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Of the Sino-Indian war: Who attacked whom?

Publication Date : 03-10-2012


The scene is an Indian prisoners of war camp in Tibet.

One morning in early 1963, Lt. Tong, a Chinese translator takes four senior Indian officers out for a walk. They are allowed to sit near a mud wall on the outskirts of the ancient monastery where they have been kept under confinement.

Tong does not let them peep over the wall, though they can hear voices speaking on the other side. A Hindi-speaking Chinese is addressing some Indian jawans (soldiers). They debate the People’s Liberation Army’s pet subject since the capture of the Indians on the Thagla ridge a few months earlier; "admit that India attacked China first on October 20", says the Chinese voice.

A jawan speaks. He tells the Chinese that his company was sleeping when the Chinese poured down the ridge. How could India have started the war while sleeping? The Chinese officer calmly explains once again to the jawan that he only thinks of his own unit; everywhere else India attacked and China had no choice but to retaliate in self-defence.

But the jawan is fearless and outspoken, he tells his interlocutor: “I do not know what you are talking about, but I know that the whole of my ‘buregade’ (Punjabi for ‘brigade’) was sleeping when you attacked us.”

Indeed, everyone was sleeping when the Chinese mortars began shelling the bunkers on the Namkha Chu (river) on that fateful morning.

Worse, the leadership in Delhi had also been sleeping (and dreaming of throwing out the Chinese).

The Chinese have been repeating ad nauseam to the world that it was Nehru who attacked them.

In the introduction of his Himalayan Blunder, Brig. John Dalvi, the Commander of the ill-fated 7 Infantry Brigade writes: “On Nov 21, 1962, I was woken up by the Chinese Major in charge of my solitary confinement with shouts of  ‘good news, good news’. He told me that the Sino-Indian War was over and that the Chinese government had decided to withdraw. When I asked the reason for this decision he gave me this (Beijing) inspired answer: “India and China have been friends for thousands of years and have never fought before. China does not want war. It is the reactionary Indian government that was bent on war. So the Chinese counter-attacked in self-defence and liberated all our territories in North East Frontier Area (NEFA) and Ladakh, in just one month.”

He added: “We have proved that you are no match for mighty China”.

But where was the question of the Indian Army "attacking China" with no food, no clothes, no armament or ammunition supply? Other sources have also confirmed that the Chinese leadership believed that India attacked.

On Nov 8, 1962, Dr Malcolm MacDonald, a former British High Commissioner to India, met Robert Donhauser, the US Consul-General in Singapore, to brief him about his visit to China and his lengthy discussions with Zhou Enlai and Marshal Chen Yi.

The US official later cabled Washington: “Chou (Zhou) took exception to UK position that Peiping (Beijing) was aggressor in border dispute. (Zhou) stated he realized UK must support India as member of Commonwealth but did not have to charge Chinese (of) aggression. (Zhou) wished to go to conference table but India had made impossible demands prior to discussions, particularly since territory under dispute was not Indian, but Chinese. MacDonald, of course, upheld UK position.”

This raises two questions. Did the Chinese really believe that India had attacked China in the West Kameng district? Why pretend that it was Nehru who attacked when it is so obviously not true?

The answer is the Chinese probably knew that India was not prepared, further they wanted to teach "arrogant" India a lesson for granting refuge to the Dalai Lama three years earlier.

On Oct 6, 1962, Mao Zedong addressed several senior Chinese generals in Beijing: “It seems like armed co-existence won’t work. It’s just as we expected. Nehru really wants to use force. This isn’t strange. He has always wanted to seize Aksai Chin and Thagla Ridge. He thinks he can get everything he desires.”

The chairman continued: “Now the Indians want to fight a war with us. Naturally, we don’t have fear. (But) we cannot lose ground; once we lose ground it would be tantamount to letting them seize a big piece of land equivalent to Fujian province.…Since Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him, for us not to fight with him would not be proper. Courtesy emphasizes reciprocity.”

Why? One of the reasons might be Operation Leghorn planned by a flamboyant new Corps Commander.

On October 3, Lt Gen Kaul took over Corps IV, a Corps especially created ‘to throw the Chinese out’. On his arrival in Tezpur, Kaul addressed the senior officers: “The Prime Minister himself had ordered these posts (near the Thagla ridge) to be set up and he had based his decision on the highest Intelligence advice.” The ‘intelligence’ inputs turned out to be a bad joke.

Niranjan Prasad commented: “Explicit…was a warning that failure or dragging of feet in completing the task could result in serious consequences for those responsible”.

It appears that the Chinese military intelligence had gathered that Indian forces were planning to start Operation Leghorn to occupy the Thagla Ridge on 10 October (the information was absolutely correct).
As today Beijing can enter any computer system, in Mao’s days, the Chinese intelligence knew everything about Kaul’s and his acolytes’ plans.

In his memoirs, Prasad recalls: “I had received reports of a pirate radio operating somewhere in our area, but when we referred this to higher authorities the matter was dismissed: we were curtly told that there was no pirate radio transmitter on our side of the border. Subsequently it was confirmed that the Chinese had indeed sneaked in a pirate transmitter (near Bomdila) in the Tibetan labour camp. The aerial of their transmitter was concealed as a tall prayer-flagstaff.”

This is probably how Mao was aware of Operation Leghorn. But there was something else. The Indian officers on the ground had some doubts about the exact location of the boundary. When on Aug 14, 1962, Brigadier DK Palit, Director of Military Operations visited the Corps Headquarters in Tezpur, he was asked about the Thagla ridge.

He said that the Army headquarters in Delhi had only received it the day before he left for Tezpur. He promised to look into this and send an answer ‘as soon as he could’.

In his insider’s assessment of the conflict, War in the High Himalayas, Brigadier Palit recalls: “On my return to Delhi I referred the Thagla dilemma to the Director of Military Survey. The latter commented that as the existing maps of the area were ‘sketchy and inaccurate, having been compiled from unreliable sources’, the map coordinates of the new post quoted by the patrol leader were of doubtful accuracy”.

Later Palit went to meet Dr S Gopal, the Director of the Historical Section, who told him that after the boundary talks with the Chinese in 1960, the Government of India had been aware that the actual terrain in the area of the trijunction was different from that depicted on the quarter-inch scale map of the Simla sheet.

But Palit added: “What Gopal had not told me--and I found out only later--was that the Chinese had not accepted our arguments.”

If Mao was aware of these doubts, he would have used it as a pretext to say that India walked ‘into China’, but the fact remains that the entire ‘buregade’, not to speak of the 4 Infantry Division, was sleeping that morning. In any case, who attacked in the eastern sector of NEFA (Walong) and Ladakh (Chushul), if not China?

The writer is an expert on China-Tibet relations and author of Fate of Tibet.


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