2 February 2016

1962 – The War That Wasn’t book review: A Himalayan debacle

Shiv Kunal Verma
January 31, 2016

An immaculately-researched study of how warriors paid, while netas and babus got away clean in the 1962 war against China

WE HAVE, unfortunately, not seen too many dedicated scholars of military history on our shores. This is despite the fact that India has never lacked historians of the highest quality. Even though we have had academicians and scholars who have documented wars and battles, we still lack writers and analysts who have assessed military events with the same level of dedication and commitment that general historians have given to their fields of study. Sadly, India has too few writers like Alan Clark, who covered the titanic Soviet-German conflict in the last world war (Barbarossa), or Hugh Trevor-Roper, who analysed the fall of Nazi Germany and the Red Army’s triumphant capture of Berlin in his seminal study, The Last Days of Hitler (1947). Even Hugh Thomas, who was not a military historian, did a commendable job on the military aspects of the Spanish Civil War in his remarkable book.

In independent India’s history of 68-odd years, we have fought five major wars, four of which were with Pakistan and one with China. The Indo-Pak wars went clearly in our favour, although the 1965 clash may not have had as definitive an outcome as we wanted. The Indo-China war of 1962 was a monumental fiasco, the ripple effects of which still resonate in our collective psyche. This disaster was, of course, documented by Australian journalist Neville Maxwell in his landmark study, India’s China War, published in 1970. The huge controversy surrounding this book was fuelled and exacerbated by the fact that Maxwell clearly had access to the top-secret ‘Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report’ (HBBR), which is still treated as classified and top-secret by the mandarins in Raisina Hill. And we all know that the feisty Maxwell rubbed the government’s nose in the dust by releasing the first and operative part of the HBBR on the Internet in March 2014.

Shiv Kunal Verma, who already has a number of books on military history and defence issues under his belt, would, therefore, have had access to the HBBR when he wrote 1962: The War That Wasn’t. However, what Verma has achieved is well beyond what Maxwell did. He has produced an immaculately-researched and carefully-structured study that will be of interest to all Indians, and not just military-history buffs. More importantly, it is likely to stand the test of time, which is the ultimate criterion for all historical treatises. Not being a professional historian has not harmed Verma, but what has definitely helped him are his family ties with the armed forces. Being a military brat has given Verma the requisite empathy for the nation’s warriors and an insight into the military mind, both of which are so important in a study like this.

Verma starts by sketching the historical backdrop of the momentous events of October-November 1962. He goes into the fascinating history of the entire region on both sides of the Himalayas. In the first four chapters, the complex interplay of historical forces in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is spelt out. One must emphasise here that Verma demonstrates how a number of western (particularly British) historians have been unduly biased in favour of the Chinese version. Maxwell, in particular, has gone overboard in peddling Beijing’s perspective that Tibet was a Chinese protectorate, while systematically downplaying India’s viewpoint that it had equally close links with a number of Indian princely states. Verma rebuts these western perspectives forcefully.

The book then goes on to the post-independence period when Jawaharlal Nehru and his ‘Sancho Panza’, Krishna Menon, made a complete hash of our defence and national security policies. Nehru’s first gaffe was when he ignored the sage advice of Sardar Patel about the strategic threat that China posed. Among his other traits, Nehru fancied himself a scholar of history and culture, and his disdain for those who did not share his world view was palpable.

Also, his paranoia about the country’s armed forces was obvious.

It was exacerbated when Menon moved to Delhi and was made defence minister. From then onwards, it was a rapid and precipitate decline of the state of India’s defence preparedness, accompanied naturally by the collapse in the overall capabilities of the armed forces. Verma describes in detail one of the shabbiest examples of the duplicity and underhandedness of the Nehru-Menon duo when they led then army chief, General KS Thimayya, up the garden path in August 1959 and literally tossed the fine soldier into the garbage bin. If nothing else, this abominable incident should put a lid on any efforts by Nehru acolytes to deify the man.

Then came Nehru’s crowning act of folly, when he chose a manifestly unsuitable BM Kaul to join the army headquarters in a critical position. The Menon-Thimayya clash eventually took place when the army chief strongly opposed Kaul’s placement in army headquarters on promotion as the quarter master general. Thimayya was candid and prophetic in his official assessment of Kaul, but it was he who was shown the door for his steadfast loyalty to the country, its army and its elected government. The HBBR noted that Kaul initiated an internal coup in the army headquarters, as a result of which professional military practice was jettisoned. In the ‘Alice-In-Wonderland’ ambience of South Block, officers were handpicked by Kaul to fill key general staff appointments.

The HBBR went on to state unambiguously that “comparatively, the mistakes and lapses of the staff sitting in Delhi without the stress and strain of battle are more heinous than the errors made by commanders in the field of battle”.

In this deadly cocktail of Nehru, Menon and Kaul, there was another component, the Intelligence Bureau chief, BN Mullick, a former colonial police-wallah. It was this quartet that led India into headlong disaster in 1962. Verma’s meticulous recital of the events in October-November 1962 would do credit to established military historians in any part of the globe. He portrays the events on the battlefields, as well as in Delhi’s corridors of power, with an empathy and perception that is touching and heartrending. On one hand was the valour and courage of Indian soldiers and their officers in the battlefields—which is still awe-inspiring—and on the other were the lamentable lapses of judgment, at best, and monumental incompetence and cowardice, at worst, on the part of leaders in Delhi and other decision-making centres.

There are many queries that Verma poses that will haunt the nation for years: why was the Indian Air Force not used; why did morale fail at critical junctures? Did we also not see the ignominious crumbling of the ‘martial races’ myth of the erstwhile colonial masters, with examples like the Delta Company of 2 Rajputs, a Bengali unit (which was a legacy of the great army chief, KM Cariappa), fighting to the last man at Nam Ka Chu valley, while the others fled ?

Verma’s treatise raises as many questions as it answers. This is as it should be for a truly benchmark study. The final word on this book should be the epic lines of the almost-forgotten poem of the late Harji Mallik that Verma resurrects:

“Avenge our unplayed lives, redeem the unredeemable sacrifice,

In freedom and integrity, let this be your inheritance, and our unwritten epitaph.”

BY Jay Bhattacharjee

Jay Bhattacharjee is a business-corporate affairs analyst and a student of military affairs

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