A Sino-Soviet deal in 1962? Not supported by Facts
July 12, 2005
The Chinese novelist Jung Chang who wrote the much acclaimed novel "The Wild Swans" and her husband, the British historian Jon Halliday have together authored Mao: The Unknown Story, another far from flattering biography of "the great helmsman". They are said to have put in ten years of hard slog and painstaking research and the book promises many new insights about Mao and his times. Among the more sensational "revelations" made is one about a Beijing-Moscow deal on the eve of China's 1962 "invasion" of India. However this seems to derive more from the novelist's imagination and the historian's inability to reconcile the facts. Thus they write: "In October 1962, Khrushchev was secretly deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba. Given the danger of a confrontation with the USA, he wanted to ensure that Mao would not stab him in the back. He decided to throw him a bone, a big one: the Kremlin's blessing for China to attack India." The chronology of events doesn't support this contention at all.
The Chinese threw the gauntlet at us when the PLA surrounded the small Indian Army post at Tsenjang, north of the disputed Thagla Ridge on 8 September. Our government immediately decided to pick it up and the then Defence Minister, VK Krishna Menon, overruling the advice of the then COAS, Gen. PN Thapar ordered the Indian Army to relieve the post. Nevertheless the army, apparently more in touch with the ground and military reality, balked and stayed put. On 30 September, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, just returned from a foreign trip became furious that the governments orders were not implemented. He overruled Thapar's caution again and shouted, "I don't care if the Chinese came as far as Delhi, they have to be thrown out of Thagla!" On 17 October, 7 Brigade reluctantly began an attack to dislodge the Chinese from Thagla.
The Americans only discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba on 14 October and ordered a blockade on 22 October. The Chinese and Russians were at loggerheads since 1959 and it is extremely unlikely that the Russians would have taken them into confidence on putting missiles in Cuba. Quite contrary to the still widely prevalent belief, it was India that initiated military action and the decision was an independent one. Doubly independent, for foolhardiness of such magnitude also requires independence from reality.
Having beaten back the Indian attempt to dislodge them at Thagla the Chinese counter-attacked across the Namka Chu River on 19 October. By 23 October a Chinese PLA force of about three regiments had decimated the Indian Army's 7 Brigade commanded by Brig. John Dalvi (taken prisoner) and was within ten miles of Tawang. On 24 October the PLA entered Tawang unopposed. That night they were also began concentrating opposite Walong at the other end of NEFA, now Arunachal Pradesh. Both, Tawang and Walong were deep inside Arunachal Pradesh. Even in the western sector despite a determined stand, made possible by the deft handling of resources by Lt.Gen Daulet Singh, the Chinese had by and large occupied all that lay within their claim line here by 21 October. There was a lull in the fighting in all sectors after this.
On 24 October the Chinese issued a statement that after the predictable recriminations made three proposals. They were: I. Both sides agree to respect the line of actual control (LAC) as of November 1959 and withdraw their forces twenty kilometers from that line. II. If India agreed to (I), the Chinese agreed to withdraw to the north of the McMahon line in the eastern sector. (This was significant considering the PLA was quite deep inside Arunachal.) III. That the two Prime Ministers meet, either in New Delhi or Peking to seek a friendly settlement. On the very same day a statement was issued by New Delhi rejecting these proposals. On 4 November, Chou En-lai wrote to Nehru commending the Chinese proposals and urged Nehru to accept them. Nehru countered with a proposal on 7 November that the Chinese should return to the positions they held on 8 September and that talks will follow after this is complied with.
During this period of renewed diplomatic skirmishing there were two major developments. The Russians backed down over Cuba on 28 October and agreed to withdraw their missiles. On 29 October the US Ambassador, John Kenneth Galbraith, called on his friend Jawaharlal Nehru and offered "any military equipment India might need." This started arriving within five days and soon there were as many as eight USAF and RAF flights a day each disgorging twenty tons of hardware. Ironically only a few weeks before this Jawaharlal Nehru while rejecting a suggestion of India seeking western arms aid equated the acceptance of military aid with joining a military bloc and declared that India would never accept this "even if disaster comes to us on the frontier." The disaster that visited the 7 Brigade was a small one compared what was to visit the vaunted 4 Division in November.
The lull that followed the quick Chinese advances to Tawang and Walong in the east and to the gates of Chushul, instead of causing the national leaders to introspect and inject some realism into them took them on new flights of fancy. The defeats gave rise to a wave of jingoism and euphoria since seen only once after that, during the Kargil conflict. The Lok Sabha praised the "wonderful and spontaneous response of the people of India to the emergency." Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, always with a way with words, said: "the blood of our martyred jawans is becoming the seed of a new, virile nation that is being born in our country." Little wonder then that Nehru commented "we never had it so good."
Instead of taking stock of what went wrong on the run up to the stinging defeat at Namka Chu our leaders persuaded themselves that could beat the Chinese back. The leaders seemed oblivious of the facts. The jawans fighting at heights of 12-14000 feet had only cotton tunics and one blanket each to fight off the cold, and ancient .303 rifles with about forty rounds each to fight off the better prepared Chinese. The massive airlift of western small arms did little to change this reality. Instead of seeking a respite and allowing the military leaders the option of choosing the time and place for the next battle, the politicians, both, in parliament and in the Indian Army pressed on for another round.
Military logic, given the availability of troops and supplies, demanded that they be concentrated in Bomdila. Factoring this, the Indian Army's three-tiered defence plans for NEFA prepared in 1959 by Lt.Gen. Thorat called for at least four brigades. In 1961 Lt. Gen. LP Sen who took over Eastern Command from Thorat determined that he would need two divisions or six brigades to do the job. After the debacle at Namka Chu, 4 Division had only two brigades to do the job! But Maj.Gen BM Kaul, fresh rejuvenated in New Delhi, ordered that Se La which was a good sixty miles ahead of Bomdila and nearer Tawang must be held. The politicians could not afford its loss.
14 November 1962 was the Prime Ministers seventy-third birthday and Kaul ever conscious of the import of such events wished to make him a befitting present. He launched an attack in the Walong sector to push the Chinese back over to the other side of the McMahon line. This was probably the most unintelligent order he was to ever give. The PLA had a full division lying in wait at Rima while the Army's hastily organized 2 Division just had three battalions designated as 11 Brigade at Walong. The PLA retaliated massively. 11 Brigade fought bravely but was all but wiped out by 17 November even as newspapers in Delhi were hailing the attack!
The decision to confront the Chinese at Se La led to the thinning of the forces at Bomdila, which was now defended by just six companies. Kaul and the DMO Brig. Palit did not envisage the possibility of the Chinese bypassing Se La in any great strength. But this is just what they did. They took the path known as the Bailey Trail, named after the British officer who rediscovered the traditional Yak herder's route to Tawang. 4 Division with its main defence centered in Se La was much too thinly spread and the PLA began hacking at its rear. By the time orders went out for 62 Brigade to evacuate Se La, it was too late. They were cut off and its commander Brig. Hoshiar Singh, who was later awarded the Param Vir Chakra, fell fighting on 17 November. The next day the divisional headquarters at Dirang Dzong fell. On 20 November Bomdila fell. The rout of 1962 was complete. It was of our own making.
In the recent years the pace of a Sino-Indian rapprochement has picked up. At the same time we can discern the emerging contours of a new geo-strategic rivalry. The USSR having departed in the wake of its economic collapse, the USA now is preparing to confront an economically vibrant China. India is suddenly a frontline state for them. If Chang and Halliday came up with the kind of fairy tale they did after a decade of research, we must not only wonder about the quality of that research, but also even wonder why old animosities are sought to be revived in this manner?