The Chinese incursion into Subansiri and Siang in the central NEFA commenced on 21 October, with a main offensive being launched on 16 November. The Indian defences, as understaffed and poorly equipped as elsewhere in the NEFA, put up a stiff resistance but, in the end, proved to be no match for the more heavily armed Chinese troops. This area forms part of Pemako, which today straddles the border with a major section located on the Indian side. Tibetan tax collectors were active here well into the 1950s, so intelligence was not a problem for the PLA.31 But the Chinese did not capture any territory beyond it. The tribes in the areas south of Pemako would be Nyishis and Apatanis, whose languages are distantly related to Tibetan, but not close enough to be mutually intelligible.
The similarities between the Tibetan language and some of the local dialects had enabled Chinese agents to collect intelligence about the areas that had been selected for temporary occupation and, judging from the precision and swiftness of the operation, it is clear that this was done well before the PLA swung into action in October 1962. While the vast majority of the local population fled to the southern plains once the PLA had entered those areas, it was also important from a purely operational point of view that its officers could rely on their Tibetan-speaking interpreters to communicate with the few who had stayed behind.
After the unilateral ceasefire that the Chinese announced on 21 November, the withdrawal began and people could return home. Singye remembers how the Chinese soldiers packed up and marched single file along the road they had built from Bumla to Tawang. Chinese army trucks carried their equipment. Forty-nine days of occupation were over. The Chinese returned to their camps and bases north of the McMahon Line.
Dorjee Khandu Thongdok and his family were now able to return to Rupa. On the way from the Assam plains to their home in the hills, they saw burnt-out tanks and vehicles, and ammunition belts, mortars, rifles, and helmets left behind by soldiers who had died or retreated during the war. Once they reached their village, there was an eerie silence. Empty houses awaited them, and it was weeks before life returned to normal. Thongdok notes wryly that, before the war, a portrait of the two countries’ respective prime ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai, had hung on the wall in the local school.
But the end of the Chinese invasion of some carefully selected parts of the NEFA did not mean that anything had really changed on the ground. The McMahon Line became what the Chinese like to call the Line of Actual Control, while the Indians continue to refer to it as ‘the traditional boundary’. But India was shattered and its pride lay in tatters. No one wanted to mention the Forward Policy and Nehru himself never recovered from the humiliation and what he and many others perceived as a betrayal by the Chinese.
Nehru felt that he was grossly misunderstood. Others would argue that Nehru had placed too much trust in sweet talk by Zhou Enlai who had hoodwinked him into believing that China was a friend of India, while the Chinese, as early as 1949, had denounced him as ‘a running dog of imperialism’ and a Chiang Kai-shek-like ‘loyal slave’ of the enemies of the revolution.
To be fair to Nehru, he appears to have been unaware of what the Chinese were saying about him behind his back in the 1940s and 1950s. His Forward Policy was never meant to provoke the Chinese but to reassert what the Indians considered to be the traditional boundary and to check the continuing Chinese advance by connecting all the gaps and plugging the holes along the frontier by establishing new outposts and sending out patrols even to the remotest parts of Ladakh and the NEFA. Action was to be taken only if there were any new Chinese army camps south of where the Indians had decided that the McMahon Line should be.
Lieutenant Colonel Gurdip Singh Kler, an Indian Army officer who fought at the Sela Pass during the 1962 War, wrote after the events, ‘Many of us compared the Forward Policy with police action whereby we could push the Chinese out of our territory. The action, we thought, would not lead to war.’ The officer also remarked that although some new army units were proposed to be raised—and some were—‘insufficient funds were allotted to the Armed Forces for weapons, equipment and ammunition’. He found it ‘strange’ that in this state of affairs ‘we had to confront with one of the world’s strongest countries’.
As the Chinese had been strengthening their positions in the mountains along the frontier in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Indians decided to launch a military operation codenamed ‘LEGHORN’ on 8 October 1962 to secure its territorial claims. A bridgehead was established at Tsengjong, north of River Namka Chu, which was attacked by the PLA on 10 October. The Indians withdrew, but they were terribly undersupplied. Air-drops of supplies were landing in the wrong places; only a few days of rations were available for the troops; and many of the soldiers had only 50 rounds of ammunition each. Mortars and mortar ammunition were still in transit somewhere when the Chinese attacked across the Thagla Ridge 10 days later. It is not certain exactly how many troops the PLA had in the area at this stage, but they vastly outnumbered those at the scattered Indian outposts along the McMahon Line.
