May 24, 2001


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The Rediff Special/ Neville Maxwell
How the East was lost!
After the 1962 war, the Indian Army commissioned Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier P S Bhagat to study the debacle. As is wont in India, their report was never made public and lies buried in the government archives. But some experts have managed to piece together the contents of the report. One such person is Neville Maxwell, who has studied the 1962 war in depth.

In the article that follows, Indians will be shocked to discover that, when China crushed India in 1962, the fault lay at India, or more specifically, at Jawaharlal Nehru and his clique's doorsteps. It was a hopelessly ill-prepared Indian Army that provoked China on orders emanating from Delhi, and paid the price for its misadventure in men, money and national humiliation.

Part I: The genesis of the 1962 Sino-Indian War

All colonial armies are liable to suffer from the tugs of contradictory allegiance and, in the case of India's, that fissure was opened in the Second World War by Japan's recruitment from prisoners of war of the Indian National Army to fight against their former fellows. By the beginning of the 1950s, two factions were emerging in the officer corps, one patriotic but above all professional and apolitical, and orthodox in adherence to the regimental traditions established in the century of the Raj; the other nationalist, ready to respond unquestioningly to the political requirements of their civilian masters and scorning their rivals as fuddy-duddies still aping the departed rulers, and suspected as being of doubtful loyalty to the new ones. The latter faction soon took on an eponymous identification from its leader, B M Kaul.

At the time of Independence, Kaul appeared to be a failed officer, if not one disgraced. Although Sandhurst-trained for infantry service, he had eased through the war without serving on any frontline and ended it in a humble and obscure post in public relations. But his courtier wiles, irrelevant or damning until then, were to serve him brilliantly in the new order that Independence brought, after he came to the notice of Nehru, a fellow Kashmiri Brahmin and, indeed, distant kinsman.

Boosted by the prime minister's steady favouritism, Kaul rocketed through the Army structure to emerge in 1961 at the very summit of the Army HQ. Not only did he hold the key appointment of chief of general staff but the army commander, Thapar, was, in effect, his client. Kaul had, of course, by then acquired a significant following, disparaged by the other side as 'Kaul boys' ('call-girls' had just entered usage), and his appointment as CGS opened a putsch in HQ, an eviction of the old guard, with his rivals, until then his superiors, being not only pushed out but often hounded thereafter with charges of disloyalty.

The struggle between those factions both fed on and fed into the strains placed on the Army by the government's contradictory and hypocritical policies -- on the one hand, proclaiming China an eternal friend against whom it was unnecessary to arm; on the other, exerting armed force to seize territory it knew China regarded as its own.

Through the early 1950s, Nehru's covertly expansionist policy had been implemented by armed border police under the Intelligence Bureau, whose director, N B Mullik, was another favourite and confidant of the prime minister. The Army high command, knowing its forces to be too weak to risk conflict with China, would have nothing to do with it. Indeed when the potential for Sino-Indian conflict inherent in Mullik's aggressive forward patrolling was demonstrated in the serious clash at the Kongka Pass in October 1959, Army HQ and the ministry of external affairs united to denounce him as a provocateur and insisted that control over all activities on the border be assumed by the Army, which thus could insulate China from Mullik's jabs.

The takeover by Kaul and his 'boys' at Army HQ in 1961 reversed that. Now, regular infantry would take over from Mullik's border police in implementing what was formally designated a 'forward policy,' one conceived to extrude the Chinese presence from all territory claimed by India. Field commanders receiving orders to move troops forward into territory the Chinese both held and regarded as their own warned that they had no resources or reserves to meet the forceful reaction they knew must be the ultimate outcome: they were told to keep quiet and obey orders.

That may suggest that those driving the forward policy saw it in kamikaze terms and were reconciled to its ending in gunfire and blood -- but the opposite was true. They were totally and unshakably convinced that it would end not with a bang but a whimper -- from Beijing. The psychological bedrock upon which the forward policy rested was the belief that, in the last resort, the Chinese military, snuffling from a bloody nose, would pack up and quit the territory India claimed.

The source of that faith was Mullik, who from beginning to end proclaimed as oracular truth that, whatever the Indians did, there need be no fear of a violent Chinese reaction. The record shows no one squarely challenging that mantra at higher levels than the field commanders who throughout knew it to be dangerous nonsense: there were civilian 'Kaul boys' in the ministries of external affairs and defence too and they basked happily in Mullik's fantasy. Perhaps the explanation for the credulousness lay in Nehru's dependent relationship with his IB chief: since the prime minister placed such faith in Mullik, it would be at the least lese majeste, and even heresy, to deny him a kind of papal infallibility.

If it be taken that Mullik was not just deluded, what other explanation could there be for the unwavering consistency with which he urged his country forward on a course which, in rational perception, could lead only to war with a greatly superior military power and, therefore, defeat? Another question arises: who, in those years, would most have welcomed the great falling-out which saw India shift in a few years from strong international support for the People's Republic of China to enmity and armed conflict with it? From founding and leading the Non-Aligned Movement to tacit enlistment in the hostile encirclement of China which was Washington's aim? Mullik maintained close links with the CIA station head in New Delhi, Harry Rossitsky. Answers may lie in the agency's archives.

