In the first week of June, I had the opportunity to read the pdf version of a book written by a frontline young Lieutenant who had served in the People’s Liberation Army in the 1962 war with India, and was attached to the General Political Department of Xinjiang Military District. He was someone privy to the Chinese point of view in the war, and offers sharp opinions on Jawaharlal Nehru, New Delhi’s political and military strategies, Indian Army and Indian Prisoners of War.
A war that should not have happened
The book — A war that should not have happened — commemorating the 50th anniversary of the India-China war is written by Zhang Guozhu, and makes an interesting read. Guozhu graduated from Beijing University’s Department of Eastern Languages, specialising in Hindi, and in 1961 was assigned to the PLA as an officer, which ended his impoverished college life, but improved the economic situation of his family. He vividly describes how China, because of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, was going through severe droughts and economic deprivations.
In April 1962, Guozhu was assigned to the Liaison Department of the General Political Department of the Xinjiang Military Region at Urumqi. Being the only specialist Hindi interpreter in the military region, he was much in demand. Guozhu had access to Indian newspapers, including Sainik Samachar, the fortnightly magazine published by the Ministry of Defence. The young Lieutenant was an eyewitness to the preparations for the war and the long, and difficult lines of communication from Xinjiang to Eastern Ladakh.
Guozhu was responsible for conveying the decisions of the Central Military Commission (CMC) to the frontline troops and hence, he was well versed with the reasons of the war from the Chinese point of view. From July 1962 onwards, he served in the Galwan Valley and also participated in the attack on the Galwan Post on 20 October 1962, when the war broke out. Later on, he was part of the management of PoWs in Xinjiang. Guozhu, in his book, makes interesting observations about the besieged Indian troops, based on his interaction with them.
Causes of the war
There were two fundamental causes for the 1962 war:
- The threat posed by India’s Forward Policy to Chinese territory and the security of the PLA posts, with the Indian Army attempting to outflank them.
- India’s effort to undermine Chinese control of Tibet and its attempts at restoring the pre-1949 status quo ante.
Guozhu‘s account suggests that the Chinese viewed Jawaharlal Nehru and the Dalai Lama as the personalities responsible for the war. The US and other Western powers, and even revisionist USSR, were perceived to be supporting India. The book suggests how the Chinese held Mahatma Gandhi in high regard and appreciated India’s support for China in the international arena. The author acknowledges Aksai Chin and Eastern Ladakh as frontier regions with no clear demarcation of the boundary. However, after the Dalai Lama’s escape and the subsequent grant of asylum by India in March 1959 and New Delhi’s aggressive Forward Policy with Army troops, China began to view India as a friend gone rogue who must be punished.
Based on the political instructions he received from the Central Military Commission, which he conveyed to frontline troops, Guozhu explains in detail the instructions issued to the posts before the war broke out — exercise restraint and mirror the actions of the aggressive Indian troops without provoking them, and leave escape routes once the counter-encirclement is carried out. However, Guozhu says that once the war was declared, the aim of the PLA was annihilation of enemy troops.
The author sums up Mao’s decision to go to war, “This decision has the effect of killing three birds with one stone. One, (it) can curb Nehru’s ‘advance policy’ (Forward Policy) and protect the country from infringement; two (it) can warn those who take advantage of the danger that China is still strong and cannot be violated; three, it can ease the domestic pressure caused by the consequences of the extreme left course.”
The battle of Galwan river
The author had brief tenures in Daulat Beg Oldi Sector and Kongka La, but spent the bulk of his time in Galwan river area. He grudgingly mentions how the Indian Army had surprised the PLA when a platoon of 1/8 Gorkha Rifles took the route via Hot Springs-Kugrang River and set up a post at Samzumling on 4 July 1962 to get behind the PLA post. The PLA had to rush a battalion from the rear to carry out the counter-encirclement.
Over the next three months, before the war began on 20 October 1962, Guozhu describes his interaction with the Indian troops. He initiated the first meeting by singing the title songs of Hindi films Aawara and Do Bigha Zameen. Guozhu appreciates the conduct of the Indian soldiers but also notes the poor siting of their defences and the inferior quality of weapons, equipment and clothing. He describes in detail his rather crude failed attempts at brainwashing Gorkha troops — by urging them not to fight for India, citing the China-Nepal friendship. As per the CMC’s policy, maximum restraint was exercised by the PLA and helicopter drops of supplies on the Indian side were not interfered with. The Indian Army replaced the platoon of 5 JAT by helicopters between 4 and 12 October, but the Chinese didn’t hinder their activity, Guozhu claims.
The attack on the Galwan post in the early hours of 20 October 1962 is also described, chronicling the superiority of the PLA and the rout of the company of 5 JAT. The JAT, under Major Hasabnis (later Lieutenant Colonel) fought bravely and lost 36 out of its 68 soldiers. Rest were wounded and taken PoW. Guozhu describes the stoic conduct of Major Hasabnis, and his address to the ‘remnants’ of his company just after being taken PoW.
Handling of PoW
After the war got over, the author was responsible for indoctrination of the PoWs at a camp in Xinjiang. He chronicles how the Indian officers were separated from the soldiers, but allowed to have meals together. Despite the Chinese propaganda, he notes that the soldiers remained loyal to their officers. He mentions the disdain the Indian PoWs showed for building and cleaning toilets, pointing out that this was the job of the menials. However, after the PLA officers demonstrated by example, they all joined in.
Guozhu doesn’t dwell on the effects of the Chinese indoctrination on Indian soldiers, but certainly seems to have made friends with his counterparts.
Comparison of rival armies
In the end, the author compares the rival armies. Apart from highlighting the vast differential between their capabilities, Guozhu is contemptuous of Indian political and military strategy.
He records that the Chinese intent was no secret, but the Indian political and military leadership buried its head in the sand like an Ostrich and came to grief. Guozhu hints that the Indian military leadership should have advised the government about the ill-thought forward policy against a superior enemy.
It is hard to resist comparing the present situation in Eastern Ladakh with the happenings of 1962. The immediate strategic casusbelli — our development of border infrastructure (that is perceived by the Chinese as threatening “their territory”) without deploying troops to defend the same. Our initial actions being driven by an erroneous assessment of Chinese intent. And the political and military leadership pursuing a strategy to challenge a superior adversary without an ethical assessment of the differential in military capabilities.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.