In retrospect, much has been written about intelligence failures on the Indian side, that the government was not aware of the massive build-up the Chinese had been engaged in along the border since 1959. But Nehru’s chief of intelligence, Bhola Nath Mullik, had actually repeatedly warned the government of Chinese manoeuvres along and across the border, ‘In September 1960, we sent another report of widespread Chinese activities all along the frontier in Tibet and many instances of fresh intrusions. We also mentioned that new Chinese activities had been noticed in the area bordering South-East Ladakh, which had remained quiet until then.’
But nor did Mullik entirely escape blame. The Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report quotes ‘the Director of the Intelligence Bureau’, obviously Mullik, as saying that ‘the Chinese would not react to our establishing new posts and that they were not likely to use force against any of our posts even if they were in a position to do so’. That was obviously a gross miscalculation.
In the east, the Chinese had already advanced up to and even through the ‘gaps’ that the Indians wanted to connect—and that was long before Nehru announced his Forward Policy. The problem was that Nehru refused to believe that the Chinese were actually preparing for war against India. His firm belief in the friendship between India and China had even led him to dismiss reports of unrest in Tibet in the late 1950s. On 17 March 1959, Patterson, who was close to the Tibetans, was warned by Nehru himself in a speech in the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of the Indian Parliament, that he ‘had accepted bazaar rumour for a fact’. Patterson was guilty of sending ‘misleading and exaggerated reports’41 about the situation in Tibet, and was threatened with expulsion from India.
As Nehru was accusing Patterson of spreading falsehoods, revolt had already broken out in Lhasa. The heartbroken prime minister then had to admit in another speech in the Lok Sabha on 19 March that the revolt was real—and that Chinese bullets had struck the Indian Consulate-General in Lhasa. The Chinese, who apparently thought that the Indians were somehow involved in the uprising, ordered the diplomats to remain inside the Consulate until further notice. Patterson noted, ‘Whatever India may have thought of China’s friendship and good faith it became obvious that China placed very little value on India’s goodwill’. Even so, Nehru added in his speech that, ‘India has no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of China, with whom, we have friendly relations’.
Following the Dalai Lama’s escape to India after the March 1959 uprising, Nehru was forced to re-evaluate that friendship. The Chinese authorities now began to openly accuse India of being behind the revolt. The official, state-controlled Chinese media published reports saying that ‘Indian expansionists and British imperialists have not given up their ambition to invade Tibet and enslave its people’. The ‘commanding centre’ for this grand conspiracy was the northern West Bengal town of Kalimpong, where the British imperialists and Indian expansionists were supposed to have connived with a ‘traitorous clique’ in Tibet to conduct ‘a series of traitorous and subversive activities’.
It is hardly any secret that the Tibetans, in collaboration with the Americans, were collecting intelligence from Kalimpong, and that some Tibetan resistance fighters had been trained and were supported by the American CIA, but, judging from Nehru’s statements at the time, it is extremely doubtful that he was aware of these shenanigans. More alarmingly, although Nehru decided to grant the Dalai Lama asylum in India, he still believed that China was, in fact, a friendly neighbour and whatever problems there were between the two countries could be settled amicably. It was only at the eleventh hour that he took reports of massive build-ups of Chinese troops across the border seriously and then decided on a half-hearted, and many would argue, ill-conceived Forward Policy to counter China’s advances. Whatever that policy was aimed to achieve, the tools and wherewithal were simply not available.
The Henderson Brooks–Bhagat Report, which Maxwell bewilderingly uses to ‘prove’ that India was the aggressor in 1962, stated that, ‘it is obvious that politically the “Forward Policy” was desirable and presumably the eviction of the Chinese from Ladakh must always be the eventual aim. For this, there can be no argument, but what is pertinent is whether we were militarily in a position at that time to implement this policy.’ The still-classified report goes on to mention that
the Chinese build-up in Tibet by the end of 1960 had substantially increased and was brought out in the Military Intelligence Review 1959–60. This required a fresh reappraisal of our forces and tasks … [and] at the outbreak of hostilities if a coordinated plan had been made to meet the Chinese offensive our troops would perhaps have been more balanced and there would not have been any question of plugging holes at the last moment.
It is also astonishing to note how many Western writers, not only Maxwell and Alastair Lamb, have decided to accept China’s crude propaganda and fanciful interpretations of the border conflict and related issues such as the reason for the war in 1962. This could be because Lamb and the others who accept the Chinese view do indeed present the issues in ‘much clearer and persuasive terms than the Beijing Government’, to quote the Berkeley professor Leo E. Rose. In other words, they present the general Chinese view minus crazed outbursts about ‘Indian expansionists’, ‘British imperialists’, and ‘traitorous and subversive Tibetan cliques’.
