The Rediff Special/Col (retd) Anil Athale
World history is full of 'ifs' and 'buts' when it is commonly assumed that if only a certain action had been taken, history would have been different.
In India it is almost an industry since we have surfeit of disasters that litter our 5,000-year history. The 1962 military disaster is no exception and has spawned works like the 'Guilty Men of 1962' or self-justificatory works like the 'Untold Story' by General B M Kaul, et al.
The first missed opportunity to avoid the conflict came in December 1960 when Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai made a brief stopover in Delhi. Under the so-called 'Krishna Menon Plan' it was mooted that India would lease the Aksai Chin area to China and in return the Chinese would lease the strategic (from the Indian point of view) Chumbi valley that is like a dagger pointed at the line of communication with Assam and the Northeast.
This would have been a very fair deal as the Aksai Chin area, besides being strategically useless to India, was also very difficult to defend.
But it is believed that under the pressure from the right wing of the Congress and fear of vociferous opposition, Nehru rejected it. A hint of this is available in Michael Breacher's 'India & World Politics: Krishna Menon's view of the world' (Oxford University Press, 1966, p 145-154) as well as an account of that visit in Swadhinta (January 26, 1966) by Pandit Sunderlal.
China at that time was no superpower and wary of American designs on it through Taiwan (then called Nationalist China, which occupied the Chinese seat in the UN Security Council). Indian friendship was of great value to China then.
But an obdurate Nehru missed the chance. In subsequent years this proposal was revived, but by now a confident China saw no merit in it.
From the professional military as well there were many warnings and suggestions that confrontation with China should be avoided till we build our strength. But these objections were summarily dismissed due to 'political considerations'. Once India embarked upon the disastrous, legalistic, and militarily foolish 'forward policy' (of establishing small posts in Chinese-dominated areas), the die was cast and like a Greek tragedy the events moved towards a disaster.
In the popular mind the 1962 conflict evokes memories of an unimaginable defeat. This is not strictly true. In the northern sector, on the Ladakh front, the Indian Army, despite heavy odds, gave a good account of itself and Chinese gains were small. The airfield at Chushul, one of the major prizes, remained in Indian hands.
The impression that it was an unmitigated disaster is fostered by the Indian rout at Sela. But for the Sela defeat and panic retreat, 1962 would have at worst been classed as a setback, not a disaster.
The discredit for this debacle belongs to Lieutenant General Brij Mohan Kaul and his catastrophic leadership. After the initial setback in Tawang district, in the last week of October, Kaul fell ill and Lt Gen Harbax Singh took over the command of 4 Corps.
Harbax consolidated the position at Sela and was quite confident of holding back the Chinese there. The order for withdrawal from Sela was a panic reaction by Kaul who had no fighting experience (he spent World War II in charge of a drama troupe for the entertainment of troops).
Harbax was a veteran and had faced the Japanese enveloping tactics in Burma. He was also confident that even if cut off from ground, Sela could be maintained by air. But to India's ill luck, as soon as Kaul felt that the situation had stabilised on the front, he hastened back to 4 Corps not wanting to miss on the 'credit'! The rest, as they say, is history. If instead of Kaul, Harbax had been in charge, the Sela disaster may not have happened at all.
But the biggest 'mystery' of 1962 is the non-use of offensive air power by India. The whole conflict was run as a personal show by Kaul and there was very little co-ordination with the air force. At that time the Chinese had barely two airfields in Tibet and their fighter aircraft were decidedly inferior to India's British-made Hunters.
The Indian Air Force was guaranteed virtual air superiority on the battlefield. With air power on its side, India could have overcome the tactical disadvantage of lack of artillery in Ladakh and could have intercepted the foot and mule columns of the Chinese in Tawang area (like it did during the Kargil conflict in 1999). But such was the irrational fear of Chinese retaliation against Indian cities that India did not use its air power.
This fear of danger to cities was a result of panic in Calcutta... The only long-range aircraft the Chinese had at that time was the Ilyushin 24, operating at extreme ranges. The Indian Air Force with its network of airfields in the East (thanks to World War II) was well capable of dealing with it.
Right till the end, Krishna Menon was in favour of use of air power, but was overruled by a leadership that had lost its nerve. Use of offensive air power could have tilted the balance on the ground and boosted the morale of our troops. The morale factor is of great importance as essentially even the Sela disaster was due to loss of morale.
The above analysis is not complete given the constraints of space. The full details will be before readers when the official history, of which I am the co-author, is released.
At the very basic level, the Indian Army was fighting a repeat of the 1947-48 Kashmir war, a campaign against tribal invaders, while the Chinese, veterans of the Korean War, were a well-oiled military machine.
The above analysis may seem unduly harsh, but that is the job of an analyst and it is time we face the truth, for in that lies the germ of future success.
Colonel (retd) Anil Athale, former director of war history at the defence ministry and co-author of the official history of the 1962 war, is a frequent contributor to these pages.
Part I: Military Nonsense
Part III: The Silver Lining