How rude reality set in at Thagla

It took the government leadership some time to respond to the objections raised by Lieutenant-General Umrao Singh, General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Siliguri-based XXXIII Corps to its still-secret directive to the army to evict the Chinese that had intruded well south of the McMahon Line at Thagla ridge ('Grave Mistakes after Galwan', IE, July 4). The reason was that Nehru was away at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference in London and the more directly concerned defence minister Krishna Menon was at the UN General Assembly. This clearly indicated that they did not expect any big bust-up with China. At the same time, both were anxious that their government must be seen to be acting against the expanding Chinese encroachments.

So it was on October 3 that Menon — in consultation with the chief of the army staff, General P. N. Thapar, and Lt Gen L. P. Sen, GOC-in-C of the Eastern Army Command — decided that Umrao Singh had to be replaced. Ironically, Thapar had earlier shared Umrao's misgiving that the Indian army was in no position to take on the Chinese with their superiority in numbers, equipment and logistics. But in the third week of September, after Menon's instructions by phone from New York, the defence ministry had overruled the army chief, in a note signed by H.C. Sarin, then joint secretary in the ministry, later defence secretary and always a confidant of Menon.

Who was to succeed Umrao Singh was the next question. Thapar recommended Lt Gen "Sam" Manekshaw, and received a mouthful from an enraged defence minister. Strangely, the army chief seemed not to be aware that Sam was Menon's bete noire. Menon's own choice was Lt Gen B.M. Kaul, his favourite, then serving as the Chief of General Staff (CGS) at the army headquarters. Another source of Kaul's immense influence was he was distantly related to the prime minister. As the future trajectory of tragic events cruelly showed, Kaul's choice as the battlefield commander was a mistake of monumental proportions — for the country as well as for himself. It is worth adding that Kaul's appointment in 1959 as the CGS by superseding some of his seniors was one of the reasons for the row between Menon and Gen K.S. Thimayya, arguably India's most popular army chief so far.

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