The claim that Indian troop movements around the Dhola Post and some skirmishes between the Indians and the Chinese in mid-October determined the timing of the attack is part of this twisted interpretation of the causes of the 1962 War. A much more plausible explanation is that an event that was taking place far from the Indian subcontinent made the Chinese decide that 20 October would be the most appropriate day to launch an attack and that, of course, was the Cuban missile crisis, which lasted from 22 to 28 October.
From the Chinese point of view, it was a masterstroke to decide to wage war on India at the same time that the American President John F. Kennedy was preoccupied by such an immediate threat to national security. A direct American intervention supporting India in the war would be out of the question, but if it did happen, it would force India to compromise its commitment to non-alignment. On 26 October, as war was raging in the Himalayas, Nehru made an unprecedented appeal for international sympathy and support.
Three days later, when the Cuban missile crisis was essentially over, the United States did decide to send military aid after Ambassador John K. Galbraith had had a private meeting with Nehru. The Soviets had agreed to withdraw their ballistic missiles from Cuba after a secret agreement had been reached according to which the United States would dismantle its missile bases in eastern Turkey, a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) ally of the US.
The message was conveyed through Galbraith that Kennedy had agreed to send arms to India ‘without strings and the terms would be settled later’. Nehru is also reported to have requested American warplanes, and, on 19 November, India sought full defensive intervention by the United States. That did not happen, but a US aircraft carrier had already set course for the Bay of Bengal, and a squadron of transport planes had arrived in India. It is believed that Kennedy sanctioned supplies of a million machine-gun rounds, 40,000 land mines, and 100,000 mortar rounds to India, while Time magazine at the time reported that shipments had been even more substantial and were complete with US crews and maintenance teams. But it was too little, and too late. The Chinese had already achieved their objectives by the time Western military assistance arrived.
China did not miss the opportunity to denounce Nehru as ‘a lackey of US imperialism’ and ‘a pawn in the international anti-China campaign’. The tone and content of the 15,000-word vitriolic article in the official party paper the People’s Daily on 27 October was, according to British analyst Roderick MacFarquhar, ‘consonant with that of Beijing’s anti-Soviet polemics of 1960 and prefigured in its anti-Soviet polemics of 1963–64, thus marking it as a weapon in the ideological struggle with Moscow rather than in the military struggle with India’.
Apart from condemning Nehru for seeking military aid from the United States, China also wanted to hit out at the Soviet Union, which had been closer to India than any other Western power before the conflict began—and the Soviet Union was China’s main rival for control over what it termed ‘The Third World’. The rivalry had begun in the 1950s and first came out in the open when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Peng Zhen, a leading member of the Politburo of the CCP, had an argument at the congress of Romania’s ruling communist party in 1960. Khrushchev branded Mao ‘a nationalist, an adventurist, and a deviationist’, while the Chinese denounced Khrushchev as ‘patriarchal, arbitrary and tyrannical’, and, eventually, as a ‘revisionist renegade’ who had betrayed true Marxism-Leninism. Khrushchev responded by withdrawing 1,400 Soviet experts and technicians from China and cancelling more than 200 projects in the world’s most populous communist country.
In the beginning of the conflict between India and China, the Soviet Union had been cautious. Although Khrushchev’s sympathies were with India, he could not afford to get too tough with China. On the other hand, India’s defence minister, Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon, who was known for his pro-Soviet leanings, was forced to resign on 31 October, after being held responsible for India’s lack of preparedness for the 1962 War. In the midst of the crisis, Nehru himself temporarily took over the defence portfolio. The Soviets, who had provided India with defence equipment long before the war, found themselves in a severe dilemma. According to Mohan Ram, an Indian journalist and a specialist on Sino-Indian relations, the Soviets had begged the Chinese to stop their military operations and offered mediation, for which India was ready. ‘They tried hard to prevent India from looking to the United States and Britain. Thus, years of striving for India’s neutrality went to waste and capitalists were supplying arms to India thanks to the Chinese aggression.’
Another disclosure, according to Ram, was the Soviet concern over the ouster of Menon from the Indian government. Ram quotes a rejoinder from the Soviets saying that ‘Chinese aggression also had the consequences that we lost one of our most faithful friends among the Indian leaders, and that because he relied on our help’.
