1962 debacle: Did India army mistakes trigger the war?

Last Updated: Sat, Mar 22, 2014 02:47 hrs
1962 India-China war, India-China war, India-China, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mao Zedong, Claude Arpi, Tawang, Lakshman Singh, Tsangdhar, Namkha chu, Arunachal Pradesh, topnews, B N Mullick

New Delhi: The truncated version of the Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks report (HBR), recently posted on the internet by Australian author and journalist, Neville Maxwell, constitutes the Indian Army's sweeping inquiry into its only major military debacle, at the hands of China in 1962.

Since it was submitted to the army chief, General J N Chaudhuri, in 1963, the report has been buried, still retaining its 'top secret' classification. It is a tale of skewed civil-military relations and bumbling strategic direction, and inconceivable military incompetence at higher levels of command.

Even so, the most telling account in the 144 pages of the HBR blogpost is of the Namka Chu, the mountain torrent west of Tawang where the war began, and where India's 7 Infantry Brigade was wiped out in hours, triggering a rout that ended a month later with the Chinese Army poised at the threshold of Assam.

The 7 Infantry Brigade was rushed to the Namka Chu as a consequence of the 'Forward Policy', which moved 56 Assam Rifles platoons to the McMahon Line to demonstrate Indian presence on the disputed border. The Eastern Command issued instructions for the move on January 10, 1962.

One of these new posts was Dhola Post, which eventually triggered the war. In one of the HBR's revelations, it emerges that Dhola was accidentally established on China's side of the McMahon Line. For 52 years, India has held that by attacking Dhola Post, China committed aggression and started the war.

Before New Delhi ordered the 'Forward Policy' in December 1961, the army moved carefully along the Sino-Indian border. According to the patrolling policy, "No patrolling except defensive patrolling is to be permitted within two to three miles of the McMahon Line."

This changed on February 24, 1962, when Tezpur-based XXXIII Corps, commanded by the respected Lt Gen Umrao Singh, ordered nine new border posts, included one between Tawang and Bhutan, at the tri-junction of Tibet, Bhutan and India. This post became famous as Dhola.

Discrepancies in the maps available then depicted an arbitrary border running due west from the border outpost of Khinzemane to the tri-junction, rather than the watershed boundary that constituted the McMahon Line. Operating with those faulty maps, Captain Mahabir Prasad of 1 Sikh established Dhola Post on June 4, 1962, on what Henderson Brooks reveals was China's side of the McMahon Line.

The HBR blogpost says in August 1962, XXXIII Corps admitted to Eastern Command that its post was wrongly sited but not that it was on Chinese territory. Aware of the consequences, XXXIII Corps suggested that the army play innocent. It wrote, "…to avoid alarm and queries from all concerned, it is proposed to continue using the present grid reference."

Henderson Brookes is frank in his assessment: "This, in effect, meant that the post was actually north of the McMahon Line."

The consequences were not long in coming. On September 8, Dhola Post was surrounded by some 600 Chinese soldiers. Instead of wriggling out from this uncomfortable position, the army chose an aggressive response. The HBR blogpost recounts that, on September 12, four days after Dhola was surrounded, the Eastern Command chief, Lt Gen L P Sen, told Lt Gen Umrao Singh, and GOC 4 Division, Maj Gen Niranjan Prasad that the "Government would not accept any intrusion of the Chinese into our territory. If they come in, they must be thrown out by force."

Sen "clarified that the government had always maintained that the McMahon Line was based on the watershed principle and, therefore, it ran along the Thagla Ridge. Thus, Dhola was well inside the McMahon Line."

The countdown to war had begun. The day after Dhola Post was surrounded, the ill-fated 7 Infantry Brigade was ordered to the Namka Chu, while the Chinese intensified their force build-up, too. The HBR blogpost notes, "In fact, their build up behind the Thagla Ridge was far greater than ours." On September 20, the first exchanges of firing began in the Namka Chu valley.

On September 22, the government ordered army chief, General P N Thapar, in writing: "The Army should prepare and throw the Chinese out as soon as possible. The Chief of Army Staff was accordingly directed to take action for the eviction of the Chinese in Kameng Frontier Division of NEFA as soon as he is ready."

Meanwhile, laughably given that India knew about China's build-up in the area, XXXIII Corps formulated a plan to evict the Chinese from the area of Dhola Post, using three infantry battalions to attack across the Namka Chu. This was to begin earliest by October 10.

On October 4, Army HQ announced the formation of IV Corps, bringing Lt Gen B M Kaul in direct command of the operations. The HBR blogpost recounts how Kaul personally moved from headquarters to posts, railroading 7 Brigade to the tactically and logistically unviable Namka Chu positions, with only 50 rounds of ammunition per man, one blanket, no winter clothing, and without even minor medical supplies.

Says Henderson Brooks evocatively, "The retribution was to come." He quotes Sir Alfred Tennyson's immortal lines from Charge of the Light Brigade, "Their's not to reason why; Their's not to make reply; Their's but to do and die."

Astonishingly, Kaul seemed oblivious of the possibility that the Chinese would actually attack. The HBR blogpost says, "On 14 and 15 October, the Corps Commander had discussions with the Divisional Commander. The theme of the discussions was how and when and with what more preparation could we attack Thagla Ridge (across the Namka Chu). Curiously, in these discussions, the possibility of the Chinese attacking us south of the Namka Chu was never considered."

This surreal form of command continued till October 17, when Kaul took ill and a special plane from New Delhi, medical specialist on board, flew him back to the capital.

The commander of 7 Infantry Brigade, Brigadier John Dalvi, who recounted events in his seminal Himalayan Blunder, found Kaul commanding IV Corps from a sickbed in Delhi. On October 19, the evening before the Chinese attacked across the Namka Chu and swept away his brigade, Dalvi is recounted as telling his divisional commander, "I am not prepared to stand by and watch my troops massacred. It is time someone took a firm stand. If the higher authorities want a scapegoat, I am prepared to offer myself and put in my papers on this issue."

Henderson Brooks writes, "The Brigade Commander had represented almost daily before this, but, by 19 October, he had reached the end of his tether. It is apparent so had the Chinese. They struck the next morning."

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