Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Blood on the River: The Indian Defeat at the Nam Ka Chu, 1962

On a corner of my shelf of books on military history is a volume bound in fraying red. There is no dust jacket, and the fading black print along its spine reads MAXWELL INDIA’S CHINA WAR. This particular volume is actually older than I am; but the military conflict it discusses is still fresh in the Indian national memory.

No war starts because of the allegedly immediately precipitating factors, of course; for example, one can fairly clearly trace back the origins of the Second World War to the Versailles Treaty which ended the first; and the Napoleonic Wars themselves laid the powder train which led to the First World War. The border conflict that broke out between India and China in October 1962 has an even longer back history to it; one too long to discuss in one article, but covered exhaustively in that red bound book on my shelf.

Actually, though the open conflict lasted exactly a month, from 20th October to 20th November 1962, heavy clashes along the border had been going on for several years already, and troops from the two armies had been literally facing each other at ranges close enough to see the whites of each other’s eyes. How this happened, and the background of the war, is the focus of Neville Maxwell’s book, which I mentioned above; and, no, I am not reviewing this book here.

I’ll merely talk about what happened, and then I’ll mention just why I’m bringing up this over fifty year old history now.

The Background:

[Note: This is a very, very, very abridged account of the lead-up to the border conflict of 1962. I once tried to write a full account and gave up after 15000 words when I realised that I hadn’t even got to the Forward Policy (see below) yet.]

India and China have a long and highly mountainous frontier, stretching from Kashmir in the North to Arunachal Pradesh in the East. Back in the 1950s, there were three buffer states between the countries: from west to east, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan (in 1975, Sikkim was annexed by India, so now there are only two). The long stretch of border between the western boundary of Nepal and Kashmir in the North is almost impassable, passing as it does among the high Himalayas, which serve as a natural demarcation line. Therefore, there are only two points along which the two countries came, at that time, into contact; Ladakh in Kashmir and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, at that time called NEFA.

It’s hardly likely to be unknown to the reader of this article that in the 19th Century India was a British colony, and that China was an empire in steep, terminal decline. China was being preyed on by the Europeans for territorial concessions, facing the rising power of Japan in the east, and had just fought possibly the most brutal war of the entire 19th Century – the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion in the 1850s. One after the other, during this time, outlying provinces began to slip out of the emperor’s control. One of these provinces was Tibet, which had had a long and fluctuating history of direct control and quasi-independence from China.

The British, being imperialist meddlers par excellence, of course did not fail to take advantage of the situation. Citing a mythical Russian threat to British India, they invaded Tibet in 1904. The Dalai Lama fled to China, the British swiftly massacred the sword-and-musket armed Tibetan army, and forced lower grade officials to sign a treaty. China was further weakened by the Revolution of 1911, and Chinese troops under General Zhao Ehrfing withdrew from Tibet, leaving it essentially to the British. They called a conference in Simla (India) in 1913 to discuss the borders of Tibet. This conference included British and Tibetan representatives, and a Chinese delegate, Ivan Chen. The British attempted to compel China to agree to divide Tibet into two zones, an “Outer” (southern) and “Inner” (northern) Tibet. While China theoretically would retain “suzerainty” over all of Tibet, Chinese “sovereignty” (that is, actual control) was to be restricted to Inner Tibet. The question of the border was also raised. The British moved, unilaterally, the border in what was to later become NEFA a hundred kilometres northward, leaving only a narrow strip of land called the Tawang Tract to the Tibetans. The new border was called the McMahon Line, after the chief British delegate, one Henry McMahon. Remember that term, McMahon Line; I’ll be using it over and over again.

Though, in its extremely enfeebled state, China could not resist British designs, and Ivan Chen signed on the dotted line, it never accepted or ratified the Simla Conference boundaries. This is vital to remember: no Chinese government, Nationalist or Communist, has ever, at any time, accepted the McMahon Line.

World War One brought about a pause in the British plans to dominate and ultimately to either annex Tibet or turn it into a protectorate. The British were left with a trading post in Tibet, and in the aftermath of the war, their interests turned elsewhere. At the same time, in China, a new civil war broke out between the Communists under Mao Zedong and the Nationalist Guomindang (“Kuomintang”) government of Jiang Jeishi (“Chiang Kai Shek”). And then the Second World War came.

When the Second World War was over, things had changed drastically. The British, from being the world’s pre-eminent imperialist nation, had become an impoverished ex-power unable to afford to cling on to a colonial empire any longer. In parting they did ensure that India was broken up into two nations, which could be depended on to fight each other bitterly for the foreseeable future, though, so kicking us in the face one final time. 

Meanwhile, in China, the Communists had driven the Guomindang out to Taiwan and Mao Zedong, proclaiming the People’s Republic, announced that China had “stood up”. Part of the “standing up” included reasserting control over the provinces which had slipped away over the decades of imperial decline and Guomindang misrule. It is essential to understand that to the Chinese, reasserting sovereignty over Chinese territory was an absolutely vital part of the national regeneration. This was why Chinese forces moved back into Tibet and took control.

Now, India hadn’t been resting either. In 1951, it unilaterally moved forces under an adventurer called Bob Khating into the Tawang Tract, expelled the Dalai Lama’s officials, captured the monastery town of Tawang and extended the McMahon Line (which, let me repeat, China did not recognise) up to the Himalayas in NEFA. The Chinese did not, however, protest this move, though it was blatantly illegal; this can only be construed as the Chinese agreeing tacitly to let India “fill out” to the natural boundary of the Himalayas in NEFA.

At the other extreme of the frontier, though, things were rather different. Unlike the rest of Kashmir, Ladakh is primarily Buddhist and inhabited by people who are in all essence Tibetan (rather like the inhabitants of the Tawang Tract). Also, a large part of Ladakh, a high, sere plateau called Aksai Chin (“Desert of White Stones”) is geographically part of the Tibetan Plateau. At various times this had been claimed by the British rulers of India, but they had never occupied it. And – at the 1913 Simla Conference – they had definitively consigned it to (Outer) Tibet.

Map showing Aksai Chin (west) and Arunachal Pradesh/NEFA (east) and the Tawang area.

Now, as far as India was concerned Aksai Chin was (and is) of no value. It had no settlements, was difficult to reach, and expensive to occupy. On the other hand, it was of extreme strategic importance to China since it provided the easiest link between the Chinese province of Sinkiang and newly reoccupied Tibet. The Chinese proceeded to construct a road through the plateau, which was of extreme significance to them but of no particular interest to India whatsoever. Nevertheless, the Indian government, by an order of Nehru himself dated 1 July 1954, decided to revive the pre-Simla conference British claim to Aksai Chin. Before this date, the maps of independent India had shown the borders of Ladakh as "undefined". 

Let me emphasise this: until the first of July, 1954, even Indian maps had depicted Aksai Chin as not belonging to India.

Now, when the reports of China's road building came in, India sent two patrols into the newly claimed territory. One was intercepted and deported, while the other returned with reports that the road existed and military traffic was moving along it.

Obviously, politicians being politicians, this caused a ruckus in Parliament, with Nehru’s political opponents accusing him of “gifting away” Indian territory to China. That this was a ridiculous charge – it was territory India had never occupied and which according to the Simla Conference India had no rights over – didn’t matter, of course. Nehru, who had a much higher stature than any prime minister since, could have revealed the true state of affairs and probably managed the fallout, Instead, he proceeded to paint himself into a corner.

It must not be imagined that Nehru was a committed warmonger. In fact, if he had been bent on war, I might have thought better of him. But he did not even have that much integrity to take a position and stick to it. He was constantly shifting ground, first belligerent, and then trying to backtrack to safer ground; and when that merely brought him the opprobrium of his political opponents, taking an even more aggressive stance in order to appease them.

Having accused China of having made “renewed incursions,” Nehru had to explain in Parliament why he had allowed (by his own account) the Chinese to “capture” Indian territory. He responded by attempting to backtrack and saying that Chinese “incursions” were negligible. His critics seized on this to say that he was being complacent about a loss of the nation’s sacred territory. This prompted him to declare that the “negligible” incursions were “aggressive” and would not be tolerated. Thus, stage by stage, he was pushed into taking a hard line which he probably didn’t himself intend.

By the late fifties, therefore, the powder train had been laid. One only had to set off the spark that lit the fuse.

The State Of The Armies:


At this time – the 1950s – the condition of the Indian army was, to put it mildly, poor. The forces had deliberately been starved of funds and resources, not just to concentrate on development, but also in order to forestall any possibility of a coup. The soldiers were armed with First World War era .303 Lee Enfield rifles, radio equipment dating from WWII (which lacked batteries to power them), and had a shortage of boots and winter clothing, to say nothing of ammunition and artillery.

The problems of equipment were compounded by the quality of leadership, both military and political. The defence minister was VK Krishna Menon, a man whose abrasive personality and open contempt for the military brass made relations extremely difficult. Nehru, though, backed Krishna Menon all the way, in Parliament and elsewhere, even when it meant snubbing the officers.

Nehru (in white cap) with Krishna Menon

The top levels of the army were politicised and officers were chosen for reasons which had nothing to do with their abilities. The Army Chief, General PN Thapar, was a nonentity. The de facto chief was one Lieutenant General Brij Mohan Kaul, an officer whose name will figure prominently in this narrative. Kaul, who had no combat experience whatsoever, owed his prominence to the fact that he was a relative of Nehru’s and had the Prime Minister’s ear. He had set up his own clique among the officer corps, called derisively the “Kaul-boys” by his opponents. Kaul’s accession to the top army job was, it seemed, only a matter of time. Just one thing stood in the way of his promotion to full general and possibly to field marshal: he had never held any kind of operational command.

