Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru Interacting with Army personnel at NEFA in 1962 | Photo Division, GOI
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There is a crushing consensus on “lessons” of 1962 China war among Indian strategists.

The 1962 war remains the most evocative parable in discussions of India’s national security. The anniversary of the defeat invariably occasions laments on how the “lessons” of 1962 are yet to be learnt.

This is doubly problematic. For one thing, history offers no “lessons” – only historians do. And their conclusions are always provisional: open to revision based on fresh perspectives and new evidence. In the Indian strategic community, however, there is a crushing consensus on the “lessons” of 1962. For another, this body of received wisdom actually perpetrates institutional pathologies while ostensibly calling for reforms.

The recent changes to our structures of national security management are a good example of this tendency.

Myth of civilian interference

Let’s start with two tenacious myths that left a genetic imprint on our national security arrangements in the years since 1962. The first pertains to civil-military relations in the run up to the war. The standard narrative is that the political leadership, especially Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon, meddled in operational matters to disastrous effect. In particular, their “forward policy” of deploying small posts in disputed areas left the Army incapable of resisting the Chinese attacks of October-November 1962.

Also read: Not China, 1962 war called India’s bluff

This conventional wisdom is seriously misleading. It assumes that the military had a better idea than the civilians on how to deal with the challenge posed by China. This was hardly the case. From late 1959 until the adoption of the forward policy in 1961, the military brass, led by General K.S. Thimayya, advocated a strategy of “defence in depth”. They wanted to hold defensive positions far behind the boundary claimed by India. Given the state of communications in the frontier areas, this was understandable. But it failed to reckon with the possibility that the Chinese could attempt to grab chunks of territory near the frontier without coming up to the main line of the planned Indian defences.

In fact, this was the Chinese pattern of operations in the run up to the war. It was also the issue of utmost concern for the political leadership. After all, this was a boundary dispute. Nor did the military think seriously about a full-fledged war. From mid-1959 onwards, Thimayya maintained that it was up to the political leadership to ensure that such an attack could not occur. At no point did the military apply itself to this strategic problem of countering Chinese military actions across a spectrum, from incursions to full-scale war. The military’s inability to formulate specific proposals to meet such incursions left the initiative in the hands of the civilian advocates of the forward policy. The military leadership’s weaknesses on this score were as significant as its dismal performance –barring some honourable exceptions – during the war.

Instead of reckoning with such issues, we continue to perpetuate the myth of civilian interference. This also legitimises the model of civil-military relations that came into being after 1962, whereby civilians steer clear of operational matters. This flawed system has neither enhanced political control nor operational efficiency.

IB’s inordinate influence

Consider the other myth of 1962: the alleged intelligence failure in anticipating a major Chinese attack.

Between April and October 1962, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the agency then tasked with external as well as internal intelligence, prepared periodic assessments of Chinese disposition, movements, strength and build-up. The most pointed input came in late May. The IB learnt that the Chinese consulate in Calcutta had indicated to communists and fellow travellers Beijing’s intention to forcefully remove Indian posts in Ladakh. The IB director, B.N. Mullik, passed this on directly to the Prime Minister, the defence minister and the home minister.

Also read: 56 years later, China can still choke Indian troops the way it did in 1962 

Why, then, did the Indian government fail to apprehend the coming Chinese attack? Several factors were in play, but two institutional issues are worth underlining. First, the IB was asked not just to collect information but also to assess likely Chinese responses. This violated the fundamental principle that the reporting agency should not be asked to assess its own reports. This task fell under the purview of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), which was a sub-council of the chiefs of staff committee. The JIC, however, was defunct. In consequence, the IB’s inputs were not subjected to rigorous analysis and their political and military import was not well understood.

A second, and related, factor was that Indian officials’ views tended to be coloured by the IB’s conclusions. Prior to the decision to adopt the forward policy, the MEA and the army headquarters had asked the IB for an assessment of Chinese capabilities and intent. On 26 September 1961, the IB submitted a comprehensive paper stating that “the Chinese would like to come right up to their claim of 1960 wherever we ourselves were not in occupation. But where even a dozen men of ours are present, the Chinese have kept away”.

