1962 war: history
This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.
Events before the war
1957: The Basera- Singh mission
In early 1957, an audacious secret mission into Aksai Chin that saw an Indian Army officer and a havildar join a group of yak grazers in disguise actually provided first-hand evidence that China had illegally built a road in territory claimed by India.
Unfortunately, the efforts of Lt Col R S Basera of Kumaon Regiment and Havildar Diwan Singh of the Corps of Engineers went abegging despite the immense risks and hardships they undertook as then defence minister V K Krishna Menon and then PM Jawaharlal Nehru remained sceptical about the road’s exact location. It would be a full two year later before the Indian government admitted in Parliament that the road had indeed been built.
In a soon to be out book, ‘End of an Era, India Exits Tibet’, well-known China expert Claude Arpi has set out in exhaustive detail, based on Nehru Memorial Library papers, de-classified Indian and Chinese documents and personal interviews, how even voluminous reports by its own agencies about the ominous consolidation of China’s occupation of Tibet failed to prod India into action.
The theme of the book is about India losing all its influence in Tibet, helping China press aggressive claims along the border with India. This came at the cost of letting down opinion in Tibet that looked up to “Chogyal Nehru” and felt India could come to their aid in preventing “Sinofication” of their culture and ways.
Arpi’s research however, indicates that India did have options. At the time, the Indian Air Force was clearly superior to China’s military air arm and could have aided in helping Tibetan resistance, which was significant. The diplomacy itself, given India’s strong presence through trading centres, could have been forceful.
Indian reports from Tibet spoke of the speed with which motorable roads were being built but failed to stir New Delhi. The roads enabled Chinese troops to reach India’s borders quickly. The long preparation saw Mao Zedong, annoyed by the asylum to Dalai Lama and Nehru’s attempts to “undermine” China’s leadership in the Third World, to order attacks on Indian positions on October 1962.
Lt Col Basera’s trip actually reached the road and took its measurements. But on return, Menon and Nehru asked the director of military intelligence if the road could be confirmed by a map. The secret patrol had, however, carried no maps for security reasons.
This was not the only evidence of the road. Even earlier, British mountaineer Sidney Wignall went to Tibet with the knowledge of the Indian military. He was captured but released at a high pass and reached India after an incredible journey. His report of the Aksai Chin road was dismissed by Menon in Nehru’s presence as CIA propaganda.
1962: Revisiting the Indo-Chinese war
The Himalayan Blunder
By Anon, The Times of India
Any reading of the Sino-Indian war of 1962 does not look good for India. Whether it was Jawaharlal Nehru's misreading of Chinese intentions in the wake of his support to Tibet's rebellion, India's "forward policy" that meant different things to different people, Mao Zedong's desire to teach India a "lesson" or the subsequent national security paranoia that it bred in the Indian political and security systems ...1962 evokes mixed feelings in India even after half a century.
But for India to grow out of the morass of humiliation, it's necessary to revisit that war, and perhaps admit to major blunders committed at every level, not least at the very top.
In 1951, China began its occupation of Tibet, which, by 1959, became a full-throated conquest. Until 1959, India tried to diplomatically persuade Beijing to give some kind of autonomy to Tibet along with providing covert arms shipments to the Tibetan rebellion.
India's discomfort stemmed from the fact that it believed the loss of Tibetan independence robbed New Delhi off an important buffer in the Himalayas. But Beijing viewed India's actions as interference in its internal affairs, and Mao ordered "harder approach" to India's meddling.
In India, Nehru maintained the romance of Hindi-Chini friendship. A more realistic Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel proposed better border development, strengthening of the military presence etc and to better integrate the north-eastern states. John Garver, in Protracted Contest, writes, "Patel saw clearly the linkage between Tibet and what would become the crux of the border/territorial issue."
Nehru looked at the inhospitable Tibetan terrain and decided first, not to push the Chinese too far, second that they would not be able to maintain troops in distant Tibetan plateau, and third that China would not engage in any major attack against India. However, he completely missed the technology argument, which China could and did.
