Looking for Closure on 1962
On March 17, someone noticed that the Henderson Brooks Bhagat Report had been posted online and announced it on social media. The site, claiming to be Australian journalist Neville Maxwell’s blog, was immediately inundated by visitors who wanted to download the 126 MB PDF file that appeared to have been posted on February 07. Download was excruciatingly slow and the site went offline within hours, rumoured to have been blocked by the Indian government.
Nonetheless, the report – apparently only the first volume had been uploaded and the second volume and annexures were still missing – appeared on several other websites the next morning. The Government of India has so far refused to comment on the leaked document, reminding everyone that it remains a classified report. In the meanwhile, the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has demanded that the file be declassified and promised to do so if it comes to power in May.
Ironically, there is little that the public does not already know in the Henderson Brooks Report. The only thing that makes the report interesting is that it is still classified, over half a century after the events have passed. It is speculated that the only reason for it to remain so is to avoid confirmation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in India’s humiliating defeat in 1962; after all, his Party and family have been at the helm of affairs for most of the years since.
Anyone genuinely interested in the Henderson Brooks Report would have arrived at a very good idea of its findings through works like Neville Maxwell’s India’s China War (also read K Subrahmanyam’s scathing review of the book) or Brigadier John Dalvi’s memoir, Himalayan Blunder, which was banned by GoI immediately after its publication in 1968. There are also available some of Nehru’s papers from the time and the White Paper Delhi put out in 1960 that carried some of the Indian and Chinese diplomatic exchanges on the border issue.
By October 1960, Chinese troops held close to what their government claimed along the border except at Demchok. Beijing was consolidating its position in Tibet as well as along the border with India, building roads and deploying troops into the region under the pretext of the Tibetan Uprising in 1959. In fact, Indian military intelligence had noted that the number of Chinese troops present in Tibet were noticeably more than what might be needed to quell an uprising and could be rapidly supplemented with three more divisions if necessary.
Indian soldiers were plagued by poor logistics and routes difficult to traverse even by mules. Airlift capability was small, manpower was insufficient to patrol a troublesome border, and there was no artillery, mortars, or even medium machine guns. In fact, Indian soldiers did not even have proper shelter and ran short of food and medicine at several stations in the North East Frontier Agency.
Nehru’s Forward Policy on the border has come under heavy fire from all sides – while Maxwell accuses the policy of instigating conflict with China, Indian observers fault Nehru for enforcing a policy for which no material preparation had been made. As early as 1960, a division had been asked for to patrol the border area thoroughly. By mid-1962, Western Command had warned Delhi that at least five divisions would be needed in any serious conflict with China – India would need to hold Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim in such an eventuality.
The fatal flaw in Nehru’s planning was that he based the Forward Policy on the faulty advice from his Intelligence Bureau, Defence Minister, and Foreign Secretary that China would not respond with force to the Indian Army establishing forward posts closer and up to the McMahon Line. Besides, the Forward Policy directed the Army not to clash with Chinese soldiers as it set up camps near the international border; these camps would then be supported by larger camps further behind.
By July 1962, some 60 forward posts had been established but there had been no augmentation of manpower on the border. This meant that the Indian Army was further stretched logistically and depleted of manpower; most Indian posts had a platoon or less. Army Headquarters did not agree with Western Command’s assessment that the Chinese would open fire if Indian soldiers kept up their forward patrolling and thought that the soldiers on the front were scared to see action.
The political framework Delhi had constructed for China forced bad military decisions on the ground. Western Command warned repeatedly that defending the far-flung and isolated forward posts was tactical suicide and they should be sacrificed to gain tactical advantage but the orders were to “throw them out.” With what, it was not clear. Worse, there had been no preparation for a war with China – the Army was unfamiliar with Chinese tactics, equipment, capabilities, weapons, or the psychology of the field commanders. The operational and advisory performance of Lieutenant General BM Kaul has also come into question – while some claim there was a clash of personalities, it is hard to fathom why given that he had appointed most of the senior members of the General Staff. The Forward Policy, a political rather than military decision, turned disciplined men into a mob in retreat.
There is little the Henderson Brooks Report can add to this picture. It has been quite clear that the failure was entirely political in not reading Chinese intentions accurately and failing to prepare for a worst case scenario. Not even Lieutenant General TB Henderson Brooks and Brigadier PS Bhagat were given access to political files or Army HQ records when compiling their study of the failures on 1962. In this context, the BJP’s promise to declassify the Henderson Brooks report if it comes to power sounds ill-informed or politically opportunistic. If the BJP is genuinely concerned about learning from the country’s past mistakes, the declassification of the Report should be part of a concerted effort to throw open the National Archives in keeping with the 30-year-rule and democratic principles.
