Face to Face: Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (1962 Indo-China war)

We provoked the Chinese

Akash Bisht/ Sadiq Naqvi   Delhi 

As a fighter pilot, Air Commodore Jasjit Singh has served the country at the frontline in many a battle, including in the war with China in 1962. A decorated soldier, he was posted at Tezpur in Assam when the war broke out. Post-retirement, he has served as the director general of premier strategic institutions like the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA). Currently, he now heads the Centre for Air Power Studies. Excerpts from an interview with Hardnews: 

 What was the immediate provocation of the war with China in 1962?

My opinion is a minority view. We provoked the Chinese. Jawaharlal Nehru was famous and the media quoted only half the sentences of what he said. Like, he had given orders to get certain areas vacated and the army had been given orders to do this. However, what went missing in the whole concept was the second part of the sentence — when the army is ready. So, I can’t see how the PM can be faulted on this subject. This, many believed, led to the provocation.

The Chinese had already prepared and we had enough military intelligence in May 1962. I was in the Air Force. We flew over the area and there were no signs of tension. At that point of time, there were no roads in the Himalaya and the British had built hill stations at 5,000 feet and only Shimla was higher at 7,000 feet. Beyond that there was a road for next 15 miles till Kufri. From there the Tibet border was 140 miles, there was a similar scenario in the east, and in Ladakh. Between 1947 and 1962, the elected government had a compulsion to feed the 85 per cent people living below the poverty line. So, roads were not the government’s priority, development was. There was Gandhi’s model of development of villages and Nehru’s vision of putting the industry first. He was of the opinion that unless we produce steel and cement, we won’t be able to even build houses,  in villages. 

Also, at that time, the world admired India which was full of paradoxes. The first paradox was that India had such great poverty and yet it was treated as a major power that was invited for the conference that created the United Nations. India’s example was sought by the bulk of the decolonising world. Therefore, this global status of India added up with the charisma of Nehru. And then there was China with similar situations. They had enormous poverty, but they followed a different route under Mao and communism. There was a great difference between the power flows from the barrel of the gun principle and the power of ideas that functioned in India. It was inevitable that the two would a clash. On two counts, Mao had problems with India. One was that the developing world should be looking at China as the leader of the third world. He was worried. Why are they going to India? Nehru, educated in the West, a neocolonial, used the language that suited that particular period. Mao became paranoid with this issue of leadership. Why Nehru? Former diplomats would tell you that the real tension started
in Bangkok during the Afro-Asian meeting.

The other issue with Mao was that he was willing to accept the leadership of Stalin as long as he was alive. His methods and that of Stalin weren’t very different. After Stalin died and Khrushchev took over, Mao felt that China should now be the leader of the Socialist bloc. And there was no way that Khrushchev was going to give him that and that is where the real Soviet-Sino tensions grew. The classified documents of that period reveal that meetings between Mao and Khrushchev between 1956 and 1958 turned into heated discussions. These two factors played very heavily on Mao and one of them was that Khrushchev was doing his best to come closer to India. What we tend to forget about Indo-Soviet friendship is that, for the first eight years after Independence, the Soviet Union didn’t like India and there was serious tension. Then Nehru sent some high-profile people as ambassadors to Soviet Union and because of his standing as a philosopher gained some respect from Stalin.

The Chinese worldview was different. Their aims, goals, strategies were different from that of India and they wanted to be treated as the leader of the world including the socialist bloc. This is the Middle Kingdom syndrome wherein others come to pay homage but the emperor doesn’t go. So, they waited till India and Pakistan recognised the People’s Republic of China. There is a very interesting letter from Mao to Stalin wherein Mao mentions since India and Pakistan have recognised China, now is the time to send the Army to Tibet. If India had not recognised China, they would have waited a little longer. Having recognised China, the onus was on us whether to fight or oppose this. Nehru tried to build up a friendship. The government was criticised in 1954 for not settling the border issue. Nehru preferred Panchsheel because China was not a part of the UN and Panchsheel had the same provisions and obligations as the UN — peaceful coexistence, no interference in internal affairs, and so on. This moderated China’s problems with India. It did not last very long. China had problems assimilating Tibet whereas India was successful in assimilating all the princely states. This jealousy, this hatred, was behind their tirades against India. The Chinese side was of the view that they should teach India and Nehru a lesson. 

 Some experts claim that the war was to divert attention from the internal crisis that the Chinese were undergoing…

No, it is wrong. You can put it anyway but what was happening in China in 1962 had nothing to do with the war. The Cultural Revolution that destroyed China happened in 1967, a good five years after the war. It is the external picture, the image of India, that is why they wanted to teach India a lesson. 

 They did attempt another aggression in 1967…
Yes, but that was the last time. Never after that. In my judgment, it was to check India’s preparedness. India responded bullet to bullet.  

