Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2014-04-07 04:40:07 Published on Apr 07, 2014
The focus on the Henderson-Brooks report creates a bias in our minds that the failure of 1962 was that of the Army. Perhaps that is what the babus and politicians wanted. In fact, the real failure was of the Nehru government's China policy and the management of that policy.
Strategic Studies; National Security
There has been so much mentioning in the media about some portions of the Henderson-Brooks report, which probed into the operational aspects of 1962 China war disaster. Though some parts of the report was leaked to the media, the government is still keeping it as a classified document, making a real analysis of the 62 events impossible and biased.

It is important to understand what the Henderson-Brooks report is, and what it is not. It was essentially a review of the Army operations in the Kameng Frontier division of NEFA where India faced the biggest disaster to its arms in 1962 when IV Division collapsed without a fight and the Chinese forces reached the foothills of Assam. The task of the two-man committee was to look at issues of training, equipment, system of command, ability of commanders and so on.

It was not a review of India’s China policy relating to the Sino-Indian border. Indeed, it was not even a review of the functioning of the Army HQ which conveniently ordered that it be excluded from the scope of the Henderson-Brooks inquiry.

The focus on the Henderson-Brooks report creates a bias in our minds that the failure of 1962 was that of the Army. Perhaps that is what the babus and politicians wanted. In fact, the real failure was of the Nehru government’s China policy and the management of that policy. What is striking is that no effort has been made till date to inquire into that failure which hangs so heavily on the nation’s head. This is a task that remains to be completed, and can only be done if all the documents relating to the conflict are made available to scholars and the archives thrown open.

So, the inquiry officers, Lt Gen T B Henderson Brooks and Brigadier Prem Bhagat had no access to the papers of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Defence Ministry or the Army HQ. Whatever references they have made to these institutions came through the papers of the available at the Eastern and Western Command headquarters.

The essential conclusion of the HB report was that the government initiated a Forward Policy to check Chinese incursions into Indian territory in Ladakh at the end of 1961. Unfortunately, the Army HQ failed to assess the situation and correlate it to developments in NEFA. Had a proper assessment been made, perhaps "we would NOT have precipitated matters till we were better prepared in both sectors." Instead Indian policies triggered a ferocious Chinese response catching the Indian side completely off guard.

Unlike NEFA where the McMahon Line defined the border, there was nothing in the West. India had a notional claim, China had a strategic need. The maps attached to the White Paper on States published in 1948 and 1950 showed the border in the region from Karakoram Pass to the UP-Nepal-Tibet trijunction as undefined.

There was no problem here till the Chinese consolidated their authority in Tibet by the mid-1950s. As part of this, they built a highway linking Xinjiang to Tibet which traversed the Aksai Chin plateau. This road was very important for China as it was the only road that was open through out the year and not affected by either weather, or the Khampa guerillas that plagued the Sichuan route. Steven Hoffman also points out that the importance of the region to India was for nationalistic and legalistic reasons since it believed that Dogra records indicated that they were collecting revenue from that area.

As Hoffman has shown, the decision to include Aksai Chin firmly within India was only taken in 1953 when India rejected the British policy of 1899 which had placed the boundary on the Karakoram mountains. This McCartney-McDonald Line had placed most of the Aksai Chin region outside India.

India had been aware of Chinese road-building activity since 1951, but chose to look the other way because it had no means of enforcing its authority in the region. But when Beijing announced the formal opening of the road in 1957, it became difficult to do so. India sent an army patrol to the northern part and a police party to the southern one to check out the alignment of the road. The army patrol was intercepted and detained by the Chinese and later deported, the police party returned and confirmed that the road crossed what India considered was its territory. India protested, but the Chinese ignored the protests. Nehru, through a letter of 14 December 1958 insisted that the boundaries between the two countries were "well known and fixed," and there could be no dispute about them. Zhou Enlai replied on 23 January that there was no such thing as a customary and traditional boundary between the two countries. Nehru replied on 22 March reiterating the existence of a traditional and customary boundary.

Till this point in time, the Chinese had stuck by what is called the McCartney-McDonald Line, now they decided to expand their claims westward towards the Shyok river in the north, and towards Chushul in the south.

In 1959, Sino-Indian relations reached their turning point there was a revolt against Chinese authority in Tibet that resulted in the Dalai Lama escaping to India and being given asylum there. In September, through a letter, Zhou also declared that the Chinese did not recognize the McMahon Line and that in the Chinese view, the entire border was subject to negotiation. India rejected all offers of negotiation, saying that as a precondition for talks, the Chinese needed to withdraw from the places they had occupied in Ladakh and NEFA. However, things changed after the Kongka Pass incident of October 21, 1959 in where an Indian police party was ambushed and 10 personnel killed.

This led to the decision of the government to hand the responsibility of the entire border to the Indian Army.

Having sat back and allowed things to drift in the past decade, the government now suddenly became energetic. In September 1959, the Army prepared an assessment of the Chinese threat to the borders and stated that it was unlikely that the Chinese could launch a major incursion but they could create incidents unless they were threatened by retaliatory action. Based on this the report made recommendations on deployments.

