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1962 – A View from the Other Side of the Hill

Lieutenant General VK Singh, PVSM (Retd) writes:The 1962 Sino-Indian War has remained a subject of study and discussion ever since it ended. There have been various books from the Indian side but very few, if any from the Chinese. The USI decided in 2012 to try to get a new view on the events of that time.

Lieutenant General VK Singh, PVSM (Retd) writes:The 1962 Sino-Indian War has remained a subject of study and discussion ever since it ended. There have been various books from the Indian side but very few, if any from the Chinese. The USI decided in 2012 to try to get a new view on the events of that time. It was also at this time that certain documents and other literature from China also came to hand and it became possible to examine how the Chinese viewed these events .The book under review is a product of this examination. The importance of this book is that for the first time we have available an authentic account of their thinking, planning, force levels and conduct of operations. The book has eight chapters and the coverage is comprehensive and easy to follow.

The First Chapter deals with the Politico-Diplomatic Prelude and covers the period from 1947 to 1962. It is not intended to cover all the details of all the notes, negotiations and meetings held from 1949 to 1962, the book looks at these in fair detail. However, a few events need to be highlighted. The first is the Chinese invasion of Tibet in Oct 1950, despite the fact that treaties signed by China, Tibet and India gave India special rights in Tibet, including the right to have a mission at Lhasa and an armed detachment at Gyantse. The Indian response was weak; India also did not support the Tibetan appeal to the UN. Nehru seems to have decided that friendship with China was necessary and did not feel that China would ever threaten India. By June 1952 the mission in Lhasa was converted to a Consulate-General. The next important event was the signing of the India-China Agreement on Trade and Intercourse between India and the Tibet Region of China in 1954. This was conferment of India’s acceptance of Tibet being a part of China. The chapter then discusses the growing discord between both sides on the boundary question, beginning from 1958 with the discovery of the road constructed by the Chinese through the Aksai Chin. Now started a period of letters, notes and such; each becoming more intransient than the other; these are well covered in the book. To add to all this was the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, further raising tensions. While the exchange of notes continued; the Chinese were quietly preparing to settle the problem by force. While reading through this chapter, one gets the impression that at the start

of this dispute, there may have been some chances of a compromise settlement. As time went on, the positions of each side hardened and an armed conflict became inevitable; however the Indian Government refused to recognise this.

Chapter Two of the book deals with the actual conduct of operations. These are covered in four Parts, one each covering the Western Sector (Ladakh), Kameng frontier Division (Tawang); Lohit Frontier Division (Walong) and the Subansri and Siang Frontier Divisions. It is not the aim to discuss these operations in this review; suffice to say that they are covered in fair detail and accompanied by detailed sketches. What is of interest are the details of enemy plans and how these dealt with the Indian dispositions. Of even greater interest are the preparations and build up carried on before launch of operations.  The decision to go to war to punish India was taken by mid-1962 by the highest authorities of the Chinese government and the build-up of forces and stores commenced immediately. Troops were briefed on their tasks and trained for these; this early buildup also gave time to acclimatise to high altitude conditions. Tibet at this time was not well connected to mainland China, all this buildup took time but Indian intelligence could pick up nothing of this, a sad commentary on our capabilities. By last light 20 Nov 1962 the Chinese had achieved all their objectives viz, the capture of all Indian territory up to their claim lines both in the Western and Eastern Sectors. The book examines the probable reasons for the subsequent cease fire and withdrawal from all territory captured in the East, while retaining that secured in the West.

While not commenting on all the battles covered in the study; a brief look at the team’s examination of the battle on the Se La-Bomdi La axis is warranted. The book has compared the Chinese plan of simultaneous out-flanking while engaging the main position frontally with their similar tactics used during their attack on US forces at the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War. While this battle may not have been studied by many Indian Army officers; a very similar plan was adopted by the Japanese during their attack on the Imphal-Dimapur axis in 1944. In this plan also, three Divisions were used. One was to advance along the Road Tiddim-Imphal, a second was to do a hook along jungle trails to attack Imphal from the East and a third was to go deeper; capture Kohima and then head for Dimapur. This is a battle widely studied in the Army those days, being on the syllabus for the Defence Services Staff College examination. Commanders should  also have been aware that the recommended action, in case one was so bypassed, was to stay put and continue to fight from their prepared defences and that they would be re-supplied by air, if needed. This tenet seemed to have been forgotten, at least by 4 Infantry Division.

Talking of air re-supply, the book examines the vexed question of non-utilisation of air power by India during this conflict. The only explanation is that the Intelligence Bureau (IB) painted an exaggerated picture of the Chinese air power and this seems to have been accepted by everyone, including the Air Force. The Chief of Air Staff had initially proposed to use the IAF to bomb targets in Ladakh, but this option seems to have been discarded after the briefing. The study states that their examination of available Chinese documents shows that no air assets were allotted to the Tibet Sector, but a number of anti-aircraft units were present. Obviously, they expected the Indians to use their Air Force. Most of their assets were in the rear areas and our Air Force would have faced minimal danger attacking their forward forces. It is now pure speculation as to what effect air power would have had, had it been used. At least now, the reasons why the Air Force was not used have come to light.

Subsequent Chapters look at public opinion in the build up to the war and military thought, in the period 1947-62. It is refreshing to see a military study looking at how public opinion, especially in a democracy can affect policy, even military. The study points out that public opinion turned strongly against China as time went on, the question is how much did it impact on the Government; did it force the Government to take a more belligerent stance and thus made a military  face-off more likely, this seems to be partly true. One of the problems with public opinion, especially if it is militantly nationalistic, as it often appears to be today, can box a government in and prevent it from taking cautious steps in fear of being labelled soft.

The Chapter on Indian Military thought in my opinion focuses too much on what the Government thought and too little on what the military thought; for example the focus on Pakistan was something the Army was comfortable with and so advised the Government. The Government did not prevent the Army from carrying out mountain warfare   training or studying it in their schools of instruction. Nothing in my knowledge prevented the Army from studying the Korean War. The fact is that the Army leadership had become complacent and allowed itself to be manipulated. Luckily the individual training of the rank and file did not suffer and showed in the courage and competence with which they performed when given the chance.

The Chapter, titled Epilogue, is a succinct summation of the book. The final chapter looks to the future and correctly identifies various weaknesses which still exist especially in the field of logistics and communications. A weakness not highlighted is that we are still fixated on Pakistan and this appears to limit the funds available for modernising our mountain formations. Should we give priority to self-propelled guns or to light howitzers for the mountains?

These are however minor comments. This book is one of the most important books to have been published on the 1962 War. It should be a mandatory study at all courses at the War College, for it shows how a campaign should be planned and conducted. The USI needs to be complimented on obtaining the source material on which the Chinese accounts are based and on assembling an outstanding team of members to carry out the study. The icing on the cake would be if they could produce a book giving ‘A View from This Side of the End NotesHill’.

The book-” 1962 – A View from the Other Side of the Hill”, a USI Study. Edited by Maj Gen PJS Sandhu (Retd), (New Delhi, Vij Books India Pvt Ltd, 2015), pp..216, Rs 1250, ISBN 978-93-84464-9.

@Lieutenant General VK Singh, PVSM (Retd) was commissioned into 1 MADRAS on 11 Dec 1955. He was with the Battalion at Bomdi La during 1962 and was taken a prisoner of war. He commanded 1 Corps from Jan 1991-Mar 1992 and was the Director General of Military Operations from Apr 1989-Jan 91. He retired as the Military Secretary at the Army HQ on 31 Mar 1994.

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