The guilty men of ’62

The humiliation of a highly professional Army of two centuries’ standing, with an outstanding war record in battles, stunned the world in 1962

October 20 is the 50th anniversary of our Himala-yan Pearl Harbour. The humiliation of a highly professional Army of two centuries’ standing, with an outstanding war record in battles fought over different continents, stunned the world.

During the two World Wars, the Indian Army earned a very enviable reputation among the Allied armies. Winston Churchill referred to the over two-million-strong Indian Army in laudatory terms, describing it as the largest volunteer Army known to history. Having seen the prelude to the 1962 war from close quarters at the highest level, I shall recount how the Army hurtled towards an abyss.
Lt. Gen. B.M. Kaul and Air Vice-Marshal Harjinder Singh were both favourites of the then defence minister Krishna Menon and had direct access to him. Besides, Gen. Kaul was very close to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The first four days of that war was followed by a lull of nearly three weeks, and then total disaster in the last four days when our strong defences at Se La were abandoned by 4 Infantry Division. It withdrew without putting up a fight. It was the same division which during the Second World War was regarded as a crack division of the Allied armies during the North African campaign. It had played a key role in the historic Battle of El Alamein. The Chinese pursued the demoralised and defeated division down to the foothills near Tezpur, Assam. The war ended with China’s unilateral declaration of ceasefire and withdrawal of its forces to the north of the McMahon Line. The nation’s faith in the impregnability of the Himalayas, the infallibility of our foreign policy and the invincibility of our Army lay shattered.
A few weeks before he died, the ailing Sardar Patel wrote a very perceptive letter to Jawaharlal Nehru on December 17, 1950, warning him about Chinese intentions and the need to make suitable defence preparations in the Himalayas. Nehru was then in the grip of “Hindi Chini bhai bhai” euphoria. He did not attach much importance to this letter. However, the then minister of state for defence, Himmat Singh, was appointed to chair a committee to examine the issue. He submitted a report but that report is now not traceable. Although 50 years have elapsed, very strangely the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report is still under wraps. It is generally believed that Neville Maxwell had access to it and his book, India’s China War, is based on it. A look at the top personalities involved in the run-up to the disaster of 1962 is revealing.
Nehru was a colossus. The people had full faith in his judgment and no one dared express contrary views. Krishna Menon was said to have been a red card holder at one time. Nehru trusted him implicitly and had a blind spot for him. Both Nehru and Menon firmly believed that China would never go to war with India. Menon was a highly intelligent person but very abrasive and could be very sarcastic. As defence minister, he would deal directly with junior officers, short-circuiting the normal chain of command. He had his favourites, promoted factionalism and showed little regard for the service chiefs. Bhola Nath Mullick was an outstanding director, Intelligence Bureau, whose forte was internal intelligence. He had become Nehru’s Man Friday. At that time there was no organisation dedicated to gathering external intelligence. Adequate military intelligence about China or Tibet was not available. The fact that the Chinese woefully lacked suitable airfields in Tibet was unknown. Mullick had an anti-Army bias and fuelled the politician’s fear of the Man on Horseback. The bureaucracy assisted him for its vested interests and the service chiefs could not interact directly with the Prime Minister.
Some details about our senior Army officers who were at the helm on the eve of the 1962 war, and during the course of it, are relevant. Gen. Thimayya was the Army Chief till a year before that war broke out. A very professional and charismatic military leader, he was the only Indian to have commanded a brigade in battle during the Second World War — in the hardest fought Battle of Kangaw in Burma against the Japanese. In the battle of Zoji la in Kashmir, we used tanks to break through the 10,000-foot-high pass. This was the first time in military history that tanks were used at that height. I am an eye-witness to Thimayya, as divisional commander, leading the assault from a tank. As chairman of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission in Korea he earned an international reputation. No general with better credentials had become Army Chief. Yet Thimayya was not familiar with the ways of politics and politicians. He had strong differences with Menon, including over the promotion and appointment of Gen. Kaul on his staff. The latter, as his Chief of Staff in Korea, would bypass him and exploit his connection with Nehru. Thimayya’s resignation in 1959 caused a nationwide stir. Nehru persuaded him to withdraw his resignation, pointing out that Field Marshal Ayub Khan was transiting through Delhi at that time and that his resignation would send the wrong message, tarnishing India’s image. He stood persuaded. Later Nehru castigated him in Parliament. He failed to resign over this. This seriously damaged his reputation and did immense harm to the Army. Had he resigned a second time in protest against lack of defence preparedness in the Himalayas, things could have been set right and the 1962 war avoided.
Instead, he sulked and became a lame duck Army Chief for the remainder of his tenure. Gen. Thapar took over from him and was the Chief during the 1962 war. Neither he nor his Air Force colleague asserted himself against blatantly faulty strategic decisions. Thorat, the then Eastern Army commander, had won a gallantry award as a battalion commander in the Battle of Kangaw, and again in Korea as commander of the Custodian Force. He wanted to hold a defensive line based on Tawang Bomdi la and along where we were administratively better placed and the Chinese, advancing over mountainous terrain, would be at a great disadvantage. This plan was not approved by Menon. Gen. Thorat retired a year before the 1962 war. The third general holding a key appointment at that time was L.P. Sen, who also had won a gallantry award commanding a battalion in the Battle of Kangaw. On November 7, 1947, as brigade commander, he had routed invading Pakistani forces in the decisive battle of Shelatang on the outskirts of Srinagar. That saved Srinagar and liberated the Valley. Over the years family problems had broken him and he was a different man. He was the Eastern Army commander during the 1962 war. Gen. Kaul, with no combat experience and from a non-combat wing, was ambitious and had close connections with Nehru. In the run-up to the Sino-Indian war he had become the most powerful Army officer, overshadowing all his superiors, including the Army Chief. During the war, he held the key field command in battle. The political and military leaderships appeared tailor-made to lead the nation to disaster.

(This is the first portion of a two-part series.)

The author, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir

Comments

The nationa and the great

The nationa and the great Indian Army has been badly manouvred by the lecher called nehru who hadn't have any worth n merit.. its time to pay that back n recapture...

Callous neglect on the part

Callous neglect on the part of political leadership caused '62 debacle Having inherited from the British Nehru thought he inherited British strategic clout & firepower too.He believed Chinese would deal with India with caution just as they had done with British

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