The situation lower down in the ranks was not much better. The Indian Army is to this day a force which is dependent on the officers for leadership; initiative in the rank and file is not just missing, it is actively discouraged. The common soldiers were conditioned to obeying orders rigidly and without question from the officers. Once the officers were removed from the scene, they had no ability to adapt quickly to any situation. This would prove to be an extremely serious problem when quick adaptation to circumstances became a necessity. Besides, few of the troops were acclimatised to fighting at high altitudes. Brought straight up from the plains and sent on foot to the Himalayan ranges, they would suffer terribly from altitude sickness, and be hardly capable of fighting.

The public, of course, knew nothing of this. They actually had an inflated idea of the army’s abilities, especially after India invaded the Portuguese enclaves of Goa, Daman and Diu on India’s west coast in December 1961 and captured them easily. The outnumbered and outgunned Portuguese had offered almost no resistance, but in the media it was spun as a great victory. This great victory made people demand to know why this magnificent army was not being used to throw the evil Chinese invaders out; since they had so handily defeated a white European power, contemptible Chinese troops should be nothing to them.

Actually, by that time the fuse had already been lit, though nobody acknowledged it as yet.


According to an author writing about a different war (Russell Spurr, Enter The Dragon: China At War In Korea), in the 19th Century, Chinese soldiers were a “Western barrack-room joke”. Even as recently as the Second World War, Chinese Guomindang divisions fighting in North East India and what is now Myanmar against the Japanese had displayed a great degree of incompetence, and their Indian allies had regarded them with contempt.

But then came the Korean War. And there appeared a new breed of Chinese soldier: immensely tough, inured to hardship, superbly disciplined, tempered in the fire of the Chinese Civil War. Lacking armour, artillery or air cover, using maps taken from school atlases, dependent on runners for communication, he still fought the Americans, the British and their assorted Turkish, Ethiopian and other vassals to a standstill.

And in 1962 the People’s Liberation Army had evolved. It was still an infantry army, but much better armed now than the People’s Volunteers of the Korean War. No longer were they using captured Japanese Arisaka rifles and US M1 Garands.  Now the troops had automatic weapons (including early model AK47 rifles and SKS carbines), along with machine guns, mortars and mountain artillery with no shortage of ammunition. Also in Ladakh and opposite NEFA, it had, as will be discussed, topographical advantages which allowed superb logistical support, with no shortage of not just weapons and food, but even construction equipment.  Their soldiers, too, had been stationed in Tibet for years and were thoroughly acclimatised to the high altitude and the climate. As for command and control, the experienced generals of the Civil War and Korea were still in their posts, and they had to face a far feebler opponent than those they had already bested earlier.

None of these things ought to have been unknown to the Indians. For one thing, Kaul himself was at the ceasefire negotiations at Panmunjom as an observer and was involved in the prisoner repatriation programme. For another, and as will be discussed, in Ladakh and NEFA the Indians had plenty of opportunity to see the Chinese troops up close and personal; certainly close enough for another of the primary figures of this narrative, Brigadier Dalvi, to be self-confessedly impressed by them. And yet, the official Indian stance continued to be – right up to the point that the war started – that the Chinese were second-rate garrison troops who would be overwhelmed by the Indian army if they chose to fight.

They would have a rude awakening.

The Forward Policy:

In 1961, the Indian government decided to “create facts on the ground”: to put Indian posts as close as humanly possible to the Indian version of the frontier. This idea, called the Forward Policy, was the brainchild of the chief of the Intelligence Bureau, one BN Malik, and was only implemented in early 1962. Maxwell says sarcastically that Malik decided from “gazing into his crystal ball” that India only had to push forces up to the Chinese pickets, and the latter would retreat.

In any case, by the spring of 1962, Indian troops were climbing over vertiginous mountain passes to make their way to the border in both NEFA and Ladakh, there to set up posts confronting the Chinese. The assumption was – and this was repeated in the media – that the topography was favourable to the Indians. A glimpse at a map would have proved this idea wrong – but apparently nobody wanted to look at a map.

The Tibetan plateau is flat, and has relatively light snowfall. The Chinese had plenty of roads which came close to the border, and had sizeable garrisons in Tibet from which they could move troops swiftly to areas of concentration, even in winter. The Indians in Aksai Chin, though, would be cut off from the rest of Ladakh by the Karakorum mountain range. And as for NEFA, the lines of heavily forested mountains run from north to south in parallel ridges with heavy rainfall in summer and deep snow in winter; there is almost no possibility of lateral movement, just south to north where roads are available.

But at the time there were no roads available close to the border on the Indian side, north of the town of Tawang. In fact roads had deliberately not been developed within the border regions so as not to allow an invader speedy routes of ingress, probably on the assumption that if war came India would only defend regions deep inside its territory. But now this meant that the troops had to march on foot to a distant frontier, carrying their rations and arms on them, over precipitous mountain slopes and very, very far from any possibility of reinforcement in a crisis. This was not the stuff of which grand military victories are made.

Of course, according to Malik, the victory had already been won by sending the troops, since the Chinese were not supposed to fight back. It must be emphasised that the Chinese border posts were all within what China recognised as Chinese territory; not one of them was on the Indian side of the border as recognised by China. On the other hand, all the Indian posts were inside Chinese territory as recognised by China; and as shall be discussed, several Indian posts were across the Indian version of the border in what India recognised as Chinese territory

 It must be said that General Thapar, the official army chief, was not enthusiastic about the Forward Policy and protested. These protests did no good because Thapar was a nonentity; so by the summer of 1962 a number of Indian posts faced the Chinese in Ladakh and a lot fewer in NEFA in the east.

Indian Forward Policy post, 1962, NEFA and (below) Indian troops in Aksai Chin

On the same day as the Forward Policy was drawn up, the Chinese protested officially about Indian troop movements already underway in Ladakh, warning that Chinese inaction shouldn’t be interpreted as weakness. Beijing also pointed out the implications of India’s claim that all territories claimed by India were ipso facto Indian. If the Indian argument was that Delhi could position its soldiers anywhere it wanted on its side of its claimed boundary, China said, Beijing could as well position its troops anywhere it wanted on its side of the boundary it claimed. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and India had no logical basis to complain.

Unfortunately for India, as it turned out, Nehru was by now completely a prisoner of his own rhetoric. He had allowed himself to be forced into taking such an extreme position that there was no way he could step back. Indeed, he made an “offer” to China: Beijing should first withdraw entirely from Indian-claimed territory, after which India would be gracious enough to discuss “minor adjustments” in the border India claimed. Not unnaturally, the Chinese derisively rejected this as a declaration that “what is mine is mine. We’ll talk about what is yours.” Instead, they made a counter-offer: they would recognise the illegal (because they hadn’t ever accepted it) McMahon Line in NEFA in return for recognising the border in Ladakh, which was known as the Line of Actual Control. In other words, it was an offer of a straightforward swap.

India ignored the offer, as it did the Chinese warning of “grave consequences” if the Forward Policy was persisted with. Somehow, Nehru seems to have convinced himself that the Chinese were bluffing, and that the few Indian Forward Policy posts would panic them into withdrawing entirely. He did make a “counter-proposal” to the Chinese: this time, he suggested, the Indians would not withdraw in NEFA, but in Aksai Chin both sides would withdraw behind each other’s claim lines. This would have meant the Chinese would have had to abandon Aksai Chin and the Sinkiang Road, while India would hardly have to withdraw at all. So Beijing predictably refused, and as predictably this refusal was taken as a grave affront and proof of Chinese designs on Indian territory.

By this time, mid-1962, wild claims were appearing in the media about alleged Indian gains and “huge areas” supposedly “liberated” from the Chinese. These “gains” were calculated, apparently, by drawing a line connecting the various Forward Policy posts on a map. Those posts were, of course, completely isolated, but the public did not know that.

Rather than assuaging the public, these claims just roused enthusiasm for action; one politician demanded to know in Parliament in August 1962 just why, since two hundred Indian soldiers were the equivalent of two thousand Chinese, they were being held back from a final battle. As before, with every claim Nehru had made, he had been forced to become more radical in order to justify those claims. Things were coming to a head.

Now, as I mentioned above, some of the Indian posts were north of the McMahon Line even according to the Indian interpretation of the border and lay in Chinese territory. This is as good a time as any to point out that the border – in this case the McMahon Line – was not actually demarcated on the ground by boundary markers. It was merely delineated on a map. Especially in those days before GPS, there was often some confusion about where the border actually lay on the ground; therefore, both sides usually used prominent topographical features as landmarks. But even so, according to map coordinates, these posts were in unambiguously Chinese territory.

The McMahon Line terminates at its western extremity at the India-Bhutan-China border, at 27º44’30” North latitude. On the ground, this latitude lies between five and seven kilometres south of the highest ridge in the region, the Thag La. Claiming that the boundary ought to lie along the “watershed”, India then unilaterally moved the McMahon Line northwards to run along the crest of the Thag La. (Apparently, nobody chose to notice that by applying the “watershed principle”, China could legitimately claim the whole of NEFA, which marked the “watershed” above the plains of Assam.) Once having claimed this area on the map, and having decided to create facts on the ground, it remained to put posts there to enforce the claim.

