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The Sino-Indian war: Declassified history
Publication Date : 12-11-2012
While China chose to remain quiet, the 1962 Sino-Indian war which has left such a deep scar on Indian psyche, received extensive coverage in India. The international press more or less ignored the issue; it is a fact that outside India, very few cared for what happened fifty years ago on the Himalayan slopes. For example, I have not seen a single article in the French press about the 1962 war.
However, the Cuban missile crisis between the United States and the Soviet Union which occurred at the same time, has been widely discussed in the world media and amongst historians.
Further difference between the two conflicts is the number of new documents which have been declassified by the US, the Russians and other protagonists of the Cuban crisis while in India and China, the archives have remained as hermetically closed as ever. This is not a sign of maturity for the two "emerging" nations.
It has not been the case in the US and Russia; take the example of the National Security Archives of the George Washington University which has posted a large number of newly declassified documents about the role of submarines in the Cuban conflict. On Oct 27, 1962, the most dangerous day of the crisis, the confrontation between the US Navy sub-chasing units and the B-59 Soviet submarines was described in great detail on TV shows.
Declassified documents include the original Soviet Navy map of the Caribbean showing the locations of the four "Foxtrot" diesel submarines which on Oct 1, 1962, had left their Murmansk base, north of the Arctic Circle, to sail towards Cuba. One realises now that the US Navy did not know that the Soviet subs were loaded with a nuclear-tipped torpedo and oral instructions were given to the Soviet captains to use them if attacked by the Americans.
The documents include a till now unknown after-action report prepared by Soviet Northern Fleet Headquarters when the subs’ commanders returned to Murmansk in November 1962; it describes the dreadful conditions aboard the submarines, extreme temperatures, equipment breakdowns, and the reckless deployment of nuclear torpedoes aboard Soviet submarines. The subs were just not designed for tropical waters.
The Cuban missile crisis continued long after the "13 days" publicised by both sides; the Soviet tactical nuclear weapons remained for some time in Cuba. The personal archives of Sergo Mikoyan, the son of Anastas Mikoyan, show that the Soviet statesman was sent to Cuba by Khrushchev: “To convince the Cuban leadership that Cuba’s security had been assured and that there was no danger of invasion, even though the missiles were being removed.”
As the National Security Archives put it: “Khrushchev knew he had a real problem in Cuba--with 42,000 Soviet military personnel armed with tactical nuclear weapons--and an emotional revolutionary leader, who felt betrayed and abandoned by the Kremlin.”
Many more such examples could be given. One of them is the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC which released its CWIHP Bulletin (Issue 17/18) on "The Global Cuban Missile Crisis at 50" which contains “over 500 newly declassified and translated documents from international sources; this issue is the most extensive collection ever presented of original, never-before published, non-US primary sources on the crisis.”
One can continue to dream that one day India will open its archives. But it is just a dream. The Sino-Indian conflict is usually associated with the Henderson-Brooks report prepared in 1963 by Lt. Gen. Henderson-Brooks and Brig. Prem Bhagat. Today, this file is the most secret of the Indian Republic. In 2008, the Indian Defence minister told Parliament that the Henderson-Brooks report could not be declassified after a MoD internal audit “had established that its contents are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value.”
RD Pradhan, the Private Secretary of YB Chavan, who replaced Krishna Menon as Defence Minister after the 1962 war, wrote in his memoirs: “In 1965, it was considered too sensitive to be made public and although outdated today, the report unfortunately remains secret.”
Whom to believe?
There is another report, 12 years older than the HBR which is also missing in action. It is the Himmatsinghji report, prepared after China’s invasion of Tibet in October 1950. It seems to have been misplaced by the Ministry of Defence.
In November 2011, under the Right to Information Act, a petitioner applied to access the Himmasinghji Report (as well as five other historic reports prepared by the MoD). In its order, the Central Information Commission (CIC) noted that on Oct 12, 2011, the Director (Vigilance) in the Ministry of Defence had informed the CIC that only one report could be found: “none of the remaining five: (i) PMS Blackett Report 1948; (ii) Himmatsinghji Committee Report, 1951; (iii) HM Patel Committee report on the functioning of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), 1952; (iv) Sharda Mukherjee Committee report on restructuring of MoD, 1967; and (v) Committee on Defence expenditure report, 1990 are available in the MoD.”
The officer had been authorised to make this statement by the Defence Secretary: “It is, thus, clear that the reports …of the RTI application are not available with the MoD and the question of supplying them to the appellant does not arise.”
Can you believe it? All missing in action! While other countries declassify, India loses its reports! Does it mean that the Himmatsinghji Committee Report is lost forever?
The CIC’s conclusion was: “The MoD has not denied existence of these Reports; it has simply indicated their non-availability. …In the premises, it is ordered that a copy of this order be sent to the Defence Secretary for information and appropriate action at his end.”
To come back to the Henderson-Brooks Report, why is it still classified today? India Today in its cover story on the 1962 war mentioned: “The three main findings of the report are the failure of the army’s higher command, the organisation of the army and finally the events leading to the appointment of the glib but militarily unsound corps commander Lt General Brijmohan Kaul.”
Does the Report really exonerate the political bosses? Probably not.
In the meantime, China still pretends that it was attacked by India.
Though there was no question of the Indian Army "attacking China" with no food, no warm clothes, no armament or ammunition supply, the Chinese seemed to have perceived the situation differently.
A detail gives a hint to one of the real political blunders of 1962. In his memoirs, Maj. Gen. Niranjan Prasad, the 4 Division’s Commander describes the setting: “The McMahon Line as drawn by Sir Henry McMahon in 1914 on an unsurveyed map, was not an accurate projection of the Himalayan watershed line. …In this process the position of Thagla ridge was, to say the least, left ambiguous.” The survey had been completed in 1913 by Captain Bailey, but it was rather sketchy (1 inch to 8 miles).
If one follows the watershed principle, the Thagla ridge was the logical border, but the fact remains that the old map which was the reference for India’s position on the location of the McMahon Line, showed the Thagla ridge and the Namkha Chu, north of the Red Line. Further surveys were unfortunately not conducted after India’s independence.
Did this incertitude on the exact location of the border lead to the war?
It is what the Chinese say, though the fact that the Chinese attacked simultaneously in all sectors (Tawang, Walong in NEFA and Ladakh) is proof that the operations had been prepared well in advance by the Communist regime in Beijing; it did not really even need a pretext.
But is it a valid reason to hold back declassification of 50-year-old historical documents related to the conflict?
The writer is an expert on China-Tibet relations and author of Fate of Tibet.