Home / Opinion / 1962 war debacle—the errors Jawaharlal Nehru made

Defeats in war are serious business. Countries learn from losses, take citizens into confidence, and move on. They can also hide behind a wall of fabrication and continue misinforming citizens long after the event. India falls in the latter class of countries.

On Tuesday, a key report into the 1962 military debacle with China—which the government has refused to release for more than 50 years—was posted online by journalist Neville Maxwell. Maxwell possesses a copy of the report—authored in 1963 by two army officers, a Lt General T.B. Henderson-Brooks and Brigadier P.S. Bhagat. The officers were asked to enquire into the tactical mistakes made in carrying out the war. Their ambit was deliberately narrowed to prevent an inquiry into the shortcomings of the political leadership.

India’s defeat in 1962 can be seen from three perspectives.

1) The diplomatic failure to arrive at a solution with China. Until the early 1950s, India was blissfully ignorant of Chinese claims. Maps published in 1954 by Beijing showed the Northeastern edge of Jammu and Kashmir (the Aksai Chin region) as Chinese territory, ringing alarm bells in New Delhi. Instead of raising the issue with China forcefully and taking the country into confidence, the Jawaharlal Nehru government chose to remain quiet. The obvious way out was to sit across the table and resolve the issue. If there was any stage when a diplomatic solution was possible, this was the time. The disputed borders were not delineated, leave alone demarcated.

2) The strategic folly of engaging in a “forward policy" of creating military posts in a disputed zone that could not be supplied properly with food, equipment, arms and ammunition. Beginning in 1957—after unilaterally deciding where its borders lay with China—India began establishing these posts in areas that China considered its territory, further inflaming what was a fraught situation. The consequences of this policy were not appreciated. Right upto the point when China attacked Indian positions in the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA, as Arunachal Pradesh was called then), Nehru and his defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon believed that China would take no action.

3) The actual, tactical-level, blunders seen in the Tawang area, where the commander of the IV Corps Lt Gen B.M. Kaul, tasked with “evicting China", displayed remarkable military incompetence.

Henderson-Brooks and Bhagat were barred from enquiring into the “higher direction of war", effectively ruling out a proper inquiry into points 1 and 2 above. A thorough inquiry would have probed the weaknesses in the linking of points 1 and 2—the “higher direction of war". As a result, the report does not directly deal with Nehru and Krishna Menon’s culpability on this score.

It does, however, have one damning chapter that highlights the responsibility of these two leaders for the debacle in a very forceful manner. The creation of IV Corps, headquartered at Tezpur, on 4 October 1962, without adequate appreciation of facts on the ground, without adequate logistical support and handing over of this virtual “ghost corps" to an officer of questionable competence, Lt Gen B.M. Kaul, directly point to a failure on the part of Nehru and Menon—the latter especially. Pages 83 to 92 of the report highlight in detail how the hasty decision to form IV Corps, bypassing the eastern command of the army, led to a military disaster.

The rest is history. Much of this information has filtered out in memoirs (for example Brigadier John Dalvi’s Himalayan Blunder and Maxwell’s own India’s China War), so what is new that the report offers and why has the government tried so hard to keep it secret?

The key lesson of the report is simple: Tactical military blunders are not produced in thin air. It requires an exceptionally incompetent political leadership that cannot link military means with political goals for that to happen. Menon’s shortcomings were legion: not only was he egotistical (a fact well-known to leaders such as Maulana Azad who warned Nehru about him), he was also a micro-manager. Now, a politician is not trained in military methods. The details of what needs to be done can only be appreciated by the officers on the ground. In 1962, this cardinal rule was dispensed with. From the actual prosecution of war (and the formation of IV Corps was part of that) and setting of goals (“evict the Chinese"), there was no link between the reality of what could be done and the lofty desires of the political leadership.

Since then, Indian political leaders have learnt the perils of going to war without adequate preparation. Indira Gandhi, a far more confident leader, leaned on her military leaders to quickly launch an operation against East Pakistan. She was resisted and the army leadership took decisions carefully. It is unlikely that 1962-like behaviour will be seen again.

That, perhaps, is one reason why successive Congress governments have tried to keep the report secret. The contrast with India’s prior military history (the operations in Jammu and Kashmir in 1947-48) and later (1971 and 1999—Kargil) is so stark that no amount of whitewashing can hide the incompetence and disarray seen in the government then.

This is a historical truth. Nehru—otherwise an exceptional leader who was a great realist—and Menon fell short of expectations. Passage of time cannot change that truth.

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