.

By the summer of 1961, Chinese forces had advanced nearly 70 miles southwest of their position in 1958 and established checkposts in the Chip-Chap Valley. A note from the Intelligence Bureau warned that the Chinese would move into areas claimed by them when there was no Indian presence. Based on the intelligence inputs and advice of Krishna Menon, the government decided to establish a few posts as close to the perceived claim-lines to prevent the Chinese from advancing further. Nehru ordered effective coverage of the entire frontier in the eastern sector and all gaps to be covered by patrolling or posts.

How and when did the so-called forward policy come into existence? As per the Henderson Brooks Report “a meeting was held in the Prime Minister’s Office on November 2, 1961, and was attended, by the defence minister, the foreign secretary, the Chief of the Army Staff and the director, Intelligence Bureau.” It appears that the director of Intelligence Bureau was of the opinion that “the Chinese would not react to our establishing new posts and that they were not likely to use force against any of our posts even if they were in a position to do so.”

B.M. Kaul in The Untold Story writes: “Nehru held a meeting somewhere in the autumn of 1961 in which Krishna Menon, Gen. Thapar and I were present. He first saw on a military map all the recent incursions China had made against us. He said that whoever succeeded in establishing a post would establish a claim to that territory, as possession was nine-tenths of law. ‘If the Chinese could set up posts, why couldn’t we. If they advanced in one place, we should advance in another.’ By the end of the year (1961), we had est-ablished over 50 such posts in Ladakh and NEFA (North East Frontier Agency) and hence our occupational rights in some 2,000 square miles of Indian territory. Nehru framed this policy as a ‘strategy’ of beating the Chinese at their own game.”

The Prime Minister also had to find a via media between two political extremes, both inside and outside Parliament.

On November 28, 1961, Opposition leader Nath Pai of the Praja Socialist Party exclaimed: “May I ask one small question to the Prime Minister? If the setting up of a base on our territory by the Chinese Republic (sic), he does not think will lead to wars, why should we be worried that destroying the bases set up by them will lead to war?” Ironically, in 1962, Nath Pai lived to see the folly of this question.

China launched its offensive in October 1962 along both the fronts. The hostilities ended a month later. After some non-aligned nations met in Colombo to discuss ceasefire terms, the meeting’s proposals were amended to accommodate some of India’s concerns and the Chinese moved back to the Line of Actual Control. (In the eastern sector, this meant Chinese withdrawal to 20 kilometres north of the McMahon Line).

Within India, the attack unified the Indians as never before. On November 14, 1962, while the Chinese were still advancing into NEFA, the Lok Sabha passed a resolution “to drive out the aggressor from the sacred soil of India, however long and hard the struggle may be.”

Nehru’s requests for military aid in this crisis brought assistance from both sides of the ideological divide the United States and the Commonwealth, as well as the Soviet Union. He believed his own non-aligned efforts towards peace between the two sides had contributed to a new era of civilised discourse in international relations when the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union had also signed a partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in Moscow in August 1963.

B.N. Mullick recalls that the Prime Minister, in his regular interactions with intelligence officials, often reminded them of a historically expansionist China and the necessity for increasing vigilance and preparation along India’s border, and at the same time of the need to avoid war not merely as an abhorrent way to solve problems, but because peace was essential for India’s development.

Nehru emphasised that all of India’s resources would be needed for economic and industrial development for many years. Nehru’s consistent efforts to get China a seat at the United Nations had the same objective in mind, namely, that a stable and responsible neighbour would ensure peace in the region. America, opined Nehru, could afford to close her eyes to China’s existence but India could not.

While Mullick blames “divided counsel within sections of the Army command who were ultimately responsible for all the military decisions taken,” Brig. John Dalvi, in his book Himalayan Blunder, says: “1962 was a national failure of which every Indian is guilty. It was a failure in the higher direction of war, a failure of the opposition; a failure of the General Staff (myself included); it was a failure of responsible public opinion and the press.”

To lay the entire blame for the deterioration of Sino-India relations on Nehru is, therefore, highly unjust, unfair and unethical. Nehru did whatever he could in the national interest to uphold the country’s honour. That he did not succeed vis-à-vis China despite his best efforts was India’s misfortune, and his. Far from being anti-Nehru, in 1962 the mood of the nation, which stood like a rock behind its supreme leader, was blatantly anti-China as the people felt the leader they adored had been stabbed in the back. Betrayal, treachery, perfidy were the parlance commonly used to explain China’s Himalayan misadventure. Krishna Menon and Kaul, and not Nehru, were the prime targets of parliamentarians and people’s ire. If the Henderson Brooks Report is made public it will be in the nation’s interest. Let truth prevail.

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