In November 1959, 4 Infantry Division was asked to move to Assam and take up the responsibility of defending the border from Sikkim to Burma, border road construction was taken up in earnest, in NEFA, under Op Onkar, the Assam Rifles were beefed up and asked to man forward posts.

In Ladakh, new intelligence posts were opened and some strengthened by sending Army personnel there. After the Army took over the border there, a new brigade with 3 Jammu & Kashmir Militia battalions were deployed there, in April 1961, 1/8 Gorkha Rifles were also sent in with some additional forces. But this was a trifling number considering the border that had to be policed and the enormous difficulties of communications.

When you look at the map below, the basis of the "Forward Policy" becomes obvious. Having built a road through a region India considered its territory, the Chinese systematically moved westward to provide it defence in depth. Initially inclined to maintain themselves at the watershed of the Karakoram range, they subsequently went beyond it and moved towards occupying a line along the Shyok.

If the Indian case for the Aksai Chin was weak, the Chinese one was weaker. But because it the region was vital for them, the Chinese backed up their claim by occupation at a time when India was still fumbling for a policy. And when India sought to restrict the Chinese advance, a clash became inevitable.

The Chinese claim line kept varying. It was in these circumstances that India launched the Forward Policy to block the further movement of the Chinese to the west. Unfortunately, as the Henderson-Brooks report shows, the policy was shoddily conceived and executed and the primary blame for this rested on the Army Headquarters and the Intelligence Bureau, not Nehru and Krishna Menon. Though, by promoting the incompetent B.M. Kaul as the Chief of General Staff and then allowing him to lead his own expedition as IV Corps Commander to "throw" the Chinese out of the Thagla ridge, Nehru and Menon catalyzed the situation.

Forward Policy in the West

The HB report begins from the meeting of 2 Nov 1961 at PMO with the Defence Minister, Foreign Secretary, Chief of Army Staff, Director Intelligence Bureau. It does not specifically mention whether the Prime Minister was there, but the Official History, which bases itself on Neville Maxwell’s India’s China War, does. It says, "Nehru decided that Indian forces should remain in effective occupation of the whole frontier from NEFA to Ladakh and they should cover all gaps by setting up posts or by means of effective patrolling." The DIB B.N. Mullik put forward his considered view "the Chinese would not react to our establishing new posts and they were not likely to use force against any of our posts even if they were in a position to do so. " (p 8)

This was contrary to the appreciation Military Intelligence which in its annual review for 1959- 1960 had clearly indicated that the Chinese would resist by force any attempt to take back territory held by them.

Despite this the meeting laid down three operational directives which was, 1) insofar as Ladakh was concerned, we were to patrol as far forward as possible from our present position towards what India considered was the international border. 2) as far as UP and other northern areas were concerned, given the lesser logistical difficulties we were to go forward and effectively occupied the whole frontier. 3) in view of the numerous operational and administrative difficulties efforts should be made to position major concentration of forces along our borders behind forward posts which could be be maintained and supported logistically. (p. 8)

However when the Army HQ transmitted the decision, they accurately relayed the first two decisions but they papered over the specific instruction that the Indian posts should be backed by significant concentrations of forces which were based in positions which were effectively logistically maintained.

But in Ladakh there were barely any forces for the forward posts, leave alone places you could concentrate them or roads and means of supplying them.

But the Henderson-Brooks report says that while it was understandable that the government was politically keen to recover territory and had advocated a cautious policy, Army HQ dictated a policy which was clearly militarily unsound. Indeed, the report says, " there is? no doubt that the implementation of the "Forward Policy", in the manner it was done, was carried out deliberately by the Army Headquarters without the necessary backing, as laid down by the government." (p. 10)

So, the army was ordered forward in a line from Daulat Beg Oldi to Chusul and Demchok, but not through a single order, "but a series of orders, both written and verbal? were given out, from time to time, by Army headquarters."

In the period November 1961 to April-May 1962, some 36 posts had been established some with as few as 12 men. But the result was that "this further dispersed our meager resources and depleted our strength in the vital bases." (p. 13)

Of course, the Chinese reacted strongly and with their greater resources and easier communications they set up stronger posts adjacent to the Indian ones. Tensions arose and there were instances of firing at Indian posts and patrols and finally in July 1962, the Army HQ gave the forces permitted the soldiers to fire back if they were fired upon.

The August 1962 reappraisal by the Western Command outlined just how badly the Indian forces were outnumbered, it noted: "it is imperative that political direction is based on military means. If the two are not correlated, there is danger of creating a situation where we may lose both in the material and moral sense much more than we already have. There is no short cut to military preparedness to enable us to pursue effectively our present policy aimed at refuting the illegal Chinese claim over our territory." (p.16)

The reappraisal recommended that as long as "the prevailing military situation in Ladakh was unfavourable, it was vital that we did not provoke the Chinese into an armed clash." It said that for this reason , "the Forward Policy should be held in abeyance."

But the Army HQ ignored these warning persisting in their belief that a major Chinese riposte was unlikely. Whether or not this important document was conveyed to the government is not clear.