 So, coming back to 1962…

The frontiers were not clearly defined. Towards the end of the great game in the 19th century, Lord Curzon was the viceroy and his main concern was Russia. China was weak. It had no control over Tibet, no control over Xinjiang. Nehru tried sorting it out with the Chinese and there were discussions. Even the Chinese did not know where the frontier was. So, when the problem first started in 1956, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) manned the northern border while the ministry of external affairs managed Arunachal Pradesh. The Army was called in to take over the border in 1960 with substantial logistics. It was arduous to cover the entire 4,000 km border and therefore it got delayed to 1961. The army had been making a lot of noise about the need for roads. There were no roads to go up to the border and that was a disadvantage. It became worse because the army had not settled down. It was under these circumstances that the war took place. We made mistakes by not anticipating what the Chinese could do or would do. So, we lost the war, but actually, we didn’t lose the war, we lost battles. In some battles, India stood firm and the Chinese couldn’t advance. Later, the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew. Nehru refused to accept the ceasefire and technically India is still at war with China. India did not accept the ceasefire. This was followed by a unanimous resolution in Parliament in November 1962 that India must take back its territory. We haven’t taken it back. It took a lot of effort to expand our forces, a national emergency was declared and it took 10 years for the expansion to
take place. 

 Was the Indian Air Force not adequately used?

We had the fighters and the Chinese complained of 50-51 air violations because there was no defined border. The Air Force was all the time on alert and we did several surveys of the NEFA valley. China prepared for this war for at least two years, but negotiations were going on and the Chinese would always complain that there was no demarcated border. They accepted the customary borders and from 1954 to 1960 they kept on changing their position. There was a fascinating letter from Nehru to Zhou Enlai wherein he writes that Mr Prime Minister, it would be very difficult to pass a resolution on the border dispute as long as China has the concept of mobile frontiers. The challenges that the army had to put up with in this area were immense. We had only one brigade, the No 7 Brigade. The bulk of the soldiers was walking on foot. Only a few were being air-dropped because there wasn’t enough space in the aircraft and the peaks were very steep. It was also getting difficult for the Army to operate at such heights. To be able to fight in such extreme conditions was very difficult. The difficulty of fighting the war was enormous. The advantage that the Chinese had was of enormous preparation for at least two years. In 1960, Zhou Enlai stayed in India for two weeks to meet various leaders, to get a sense of India. In China, things were getting messy. There was a revolt in Tibet and it spread to parts of Sichuan province that had a large population of Tibetans.

The two prime ministers then decided that they should at least allow officials from both sides to sit together and collect all the historical evidence to see where the borders have been. They agreed that, once they had all the evidence in place, they would take a political view. In 1960, two teams were set up in New Delhi and Beijing. In February, 1961, they put together a report and which ran into 641 pages. The mistake that India did was to publish this because the sum total of all this was that the Indian case was very strong. It was almost 100 per cent correct on where the border was. The Chinese had no case at all. By publishing it, we created a problem for ourselves. After it was published, the Chinese lost face and they needed to do something to get it back. Hence, the war. Also, the Americans had told China that if there was a war with India then they would not interfere. So, by September/October, their troops had started to move towards the border, while in India there was chaos.

VK Krishna Menon, then defence minister, is also to be blamed for the underpreparedness. He was a good leader. He gave a boost through indigenisation, but in terms of managing the armed forces he virtually destroyed the entire higher defence organisation. Our defeat in the war can be attributed to the failure of the defence organisation and management. Menon acted like a senapati (commander-in-chief) who decided which general or commodore should go there. The system was meaningless to him because he had no experience. Although the higher defence organisation was set up in 1947, after 1957 it became non-existent. By 1962, the files that the Chief of Army Staff had sent to him were just lying on his table and nothing was being done about them. He was in the habit of insulting the chiefs and his officers. He was also insulting defence secretaries. One of the defence secretaries was Pula Reddy and he would say, he is Pula Reddy, he can neither pull nor he is ever ready. The armed forces would apprise him of what was happening on the other side of the border. But he would not agree. He would just say that socialist countries don’t go to war. And he influenced Nehru.

Also, there were other important developments. Khrushchev had got the Russians involved in the Cuban Missile crisis. He invited the Chinese ambassador to a banquet and gave a long speech saying that if India is a friend, China is our brother. Also that Russia was willing to sacrifice the MiG-21 deal with India. The next day, Pravda actually published an article saying India is at fault — that demoralised the Indian leadership. It so happened that, after the first week of attack, there was a pause. By that time the Cuban missile crisis had been solved and Khrushchev announced that the MiG-21 deal would go through. The Chinese had come down to important positions. We lost in most areas, especially in the Northeast. In Ladakh, they gained some ground, but not any crucial ground. The Chinese were able to bring their tanks. We were underprepared. No airpower, no substantial military power. We had only three aircrafts. The first one was given on a trial to India when the war broke out. The MH13 tank was the only one which could be loaded on to it. The fuel was drained to make the aircraft less heavy and make way for the bulky tank. This is how in three sorties, three tanks were sent to Trishul. That’s how Trishul was saved. Or else, it would not have been part of India.

Indeed, it was the failure of the corps commander, Lieutenant General VN Kaul. The divisional headquarters were converted into corps headquarters without any additional troops. Kaul had no battle experience. He was a favourite not only of Nehru, but much more of Menon. He climbed up to Sila Pass at 16,000 feet, fell ill and had to be brought back to Delhi in an Air Force helicopter. He refused to hand over command. So we had a corps commander who was lying sick on a hospital bed in Delhi, refusing to hand over command, while the defence minister was not appointing a new corps commander. What do you expect? The defence committee of the cabinet was not allowed to function under Menon. The country’s military
was demoralised.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2012