Is Modi Repeating Nehru’s Mistakes That Cost 1962 Indo-China War?

For those Indians who lived through that period, 20 October 1962 will remain etched as a day of deep national humiliation.

A direct threat to India’s territorial integrity found the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the national security apex in Delhi floundering against a concerted Chinese military aggression in the Indian north-east that could not be countered.

A month later in November, after the fall of Bomdila (now in Arunachal Pradesh) PM Nehru spoke in anguish and reached out to “ our countrymen in Assam, to whom our heart goes out at this moment .”

This was seen as a case of abject surrender and it is a different matter that the Chinese troops withdrew unilaterally after administering a ‘lesson’ to India. It was a costly lesson, for it is estimated that the total number of Indian Army personnel killed, wounded, missing or captured is almost 10,000.

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Has Delhi internalised this experience of 1962 in the appropriate manner? Half a century later, the answer, alas cannot be a definitive yes and the déjà vu apropos higher defence management and the governance template apropos national security is disconcerting.

The received wisdom about the October 1962 debacle is that then PM Nehru misread the political signals coming from Beijing and was also misled by his closest advisors.

In the run up to 1962, there were sage voices that cautioned  Nehru about China and the national security implications of an unresolved territorial cum border dispute and these included Home Minister Sardar Patel and Army Chief General Thimmaya.

A Road Map to India’s Defeat

However, then intelligence czar BN Mullick , a tempestuous Defence Minister Krishna Menon and a coterie that included Lt Gen BM Kaul led Nehru down the path of personal and national humiliation.

As always, national sovereignty had to be defended by the hapless Indian soldier against all odds and it was raw courage and heroism that provided a silver lining to a very dark cloud.

The late BG Vergheese, one of just two Indian correspondents who remained in NEFA (North-East Frontier Agency) during that brief war recalled:

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"“From 15 to 17 November,  we drove up to Se La (15,000 feet) and Dirang Dzong in the valley beyond before the climb to Bomdila.  Jawans in cottons and perhaps a light sweater and canvas shoes were manhandling ancient 25-pounders into position at various vantage points. We had seen and heard (General) Bijji Kaul’s theatrics and bravado at 4 Corps headquarters a day earlier and were shocked to see the reality: ill-equipped, unprepared but cheerful officers and men digging in to hold back the enemy under the command of a very gallant officer, Brig Hoshiar Singh.”"Lesson Unlearned: The Lingering Problems Since ’62

The déjà vu about October 1962 is discernible in certain rhythms of the current times that have not received the attention they warrant, given that all the oxygen in the public domain about national security has been sucked up by the Rafale deal and the unsavoury political mud-slinging.

The symbolism of the Indian jawan in a light sweater and canvas shoes at high altitude manning vintage guns continues to this day – and it rarely figures in parliamentary deliberations.

The report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence submitted by Major General (rtd) BC Khanduri in March 2018 is illustrative.

It noted that the fund allocation “is not supportive to the inevitable needs of the army” and added that there are “huge deficiencies and obsolescence of weapons, stores and ammunition existing in the Indian Army.” Almost two thirds of the equipment inventory of the army was deemed to be ‘vintage’.

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The second déjà vu strand is the tenacious distancing of the military from policy-making or meaningful involvement in the higher defence management of the country.

A former naval chief Admiral Arun Prakash had drawn attention to the existing rules of business in the government of India, wherein the service chiefs are ‘ the three invisible men’ and the responsibility of the defence of India is vested in the bureaucracy.

‘NSA Emerging As the Most Empowered Entity’

In recent months there has been a consolidation and revamp of the management of national security by the Modi government and the NSA (National Security Advisor) has emerged as the most empowered entity – now assuming responsibility for matters that were earlier in the purview of the Defence Ministry.

The distancing of the military from the policy loop has been further evidenced in the most recent revamp of the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), wherein three deputy NSAs have been appointed but none of them are from the armed forces.

It may be recalled that during the UPA II tenure, a serving three star General was appointed as Military Advisor (MA) in the NSCS in May 2011 and this was the first such appointment of inducting a serving member of the armed forces.

The officer Lt Gen Prakash Menon (who retired in late 2011) continued as the MA till mid 2014  and was later appointed as an OSD (officer on special duty) in the NSCS for two years from March 2015 to 2017 and reported to NSA Doval.

After a gap of a year, another retired Lt General  (VG Khandare) has been appointed as the MA.

The post of  an MA is not quite the same as being part of the NSA vertical and  the orientation of the Indian political leadership over the last two decades is instructive.

‘Diplomats & Police Officers As Core Officials, While Military Is Marginalised’

It is evident that  that the top tier of  national security management is increasingly being entrusted to the civilian bureaucracy – diplomats and police officers in the main – and the core professionals, the military remain on the margins.

During the 50th anniversary recall of 1962 , BG Vergheese opined about this continuing anomaly of ostracising the military:

"“Mullick and Menon sowed in Nehru’s mind the notion that a powerful chief might stage a coup (as Ayub had done in Pakistan). This myth was for long, a factor in the Indian government’s aversion to the idea of appointing a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).”"

While the selection of top advisors is the prerogative of the prime minister in a parliamentary democracy, the tenacious marginalisation of the military as an institution in the management of national security from Nehru to Modi is not conducive to the optimum utilisation of the sizable resource of military professionals.

October 1962 needs to be reviewed more objectively by the Indian parliament for lessons still not learnt.

(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies. The opinions expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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