1962 war: India should face its failures

Last Updated: Wed, Mar 19, 2014 00:16 hrs

It seemed the Indian government's insecurities were on full display on Tuesday when the release of significant excerpts of the Henderson Brooks-P S Bhagat report on the 1962 India-China conflict was apparently blocked within hours of it being uploaded on the internet by Neville Maxwell, a veteran Australian journalist.

Access to Mr Maxwell's website seemed to have been cut off. If that was the work of the Indian security establishment, then it displayed an embarrassing naivety - since the report is freely downloadable from servers outside India anyway. In 2010, Defence Minister A K Antony told Parliament that parts of the report were sensitive and of current operational value.

A similar explanation has been offered by the defence ministry now. This strange explanation should worry security analysts. For one, the border debacle occurred five decades ago; military operations and strategy should really have progressed significantly since then. For another, the gist of the report has been public ever since Mr Maxwell, now 87, published India's China War in 1970.

The sections of the report now available online reportedly tell a sad, familiar story: an ill-conceived implacability on the border issue, a rank underestimation of China's military capabilities and reaction, appalling logistics and a military leadership that Mr Maxwell refers to as "courtier generals" in his book.

The report, however, also apparently indicts local commanders down to the brigade level, arguing there was complacency bordering on negligence before contact with the enemy, and incoherent thinking, incorrect statements and panic and flight after. Senior commanders, it reportedly argues, "let down their units". All this should not be a complete surprise. Brigadier John Dalvi certainly highlighted the strategic errors, at least, in his 1968 book Himalayan Blunder.

His account was accurate enough for the government to ban the book and sideline a respected officer (it says much for the pusillanimity of the Indian media that Mr Maxwell's claimed offer to five Indian editors to release the report was refused). Mr Maxwell's book itself contained some stinging home truths about India's overall approach to the border issue.

It suggests a strong sense of missed opportunity in the rejection of Zhou En-lai's offer in 1960 - "You keep what you hold, you take too anything that is in dispute and occupied by neither, and we keep what we hold". Mr Maxwell believed that the "reasons for the long-term withholding of the report must be political, indeed probably partisan, perhaps even familial", the last a reference to his description of Jawaharlal Nehru's inept handling of the crisis.

Yet even governments not in thrall to the Nehru-Gandhi family have kept the report under wraps.

This is a mistake. Mature countries face their past follies squarely.

Nehru's reputation is damaged more by his self-appointed heirs' bumbling attempts at secrecy than by his own famous misjudgement of China's intentions. The Indian Army itself, which the report indicts for failing to warn the political leadership of the dangers of the confrontational "Forward Policy", has hopefully learned enough of the lessons of 1962 that the details need not reflect on the military of half a century later.

What does damage the reputation of India's state and its military establishment is an attempt to conceal its own past failures, instead of openly explaining how it has learned from them.

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