Three of these posts were Longju, Khinzemane and Tamaden. One of them, Khinzemane, sited at 27º46’ North (and hence substantially north of the McMahon Line) was actually an old post which had been set up first in August 1959. The soldiers manning it had been then expelled by the Chinese (quite literally; they physically pushed the Indian soldiers back over the Indian claim line); but they had later returned, with a quid pro quo to the Chinese not to send troops south of Thag La as long as India did not move any troops or patrol to the west of Khinzemane. Now, in 1962, Nehru’s Forward Policy envisaged the setting up of 24 posts along the McMahon Line. None of them had been ordered to be set up west of Khinzemane. However, the army unit in charge of implementing the Forward Policy, XXXIII Corps, was not ordered specifically not to set up any post in the area. It was just told to set up posts at both extremes of the McMahon Line, at the India/Bhutan/China junction at the west end and at the east end at the India/Myanmar/China junction. The latter proved inaccessible, but a patrol of Assam Rifles under one Captain Mahavir Prasad was sent to set up a post at Dhola, well south of the map-marked McMahon Line and therefore south of the original Indian claim line as well.

Now there occurred a blunder that was to directly lead to the war. Prasad, rather than stay at Dhola, penetrated as much as five kilometres north of the original McMahon Line to set up his post at Che Dong on 4th June, probably because it was flatter and had access to water. This Che Dong was just south of the Thag La ridge and separated from it by a fast flowing river called the Nam Ka Chu. Yet Prasad, despite being nowhere near the real Dhola, called his post Dhola. This is inexplicable unless he knew he’d blundered and was attempting to cover up that blunder; and it was to cause a tremendous amount of confusion later. This Dhola post wasn’t just sited in Chinese territory north of the McMahon Line; it violated India’s promise to China not to patrol west of Khinzemane, and freed China from the quid pro quo agreed on earlier. Leaving the post under the charge of a subordinate (a Junior Commissioned Officer or JCO, equivalent of the various grades of warrant officer or sergeant major) Captain Prasad returned to his base of Tezpur in Assam, where he reported to his uncle, Niranjan Prasad, who happened to be the major general in charge of   4 Division stationed there.

At this stage, we’ll take a moment to discuss the long and convoluted Indian Army chain of command, as it affected the troops in NEFA. The army headquarters were in Delhi, where the chief was General PN Thapar; but, as I said, he was a nonentity and the actual centre of power was his deputy, Lt General Brij Mohan Kaul, who had direct access to Nehru. Below that was Eastern Command, under Lt General LP Sen, at that time headquartered at Lucknow in the Ganges valley, over a thousand kilometres away from NEFA. Eastern Command had just one Corps under it – XXXIII Corps, headquartered here in my hometown of Shillong, commanded by Lt General Umrao Singh, a “bald and bucolic”, but shrewd and efficient, officer; far too shrewd and efficient to be palatable to the army top brass, as we shall see. The next level under XXXIII Corps was 4 Division, based at Tezpur in the Brahmaputra Valley, under the aforesaid Major General Niranjan Prasad. 4 Division had two infantry brigades under it. One was 5 Brigade, which had units scattered throughout central and eastern NEFA. The other was 7 Brigade, the unit we shall be following closely through most of the rest of this article. 7 Brigade, which had its headquarters at Tawang, was commanded by Brigadier John Dalvi, who is going to be mentioned often from this point on. 

John Dalvi (in ceremonial uniform)

Dalvi’s brigade had three battalions under it: 9 Punjab, 1 Sikh and 1/9 Gorkha Rifles. In other words, this was the chain of command:

Army HQ (Delhi)
[Lt Gen Brij Mohan Kaul]
Eastern Command (Lucknow)
XXXIII Corps (Shillong)
4 Division (Tezpur)
7 Brigade (Tawang)
[Brigadier John Dalvi]
9 Punjab, 1 Sikh, 1/9 Gorkha Rifles

Dalvi was no fool; much clearer-sighted than the top brass higher up the chain of command, he called the Dhola post (at Che Dong) a dangerously provocative act, sure to invite a Chinese reaction, quite apart from being a low lying trap. Niranjan Prasad cautiously agreed, saying that if India wished to claim the Thag La ridge, it would be better to occupy the ridge crest itself instead of a vulnerable outpost in the valley below. But the proposal took its time moving up the chain of command, and in the meantime, 4 Division was told to treat the Thag La crest as the McMahon Line, no matter what the maps said. Surprisingly, though, for three whole months, the Chinese did nothing to trouble Dhola post. It seemed that BN Malik had been right after all.

In the meantime, things had not been idle in the western sector either. The Forward Policy in NEFA had only consisted in pushing up Indian posts up to the McMahon Line. In Aksai Chin, though, the terrain was flatter, there were few to no topographical features to form natural boundaries, and Indian [the word “Indian” should be in quotes, actually, since several of the Indian Army units were staffed by Gorkha mercenaries from Nepal] and Chinese posts faced each other at point blank range. This was at the direct behest of Kaul, who had toured Ladakh in June and said that it would be better for India to set up as many posts as possible there, even if weaker than the Chinese posts, since he was convinced the latter would not attack.  By mid-1962, there were some sixty Indian posts in Aksai Chin, all of which were undermanned, underarmed, and far from their sources of reinforcement and supply.

One of these posts was at Galwan, and staffed by Gorkha mercenaries. This post had actually cut off a Chinese post from resupply, and provoked a strong diplomatic protest from China, which in turn besieged it. India refused to withdraw the post, and the Chinese did not attack, though they continued to besiege it. This, in Delhi and in the media, was passed off as a major triumph rather than a sign of Chinese restraint in the face of provocation, and in fact a validation of the whole Forward Policy. The besieged mercenaries at Galwan were supplied by air from that point on until the war began on 20th October and they were all wiped out.

[* A word here: I consider the Gorkhas – or “Gurkhas” as the British call them – mercenaries since they fight for money in armies not their own. I shall continue to refer to them as mercenaries and not as soldiers. In my opinion they can be called “soldiers” only if they are Indian Gorkhas serving in the Indian Army or Nepali Gorkhas in the Nepali Army.]

Despite this alleged triumph, the Forward Policy in Aksai Chin wasn’t sufficient to assuage the politicians and the media hawks. If the Indian Army could face off the Chinese, why didn’t they go on the offensive and sweep the enemy out of the sacred soil of the motherland? (This, while the Chinese had a 10:1 superiority in troops in Aksai Chin, and had all the advantages in terrain and communications.)

At some point, someone had a brilliant idea. Since the Galwan post had cut off the Chinese and they had still not attacked, instead of merely confronting them head-to-head, why shouldn’t India site posts behind the Chinese posts, and attempt to cut them off and force them to withdraw? It was a seductive vision. The orders were sent out, and the Indian and Chinese posts soon formed a sort of jigsaw puzzle, in close proximity to one another. Of course, the Indian posts were all cut off from direct land supply, and food and ammunition had to be dropped from the air. Not infrequently these parachuted supplies fell into the Chinese posts instead.

Eyeball to eyeball confrontation: Chinese and Indian troops face off in Aksai Chin, 1962

It was inevitable under these circumstances that firefights would begin, and there were soon several clashes with casualties on both sides. However, these were minor skirmishes, and the Chinese launched no major offensive. Though Lieutenant General Daulat Singh, the chief of the Army’s Western Command, kept warning that the Indian soldiers were actually isolated and helpless, and that the Chinese did not want war as long as India did not upset the status quo, he was ignored. Like an avalanche, the momentum of events was building up to a point where they could no longer be reversed.

On 8th September, by which time tensions had risen in the West to a dangerous level, the Chinese finally reacted in NEFA, sending a contingent of troops down from Thag La to besiege Dhola post. This force was only of some sixty men, but the JCO whom Captain Prasad had left in charge panicked and reported the strength as 600 (he later admitted that he had deliberately exaggerated in order to get reinforcements). This report sent alarm bells ringing all the way up the chain of command. Dalvi, who was about to go on leave, was recalled to duty urgently.

At the same time the Chinese government pointed out that though it did not recognise the McMahon Line, it was still prepared to recognise it on the ground pending a final settlement of the boundary dispute. But the line should be as McMahon drew it, and not as one side or the other (read, India) adjusted it according to its own whims and fancies. By this time, though, Indian public opinion had been so cumulatively brainwashed with misinformation that it was accepted that Thag La was as indisputably Indian as was, say, Delhi.

It was at this point that a major and ultimately fatal decision was taken by the government. Unlike in Aksai Chin, where Indian posts had been sited to try and cut off Chinese pickets but had not been ordered to attack but merely to stand fast, in NEFA Delhi decided on a radically different strategy. In response to charges of complacency in Aksai Chin, where the army had not assaulted and swept away the Chinese “invaders”, it declared that the advantages in NEFA were all on India’s side. (This was the complete opposite of the truth, as I have said above. And while the Chinese had a road three hour’s march from Thag La, Dhola post was six day’s journey from the Indian roadhead at Tawang; it was five days by truck from Tawang down to the plain, such was the condition of the road.)

