The Rediff Special/Col (retd) Anil Athale
November 20, 1962, was the darkest day in the history of independent India. The previous evening, a distraught Nehru addressed the nation. "Huge Chinese armies are marching into the Northeast of India... yesterday we lost Bomdila, a small town in Kameng division... my heart goes out to the people of Assam!"
4 Corps began preparations for withdrawal from Tezpur. That ill-considered move triggered a collapse not seen before or after. The civil administration in Tezpur collapsed. Prisons were opened and government officials began burning currency in the Tezpur treasury, as also other government records.
By evening a thick pall of smoke engulfed the city. Panic-stricken people used all means to get across the Brahmaputra. The airfield was clogged with foreigners (mostly working in tea plantations) clamouring to get a seat on the aircraft. Railway staff and civil officials had all left for Gauhati and safety. By evening Tezpur was a ghost town.
The whole nation was stunned by the reverses on the battlefront. Rightly or wrongly (from the military point of view at least) people perceived that the very existence of India was at stake. Nehru's loss of nerve and 'abandoning' of Assam had grave repercussions. Even 40 years after the event, ULFA extremists and common Assamese often cite that speech by Nehru and assert that at a time of peril India had abandoned Assam.
But in these otherwise dark winter days, there was a silver lining.
As if in a flash, all internal bickering and fights ceased. On October 23, the guard at Teen Murti House, the prime minister's official residence, was confronted by an elderly couple, obviously from a rural area near Delhi. When they demanded to see the PM, the sentry directed them to his officer, thinking they must have come with some petition. The officer was stunned into silence when the old man took out papers donating his land for the defence of the nation.
Women gave their jewellery, including their 'mangalsutra', to the National Defence Fund to buy guns to fight the Chinese. In Rajasthan, 250 families from Village Bardhana Khurd decided to send one son from each family into the army. All over the country people queued up to join defence forces. Trade unions all over India gave up their right to strike till the national emergency lasted. The donations in cash were more than $220 million, the total amount needed in the supplementary budget.
The DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam], a political party in the South that had been waging a political battle for secession, had to give up its plank owing to pressure from workers. The National Integration Council that met on November 1, 1962, decided that in view of the upsurge in national feelings it had no job left and decided to disband itself.
Lieutenant General (later Field Marshal) S H F J Manekshaw replaced the clueless Gen B M Kaul in Tezpur as the new commander of 4 Corps. On taking over the corps he called a conference of all staff officers and commanders at Tezpur. As the assembled officers waited expectantly to hear the plans of their new commander, Manekshaw walked in and told the officers, "Gentlemen, there shall be no withdrawals!' and walked out.
The stunned officers were told that the conference was over. It was possibly the shortest military conference in the history of the Indian Army.
The new leadership did a wonderful job of restoring the shattered morale. Many in the army seriously believe that but for the shock administered by the Chinese and the subsequent build of India's military muscle, India would have lost Kashmir to Pakistan in 1965.
Russell Brines, a British author writing on the 1965 Indo-Pak war, mentions that Pakistanis seriously underestimated Indian nationalism while embarking on the 1965 adventure in Kashmir. 'The current of Indian Nationalism that was so strong in 1962 had merely gone underground, but was equally strong even in 1965.'
I myself was among the countless that joined the armed forces in the wake of the Chinese aggression. For many of my [post-1947] generation, that was our first brush with nationalism.
But at personal level, when I researched and wrote the official history of the 1962 war, the overwhelming feeling was that we have hidden the truth so long that we have failed to draw appropriate lessons from history. It was a major factor in my own personal decision to give up a bright armed forces career and plunge into an attempt to reform the Indian mindset on politico-military issues.
It would be wrong to suggest that we did not learn anything from 1962. At the tactical level, many changes came about in the army and it became a more thoroughly professional force.
After the disaster that was Kaul, politicians stopped interfering in the internal promotion policies of the armed forces. But Nehru, by confining the Henderson Brooks enquiry to merely military matters, sidestepped the issue of weakness at the political decision-making level on matters of security. India paid a heavy price for that folly in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.
The sense of satisfaction for 'crusaders' like me is that through the establishment of the National Security Council and its attendant bodies, we have at last put our defence decision-making on sound institutional footing. There is as yet much work to be done, but the direction we have taken is right and through trial and error we will evolve a structure suited to our genius and needs.
One wishes to end this part with a basic thought on war and its nature. There has been some debate as to whether it is a science or an art, with the prevalent consensus being that it is an art. But unlike in other forms of art, be it literature, music, painting, et al, there have been only a handful of master strategists or military geniuses in the entire recorded history of mankind --- Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Shivaji, Napoleon, and maybe Rommel. So one must not judge the Nehrus or the Kauls of this world too harshly!
Colonel (retd) Anil Athale, former director of war history at the defence ministry and co-author of the official history of the 1962 border war, is a frequent contributor to these pages.
Part I: Military Nonsense
Part II: Missed Opportunities