This assessment soon became an article of faith among civilian and military officials alike. No one paused to ask whether the IB’s assessment was not coloured by its own policy preferences. Mullik had been a staunch advocate of the forward policy from early 1959 and had direct access to the Prime Minister.

Not learning 1962 lessons

In short, the real problem was not a failure of intelligence collection, but the IB’s inordinate influence over intelligence assessment and policy formulation. The narrative of intelligence failure paved the way for the creation of a separate external intelligence agency, the Research & Analysis Wing. The JIC, however, continued to languish for decades. The Kargil Review Committee pointed out the moribund state of our apex intelligence assessment body. Thereafter, the JIC was subsumed under the new National Security Council Secretariat – only to be revived a few years on. Its current position following the latest round of reorganisation is unclear.

Also read: During 1962 war, Nehru was ‘quieter than usual, often in a reverie and sometimes trembling’

The remarkable dominance of former intelligence officials in the national security establishment has been pointed out by other commentators. The problem, however, is not simply of who is reporting to whom or which service has an edge. Rather, it is that when people with similar institutional backgrounds and worldviews dominate the entire chain of intelligence collection, assessment and policy formulation, group-think and tunnel vision are unavoidable consequences. This “lesson” of 1962 is well worth remembering.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research. Views expressed are personal.

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11 Comments Share Your Views


  1. Whether we like it or not, the 1962 war was the result of Nehru’s betrayal of friendship with the Chinese. In the light of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai why did Nehru not act in that spirit? That war was unnecessary and was caused by Nehru’s betrayal of friendship with China and a scheme to extract the wealth of the poor patriotic Indians.

    • Experts never mention (or gloss over) the fact that by November 1962, China retreated to pre-war positions. The timing of (global) Cuban Missile Crisis is not even understood. When enemy retreats, any other nation would claim victory. Only Indians can INSIST being defeated and humiliated. China does not even acknowledge any war taking place, let alone claim victory. 1962 Conflict is trivial in grand scheme of things. Nehru steered the country through largest mass migration in history of mankind. India went through “Direct Action” in 1946 and Partition in 1947 with 1 million deaths each. One would laugh at India’s obsession with a 56-year old issue which did not change a single inch on the ground and had just 4,000 deaths (including 1,000 Chinese). China lost 23 million in WW2, 3 million to its own Civil War, half million in Korea and more in Vietnam which had nothing to do with China itself – not to mention Great Leap and Cultural Revolution. India itself lost millions in WW2 yet nobody bothers to even think about it. Conflict of 1962 was so insignificant even when it happened that the by-election in West Bengal went per schedule. Jyoti Basu in fact wondered if this whole episode was a hoax by Congress to polarize voters against his party which opposed Forward Policy and friendly with China.

  2. The nearly two thousand mile long border is still not settled. Fortunately, it has remained largely peaceful for about forty years, barring some aggressive patrolling on both sides and regular intrusions. It also represents the least valuable real estate both sides possess. Not the Pearl River Delta or the NCR / MMR. In the 1950s, when these troubles were building up, both were young nations preoccupied with other, more important tasks. The Chinese wanted Aksai Chin, to link Xinjiang with Tibet. After the brief 1962 conflict, they unilaterally withdrew, when they could have held on to what they call South Tibet. 2.Which makes me wonder if they are really the villains they have become in popular imagination. The flight of the Dalai Lama and his followers, our giving them not only sanctuary but allowing the setting up of a “ government in exile “, playing assiduously the “ Tibet Card “, quite possible these acts look very different from Beijing than they do from Delhi. Perhaps we read some signs wrong. We certainly failed to foresee what a coming together of Pakistan and China would do to our security. 3.China has moved past 1962 in a way that we have been unable to. They have written the world’s most impressive growth and development story, now see themselves in America’s league, even if that sentiment is not reciprocated by the US. Perhaps 1962 could have been avoided and the two countries, while natural competitors and rivals, should not have forged such a hostile dynamic. We should study history to fashion a better future, not remain trapped in its shadows and regrets.

  3. The cover ups will continue. There are many good reasons why the corrupt, incompetent, Indian Neta Babu Raj will not publish the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report. Bandit Jabberlal Neckscrew is one of them. My uncles and their friends were Air and General officers at the time.

