A retrospective of 1962 debacle
Prof SV Seshagiri Rao
Prime Minister Nehru turned a blind eye when the security of India’s northern borders was threatened as never before with the advance of China’s troops into Tibet on 7 October 1950. Not even a mild protest was lodged. The Indian garrison stationed in Lhasa under the 1904 Agreement was withdrawn. The Post & Telegraph and Telephone services and rest houses under the control of GOI were handed over to the Chinese Military.
His own cabinet colleagues cautioned Nehru of the ominous designs of Chinese expansionism. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Deputy Prime Minister, wrote to Nehru from his sick bed on 7 November 1950: “We have to consider what new situation now faces us as a result of the disappearance of Tibet, as we knew it, and the expression of China almost up to our gates….The Chinese interpretation of suzerainty seems to be different. We can, therefore, safely assume that very soon they will disown all the stipulations which Tibet has entered into with us in the past. That throws into the melting pot all frontier and commercial settlements with Tibet on which we have been functioning and acting during the last half a century.”1
A month later, on December 6, 1950, Syamaprasad Mukherjee, another cabinet colleague, told Parliament: “It is no use our trying to gloss over things because these are matters which affect not only the people of Tibet but also the security of India…. The Prime Minister said the other day that we stand by the McMahon Line but the maps of China which are in circulation even now include portions of Assam, Ladakh and Leh and territories in which India is vitally interested. The reply which China has sent to India on the question of Tibet definitely indicates that China will do everything necessary for the purpose of keeping intact what it considers to be China’s border and when it refers to Chinese border, it includes Tibet as well and the undefined boundary of Tibet so far as it touches Indian border.”2
Unmindful of the consequences of Chinese annexation of Tibet, Prime Minister Nehru continued to foster emotional ties with China. He had invoked ancient Buddhist Panchsheel and gave the slogan Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai. Referring to the Panchsheel Agreement of April 1954, Nehru stated in Parliament on 18 May 1954: “We have done no better thing than this since we became independent.”
In July 1954, within three months of the signing of the Panchsheel agreement, the Chinese laid claim to Indian territories by protesting against the presence of Indian troops in Barahoti area of Uttar Pradesh (now in Uttarakhand). During the early stages of the Chinese armed incursions and gradual occupation of Indian territories, the Government of India played down these grave developments and deliberately kept the country in the dark. Such a preposterous approach went on for five years without the press, people and Parliament knowing about it. The Chinese occupation of Indian territories did not begin as a reprisal for granting asylum to Dalai Lama. Dalai Lama came to India in March 1959 whereas the incursions began in 1955.
By 1955, China resorted to the mischief of publishing maps officially claiming 46,000 sq. miles (1,20,000 sq.km) of Indian territory in Ladakh and NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh). Burmese Premier, Ba Swe warned Nehru to be cautious while dealing with Zhou En Lai.
In September 1955, the Chinese forces not only occupied Barahoti but also penetrated 10 miles further south of Niti Pass up to Damzan. More intrusions followed in the summer of 1956 in the same area. A later publication of Government of India disclosed that despite the meetings between Nehru and Zhou in November 1956 and January 1957, “Chinese troops continued their intrusions into Indian territory.”3
Occupation of Aksai Chin
In 1956-57 China constructed a highway connecting Rudok (Tibet) with Sugat Qarawal (Xinjiang) across Aksai Chin plateau of Ladakh. About 12,000 square miles territory of Jammu and Kashmir state was thus sliced off by this road and merged with Tibet. An Indian patrol party sent to Haji Langer of Aksai Chin in 1958 was arrested by the Chinese.
Between October 1957 and February 1958, China occupied Khurnak Fort in Ladakh. A small contingent sent to take back the Khurnak Fort was surrounded by the Chinese forces on 28 July 1959 about 30 miles inside our territory. The Chinese had already established a post at Spanggur further south west of Khurnak.
Simultaneously, on 7 August 1959, the Chinese forces descended from Thagla Ridge (the McMahon Line) in Kameng Division of NEFA and established pickets inside our territory at the strategic tri-junction of Tibet, Bhutan and India. On 25 August 1959, the Chinese military entered into Subansiri Division and surrounded Longju. Our soldiers were taken into custody.