On the morning of 9th September – one day after the JCO at Dhola Post had sent his alarmist report – there was a meeting in Delhi attended by, among others, Krishna Menon, General Thapar, Lt General Sen, and “probably” BN Malik. Nehru was away in London and Kaul was on leave in Kashmir. At this meeting, chaired by Krishna Menon, it was decided to evict the Chinese from the southern side of the Thag La ridge. At that time the pubic had not yet been informed of the (overstated) Chinese “intrusion” below Thag La, so there was no public pressure for the government to act; it was a pre-emptive decision, taken by Krishna Menon and apparently not resisted by either of the two senior military officers present. Thapar was a pliant nonentity in any case, completely without any personality or presence. As for Sen, as Maxwell said, he would turn himself into “New Delhi’s hatchet man”, constantly overriding objections and bullying less rash officers in the field. To listen to Sen, the Chinese would never dare react in force when attacked – they would run away at the first shots – and anyone who thought otherwise was a coward or worse.

The order was sent down the line to Umrao Singh at XXXIII Corps to launch the eviction offensive, called Operation Leghorn.

Operation Leghorn:

If the reader has been paying attention, he or she will have noticed an interesting progression in the Indian strategic assumptions since the start of the Forward Policy. The first idea was that India could set up posts in territory claimed by China and the Chinese would not react. Then it was decided that India could cut off Chinese posts and attempt to starve them into withdrawal and the Chinese would not react. Now, it came to the point where India could attack and evict the Chinese from their prepared positions and the Chinese still would not react.

The absurdity of this was clear, at least, to Umrao Singh at XXXIII Corps, who incidentally detested Sen personally. He pointed out the situation of the troops at Dhola post, isolated, at the far end of a multi-day march, almost impossible to supply except by air; and contrasted them to the Chinese with their roads just behind the border and their commanding position on the Thag La ridge, overlooking the Indian positions. He pointed out that trying to take Thag La would mean removing all forces from Tawang and leaving it open for a Chinese counterattack; and in turn suggested withdrawal of Dhola Post behind the map-marked McMahon Line, to restore the status quo ante. He was personally overruled by Sen in a meeting also attended by Niranjan Prasad, in Tezpur on 12th September. Leghorn (which Nehru wholeheartedly embraced when told of it) would go on.

According to the orders given to XXXIII Corps, the battalion of 7 Brigade which was closest to Dhola post – 9 Punjab, at Lumpu – was to proceed there “immediately”, with the rest of the brigade to follow within 48 hours. No plans were made for their supply or reinforcement, because the Chinese would run away when the Indians attacked and there would be no need for supplies or reinforcement. 9 Punjab was at half strength, moreover, with just four hundred men on roster. The second battalion, 1 Sikhs, was to the south at Dirang Dzong. The third, 1/9 Gorkha Rifles, was down in the plains preparing to entrain for a peace posting when it was recalled to duty; this could not have done the morale of the mercenaries in its ranks much good.  Effectively, therefore, the entire strength of XXXIII Corps, as far as the Chinese as Thag La were concerned, consisted for the moment of one half-strength battalion.

By the time 9 Punjab left Lumpu for the Nam Ka Chu, it was 14th September; in order to maintain speed they left their mortars and machine guns behind and trekked over steep and narrow mountain paths with only the ammunition they could carry in their pouches, some fifty bullets per man. They did not even, Maxwell says, have enough boots to go around and those boots that were available lacked metal plates and crampons for purchase on the slippery rocks; so heavy and frequent falls were unavoidable. All they had for food was emergency rations, too, so they reached their destination after a 24 hour forced march, underarmed, exhausted, starving and injured.

Indian troops on the move, NEFA. The soldiers were expected to march over this kind of terrain without supplies and fight off the Chinese.

By then, 15th September, the Indian government was well aware that the actual number of Chinese troops opposite Dhola Post was only some fifty to sixty, and therefore there was no imminent threat to the post. But instead of cancelling or modifying the orders, Army HQ in Delhi ordered 9 Punjab not just to evict the Chinese opposite Dhola post but to capture the Thag La itself, including two 5000-metre high passes, and all by 19th September. How this feat was to be performed, nobody seemed to know or care.

At that time of the year – September to October – the Nam Ka Chu is still in spate from the summer rains and snow melt. Varying from 6 to 15 metres in breadth along its course, it runs between steep banks some ten metres in depth. As 9 Punjab moved upstream along its course, they encountered five “bridges” (actually, despite the grandiose title, these consisted of three or four logs roped together) which they named Bridge 1 to 5 (reading from east to west). Dhola Post was opposite Bridge 3, and the Chinese occupied positions on both sides of the bridge. If the Indians were to take Thag La, they would have to fight to get across the river first.

Map of the Nam Ka Chu. Scan from Dalvi, Himalyan Blunder

In any event, 9 Punjab only got the order to evict the Chinese on 19th September itself, by which time it was strung out along the Nam Ka Chu, over a two-day’s marching distance from Bridge 1 to 3. One platoon was also sent to occupy a hill called Tsangdhar, which afforded a prospective dropping zone for aircraft and a site for setting up mortars and artillery if these ever became available. These dispositions made it impossible for 9 Punjab to even defend its own positions, let alone assault the Chinese. At the same time, Sen ordered Niranjan Prasad to command Dalvi to leave his brigade headquarters at Tawang and head to the Nam Ka Chu, though what he was supposed to do there was a mystery even to him.

Meanwhile, 9 Punjab  could see for itself that the Chinese on the river were strongly reinforced by further Chinese positions supplied with heavy weapons on the southern slopes of the Thag La, and that there were in turn supported by the main Chinese force on the other side of the ridge. On 16th September, the Chinese had three companies of troops across Thag La, with at least another battalion at Le on the other side of the ridge. By 20th September, there were two Chinese brigades at Thag La, supported by machine guns, mortars and artillery, with the rest of the division at the road head three hours’ march away on the other side of the ridge. Any attempt to attack them would result in a massacre.

Obviously, then, there was no possibility of managing a frontal assault across the river, and Dalvi, who reached the Nam Ka Chu on that day, refused to carry out the order. He energetically protested to Niranjan Prasad at 4 Division, who in turn protested to Umrao Singh at XXXIII Corps, who passed on the protest to Sen at Eastern Command, where the attack was finally (and, as it turned out, temporarily) countermanded.

Sen, at this time, was passing on wildly overoptimistic claims to Delhi about how fast the troops on the Nam Ka Chu could be reinforced. He claimed that the rest of 7 Brigade could reach the Nam Ka Chu by 21st September; in reality, just one company, marching in summer uniform with one blanket per man, finally reached the river on 1st October.  Long before that, as early as 20th September, the first firefight had occurred between the two sides, with two Chinese soldiers killed and five Indians wounded. It increased the pressure on Nehru to “do something” about the Chinese “incursion”.

Despite all the problems, the order to proceed with Operation Leghorn was confirmed on 22nd October in Delhi. At Thapar’s insistence, for the first time the orders were put in writing. Until now, both the civilians and the military were relying entirely on verbal orders, either personally or on the telephone; an excellent way of passing the buck and avoiding responsibility. Thapar claimed that if India attacked the Chinese at Nam Ka Chu, they would react against Indian troops in Aksai Chin. Even he never said the Chinese could hit back at Thag La itself.  Meanwhile, everyone from Umrao Singh down knew well that carrying out the orders was impossible, but of course they had had no way to disobey, just try and postpone carrying it out as long as they could until, hopefully, the government would either come to its senses or else the required reinforcements could be brought up.

Assuming the Indians would be assaulting Thag La, a frontal attack across the Nam Ka Chu would obviously be suicidal. The only possible approach was a flanking attack, and there was only one route by which a flank operation could possibly be made. There was a feature called Tsangle, to the west of Thag La, marked by a herdsman’s hut. From there, assuming a force could be concentrated without alerting the Chinese, Thag La could be outflanked. Now there were two problems with Tsangle. The first of these was that it wasn’t even certain if it was in India; the maps all indicated that it lay in Bhutanese territory. The second problem was that it had first been mapped by a trooper from the Assam Rifles on a sheet of foolscap paper. He had been mapping the Nam Ka Chu and had marked Tsangle on the upper left corner of the paper simply because he’d run out of space. On the paper, it looked as though Tsangle was only a few hours away from Dhola post. In reality, it was over two days’ march away. It was remarkable how it was this hand drawn map, not the facts on the ground, which became the basis of the plans that were made.

Obviously, if an assault were to be mounted from Tsangle, it would have to be occupied at the last moment to avoid tipping off the Chinese of Indian intentions. And yet Sen ordered – on the 4th October – the occupation of Tsangle, and a company from 9 Punjab was dispatched there. But the thinking in Delhi was that the Chinese would wait, allow India to build up and concentrate forces, and then obligingly retreat rather than fight back when attacked. Even so, Dalvi, Prasad and Umrao Singh calculated that in order to have any chance of success at all, the rest of the brigade must first be concentrated, and then thirty days’ worth of supplies, plus artillery, ammunition and signals equipment must be brought up. This supply problem was insoluble except by airdrop. And there again the army had a problem.

The only possible dropping zone was Tsangdhar, which I’ve mentioned. It was the only relatively flat area on the Indian side of the Nam Ka Chu, but very unsatisfactory as a dropping zone. For one thing, by midday it was covered by clouds, so it could only be used in the morning hours. For another, there were steep slopes on all sides so that any packages that missed the dropping zone would fall into deep gorges from which they would likely be impossible to recover. And a lot of the drops did miss the target since the Dakota (DC3) and Packet (C119) transports could not fly low or slow enough to unload their cargoes with any efficiency. Even those which were dropped correctly failed with great regularity. About 40% of the parachutes failed to open – they had been repacked and reused to save on foreign exchange. And those loads which could be recovered would have to be dragged down some 1200 metres to the Nam Ka Chu, a full day’s march away given the terrain. (In all, according to Dalvi’s staff, only 30% of the supplies dropped could actually be retrieved.) As for artillery, all that could be brought up were light paratroop guns which were dropped by parachute, and these were virtually useless since they were outranged by even the Chinese infantry mortars, let alone their own artillery.

