Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru Interacting with Army personnel at NEFA in 1962 | Photo Division, GOI
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The first-ever Param Vishisht Seva Medal of the Indian army was awarded to Lt Gen B. M. Kaul in 1960, notably for the successful completion of Operation Amar – the construction of 1,450 barracks/family quarters for troops in Ambala – which was inaugurated by the Prime Minister on 20 August 1958. This project was the brainchild of the then Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon. To save on cost, the project entailed using troops as labour for the construction. Gen Thimayya, the Chief of Army Staff, was opposed to the project, but during his absence for a visit to the USA, Maj Gen B. M. Kaul, then General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 4 Infantry Division at Ambala, directly approached the Defence Minister and got the necessary approvals. The famous Red Eagle division rose to the occasion under his dynamic command and successfully completed the project in a record seven months.

During his command tenure, in 1956, he had also given a firepower and manoeuvre demonstration by an infantry battalion to the visiting Chinese delegation led by Prime Minister Chou En-Lai at the Naraingarh field firing ranges. Our army and air force had put all their might on display – troops had rehearsed the demonstration for months to achieve perfection. The Chinese were awestruck and a visiting General was compelled to ask, ‘General, would such immense resources be available to a battalion in war?’ Thus 1956–1959 was spent by 4 Infantry Division in organising great spectacles to showcase nationalistic spirit by constructing housing using troop labour and in impressing the Chinese by using disproportionate assets in support of a battalion attack.

In end-1959, 4 Infantry Division was despatched to NEFA. Lt Gen B. M. Kaul, having earned his PVSM, was now the Quarter Master General responsible for army housing. War clouds were looming, but the General was still obsessed with his pet projects. Rather than staying in tents and focussing on preparing defences, the ever-efficient 4 Infantry Division was tasked to construct bashas (temporary mud and tin-roofed accommodation) under Operation Amar 2. Representations were brushed aside and construction began on a war footing. Operation Amar 2 was inaugurated by none other than the prime minister on 14 April 1960.


Also read: Forgotten history —When India put 3000 innocent Chinese-Indians in a camp due to 1962 war


In the early 1960s, the unit lines, messes and bungalows were also used for the ‘grow more food’ campaign for wheat and other crops. It was a common sight in Meerut Cantonment to see troops engaged in farming. Bullocks and ploughs had been bought from regimental funds and old Persian wells had been reactivated. A still older method of drawing water out of conventional wells using a buffalo hide as a water bag and pulled by bullocks or male buffaloes was also put to use. Once, during a locust attack, it was a sight to see troops in hundreds beating empty peepas (metal canisters) to frighten the locust away from the wheat!

In 1961, it was clear to all that war with China was imminent. However, the government at this juncture decided to throw the Portuguese out of Goa. Operation Vijay to liberate Goa was a classic tri-service operation against a very weak enemy and was all over in two days. However, great publicity was given to this ‘feat of arms’ with high-pitch political rhetoric and public adulation. The only sour note was that some units indulged in looting and were forced to march on foot on the way back. The liberation of Goa was long overdue but in hindsight, the timing, by design or default, led to public attention being diverted from what was happening on the northern borders. Also, it brought a false sense of complacency about our military prowess.

Such was the prevailing environment, ethos and culture in the Armed Forces during the Fifties and early Sixties. Grassroots training, the primary preoccupation of an army in peacetime, had been neglected; generals were bending backwards for political favours; the Chief of Army had resigned due to reckless political orders for taking over the northern borders to execute the forward policy without requisite infrastructure; he was, of course, cajoled into withdrawing his resignation but was later humiliated during discussions in parliament.

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Also read: India learnt the wrong lesson from 1962 China war. Modi govt must be more open


Note the irony, when war came in October-November 1962, it was the 4 Infantry Division that faced the brunt in the Kameng Division. 4 Corps, responsible for the defence of NEFA, was commanded by none other than Lt Gen B. M. Kaul. During the final conference held by the Chinese Politburo on 6 October, Marshal Ye Jianying informed all present that during his 1957 visit to India, he had met General Kaul, the Indian Commander in NEFA. He said that though Kaul had served in Burma (now, Myanmar) during the Second World War, he had no actual combat experience. He added that Kaul seemed, ‘to be very rigid, even if an impressive looking soldier. Still, he was one of India’s most outstanding commanders’. Mao cut him short and sarcastically said, ‘Fine, he’ll have another opportunity to shine.’

