A section of the confidential Henderson Brooks report that critically reviewed India's defence preparedness and strategies during the 1962 war with China has been released online by Australian journalist Neville Maxwell.
While the report may not contain significantly new revelations about the poor state of India's forces during the war, it discusses "how the Army was ordered to challenge the Chinese military to a conflict it could only lose," according to Maxwell, a retired foreign correspondent who was based in Delhi at the time of the war.
No account of the 1962 war could be complete without Maxwell's authoritative analysis. Which is why we are reprinting this article which was run on Rediff.com in June 2001.
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.
When the Army's report into its debacle in the border war was completed in 1963, the Indian government had good reason to keep it Top Secret and give only the vaguest, and largely misleading, indications of its contents. At that time the government's effort, ultimately successful, to convince the political public that the Chinese, with a sudden 'unprovoked aggression,' had caught India unawares in a sort of Himalayan Pearl Harbor was in its early stages, and the Report's cool and detailed analysis, if made public, would have shown that to be self-exculpatory mendacity.
But a series of studies, beginning in the late 1960s and continuing into the 1990s, revealed to any serious enquirer the full story of how the Indian Army was ordered to challenge the Chinese military to a conflict it could only lose. So, by now, only bureaucratic inertia, combined with the natural fading of any public interest, can explain the continued non-publication -- the Report includes no surprises and its publication would be of little significance but for the fact that so many in India still cling to the soothing fantasy of a 1962 Chinese 'aggression.'
It seems likely now that the Report will never be released. Furthermore, if one day a stable, confident and relaxed government in New Delhi should, miraculously, appear and decide to clear out the cupboard and publish it, the text would be largely incomprehensible, the context, well known to the authors and therefore not spelled out, being now forgotten. The Report would need an Introduction and gloss -- a first draft of which this paper attempts to provide, drawing upon the writer's research in India in the 1960s and material published later.
Two Preambles are required, one briefly recalling the cause and course of the border war; the second to describe the fault-line, which the border dispute turned into a schism, within the Army's officer corps, which was a key factor in the disaster -- and of which the Henderson Brooks Report can be seen as an expression.
Origins of the border conflict
India, at the time of Independence, can be said to have faced no external threats. True, it was born into a relationship of permanent belligerency with its weaker Siamese twin, Pakistan, left by the British inseparably conjoined to India by the chronically enflamed member of Kashmir, vital to both new national organisms; but that may be seen as essentially an internal dispute, an untreatable complication left by the crude, cruel surgery of Partition.
In 1947, China, wracked by civil war, was in what appeared to be death throes and no conceivable threat to anyone. That changed with astonishing speed, however, and, by 1950, when the new-born People's Republic re-established in Tibet the central authority which had lapsed in 1911, the Indian government will have made its initial assessment of the possibility and potential of a threat from China, and found those to be minimal, if not non-existent.
First, there were geographic and topographical factors, the great mountain chains which lay between the two neighbours and appeared to make large-scale troop movements impractical (few could then see in the German V2 rocket the embryo of the ICBM). More important, the leadership of the Indian government -- which is to say, Jawaharlal Nehru -- had for years proclaimed that the unshakable friendship between India and China would be the key to both their futures, and therefore Asia's, even the world's.
The new leaders in Beijing were more chary, viewing India through their Marxist prism as a potentially hostile bourgeois state. But, in the Indian political perspective, war with China was deemed unthinkable and, through the 1950s, New Delhi's defence planning and expenditure expressed that confidence.
By the early 1950s, however, the Indian government, which is to say Nehru and his acolyte officials, had shaped and adopted a policy whose implementation would make armed conflict with China not only "thinkable" but inevitable.
From the first days of India's Independence, it was appreciated that the Sino-Indian borders had been left undefined by the departing British and that territorial disputes with China were part of India's inheritance. China's other neighbours faced similar problems and, over the succeeding decades of the century, almost all of those were to settle their borders satisfactorily through the normal process of diplomatic negotiation with Beijing.
The Nehru government decided upon the opposite approach. India would, through its own research, determine the appropriate alignments of the Sino-Indian borders, extend its administration to make those good on the ground and then refuse to negotiate the result. Barring the inconceivable -- that Beijing would allow India to impose China's borders unilaterally and annex territory at will -- Nehru's policy thus willed conflict without foreseeing it.
Through the 1950s, that policy generated friction along the borders and so bred and steadily increased distrust, growing into hostility, between the neighbours. By 1958, Beijing was urgently calling for a standstill agreement to prevent patrol clashes and negotiations to agree on boundary alignments. India refused any standstill agreement, since it would be an impediment to intended advances and insisted that there was nothing to negotiate, the Sino-Indian borders being already settled on the alignments claimed by India, through blind historical process. Then it began accusing China of committing 'aggression' by refusing to surrender to Indian claims.
From 1961, the Indian attempt to establish an armed presence in all the territory it claimed and then extrude the Chinese was being exerted by the Army and Beijing was warning that if India did not desist from its expansionist thrust, the Chinese forces would have to hit back. On October 12, 1962, Nehru proclaimed India's intention to drive the Chinese out of areas India claimed. That bravado had by then been forced upon him by public expectations which his charges of 'Chinese aggression' had aroused, but Beijing took it as in effect a declaration of war. The unfortunate Indian troops on the frontline, under orders to sweep superior Chinese forces out of their impregnable, dominating positions, instantly appreciated the implications: 'If Nehru had declared his intention to attack, then the Chinese were not going to wait to be attacked.'
On October 20, the Chinese launched a pre-emptive offensive all along the borders, overwhelming the feeble -- but, in this first instance, determined -- resistance of the Indian troops and advancing some distance in the eastern sector. On October 24, Beijing offered a ceasefire and Chinese withdrawal on the condition that India agree to open negotiations: Nehru refused the offer even before the text was officially received. Both sides built up over the next three weeks, and the Indians launched a local counterattack on November 15, arousing in India fresh expectations of total victory.
The Chinese then renewed their offensive. Now many units of the once crack Indian 4th Division dissolved into rout without giving battle and, by November 20, there was no organised Indian resistance anywhere in the disputed territories. On that day, Beijing announced a unilateral ceasefire and intention to withdraw its forces: Nehru, this time, tacitly accepted.
Naturally the Indian political public demanded to know what had brought about the shameful debacle suffered by their Army. On December 14, a new Army commander, Lieutenant General J N Chaudhuri, instituted an Operations Review for that purpose, assigning the task of enquiry to Lieutenant-General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier P S Bhagat.
Neville Maxwell is the author of India's China War.
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