The question remains, however, why was there such a major political snafu at the top of the chain of command? Many are content with blaming Nehru, who certainly should bear part of the blame, but that hardly answers any questions. The fact was that Nehru was fully aware of the Chinese menace on his northeastern border. As his correspondence shows, he correctly ascribed it not to Beijing’s communism but to its nationalism. However, a quick look at the state of India’s economy reveals that the sort of defence outlays required to sufficiently shore up the Himalayan border was not within India’s means – a fact that even the Army’s Western Command acknowledged. “We were in a very weak position compared to them,” Nehru had confessed to the New Statesman once. In this position of weakness, Nehru had adopted a Churchillian strategy – Churchill had once said, “I proclaim my belief in the good faith of the Russians in the hope of procuring that good faith.”
Non-alignment, another scapegoat in discussions of Nehru’s failure to defend India, is not a factor – US records show that it was unwilling to take on the burden of building and modernising India via another Marshall Plan as it had done for Europe. US diplomats were instructed to make the case for the Western Bloc and offer little more than sympathy to woo India away from the Soviet Union. Yet to be fair to Washington, the United States was India’s largest aid partner until the late 1970s when Japan took over that role.
Instead of confrontation, Nehru relied on diplomacy. He courted Beijing and initially, it seemed he had struck upon the right approach. China carefully maintained India’s faith in diplomacy throughout the 1950s and early 1960; praise of Delhi’s role in the Korean War peace talks, the warmth Mao showed towards Nehru, and the signing of the Panchsheel Treaty between the two Asian giants were markers of a positive relationship. Chou Enlai had explicitly stated that China had no territorial claims against India in 1951, a claim that was seconded by other senior officials repeated even as late as 1960. In a high-level meeting between the two countries in April 1960, Marshall Chen Yi and Chou Enlai assured India’s Ambassador to Beijing, RK Nehru, that war between India and China was inconceivable. In another meeting, Chou Enlai repeated to the Indian Vice President, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, his earlier assertion that China had no claims south of the McMahon Line and that China had no intention of laying claim either.
However, there was also evidence to the contrary. Chinese troops were encroaching on Indian territory from Ladakh to NEFA, and military intelligence was worried about the unfavourable ratio of troops on the border. While the defence Minister, VK Krishna Menon, and the foreign secretary, Morarji Desai, were downplaying the risk of a Chinese attack, the Indian embassy in Beijing was sending warnings that the India-China dispute might be playing on a broader canvas than Delhi realised. ”In their ideological battle with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU),” the embassy wrote, “India’s non-alignment had become a target for the [Chinese Communist Party].” While Chou Enlai opposed the aggressive tone of Chinese policy towards India, Liu Shaoqi pursued it relentlessly. These “leftist dogmatists” in the CCP saw Nehru not as a nationalist leader but as a reactionary bourgeoisie. Therefore, they argued, non-alignment was just a ploy and it was only a matter of time before India joined the Western Bloc. Chinese brinkmanship in the Himalayas was, thus, meant to expose the weakness of Indian neutrality and the duplicity of Soviet peaceful coexistence.
Nehru had diplomatic prognoses that argued that China would not use military force against India, more diplomatic advice that predicted a conflict with China over an issue irrelevant to any India-China disputes, and military intelligence showing a strengthening of Chinese war-fighting capabilities in southern Tibet. The country could not afford the defence spending required to repel China, a country that had fought a superpower to a stalemate just a decade earlier, and Nehru hoped, not unreasonably, that the terrain of the Himalayas would offer some succour against invasion. In hindsight, the choice seems obvious but intelligence can only be evaluated forward; it is not difficult to understand why the urgency of the situation eluded Indian leaders.
This is not to say that Nehru’s record is unblemished. Undeniably, there were lapses, both political and military. To hold Nehru solely responsible, however, seems an ideological grump or a political ploy. The tragedy of 1962 is compounded by the fact that most of the failures from half a century ago continue to plague India’s defence preparedness. GoI’s response to the Chinese incursion in April 2013 is depressing proof of that. Defence infrastructure at the border is still inadequate, as is the equipment and training of troops in the region. Existential nuclear deterrence is not a full spectrum response. Civil-military relations remain abysmal – the fear of the coup in January 2013 is evidence – and there is still a foreign policy vacuum in South Block.
If India wants closure on 1962, it will not be achieved by merely publishing one report – a massive declassification programme across ministries must be initiated. Complete closure will be realised, however, only when the faults of 1962 have been rectified, in the planning rooms as well as along the border.