The Rediff Special/Wing Commander (retd) R V Parasnis
Looking back on our humiliation at the hands of the Chinese 40 years ago, my eyes go moist, the throat goes dry and a heavy, insane rage begins to build within me against those who caused it.
Many officers and men I looked up to, respected, and felt deep affection for perished in this war. Worse, the national humiliation suffered has left deep scars, which open up even today whenever the bitter memories return.
It saddens me, however, to notice the general lack of knowledge among the public, the distorted facts being presented by eminent writers and experts, and the misinformation/disinformation campaigns still being carried out by vested interests on this subject.
To begin with, there is a generally held view that in the 1962 India-China War, India's military was vanquished by the People's Liberation Army. It is not true. The nation was convulsed by fear, yes, because our top political leadership panicked, but our army was far from vanquished. Our deployed force level in 1962 against China was as follows:
The command centre was at the newly created HQ (headquarters) IV Corps (one corps consists of a minimum of three divisions + supporting forces + reserves) in Tezpur under Lieutenant General B M Kaul. The IV Corps had a force little less than four infantry brigades (most of them hastily collected and not in their complete form) deployed in the North-East Frontier Agency, ie just about one division looking after over 400km (30,000 square km in area) of frontier starting from Bhutan through Kameng, Subansiri, Siang and Lohit to Tirap division, which finally connects to the Burmese border and Nagaland in the absolute northeastern corner of our country.
Hence, even though our troops suffered a defeat, it can't be said that our army was vanquished. For that matter the entire army in the Northeast didn't suffer defeat either.
A little more than one brigade force guarded our border against the Chinese in Ladakh, where our forces were scattered even more, and practically all the posts were in isolation of that inhospitable terrain. Thus, only 24,000 troops out of a total of the 4,00,000-strong Indian army of those days fought the Chinese in 1962. That amounts to less than 1/16th of our army's strength at that time.
The Eastern Army HQ was at Lucknow and IV Corps, which suffered the defeat, was only one of its elements, and a weak one at that (hardly one division strong at that time). We couldn't have moved our forces from the Pakistan borders without endangering our defences there, while another division was locked against the Naga insurgency, which was also quite serious those days.
Besides, China didn't figure in the government's defence planning for the country. As per its written directive to the army, the latter's task was defence against Pakistan. In fact, the government had rebuffed the army every time this aspect was brought up for discussion.
Thus, we had no roads to take the army, its equipment, heavy guns, and supplies up to the border. There was no way we could have positioned and maintained a large army at the border in a short time.
Frankly, the 1962 war can't even be called a war in the real sense of the word, though everyone refers to it as such. It was at the most three or four battles in which we suffered a defeat in the Northeast.
A war is generally a long-drawn affair and demands almost the entire resources of a nation and commitment of most of its forces and goes far beyond a few battles. Our political leadership combined with a few inept/pliant generals of those days forced our army to conduct insane battles at ultra-high altitudes without acclimatising to the rarefied atmosphere and sub-zero temperatures. On difficult terrain, in tactically disadvantageous battle positions, without reserves for reinforcements, under conditions such as non-existent supply lines (troops were required to be entirely air-maintained in terrain unsuitable for air-dropping), without suitable/matching arms, criminally insufficient ammunition (only 50 rounds of .303 bullets per jawan in NEFA), insufficient food and clothing.
After the initial defeat at the positions around Dhola and along the Namkachu river at the base of the Thagla ridge, a few of our officers and troops were admittedly overwhelmed by panic and fear, floating rumours galore about the strength and ultra-superior weaponry of the Chinese and their dreaded "human wave" tactics, though many more were itching to have a go.
What we needed at this juncture was firm and cool leadership, but to our bad luck we were denied that, as I shall explain later. We lost Se La and Bomdi La without a fight in spite of well-prepared positions and sufficient ammunition as well as reasonable, if not strong, artillery support.
The Chinese, to their surprise, found the going very easy and reached the foothills of Assam within a couple of days. At this stage our cowardly leadership (both political and military) denied our forces a God-given chance to redeem their honour. We could have, entirely on our own, turned the tide at the Assam foothills, where the temperatures were tolerable, and used our air force to literally massacre the Chinese.
The Chinese knew well what our forces could have done after recovering from the initial shock, and that is why they withdrew, returning all the land they had conquered (including Tawang) irrespective of their much publicised claims praised as just and fair by authors like Neville Maxwell, Dr Gregory Clark, the Communists, et al.
Cleverly and hurriedly, the Chinese returned without giving us a chance to collect our wits and hit back, before the possible and likely foreign help, mainly from the US and its anti-communist allies, arrived and, of course, before the snowbound passes closed.
The logistical lines of the Chinese were stretched beyond limits and they couldn't have sustained warfare for long so far away from their homeland. They had practically no air force and only one or two usable airfields in Tibet at that time and were not prepared for the technical problems of operating aircraft at those heights and temperatures.
The Chinese hardly had any anti-aircraft guns. Their aircraft were inferior to ours. It was their weakest point, but we did not take advantage of it.
