Everyone then had only one spirit within. Boiling patriotism. Burning national fervour. India was attacked. 1962.
It was the shocker of a lifetime to the Indians who were lulled by the lure of Panchsheel. The new melodic punch line ‘India-Cheeni bhai-bhai’ made them believe that a permanent bond of fraternity had dawned upon the giant neighbours. No sooner than its reverberations had settled down, China unleashed unilateral attacks along the border, leaving India stay petrified. Nehru, the prime minster or V.K. Krishna Menon, his defense minister never expected to have a war with China. The top political leadership in such a mindset, India was simply unprepared. The war began on 20 October and ended with the cease-fire on 20 November 1962.
The tussle was about the ownership of two border regions viz Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. .According to India, Aksai Chin was part of Kashmir while China claimed, it belonged to Sinchiang. To strengthen their claim, China built a road bridging Sinchiang to Tibet through the disputed Aksai Chin. They labeled Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet as well, to keep their claim on the territory live. India was not at all willing to budge.
The timing of the attack was also significant. The world at large was in a crisis, with the cold war between the U.S and the U.S.S.R lobbies at an all-time high. The U.S had already deployed nukes and ballistic missiles in Turkey and Italy bringing the whole of Russia in the firing range. Meanwhile, nearer home Cuba under Fidel Castro was becoming a thorn in America’s eye, defying all attempts at destruction, overt and covert. The Russian Prime minister Nikita Khrushchev made use of this opportunity by secretly deploying nuke missiles in Cuba. Thus the US came into point -blank range of Russian weaponry. Oddly enough, the C.I.A was uncharacteristically slow in sniffing the Russian military bases in Cuba. When they belatedly smelt the rat, the U.S establishment went on a war footing. One idea was to destroy Cuba with a sudden attack. But then, Russia would capture Berlin, warranting a nuclear war. Otherwise too, the European allies would blame the Americans for their inability to save the German citadel. Considering many options, the Americans under President Kennedy finally arrived at a strategy: Impose strict sanctions against Cuba. All ships to and from Cuba would be stopped at sea itself. Khrushchev strongly objected to this saying, sanction at sea amount to attacking the concerned nation. The globe was inching towards a third world war. The American and Russian teams stood ready for a fatal finale. And the people of the world stood flabbergasted, fearing an imminent doom’s day.
China found this to be an opportune moment to attack India. All eyes were on Cuba. The world powers were not in a position to interfere in the Asian skirmish. Still, the Americans and their European allies categorically stated that China was the aggressor. This assertion boosted India’s morale. Russian support had always been with India. However, the Cuban crisis delayed their response this time. More than that, their official mouthpiece Pravda, at one point of time went to the extent of describing the rival forces as ‘Chinese brothers’ and ‘Indian friends’. This was a snub to India, though later on the Russians sided with India.
I was a school boy at that time. At school all talks centred on the war. Kareethra sir, C.J. Joseph sir, Chaavara Luka sir, Fr. Ladislavoos and others would speak inspiringly of patriotism and the duty of children. We, the students, set out on a defense rally through Mannanam junction declaring allegiance to Indian soldiers. Our teachers made a call to the student community to join the N.C.C. and the A.C.C., in the service of the nation. Taking up the call, I seriously pondered over my future course of action. I was not the one for physically taxing activities like running, jumping etc. That was precisely why I had not joined any student cadet corps, before. But Simon sir’s explanation that these were civil systems to help the military in need, made me rethink. Finally I decided to join the A.C.C, the next day. I think the Chinese smelt my decision. The morning’s newspaper had its clue: China ceases fire.
There is a historic backdrop to the whole issue. During the British Raj, India- China border was not properly demarcated and bilaterally agreed upon. In 1913, China, Tibet and Britain met in Shimla to arrive at an accord. Ignoring China’s reluctance Henry McMahon, the then British external affairs secretary determined the border on the basis of a bilateral agreement with Tibet. Though China did not grand its final approval, India stood firm on the McMahon line as the India-China borderline. Claims and counter claims ensued.
In 1959, when India gave political asylum to the 14th Dalai Lama who fled from Tibet, the relationship between India and China worsened. Chairman Mao was unwilling to forgive India. On his direction, Xinhua, the Chinese official news agency began criticizing India’s ‘ambition’ in Tibet. It was an apparent indication of the changing stance on the part of China. Sporadic firings followed. Arunachal and Aksai Chin began appearing in Chinese maps as part of People’s Republic of China. Offers like Aksai Chin in exchange of Arunachal came from Beijing. India did not falter. To prevent Chinese incursions, India set up 60 outposts along the border as part of its ‘forward policy’. There had been skirmishes between the rival soldiers in many border areas.
