What was the state of the Indian Army when it was ordered to “throw out” the Chinese? As Neville Maxwell pointed out, the Army leadership had toadied up to Nehru and was telling him only what he wanted to hear. Whereas Sam Manekshaw famously told Nehru’s daughter that while she was ready for a war in East Pakistan in April 1971, he wasn’t. According to Major General V K Singh, who wrote Leadership in the Indian Army (Sage, 2005), Sam told Mrs Gandhi: “As your Army chief, it is my duty to put the facts before you. If your father had me as the chief in 1962 instead of General Thapar, and he had told me to throw the Chinese out, I would have said the same thing, and he would not have been shamed the way he was. If you still want me to go ahead, I will. But I guarantee you a one hundred per cent defeat.”
Henderson Brooks records his astonishment when on September 12, 1962, then foreign secretary M J Desai tells the military brass to ask the Indian Army to reach Thag La and “establish posts alongside the Chinese”. Desai declares that it does not matter even if India ceded some territory in Ladakh. You may ask how a foreign secretary called such shots. In truth, says Brooks, in Ladakh, for example, the Army was not prepared to meet even a “limited operation”. How did this come to be? Here is the received wisdom: According to armymen who have paid attention to this, the strength of the Indian Army at the end of World War II was approximately 23 lakh. After demobilising began, it was to be cut to 1.5 lakh. When August 15, 1947, swung around, the number was 3.25 lakh, of which one lakh were various state forces. We were already at war with Pakistan, and in 1948, Pundit Nehru ordered a study on how large our Army should be: the strength ought not exceed 1.75 lakh, including state forces. Our northern borders were neither defined nor demarcated. There were claims and counter-claims. Our defence budget when we promulgated our Constitution was a pitiful 0.6 per cent of the GDP. Our Air Force and Navy were being downsized. In 1959, when there was blood on our border with China, we had neither the troop strength nor infrastructure for the task, and Nehru was robustly prosecuting war through the media.
The best part, which emerges in the Brooks report, is that only after August 26, 1959, when the Chinese overran our post in Longju, did the border areas with the Chinese come under control of the Army. Till then, the foreign ministry with help from the Intelligence Bureau dictated the China policy; the border areas were being patrolled on the western sector by police, a precursor to CRPF; on the eastern sector, it was the Assam Rifles, not the Army. As Brooks points out, there were no minutes maintained on decisions taken by the war meetings called by defence minister Krishna Menon. According to John Garver, Marshal Ye Jianying, briefing Mao on Nehru’s blue-eyed Gen. B M Kaul, who he had met during a visit to India in 1957, pointed out that the “Indian commander had no actual combat experience”. Mao responded: “Fine, he’ll have another opportunity to shine.”
Sudarshan is most recently author of Adrift