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Indian policymakers overread 1962 Chinese threat, could’ve pulled out from the brink

In 'Power Shift', Zorawar Singh Daulet says the 1962 India-China war couldn't be pinned down to one cause. Here he gives a panoramic geopolitical perspective.

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For the past seven decades, there has been an unresolved debate on the reasons that led to the 1962 war. As with most major conflicts, the causes are far too complex to be reduced to any single factor. Only a panoramic view of the geopolitical picture at the time can offer a good explanation.

With such a long passage of time, however, we must be willing to hold a mirror to ourselves today. The Indian military has unfairly taken the lion’s share of responsibility of what was really a political and intelligence failure at the highest level of the government.

We now know that by October 1960, the Indian Army headquarters (henceforth, HQ) had provided a consolidated intelligence review that showed a Chinese build-up in Tibet that was three times the force levels in 1959. The Chinese were consolidating their hold over Tibet after a period of rebellion and violent unrest. By October 1961, the asymmetry was even greater with improving Chinese logistics and capacity for deeper deployment. In short, India’s political and military leadership were fully aware of the material asymmetry on the frontiers. Yet, it was in such a context that the Indian government decided to adopt an assertive posture by adopting the so-called ‘forward policy’.

China’s Great Leap Forward Strategy, a bold attempt to rapidly propel the economy on to a high-growth trajectory, had failed dramatically producing an economic and ideological crisis in its wake. In India, it led to policymakers over-reading Chinese threat perceptions. The assumption drawn was that given its deteriorating strategic environment after 1959 and economic crisis, China might bark but could not afford to resort to overwhelming force. Such an assessment reinforced Nehru’s overall outlook to armed conflict in general where a large-scale war was deemed highly improbable in the nuclear era. The 1961 ‘forward policy’ of staking claims to disputed pockets and showing the flag upto India’s perception of the border in the western sector probably emanated from this overall geopolitical assessment that was deemed to be advantageous to India.

Until this new approach was decided in November 1961 and passed onto the regional commands in December 1961, the higher defence management and threat assessments had been mostly sound and prudent, and there was no mismatch between resources and objectives. After the bloody border skirmishes in 1959, Nehru had given explicit instructions for restraint and maintenance of the status quo: ‘It should be clearly understood by our civil and military officers…that we must avoid armed conflict not only in a big way, but even in a small way. On no account should our forces fire unless they are actually fired at.’ For the Aksai Chin area in eastern Ladakh, Nehru noted, ‘For the present, we have to put up with the Chinese occupation of this North-East sector and their road across it.’ This political decision was reflected in a policy guidance regarding the China border that was laid down by Army HQ in November 1959. It ‘stressed that the status quo that existed should be maintained and provocative action avoided.’

As we can see, India’s political and military posture prior to the introduction of the forward policy was pragmatic, defensive, and based on an avoidance of any provocation. The earlier strategy was based on a three-tier defence concept where forward posts were only intended for symbolic show of the flag and early-warning purposes, a middle line where these forward posts could retreat, and, finally a main rear base defence line from where counter-offensives could be launched against a logistically overstretched PLA in the event of a major conflict.

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What the forward policy – intended primarily for the western sector or eastern Ladakh area – did was to break the consistency between means and ends by dispersing resources toward forward posts and weakening the position in the rear. But these forward ‘bases were no more than administrative centres with few troops.’

This new policy was ‘militarily unsound’. It ‘virtually intended the establishing of posts to dominate the Chinese positions in occupied areas of Ladakh’ and ‘eventual domination of the Aksai Chin Highway’, without providing the necessary power or deployments to the Western Army Command to underwrite these aims and enforce them if the Indian posture was challenged by the Chinese. In some cases, forward observation posts were also established despite the objections of the Western Command. Nevertheless, by July 1962 India had established several dozen thinly spread out forward posts in the western sector of the India-China border ‘that had absorbed more than half the garrison
strength in Ladakh’.

Another reason perhaps why Indian intelligence inferred that the Chinese were not looking for a serious fight was the fact that since September 1959, China had reduced the intensity of its patrolling, and only resumed these in the summer of 1962. In early October 1959, Mao Zedong had assured the Soviet leadership that China would de-escalate tensions after the two Sino-Indian border skirmishes in that year. During that time, Mao took a decision where the PLA was instructed to cease patrolling in the forward zone within 20 kilometres of China’s line of actual control (LAC).

Using this limited time period of a lull as their reference, the Intelligence Bureau assumed that the Chinese were unlikely to use force against any Indian post even if they were in a position to do so. It was during this phase that India’s forward policy of probing disputed areas in the western sector also found expression. The reality was that the Chinese had already accomplished most of their objectives by their own forward policies of 1956–59, and, by 1960, had established a ‘line of actual control’ in the western sector in the Aksai Chin area. They would henceforth adopt a holding pattern until the second half of 1962.

When China renewed its signalling through limited skirmishes and diplomatic channels to dispel Indian perceptions these were either ignored or misread. ‘Chinese warnings had such a long history that their impact on Indian thinking was reduced in September and October (1962) – the final phase of Chinese preparation for attack. When the Chinese began to use significantly stronger language, the Indians viewed the threats as more of the same.’ From April 1962 onward the Chinese began a process of gradually responding to India’s forward policy, a reaction with profound consequences because the PLA already possessed ‘greater
resources and easier communications’ compared to the Indian Army.