Obviously, therefore, a build up would be a long and slow affair. And yet the Indians did not have the time for a long and slow build up. If the attack could not be launched by 10th October, Umrao Singh said, it would have to be postponed for six months because the snows would start coming down. And that was not acceptable to the “highest level”, so the soldiers would have to get a move on. And, meanwhile, Malik at Intelligence Bureau kept saying that no Chinese reaction need be feared even if the Indians launched their offensive, because – whatever Beijing said – the Chinese would not fight back.

At the same time, there does seem to have been a conscious attempt by the government to hush up the fact that the Chinese had in fact penetrated south of Thag La. It kept prevaricating and trying to deny reports in the media that this had happened. There’s nothing particularly unique about this – to this day the Indian government anxiously tries to deny media reports of Chinese “intrusions” across the border. The only difference is that today there is nobody who even thinks of demanding war against China. And in September 1962 just about everyone in the political and media worlds were demanding immediate war with China.

And then, on 29th September Umrao Singh submitted a written report pointing out all the problems and submitting a written list of requirements which had to be fulfilled before Leghorn could be launched. He also protested in writing about the tendency of Army HQ and Eastern Command to order the movements of companies and platoons, instead of setting tasks and leaving the implementation of those tasks to the men on the spot.

This was the last straw for Thapar and Sen. They had been reassuring the politicians that Leghorn could be carried out successfully – their claim was that the Chinese would react in Ladakh – and now, not only had weeks gone by without the Chinese being expelled, but it was clear that if it were up to Umrao Singh Leghorn wouldn’t be launched at all. Their response gives a window to the utter incompetence of the military leadership: instead of appreciating Umrao Singh’s views, they decided to sack him.

However, simply sacking Umrao Singh was easier said than done, because there was no replacement acceptable to all the three men concerned: Sen, Thapar and Krishna Menon. Also, XXXIII Corps wasn’t just responsible for NEFA: it handled the army operations against the simmering Naga insurgency as well as the border with what was then East Pakistan. Instead, they decided that in place of removing Umrao Singh, they would create a new Corps to take over the Leghorn operation. This unit, called IV Corps, didn’t really exist; it was a public relations exercise. It did not have any operational troops except for the half-strength 9 Punjab at the Nam Ka Chu. It had no headquarters, no command staff. It did have a commander, though.

The time had come for Lieutenant General Brij Mohan Kaul to take centre stage.

The Advent of General Kaul:

All through the time of the increasing tensions below the Thag La ridge, Kaul had been on leave in Kashmir. He got back to Delhi on 1st October, the day before Nehru finally returned from London – cancellation of leave was for lesser mortals like Dalvi, not for exalted people like the de facto chief of the army. He was only back at his official post as second in command for one day, though; on the evening of 3rd October, it was decided that he would take over IV Corps. 

Lt Gen B M Kaul

Normally, this would have been a strange appointment. As Chief of General Staff, Kaul was actually two levels above the corps commander rank. So, this would be a double demotion for him in real terms. It might have made sense if he were a noted battlefield commander; but he had no combat experience whatsoever, not even in the Second World War when as an officer in the British Indian Army he had spent the duration in public relations. There is only one circumstance in which Kaul’s appointment makes sense: he was being sent to play the role of a victorious general in what was supposed to be an inevitably successful operation. Once the Chinese were back over the Thag La, he would return to Delhi as a triumphant commander, ready to assume his role as official army chief once Thapar retired. Kaul was far from unaware of this. According to Maxwell, Thapar, Sen and Krishna Menon, when separately asked by him personally why Kaul had been appointed, all replied that he was the only volunteer.

According to Kaul, who later wrote a self-exculpatory book, The Untold Story, he went to meet Nehru on the night of 3rd October before leaving for NEFA. Nehru told him that in order not to forfeit public confidence, the government had to evict the Chinese from below Thag La or at least try to do so to the best of its ability. If true, this one sentence would encapsulate all the facts leading up to the war; it was an exercise to save Nehru’s face.

On 5th October the media broke the news that Kaul had been appointed the commander of a “special task force” to force the Chinese back over Thag La, and showered praise on his alleged courage and drive. From then on, public expectation grew by the day of imminent victories and great military triumphs. By that time, Kaul was in Tezpur, where Sen (now his nominal superior) met him at the airport. They then had a meeting (this was on the evening of 4th October) with Umrao Singh, at which the latter was to hand over command of the Thag La operations to Kaul, While Umrao Singh and Sen despised each other, Kaul and Singh were friends of long standing, and he offered to lend the new commander of IV Corps his own staff members who were familiar with the Thag La situation. Kaul refused, probably because he knew Umrao Singh’s staff officers would be of the exact same anti-Leghorn mindset as Singh himself.

By this time, 4th October, more troops were finally being dispatched towards the Nam Ka Chu. Most of the new reinforcements were being dispatched piecemeal to where Malik imagined the Chinese might make further “intrusions”. Under Sen’s direct orders – bypassing both Umrao Singh at XXXIII Corps and Niranjan Prasad at 4 Division, not to speak of Dalvi at 7 Brigade – two battalions were making their way north from Tawang to the Nam Ka Chu. One was 1/9 Gorkha, the mercenary battalion which had been on its way to a peace posting. The other was 2 Rajput, which had also been recalled while about to leave for a well-earned rest. Both these battalions were unacclimatised to the altitude, clad in summer uniforms, and marching over precipitous mountain trails through freezing rain. Like 9 Punjab before them they had (apart from a grand total of two machine guns) only their personal weapons and the ammunition they could carry. As fighting units, their value was negligible.

There were other forces in NEFA, as I have mentioned – but for the purpose of this article, which is more concerned with the lead up to the war and the first battle, they can be ignored. At the Nam Ka Chu, when Kaul took over, there was the half-strength 9 Punjab and one company of 2 Rajput plus two medium machine guns. That was all.

Dalvi had set up his 7 Brigade HQ at Lumpu, south of Dhola post. There Prasad met him on 4th October and ordered him back up to the Nam Ka Chu, also informing him of Umrao Singh’s replacement by Kaul. Dalvi, though protesting at the indignity of leaving like a “thief in the night”, had no alternative but to go up north to the Nam Ka Chu. Meanwhile, Kaul went to see Dalvi, arriving at Lumpu by helicopter on the 5th to find he’d already left.  He personally ordered the 1/9 Gorkhas and the remainder of 2 Rajput, who were stationed at Lumpu, to move north by the next morning, supplies or no supplies.  (Since Tsangdhar’s dropping zone had been closed for five days by the weather the situation was even worse than it might otherwise have been.) According to Dalvi, the inadequately clad and unacclimatised troops suffered so severely on the march that some died of exposure before reaching the Nam Ka Chu.

This did not matter to Kaul. From Lumpu he went to meet Prasad, and the next day set out on foot for Dhola post (there being at the time no landing area for a helicopter on the Indian side of the Nam Ka Chu).Before leaving, he sent a message back to Delhi saying that the Chinese were now present in force below Thag La, but that he was taking all necessary measures to launch Leghorn on the 10th October at the latest. As I said earlier, 10th October was the date given by Umrao Singh as the last day there was any chance of Leghorn being launched successfully – if the requisite supplies and reinforcements could be concentrated. Now Kaul was saying that he would launch the operation on that day, even without the requisite supplies.

Kaul reached Dhola post on the afternoon of 7th October, having been carried up the mountain trails on the back of a Tibetan porter. In his book he criticises the positioning and vulnerability of the post, with “parachutes set up on bushes to keep out the rain”. That the post had been set up against the professional opinion of Umrao Singh, Prasad and Dalvi, and besides was critically short of supplies does not seem to have registered with him, but it should have; the Indians were so short of equipment that when they had to cut down trees to make log reinforcements for bunkers, they had to hack at them with spades.

On the evening of 7th October Kaul sent another message to Delhi. Kaul’s messages were all long and convoluted, dictated to his aide de camp and in this case, to Dalvi as well, who was to write acerbically in his own account of the battle (Himalayan Blunder) that “the role of amanuensis sits ill on a harassed senior brigadier.” The message would then be sent back by messenger to Lumpu, from where it would be telephoned to a radio post, where it would be encrypted and sent to Delhi via Tezpur. For one of Kaul’s immensely long messages to reach Delhi took at least three days.

By now, it was obvious that Kaul’s faith in the idea that the Chinese would not fight was under immense stress. He could, after all, no longer pretend that the reluctance of the officers who had warned of the difficulties facing Leghorn was born out of cowardice. Though he said he would stay with 7 Brigade till Leghorn was successfully completed, and he said he could vouch for the initial success of the operation, he began to warn of the possibility of a “reverse” if the Chinese counterattacked.  He began to demand air support (which would be useless in the weather and terrain conditions at the Nam Ka Chu) and reinforcements, which, as he knew himself, were nowhere closer than Tawang. Obviously, this was an effort to “cover his ass”; if the initial Indian attack was defeated, then he could say it wasn’t his fault since he’d stated what he needed to win and it had not been provided.

