The Se La Debacle of 1962

By Mohan Guruswamy 


New Delhi, 26 October 2002

The article highlights the blunders of our political leadership in 1962 in matters military. The author opines that 40 years later nothing seems to have changed

On 14 October 1962 US U-2 spy planes over flying Cuba detected Soviet military personnel erecting IRBM capable missile launchers. The CIA’s photo-analysts had also determined that some of the missiles were lying alongside and that they would be operational within weeks putting much of mainland USA under less than five minutes of warning after launch. John F. Kennedy, whose presidency was marred in its initial weeks by a fiasco when a US organized invasion of Cuba by émigré Cuban forces floundered on the shoals of the Bay of Pigs, was in no mood to add another Cuban failure to his record.

On 22 October he ordered a blockade of Cuba and warned the Soviet Union that all its vessels would be boarded and inspected by US naval forces. Five days later a Russian flotilla consisting of ships with more Cuba bound missiles lashed on their decks and with an armed escort of destroyers and submarines ground to a halt ahead of the blockading US ships. The two super-powers were now eyeball to eyeball and unless one blinked there would be Armageddon. Nikita Khrushchev blinked first and the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its nuclear missiles from Cuba. Though the USA in turn agreed to discreetly dismantle its nuclear tipped Jupiter missiles from Turkey, quite clearly the Soviets had backed down.

Some recent articles written elsewhere, like I had written earlier in these columns, on the 40th anniversary of the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, have provoked this narration. These articles have suggested that the Chinese attack was timed to coincide with the Cuban Missile Crisis, at a time when the USA was militarily pre-occupied, as much to take advantage of it as also to put pressure on the USA. The facts seem to suggest otherwise.

There might have been something to this logic if the Chinese attack across the Namka Chu River in Arunachal Pradesh (then NEFA), that had begun on 19 October had continued uninterrupted after the huge gains it had quickly made. For by 23 October the Chinese PLA’s force of about three regiments had decimated the Indian Army’s 7 Brigade commanded by Brig. John Dalvi (taken prisoner) and was within ten miles of Tawang. On 24 October the PLA entered Tawang unopposed. That night they were also opposite Walong at the other end of NEFA. Both, Tawang and Walong were deep inside NEFA. Even in the western sector despite a determined stand made possible by the deft handling of resources by Lt.Gen Daulet Singh the Chinese had by and large occupied all that lay within their claim line here by 21 October. There was a lull in the fighting in all sectors after this.

On 24 October the Chinese issued a statement that after the predictable recriminations made three proposals. They were: I. Both sides agree to respect the line of actual control (LAC) as of November 1959 and withdraw their forces twenty kilometers from that line. II. If India agreed to (I), the Chinese agreed to withdraw to the north of the McMahon line in the eastern sector. (This was significant considering the PLA was quite deep inside NEFA.) III. That the two Prime Ministers meet, either in New Delhi or Peking to seek a friendly settlement. On the very same day a statement was issued by New Delhi rejecting these proposals. On 4 November, Chou En-lai wrote to Nehru commending the Chinese proposals and urged Nehru to accept them. Nehru countered with a proposal on 7 November that the Chinese should return to the positions they held on 8 September and that talks follow after this is complied with.

During this period of renewed diplomatic skirmishing there was a major development. On 29 October the US Ambassador, John Kenneth Galbraith, called on his friend Jawaharlal Nehru and offered “any military equipment India might need.” This started arriving within five days and soon there were as many as eight USAF and RAF flights a day each disgorging twenty tons of hardware. Ironically only a few weeks before this Jawaharlal Nehru while rejecting a suggestion of India seeking western arms aid equated the acceptance of military aid with joining a military bloc and declared that India would never accept this “even if disaster comes to us on the frontier.” The disaster that visited the 7 Brigade was a small one compared what was to visit the 4 Division in November.

The lull that followed the quick Chinese advances to Tawang and Walong in the east and to the gates of Chushul, instead of causing the national leaders to introspect and inject some realism in them took them on new flights of fancy. The defeats gave rise to a wave of jingoism and euphoria since seen only once after that, during the Kargil conflict. The Lok Sabha praised the “wonderful and spontaneous response of the people of India to the emergency.” Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, always with a way with words, said: “the blood of our martyred jawans is becoming the seed of a new, virile nation that is being born in our country.” Little wonder then that Nehru commented “we never had it so good.”