By 1959, a huge change came over Indian public opinion at China's open repression in Tibet, which led the Dalai Lama to flee to India in 1959. In April, 1960, Nehru reject Zhou Enlai's boundary settlement proposal. Mao was convinced India was working with the US and USSR against China. Contemporary Chinese thinking believed that India's desire to keep Tibet was the cause of the 1962 war. India has refused to declassify documents of that era.
Nehru's forward policy, his demand that China vacate "all Indian territory" and his support of the Tibetan rebellion were all part of these classified docements. China had been active in Aksai Chin for over a decade before 1962. India was aware of Chinese activity there from 1951. But in 1953, Nehru decided to redraw the boundary that included Aksai Chin within India, as opposed to British policy of 1899, which kept Aksai Chin out of India. In 1957, Beijing's road building activities could not be ignored any longer, and India sent patrols to the area. It would be the beginning of the India-China conflict that would culminate in 1962.
By 1961, Nehru's forward policy had taken shape, creating 60 forward posts, 43 of them north of the McMahon Line. Meanwhile, China, too, had been preparing for war with India because Mao wanted to teach India "a lesson".
Indian units reported increased Chinese aggression, but the Nehru government did not read the tea leaves. China prepared for war, while India missed the clues. After intermittent clashes in the preceding days, when on October 20, 1962, China launched massive strikes in the north-east and Ladakh, India was completely caught off guard.
The Himalayan war ended in a rout of Indian forces. Chinese then withdrew although their victory was not without cost. The defeat, however, changed India's view of China forever. India claims the moral high ground, blaming China for a stealthy strike but it completely misread its giant neighbour. Mao, who saw Nehru as a conniving and pretentious leader, began and ended the war on his own terms.
In between, Indian troops suffered successive reverses. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) overran Indian positions south of the Mcmahon line. Chinese troops overwhelmed Indian defences by the sheer weight of numbers and Tawang was soon under attack.
In the north-east, confusion and courage, foolhardiness and daredevilry were all playing out as a dazed military leadership dithered about its response. Major General A S Pathania, commanding the fourth division in Kameng in Arunachal Pradesh, ordered his troops to withdraw in humiliation.
On October 24, 1962, Zhou offered Nehru a settlement that was rejected. Parliament passed a resolution resolving to "drive out aggressors" from Indian soil. Hostilities resumed with Chinese attacks on Sela and Bomdila. PLA was close to Tezpur, when China declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew 20km from the Line of Actual Control. According to Henry Kissinger, Mao did not see India as a perpetual foe, but famously remarked that force will "knock Nehru back to the negotiating table".
Why India lost
On October 20, 1962, Chinese troops targeted Indian positions along the disputed border. In the ensuing month-long battle, Indian Army defences collapsed without much resistance
In January 2021, when reports of China constructing a village in Arunachal Pradesh made headlines in India, Beijing outrightly denied the claim with the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Global Times alleging that the state was founded illegally in the last century and that India occupies about 90,000sq km of Chinese territory.
In November, another report backed by satellite imagery claimed the existence of a second Chinese village inside Indian territory. Reacting to the development, the ministry of external affairs had said, “India has neither accepted such illegal occupation of our territory nor has it accepted the unjustified Chinese claims.” Beijing claims the entire Arunachal as its territory, calling it ‘southern Tibet’.
These types of allegations and counter-allegations are what typify the India-China border dispute, which ignited a bloody battle on October 20, 1962. The two countries share a 3,488km de facto border or the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that runs from the easternmost state of Arunachal Pradesh to Ladakh in the west.
In the words of British journalist Neville Maxwell, the author of the classic, India’s China War , “At 05.00 on October 20th, the Chinese side fired two flares and on the signal Chinese heavy mortars and artillery, drawn up without cover on forward slope of Thag La Ridge (in the eastern sector), opened a heavy barrage on the central Indian positions.”
According to defence ministry figures released in 1965, 1,383 Indian soldiers were killed, 1,696 went missing and 3,968 were captured by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during the month-long battle in what was then called the North East Frontier Agency or NEFA (now Arunachal).
