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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 leadership.

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 policy.

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 relations.

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.






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