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After the 1962 debacle
By K.S. Bajwa

THE 1962 debacle against China had its roots in the legacy of an unsettled northern border that was handed down to us by the British. A globally dominant British colonial power had enforced a northern border on an isolationist and weak Tibet, which was neither unambiguously spelt out nor properly demarcated on the ground.

At that point of time, China was in no position to contest what it subsequently came to consider an unequal settlement. As a united communist China emerged and grew in strength, the sensitivity of injustice induced by the historic memories of high-handed treatment by the colonial powers was sharpened into an aggressive expansionism.

The Chinese claims to Aksai Chin and large areas of Arunachal are a mix of an expression of this philosophy and the desire to acquire a dominant status in South Asia by keeping India in a weaker bargaining position. It is significant that China kept most of this thinking on hold when it was seeking recognition of its claim on Tibet after its occupation. The Chinese leadership avidly cultivated India. Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai became the banner line. In contrast, our leadership, especially Nehru, failed to grasp the dynamics of our essential interests and were carried away by the romantic pull of empathy with an Asian nation that too had suffered exploitation by the Western colonial powers. Had they been focussed on the need to arrive at a settled Northern border, free of a potential for conflict, a quid-pro-quo with our recognition of Chinese occupation of Tibet ought to have been pursued.

Behind the facade of the "Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai" we followed a policy of drift. In early 50s, we had firm information that the Chinese were constructing a road across Aksai Chin plateau, but we chose to ignore it till nearly the end of the decade. Even then our protests were-weak-kneed. In the middle of 1962, our leaders suddenly woke up to the presence of Chinese soldiers on the Thagla Ridge.

Now followed the most glaring political and military blunders. In place of political negotiations to find a solution acceptable to both sides, Nehru, the most ardent votary of the Bhai-Bhai syndrome, advised by Krishna Menon and a coterie of sycophantic generals, ordered an unprepared and poorly led Army to throw the Chinese out-a decision which could only emerge out of the colonial perception of the Chinese as lotus-eaters. The Indian Army commanders in the field charged with this poorly conceived task made it even worse. In the adoption of a forward policy, we deployed on totally indefensible tactical ground astride the Namka Chu stream, which was overlooked by the Chinese holding higher ground.

Impregnable defences at the Se La ridge further back were neither adequately organised nor fought over with sustained grit. Little was done to cater for the Chinese tactics of foot manoeuvre to out-flank static defences practised by the Red Army in their campaigns on the Chinese mainland. It is a tribute to the valour and devotion of our soldiers that despite being betrayed by the Government and their own leaders, they fought and died in the time-honoured traditions of the Indian Army.

The debacle and national humiliation of 1962, had very forcefully driven home a lesson that adequate armed power was an essential adjunct to effective conduct of state policy. An expansion, re-equipping and reorganisation of the armed forces was taken into hand.

By 1965, this exercise was well under way and most essential elements of it were expected to be accomplished by the end of 1966. Pakistan, which had been pressurised by the USA and other western powers to maintain a neutral posture, had by now calculated that it could acquire Kashmir only by force and to do so, it must launch its operations before India had completed the expansion of its armed power. A key element of Pakistan’s calculation was that India would not violate international frontiers, if the intended operations were confined to Kashmir.

Pakistani military planners estimated that in this limited operational concept, the balance of forces would largely be in their favour. India would not be in a position to make a sizable reduction in the forces deployed to contain the potential threat from the Chinese in Tibet and from their forces in East Pakistan. There was considered to be a near parity in the overall force levels in the Western Sector but Pakistan had a decisive edge in armour, artillery and in the air. It was considered that India could not seriously threaten Pakistan.

In case it did, a very damaging armoured counter-stroke could be launched. Their design of operations envisaged: Tie down Indian forces deployed in the Eastern Sector by maintaining an enhanced threat potential; in the Western Sector create border incidents in far-flung areas to gauge Indian preparedness, test Indian resolves and disperse and tie down Indian troops far away from Kashmir; launch a large-scale armed infiltration into the valley intended to spread widespread disaffection, garner local support, create the facade of a popular uprising, engineer a counter-reaction from Indian security forces, which could be passed off as suppression, weaken the Indian security deployment and thus create legitimacy as well as favourable conditions for an intervention in force to take over the valley; an attack to cut off the vital road link to Naushahra-Poonch between Akhnoor and Naushahra, which would also serve to eliminate any threat from this area; in the plains. Maintaining a strong defensive posture with contingency plans for a lightening armoured strike to capture area upto the West bank of the Beas River, which besides the capture of the highly prized city of Amritsar, would disrupt the land approach into Kashmir. Pakistan had planned to start the border incident in Kutch in April 1965, followed by other similar incidents. Armed infiltration into Kashmir, Operation Gibralter, was scheduled for August, dragging on into September when after the Monsoon, the ground conditions in the plains become suitable for armoured operations, enabling Pak forces to launch an attack in Chhamb and be better placed for offensive-defensive operations in the plains of Punjab.

In retrospect, Indian policy formulation both at the political and military levels, reflected limitations imposed by the as yet incomplete expansion and reequipping of the armed forces. Many of the key units and formation headquarters were scheduled to complete their raising by the end of 1965. Nevertheless, the policy and operational concepts were rather pedestrian. The offensive-defensive concept adopted both in Jammu and Kashmir and in the plains of Punjab lacked strategic as well as tactical balance. In Kashmir, operations to capture the heights overlooking Kargil and the Hajipir pass were desirable, but the importance of the Chhamb area was not fully realised. In the plains of Punjab, the essence of the offensive-defensive concept to improve our defensive posture by closing upto the lchhogil Canal in the Lahore Sector and upto the Ravi-Marala link Canal in the Sialkot Sector was strategically desirable, but rather ambitious. What was it lacked was a realistic estimate of battle capabilities of newly raised units and formations and the debilitating moral impact of the Patton, the Sabre and the US supplied artillery on commanders and troops. There was also a major infirmity in that our operations in both sectors were not mutually supporting and any switching of forces with-in critical parameters of the time virtually not possible.

Moreover, the operational hinge resting in area Kasur-Khemkaran was vulnerable. Equally, the appreciation of the likely reaction of Pakistan was unsound. In the event, Pakistani armoured counter-stroke in the Khemkaran area was brilliant in its concept but very poor in its execution. The frontage of the attack in the low weight bearing capacity of the soil and tall sugarcane fields which restricted the visibility from the Patton tanks was on too narrow a frontage.

The dour resistance put up by Indian troops, the presence of a Centurian tank regiment and general reluctance of Pakistani commanders to press home their advantages spelt the nemesis of the Pak attack.

In the Sialkot sector, the awe of the Patton seems to have paralysed the minds of our commanders and imposed undue caution on our armour. In the final reckoning, in essence, we seemed to have ended up carrying out the Australian aborigine’s concept of a "walk about".

Unfortunately’, the untimely death of Prime Minister Shastri, who had shown a capacity to take hard decisions to promote our national interests, robbed us of any long-term gains from the operations in 1965. We meekly vacated all the captured territory including Hajipir Pass and Pt 13620, which were in reality part of our own territory in adverse possession of Pakistan. Our strategic blinkers and diffidence in asserting our national interests were still well to the fore. Back

This feature was published on February 14, 1999

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