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.
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.
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.