Valley of Death

An extract from 1962: The War That Wasn’t
1962: THE WAR THAT WASN’T (Lt Gen.) Thorat’s suggestions dated back to 1958, a full four years before it all fell apart on 20 October 1962 on the Nam Ka Chu. Thorat wasn’t some desk officer sitting in an obscure corner of the ministry of defence; he was the Eastern Army Commander. Further, he had the army chief, Thimayya, fully backing him. Accordingly, on 17 March 1960, Thorat held Exercise Lal Qila which further elaborated on the magnitude of the threat from China and the vast area over which India would be vulnerable. Though the event was attended by almost all senior officers and others in the decision-making loop, the bottom line was that the warnings from the army commander and the army chief were ignored. Over the next thirty six month, arbitrary decisions with little or no military logic would be taken that would effectively seal the fate of the army.

Lal Qila was a two-part assessment of the situation vis-à-vis China, with the possible reactions of both West and East Pakistan and the implications of the conflict on Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. The first part dealt with the situation on the ground as on March 1960 (the present) and the second part was a projection of the situation in 1961 (the future).

Point by point, under sixty-four different sub-heads, the assessment and outline plan spelt out the situation on the ground and the options available to both sides. Thorat pointed out that while so far the threat had been from Pakistan, now there was no doubt that China also posed an equal threat on the country’s northern and northeastern borders. He went on to enumerate the various incidents that had led to this conclusion:

China’s refusal to accept the McMahon line as the international boundary, the various incursions into Indian territory in UP, NEFA and Ladakh, and the fact that diplomatic and political solutions had not worked. He also pointed out that the army might need to render assistance to Nepal and Bhutan as China had laid claim to some of their territories as well. He then listed the army’s responsibilities in the area: the setting up and maintaining of strong posts along the border so as to control all routes of entry into India through Tibet and Nepal. While Thorat could not call on Army HQ reserves at this time, he didn’t need to consult civil authority in the Naga Hill Tracts Agency (NHTA) before taking military action either. This, at best, would give him a strategic reserve of a brigade if and when the need arose to pull troops out of Nagaland and commit then into NEFA.

Thorat’s appreciation of the situations got more and more alarming as he focused on the emerging communication network in Tibet. Ever since the PLA marched into Lhasa in 1950, the emphasis had been on building roads-both strategic and tactical. China was connected with Tibet, Tibet with Sinkiang, Sinkiang with Pakistan and so on, often through areas that were until then considered almost inaccessible. While these were the larger and more prominent arteries that were causing concern in India’s Parliament, a smaller but deadlier network was being built and working its way southwards to threaten Ladakh, UP, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, NEFA and even NHTA.

Special Intelligence reports (available not only to the army and the defence minister but also to the prime minister’s office) were constantly feeding in information that could hardly be ignored.

Earlier, in October 1959, Thorat had recommended a three-tier defence for the Eastern Sector, specifically NEFA. Subsequently referred to as the Thorat Plan, the suggestion was to establish small outposts as close to the McMahon Line as possible with the sole intention of keeping watch and giving early warning. These outposts were under no circumstances to get drawn into a battle, but were to fall back before the Chinese could advance. The second tier was to consist of strong delaying positions, which would force the enemy to halt, deploy and fight. This would lead to a delay, as the Chinese would have to regroup and bring their supply bases ahead before attempting to move forward.

The third tier was to prepare tactical ground of their choosing where the Indian troops could take up positions that would have supply lines that could be maintained from the plains, thus turning the difficulties of the terrain to their advantage. The Chinese then would have absolutely no choice but to fight with their lines of communication extended.

The defensive line was accordingly drawn, extending west to east along Tawang-Bomdila-Ziro-Daporijo-Along-Roing-Teju-Lohitpur-Hayuliang-Jairampur. In his introduction to the exercise, Thorat had commented: ‘It must be appreciated that in the early stages of any war the attacker will always have the initial advantage over the defender because he can choose the time and place for the attack and can therefore apply all his strength at any given point. Therefore, he will get into the defender’s territory and make penetrations. If this happens the defender must not lose heart because he will have his say when he has located the main thrust and moves his reserve to meet it — very likely on ground of his choosing. There he will give battle, stabilise the situation, and then steadily push the enemy back. This process may take a long time, but there is no other answer to it when one is on the defensive. I make this statement pointedly because I realise that even small-scale penetrations will have great demoralising effect on the country’s morale and may embarrass the government. We must therefore condition our minds to expect and accept these inevitable penetrations in the early stage of the war. ‘Even if I were to disperse my force on a “thin red line” all along the border, it will serve no useful purpose for I shall be weak everywhere and strong nowhere. Therefore, I do not propose to do so.

‘As the enemy comes further away from his bases on the other side of the McMahon Line, his communications will get stretched. He will find it increasingly more difficult to maintain his forces, and this situation will get worse day by day. A stage will come when his maintenance difficulties will be the same as mine, and it is then that I shall give him the first real fight. The scene of this battle will be a line running east to west through the middle of NEFA which for purposes of this paper, I shall call the Defence Line.’

Frankly, this was not a plan that needed an army commander’s input; it should have been obvious to any soldier with the slightest common sense. Unfortunately, the exact alignment of the Thorat Line was flawed as it was drawn off a map. In the Kameng Division, the Tawang-Bomdila axis was actually a line of withdrawal, ignoring Se-La as a possible defensive position. If maintaining the defensive line from the plains was to be the criterion, then the line ought to have run from the Manda-La Heights (the approach to Dirang Dzong running parallel to the Indo-Bhutan border) to Bomdila, which was thirty kilometres to its west. The other problem was that each anticipated point of entry of the enemy needed to be dealt with separately as there was no lateral communications between these points.

Aleph Book Company, Pg 413

— Shiv Kunal Verma


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