An IDC Analysis


New Delhi, 06 September 2002

The Prime Minister of India and President Musharraf will be  will be present in New York to take part in the September 11 memorial function. The WTC attack took a few thousand lives, but more than that was an assault on the USA’s national pride and an abrupt reminder of its vulnerability. However, closer to home, Mohan Guruswamy opines that we should recall the events of 8 Sep 1962 to learn from the lessons of history.

On September 8, 1962 the Chinese PLA surrounded a small Indian Army post in Tsenjang on the northern side of the Namka Chu stream just below the disputed Thagla ridge at the Indo-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction. India's pride was hurt and we had a forward policy, which Mohan Guruswamy calls assinine. He then threads events and we hope we are not making the same mistakes again.

“Zara Aankh Mey Bhar Lo Paani”

By Mohan Guruswamy

The Prime Minister of India will be present in New York to take part in the September 11 memorial function. The WTC attack took a few thousand lives, but more than that was an assault on the USA’s national pride and an abrupt reminder of its vulnerability. It has shaken the USA out of its complacency and despite George Bush’s limited worldview; much rethinking seems underway in reworking its policies and discarding long held attitudes. It’s a good time, weather wise, to be in the USA and the Prime Minister has a longtime habit of spending a good part of September each year in New York, a city he obviously is fond off. But I would rather have had him stay back this year, for September 8, 2002 will mark the fortieth anniversary of a tragic event in our history, a seminal event whose significance should in no way be any less than what September 11 is to the USA.

On September 8, 1962 the Chinese PLA surrounded a small Indian Army post in Tsenjang on the northern of the Namka Chu stream just below the disputed Thagla ridge at the Indo-Bhutan-Tibet trijunction. The Indian post came to be established as a consequence of the asinine “forward policy” which was adopted by the Indian government after the Sino-Indian border dispute began hotting up, particularly after the flight of the Dalai Lama to India. The Chinese couldn’t have chosen a better place than Tsenjang to precipitate a military conflict with India. For a start, Tsenjang was north of the de facto border, which at that point ran midstream of the Namka Chu. The PLA also commanded the high ground. By surrounding Tsenjang the Chinese had now flung the gauntlet at India. India walked right into it.

On September 10, the then Defence Minister. VK Krishna Menon conveyed his decision that the matter must be settled on the field, overruling the vehement objections of the Army Chief, Gen. PN Thapar. Thapar warned that the Chinese had deployed in strength and even larger numbers were concentrated at nearby Le, very clearly determined to attack in strength if need be. He warned that fighting would break out all along the border and that there would be grave repercussions. Bur orders are orders and consequently the Eastern Command ordered Brig.JP Dalvi commanding 7 Brigade to “move forward within forty eight hours and deal with the Chinese investing Dhola.” Having imposed this order to the reluctant Army, Krishna Menon left for New York on September 18 but not before slyly conveying to the press that the Indian Army has been ordered to evict the Chinese from Indian Territory. The Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru too was abroad having left India on September 7 only to return on September 30. The Indian Army was under pressure but Thapar was still not prepared to bow to sheer stupidity.

On September 22, at a meeting presided over by the deputy minister, K Raghuramiah, Thapar once again warned the government of the possibility of grave repercussions and now demanded written orders. He received the following order signed by HC Sarin, then a mere Joint Secretary in the MoD: “The decision throughout has been as discussed at previous meetings, that the Army should prepare and throw out the Chinese as soon as possible. The Chief of Army Staff was accordingly directed to take action for the eviction of the Chinese in the Kameng Frontier Division of NEFA as soon as he was ready.” It was unambiguous in so much it conveyed the government’s determination to evict the Chinese, but by leaving the Army Chief to take action when he was ready for it was seeking to pass the onus on to him. With such waffling skills it is no small wonder that Sarin rose to great heights in the bureaucracy.

Under the previous Army Chief, Gen. KS Thimayya, the Indian Army had developed a habit of winking at the government’s impossible demands often impelled by its fanciful public posturing. The posturing itself was an outcome of the trenchant attacks on the government in Parliament by a galaxy of MP’s. One particular MP, the young and less somnambulatory Atal Behari Vajpayee, was particularly eloquent in his quest to put Jawaharlal Nehru on the defensive. He and others like Lohia, Kripalani and Masani would frequently thunder that every inch of sacred Indian territory must be freed from the Chinese and charge the government with a grave dereliction of its duties. Nehru finally obliged by initiating the stupid forward policy and resorting to the use of more extravagant language to signal his own determination to the Indian public. A general summed this policy succinctly by writing: “ we would build a post here and they would build one there and it became a bit of a game, to get there first!”