Specifically, the measures included, ‘ceasing withdrawal when confronted by Indian advances and adoption of a policy of “armed coexistence”, acceleration of China’s own advance, building positions surrounding, threatening, and cutting off Indian outposts, steady improvement of PLA logistic and other capabilities in the frontier region, increasingly strong and direct verbal warnings, and by September 1962, outright but small-scale PLA assaults on key Indian outposts.’ Yet, none of these signals caused ‘India to abandon its illusion of Chinese weakness.’ By the end of the summer of 1962, both sides were ‘within striking distance of each other’ and ‘a small incident could spark o widespread hostilities.’

There is some evidence of India’s political leadership attempting a thaw in July 1962. Largely driven by the Defence Minister, V.K. Krishna Menon, India sought a belated outreach to Beijing to restart talks on the dispute. The Indian envoy in Beijing was instructed to meet Zhou Enlai and inform him that Delhi would be prepared ‘to send a ministerial-level delegation to Beijing to discuss, without preconditions, all bilateral problems and disputes.’ The initiative was rebuffed by the Chinese who felt India was unlikely to put forward any new ideas. On July 23, 1962, Menon also met China’s Foreign Minister, Chen Yi, in Geneva. Hobbled by domestic pressure, however, Menon was unable to persuade Chen to allow India to maintain its forward posts around Aksai Chin. Convinced that conflict was imminent, Chen briefed Zhou Enlai upon his return to China. ‘It seems as though Nehru wants a war with us’, stated Zhou. Chen concurred, ‘Nehru’s forward policy is a knife. He wants to put it in our heart. We cannot close our eyes and await death.’

Meanwhile, although few and far between, there were candid assessments owing from some Indian commanders on the ground to Army HQ in Delhi warning about an unsustainable situation developing on the frontiers. In particular, Western Army Command began questioning the assumptions of the forward policy based on its own local intelligence and new patterns of Chinese activity in the western sector. These assessments were not heeded and, in some cases, rejected outright by Delhi. The first Chinese reaction to the forward policy in Ladakh was recorded on April 22, 1962 when a forward observation post was ‘threatened and had to withdraw.’ In July 1962, there were a series of incidents in the western sector where the Chinese signalled their reaction by firing upon or intercepting Indian patrols. This caused considerable concern and prompted a reappraisal by the Western Army Commander General Daulet Singh via a letter on August 17, 1962 to Army Headquarters where he brought out the impending crisis to Delhi’s attention. Since this is an important historical document, it is worth highlighting its salient features here. The essence of this recommendation was that given the unfavourable military situation in Ladakh, ‘it was vital that we did not provoke the Chinese into an armed clash.’

Furthermore, until additional deployments and Indian strength was built up, the forward policy should be held in ‘abeyance’: “Assessments were undertaken before we embarked on the ‘forward policy’, since the inception of which, Chinese reaction has been sharp and significant. This reaction, I estimate, has led them to build up to a full division in Ladakh. Against this, we have been able, in three years, to build up to only two regular and two military battalions. It is obvious, therefore, that if we continue the present race for the establishment of posts, they will outrun us at every sector and at every stage. In fact, with the present quantum of forces and military capabilities on either side, it will be immeasurably to their advantage to entice us to continue this race…The present assessment, therefore, is an attempt to bring military logic to bear on a problem where, so far, military means have been grossly out of step with political needs. Our forward posts in Ladakh are nowhere tactically sighted, whereas the Chinese are everywhere. Our forward posts anchored to their designated zones, are tactically dominated by Chinese posts on higher ground…The Chinese deployment and buildup, on the other hand, shows clear evidence of a tactically sound military plan, in support of a declared objective. We do not as yet appear to have a clear-cut aim in Ladakh, or, if there is one, it is not served by adequate military means…In view of the forgoing, it is imperative that political direction is based on military means. If the two are not co-related, there is a danger of creating a situation where we may lose both in a material and moral sense much more than we already have. Thus, there is no short cut to military preparedness to enable us to pursue effectively our present policy aimed at refuting the illegal Chinese claim over our territory.”

Also read: Why Modi’s bouts with China will make history judge Nehru kindly

General Daulet Singh had earlier given an overarching strategic assessment where he had deduced from the experience of the previous three years that ‘China does not wish war with India on the border issue provided we do not disturb the status quo.’ He had also argued that, as the Aksai Chin road was a vital strategic link for the Chinese, they would react forcefully to Indian moves, which threatened it, however distantly.

The above assessment and recommendation to strengthen force levels over the longer-term and lessen tension in the interim in the Ladakh area was brushed aside on September 5, 1962 by the Indian Army HQ. Instead, Army HQ reaffirmed the rationale for the forward policy, ironically contending ‘that subsequent events had justified the policy adopted.’ On September 20, the Army HQ ordered Western Command that surrounding of Indian forward posts by the Chinese would no longer be tolerated. In the eastern sector, General Umrao Singh, 33 Corps Commander too argued for a less provocative and cautious posture as well as a defensive position in Tawang via a note on September 12, 1962.

Yet, the course chosen by Delhi was to throw troops onto forward posts, which weakened positions in the rear. The entire military strategy, especially for the eastern sector was predicated on the assumption that there could only be limited skirmishes like the ones that had occurred in August and October 1959. Such a strategy dispersed forces that otherwise would have been available for effective defensive operations. It should be clear from the above discussion that opportunities for a policy course-correction were available and yet, fresh intelligence and strategic assessments in 1962, including communications from senior Army commanders advocating restraint and caution to Delhi did not prompt a reappraisal by the Army HQ and, more importantly, the political leadership on the main assumptions underlying the ‘Forward Policy’ or the policy itself. India could have pulled back from the brink as late as the fall of 1962.

This excerpt from ‘Power Shift’ by Zorawar Daulet Singh has been published with permission from Pan Macmillan India.

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