Who won the 1962 Sino-Indian war? This might seem a fatuous question, especially to those reeling under the tsunami of gloomy articles leading into the 50th anniversary of the war that began on the Namka Chu rivulet on October 20, 1962. But consider this fact: since 1962 Arunachal Pradesh has turned increasingly Indian, emphatically regarding itself a part of this country. Meanwhile, Tibet simmers resentfully as Beijing’s relationship with those easy-going people is conducted through the might of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA); a plethora of truncheon-happy Chinese paramilitaries that arrest protesters before they can protest; a demographic invasion by hundreds of thousands of ethnic Han Chinese workers; and a coercive relocation of locals that has shattered traditional pastoral lifestyles.
So how is it that, even after having been whipped in war, India is winning the peace? And that China, despite having “taught India a lesson” in 1962, and having subdued Tibet with a brutal occupation, feels challenged today from both sides of the McMahon Line — the disputed border in the Eastern Himalayas between Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh. In Tibet, since 2008, Beijing confronts a rising tide of protest. And in India it sees a growing military build-up, and a Tibetan exile organisation that amplifies worldwide the repression that China perpetuates within Tibet.
In contrast, India’s restraint and sensitivity and reluctance to use military force in establishing administration across the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) – as Arunachal was then called – certainly won over locals to the idea of India, but it also contained within it the seeds of the 1962 defeat. The aversion to overt demonstration of force was evident during India’s 1951 occupation of Tawang, when Assistant Political Officer R Kathing marched into that border town with just one platoon (36 soldiers) of the paramilitary Assam Rifles.
And at Achingmori in 1953, when Tagin tribals massacred an Assam Rifles platoon, Nari Rustomji, Special Advisor to the Governor of Assam who administered NEFA, famously stopped Nehru from retaliating with a burn-and-slash military expedition or executing his threat to bomb the Tagins. Instead, Mr Rustomji sent a largely civilian expedition into Tagin country, arrested the culprits, convicted them after a procedurally impeccable trial in a makeshift bamboo courthouse, and jailed them for a few years. Word spread quickly across the area.
But placing local sensibilities above national security also created the mindset that led to the 1962 defeat. The same mistrust in force that won over the local people also underlay the reluctance to deploy the army in adequate numbers, even though that was essential for backstopping an ill-considered “forward policy” that involved establishing Indian posts along a unilaterally decided border. The result: a stinging military defeat for India that undermined its image in local eyes.
Today, 50 years later, with a wealthier and more assertive India comfortable with the idea of deploying and wielding military power, it is important to remember the lessons of the 1950s in planning how to counter any Chinese adventurism. Firstly, in-your-face military deployment is not something that Arunachalis are comfortable with, even though the military is sometimes the only government that tribal people in remote areas actually see. In the 2010s and 2020s, as in the 1950s and 1960s, local support for India will count for as much as military power in ensuring that Arunachal remains a part of India.
India’s military, like every self-perpetuating bureaucracy, has made a convincing case for raising four new divisions to defend the eastern sector, including two divisions that will be part of a proposed mountain strike corps. The two defensive mountain divisions are already functional, while the mountain strike corps and an armoured brigade are currently being cleared.
But no amount of soldiers can provide a foolproof defence along hundreds of kilometres of rugged mountain terrain. And in raising division after division of defensive troops, India risks falling into the Pakistan trap: getting involved in a competitive military build-up against a giant neighbour that has far greater resources of money and military power.
Instead, the Indian Army needs to rethink its strategy, relying on local partnership as in the 1950s, rather than on an overwhelming presence that could start being resented. This must involve a threefold action plan: firstly, recruit at least 20 territorial army battalions from local tribes, which will defend their homeland fiercely against the Chinese, rather than relying on regular army battalions that are posted into these unknown areas from their bases thousands of kilometres away. These local tribal battalions must form the first line of defence.
Secondly, rather than committing the bulk of our regular army battalions into defensive deployments aimed at stopping the Chinese at the border, reorganise these formations into offensive strike groups that are geared, trained and equipped to retaliate against any Chinese incursion with counter-incursions into Tibet. There should be 8-10 such fully developed contingency plans ready for execution, along with the resources to execute them with.
Thirdly, create the infrastructure of roads and railways in Arunachal and Assam that will be needed to mobilise the offensive strike groups and transport them to the border fast enough to pre-empt any Chinese counter-deployment. This is perhaps the most essential step needed, since it will serve both a military and civil purpose. In providing road connectivity to villages along the McMahon Line, we are providing a lifeline that ties them to India.