Revisiting History

The book is an earnest attempt at understanding the 1962 War from different perspectives
By Lt Gen. Mukesh Sabharwal (retd)

1962: THE WAR THAT WASN’T Shiv Kunal Verma’s compelling book, 1962 The War that Wasn’t, is raring to climb the bestseller charts across the country. Published by Aleph Book Company, India, Verma re-visits historical events, circumstances and the mindset of the political and military personalities that played a major role during the Chinese aggression in 1962. The book gives a vivid account of the military operations in the North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA) and the Western Sector in Ladakh. The author brings out the tenacity and gallantry of the officers and soldiers at the lower level of command and lays bare the fact that it was nullified by a lack of vision and courage among the higher level of political and military leadership prevalent in that period.

KPS Menon, Nehru’s chief adviser on foreign affairs, wrote in his diary in 1947 while travelling from China to India via Xinjiang and Kashmir, “Kautilya defined an enemy 2,200 years ago as ‘that State which is situated on the border of one’s own State’. In other words, what constitutes a state an enemy, actual or potential, is not its conduct but its mere proximity. A brutal definition this; but borne out by world history. China and India may have been an exception in the past, but the realism of Kautilya is a useful corrective to our idealism in international politics”. No study on China or its relations with India can be complete without analysing the brutal conflict between the two countries in 1962. Kunal Verma’s book is a step towards bridging that gap.

The 400 page book has been divided into four parts. The first two parts set the stage and describe the historical and political events dating back to over a hundred years prior to the conflict, as well as paint a picture of the landscape for the general reader which in military parlance would amount to a terrain evaluation. The remainder two parts provide a detailed account of the operations that were fought for about a month from 20 October to 21 November 1962 in the Eastern and Western theatres, with a greater emphasis on the Kameng Frontier Division in NEFA. Some significant issues have been commented upon by the author in his Epilogue under ‘Missing Links’.

The first hundred pages furnish a comprehensive insight into the background that led to the eventual war: the interpretation of the Shimla Agreement of 1914 and the McMahon Line; Sardar Patel’s letter dated 7 November 1950 appreciating the situation on India’s northern border after China’s takeover of Tibet; the Panchsheel Treaty and its exploitation by the Chinese including cartographic aggression and infrastructure build up in Tibet, especially Aksai Chin; the Kulwant Singh Committee constituted to study the implications arising from the Chinese occupation of Tibet and ignoring its recommendations that India should immediately increase its force levels; despite the assessment provided by successive army chiefs and the Intelligence Bureau, the political leadership with Prime Minister Nehru and defence minister Krishna Menon at the helm, were convinced that the Chinese would not attack India and that the Indian Army needed no additional men or material for preparation of any impending conflict being foreseen; yet the Prime Minister revealed the truth about the Longju incident in Parliament in August 1959 and with the Army Chief completely oblivious, announced that the entire border in NEFA with China is henceforth the army’s responsibility. The author has vividly sketched out the atmosphere and culture that was existing in the various Headquarters and the characteristics of the commanders and senior staff officers, the prime players being Thimayya, Thorat, Sen, Thapar, Kaul and Palit. The interpretation and interference by Mullik who was Director Intelligence Bureau added to the confusion in determining the course of action.

For any student of political or military history, the second part of the book is the most interesting. It highlights the boundary question which to date is the most significant and tricky challenge to Sino-Indian relations and puts it in the correct perspective. Tracing the origins, interpretations and implication of the several treaties and the McMahon line in particular, Verma has comprehensively explained the Indo-Tibet boundary in the Western, Central and Eastern sectors, including the role of the surveyors and the Assam Rifles. Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ has been a matter of debate in all books on the 1962 conflict. The enunciation of the policy; its ambiguous interpretation within the government, military and intelligence agencies; its exploitation by the Chinese; its actual implementation on the ground; and its misunderstanding at large has always been a matter of concern. This aspect has been adequately covered with opinions of several experts like K Subrahmanyam.

The operations in the Kameng Frontier Division have obviously found greater favour with the author, being more than a touch emotionally involved in that region. The coverage of the battle of Namka Chu has been comprehensive, especially the human element has been portrayed very realistically. The author’s passion is unmistakable. The stunning aspects of the impromptu, personality based decisions during the operations in Tawang and Se La as well as the orders for withdrawal, when extensive appreciations and operational plans based on Thorat’s Exercise Lal Qila were available are bound to capture the readers’ attention. It is indeed strange that a director of Military Operations could hold sway and influence plans and decisions with the Corps and Army Commanders as also the Chief being present or is it that Palit’s version in his book, War in the High Himalayas, has not been challenged in the absence of official records not having been declassified. The chapter, ‘When Generals Fail’ is rather revealing.

The Epilogue of the book provides a glimpse into important issues in the overall context of the 1962 war. The efficacy of Nehru’s China policy and the Forward Policy have been reviewed and commented upon. The employment of the air force or rather its absence to support the operational effort has also been examined, although it is felt that greater justice could have been done to highlight this aberration. The intangible factor of winning a war, that is the will to fight, has been handled with alacrity.

Many books, articles and personal accounts have been written on the 1962 war. Some of these were written to put across the author’s justification of events as visualised by him. Some were published to exonerate themselves of criticism levelled rightfully or unreasonably. Either way, the truth surrounding the important decisions and debacles (for there was hardly any success, except for the acts of valour in some sub-units) remained clouded in subjectivity or hearsay. A few books like the Himalayan Blunder by Brigadier Dalvi were released in 1969 and immediately banned. Maybe the country had not till then forgotten the tragedy and the personalities under scrutiny were still in the public eye. Whereas most publications are in public domain after stipulated periods of three decades, there are some like the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report (HBBR) that have still not seen the light of day even half a century later. The result is that there is still no clarity or corroboration on known issues sans declassification of the official history or the HBBR. Why one wants to learn from history, one may ask. According to Friedrich Max Muller in India: What can it teach us? “History should form a recognised part of our liberal education. Simply because all of us, and every one of us, ought to know how we have come to be what we are, so that each generation need not start again from the same point and toil over the same ground, but, profiting by the experience of those who came before, may advance toward higher points and nobler aims”. To draw an illustration, the Vietnam War has been researched extensively by American scholars both in the military and in the civilian domain so as to draw innumerable lessons from their failures. As a consequence, many structural and conceptual changes were devised.

Verma has carried out extensive study as evident from his accounts of battles and war plans in the third and fourth parts of his book. If there is an area that does not meet full expectation, it is with the treatment of the notes. For a book that is likely to play an important role as a foundation for future scholars and researchers, it would have been preferable if a greater number of references had been included, and also if the references had been more explicit, especially when narrating factual incidents that possibly changed the course of events. To illustrate, “…though there were no records kept of the meeting, it is now fairly obvious that the decision to mount an attack on Thagla Ridge…” or another one, “…as per Krishna Menon’s orders, there were no written records maintained, so it is not known who took the incredible decision”. The author’s challenge in the absence of authentic information is understandable or perhaps he wanted to avoid unnecessary clutter so as to ensure a flowing narrative.

In all his works, Verma’s writing has a unique and distinct character. Based on intimate ground knowledge, his interpretation of ideas and events expressed in a riveting narration is his forte. With his simple language, he weaves an easy to comprehend fabric of a subject that could have become rather heavy with military terminology, peculiar names of places and personalities unfamiliar to the current generation of readers. His passion and sound conviction reverberates as he continues to grip the attention of his readers. This is a must read not only for security analysts and professionals, but for all those interested in our nation’s history, future stability and growth.

Aleph Book Company, Pg 413

— Shiv Kunal Verma

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