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Book Review of “1962: A View from the Other Side of the Hill”

Ambassador Prabhakar Menon writes: The volume under review provides the background to this tragedy by pointing to the factors as seen by both the Indian and the Chinese sides, which resulted in the two countries misinterpreting their motivations over a period of time, and blundering into an incendiary confrontation which China ended up using to its blatant advantage.

Book Review 

P. J. S. Sandhu (ed.), 1962: A View from the Other Side of the Hill, (New Delhi, VIJ Books, 2015), Pages: 228, Price: 900.00

Utterly demoralizing as the 1962 Chinese armed attack on India was for us (‘traumatic’ is the word we invariably use to describe it), and self-incriminating as Indian analyses have been about the event, there is every need – in the interests of objective historical record – for a wider understanding of why the invasion occurred, for the overdue exorcism of at least some of our own demons – to have an idea of how the brief armed conflict was seen from the Chinese side.

The volume under review attempts to fulfill this requirement, although as the Director of the USI says in his Foreword, “much more work needs to be done to come out with a more comprehensive history of those fateful years…” (p.x). Even so, this compilation is a useful primer as much for our army strategists as it is for our political leaders, diplomats, analysts from the media, political commentators, and scholars and students of international politics / relations. This is so not merely for its insights into the Chinese strategic mind but also as a cathartic recognition of our own failings.

The study’s bibliography gives its sources, among which the misquoted are two Chinese documents about the war: A History of the Counter-Attack War in Self-Defence along the Sino-Indian Border (Military Science Publications, Beijing 1994); and Snows of the Himalaya Mountains, the True Record of the China-India War (Taiyuan 1991). It will be recalled that both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping characterized the 1962 Chinese action as “teaching India a lesson”, and having done so through a devastatingly effective military campaign, it declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew its forces to the borders claimed by China. The volume under review provides the background to this tragedy by pointing to the factors as seen by both the Indian and the Chinese sides, which resulted in the two countries misinterpreting their motivations over a period of time, and blundering into an incendiary confrontation which China ended up using to its blatant advantage.

The Introduction to the book laments our lack of strategic planning and preparedness and questions our ability at that time. This is notwithstanding the fact that our armed forces, at the time of our Independence, were a superb fighting outfit; and that in the years since then, we had both the time and the opportunity to take it to greater heights in order to meet future contingencies. It poses the rhetorical question: “…are we confident of taking on another act of belligerence by China?” (p.xii). The unspoken answer being in the negative makes the telling point that we still have much to learn from our defeat in 1962.

Misperceptions, according to the study, began with our needlessly “soft” approach towards China’s annexation of Tibet in 1950. Such an approach was dictated – on the Indian side more than on the Chinese – by our euphoric rendering of India-China relations during the 1949–1959 decade. Both bilaterally and at the United Nations, we refrained from placing China in the dock for its aggression in Tibet; and compounded our folly by failing to read Chinese intentions following its Tibet adventure. On its part, China cleverly avoided substantive discussions with us, lulling us into complacency by pointing to the then excellent state of bilateral relations, and persuading us that differences between the two countries, if any, could be sorted out in due course. One measure of Chinese duplicity was in the innumerable exchanges of high-level visits, meetings, aide memoires, messages, and so on that the two countries indulged in, quite unaware – at least on the Indian side – that the tide was building up into a potential tsunami.

One might note at this stage that the Chinese, who have a keen appreciation of their classics – as much as we have of our Ramayana and Mahabharata, although our recall is perhaps with less contemporary impact – acted in accordance with one of their so-called Thirty Six Stratagems, a manual of deceptive tactics whose origins are unknown but which are said to have been codified during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). These stratagems, condensed into short pithy sayings include, among others, “xiao li cang dao”: literally translated, this means “within smile hide knife”; that is, charm the enemy and then attack – a stratagem that appears to have been skilfully applied by China in the months preceding their 1962 invasion of India.

