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Time for reconciliation

Publication Date : 15-10-2012


Indian Air Force (IAF) chief N.A.K. Browne has made the astounding claim that use of "offensive airpower" would have averted India's humiliating defeat in the 1962 China War. The government however restricted the IAF to provide transportation support to the Indian Army in the belief that use of airpower would provoke China into bombing Indian cities.

Similar views were expressed in the past by military leaders including Lt-Gen B.M. Kaul, the 1962 army commander in today's Arunachal Pradesh. The assumption is that the asymmetry between the Indian and Chinese air forces was small, and IAF deployment would have reduced the overwhelming superiority of China's land forces.

This speculation is based on "what-if" questions, or what social scientists call counterfactuals. It's hard to prove or disprove counterfactuals. But one can assess their plausibility by considering their context and the then-known facts.

Using these criteria, it appears implausible that airpower would have greatly changed the India-China military balance. China's airpower was, or believed to have been, far superior to India's, with a 3:1 asymmetry in the total number of planes, and 5:1 in fighters.

Offensive airpower would have invited bombing of Indian cities, with high civilian casualties. Besides, no amount of airpower could have helped Indian soldiers overcome their fundamental disadvantages. They were under-prepared for mountain battle -- ill-clad and ill-shod, poorly armed, and for the most part, poorly led.

It's only in Chushul in Ladakh and in Walong in the Northeast that Indian units put up resistance. ButIndia's great hope, the 12,000-strong 4th Division, disintegrated under attack. Gen. Kaul ignominiously fled the field. Within days, victory in hand, China declared a unilateral ceasefire.

It's hard to see how the IAF, which didn't then have a command/base close to Arunachal Pradesh, could have altered the overall strategic balance and the war's outcome.

It was later revealed that with mounting Sino-Soviet tensions, the USSR refused to supply spares for Chinese warplanes, thus grounding most of them. But this wasn't known in 1962 to Indian leaders, who depended primarily on the CIA for intelligence.

At any rate, the Chinese voluntarily vacated the posts which they could have continued to occupy. They didn't take prisoners of war although they could have easily done so. They could have marched all the way to Kolkata, but stopped well short of the border.

The Chinese treated captured Indian officers courteously and flew down some of the unfit ones to the border. Chinese soldiers even oiled and polished firearms seized from Indian troops before returning them!

This doesn't argue that the Chinese are angels, but only that the primary purpose of their 1962 operation was to repulse India's ill-conceived "forward policy," of evicting them from disputed areas without seriously negotiating the border issue.

Many Indians deluded themselves that they could inflict a military defeat on China. Gen. Kaul declared that "a few rounds fired at the Chinese would cause them to run away." The then home minister Lal Bahadur Shastri threatened to evict the Chinese just as easily as India had thrown Portugal out of Goa.

As India's rout became imminent, Jawaharlal Nehru panicked and begged the US for military help -- in the fight for "the survival of freedom and independence in this sub-continent and … Asia." He wrote two desperate letters to President Kennedy on November 19, which were suppressed in India, and remained classified in the US until recently.

The letters testify to Nehru's abysmally low morale. Confirming the IAF's weakness, Nehru wrote that India couldn't use the IAF because "in the present state of our air and radar equipment we have no defence against retaliatory action…" To attack China, Nehru wanted "two squadrons" of B-47 bombers, for which Indian pilots and technicians would be trained in the US.

Arms poured in from the US, Britain and Israel. US ambassador JK Galbraith also recommended that "elements of the Seventh Fleet be sent into the Bay of Bengal." Aircraft carrier Enterprise duly arrived. This manoeuvre was repeated during the Bangladesh war, when it was seen as menacing.

The 1962 war isn't even a distant memory in Beijing. But it continues to rankle in India although it claimed fewer casualties than the Indian Peace-Keeping Force operation in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. This is largely because it's tied up with a much greater failure -- India's refusal to discuss the boundary issue with China while asserting colonial-era claims to territory along an undemarcated border.

India demanded the Chinese accept in the Northeast the McMahon Line (negotiated by the British in 1914 with Tibet, but which China never accepted), which was drawn to extend colonial domination.

As the Indian National Congress recognised in the 1930s, British policy was more about "holding Indiain subjection than … rotecting her borders," and "India as a self-governing country can have nothing to fear from her neighbouring states..."

However, independent India's rulers, contradictorily, behaved as heirs of the colonial state. Many claimed, citing the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, that the McMahon Line coincided with India's borders for 2,000 years, in which "the striving of the Indian spirit was directed towards these Himalayan fastnesses."

India repeatedly spurned Chinese proposals for talks. In 1960, it rejected Zhou Enlai's offer, following a new boundary agreement accepting the McMahon Line where it abutted on Burma, of a similar agreement with India, in exchange for India's acceptance that Aksai Chin in the West belonged to China.

This would have been eminently practical: Aksai Chin matters to China, not India, to whom Arunachal is important.

The "forward policy" and the debacle that followed were the result of Nehru's capitulation to domestic pressure. To cover that up, chauvinism was drummed up through the media and text-books.

The real lesson from 1962 is that India must seek honourable reconciliation with China. The way forward lies in the Chinese-proposed "package deal" on the border, not hubristic claims about whether India could have won the war or can still avenge its defeat.

The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.


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