Who were the guilty men of India’s China war? This year, for the first time, the Defence Ministry paid homage to the soldiers who perished in that horror 50 years ago. But official reluctance to face facts continues. The Henderson-Brooks inquiry report is still deemed secret although it leaked to Neville Maxwell, the Englishman who wrote the most anti-India account of the war. Even China has declassified its documents till 1965.
Generals who took part in the action like D.K.Palit (War in the Himalayas) and especially J.P.Dalvi (Himalayan Blunder) provided valuable perspectives. There were studies by western scholars as well. A real surprise however is a new book, Dividing Lines: Contours of India-China Conflict. Surprise not only because the writer examines the colonial background with the authority of a historian, the politics of the conflict with the expertise of an academic and the nitty-gritty of military manoeuvres with the mastery of a field commander - and yet author K.N.Raghavan is neither a historian, nor a professor, nor a military man; he is Commissioner of Customs who doubles as a cricket umpire for BCCI. The book is surprising also for its dispassionate tone. While not hiding his sympathy for India and admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru, he has no hesitation in dissecting Delhi’s blunderers, including Nehru.
Raghavan exposes officials who mistook their egos for the national interest, politicians nursing personal enmities and army leaders who were now incompetent, now irresponsible. Two men top the list, though Raghavan does not say it in so many words. B.N.Mullick, chief of intelligence, interpreted Nehru’s instructions to suit his own line of thinking and sent armed patrols to challenge the Chinese. At one point, he sent policemen on patrol. They were wiped out.
No less provocative was the bravado of B.M.Kaul who, despite zero combat experience, was put in charge of the war. He quickly developed mountain sickness and spent the days of action in bed in Delhi. After the initial defeats, Kaul was relieved of his command, only to be reappointed soon; Nehru wanted him to have an opportunity to redeem his reputation. The man blundered again. Disgraced, he wrote The Untold Story which took his story from the ridiculous to the absurd. Nehru still wanted to rehabilitate
him with a political post, but gave up when informed about people’s anger against Kaul.
Mullick and Kaul got away with unforgivable mistakes because they were favourites Nehru encouraged. Doesn’t that make Nehru just as culpable? And when Nehru is guilty, can Krishna Menon be far behind? Menon backed the blundering Kaul because Nehru backed him. Menon’s strong likes and dislikes had a disruptive effect on the army brass. “Brusque and impertinent behaviour” and “cavalier manner” and “brazen” are terms applied to Menon in this book.
Raghavan’s criticism of Menon is severe. Some related factors he mentions should have softened the attack. India had never taken Defence seriously, giving the Ministry to lightweights like Baldev Singh. When Kailasnath Katju was transferred from Home to Defence, he took it as a demotion. At another level, Finance Minister Morarji Desai denied to Defence every rupee he could just because he detested Krishna Menon. At the same time, opposition leaders like Acharya Kripalani disapproved of military spending by nonviolent India which, he said, “would disturb the soul of the Father of the Nation.” The generals in China must have noted all these details and rejoiced.
So, what happened in the Himalayas in 1962 stands clear. On the one side were quarrelling politicians and quarrelling generals under a prime minister blind to his blue-eyed boys and a defence minister who delighted in making enemies. On the other side were a recognized military genius like Mao Zedong and a prime minister like Chou Enlai, perhaps the finest strategist of his generation, with no parliamentary or media pressure to divert their attention. It was a textbook war of the prepared out-generalling the unprepared. The real tragedy is that 50 years later, the quarrelling and the unprepared still remain quarrelling and unprepared.