Instead of taking stock of what went wrong on the run up to the stinging defeat at Namka Chu our leaders persuaded themselves that further battle would beat the Chinese back. When 7 Brigade launched its ill conceived operation, the decision for which was taken by people at the highest level overlooking all advice of commanders on the frontline, the jawans fighting at heights of 12-14000 feet had only light tunics and one blanket each to fight the cold, and ancient .303 rifles with about forty rounds each to fight the Chinese. The massive airlift of western small arms did little to change this reality. Instead of seeking a respite and allowing the military leaders the option of choosing the time and place for the next battle, the politicians, both, in parliament and in the Indian Army pressed on for another round.

After the initial debacles in NEFA, Lt. Gen. B M Kaul, who was hastily appointed commander of the newly created IV Corps, had returned to the more familiar battlegrounds in New Delhi stricken with pulmonary edema. Lt. Gen.  Harbaksh Singh replaced him. Harbaksh Singh after studying the changed tactical position of his troops decided that the next point of defence would be Bomdila. But he was replaced by Kaul after hardly four days and transferred out to take command of XXXIII Corps, which was under Lt. Gen. Umrao Singh. Before the establishment of IV Corps, created for the express convenience of Kaul, XXXIII Corps was responsible for the defence of NEFA. Like Lt. Gen. Daulet Singh of the Western Command, Umrao Singh had consistently warned the higher ups in New Delhi of the Indian Army’s lack of preparedness to take on the Chinese PLA. Umrao was now packed off to a staff job.

Kaul returned with the DMO, Brig. D K Palit, in tow. Palit, who later wrote a somewhat self-serving yet eminently readable book on the 1962 war, was a favourite of Kaul and a man quite well versed with the functioning of the Delhi durbar. Palit had earlier commanded the now ill-fated 7 Brigade and could claim intimate knowledge of the terrain. Military logic, given the availability of troops and supplies demanded that they be concentrated in Bomdila, as per the Indian Army’s three-tiered defence plan for NEFA prepared in 1959 by Lt. Gen. Thorat. This called for at least four brigades. In 1961 Lt. Gen. LP Sen who took over Eastern Command from Thorat determined that he would need two divisions or six brigades to do the job. After the debacle at Namka Chu, the 4 Division had only two brigades to do the job! But Kaul and Palit, fresh out from New Delhi, put out the word that Se La which was a good sixty miles ahead of Bomdila and nearer Tawang must be held. The politicians could not afford its loss. 4 Division’s losses were hastily replenished with troops rushed to NEFA from the plains and by mid November it was back to full strength, though not preparedness.

14 November was the Prime Ministers seventy-third birthday and Kaul wished to give him a present. He launched an attack in the Walong sector to push the Chinese back over to the other side of the McMahon line. This was probably the stupidest order he was to ever give. The PLA had a full division lying in wait at Rima while the Army’s new 2 Division just had three battalions designated 11 Brigade at Walong. The PLA retaliated with a massive wallop. 11 Brigade fought bravely but was all but wiped out by 17 November even as newspapers in Delhi were hailing the attack!

The decision to confront the Chinese at Se La led to the thinning of the forces at Bomdila, which was now defended by just six companies. Kaul and Palit did not envisage the possibility of the Chinese bypassing Se La in any great strength. But this is just what they did. They took the path known as the Bailey Trail, named after the British officer who rediscovered the traditional route to Tawang. 4 Division with its main defence centered in Se La was much too thinly spread and the PLA began hacking at its rear. By the time orders went out for 62 Brigade to evacuate Se La, it was too late. They were cut off and its commander Brig. Hoshiar Singh, who was later awarded the Param Vir Chakra, fell fighting on 17 November. The next day the divisional headquarters at Dirang Dzong, between Se La and Bomdila fell. On 20 November Bomdila fell. The rout in NEFA was complete.

Jawaharlal Nehru made a broadcast to the nation that night. His broadcast had a special place for the people of Assam. He said: “Now what has happened is very serious and very saddening to us and I can well understand what our friends in Assam must be feeling, because all this is happening at their doorstep.” Later that night Nehru made an urgent appeal to the USA for intervene with air strikes against the Chinese on Indian territory.

I had written earlier in these columns about how we blundered into a war with the Chinese. First with the asinine Forward Policy, and then with absurd orders to hold cartographically and militarily untenable positions leading to the Namka Chu debacle. Had we used the interregnum when the Chinese halted their advance and made the offer to withdraw to positions held prior to November 1959 intelligently, we could have built up our strength with the new western arms and faced the Chinese another time and place. But our political system with its emphasis on polemics, and our media ever willing to conjure up dreams that never can be, for rulers unable to see their feet of clay even in the light of day caused us to lurch unthinkingly towards certain disaster. It is still the same story. Just read the papers.

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