In 2014, Maxwell released a portion of the confidential Henderson Brooks report online. The top secret report, compiled by Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier PS Bhagat, critically reviewed India’s defence preparedness and strategies during the 1962 conflict. Subsequently, many experts and scholars have explored the issue and put forth several factors that led to the war.
Lack of strategic thought
The Brooks-Bhagat report clearly highlighted the gaps in India’s preparedness. Maxwell who had accessed a copy of the report, which subsequent governments have refused to declassify, wrote in the preface to his book: “The [Jawaharlal] Nehru government’s unyielding refusal to negotiate, coupled with its insistence on the right to send troops to take control of the territory in the ‘forward policy’ made armed conflict with China inevitable…The strength of the armed force China could concentrate to meet the challenge being vastly greater than anything India could muster, defeat was ineluctable.”
Former foreign secretary Nirupama Rao presented a similar assessment in her book, The Fractured Himalaya : “In the eastern sector…the Army defences collapsed and disintegrated without much resistance and the shortcomings in strategic planning and the higher direction of war were tragically exposed.”
According to Kalpit M Mankikar, a fellow with the strategic studies programme at Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi, the Congress had spearheaded a struggle against the British colonial rule in India through non-violent means, and after the British granted India independence, the party genuinely believed that the defence forces were redundant and it led to the diminution of the armed forces.
“This was compounded by the trend of Army generals usurping power in parts of Asia, which is why competent officers were sidelined, and the Army starved of equipment [which came to light in the 1962 war],” he says.
The Brooks-Bhagat report also highlighted how the Indian Army failed to review the command and operational-level plans in view of the increased Chinese threat in NEFA.
KM Pannikar, India’s ambassador to China from 1948 to 1952, had been writing to New Delhi on the strategic significance of Tibet for India and the need for Tibetan autonomy to be maintained; but these pleas went unheeded.
“When the communists took power in Beijing in 1949, India was the first to recognise their government. This despite the fact that the Congress had during the pre-independence days maintained ties with the Nationalist Party [Guomindang], and the latter had supported India’s cause,” says Mankikar.
Despite the Chinese announcing their intent to liberate Tibet, Nehru maintained that the invasion of Tibet was unlikely.
PM Jawaharlal Nehru with the Dalai Lama (fourth from left) in 1957. China’s insecurities arising out of the 1959 Tibetan revolt played a role in the 1962 war (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
“After China invaded Tibet, and later when it came to light that China was using maps that showed large parts of Indian territory to be part of China, Nehru allayed these fears, saying that these were old maps being used from times of the Nationalist regime that that the new government in China had not had the time to revise them,” says Mankikar.
Manoj Joshi, a veteran journalist and a distinguished fellow at ORF, however, attributes the war to China’s insecurities arising out of the 1959 Tibetan revolt against communist China’s takeover bid.
In his latest book, Understanding the India China Border , Joshi argues, “The Tibetan revolt of 1959 and the flight of the Dalai Lama and over 60,000 Tibetans to India changed the context of the [border] dispute and the Sino-Indian relationship. Ostensibly, the 1962 war was occasioned by the border dispute but in reality it was about Chinese insecurities in Tibet…New Delhi was soundly defeated, but having captured all of Arunachal Pradesh, the Chinese retreated back to the north of the McMahon Line.”
‘ Irreconcilable claims '
The war made it evident that the border problem was far more complex than what had been imagined. The claims and counter-claims were completely going past each other in the sense that each side was refusing to see the logic of the other. Hence, inevitably it led to a point where they faced off and the clash happened.
“So, it was essentially one of irreconcilable claims and unwillingness to accord any legitimacy to each other’s claims,” says Alka Acharya, a professor at the Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
According to Acharya, it was also due to China’s inability to understand why India was accepting the British lines and independent India’s position on the McMahon Line that was agreed upon by India and Tibet at the 1914 Simla Convention.