    • Did your uncles and friends abandon posts and run away like rest? Was your Air officer uncle nice enough to drop our food, clothes and ammo in Chinese positions for their use against our army?

    • Since your relatives were ‘Air and General officers’, you mean to say the army was goodie goodie and it is only the political leadership was the villain.

  4. This debacle can be analysed from two perspectives: (1) For some reason, India has largely been a passive contender in large scale geopolitical engagements throughout its history. India’s most notable outreach initiative was the propagation of Buddhism (soft). Nehru, with his great belief in the innovative non-aligned movement was a pacifist at heart. Even though he had experience of Pakistani transgressions in Kashmir, he was moulded in Gandhi’s ideology of non-violence. As a prime minister whose focus was making a leap from an old civilisation to a new nation, he was perhaps not willing to acknowledge that China would go all out militarily. So in a way he was a reluctant warrior (unlike his daughter who was much more decisive in such crisis less than a decade later, and rightly so as a strong leader should be). (2) the continuing border issues in South Asia are a result of religious and ethnic heterogeneity in the region. Unlike the West (Western Europe and the largely Anglo-Saxon America) who have matured from their experiences in the Great War and WWII, our South Asia and Asia Pacific regions have not matured in creating and adhereing to agreements. Perhaps a large scale showdown is imminent before settlements take place.

  5. I appreciate the fresh perspective of Sri Srinath Raghavan at these 2-generations old narratives. But he perpetuates yet another myth of Nehru being “misled” by coterie as a dictator would be. Nehru attended Parliament everyday if in town and listened to critics intently and responded responsibly. Nehru discussed anything and everything in press meets. Author attributes Forward Policy entirely to BN Mullick, while (in reality) the only opponents of that policy in the entire country were Communists. Claims of BN Mullick’s closeness with Nehru are overrated. Mullick came from Police who spied for British government on freedom fighters like Nehru. Parliament passed many resolutions demanding Nehru government “throw out China” from Aksai Chin which in effect became the Forward Policy. While Timmayya hoped “political leadership will ensure that China would not attack”, Nehru government was under pressure since 1950 to ATTACK FIRST, starting with Sardar Patel’s much hyped letter. Nation was intoxicated by Nehru’s own success annexing Princely States, Pondicherry and making Sikkim a subsidiary. That euphoria peaked when Krishna Menon ousted Portuguese and liberated Goa in December 1961. Chinese looked small compared to Europeans (Britain, France, Portugal) whom we defeated! Krishna Menon was accused of “betraying India” by “allowing himself photographed” with Gen Chen Yi at Laos Conference. When Zhou Enlai brought peace proposal that accepts status-quo in 1960, Jana Sangh demanded Zhou be arrested upon arrival and war declared on China. If India accepted Zhou’s proposal, there would be no more border dispute. But Minoo Masani claimed Nehru “humiliated India” by inviting Zhou. Rajaji and Kriplani claimed 1 Gandhian Soldier was equal to 10 Chinese. Ram Manohar Lohia accused Nehru government of holding military back which supposedly was ready and eager to teach China a lesson. President Radha Krishnan (spiritual) lectured Zhou on India’s rights over Himalayas. Zhou went back empty handed and Nehru was made helpless by his own commitment to democracy.

  6. It was the fear of inability to maintain sustained supply lines and their own intelligence agencies assessment of the readiness of USA directly intervening in NEFA that made them withdraw. Pakistan would have been kept in check by USA and East Pakistan would have been made to give access to the fleet vessels of USA. In such a situation India would have gained at least some ground lost in the Western front.

  7. Then , as now and ever, it’s the trigger for war /open hostilities to break out that needs to be analysed in depth. Capabilities for war are built and retained over time, what would bring these to a ‘shooting’ engagement requires constant monitoring by the national security apparatus at the highest politico-intelligence level .In this the actors in decision making process of the adversary are critical.
    In contrast the operational planning invariably rests on ‘blundering’ into war either in a proactive or a reactive setting.
    How did 62 come about in Oct ? At a particular point in time and space?And why?
    An important lesson for future should emerge by focusing on the trigger.


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