The book proceeds to analyse the shortcomings of our defensive posture, especially in the area of strategic deployments. Among other things, the so-called “forward policy” of our Government in the months immediately preceding the 1962 conflict, called for the ground-level assertion of our territorial claims by troop movements, the establishment of sensitive border posts and, generally speaking, a more muscular strategic stance vis-à-vis China. Decisions were taken to modify brigade deployments which, the study reveals, “dislocated the complex concept of operations for a coordinated defensive battle as visualised by the Army HQ and the HQ Eastern Command. The effect of this change was to prove disastrous later” (p. 41).

To begin with, however, the Chinese were “restrained” in the face of our “forward policy”, and it is interesting to note that their advice to their army was “never to make any concession; try your best to avoid bloodshed; be in interlocking positions like dog’s teeth; be prepared to be in a state of armed co-existence for a long period” (p.50). By mid-October 1962, however, Chinese plans had changed dramatically, and preparations for a general offensive culminated in the attack on 20th October 1962 in both the sector. According to Chinese assessments “the attacking troops had a superiority of 10:1 in numbers and 7:1 in fire power” (p.53) – a significant admission in the sense that it revealed the extent to which the Chinese, while professing friendship and innocence, had prepared for the invasion.

From here on, the study goes into the details of various battles, which need not figure in this review but which hold important lessons for our military strategists. Suffice it to say, however, that the rapid disintegration of India’s defence – indeed, at the end of some battles, there was no Indian survivor left to give an account – and the unexpectedly rapid advance of Chinese forces from the mountainous heights down to the lower regions of Indian territory underlined, among other things, two principal factors that influenced the outcome: first, Chinese political direction for its military action was far more decisive, pugnacious and relentless than the Indian; and second, having decided to act, the Chinese made the necessary preparations, before the conflict erupted. These included the acclimatization of troops to high-altitude warfare, adequate provision of supplies, elaborate ground reconnaissance, formulation of operational plans, air defence measures, and inculcation of confidence in the soldiers. These preparations were in marked contrast to the somewhat incoherent political and military activities that characterized the Indian response to the looming threat.

A primary Chinese objective, according to their sources, was “on winning the first battle of the war” (p.76). Implacable as the Chinese gambit was designed to be, Marshal Liu Bocheng, the Head of a Core Group in China’s Central Military Affairs Commission, “outlined the strategy of concerted attacks by converging columns. Under this strategy, Indian positions were to be split into numerous segments and these were to be destroyed piecemeal” (p. 76). Indian military dispositions, according to Liu, resembled “a copperhead with the tail made of tin, a stiff back and a soft under-belly”; and the Chinese attack entailed “smashing the head, cutting off the tail, snapping at the waist and dissecting the belly” (p.76). Largely clueless, bereft of inspirational leadership, the vaunted courage of its troops hostage to all kinds of planning and operational deficiencies, short of supplies, devoid of air support, the Indian “copperhead” – which, given its impressive history, should have been lethal in nature – was reduced to a caricature. The Chinese might have wished to win the first battle of the war; in the event, they speedily won the war itself.

The descriptions of the various important battles, especially in the western Ladakh and eastern Kameng sectors, give an idea of the confusion plaguing the Indian armed forces. (This failing is further emphasized in the several personal recollections that form the concluding section of the study between pages 165 and 188). These recollections resemble the wanderings of Alice in Blunderland. Recounting the battle of Namka Chu in the eastern sector, the study notes that the Chinese “had infiltrated through Indian positions…during the night as there were large gaps. They had thus occupied higher ground behind Indian defences and were attacking downhill. The Indian defenders were, thus, forced to turn around and face the attack” (p. 79). Indian communications were cut during the night, and the brigade in position was unable to communicate with any of its battalions. In the words of one participant, “the Brigade having lost both command and control could do little to influence the battle” (p. 80).

In describing the battles of Se La and Bomdi La, the study, goes on to make an especially trenchant comment on page 85.

The majority of Indian officers and soldiers had developed a strong sense of fear towards Chinese forces and their fighting spirit had almost vanished. This created a situation (in the Chinese mind) that a further attack by the Chinese forces would crush the opposing army like dry weeds and rotten wood. Such was the feeling of confidence and élan of the Chinese troops on the eve of the battle.