On the Chinese side of the Nam Ka Chu, which was still flowing at spate, there was a hill called Tseng Jong. This outflanked the Chinese troops facing Dhola Post, and Dalvi’s plan was to capture it as a preliminary for the outflanking operation on Thag La via Tsangle, which was already occupied by the other 9 Punjab company. On 8th October Kaul (who as Corps commander had no business doing so; this was Dalvi’s prerogative) ordered the 1/9 Gorkhas and 2 Rajputs who were up on Tsangdhar down to the Nam Ka Chu, this also compounding the supply problems since their rations and ammunition would now have to be brought down too. When they arrived on the 9th, he positioned them opposite Bridge 3 and 4. All this was, of course, in full view of the Chinese.

Also on 9th October, Kaul sent a patrol of 9 Punjab across the Nam Ka Chu to occupy Tseng Jong. This they did without opposition from the Chinese, and sent a further light machine gun section up to occupy a spot on the Thag La ridge. Kaul took this as a great personal victory, and sent another long message back to Delhi congratulating himself for having already “occupied the Thag La crest.”

So the next day, 10th October and Kaul’s deadline, 2 Rajputs readied to cross the Nam Ka Chu in order to make its way towards a pass called Yumtso La on the crest of Thag La. But they never made the crossing. 10th October turned out to be a highly significant date – just not the way India had planned it. Instead of being the day when Nehru’s troops would sweep away the Chinese “invaders”, it turned out to be the day that the Chinese finally smashed, once and for all, the premise on which the entire Forward Policy had been based – the idea that no matter what India did, they would not fight back.

It was about half last four in the morning, and 2 Rajput was still on the way, when a Chinese battalion came down the Thag La and formed up for an assault on Tseng Jong, simultaneously bombarding the position with heavy mortars. They ignored the troops on the southern bank of the Nam Ka Chu, who were in no position to support the 9 Punjab detachment. The fighting  was heavy, the Punjabis beating off repeated attacks, but unable to resist for any length of time. The battle ended when Dalvi ordered the remnants of the tiny force at Tseng Jong to withdraw back across the river; the Chinese let them go. Indian casualties were seven killed, seven missing and eleven wounded. The Chinese said they had suffered 33 dead and wounded.

In purely military terms, the clash at Tseng Jong was negligible; but on the strategic level its importance was out of all proportion to the casualty count. For the first time, the Chinese had reacted, and in doing so had clearly knocked all the Indian strategic thinking, such as it was, off kilter. Even Kaul could no longer pretend that there was the slightest chance of success. In fact, while the Chinese assault on Tseng Jong was still going on, he hurriedly left the Nam Ka Chu to return to Delhi, and, he said, to personally apprise Nehru of the facts. This had to be done before 12th October, when Nehru was due to leave for Sri Lanka, so there was no time to waste. Just how much of this was Kaul trying to save his own skin I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.

In his book, by the way, Kaul says that the “dawn patrol to Tsangle” had been attacked by the Chinese. This is his only mention of Tsangle, and one would never have guessed that it was far away north of the river and in Bhutanese territory to boot, and that the only purpose of occupying it was to attack the Chinese. From reading him you’d think an Indian patrol on routine duty had been aggressively assaulted by the Chinese for no reason whatsoever.

By the evening of the 10th, Kaul had also fallen ill. He was not a young man, and exposure had begun taking its toll on him as well. He had developed pulmonary congestion, and after being again carried over the pass he was evacuated by helicopter, reaching Delhi on the evening of 11th October, going straight to a meeting with Nehru where Krishna Menon, Thapar, Sen, and other civilian and military officials were present.

There are various versions of what was discussed at this meeting, but the final decision seems to have been not to take any decision. Kaul was to “hold the line at the Nam Ka Chu" and to “hold on to Tsangle”. The Leghorn operation was never formally rescinded, and just how the troops at Tsangle were to be supplied, nobody seems to have discussed. According to Maxwell, Kaul asked the government to demand immediate American military aid against the Chinese. Nehru turned this down, as did the strongly anti-American Krishna Menon. In any case, with the Cuban Missile Crisis beginning, just how much if any aid the Americans would be interested in providing, and whether that aid would ever arrive in time to make any kind of difference, is an open question. 

According to Kaul himself, in his book (he doesn’t mention the American aid demand at all), he offered three alternatives: to go ahead with the attack despite the likelihood of defeat, to hold on to the present positions, or to seek “more advantageous positions” elsewhere. This last obviously meant a withdrawal, and as obviously was not going to happen. So what Kaul offered was merely to maintain the status quo “until an opportunity could arise to clear the Chinese from the occupied area” – and this was acceded to.

[After this meeting, Kaul returned to IV Corps, but by the 18th he was back in Delhi and running a fever. He was, allegedly, ill with pulmonary oedema, acquired as a result of his exposure to the elements at the Nam Ka Chu. According to Kaul himself, it was “a miracle he was alive”. Later, his critics were to claim he was faking illness to avoid responsibility for the looming defeat. Not everyone thinks he was faking, though. Dalvi, who has absolutely no reason to like Kaul, does accept that he was sick, but questions why alternative command arrangements were not made to cater for the possibility of a general falling ill or dying; he gives the example of the WWII Afrika Korps campaign in the Sahara, where when Field Marshal Rommel was on sick leave, General Stumme took over. Stumme died of a heart attack, and General Ritter von Thoma took charge until Rommel returned. On the other hand, once Kaul fell sick, the decisions he had taken were kept as sacrosanct. Maxwell points out that Kaul was not hospitalised but went to his own house, which means he was nowhere near as sick as he claimed. Nor did he give up command of IV Corps, but continued commanding it from his sick bed, well over 1500 kilometres away from the scene of action.]

At all stages in this narrative, it is obvious that Nehru was reaping the fruit of his policy of promoting his favourites to military posts. They knew their careers depended on keeping him happy, not in giving him hard facts. So they gave him the (mis)information he wanted to hear, and this misinformation guided his policy directives, which in turn led them to feeding him even more misinformation to keep him happy. It was a fairly typical vicious cycle of the sort common in Indian politics to this day.

The next day, 12th October, Nehru left for Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). At the airport he gave an impromptu press conference, at which he was asked about the Chinese. Despite knowing perfectly well that Leghorn had been indefinitely postponed, Nehru said that the Army had been ordered to throw the Chinese out from Indian territory below the Thag La. This was a truly staggering blunder.

As Dalvi says about this episode, not only was Nehru saying something he knew to be untrue, but “...he should not have used the phrase ‘throw out’ when referring to a major power, and especially not the Chinese, who are proud and sensitive. More than once I was told...” (this would have been later, when he was a prisoner of war of the Chinese) “...that they were deeply offended by Mr Nehru’s statement.” Furthermore, Dalvi says, “...it will be appreciated that we soldiers were considerably shaken by political leadership of this kind...General Sen told me, many months later, that he was thunderstruck when he heard Nehru’s statement, especially after the briefing and the decision taken the previous night. I myself heard this amazingly casual remark on All India Radio’s 1:30 pm news. I called General Prasad and asked him...whether I was to accept operational orders from All India Radio.”

Sarcasm, says Dalvi, was the only weapon he had left.

The Situation On the Nam Ka Chu:

While the nation took for granted that Nehru had unleashed the Army on the Chinese interlopers, and the New York Herald Tribune editorialised that Nehru had “declared war on China”, the situation for Dalvi’s miserable force went from bad to worse. From 13th to 19th October the Chinese concentrated forces opposite the 7 Brigade positions, and Chinese artillery officers openly reconnoitred the Indian positions for artillery strikes. So brazen were the Chinese about their build up that, Dalvi says, one of his observation posts counted exactly 1978 Chinese troops openly massing on Tseng Jong. And, obviously, the Chinese could strike anywhere they wanted, while 7 Brigade had to defend a front that was five days’ march from one end to the other.

According to Brigadier Darshan Khullar, writing in When Generals Failed, by 7th October the Chinese already had, by the estimation of IV Corps, two divisions and two regiments (equivalent to Indian brigades) opposite NEFA. Khullar quotes the Chinese history of the war, The Snows of the High Himalayas, as saying that the Chinese in addition to these forces also had 61 Division available and 134 Division of the 54th Army in reserve, plus 419 Unit, which seems to have been an elite formation of shock troops. Of these, a full division was concentrated opposite 7 Brigade, and had all the advantages of weapons, supplies and communications besides.

It is true, though, that at this time Dalvi was finally paradropped four field guns for artillery. Two of them were wrecked on hitting the ground; the other two were retrieved and set up at Tsangdhar. Their crew, however, foot slogged up from Tawang like everyone else and had casualties from the cold and exposure as well. There were also four mortars with a grand total of 450 bombs. Dalvi says all the other requirements for artillery, from observation posts to meteorological data, were lacking.

During this period, strange things happened. The Chinese sometimes would “magnanimously inform the Indians when they were about to cut down a tree, so that (the Indians) would not be startled by loud noises.” Maxwell says seldom in history had it occurred that two armies had faced each other over a narrow stream “trading gossip and gunfire.” The Chinese, incidentally, had Hindi-speaking personnel and interpreters. Not a single Indian on the Nam Ka Chu spoke a word of Mandarin or Cantonese.

The cold and exposure also had a murderous effect on the troops. Pulmonary oedema was claiming more and more victims. Each of the casualties had to be stretchered up to Tsangdhar, each stretcher requiring eight bearers. From Tsangdhar, if the weather allowed, they could be helicoptered out. The stretcher bearers would haul supplies down on the return journey. The Indian Air Force’s helicopter pilots did what they could. For instance, one Squadron Leader Williams flew 23 medical evacuation missions in the course of one day from Tsangdhar, the last in total darkness.

