Inside story of how India's political establishment and army fumbled and fought even as China made incursions
It was in the home ministry that I first heard about the Chinese incursion into our territory. I was sitting with Fateh Singh, deputy secretary in charge of foreigners, when his aide came with a sheaf of papers relating to China and wanted to know what he should do with them. They related to the illegal construction of a road in Ladakh. Without even looking at him, Fateh Singh said: “Put them in the ‘border file’.”
It was an odd description for reports. Fateh Singh explained that telegrams, messages, and reports dealing with China’s incursions were stacked in files, without any action being taken. Prime Minister (Jawaharlal) Nehru saw them and marked them to the home minister after initialing them. They eventually landed up in the section dealing with foreigners. In fact, there was a joke in the home ministry that if some official did not wish to take any action on a particular complaint he would say “Put it in the border file”. I heard this euphemistic description of inactivity very frequently even at the joint secretary level.
Fateh Singh told me how China was nibbling away our territory in Ladakh and the guilt he felt that the nation had not been informed. China had built a road in the Indian territory of Aksai Chin. Police official Lakshman Singh was the first person in 1954 to inform New Delhi about the road. As our trade representative, he used to visit Tibet every year. His contacts were wide and he had learnt about the road from some labourers who had built it. (An Indian air force plane accidentally flying over the area at that time confirmed the road on the basis of a photograph.)
New Delhi doubted Lakshman Singh’s version. There was a division of opinion between (Home Minister Govind Ballabh) Pant and Nehru. Pant wanted air reconnaissance to be undertaken to verify the report. Nehru claimed that this would serve no purpose. He did not want to even lodge a protest about the alignment of the road without being certain about its existence. After many discussions, Nehru agreed to send Indian maps to China which depicted Aksai Chin as part of the Indian territory, and even this he asked the foreign secretary to do informally. He was reluctant to annoy China.
However, when there was no response from the other side, Pant persuaded Nehru to send a patrol which found that the road had indeed been constructed in Aksai Chin and was being patrolled by Chinese soldiers. Sighting the Indian patrol, they captured it and tied its members to the tails of horses and dragged them along the road. New Delhi lodged a protest which was rejected with contempt.
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China’s aggressive posture became clear when it denounced the old border maps and refused to accept the traditional alignments depicted on them. To India’s dismay our maps showed some of our territory as part of China. The home ministry wrote to the states asking them to burn the maps or at least smudge the border with China on the Assam side because they did not accurately delineate the Indian border.
The Chinese exploited our confusion and used our maps to question our claim. Nehru was still in favour of accommodating China on the question of the Aksai Chin road. Pant proposed a long-term lease, but China responded by occupying Khurnak Fort in Ladakh. China Pictorial, Beijing’s official publication, once again published a small-scale map showing a large part of north-eastern Ladakh within the borders of China. Nehru wrote to Chou Enlai to express his surprise at the Chinese attitude “which was contrary to what he had been led to believe since 1949”.
It was a bitter personal blow to Nehru. Despite the warnings from Congress leaders that China was deceitful, he relied on his judgement that China would not betray his confidence and would agree to the traditional border with a few minor adjustments. He had recommended a Security Council seat for China even when the West wanted India to occupy it. A communist country, he imagined, would never be hostile to a third world one, and particularly one wedded to socialist ideals.
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I recall that before hostilities broke out, a ‘solution’ of the border issue was suggested by (Defence Minister V K) Krishna Menon, but he was overruled by Pant. Menon had met Chen Yi, China’s foreign minister, at Geneva, and told him that India might accept Peking’s suzerainty over the area in Aksai Chin as well as a buffer of 10 miles to the road. In exchange, China must officially accept the McMahon Line in the East and India’s rights to the rest of Ladakh.
China had reportedly accepted the idea but Pant stood in the way. He got the government to formally withdraw the offer through a resolution in the cabinet. Even leasing out the Aksai Chin area was not acceptable. The fact was that Pant, like Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Nehru’s sister, did not trust Menon and considered him an inveterate communist.
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At that very meeting, it was agreed that some scrutiny of the different claims would be necessary. Eventually, an official team was appointed with S. Gopal and Jagat Mehta as members from the Indian side. Gopal travelled to London to obtain material to support India’s case. He was happy to have found relevant documents but there was additional material the British government would not part with but made photostat copies available. The Chinese tried their best to sabotage this project but the Mountbattens were a great help. The story that the Chinese attempted to snatch some material from Gopal on his return flight was incorrect, and he contradicted this when I subsequently asked him for confirmation.
Gopal and Mehta carried a load of material to Peking. A set of copies of the entire data was prepared and left in Delhi lest ‘theft’ or some other ‘untoward occurrence’ might destroy the valuable evidence. They had prepared a convincing report but the Chinese rejected it.
I got a hint of how little was expected from the meeting from the Polish ambassador, whom I had met at diplomatic parties, even before the official team left India. I was only the home ministry’s information officer and had no official locus standi, but it was obvious that the Polish ambassador was on a mission. He invited me for a chat at his chancery and expected me to convey what he had said to Pant. At the beginning of the conversation he said that the proposal he would make had the support of all Communist countries, and specifically mentioning the Soviet Union.
His proposal was that India should accept a package political deal, getting recognition for the McMahon Line in exchange for handing over control of some areas in Ladakh to China. He said that the areas demanded had never been charted, and nobody could say to whom they belonged. What was being claimed to be India’s was what had been forcibly occupied by the UK. No power could honour ‘the imperialist line’, nor should India insist upon it. Whatever the odds, China would never part with control of the road it had built. That was the lifeline between Sinkiang and other parts of China, he argued. I conveyed the proposal to Pant who gave me no reaction, his or that of the government.