Jawaharlal Nehru returned on September 30 and was furious that the Chinese were still not thrown out from the Thagla ridge. He was tired of the Indian Army’s refrain of grave repercussions. He shouted at the hapless Army Chief: “I don’t care if the Chinese came as far as Delhi, they have to be driven out of Thagla.” Unlike, Thimayya, Thapar was possibly a more obedient soldier, probably even less understanding of the government’s compulsions and hence took its orders far more literally and seriously than it deserved.

Within the Indian Army there were serious reservations about the efficacy of the governments orders. The GOC, Northern Command, Lt.Gen Daulat Singh warned the government that “it is imperative that political direction be based on military means.” The 33 Corps, which was responsible for the sector, sent its candid opinions on the order. Its Brigadier General Staff, Jagjit Singh Aurora, who later won enduring fame as the liberator of Bangladesh, called up his friend Brigadier DK Palit, the then Director of Military Operations, and berated him for issuing such impractical orders. Not only were the Chinese better placed in terms of terrain, men and material, the Indian troops were woefully ill-equipped, ill-clothed and had to be supplied by mule trains or airdrops. They were acutely short of ammunition. The objective of evicting the Chinese from Thagla itself was of no strategic or tactical consequence. The nation clearly needed a greater objective to go to precipitate an unequal war.

The government’s reaction was a typical instance of political and bureaucratic chicanery and cunning. It ordered the establishment of the 4 Corps culled out from 33 Corps and appointed Maj.Gen BM Kaul, a Nehru kinsman and armchair general who never commanded a fighting unit before. Kaul was from the Army Supply Corps and earned his spurs by building barracks near Ambala in record time. He was a creature peculiar to Delhi’s political hothouse and adept in all the bureaucratic skills that are still in demand here. He had the Prime Ministers ear. And so off he went, a dubious soldier out seeking dubious battle and possibly battlefield glory that would propel him to much higher office. Welles Hangen in his book “After Nehru Who?” profiled BM Kaul as a possible successor. The rest is history, a tale of dishonor, defeat and more duplicity about which much has written about, even in these columns.

Forty years is a long time ago and the memory of 1962 is now faint. But what should cause the nation concern is that the lessons of 1962 still do not seem to have been learnt. If at all anything, the Indian Army is now an even greater and much more misused instrument of public policy. If in 1962 it was a relatively small army with 1930’s equipment, it is a million man army in 2002 with 1960’s equipment. In 1962 our jawans went into battle with .303 bolt action Lee Enfield rifles. They now are still mostly equipped with the obsolete 7.62mm FN rifle made in Ishapore. Its twenty years since it was decided to add to the lethality of the infantry by equipping it with 5.56 mm automatic rifles, with little success. Let alone the Chinese PLA, almost every terrorist and insurgent in J&K has better arms and communication gear than our soldiers. Even the BSF has superior logistics, vestments and small arms. We persist in benchmarking against the Pakistanis when we should be benchmarking against the Chinese, if not the Russians and Americans.

Governmental decision-making still characterized by ad-hocism and a tendency to grandstand. It was this tendency that cost us so many lives in Kargil when we went into quick battle mostly to assuage public opinion and for domestic political gain without thinking through tactics. It is only the unquestioning soldiers of the Indian Army who will still charge like the Light Brigade! But in Kargil some did question and that should cause us to wonder why, rather than to seek to quell the questioning attitude. Our general staff will not be doing their duty if they do not question the government’s orders, as they apparently did not in 1962. Has anyone questioned the continued mobilization following the attack on Parliament on December 13 last year?

It is fine commiserating with the Americans one year after their great loss. But does anyone of consequence in India, including in the Indian Army, commiserate these days over the futile and quite unnecessary loss of over 7000 lives, so much of humiliation as a consequence of so much of foolishness by men holding high offices? In 1962, the lyricist Pradeep wrote the now famous song whose first line runs “ay mere watan ke logo, zara aankh mey bhar lo paani, wo shaheed hue hain unki, zara yaad karo qurbani.” 

When Lata Mangeshkar sang this to an audience that included Jawaharlal Nehru, it is said that tears flowed from every pair of eyes. The song still has that magical quality, but few now seem to know what train of events caused those poignant words to be written and what emotions put that enduring magic in Lata’s voice.

If the Prime Minister cannot find the time or the attention span to read some of the numerous books and articles written on the subject, he should at least listen to the song and shed a tear for our fallen warriors. We owe them that much for they have, as Kaifi Azmi wrote in 1964, “Kar chale hum fida jaan aur tan sathiyon, Ab tumhare hawale watan sathiyon!”

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