And yet, Dalvi says, during this period he had several “tourists” – staff officers who were surplus to requirements at 4 Division and were sent to Dalvi as a means of displaying support. One of these was an officer in charge of ceremonials, pay, pension, welfare and discipline. Dalvi says with carefully restrained irony that he “returned him with thanks” to 4 Division.

Meanwhile there was Tsangle. From Tsangdhar it was, by the icy conditions of mid-October, five days’ march away. The porters who had to supply it had to carry their own rations for ten days plus their loads; and it’s not surprising that those who did manage to make the journey were carrying amounts so small that it was not worth the effort of sending them there. Since the porters also had to be clad to withstand the freezing temperatures on the trek, the winter clothing (actually, not what we would now consider winter clothing, but 19th Century style greatcoats) had to be provided them by stripping the troops on the Nam Ka Chu.

Dalvi, to his credit, tried his best to get 7 Brigade out of this absurd situation. He begged and pleaded Prasad to allow the evacuation of Tsangle, but Prasad refused point blank on the grounds that Kaul’s orders were that Tsangle be held at all costs unless the Chinese “directly threatened” it. (The Chinese, of course, made no attempt to threaten it for the very simple reason that the post was draining Indian energies dry and they didn’t have any reason to stop the Indians driving themselves into the ground trying to hold and supply it.) Instead of abandoning this post, Prasad ordered Dalvi, on pain of court martial, to further reinforce Tsangle with mortars and machine guns. On 17th October, Dalvi was ordered to send one company of 1/9 Gorkhas to reinforce the 9 Punjab company at Tsangle; on the 19th October, he was ordered to send the rest of the Gorkhas. If this move had taken place, Dalvi says, he would have the ridiculous situation of five companies at Tsangle, and ten companies spread over the rest of his sixteen-kilometre front.

Also, on 16th October, Dalvi was told that the Defence Minister (Krishna Menon) had ordered that 1st November was the last day acceptable to the government to carry out the operation. Apparently, Leghorn was still on, going by verbal orders, innuendo, and passed on gossip. What was totally missing was any hard directive either way.

It was absurd, it was tragic, it was a catastrophe in the making. But it was all completely preordained, because it had been ordered at the “highest level.”

As Dalvi says, QED.

The Chinese View:

At this point, we should probably take a brief detour to see what the Chinese thinking was. In this, one source is Maxwell but even more important is Khullar’s When Generals Failed, since Khullar makes extensive use of the Chinese history of the war. Mao, says Khullar, was quite clear sighted about the Chinese isolation in case of a war with India: not just the USA but also the USSR (this was already well into the Great Sino-Soviet Split) would be on the Indian side, but they felt that they had no choice. The Chinese knew all about Kaul and the fact that he was a stranger to combat; but at the same time they had Nehru’s statement about “throwing them out” before them. They, obviously, did not know about the fact that Leghorn had been secretly kept on hold, and they could see that Tsangle was being constantly reinforced. The only utility of reinforcing Tsangle, obviously, was to outflank and attack Thag La, So, the Chinese thought, an Indian attack was not just inevitable but imminent. They accordingly passed on warnings to their troops on the Thag La ridge to be ready to face an Indian attack.

“Comfortable in their thick, padded uniforms,” says Maxwell, “and confident in their numbers and weapons, the Chinese looking down from their strong bunkers on Thag La ridge at the unfortunate Indian troops on the river line, hungry, cold, and as exposed to the elements as to their enemies, must have judged Beijing’s warnings to them superfluous. Plainly China had no reason to fear an Indian attack, but she had every reason to expect it.” (Emphasis mine.) The Chinese could, of course, continue to face off against the Indians both in NEFA and Aksai Chin, but all that this restraint seemed to be doing was embolden the Indians. While the current Indian efforts were toothless, given time they might no longer remain so. Besides, a Maginot Line strategy for China would be expensive in effort and personnel, and would in any case surrender the initiative to India, something anathema to Mao’s strategic thinking.

It would be far better, the Chinese leadership decided, to take the offensive and teach India a lesson and to “project our might.” Khullar quotes Mao as saying that this would secure peace for thirty years. We can see how right he was – it’s now 52 years since the border conflict, and China and India have never fought another war. Nor do even the most belligerent Indian right wingers today suggest attacking the Chinese.

Still, the question arises what made the Chinese launch their offensive against a useless triangle of land in NEFA when they had so long tolerated the aggressive Indian deployments in Aksai Chin. China could, of course, wipe out the feeble Indian posts in Ladakh without trouble, but these would hardly be convincing to India as a demonstration of Chinese strength. Besides, India had stuck its neck out in the East, openly challenging China on the field of battle. While in real terms the Aksai Chin posts were the provocation for China to go to war, the Chinese opportunity to deal India a massive and telling blow was in the East.

The final Chinese meeting before the offensive was on 18th October, Khullar says (there is a discrepancy I’ll mention in a moment), at 11 pm Beijing time, General Zhang Guohua presiding. Zhang detailed a two-pronged assault on 7 Brigade: A regiment from 55 Division was to cross the Nam Ka Chu and attack the enemy on the river, while a second regiment - the 87th, from 61 Division – was to bypass the posts on the river and attack Dalvi’s HQ and Tsangdhar directly. Particular mention was made of Dalvi, whom the Chinese held in high regard; he was to be taken alive at all costs.

Shen (87 Regiment commander): What if he (Dalvi) commits suicide?

Zhang Guohua: He may but then I make it clear that your action will not have been dashing and sudden.

Khullar then has Zhang synchronising his officers’ watches and adding that the artillery barrage would begin at dawn “tomorrow” while the main attack would start at 550 am. The signal would be three red flares.

As I mentioned, there was a discrepancy, since the Chinese attack started on 20th October. Khullar may have blundered in putting the date of the meeting as the 18th and not the 19th – there is no indication that the Chinese postponed their offensive by 24 hours.

The Battle of the Nam Ka Chu:

By the 18th October, it was completely obvious that the Chinese were on the verge of launching a major assault. They made absolutely no attempt to hide their intentions, their marking parties preparing for a night attack, while their troops lit fires on the slopes of Thag La to keep themselves warm. By now the water level of the Nam Ka Chu had dropped, and it was no longer a barrier, so the Indian positions opposite the bridges had become useless. The Chinese frontal assault across the river could no longer be halted by blowing up the bridges.

But would there be a Chinese frontal assault across the river at all?

According to Major General Ashok Verma, writing in Rivers of Silence, on the 18th or 19th, the Chinese deliberately stampeded a herd of yaks across the river. The only possible reason for this would be to set off mines the Indians had planted, and it seemed strange that the Chinese – who had kept the Indians under such close observation – would not be aware that the latter had laid no mines. But to Indian minds this stampede, and the Chinese marking parties, were quite obviously proof that the Chinese would attack frontally across the river. It was so obvious that someone, somewhere, should have smelt a rat.

Apparently, nobody did.

In fact, by the night of the 19th, the Chinese were already across the river in force. They had infiltrated their troops between the Indian outposts, wading the river in the dark, “with canvas shoes on bare feet,” Mehta writes. “Dry socks were donned after the crossing.” It was a classic Maoist guerrilla tactic, but on a regimental scale. 87 Regiment, which had been ordered by Zhang Guohua to take Tsangdhar and go after Dalvi, moved right on towards its objectives. The rest prepared for the morning and the final assault.

At exactly five on the morning of 20th October, Dalvi writes, the Chinese fired two Verey lights (flares). [This is a minor discrepancy with Khullar, who specifies that Zhang had mentioned three.] Moments later, 150 Chinese guns and mortars opened a massive barrage on the Indian positions. The Chinese, Dalvi says, were using automatic 76 mm cannon and 120 mm mortars, which were hitting not just the positions opposite the bridges from 3 to 5 but also Tsangdhar and Dalvi’s own Brigade HQ. “As the first salvoes crashed overhead,” Dalvi writes, “there were a few minutes of petrifying shock...the proximity of the two forces made it seem like an act of treachery.” The Chinese barrage had “pin point accuracy”, evidence, Dalvi says, that the Chinese had been apt pupils of the “renowned Russian capacity for heavy and accurate artillery support.”

Among the “Indian” forces caught helpless by the Chinese barrage were the mercenaries of 1/9 Gorkhas, whom Dalvi had been ordered to send to Tsangle and who were just about to set out. Dalvi telephoned Prasad as the barrage began, and informed him that the attack was developing and that there was obviously now no question of sending the Gorkhas. Prasad's response? If Dalvi couldn’t send the entire battalion to Tsangle, he should at least send one company, because the move had been ordered at the “highest level”! 

It was the final piece of black comedy. In any event, because of the Chinese and their inconsiderate offensive, the “highest level” was defied and the Gorkhas never went.

The Chinese assault on 7 Brigade. Detail of map from Dalvi.

The Indian positions on Bridges 1 and 2 were ignored. The Chinese were concentrating their effort on the western side of the Nam Ka Chu. Once they captured Tsangdhar and Lumpu, the Indian troops opposite the first two bridges would be trapped and done for anyway.

