In the Eastern sector of NEFA, now Arunachal Pradesh, the fear of enemy numbed the Indian Army troops and officers into inaction or put them into the disorganized withdrawal mode where they ran like headless chicken bereft of guidance by a robust leadership. Commanders had fled from the conflict zone before the battle had begun leaving frightened forces to fend for themselves.
The Chinese army initially butchered many fleeing Indian soldiers but later took prisoners of war in thousands.
It was the same story all over the Himalayan front from Ladakh to NEFA but for some saga of bravery like that of Major Shaitan Singh of 13 Kumaon at Rezang La where they faced the enemy and fought to the last man and last round, bore the bullets on their chest and never thought of disengaging with the invading Chinese army. The snow fell and preserved bodies of the brave in the assault position where none had a bullet mark on the back right from Major Shaitan Singh, company commander to a rifleman in the hurriedly dug shallow trench. Major Shaitan Singh was honoured by the nation with the highest gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra.
A JCO in the NEFA sector, Subedar Joginder Singh too was awarded the Param Vir Chakra for gallantry beyond the call of duty. Of course, a Garhwal Rifles battalion that was made POWs, commanding officer downwards also received Maha Vir Chakra and so on.
The Indian Army had never suffered such an ignoble defeat and were never so much ashamed of their behavior unbecoming of a Jawan of the Indian Army as the one narrated heretofore. Unsoldierly and unofficerlike, to say the least.
WHO TOOK THE BLAME
None, my countrymen, none. Here lies the tragedy of human behavior where an exercise is launched to find the scapegoat. The tendency of human beings to pass the buck was never so much evident as during the post-defeat in the Sino-Indian war of 1962.
Among major reports that were prepared with great insight is the Henderson-Brooks report. However, that is still under wraps and classified as Top Secret. So a student of military history cannot do objective research into the causes of the NEFA debacle where the PLA had a walk over. Some senior officers of the Indian Army resigned or opted to retire prematurely because many an accusing finger of specialists in matters military had been pointing at them all along.
Of course, among the heads of top brass that rolled were those of the Chief of the Army Staff, General Thapar, Chief of General Staff, General B.M. Kaul who had taken over as the General Officer Commanding of 4 Corps assigned to defend the entire Eastern Sector. However, instead of being with is vast corps of officers and Jawans in the mountains during the difficult days when PLA overran the Indian defences, General Kaul was enjoying the cool comforts of his bedroom at home in New Delhi, ostensibly nursing a sore throat. Many other officers at various levels chose to write an obituary of their military career themselves rather than face an enquiry for desertion and dereliction of duty resulting in their trial by a General Court Martial.
The biggest bat to fall then was that of VK Krishna Menon, the then defence minister. The public perception was that he carved out a private army of loyalists who were at his beck and call 24x7 and went to the extent of disobeying the lawful command of their own immediate superior officers. Krishna Menon thus destroyed the ethos of the Corps of officers. He employed the army for achieving non-military results like building housing colonies or doing farming in army cantonments. Thus the army had no time or inclination for military training and in due course of time became unfamiliar with their own weapon system. Tactics and collective training remained on pages of pamphlets.
Thus Krishna Menon, a communist card holder, reduced the professionally sound Indian Army to just a rag-tag army fit for farming but not fit for war. When a real shooting war began, the farming army took to heels and lost its reputation as a professional army. Krishna Menon never thought that a friendly China would attack India but the unfolding events proved how wrong he was.
Jawaharlal Nehru can not escape the blame of being an architect of India’s ignominious defeat as the Prime Minister of India. He blindly relied on Krishna Menon and accepted his insane advice as gospel truth ignoring or summarily rejecting the well considered military opinion of the battle hardened generals who had a vast experience of matters military. Nehru was myopic in many cases like not considering China as a potential enemy even for the sake of an academic discussion. Nehru was so immersed into the concept of Hindi-Cheeni Bhai Bhai and the theory of Panchsheel that he regarded the Chinese people as twin brothers of the Indian people.
Zhou Enlai and Jawaharlal Nehru had a number of formal and informal meetings in New Delhi and Beijing but the end result was that the border dispute continued to be where it was on day one. The Chinese Army prepared for war while their Prime Minister and the Indian PM enjoyed smoking pipe of peace.
The Chinese people in general and their political leadership in general are an enigma to the rest of the humanity. Many experienced Sinologists find it difficult to fathom the depth of their inner thoughts by reading the face. The face remains unchanged despite many emotional upheavals in the mind. Nehru too never understood what the real intention of the Prime Minister of China was. The Republic of India paid for this costly failure of Nehru. Nehru too suffered a stroke within a year or so of losing the war and could never recover from this sad illness.
MILITARY ASSESSMENT OF GENERAL THORAT
Lieutenant General SPP Thorat was Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army, then located in the Lucknow Cantonment. An experienced and down to earth general, he had a psychological understanding of an average China man. General Thorat had studied their nature and the reactions of their commanders who were PoWs of the UN in the Korean War when General Thorat was the GOC of the Custodian Force guarding prisoners of war of both Koreas. He utilized this knowledge in making a military assessment of the potential war scenario on the India-China border along the Himalayas.
General Thorat’s assessment was that the PLA would be egged on by their political leadership to attack NEFA and Ladakh, the areas that the imperial China had been claiming as theirs. One political theory is that Chairman Mao wished to consolidate his position in the political system there and so a military adventure was required. In my opinion this scenario is a far fetched one. Mao Zedong had himself told Henry Kissinger of the US that he had advised the Chinese military commanders to avoid a military engagement 'with our neighbour, India. However, when Nehru made a provocative public statement that he had ordered the Indian Army to throw out the Chinese, we thought that China must return the courtesy to India'. Thus the war began.
Returning to the well documented military assessment of General Thorat that he had the intelligence report about the Chinese army massing their troops and armaments along the borders even before 1960. General Thorat had also prepared a counter plan of defence and wished to have to implement it on the ground. He, however, never got the nod of the govt. The then Defence Minister just rubbished it and he was advised to concentrate on defending India against an attack by Pakistan.
An important fact that emerges from General Thorat’s assessment is the deployment of the Indian Air Force to bomb the concentration of the Chinese troops on the other side of the border. We had air superiority compared to the Chinese Air Force and our deployment of the IAF would have made considerable difference to the outcome of war fifty years ago and averted the massive defeat of the Indian Army. Unfortunately the political leaders of India had a pro-China mindset and it was beyond their comprehension that the Indian bombers would bomb the Chinese troops on the Chinese soil.
Jawaharlal Nehru and VK Krishna Menon gave a cold shoulder to General Thorat and dismissed his plan of deployment of the Indian Air Force in the 1962 war with just a wave of hand.
Moral of the story is that the sound advice and considered opinion of the Army Generals in matters military must be heeded to by the civilian leadership. A failure to do so may result in a military debacle like the one that India suffered half a century ago at the hands of China. Wise men learn from their past mistakes and India must draw a lesson for future.