Little wonder, then, that the Chinese faced hardly any tough opposition on the battlefield, as these crucial battles at Se La, Bomdi La, and an even more critical battle for Tawang, showed.

Indian troop withdrawals, while being as systematic as they could be in the circumstances, were plagued by inexplicable command deficiencies. A harrowing account in the book is about a Brigade Commander, following the debacle in our defence of the important hamlet of Walong (the bloodiest battle of all), and recognizing the indefensible position in which the Indian troops found themselves, recommended retreat. However, the Corps Commander – “an accomplice (of) the politicians and bureaucrats in the formulation of the (disastrous) ‘forward policy’” (p. 101) – rejected the idea, and ended up condemning his troops to a hopeless fight till they were overwhelmed by the Chinese.

For domestic and international reasons, the Chinese had, at the planning stage itself, considered the advisability of a unilateral cease-fire and withdrawal. As the study points out on page 89, “by a unilateral cease-fire and withdrawal they hoped to show to the world that they were principled and not aggressors”. In other words, given India’s high international reputation at the time, as compared to China’s far less impressive one, it made sense for the Chinese to tell the world that the culprit in igniting the conflict was India, not China; and that China had no interest in prolonging it.

In a couple of other chapters, the study makes the point that notwithstanding India’s shattered defence, it could have done better in theatres where its position was superior to the Chinese (see page 116). For example, in the Subansiri and Siang sectors, “the overall force ratio…was in India’s favour and there was no reason why we could not have got the better of the Chinese…” This potential was, however, nullified by our shortcomings: among these was the lack of intelligence about the Chinese; delayed dispositions of Indian troops; frequent change of command and control; no planning to meet contingencies; and lack of air support. In brief, the higher direction of the war as well as a comprehensive strategy and operational planning were found grievously lacking. The study also comes to the conclusion that the Chinese air force “was neither allocated…nor deployed during the operations” (p.122), and thus posed no threat to India.

Besides noting the inferior quality of high-level political direction, prior strategic planning and supplies, and effective command and control, the study draws specific attention to some other important aspects of the 1962 debacle. First, why was our air power not brought into play in support of the army when this could have made a substantial difference to our defence? Second, why did our intelligence apparatus fail both in predicting the conflict and in foretelling its course? And third (this is more in terms of the future), what could be the role of our media – fledgling back in 1962 but far more judgmental now – in any future conflict? (p.xii). In detailing the story of our strategic collapse, the study lays the ground for a more critical dissection of our deficiencies not just as a self-flagellatory exercise but as the precursor of, one hopes, a truly improved political-bureaucratic-military defence machine.

Subsequent chapters deal with the effect that public opinion had upon India-China relations; and India’s immediate post-World War II political and military ethos that had the overall effect, on the one hand, of enfeebling our military posture and preparedness, and on the other, of minimizing the Chinese threat. Equally important was the intelligence aspect which, during the years preceding the conflict, tended to be unreliable. The book ends with what amounts to the rueful conclusion that without (a) a proper appraisal of our strengths and weaknesses; (b) “a close working relationship between the political and military leadership” (p.162); (c) without adequate planning and corresponding deployments; and (d) without a reform of the nation’s higher defence organization, the outlook for our national defence is not sanguine. Indeed, the study concludes with the sobering, if not ominous, comment that “the prospects of another defeat, probably as disastrous as in ’62, continue to stare at us” (p.159).

1962 is for us a sorry tale of what could have been but wasn’t. Our armed forces have since gathered laurels in – to name only a few instances – the 1971 war for the liberation of Bangladesh, in the defence of Siachen, or in the recapture of Kargil, to say nothing of their sterling performance in United Nations peace-keeping operations around the world. In addition, they have acquitted themselves with honour in tasks entrusted to them – whether it is saving lives during natural and man-made disasters or in combating domestic insurgencies.

PRABHAKAR MENON

Former Ambassador of India to the Netherlands,

Ireland, Senegal, (the then) GDR and

Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the UN.

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