Oct 20, 1959, Ladakh:
Havaldar Karam Singh and his 20-strong troop, doing their routine border patrolling rounds amid heavy snowfall. In an eyewink nine men in the patrol are buried dead under a hailstorm of bullets, and the rest including Karam Singh are taken prisoners. Courtesy the Chinese army. What stuns the Havaldar is not so much the unexpected onslaught as where it occurred: 40 kilometres right on this side of the border .
The Army Chief, General Thimmayya’s worst fears about China stood confirmed. When he confronted the powers that be and requested an immediate modernisation of the Armed Forces, and special attention to Chinese designs, V.K. Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister, analysed the problem differently. In his view, General Thimmayya was a soldier of the Raj era who was alarmed easily. Pakistan, not China was India’s “number one” enemy, he opined. The General’s response was interesting: I understand our Defence Minister’s perspective. I have regards for his ability but I’m aggrieved at his foolishness. One does not rank enemies as first, second and the rest. Perhaps, it is done in Communist politics; as an Army Chief, I do not rank enemies.
The General submitted his resignation when Menon’s interference breached tolerance. But a panic-stricken Nehru’s emotional entreaty charmed the General into withdrawing it. In Parliament however, Nehru rose in defence of Menon: I’ve spoken to General Thimmayya. He blows issues out of proportion. He has unnecessarily created a misunderstanding with Krishna Menon, a veteran diplomat. It is ridiculous to blame Menon for interference in the issue of promotions in the Armed Forces. Silly! I totally reject General Thimmayya’s allegations.
This rather lengthy recount is one of the several significant botches recorded in John P Dalvi’s Himalayan Blunder. The book is a Manual of War Failure, recommended reading for everybody who wants to know why exactly India lost the 1962 war with China.
It was banned almost immediately on its release, in 1969. I read the abridged Kannada translation by Ravi Belagere. Which kind of struck me as funny. And unfortunate that I had to read a translated version because the original in English is banned. The excerpts I’ve quoted in this post are my (re)translatations from Kannada. Funny, isn’t it? Happens only in India.
John Parashuram Dalvi was the Brigadier of the 7th Infantry formed to “fight” at the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), which is today’s Arunachal Pradesh and parts of Nagaland. His eyewitness account of the war, events that led to it, as well as his wonderful insights into the 1962 humiliation form Himalayan Blunder.
Dalvi recounts a chilling precursor to 1962. During his days in the Wellington Defence Services Staff College in 1950, he quotes a colleague and army veteran, Joe of British origin: Friends, leaders of your country have no foresight. They are mum about the Chinese invasion of Tibet. They don’t understand the reality that India’s backdoor has been broken down…. Boys! Take it from me. Some of you folks sitting here will fight with the Chinese army before you retire.
Foresight was least expected from Nehru who in those days hallucinated as the champion of world peace. Nehru’s stand on the invasion of Tibet was but a minor testimony to this: we don’t have any right to put our forces in Tibet irrespective of whether it is independent, or is part of China.
Starting around 1951, China began its silent preparations: it laid roads capable of transporting army vehicles (supporting something like 4 tonnes), made airstrips to land its combat aircraft, set up telephones and communication networks… In parallel, it began marching its troops into the region and even gobbled up parts of Aksai Chin territory belonging to India.
Meanwhile, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Hindi-Chini bhai bhai symphony had reached a crescendo. China played along–it had recently concluded a war with Korea and badly needed time and resources for what it had in mind.
Brigadier Dalvi narrates with heart-rending precision the betrayal of the political leadership at every step. However, the principal culprits responsible for our defeat stand out clearly: Jawaharlal Nehru, Krishna Menon, and General B.M. Kaul who Nehru had handpicked to lead the war efforts against China.
B.M. Kaul sitting in Delhi had no clue about the situation on the ground in Arunachal Pradesh. He had allowed himself to believe what–a mere month before the actual Chinese invasion–Nehru said: China is not a warmonger. They have a “minor border dispute” with us. Dhola Post was an unncessary outpost created at B.M. Kaul’s behest: it was an invitation to attack. Yet, on September 8 1962, when the first sparks of war flew, he was holidaying in Srinagar with his family. And he didn’t think it was important to cancel his vacation: after all, Pandit Nehru was abroad. B.M. Kaul finally landed at the spot on Oct 10, 1962. Says Dalvi,
We watched the platoon of Punjabis under Major Chaudary’s leadership march towards Yum Sola….General Kaul stood next to me, weighing the success of his first stratagem. The platoon’s strength including Major Chaudary was 51. They’d barely covered a few feet when the sky came apart. Around 800 Chinese, positioned at the bank of Nam ka Chu [river] and atop the Thagla mountain began showering bullets. The first round hurt Major Chaudary’s legs. The Punjabi Platoon retaliated furiously, and dismembered and wounded a few hundred Chinese. Six of our men died in the first round. But General Kaul’s enthusiasm didn’t wither. As our men readied themselves for the second round of assault, a huge swarm of Chinese troops descended. Major Chaudary yelled to General Kaul to save his men. Never the men to turn their back from battle, our Punjabi Platoon looked at us, helplessly. All of us, including General Kaul understood what that meant. Our men had run out of ammunition.