As planned, the Chinese infantry now assaulted the Indian positions from the flanks, waves of troops overrunning the patchy Indian defences and machine gunning and grenading the defenders in their shallow trenches and dugouts. Dalvi says they used one large and two small pincer movements, which quickly cut off the Rajputs from the Gorkhas. The different Indian units quickly lost all coherence, and as their telephone lines were cut off they could not even communicate with each other. There were individual acts of extreme heroism, and when the ammunition was about to run out, small numbers of Indian troops met the Chinese with bayonet charges, especially at Bridge 4 where two waves of Chinese attacks were repelled before the defenders were overrun. According to Dalvi, the Chinese admitted that they suffered the largest number of their casualties in the entire war on this first morning itself.

But, despite all the heroism, it was a forlorn effort, the result preordained. By 9 am, 7 Brigade had ceased to exist.

Indian troops surrender to the Chinese. Place of photo uncertain, could be either in Aksai Chin or NEFA

Also by 9 am, the Chinese directly attacked Tsangdhar as well, which had the two remaining field guns dropped by the air force. Firing over open sights, the crews fought till they were killed. The Indian troops at Bridges 1 and 2 were massacred as they attempted to withdraw and found the Chinese sitting across their route of retreat. It was a wipeout.

And it was on the morning of the 20th  that the Indian Air Force suffered its only casualty of the war when a helicopter sent by Prasad to try and find out what was going on landed at Tsangdhar. The crew, including an air force pilot and an army observer, were killed by the Chinese and the helicopter captured.

What of Dalvi himself?

With his headquarters under bombardment and then threatened with being overrun, Dalvi tried to get away via Tsangdhar, but that feature was already under attack. Attempting to withdraw across country with his staff, he managed to survive at large for two days before blundering into a Chinese patrol on 22nd October and was taken prisoner. He was finally released in May 1963, only to discover on his return that he and his fellow ex-PoWs were now regarded with suspicion by the military and political hierarchy, as possibly brainwashed. Though he resumed his military career, and received two upgrades in command position, he was never promoted to major general. Probably he had made too many enemies.

Dalvi (centre) with other officers, as PoWs, in Lhasa

And what, Maxwell writes, of Tsangle, that position of such overwhelming importance, the occupation of which had facilitated the destruction of the brigade? Nothing. The Chinese ignored it. Tsangle had any importance only as a staging point for Leghorn, and the Chinese in any case considered it to be in Bhutan, and none of their business.

Simultaneously on 20th October, the Chinese attacked the Indian posts in Aksai Chin and overwhelmed them. Almost all the posts were destroyed. Only a few, which were not attacked on the first day of the war, were withdrawn.

“The Forward Policy”, Maxwell writes, “like Operation Leghorn, had met with the fate which from the beginning the real soldiers had foreseen.”


The purpose of this article is to discuss the policies and provocations by which the Indian government dragged the country into war, and the overwhelming incompetence which guaranteed defeat. I do not intend to describe in detail subsequent battles. I’ll just mention a few salient points:

After the Battle of Nam Ka Chu, Indian forces abandoned Tawang and withdrew beyond the “impregnable” pass of Se La (which Kaul in his book miscalls Tse La. Tse La is a quite separate pass). The war entered a period of hiatus, during which the government drummed up public support all it could. Schoolgirls paraded with rifles, young men sent letters to Nehru written in blood pledging to sacrifice their lives, and countries which uncritically accepted the Indian view sent messages of support, just as Mao had foreseen.

Across the cities of North India, there was an upsurge of anti-Chinese sentiment, and “Chinese”-looking people were attacked. Japanese diplomats took to painting their cars with the Rising Sun in order to avoid being assaulted.

During this period, too, there was one of the worst and most degrading episodes in modern Indian history. Indian citizens of Chinese origin were declared “enemy aliens”; they were rounded up and put in detention camps, their property seized, and later a lot of them were deported to China, a country they had never seen. Many years later, a few of them returned to India, the land of their birth – but with Chinese passports, and as tourists. Those that were allowed to remain behind never got over the shock of this betrayal. Ever since, the Chinese community in India has shrunk as more and more have emigrated elsewhere.

Nehru finally asked for American arms, which began landing in transports at the rate of some twenty tons a day. A shipload of Zionistani mortars – India had no relations at that time with Zionistan – reached Bombay harbour. (That these arms didn't come without strings attached, India would discover to its cost when war came with Pakistan in 1965.) But for the moment, with each passing day, it seemed, India was getting stronger. Surely, if the Chinese dared advance any further, in any future battle, India would win.

Fat chance. On 14th November, Indian forces of the 6th Kumaon battalion assaulted Chinese troops at Walong, on the eastern edge of the McMahon Line. According to Maxwell, this was meant to be a “birthday present” for Nehru, who had turned 73 on that day. The Kumaonis were speedily dispatched by the Chinese, whose counterattack not just cleared them out but penetrated and overwhelmed the main Indian lines. The birthday offensive - meant to trounce the Chinese - ended in the loss of Walong and the defeat of all Indian forces in eastern NEFA.

Two days later, on the night of the 17th, the Chinese attacked below Tawang. Far from coming obligingly down the road into the waiting Indian guns, they bypassed the Indian positions via hill tracks and infiltrated and assaulted them from the flanks and rear. There resulted a most disgraceful panic and a complete rout, with entire Indian units dissolving in catastrophic confusion. The allegedly impregnable Se La was abandoned. Further to the south, Bomdi La and Dirang Dzong both fell. NEFA was in Chinese hands. And, as a crowning touch, at the same time, the last remaining Indian positions on the Aksai Chin were attacked and captured.

At long, long last morale in Delhi collapsed, and Nehru had to face up to the consequences of the defeat. He made an emotional “farewell to Assam” radio speech, in which he more or less gave up all hope of retaining the province. Under pressure from members of his own party, he had to sack Krishna Menon, too – a sign that his authority had vanished forever.

Another casualty of the war was Kaul. Thapar resigned from his post as army chief, and Nehru’s immediate thought was still that Kaul should succeed him. It was the President of India, S Radhakrishnan, who in his capacity as Supreme Commander in Chief called the idea of appointing Kaul as army chief absurd. (There was a rumour earlier that the Chinese had captured Kaul at Walong. Radhakrishnan had drily commented, “Unfortunately, this report is completely untrue.”) Instead, Lieutenant General J N Choudhury – an old Kaul opponent – was appointed army chief. His career in ruins, Kaul resigned from the army.

Meanwhile, the war was over. On 20th November, exactly one month after the Battle of Nam Ka Chu, and having amply proved its point, China declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew from NEFA, though of course it held on to Aksai Chin, and holds on to it to this day.

The world came to realise, Maxwell says, that China had not been invading India – it had been engaged in a giant punitive expedition.

The Henderson Brooks Report:

In 1963, the army commissioned an inquiry into the defeat. It was to be carried out by Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier Premendra Singh Bhagat. This report, of which only two typewritten copies officially exist, was immediately suppressed by the government. Over fifty years later, the report still remains “classified”, because the government claims that the information therein is “sensitive” and of “current operational value”.

If the information is actually of current operational value, one wonders to whom it is supposed to be valuable. Certainly the information would be nothing secret to the Chinese, who brushed aside the Indian challenge in 1962, and the report refers to that conflict. Of course, the real reason is hardly unknown: the report exposes Nehru’s complete culpability for the war and the defeat, and Nehru is sacrosanct to the Congress Party ruling the nation.

Remember I said “officially” only two copies exist. Actually, there is at least a third, which was passed on to Maxwell and which he used as a source for his book. And now, in 2014, the now 87-year-old Maxwell has uploaded part of the first volume of the report on to his website. It is available for download at this link (I did download it, and I suggest you do too, while the link lasts; the Indian government blocked Maxwell’s website almost immediately.)

Why this article now?

As I might have mentioned a few times (actually, as you damned well know I mentioned), India is going to the polls soon – in just two weeks, actually, as I write this. The Hindunazi Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking for any and all ways to discredit the Congress, and the publication of the Henderson Brooks report online came in useful. The BJP (which itself failed to publish the report when it was in power) has suddenly developed an acute love for the truth, and demanded that it be published. The government, of course, refused again.

In this the utter, barefaced hypocrisy of the Hindunazis is breathtaking. Not only did they not publish the report when they could have – they ruled India for eight years – they are happy to accuse Nehru of lying the nation into war, but quite carefully avoid mentioning the fact that Hindunazi politicians were at the forefront of egging Nehru on to war in the early sixties. Some of those politicians are even alive to this day. Besides, if the BJP does come to power after the next election, do you really imagine they will publish the report? Of course they won’t. It’s just an exercise in cynicism.

In one way, I’m particularly happy about the report coming out now. Over the years, I have many times and on many fora online talked about the fact that India provoked the 1962 war and deserved to lose. Each time, right-wing Indian Hindus called me a communist traitor in the pay of China. Well, guess what? When it comes to political gain, their Hindunazi politicians are saying exactly what I said. Are they communist traitors in the pay of China too?

As much as the troops of 7 Brigade were supposed to sweep away the Chinese from the Thag La, I suppose.



India’s China War, Neville Maxwell, Jaico Publishing House, Bombay

Himalayan Blunder, Brigadier J P Dalvi, Natraj Publishers, Dehra Dun

The Untold Story, Lt. General B M Kaul, Allied Publishers, Bombay

When Generals Failed, Brigadier Darshan Khullar, Manas Publications, New Delhi.

Rivers of Silence, Major General Ashok Kalyan Verma, Lancer Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi

Enter the Dragon, Russell Spurr, Sidgwick&Jackson Ltd, London.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2014