By Ramesh Phadke
In the 50-odd articles that have appeared in the media on the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Sino-Indian Border War, two issues have not been adequately addressed. First: the myth that the Indian Army had not provided viable military options to the then Government of India. Second: The reasons for the non-use of the combat potential of the Indian Air Force.
Until 1959, the defence of NEFA, now called Arunachal Pradesh, was the responsibility of the Ministry of External Affairs and not the Ministry of Defence and its borders were manned by personnel of the Assam Rifles. Most Indian readers are not aware of this. This was done to avoid annoying the Chinese.
In 1957 when Lt. Gen. SPP Thorat took over command of the Eastern Army then based at Lucknow, his area of responsibility stretched all the way to the eastern end of India’s borders, but NEFA was not included until 1959 when border clashes began increasing in frequency and intensity.
After he had visited many places in his command, Thorat called for the maps of the area and made a thorough and detailed appreciation. He assessed that there were at least six major ingress points or passes in NEFA through which large and organised bodies of enemy forces with heavy equipment and transport could enter India. The terrain favoured the Chinese because the landscape across the border does not have steep hills and mountains but in fact a few kilometres down merges into the vast Tibetan Plateau. There would only be a limited advance due to the difficulties of terrain and the Chinese would have to go back before the passes became snowbound in winter. The use of motor transport and very large bodies of troops could not therefore be sustained along these routes for long periods of time.
In Thorat’s assessment, a minimum of 70 platoons, with 20 in reserve, were needed for the defence of the Northern Sector of NEFA. The Assam Rifles then had only 36 platoons. (Three platoons per company would mean some 30 plus companies or 10 battalions were needed to man what he called ‘screens’ or small bodies of troops to provide advance warning of a Chinese attack. The need for additional support troops, equipment, signals communication, mortars, artillery and the like was also listed. Additional troops were obviously needed for the main defences.1
After studying the topography of the terrain, Thorat then forecasted the need for setting up in-depth positions which could be properly defended because the terrain and access to roads would favour the defender. These positions were roughly half way between the McMahon Line and the foothills. Thorat also underscored the urgent need to develop roads and other surface infrastructure in the area to support the movement of such large bodies of our own troops. Earlier, in 1950-51, a committee led by Deputy Defence Minister Maj. Gen. Himmatsinghji2 had already toured the area very extensively and submitted a similar requirement for the development of the surface infrastructure. The tardy progress of this initiative was known. Both GB Pant, the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh and later Union Home Minister, and Dr. Sampurnanand, another Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, had directly complained to Nehru about this and yet little progress was achieved.
In 1959, the Indian Army’s 4th Division was ordered to move to the East after it had completed the now ‘famous’ Op. Amar Housing Project at Ambala for the Jawans under the ‘dynamic’ leadership of Lt. Gen. BM Kaul who was awarded the PVSM for it. On reaching the foothills, 7 Brigade, then under Brig. DK (Monty) Palit (a VrC of the 1947-48 Kashmir War and a horseman, Shikari and mountain trekking expert) walked all the way to Tawang and beyond as there was not even a jeep-able road in the West Kameng Division of NEFA and wrote an appreciation in which he chose Se La as the area where he would site his main brigade defences. By the time the war started, a jeep-able road linking Tezpur to Tawang had come up but beyond that the 30 odd kilometres to the border was still a hard slogging march. A helipad and some logistics areas were also established in the Tawang area. 3
On 8 October 1959, the Thorat plan was sent to Army Headquarters where General Thimayya approved it and personally showed the requirements to Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon. But Menon dismissed them as alarmist and unnecessary and boasted that he was confident of stopping the Chinese on his own with diplomacy and, therefore, the plans were not shown to Nehru. Another major reason for the rejection of the army’s plans arose from the inability of the civilian leadership to understand simple army tactics. Nehru had promised Parliament that he would defend every inch of Indian Territory. How could India defend every inch of her sacred land against the enemy if the army envisaged siting its main defences half way down in the foothills? The civilian leadership failed to realise that defending every inch of territory does not mean posting small groups of Jawans all along the border without mutual fire support and logistics back up. They also missed the role of the screens posted at points of likely ingress along the border. What if the Chinese came in and just stayed put? The army would then have to launch a counter attack to evict them. Thorat retired in May 1961 but was called to Delhi by Nehru after the battle in NEFA in October 1962. When Thorat personally showed him the plans, Nehru asked as to why he was not shown these earlier to which Thorat said Menon might provide the right answer.