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The war was, however, preceded by a string of events. I am reconstructing the story after having spoken to General P N Thapar, the then chief of army staff, and Defence Minister Krishna Menon. Somewhat peeved by the criticism, Nehru ordered Thapar to evict the Chinese from the posts they had built within Indian territory. The army chief was reluctant to do so because he thought it would be like ‘disturbing a hornet’s nest’.
A meeting was held under the chairmanship of Krishna Menon, who was all for action. Thapar argued that the Indian army did not have the necessary strength, the ratio being six Chinese to one Indian. Menon responded confidently that he had met Chen Yi, the Chinese deputy premier, at Geneva and had been assured that China would never fight India over the border issue. When I asked Menon specifically whether this information given to me by General Thapar was true, his reply was: “That toothless old woman; he did not know how to fight a war.”
Thapar had submitted a note to the government when he took over as chief in 1960. In it, he had pointed out that the equipment with the army was in such poor condition and in such short supply that China or Pakistan could easily defeat India. This was in sharp contrast to Nehru’s statement, which I heard from the press gallery: “I can tell the House that at no time since Independence has our defence been in better condition and finer fettle.”
It appeared as if the government was determined to fight the Chinese without reorganising or re-equipping the army. At Menon’s meeting, Thapar was supported by only one person,
V Vishwanathan, then the additional secretary in the home ministry. He said that if Gen. Thapar felt that India was unprepared there was no point in being foolhardy, but Menon was obdurate about attacking China.
Faced with no option other than an immediate military operation, Thapar sought an interview with the prime minister to seek his intervention. A few minutes before his departure for Nehru’s house, S S Khera, then cabinet secretary, met him and said: “General, if I were you, I would not express my fears before Panditji for he might think that you are afraid to fight.” Thapar’s curt reply was that he must tell the prime minister the truth; the rest was for him to decide.
Before Thapar got into his car, Khera once again said that he must realise that if India did not fight, the government would fall. Thapar did not argue further but was more convinced than ever that the decision to resist China was motivated by political considerations.
Thapar repeated to Nehru how the Indian army was unprepared, untrained, and ill-equipped for the operation it was being asked to undertake. (Menon told me before he became defence minister that there was no army worth the name and no equipment worth the mention.)
Nehru said Menon had informed him that India was itself producing a substantial part of the army equipment it required. Thapar emphasised that India was nowhere near the stage of even assembling the weapons required for war. He then mentioned the note he had submitted, complaining about the poor shape of the army and its equipment. Nehru said he had never seen it.
To reassure Thapar, Nehru told him that he had received reliable information that the Chinese would not offer resistance if there was a show of force to make them vacate the check-posts. Thapar knew from where the information had come. Obviously, the government had not taken any note of the Chinese warnings that “the Indian aggressor must bear full responsibility for the consequences of their crimes”.
The General was still not prepared to take the risk. He asked Nehru to speak to some of the army commanders. Lt Gen Prodip Sen, commanding-in-chief Eastern Army Command, who was in Thapar’s room in the defence ministry at that time, was summoned. He supported Thapar and said that the army was far from prepared. Nehru repeated that his information was that the Chinese would not retaliate.
Thapar took heart from this. If that was true then even his unprepared forces might wear the crown of glory. No general can resist the temptation of marching at the head of a winning army, and Thapar was no exception. He began preparing for action. Thapar told me on 29 July 1970: “Looking back, I think I should have submitted my resignation at that time. I might have saved my country from the humiliation of defeat.”
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By the time Thapar went to meet Menon towards the end of October 1962, the Indian post at Dhola (3 kilometres north of the McMahon Line) had fallen and the Chinese forces were rushing downhill further into North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). Menon had already known about it because one copy of every signal to the chief of the army staff was going directly to the defence minister.
Thapar did not indulge in ‘I-told-you-so’. He simply reported what had happened and said, “Now we must plan what to do next.” Menon, brooding over a cup of black tea, only remarked: “How could I have known that they would come like an avalanche?”
Thapar told the defence minister that Indian forces should now fall back and hold out at Se-la Pass, about 40 miles from Dhola. Menon sarcastically remarked: “General, why not Bangalore?” They talked very little after that and awaited the defence committee meeting over which Nehru was to preside.
Before the meeting, B N Mullick, the intelligence chief, came to Thapar to apologise for being so wrong in his intelligence reports in which he had said that the Chinese were too tied up with the Khampas in Tibet to spare men for the border. The General’s reply was that it was the future which was more important.
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When Bomdi-la fell (19 November 1962), Thapar was at Tezpur. He flew to Delhi and went straight to Nehru to say that in the best traditions of the Indian army he, as a defeated general, would like to submit his resignation. For the first time in many days Thapar saw a smile on Nehru’s face. Holding his hand tightly, he said: “Thank you, but this is not your fault.”
However, when Thapar met him the following morning Nehru said: “General, you remember what you said to me last night. I would like to get it in writing.” Thapar came home and got the letter of resignation typed by his daughter and sent it within two hours. I saw Nehru in the Lok Sabha waving the letter of resignation. This did lessen the anger of members who were targeting Nehru. He thought that Thapar’s exit would assuage parliament’s anger against Krishna Menon. It did to a degree when Nehru changed Menon’s portfolio from defence to defence production.
(Excerpted with permission from Roli Books)
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