From Henderson to Subrahmanyam: Army
to be Blamed.
And Political Leaders?
Dr. Rakesh Datta
The occupation of Tibet by China in 1950 and subsequent developments
in Tibet were crucial for India in matters of politico-military interest
including those of trade and culture. But Nehru was convinced that his
Tibet policy would be best preserved by increasing cordial relations
with China. In fact it was considered as the best way of protecting
the Northern borders.
It may be interesting to know that instead of hardening its attitude
towards China, the Government of India rather supplied 10,000 mounds
of rice to Tibet, just a year after its occupation, in the event of
famine in south Tibet. The demand to this effect was made by China herself
and India obliged.1
However, as a sequel to general uproar in Parliament, the Government
of India constituted in February 1951 a high level North and North Eastern
Border Defence Committee under Major General Himmat Singh, perhaps for
the first time to investigate the long term aspects of Himalayan security.
The Committee submitted its report to the Ministry of Defence
in 1953. It proposed the reorganisation and expansion of Assam Rifles,
extension of administration in the NEFA, development of intelligence
network and communication along the borders.2
In 1952 another Committee was set up under Lt. Gen Kulwant Singh
to study the military threats to the northern borders and to assess
the requirements in the event of a clash with China.
But, unfortunately, these reports were shelved by Government of
India and all that emerged was the raising of a small ITBP force to
establish administration at a few selected places. Moreover it was decided
at the Cabinet level that no military preparation against China was
necessary, which ultimately became the cornerstone of our national aim
and policy with regard to China. It was also the guideline for the government,
the civil services, the experts, the press and the public. As such there
was a complete absence of any strategic assessment of Chinese policy
towards India on the part of Nehru and his advisers.
Although this policy was largely conditioned by our defence weaknesses,
yet, instead of realising the potential threat and consequent preparation
to meet that, only ignorance and uncertainly prevailed in the minds
of the Indian leaders resulting from blind eye view to all hostile activities
of China culminating in the 1962 war.
Earlier, Lt. Gen. Kulwant Singh, the Corps Commander of the newly
raised XI Corps, the only Corps in the then Indian Army, had said in
his report submitted to the Army Headquarters that China will wage a
war on India in a period of 5-7 years. His assessment was made on the
basis of actual reconnaissance of the area made by his general staff.
Meanwhile China had built the Aksai Chin road passing through
the Indian territory and was carrying out other military activities
along the borders about which information was passed on to the Government.
But every report was either dismissed or totally ignored by the Central
As late as in 1958, a contingency plan was prepared by Lt. Gen.
SPP Thorat, Eastern Army Commander, who appraised an attack from China,
apart from the likely areas of thrust and consequent action. It included
the creation of defence line, and provision of buffer areas with tacting
value. But, indifference of the then political leadership to all such
strategic appreciations thickened more with the passage of time; and
the Government instead of taking stock of the true situation rather
replaced Lt. Gen. Umrao Singh, the dissident Corps Commander.
In 1960 General Thimayya was permitted to make a long desired
study of the Alpine troops. He recommended to the Defence Minister,
the raising of mountain divisions but the proposal was rejected on the
ground that formation of such divisions would constitute a basic shift
in strategy with far reaching repercussions on the country's foreign
On 8 September 1960, the Chinese forces crossed the McMahon line
in the Kameng frontier of the NEFA. Government of India confirming the
report officially on 13 September tried to underplay the attack saying
that Chinese forces had appeared in the vicinity of one of the posts.3
Later, just 16 days before the Chinese waged a full scale war
against India, the Government set up a new Corps and appointed Lt. Gen.
B M Kaul as its commander. It was more to give Gen. Kaul the much needed
command experience to prepare him for some higher position rather than
making the Corps battle-worthy.
Thus when China attacked India, the latter was taken completely
by surprise due to the nature and strength of Chinese preparation. The
Indian troops resolutely met the attack and fought back despite being
out-numbered and out-manoeuvred.
