Ghosts of black November

Since, as Rahul Gandhi famously put it only the other day, 70 per cent of the country's population consists of "bachchas", it is obvious that a vast majority of Indians today know little about what happened 46 years ago. But no one who lived through it would ever forget the brief but brutal border war with China in the high Himalayas in October-November 1962. The second half of November that year was particularly traumatic, November 19 being the blackest day. For, on that date Jawaharlal Nehru sent two highly panicky letters to President John F. Kennedy, and national morale practically disintegrated overnight. The next day, however, the Chinese announced a unilateral cease-fire and gradual withdrawal.

Tensions between the two large Asian neighbours had been rising for a long time, indeed since the Tibetan revolt of March 1959, the Dalai Lama's flight from Lhasa and the asylum granted to him in this country. In August that year, there was a major clash at Longju in the eastern sector but mercifully there was no casualty on either side. In October followed a more serious clash at Kongka La in Ladadkh where the Chinese drew blood for the first time. The deceptive Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai era had ended. Things worsened greatly after the failure of talks in April 1960 between Nehru and his Chinese opposite number, Zhou Enlai. All through the summer of 1962 ,clashes between Indian and Chinese border patrols crisscrossing each other's claim line in Ladakh, escalated into the Chinese troops surrounding a remote Indian border post at Galwan in July. But they did no harm. Curiously, instead of appraising this intriguing situation itself, with the best civilian and military advice available, the political leadership assigned the task to the legendary intelligence czar of the Nehru era, B. N. Mullik. His verdict: "Judging by the Chinese behaviour so far, they were unlikely to act drastically". It occurred to none of his report's very few recipients to ask whether the Chinese pattern of behaviour could change. Immediately thereafter, the Intelligence Bureau reported also that, according to the cook of the Chinese consul-general in Calcutta, Communist leaders invited to dinner were told by the envoy that since "Indian incursions" into Chinese territory were continuing, China would have to "take strong action". This does not seem to have registered on anyone at all.

For, Nehru told the policy makers that while there would be border skirmishes and even more serious clashes between the patrols of the two countries, the Chinese would do "nothing big". This conclusion was evidently based on his long-held belief that a major war launched by China against India was bound to turn into a much wider war because other powers would not like China to get away with "so big a prize" as India. There was no question of this view being questioned. Nor did it occur to Nehru, or anyone else, that the Chinese would embark on a limited and calibrated military action aimed at "teaching India a lesson" and showing it its place, which precisely what they did.                

Towards this goal, the Chinese first occupied the Thagla ridge on September, 8. India was outraged. Nehru ordered the Army to "throw the Chinese out of Thagla" but left the timeframe to it. In the angry polemics that inevitably followed, India asserted that the Thagla was unquestionably its. The Chinese retorted that the ridge was to the north of the "so-called McMahon Line" even according to the map Henry McMahon had attached to the Simla Convention of 1914 that no Chinese government had ever accepted. (It is often said that this confusion arises because the line was drawn with a thick nib)

On October, 20, adequately-clad, war-tested and amply equipped Chinese troops rolled down the Himalayan slopes both in the east and the west, and in four days flat made short work of the Indian pickets and other defences on the bleak heights, overrunning ill-equipped Indian soldiers rushed there in a hurry. The psychological impact on the country was catastrophic. President Radhakriashnan accused his government of "credulity and negligence". Nehru admitted: "We had been living in a world of our own making". In the words of his official biographer, S. Gopal, "things were so bad that they would be hard to believe had they not happened". Ironically, initially at least, the Indian political class spent more energy on ejecting Krishna Menon from the Defence Ministry than on beating back the invaders. Moreover, such was the hostility to Lieutenant-General B.M. Kaul, the hand-picked battleground commander, that when a visiting US Congressional delegation asked Radhakrishnan whether Gen. Kaul had also been taken prisoner, the republic's president replied: "This is unfortunately untrue".  

On October, 24, the Chinese halted their advance and offered India talks as well as a proposal that both sides withdraw 20 kilometers from existing positions, proposals no Indian government could even consider . After a three-week lull, the Chinese started the second and the last phase of war on November 14, Nehru's birthday.  

In this available space only two more of the many crucial points can be made. First, that since only infinitesimal proportions of Indian and Chinese armies were involved in the month-long fighting in remote regions, we should have faced the challenge stoically. But such was the national mood and so divided the army because of Krishna Menon's penchant to play favourites, that most Indians saw 1962 as a combination of a military debacle and a political disaster. Foolishly, under American advice, we refrained from using the air power to beat back the Chinese. Later, the CIA gleefully revealed that at that time the Chinese had neither the fuel nor runways long enough to be able to use their air force in Tibet. Secondly, the Sino-Soviet split and the Kremlin's tilt towards India, was Mao's main reason for launching the war. The Chinese had advance information about the coming Cuban Missile Crisis, and Mao Zedong used it to arm-twist Nikita Khrushchev to reverse his policy of backing India. In mid-October, New Delhi was stunned when Pravda editorially advised "Chinese brothers" and "Indian friends" to maintain peace. This lasted, however, only till the end of the Cuban confrontation. Mao publicly rebuked him for "perfidy in the Himalayas" and "cowardice in the Caribbean.      

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator   

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