Chou En-lai visited Delhi on 3 October 1962. There won’t be a war, he assured. But within a fortnight, the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party granted the administrative leadership permission to ‘’retaliate for self defense’’. On 20 October, Chinese army launched fierce attacks on Aksai Chin in the western sector and on Nathu-La pass in the east. India, as mentioned earlier, was unprepared and defeat was obvious, blemishing the political and military leadership.
Albeit defeated, Indian soldiers were not disgraced. The country could witness its sons in uniform fight with unbelievable bravery and patriotism in the face of extreme adversity. Some of them have become legendary. For instance, the strategic Chooshool region of Ladakh. The Resang-la pass lies in its vicinity. Situated at 16000 ft above sea level, this pass was vital for the Chinese to advance. 13th Kumavo regiment under the command of Saithan Singh was in charge of the pass. The Chinese would come in at any moment. In the squelching cold, sweeping wind and eerie darkness, 123 men stood waiting patiently for the eventuality. Finally, the enemy came just before dawn. What followed was a David v/s Goliath fight. 500 odd Chinese soldiers were killed by Saithan’s minnows. Unlike the biblical climax though, all except 14 including Saithan lost their lives, it was a glorious sacrifice for the motherland, fighting till the last breath, literally.
Apart from such brief heroic episodes, what was this war to India? Can a war be fought keeping the military leaders at bay? There have been strong criticisms from many quarters that India received this sort of a drubbing due to the lack of co-ordination between the top military brass and the political bosses. The suggestion to use the air force in aiding the army was turned down without any reasoning. Otherwise the outcome would have been different according to N.A.K. Brown, former chief of the air force.
The war of words between Krishna Menon and Gen. Thimmayya had led to the latter putting down his papers. Krishna Menon chose to completely ignore Thimmayya who repeatedly demanded proper preparation in the face of the looming Chinese threat. Nehru had to intervene to retract the General from his decision to quit.
Brig. J.P. Dalvii, who had described the war as ‘Himalayan blunder’ came out with a book, titled so. Though the government banned it immediately, the content was already in hot circulation. The book highlighted the abject inefficiency of Gen. B.M. Kaul, Nehru’s Man Friday. It unfurled the pathetic picture of the brave Indian soldiers ,who got killed, defeated or taken as POWs , fighting the superior firepower of the enemy without the required arms and ammunition, woolen togs to withstand the chilling weather and even enough food. There is a heart-wrenching scene from the war front that Dalvi narrates in the book. Having been at the receiving end of the Chinese weaponry a disheartened Indian jawan tells his brigadier, ‘see, they’re having camp-fire at the mount’’ Any soldier would understand the helplessness and pathos beneath those words. Lighting fire in enemy’s sight is simply inviting fire. The Chinese resorting to such an act echo the assured innocuousness of Indians. Need any better salt to the already wounded soldier’s pride?
Fifty years since the war, the Chinese government declassified many confidential documents. They reveal the Chinese outlook on the issue. China had never accepted the Mac Mahon line as the Line of Control .Still, if there could be an amicable settlement on the border dispute, let it be. –that was the Chinese position which gets elucidated from the correspondence between Beijing and foreign diplomats to China. Chou En- lai reportedly told the then Soviet envoy that he had gone to Delhi for a settlement but it turned out to be an exercise in futility. He tells about the crucial discussions with Nehru on 25 April 1960,’’ We told them that both sides should withdraw their soldiers by 20 km and stop border patrolling. They did not agree. We unilaterally withdrew our soldiers by 20 km and stopped patrolling on our part, so as to smoothen the settlement path by avoiding conflicts. India might have viewed it as a weakness on our part.’’ At one point of time, Mao was even told by Chou En-lai, ‘Nehru longs for war’, and it is said.
It is meaningless to indulge in ifs and buts once the incident is well over. War is all about might, after all. True, accidental incidents could influence the course of a war. In the battle of Waterloo, Lord Wellington had a change in fortune, thanks to a drizzle. And it was waterloo for the mighty Napoleon! During the reign of Elizabeth- I, the invincible Spanish Armada anchored in the English Channel, all set to conquer England. The outcome was to be the obvious. Suddenly, miracle happened in the form of a tornado, drowning the Spanish fleet. England won the war, without waging one. Similar was the fate of Alexander winning the battle and Pururavas losing it from the cusp of victory. This time the fortune changer was the latter’s elephant which suddenly turned back and ran amok.
All these are appealing stories, no doubt. But what is the reality? ‘’ A more powerful army with more powerful leaders and more powerful weapons can make a powerful army with powerful leaders and powerful weapons, powerless.’’ Is this the lesson we have learnt from the India-China war? Or have we learnt it, at all? Ignoring the lessons of history would be the Himalayan blunder.