Immediately after the war Government of India instructed the army
to conduct an inquiry into reverses in the NEFA. But, Maj. Gen. Henderson
Brooks and his aide Brig PS Bhagat, VC, did not have access to the full
picture and were cut off from inquiring into the actual crucial exchanges
between civilian leadership and Army Headquarters. However, by the nature
of e vents it described, the Henderson Brooks report could not have
been anything but more damaging to the prestige of Nehru and his government
and therefore was classified and kept a top secret.4
The success of the Chinese aggression exposed the weaknesses of
India's defence in the Himalayas and compelled her to realise the urgency
of strengthening it by revising her defence policy immediately.
Thirty seven years have passed since Henderson Brooks report was
prepared and presented in snippets in the form of a statement by Shri
Chavan, the then Defence Minister dealing with intelligence, planning
and preparation besides explaining mildly the shortcomings responsible
for the series of reverses during the Chinese attack.
Subsequently, three years after when Pakistan attacked India in
1965 Mr. Shastri stood completely behind the army and the crisis on
the western sector was dealt with complete resoluteness. After the war
Lt. Gen. Eric Vas (then Brigadier) went around the affected areas and
carried out detailed studies.
The war in Bangladesh again presented a marriage of political
and military leadership. Mrs. Gandhi not only showed complete faith
in the military commanders, but even yielded to their appreciation of
beginning the war in November 1971, despite her own decision to go to
war in march 71, keeping in view the developments in East Pakistan.
The results were splendid. The Indian army had a double distinction
of creating a new country and taking surrender of 93,000 Pakistani prisoners
of war, a feat rare by any standards in this age of modern war.
On the other hand it was a case of misplaced politico-military
judgement that resulted in Indian army paying heavily, both in men and
material, in Operation Bluestar and Ops. Pawan. The hasty decision by
Mr. Rajiv Gandhi and General Sunderji to send the IPKF in Sri Lanka
and then directing it to cleanse the ethnic strife by undertaking military
action against RAW trained Indian rebels, without doing proper WEOT
analysis added more discomfiture for India's political and military
masters then actually mitigating the crisis. It was again a political
misadventure for which Indian army had to suffer heavy casualties. But,
it was the sheer daunting courage of Indian soldiers that they came
out heroic despite odds against them.
After a period of more than a decade that, in Kargil, the Indian
army was once again caught in the quagmire of Indian politics, which
in turn was hoodwinked by policy of propitiation towards Pakistan, where
military was to occupy the back seat.
The new government's agenda at the Centre was to make its Bus
ride to Lahore resounding success as indeed Nehru wanted to live in
the then glory of 'Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai', as a mascot of India-China
Henderson in his report had fixed responsibility on certain army
top brass but the blame was left tacit. However, Subrahmanyam Committee
instituted to look into the circumstances leading to armed intrusion
by Pakistan in Kargil sector besides pointing out 25 glaring deficiencies
in the country's security set up, has severely indicted one brigade
commander for not taking timely action.
As per the finding of the Committee Brig Surinder Singh is the
only senior army officer who has been named in the report. Having found
a scapegoat in the Brigadier and exonerating all the senior army commaders
of the area including people incharge of intelligence, the Committee
has not acted in a fair manner. After all there is a chain of command
which helps in keeping our borders and their security sacrosanct.
Defending 120 kms of area without any operational instructions,
that too in an inhospitable terrain, was beyond the scope of a brigadier
and comes in the purview of Corps level task. At the same time, perhaps
the "Go Slow Directive," to army from the political bosses in Delhi
to see that their peaceful overtures might bear political dividends
from across the border could have been also a cause of initial failures
in Kargil for which both politicans as well as military commanders must
equally share the blame. As Prussian Military thinker Clausewitz had
said "Military takes its character from polity and polity is the womb
in which war develops".
1. PM on Sino-Indian relations, 5 November 1959.
2. Nehru replying to debate on India-China relations
in Rajya Sabha on 9 December 1959.
3. White papers vol. III.
4. Lok Sabha debate, 9 September 963.