Alas, the rest is history. The Indian army with 200 years of unblemished history was routed in just eight days of fighting, four days each in October and November 1962. Of course, we have come a long way. It took us three years of concerted training and ‘detoxification’ to keep our heads above water in 1965 and another six years of hard work to redeem our reputation in 1971.

With the above backdrop, I appeal to our political leaders and our generals, that while participation in non-military ‘national causes’ is a noble effort, do not forget that our primary mission is to safeguard the nation.

This article was originally published in Newslaundry, 4 October 2017. Excerpted with permission from The Indian Army: Reminiscences, Reforms & Romance by H.S. Panag, published by Westland Publications, July 2020.

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13 Comments Share Your Views

13 COMMENTS

  1. Nehru was more concerned about his own self image than India’s national interest. Krishna Menon was a 🤡 orchestrated by his political masters. Joy Jawan, joy Kishan.

  2. Lack of gratitude of Indian Army for Operation Amar sums up the character. Operation Amar was not isolated but followed by many such construction of housing units for armed forces around the country. During Partition Indian Army lost 1/3 men but 2/3 housing which was located in what became Pakistani territory. In 1957 many troops returned from Kashmir and Nagaland operations but could not still live with their families. Using troops as labour for the construction was not just to save cost but hasten the project. If Ministry of Defense had to use outside labour, Menon would have to go through other ministries and would take decades. But if Menon indeed saved cost and used the money for arms and ammunition, why is that a problem? Krishna Menon was called “Formula Menon” because he had the ability to think outside box and come up with ingenious solutions to pestering problems. If Gen Timmayya really opposed it, it shows how little Timmayya cared for his troops.

  3. Ignorance of Lt. Gen Panag who ironically brags to be great warrior and (even worse) recognized as a great strategist is disturbing. To dismiss liberation of nearly million Goan people from centuries of religious oppression and addition of territory as unnecessary and undesirable while magnifying insignificant skirmish at uninhabited northern border shows his lack of sense of proportionality and understanding of warfare. To portray NATO founding member Portugal as a weak enemy shows how clueless Panag is. If Naser did not close the Suez Canal in time, Portugal warships would arrive, at least prolonging the war. Since Portugal already approached UNSC, if the war drags on more than two days, UN and NATO intervention would be inevitable. Panag is either ignorant or just lying to show Indian political leadership in poor light. If Goa Liberation is acknowledged by Indian Army, then they will have accept BM Kaul’s leadership who was the architect of the Operation Vijay. Then they cannot blame Indian Army’s systemic failures and incompetence on BM Kaul. Hence this deceit.

  4. Does Indian army’s “200 years of unblemished history” include performance against unarmed men women and children at Jhallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919? It is unfortunate that even with 56 year hindsight, Indian Army does not understand warfare. How does their performance against Pakistan (1965 and 1971) redeem one against China in 1962? Who commanded troops that abandoned posts and run away at Se La and Bomdi La? Why is that performance blamed on BM Kaul? How does Panag explain Indian Army handing over territory to Chin at Galwan and Pongong now? Will they need a war against Nepal to redeem themselves again?

  5. India did not add a single inch to its territory after Jawaharlal Nehru except un-militarized and uninhabited Siachen in 1984. Nehru was successful integrating Princely States including Sikkim and Manipur as well as colonial Puducherry and Goa. So, Goa invasion by itself did not lead to 1962 war either. Manifest Destiny is not unique to India and ends for every country at some point as it did for India in 1962. BM Kaul was a good soldier and a patriot. Eastern commander was LP Sen to whom Kaul reported as corps commander when Umrao Singh refused to fight. There was nothing Kaul or anyone else in his place that could have done differently that could alter the outcome. Nehru was blamed for not deploying Airforce while Modi did not use Airforce in 2020 either. Manekshaw replaced Kaul towards the end but accomplished nothing. Selective history and half-truths have brought India to this current crisis. Likes of Panag still refuse to see big picture. and lulled the present government to repeat 1962, squandering benefit of hindsight. For Panag to NOW inform us that 1962 conflict was unavoidable is deceit.