China's stunning and humiliating victory brought about an immediate reversal of fortune between the Army factions. Out went Kaul, out went Thapar, out went many of their adherents -- but by no means all. General Chaudhuri, appointed to replace Thapar as Army chief, chose not to launch a counter-putsch. He and his colleagues of the restored old guard knew full well what had caused the debacle: political interference in promotions and appointments by the prime minister and Krishna Menon, defence minister, followed by clownish ineptitude in the Army HQ as 'Kaul boys' scurried to force the troops to carry out the mad tactics and strategy laid down by the government.

It was clear that the trail back from the broken remnants of the 4th Division limping onto the plains in the north-east, up through intermediate commands to the Army HQ in New Delhi and then, on to the source of political direction, would have ended at the prime minister's door -- a destination which, understandably, Chaudhuri had no desire to reach. (Mullik was anyway to tarnish him with the charge that he was plotting to overthrow the discredited civil order, but, in fact, Chaudhuri was a dedicated constitutionalist -- ironically, Kaul was the only one of the generals who harboured Caesarist ambitions.)

The Investigation

While the outraged humiliation of the political class left Chaudhuri with no choice but to order an enquiry into the Army's collapse, it was up to him to decide its range and focus, indeed its temper. The choice of Lieutenant-General Henderson Brooks to run an Operations Review (rather than a broader and more searching board of enquiry) was indicative of a wish not to make the already bubbling stew of recriminations boil over.

Henderson Brooks (until then in command of a corps facing Pakistan) was a steady, competent but not outstanding officer, whose appointments and personality had kept him entirely outside the broils stirred up by Kaul's rise and fall. That could be said too of the officer Chaudhuri appointed to assist Henderson Brooks, Brigadier P S Bhagat (holder of a WWII Victoria Cross and commandant of the military academy). But the latter complemented his senior by being a no-nonsense, fighting soldier, widely respected in the Army, and the taut, unforgiving analysis in the Report bespeaks the asperity of his approach.

There is further evidence that Chaudhuri did not wish the enquiry to dig too deep, range too widely, or excoriate those it faulted. The following were the terms of reference he set: Training; Equipment; System of command; Physical fitness of troops; Capacity of commanders at all levels to influence the men under their command. The first four of those smacked of an enquiry into the sinking of the Titanic briefed to concentrate on the management of the shipyard where it was built and the health of the deck crew; only the last term has any immediacy, and there the wording was distinctly odd -- commanders do not usually 'influence' those they command, they issue orders and expect instant obedience.

But Henderson Brooks and Bhagat (henceforth HB/B) in effect ignored the constraints of their terms of reference and kicked against other limits Chaudhuri had laid upon their investigation, especially his ruling that the functioning of Army HQ during the crisis lay outside their purview. 'It would have been convenient and logical', they note, 'to trace the events [beginning with] Army HQ, and then move down to the Commands for more details… ending up with field formations for the battle itself'. Forbidden that approach, they would, nevertheless, try to discern what had happened at Army HQ from documents found at lower levels, although those could not throw any light on one crucial aspect of the story -- the political directions given to the Army by the civil authorities.

As HB/B began their enquiry, they immediately discovered that the short rein kept upon them by the Army chief was by no means the least of their handicaps. They found themselves facing determined obstruction in Army HQ, where one of the leading lights of the Kaul faction had survived in the key post of director of military operations -- Brigadier D K Palit.

Kaul had exerted his power of patronage to have Palit made DMO although others senior to him were listed for the post, and Palit, as he was himself to admit, was 'one of the least qualified among [his] contemporaries for this crucial General Staff appointment.' Palit had thereafter acted as enforcer for Kaul and the civilian protagonists of the 'forward policy,' Mullik foremost among the latter, issuing the orders and deflecting or over-ruling the protests of field commanders who reported up their strategic imbecility or operational impossibility.

Why Chaudhuri left Palit in this post is puzzling: the Henderson Brooks Report was to make quite clear what a prominent and destructive role he had played throughout the Army high command's politicisation, and, through inappropriate meddling in command decisions, even in bringing about the debacle in the north-east. Palit, though, would immediately have recognised that the HB/B enquiry posed a grave threat to his career and so did all that he could to undermine and obstruct it.

After consultation with Mullik, Palit took it upon himself to rule that HB/B should not have access to any documents emanating from the civil side -- in other words, he blindfolded the enquiry, so far as he could, as to the nexus between the civil and military. As Palit smugly recounts his story, in an autobiography published in 1991, he personally faced down both Henderson Brooks and Bhagat, rode out their formal complaints about his obstructionism, and prevented them from prying into the 'high level policies and decisions' which he maintained were none of their business.

In fact, however, the last word lies with HB/B -- or will do if their report is ever published. In spite of Palit's efforts, they discovered a great deal that the Kaul camp and the government would have preferred to keep hidden; and their report shows that Palit's self-admiring and mock-modest autobiography grossly misrepresents the role he played.

The Henderson Brooks Report is long (its main section, excluding recommendations and many annexes, covers nearly 200 typed foolscap pages), detailed and, as far as the restrictions placed upon its authors allowed, far-ranging. This introduction will touch only upon some salient points, to give the flavour of the whole (a full account of the subject they covered is in the writer's 1970 study, India's China War).

Part I: The genesis of the 1962 Sino-Indian War
Part III: India's shameful debacle

Neville Maxwell is the author of India's China War.

Page design: Dominic Xavier

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