Besides, India’s inability to reach a compromise despite many offers made by China was also a reason that contributed to the conflict. “Maybe it was because of the political system in India or various other compulsions of the Indian government that did not allow it to accept the offers the Chinese had made, which would amount to compromising on their stand. So, there was a lost chance of reaching a compromise on the disputed boundaries,” says Acharya.
Past imperfect, future tense
The Arunachal sector, the flashpoint of the 1962 war, could be a new friction point between the two nuclear-armed neighbours in the near future unless both sides create a mutually acceptable solution to the disputed areas, say experts.
“Earlier, there was a possibility to bargain that ‘you keep Ladakh and we will keep Arunachal Pradesh’. That opportunity was missed,” Acharya says, referring to Chinese leader Zhao Enlai’s “east-west swap” proposition in 1960. “Now, the Chinese appear not to be in a mood to concede Arunachal because there is nothing to bargain about. So, there is going to be a huge pressure on India.”
“The problem that I see is that there is a big gap between what is reported in the media [about China’s encroachment of Indian territory] and what the [Indian] government is saying officially. And, someday, a map might come out showing huge chunks have gone,” she adds. Even as the Indian Army and PLA start disengaging from friction points in the western sector of the LAC after over a two-year-long standoff, the focus would surely be on the eastern front where Chinese infrastructure development and troop build-up is something even the Pentagon has also taken note of.
Mao ordered 1962 war to regain CPC control
Mao ordered 1962 war to regain CPC control, reveals Chinese strategist
PTI | Oct 17, 2012,
From the archives of the Press Trust of India: 2012
BEIJING: China's late strongman Mao Zedong had launched the 1962 war with India to regain control of the ruling Communist Party after the debacle of his 'Great Leap Forward' movement in which millions had perished.
This was stated by top Chinese strategist Wang Jisi, adding a new dimension to the conflict ahead of the 50th anniversary of the war on Saturday.
"The war was a tragedy. It was not necessary," Wang, Dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University and member of the Foreign Policy Advisory Committee of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told PTI here.
Wang said he differed with the perception of many Chinese political and strategic analysts that the Chinese victory ended India's claims on the border and brought about long-term peace.
"I think we need to do some research. One anecdotal story I heard was because of Mao's own fear of his position in China in 1962 that he launched a war," said Wang, who according to senior Indian diplomats was often consulted by the Chinese leadership.
"In 1962, three years after the Great Leap Forward (GLF), Mao lost power and authority. He was no longer the head of the state and he went back to the so-called second line. The explanation given to us at that time was that he was more interested in ... revolution and so on," he said ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Sino-India conflict on October 20.
GLF was a mass campaign launched by Mao to use China's vast population to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy to a modern Communist society.
The movement turned out to be a catastrophe for China as millions of people perished in violent purges weakening Mao's position as supreme leader of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) and he was sidelined.
Mao’s strategy, not Nehru’s, led to war: Lintner
It wasn’t Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ of 1961 that caused the war with China in 1962. Instead, fresh documents, evidence and insight make it clear that China was planning to attack India since 1959.
For over half a century, India has tortured itself over the disastrous loss to China in 1962, and many internalised British author Neville Maxwell’s criticism in his book India’s China War that argued that India, instead of being the victim of Chinese aggression, was in fact responsible for the war.
Swedish journalist and strategic consultant, Bertil Lintner, in a reversal of Maxwell’s theory shows in a new book, China’s India War, that the boot had always been on the other foot, casting more light on Henry Kissinger’s mention in On China of Mao’s determination to give India a bloody nose.
In an exclusive chat with TOI, Lintner said, “Nehru’s Forward Policy was conceived and put forward in November 1961. You cannot possibly imagine that in less than a year China would be able to mobilise tens of thousands of troops, heavy equipment, and move them over the most difficult terrain in the world.” His comments echo late B Raman’s account of RAW when he pointed out the intelligence failure in piecing together months of Chinese movements, including mule trails, ahead of the war.