Khrushchev had remained neutral during the skirmishes along the Sino-Indian border in 1959, which had angered the Chinese. As tension between India and China was brewing in 1962, the Chinese called upon the leaders of the Soviet Union to ‘denounce the Indian bourgeoisie as a lackey of imperialism’—which they refused to do. Instead, on 12 December, when the war was over, Khrushchev came out in support of India, saying ‘we absolutely disallow the thought India wanted to start war with China’. Thus, China managed to force India to seek help from the United States, and also put the Soviet Union in the same anti-Chinese camp. It was a masterstroke that placed China as the leader of the Third World.
According to MacFarquhar, ‘Nehru’s appeal for Western aid in his hour of need dented, if it did not destroy, India’s image as a non-aligned nation, thus diminishing its status both in the Communist bloc and the Third World…Beijing had also demonstrated to a deaf Moscow the unwisdom of choosing India over China as an ally.’ But, most importantly, MacFarquhar states that rising tension with India even in early and mid-1962, which eventually led to outbreak of hostilities in October, ‘had signalled to its erstwhile communist partner that the banner of militant Marxism-Leninism had once more been unfurled over Beijing’. The year of 1962 saw China, with Mao back at the helm, successfully challenging both India and the Soviet Union and, in the end, becoming the leader of the Third World’s progressive and revolutionary forces.
There has been much speculation among scholars and analysts as to why the Chinese decided to declare a unilateral ceasefire on 21 November and then withdraw to its former positions behind the McMahon Line. Some have suggested that the American decision to intervene was a factor, others that the Soviet Union had threatened to take action unless the Chinese halted their advance into Indian territory. Indian military analysts have pointed to that the fact that winter was approaching in the high Himalayas, making it impossible to maintain long and vulnerable supply lines from forward bases in Tibet.
But none of these explanations are consistent with the broader picture of China’s overall policies and strategic ambitions at the time of the war. It was a limited action aimed at punishing India, dethroning it from its leadership position in the non-aligned movement, and at forcing the Soviets to take sides in the wider conflict that had been raging within the international communist movement since 1960. There is nothing to indicate that the Chinese ever intended to hold the territory it had captured in October and November 1962. China wanted to demonstrate its military might and superiority and, by withdrawing, it had showed its ‘goodwill’ towards its neighbours and the rest of the world, demonstrating that it was not an aggressive power bent on capturing land from other countries. It was against the backdrop of these events that China emerged as the winner and the road now lay open for China to become the leader of the Third World.
The Cuban missile crisis may help explain why the Chinese decided to attack India on that precise date, 20 October, putting into action a plan that had been on the drawing board since 1959. But there were also other, domestic, factors which made them hasten the decision to launch their blitzkrieg against India. After the dismal failure of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, Mao was plotting to regain his former position as the undisputed leader of the Chinese communists.
His rivals in the Party would have to be sidelined, neutralized—or won over. Among those critical of Mao’s policies were President Liu Shaoqi, Premier Zhou Enlai, and, most importantly, the powerful Defence Minister Peng Dehuai, a hero of the Chinese Revolution as well as the Korean War in the early 1950s who, wise from his experiences during the latter conflict, wanted to reform the PLA and make it more professional, along the lines of the armed forces of the Soviet Union. This ran contrary to Mao’s doctrine of an ideologically motivated ‘people’s army’ that would be indoctrinated by studying the writings of the Great Chairman. Mao’s vision of a good soldier was to be embodied in Lei Feng, the fictitious character created later; the loyal fighter who wanted to be ‘a stainless-steel screw for the Party’.
The ideological aspect of the 1962 War and that it was part and parcel of power struggles within the CCP at the time have been highlighted by MacFarquhar in his study of China in the 1950s and 1960s, ‘The question that remains unanswerable is: if Mao had still been in retirement, would Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai have chosen to teach Mr Nehru a lesson in quite so brutal a fashion? Probably not, in the light of their support for san he yi shao.’
’San he yi shao’ was a notion advanced by Wang Jiaxiang, an erstwhile comrade-in-arms of Mao and a former Chinese ambassador to the Soviet Union. It can be translated as ‘three peaceful acts and one reduction’ and referred to his proposed conciliation with the imperialists (the United States), the revisionists (the Soviet Union), and the reactionaries (India), while reducing aid to the world’s revolutionary forces.
According to Sergey Radchenko, a specialist on Sino-Soviet relations, Mao was fiercely opposed to this idea.
Mao talked about national security and national pride. He wanted the world to know that China could not be intimidated, and that Beijing’s stern warnings to India were not a bluff. He knew that the People’s Liberation Army was in a position to inflict a shattering blow to the Indian Army and so assert China’s claim to regional hegemony. National security concerns and illusions of grandeur were very good reasons for a war with India.