|Nehru visiting the troops... after the War|
Mao needed a pretext ‘to teach India a lesson'. Some senior officers of the Indian Army and the country’s politicians offered it to him, which is why 1962 happened.
One of the reasons why the Sino-Indian conflict has remained a deep scar in the nation’s psyche is that very few people know what exactly happened on the slopes of the Thagla ridge in October 1962, though one does not need to be Inspector Jacques Clouseau to discover why the famous Henderson-Brooks report has been kept out of the eyes of the Indian public for 50 years. The reason is simple: In 1962, the bosses in New Delhi were unable to tell the local commanders where the border in the Tawang/ Ziminthang sector was.
A few months after the debacle, the Union Government requested Lt Gen Henderson-Brooks and Brigadier Prem Bhagat (HBB) to prepare a report of the events which led to the fiasco. Many have since asked: “What on earth has stopped the Government to open the HBB report to the public?”
Between 1962 and 1965, RD Pradhan was then Defence Minister YB Chavan’s Private Secretary. In his memoirs, he provides some insights on the issue: “Chavan was apprehensive that the committee may cast aspersions on the role of the Prime Minister or the Defence Minister.” Mr Pradhan adds: “(Chavan’s) main worry was to find ways to defend the government and at the same time to ensure that the morale of the armed forces was not further adversely affected.” Mr Pradhan concluded: “Chavan earned the gratitude of the Prime Minister.” Was it by classifying the HBB report forever?
In 2008, answering a question on the HBB Report, Defence Minister AK Antony told the Indian Parliament that the report could not be made public because an internal study by the Army had established that its contents “are not only extremely sensitive, but are of current operational value.” Nobody will believe that a 49 year-old report is still of ‘operational value’.
In 2005, veteran journalist and former MP Kuldip Nayar requested, under the RTI, the Ministry of Defence for a copy of the report.
During the hearings of the Commission in March 2009, the Defence Ministry articulated the official stand: “Disclosure of this information will amount to disclosure of the army’s operational strategy in the North-East and the discussion on deployments has a direct bearing on the question of the demarcation of the Line of Actual Control between India and China, a live issue under examination between the two countries at present.”
On March 19, 2010, in a ‘decision notice’, the Central Information Commission states: “The disclosure of information of which the Henderson Brooks report carries considerable detail on what precipitated the war of 1962 between India and China will seriously compromise both security and the relationship between India & China.” As a result: “no part of the report might at this stage be disclosed.”
Inspector Clouseau would say: “I know that”.Let us return 50 years ago. In early October 1962, the Chinese military intelligence had gathered that Indian forces were planning to ‘attack China’ on the Thagla ridge on October 10 (Operation Leghorn). A few days earlier, Mao had told his Party’s colleagues: “It seems like armed coexistence won’t work. It’s just as we expected. Nehru really wants to use force. This isn’t strange. He has always wanted to seize Aksai Chin and Thagla ridge. He thinks he can get everything he desires.”
Though there was no question of the Indian Army ‘attacking China’ with no food, no warm clothes, no armament or ammunition supply, the Chinese seemed to have perceived the situation differently.
Was Mao looking for a pretext?
The answer is to be found in the accounts of senior Indian Army officers, the unwilling actors in the ‘Himalayan blunder’. Maj Gen Niranjan Prasad, the GOC of 4 Infantry Division in his book The Fall of Towang describes the setting: “The McMahon Line from just north of Khinzemane, as drawn by Sir Henry McMahon in 1914 with a thick blue [in fact, red] pencil on an unsurveyed map, was not an accurate projection of the Himalayan watershed line. …In this process the position of Thagla ridge was, to say the least, left ambiguous.”
The survey had been completed in 1913 by Capts Bailey and Morshead, but it is true that it was rather sketchy (one inch to eight miles). If one follows the watershed principle, the Thagla ridge was the logical border, but the fact remains that the old map which was the reference for India’s position on the location of the McMahon Line, showed the Thagla ridge and the Namkha Chu, north of the Red Line. Further surveys were unfortunately not conducted after India’s independence.
In 1960, the Government of India had mooted a new policy to establish posts right on the border; it was the famous ‘Forward Policy’. The siting of these posts and their exact location was, however, decided mainly by the Intelligence Bureau and not the Army.
The local Commanders (Corps, Division and Brigade) were not happy and they made it known, but nothing could stop the folly of the ‘authorities’ in Delhi.
Brig Dalvi recalled: “Many generals, including General Umrao Singh [33 Corps Commander], opposed the indiscriminate opening up of more posts. …The setting up of posts in disputed territory is a different matter. It is an act of rashness, whoever decreed it and with whatever authority, unless we had the means to settle the resultant dispute on the battlefield.”
As Maj Gen Niranjan Prasad noted, the local commanders had no choice, though they could certainly have resigned, but in an almost war situation, it was not an easy decision to take.
The Intelligence Bureau and its Director, BN Mullick had no clue about the exact position of the border and the Chinese preparations.
On 14 August, 1962, Brigadier DK Palit, Director of Military Operations visited the Corps Headquarters in Tezpur. He was told about the issue about the Line.
In his memoirs, War in the High Himalayas, Palit recalled the encounter: “On my return to Delhi I referred the Thagla dilemma to the Director of Military Survey. The latter commented that as the existing maps of the area were ‘sketchy and inaccurate, having been compiled from unreliable sources’… He confirmed that the recognised border was the watershed, but qualified this statement by adding ‘the exact alignment of [the border] will depend on accurate survey…it would take two to three years to complete’.”
When Palit enquired with S Gopal, the Director of the Historical Section, Gopal explained that since the boundary talks with the Chinese in 1960, the Government of India had been aware that the actual terrain in the area of the tri-junction was different from that depicted on the Simla map. But Palit adds: “What Gopal had not told me — and I found out only later — was that the Chinese had not accepted our arguments and had counter-claimed Thagla ridge, as Chinese territory.” By then, it was already too late to go back, at least for the egos of the main actors in Delhi.
Mao needed a pretext ‘to teach India a lesson’. Some senior Indian Army officers and politicians offered it to him. However, the fact that the Chinese attack occurred simultaneously in all sectors (Tawang, Walong in NEFA and Ladakh) is certainly proof that the operations had been prepared well in advance by the communist regime in Beijing, which didn’t really need a pretext.
(The accompanying visual is of Indian troops moving towards the border to confront Chinese troops in 1962. Courtesy: Life)