Why did China want to go after India? Lintner points to two reasons. “Mao Zedong had launched the Great Leap Forward, and it was a tremendous failure. A huge famine started, maybe 30-40 million people died, there was cannibalism. Mao’s own position was probably at its weakest since the start of the Communist rule in China. No country in the world would go to war over a border issue at a time like that. But China did. Mao wanted to reconsolidate his grip on power. The best way to do that is to find an outside enemy. India was the perfect outside enemy.” The other reason which fed into the first was the Tibet question and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. “Suddenly after 1959 the border issue becomes no. 1 on the Chinese agenda. The decision was taken in 1959 to “teach India a lesson” in Deng Xiaoping’s words.”
Interestingly, Lintner’s thesis was supported by a Chinese researcher, Jianglin Li in a paper last week. Writing in a website War on Tibet, she says, “the PLA’s ‘suppression of Tibetan rebellion’ was an important causal link in the outbreak of war in 1962.”
It is no surprise, she says, that the PLA won the border war, because its commanders were in charge of “a battle-hardened army that had been trained in live combat in Tibet for three years”.
Newspaper coverage of the war
The Times of India
Before 2020, there was 1962, which is back in the spotlight in the wake of the India-China clash in Galwan Valley and the standoff at Pangong lake. TOI reported extensively on the state of the conflict and the situation on the border, along with perspective on the policies of the then Nehru-led Indian government, India’s determination to push back, and China’s designs and the blowback they met with.
Even before China’s socalled ‘surprise’ invasion began on October 20, 1962, TOI had, in the months leading up to the war, reported how the Chinese had encircled key Indian posts in Galwan Valley and in July opened fire on Indian patrols in the Pangong lake area and Chip Chap river region of Ladakh.
When the October invasion happened, TOI reported that Chinese troops had come in “in all sectors of the Sino-Indian border” and had “shouted HindiChini bhai-bhai slogans in the wilderness of Thagla ridge… in the Namka Chu valley” hours before they’d intruded. The paper said that in four days, Chinese forces had advanced into Indian territory across the McMahon line “to a depth of 6 to 8 miles” and taken control of “the entire sector from the Bhutan border to the Bum La pass, a distance of 40 miles.” But “both on the Ladakh and NEFA fronts, Indian troops” were continuing, the paper stated, “to fight heroically in the face of overwhelming odds,” having been “heavily outnumbered” and facing an “overwhelming superiority in fire power.”
As setbacks for India grew bigger, with the Tawang valley and many key posts falling and Peking simultaneously inviting PM Nehru for negotiations, TOI headlined the Indian government’s resolve that talks would happen only “if China vacates latest aggression” and “not under the threat of Chinese military force.” The paper reported on what Nehru called the “emotional upheavals” in India and also global reactions as students volunteered to join the armed forces, the opposition — except for the CPI — roundly condemned China, various groups held protests and most democracies, including the UK and US, backed the Nehru government.
But, as November turned out no better for India on the borders, TOI was soon informing Indians about how pressure from the opposition had forced Nehru to seek defence minister V K Krishna Menon’s resignation and how the economic fallout too had begun (as it has today), with RBI cancelling the licence of Bank of China to carry on business. The paper wrote that Nehru had told Parliament that China’s intrusion was “pre-meditated,” and it recorded the increasingly robust counter-attacks of the Indian forces despite all odds and their heroic sacrifices, after which some posts were recovered and some ground yielded “only after inflicting heavy casualties” on the intruders. China finally unilaterally called for a ceasefire and withdrew its troops from November 21, having had an advantage all through. It proved right what TOI had said in its editorial on October 25, five days after the invasion: China wanted to subject New Delhi’s determination “to an extremely searching test” and bring about “a compromise settlement in which the Chinese will be the beneficiaries.” The paper had commented that “Chinese reasonableness, if it is possible to conceive of such a thing, will be made evident not by talking of peace but by resolute action…. That is the kind of language which Peking will readily understand.” And TOI had severely criticised Krishna Menon as well, saying his “activities and comments” were “a source of bewilderment and dismay to his fellow citizens.” We look at some of the headlines from then.