  6. Observer, there is a small mistake in your comment. Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh was GOC western command, not northern command. Northern command did not exist at the time.

  7. I value the insights provided by Lt Gen Panag (Retd). My purpose is to remind the readers about the Korean War, and lessons that could be learned. There was a UN authorized war in the Korean peninsula in 1950’s. India participated in the Korean war effort. UN forces, led by US general MacArthur, crossed the Yalu River bordering North Korea and China. China retaliated and pushed back the UN forces. India could have learned about the Chinese military from that event. Unfortunately, 1962 war suggests otherwise. Cooler (still pragmatic and patriotic) heads could have prevailed then. Cooler heads in India should be offered an appropriate role now.

    • VK Krishna Menon DID learn about China from Korean War. But he was branded a communist and silenced. More important question now is, why didn’t India learn from its own 1962 experience and commit the same blunder of seeking Aksai Chin again, knowing how far China went last time? Likes of Panag misled the people of India and government. This is the first time Panag admitted that 1962 war was inevitable. Yet, he is still lying about Kaul. Kaul at least had the courage to fight. Rest of them just gave up and ran away in 1962. Now there is no Kaul. India just folded up and retreated.

    • The UN forces did not cross the Yalu river at any stage of the campaign. Crossing the Yalu they would have entered Chinese territory. A couple of South Korean ROK army units mainly reconnaissance, reached uptown the Yalu but never crossed it. Prior to that, 3 Chinese field armies numbering about 100,000 men a
      had already crossed the Yalu and reached North Korea between 10th to 20th October 1950.

  8. In Nehru’s view the army was a necessary burden rather than a necessity and unfortunately belonging to the closed knit group of Kashmiri Pandits he had no option but to adjust his relatives somewhere . Had invisible hands (who are now visible) not forced him there would have been no forward policy and no India China conflict. Regarding 1965 war Lt.General Harbaksh Singh then GOC Northern Command has given an unvarnished account in his book “War Dispatches” though there are some little omissions for example he does not mention that the burning of Batamaloo was an official rather than an unofficial act. As far as the 1971 war is concerned it was the result of Yahya Khan and Tikka Khan and Bhutto wanting to solve the Bengal problem with or without the participation of the people of Bengal just like the present dispensation abrogating Article 370 to solve the Kashmir problem with or without the participation of the people of Kashmir. Now according to a news report in Print Mr.Ram Madhav is asking the leaders of Kashmiri parties to come to the streets and demand restoration of Article 370. Print quotes him as saying “Go to the people and demand restoration of Article 370, argue for it. Our stand is that 370 was bad for J&K and that’s why we removed it, but you can say how it was useful. This is politics. What is happening here instead is that some people are either using this issue to support terrorism and getting people killed, while others continue to mourn at home..” Mr.Ram Madhav’s attempt looks like trying to lock the stables after the horses have bolted.

    • BM Kaul was NOT related to Nehru. Army being necessary burden is not Nehru view but fact. All the equipment that won 1965 and 1971 wars which Panag brags of were purchased by Nehru and Krishna Menon.

  9. Someone so familiar and even at times being part of the defense SCREW-UPS legacy, it is strange to read earlier articles.

    • Lack of gratitude of Indian Army for Operation Amar sums up the character. Operation Amar was followed by many such construction of housing units for armed forces. During Partition Indian Army lost 1/3 men but 2/3 housing. In 1957 many troops returned from Kashmir and Nagaland operations but could not still live with their families. Using troops as labour for the construction was not just to save cost but hasten the project. If Ministry of Defense had to use outside labour, Menon would have to go through other ministries and would take decades. But if Menon indeed saved cost and used the money for arms and ammunition, why is that a problem? Krishna Menon was called “Formula Menon” because he had the ability to think outside box and come up with ingenious solutions to pestering problems. If Gen Timmayya really opposed it, it shows how little Timmayya cared for his troops.

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