It was only after these fresh incursions, Prime Minister Nehru for the first time admitted in Parliament on August 1959 that the Chinese had indeed occupied our territories. However, during the debate he continued to downplay the grave developments by making comments such as ‘the frontier is 2500 miles long’, ‘there was no physical demarcation in these mountain passes’, and so on.
Despite vast tracts of Indian territory under Chinese military occupation Nehru was bent upon to come to terms with Zhou En Lai. Zhou visited Delhi in April 1960. Durga Das writes: “Nehru was anxious to get China to accept the McMahon Line as the northern boundary of NEFA and Zhou was willing to do so. But in return, the Chinese Prime Minister asked for India’s acceptance of Chinese presence in Aksai Chin. Nehru was not interested in Aksai Chin (where he told Parliament later, “not a blade of grass grows”) and at one stage was quite agreeable to strike a deal. But premature leakage in the Press of what was going on between him and Zhou and its description of the proposed announcement as a “sell-out” on Aksai Chin blocked the agreement. The opposition in Parliament pounced on the report and extracted from an embarrassed Nehru the undertaking that “not an inch of Indian territory would be ceded or bartered away without the approval of the House.”4 Kripalani sarcastically remarked: “How many miles make one inch?”
General Thimmaya, Chief of Army Staff, was sacked by Defense Minister Krishna Menon for suggesting the possibility of an attack by China. Between 1961 and June 1962, the Army requested Menon seven times for equipment. Menon silenced them by repeating what Chinese Foreign Minister Chen-Yi promised him in Geneva – “China would never resort to the use of force to settle the border dispute.” Nehru supported Menon. The army was badly let down.
China’s Preparations for War
By early 1962, Mao Zedong came to the view that military intervention was necessary to teach India a lesson. The Chinese made elaborate planning. It took nearly 6-8 months for Marshal Liu Bocheng, in charge of the invasion, for gathering the resources required for a war at very high altitudes and mountainous terrains. Heavy artillery deployed facing Taiwan was moved into Tibet. Audaciously, China even sent a large quantity of non-military supplies through Kolkata port.
In September 1962, the situation along the border in NEFA deteriorated. Several skirmishes took place on the McMahon Line. On 20 September, the Chinese troops occupied Thagla Ridge. It was a strategic move to take position for attacking Dhola where India deployed a brigade.
On 10 October the Chinese clashed with our forces at Tseng-Jang, a place at an altitude of 16,000 feet. Our forces suffered heavily.
Reacting strongly, while on his way to Colombo on 12 October 1962, Nehru told the Press that the armed forces had been asked to throw out the Chinese aggressors out of NEFA. But there was no adequate planning and preparation. On the other hand there was heavy military buildup by the Chinese across the border.
Reacting sharply to Nehru’s statement, People’s Daily, editorially commented on 14 October: “So it seems that Mr. Nehru has made up his mind to attack the Chinese frontier guards on an even bigger scale… It is high time to shout to Mr. Nehru that the heroic Chinese troops, with the glorious tradition of resisting foreign aggression, can never be cleared by anyone from their own territory…If there are still some maniacs who are reckless enough to ignore our well-intentioned advice and insist on having another try, well, let them do so. History will pronounce its inexorable verdict.”
Marshal Liu Bocheng informed his bosses that the opposing Indian troops were among India’s best, and would require deploying crack troops and relying on force concentration to achieve decisive victory. On 8 October, he moved additional elite divisions from Chengdu and Lanzhou to the Indo-Tibet border. The Cuban Missile crisis was looked upon by Mao as the best opportune time to attack India. On 18 October, the final approval was given by the Politburo.
1. Durgadas: India from Curzon to Nehru & After (1969), pp. 472-473
2. Chanakya Sen: Tibet Disappears (1960), pp 65-66
3. India’s Fight for Territorial Integrity, Publication Division, GOI (1963), p.5
4. Durgadas, op.cit., p. 360
(To be concluded)
(The writer is Member of the National Executive, BJP)