That a major Chinese invasion of India was afoot with nothing to stop them from knocking on the gates of Calcutta, where the highest concentration of ethnic Chinese lived in India, was the consequence of the entirely idiotic imagination of an absolutely gutless people, totally dominated by panic, without any military thought applied.
There was also talk among the civilians that once the Chinese tanks arrived at Tezpur, they only had to take off the brakes to use the gentle slope of the land to reach right down to Calcutta with the engines switched off. I am afraid I have seen no such slope in the landscape. That apart, how could the Chinese could have got their tanks across the Himalayas without the road network and through terrain unsuitable for armour movement crossing 16000 foot-high snowbound passes?
But despite this, even some of the military brass succumbed to this defeatist viewpoint. The disorderly military withdrawal from Se La and Bomdi La followed by panic evacuation of Tezpur after the civil administration top boss bolted to Calcutta, deserting the place of duty and the men under his charge, was nothing short of a disgrace.
Was it the age-old Hindu cowardice, a habit of leaving the battlefield and running in disarray when the king/general was killed in battle, coming into play yet again in a slightly different form? Maybe.
Nehru's broadcast to the nation, "My heart goes out to the people of Assam. I don't know what is in store for them," may have endeared him to the people of the state and given the Congress another win in the next election there, but at that time it caused an irrational panic reaction in and the evacuation of Tezpur.
Why Nehru's heart never went out to the poor jawans whom he ordered into suicidal battles is beyond comprehension.
Had we fought the Chinese at the foothills of Assam, we could have enforced a crushing defeat on the People's Liberation Army. Our army could have fought them on somewhat equal footing here, where high altitude problems are non-existent and temperatures are tolerable. Though the Chinese had the upper hand in their small arms, we could have brought our heavy weapon superiority into effect.
We could have used our superior armour against the Chinese infantry, which only had limited recoilless guns. Our infantry was well poised in the foothills of Assam to use the hook tactics, which the Chinese had used with telling effect in the higher reaches. While our troops were strangers to the high altitude terrain in the Thagla ridge area, here they were somewhat on home ground and the Chinese would have found themselves in foreign surroundings. It would have been easier for us to regroup for flexibility in tactics here, while for the Chinese it would have been impossible under pressure of our attacks from all unexpected directions.
We could have prevented and/or countered their every move, especially with the benefit of constant air surveillance, an advantage they lacked. Similarly, getting reinforcements would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them on account of the distances, lack of road network, the approaching winter with the consequent closing of the snowbound passes, and, above all, our marauding knights of the skies causing havoc from above.
Had they not decided to withdraw, we could have caused them to suffer unacceptable casualties. Their retreat would have been uphill and we could have literally played hell into them in pursuit, especially with the IAF raining fire from the skies. We could have blown their supply lines in Tibet to smithereens as the Tibetan plateau hardly provides any cover or natural camouflage.
In fact, eyewitnesses of those days recall seeing heaps of military stores, mortars, ammunition, and other supplies lying by the roadside all along in depot-like stores in the open near the border on the Tibetan side. These would have been ready fodder for our Hunters, Mysteres, Gnats, Vampires and Toofanis for strafing runs with front gun cannons and rockets. Major enemy concentrations would have proved excellent targets for carpet-bombing by our Liberators. Our Canberras were ultra-modern bombers then and could have caused havoc.
But that was not to be. Future generations will only read about the 'crushing defeat' of the Indian Army at the hands of the Chinese forces.
The 1962 India-China conflict was, in all probability, avoidable. It came about because of many a factor. The internal factors were our lack of understanding of the concept of sovereignty, made worse by political bungling, diplomatic blunders, personal arrogance of our top leader and his short-sightedness, intelligence failure, incorrect information dissemination by the government to Parliament and the media leading to the thoughtlessly jingoistic reaction by all concerned and the demand: 'not even an inch to the enemy'.
For the ignominious defeat that we suffered, we have to add 'politicisation of the army resulting in cowardly as well as stupid generalship' to the above factors.
Extraneous factors such as China's vital national interest to guard their strategic road through Aksai Chin, China's wish to be recognized and respected as the greatest Asian power, and therefore her desire to cut India down to size, as also to punish India so as to teach Nehru a lesson and puncture his balloon, played their part.
Yet careful analysis of the situation indicates that it was possible to have come to a mutually satisfactory understanding with China on the border adjustments, avoided active hostilities, and continued our then blossoming friendship with Beijing, which had tremendous potential for mutual benefit. That would have also discouraged the Pakistan-China friendship, which developed as an offshoot of the Sino-Indian conflict, and the eventual nuclearisation of Pakistan.
Wing Commander R V Parasnis is probably the only air force pilot to have flown extensively as well as moved on foot in the NEFA area. He particularly remembers an exercise where he marched for 24 days in the Bomdila region on a man-pack basis with General (then brigadier) K Sundarji, whose unforgettable briefings and brilliant strategic theories at night revived the bitter memories of the 1962 war among the young officers, even as ice-cold winds threatened to blow their small tents away.
Part II: How Nehru let us down