The courageous General who had roared reassuringly to the Indian public about teaching China a lesson, couldn’t stomach the reality he saw before him. Dalvi recounts Kaul’s true character.
My God! You’re right. China has prepared itself for a full-scale war. It’s each man for himself from now on. You’re in charge of your Brigade. This is not in my reach. Only a Brigadier can execute this kind of war.
And he turned and left, leaving Dalvi to helplessly watch the massacre of the whole platoon. Dalvi records several similar incidents where a grossly underprepared Indian army faced the Chinese who were superior to them in every single aspect. A most telling instance:
…. a soldier saluted me as I stepped into the bunker and said, “Sahib, look there! the enemy is on the opposite slope. They’re burning firewood to beat the cold.” I felt a slap of humiliation. This was one of the rare instances this happened in thousands of wars throughout history. Burning a fire at night is a sure invitation for the enemy to attack. But then, this enemy on the slopes of the Thagla mountain was confident: both of his strength and our sorry state. He knew for certain that we would not attack: we could not.
In his “final journey,” Dalvi pays pages of homage to every footsoldier, Major, signaller, Havaldar…small and big, who died defending the indefensible. And the reason? You can’t read this with a straight face:
The Chinese used the same war strategies in vogue for centuries but…. their guns were more modern, and their clothes were warmer than ours…. out there, away from the warm world, the October chill doesn’t descend from the skies; it climbs from the depths of the spinal cord. All our men had to wear were cotton clothes suited for summer, shoes which slide on snow… the only colour my men could see was the ash-white colour of death. A flash of sunlight was enough to blind them. This blindness caused several men to walk directly into the waiting arms of the enemy. My request for snow glasses was granted, all right, but when they arrived, the air-dropped bag dropped somewhere in the abyss-like crevices…
You need to read this book to believe the shamelessless of Nehru’s government, which failed to supply these unfortunate men with food. Towards the end, Dalvi and those that remained went without food for more than 48 hours.
We descended the Dhola mountain after the Chinese disappeared from sight. We gave up the final hope of even sighting a small tukdi (regiment) of our men. I descended rapidly out of a sheer will to live. The slope ended in a forest…the path was even tougher to navigate. Meanwhile, I had lost four of the eleven men following me. I reached a clearing, which then led to a small mud road. It was all over.
Dalvi had walked right into a full-fledged Chinese army camp. On October 22 1962, 9:22 A.M, John P. Dalvi was taken prisoner of war. He remained in Chinese custody from October 22 1962 till about May 1963. What’s more interesting is the aftermath.
We landed in Dum Dum airport in Calcutta on May 4 1963. We were received cordially, appropriately. But the silence there was disquieting. I realized later. We had to prove we weren’t brainwashed by Chinese ideology. We had to prove we were still loyal to India. My own army maintained a suspicious distance. The irony cannot be harsher: this treatment from a country, which for more than a decade had brainwashed itself into holding the Chinese baton wherever it went.
It is more apt to call the Indo-China War as the Battle of Thagla, the altar where Pandit Nehru sacrificed hundreds of unprepared, ill-equipped, and underfed Indian soldiers as the price of his ineptitude.
Small wonder, the book is banned in India. I wager that even if it was not banned, we’d never learn because Himalayan Blunder has simply proven its contemporary relevance in the sense of history repeating itself: notice today’s Chinese cheerleaders who occupy disproportionate clout in the UPA government. Yet none of us seem to pay heed to their misdeeds–from escalated Naxalism/Maoism to their shenanigans in Nepal.
By the way, the Battle of Thagla began on October 20, 1962 and lasted just over 3 hours, between 5 A.M and 8 A.M. An entire brigade was massacred.
Postscript: The book is very expensive to buy from Amazon.com. Dear reader, if you can get the original at around $20, I shall buy it from you. Leave a comment to let me know.
Cross-posted on Desicritics.