Developments in the East

The forward policy was meant to check Chinese incursion in Ladakh, but no thought was given to its consequences in NEFA. As the HB report says: "Once we disturbed the status quo in one theatre, we should have been militarily prepared in both to back up our policy." (p 54)

Because parallel to the forward policy, the government was moving to evict the Chinese from the Thagla Ridge area in the Kameng division of NEFA. The Dhola post had been established on the Namka Chu river which divided the Thagla ridge and the Indian positions were south of the river on the slopes of Tsangdhar and Hathungla ridges. The Indians, of course, had been ordered to clear the Chinese from the Thagla Ridge and the build up of posts along Namka Chu

According to the HB report, the Dhola post was established in June 1962, but it was, according to maps of the army prior to October/November 1962, "North of the McMahon Line" viz on the Chinese side.

In extenuation, as it were, the report claims, " It is believed that the old edition was given to the Chinese by our External Affairs Ministry to indicate the McMahon Line. It is also learnt that we tried to clarify the error on our maps, but the Chinese did not accept our contention."

In other words, the Army was told to occupy posts and clear the Chinese from positions which an "old edition" map given to the Chinese by the MEA indicated were on the Chinese side !

On Sep 8, 1962, the Chinese reacted by surrounded the Dhola post. A meeting in the Defence Minister’s room on September 22, the Army chief’s assessment was that the Chinese would reinforce their position in Dhola or retaliate in Ladakh. The Foreign Secretary felt that they would not retaliate and that the NEFA operation should take place, even if it led to loss of territory in Ladakh.

At this meeting, the decision was taken to press on with the operations and the Army chief asked for written orders. Thereafter the following orders were given:

"The decision throughout has been, as discussed at previous meetings, that the Army should prepare and throw the Chinese out, as soon as possible. The Chief of the Army Staff was accordingly directed to take action for the eviction of the Chinese from the KAMENG Frontier Division in NEFA, as soon as he is ready." p.18

Given the seriousness of the situation, the HB report says that the Army Hq should have presented the political authorities a written appreciation of the situation and leaving them to make the political decision. "To base major military actions on a doubtful intelligence (that the Chinese will not react) is breaking all precepts of war and inviting sure disaster."

Further, knowing that action in NEFA would lead to reaction in Ladakh, the Army HQ did little to prepare the Western Command. In Ladakh, the HB report says, "the Army was not even prepared to meet a limited operation? no army should be placed at the mercy of the enemy on the off-chancer that the latter would not react." Page 18

But all Army HQ did was to tell them to strengthen their posts and "to fight it out and inflict maximum casualties on the Chinese." (p 18) As the HB report noted, ordering "these far flung, tactically unsound and uncoordinated small posts (to fight it out) brings out vividly how unrealistic these orders were." Especially since, no effort was made to address the severe shortcomings of the forces there.

Army HQ

Running like a thread through the narrative are the actions of Lt Gen B M Kaul who was first promoted as the Chief of General Staff, the second most important officer in the Army hierarchy, and subsequently sent as Corps Commander of the newly formed IV Corps charged with the mission of evicting the Chinese from Indian territory in NEFA.

Through the narrative, it is clear that the principal villain in the drama is the CGS. On the other hand, by the very fact that it refused to permit Henderson Brooks and Bhagat to examine Army HQ documents the Chief of Army Staff and his associates have been less than fair to the inquiry.

Indeed, in view of the restrictions that were placed, it would be fair to argue that there should be a fresh inquiry that looks not only at all the relevant documents in the Army system, but those of other departments of the government as well.

The report has noted that it was the Army HQ which diluted the 2 November 1961 third operational directive which called on the army to "position major concentrations of forces along our borders in places conveniently situated behind the forward posts from where they could be maintained logistically and from where they can restore a border situation at short notice."

The Army HQ directive of December 5, 1961, asked the troops to "patrol as far forward as possible" from their present positions with a view of establishing new posts to prevent Chinese incursions "and to dominate any Chinese posts already established in our territory." But, it merely asked the various commands to make a fresh appraisal of their task in view of the new directives and "with regard to the logistical effort involved." The November 2 directive was quite specific—that posts be established ahead of significant troop concentrations along axes that could be logistically maintained. The Army HQ directive was saying something quite different.

As the HB report notes, "the government who politically must have been keen to recover territory, advocated a cautious policy; whilst Army Headquarters dictated a policy that was clearly militarily unsound." (p.9)

The report also brings out that besides the directives, Army HQ involved itself in micromanaging the situation. It was Army HQ which ordered the establishment of posts at Daulat Beg Oldi and its environs on 9 November 1961. When Western Command said that there should be no post near Samzungling on the Galwan river for fear of adverse Chinese reactions, they were over-ruled by the Army HQ in May 1962 and after the post was established on July 5 , on July 10, the Chinese surrounded it. Likewise, it was the Army Chief who personally ordered the establishment of a post on Rezangla in December 1961 during an inspection to the area.

The HB report notes, "militarily, it was unthinkable that the General Staff did not advise the Government on the weaknesses and inability to implement the "Forward Policy."

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

CIC proceedings on Henderson Brooks Report

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

Read More +