Thursday, January 6, 2011

1962: The Forgotten War

While the Indian National Congress is still able to remember the role of former Prime Ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi in the India-Pakistan conflicts of 1965 and 1971, it has forgotten the 1962 War with China.
Congress and the Making of the Indian Nation’, a souvenir released on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the foundation of the Party and edited by senior leader Pranab Mukherjee says that in 1971 Indira Gandhi "was hailed as Durga, an incarnation of Shakti.” The events which saw the birth of Bangladesh are still considered to be ‘her personal success’.
During the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War, Shastri had already demonstrated to the world that India could defend its territory with modest resources: "The aggression by Pakistan was effectively checked. The Indian troops even crossed over to Pakistani territory near Lahore”, write Congress historians.
The 1962 conflict with China remains as a deep scar on the Indian psyche, but the 172-page book entirely omits the episode. To many, it resembles a Stalinian way to write history.
This reflects a great deal on the level of the historians working for the Congress. Foremost is Mridula Mukherjee, the director of Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, an autonomous body under the Ministry of Culture who flouted all government rules, which prohibit the director of such bodies from associating itself/herself with a particular political party.
Interestingly, the release of the book came soon after another ‘release’: two letters sent by Jawaharlal Nehru to US President John F. Kennedy on November 19, 1962. Thanks to the truly eminent journalist Inder Malhotra these two missives are today in the public domain.
Did the Indian National Congress know that the first Prime Minister of India informed the US President that the situation in November 1962 was ‘desperate’? Nehru begged the US to immediately dispatch a ‘more comprehensive’ US military aid, ‘if the Chinese are to be prevented from taking over the whole of Eastern India.’
Till these letters were 'declassified' by the veteran journalist, there was only a brief mention about their existence in the Foreign Relations of the United States which mentions: "The letter conveyed in telegram 1891 was the first of two letters sent by Nehru to Kennedy on November 19. The second was delivered to the White House by the Indian Ambassador on the evening of November 19. These letters have not been declassified by the Indian Government.”
The Office of the Historian of the US government quotes their summary published by S. Gopal, Nehru’s biographer: "Nehru, apparently without consulting any of his Cabinet colleagues or officials, apart from the Foreign Secretary, M.J. Desai, wrote two letters to Kennedy describing the situation as 'really desperate' and requesting the immediate despatch of a minimum of twelve squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters and the setting up of radar communications. American personnel would have to man these fighters and installations and protect Indian cities from air attacks by the Chinese till India personnel had been trained. If possible, the United States should also send planes flown by American personnel to assist the Indian Air Force in any battles with the Chinese in Indian air space; but aerial action by Indian elsewhere would be the responsibility of the Indian Air Force. Nehru also asked for two B-47 bomber squadrons to enable India to strike at Chinese bases and air fields, but to learn to fly these planes Indian pilots and technicians would be sent immediately for training in the United States.”
Malhotra discovered by chance the unredacted letters: “Imagine my surprise, when soon after arriving in Washington this time around, I had easy access to these ‘forbidden’ epistles [in the JFK Library].”
Though there is no mention of it in The Making of the Indian Nation, in November 1962, India faced the most dramatic moment of its recent history. In the words of Nehru (to Kennedy): “The situation in NEFA [North-East Frontier Agency, today Arunachal Pradesh] Command has deteriorated still further. Bomdila has fallen and the retreating forces from Sela have been trapped between the Sela Ridge and Bomdila. A serious threat has developed to our Digboi oilfields in Assam. With the advance of the Chinese in massive strength, the entire Brahmaputra Valley is seriously threatened and unless something is done immediately to stem the tide, the whole of Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Nagaland would also pass into Chinese hands.”
The Prime Minister not knowing that the Chinese were ready to declare a unilateral cease-fire (it was done 3 days later) informed the American President: “The Chinese have poised massive forces also in Chumbi Valley between Sikkim and Bhutan and another invasion from that direction appears imminent… In Ladakh, as I have said in my earlier communication, Chushul is under heavy attack and the shelling of the airfield at Chushul has already commenced. We have also noticed increasing air activity by the Chinese air force.”
In the first letter, Nehru had told Kennedy that after the fall of Chushul there was “nothing to stop the Chinese till they reach Leh, the headquarters of the Ladakh province of Kashmir.”
B. K. Nehru, the Indian ambassador delivered the second letter to the White House at night. He later said that his first impulse was to not deliver it. Malhotra recounts: “[BK Nehru] never discussed the contents of the two letters with anyone but did tell me that he locked them up in the safe that only the ambassador could open.”
Though according to the official history of the Congress, it was Nehru who “outlined five principles of Panchsheel which became the basis of the Non-Aligned Movement”; in November 1962, he badly panicked and aligned himself with Washington.
It has always surprised me that the government has remained adamant to not publish the Henderson-Brooks report of the 1962 debacle. Defense Minister A.K. Antony recently told the Indian Parliament that the Report could not be made public because an internal study by the Indian Army had established that its contents “are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value.”
Is it not strange that a 47 year-old report is still of ‘operational value’? The officials who drafted the minister’s reply may not be aware that another report, the Official History of the Conflict with China (1962) was prepared by the History Division of the Ministry of Defence which details the famous ‘operations’ in 474 foolscap pages.
After the release of Congress and the Making of the Indian Nation, the motivations of the government are clearer. The Party would like to forever erase the painful months of October/November 1962.
And yet, at that time, it had seemed simple. On April 1, 1963, YB Chavan, the Defence Minister had announced in Parliament that an inquiry into the conflict in NEFA had been instituted: “Thorough investigation had been ordered to find out what went wrong with our training; our equipment; our system of command; the physical fitness of our troops and the capacity of our Commanders, at all levels, to influence the men under them”.
There was no question of witch-hunting; the report was just to help “derive military lessons” and “bring out clearly what were the mistakes or deficiencies in the past, so as to ensure that in future such mistakes are not repeated and such deficiencies are quickly made up”.
But now Delhi has decided to forget about 1962 altogether.

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