In 1962, the Indian Air Force (IAF) then had some 25 Squadrons consisting of 100 each of Hunter, Mystere fighters and Canberra medium bombers, a squadron of photo-reconnaissance Canberra, some 75 each of relatively old slow speed and less capable Toofani and Vampire fighters and about 30 Gnat Mk.1 fighters in its inventory. The photo- reconnaissance Canberra had mapped the Chinese Road in Aksai Chin and provided a mosaic to Menon before Nehru made his statement on the issue in Parliament. A Canberra had also flown over NEFA but could not photograph the borders due to clouding. The pilot then flew below the clouds and visually confirmed the well-entrenched positions, Nissan Huts, artillery and transport of the Chinese PLA and reported this to the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal AM Engineer, who was personally present at Jorhat airfield to brief and debrief the pilot on landing. 4 Before the war, a Hunter had been asked to fly over Ladakh but was not allowed to come down below 15,000 feet. This pilot later rose to be the Chief of Air Staff. The Hunters based at Ambala were more than capable of engaging the Chinese in Ladakh especially when Chushul was threatened. Rezangla would then have seen a very different outcome. According to my information, some experienced fighter pilots were already deployed at forward bases such as DBO and Chushul for Forward Air Controller (FAC) duties to direct the IAF fighters. Although JK Galbraith was correct in assuming that the Chinese invariably marched by night and across country, he based this on the experience of the Korean War. His belief that for this reason alone the IAF would have been ineffective is not quite correct since the entire Aksai Chin region is without even a ‘blade of grass’ and the road/paths followed by the PLA in Kameng and Lohit Divisions of NEFA could have been effectively attacked, interdicted or, better, Chinese logistics and heavy artillery across the border could also have been targeted. All of the fighting did not only occur under the cover of darkness. The IAF was already familiar with Machuka, Tezu, Heleluyang, Tri-Junction, Walong, Tawang, Sela and Bomdila in the East and DBO, Chushul, Rezangla, Chip Chap Valley in the West, since all of these areas were after all being air supplied for many years prior to the conflict. Finally, the use of IAF combat power would have in all probability prevented the second wave of Chinese attacks that came on 18 November. The Indian political leadership was apparently fearful of escalation into an all-out war!
The Army suffered reverses not for want of valour but due mainly to the inability of a few generals to see the situation in the right perspective, a total disconnect between the military and civilian political leadership, a false sense of bravado (‘Throw the Chinese Out’), the inexplicable reluctance to talk to the military leadership, Nehru’s fondness of relying upon foreign advice (Mountbatten in 1947 and Galbraith in 1962), and above all a major misreading of the prevailing geopolitical climate which caused Nehru to think that the Chinese would not attack India since that would invite the direct intervention of the super powers – a clear over estimation of India’s importance. Finally, neither the Army nor the political establishment saw it necessary to speak directly to the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal AM Engineer, and take his views on the actual capabilities and effectiveness of the IAF. We must therefore not learn the wrong lessons from this 50 year old border conflict. India does not want war but what if it comes anyway.
1. Lt Gen SPP Thorat, “From Reveille to Retreat”, Allied Publishers, New Delhi, 1986, pp. 189-203, 212-217.
2. Air Marshal MS Chaturvedi, History of the Indian Air Force, Vikas Publishing House, New Delhi, 1978, pp. 104-05.
3. Late Brig GS Sidhu, my father-in-law, was the Brigade Major of 7 Brigade when it moved to the East in early 1959. These details are based on my long conversations with him.
4. Interview with Air Marshal Randhir Singh at Chandigarh on 14 January 2012. This 91 year old flew the first Spitfire sortie on 27 October 1947 against the raiders in J&K and also flew the Canberra photo reconnaissance missions prior to 1962 and is as lucid and clear eyed as ever.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/TheTwoMythsof1962_RameshPhadke_301012