Double, Double Toil and Trouble [i]
VAdm (retd.) Vijay Shankar
Keywords: Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report, Higher Defence decision-making, Krishna Menon, Sino-Indian War
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The War that Defied Impulse
Sun-Tzu, exhorting the virtues of a skilful Commander, advocates the attainment of a position from which he cannot be defeated and misses no opportunity to master his enemy. Thus, he declares, “A victorious army wins its victories before seeking battle, an army destined to defeat, fights in the hope of winning.”[ii] This pithy avowal so aptly describes the strategic essence and outcome of the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962.
India had blinded itself to every principle that governed national strategy making; from the absence of an understanding of the nature of war that was to be fought, to calamitous incompetence of leadership at the highest political and military levels. The fact of courtiership pervading control, disintegrating logistics, and the sheer fantasies that replaced political and strategic orientation were the consequences of institutional ineptitude. So it hardly astounded the detached observer (and they were many) when on 17 November 1962, Prime Minister Nehru faced Parliament, and as the American news magazine, Time, reported, “his agony was apparent, as he rose in Parliament, three days before the Chinese cease-fire announcement, to report that the Indian army had been decisively defeated at Se La Pass and Walong.”[iii]
Brief Narrative of the Conflict
War broke out on 20 October 1962 when China launched two assaults. In the Aksai Chin sector the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) sought to expel the Indian forces from the Chip Chap valley. In the NEFA the McMahon Line was breached and fighting broke out at Walong and along the Tawang-Bombdi La-Se La axis. By 24 October, Chinese forces had moved nearly 16 kilometres south of the line controlled by India prior to 20 October. In the Aksai Chin the Chip Chap valley had been vacated and Chinese forces had moved to Pangong So. Four days of fighting was followed by a lull of three weeks during which Zhou Enlai once again offered the 1959 quid pro quo. The offer was rejected and fighting resumed in both sectors on 14 November. In the Aksai Chin, Indian forces put up stiff resistance at Rezang La and the Chinese advance was stalled. A unilateral ceasefire was declared on 21 November. In the east, Chinese forces had penetrated to the outskirts of Tezpur, a distance of almost 60 kilometres south of the Indian line of control by this time. The Chinese also undertook to withdraw 20 kilometres behind the line of actual control that existed on 07 November 1959.[iv]
One of the abiding puzzles of the entire episode which could have had a critical impact on the outcome was, why combat air power was not brought to bear on the operational situation. Particularly in the light of the PM’s declaration of the inviolate nature of India’s borders in 1954, and the events of 1959 which ought to have stimulated preparedness. The Indian Air Force of that day certainly had in its inventory a combination of modern fighter aircrafts (Hawker Hunters and Dassault Mysteres) and bombers (English Electric Canberras) that were quite capable of operating in both sectors. What is even more mystifying is the reported request by Prime Minister Nehru for air power support from the USA.
The Henderson Brooks and Bhagat report was presented to the new Defence Minister Mr Y.B. Chavan on 02 July 1963. Earlier in April, in reply to a question in Parliament, he affirmed that Army Headquarters had already instituted measures to implement the lessons to be learned based on the terms of reference of the report. These included quality of planning, air-land cooperation, training for high altitude warfare, depth of officer man relationship, focused intelligence service and the creation of a chain of strategic airfields.[v] What was conspicuous in its omission was a statement on the blemishes in higher defence management, the failings in the political direction of the war and ‘courtiership’ being promoted in the military. He also mentioned that the contents of the report in its entirety were not being disclosed for considerations of security.
On 02 September 1963, an intriguing statement was made by the Defence Minister in Parliament, he disclosed that the Inquiry Committee had not confined its investigations to operations alone but had also examined the “developments and events prior to hostilities as also the plans, posture and the strength of the Army at the outbreak of hostility.” Further, that a detailed review of the actual operations had been carried out “with reference to terrain, strategy, tactics and deployment of troops.” He also summarised the main recommendations of the report sticking to the terms of reference (which by now was well known) and later (on 09 September) in a statement on defence preparedness, he confirmed that changes were underway which encompassed expansion, reorganisation, modernisation, development of comprehensive infrastructure and enhancing operational efficiency. The value and effectiveness of these sweeping changes were soon to be confirmed during the wars of 1965 and 1971 against Pakistan.[vi]
What remained disturbingly unanswered was the out-of-mandate areas that the report addressed with regard to “developments and events prior to hostilities, strategic posture and plans, which must be taken to have included civil military relations, higher defence management, decision making and the political direction of war.” In 1963 to divulge these may well have compromised national security, but to persist through time is to invite long shadows to loom over the military establishment.
Fast Forward Half a Century: The Question
In 2008 India’s Defence Minister Mr A.K. Antony told Parliament that the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report could not be declassified because its contents ”are not only extremely sensitive but also of current operational value.”[vii] Fifty years on it is challenging to comprehend what the report could contain that would warrant such sarcophagal silence. As far as “operational value” is concerned it is an uncomfortable contradiction that there exists a document in the public domain titled “The Official History of the Conflict with China (1962)” by Sinha and Athale, published by the History Division of the Ministry of Defence in 1992, that has, in 475 pages, given a detailed and critical operational account of the war including the run-up. The Introduction Section on page XXII sets the tone of the document, when alluding to the transformation in the defence establishment that Krishna Menon was experimenting with, “such basic changes required first of all a committed, or at least pliant, band of army officers in key positions. So mediocre Thapar was selected instead of the doughty Thorat as the Army Chief, and Bijji Kaul was made the CGS.”
There are also a host of analytical books written on the subject in addition to Neville Maxwell’s “India’s China War” which claims access to the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report. It is also an awkward truth that the Woodrow Wilson Centre in the USA has obtained a large collection of Chinese archival documents featuring Beijing’s foreign policy before and during the 1962 conflict which would undoubtedly throw light on only the Chinese perspective.[viii] For scholars and students of history, without an alternate point of view the first becomes the gospel.
Under these circumstances the belief that there exists continued operational value in keeping the Report classified must be viewed with considerable circumspection. The question that then begs to be asked is, what is it in the contents of the Report that makes it sensitive enough to cling on to the ‘Top Secret’ classification, even after half a century? If the answer to the question is, as mentioned earlier, “developments and events prior to hostilities, strategic posture and plans which must be taken to have included civil military relation, higher defence management, decision making and the political direction of war” (if this hypothesis is true) then it is the accountability of offices and the ‘Teflon’ authority that they wield and not individuals (since all primary protagonists are long gone) that is being safeguarded. This is the key scepticism that must be removed if credibility is to be restored in the military establishment.
The Long Shadow of Ghosts
India has faced many traumatic events since 1962 that have had critical impact on
security of the nation including three wars, bloody insurgencies, gory terrorist acts,
periodic crumbling of the law and order mechanism, incompetent governance,
authoritarian rule, a crippling lack of strategic vision, a sycophantic establishment and
an inexplicable abhorrence to change. In this contra rotating vortex two institutions
stand out: firstly, the civilian-military bureaucracy who’s ‘duck-back’ all-weather-non
specialist virtue makes it impervious to the demands of accountability; the second
institution is the Military who have stood steadfast in every adversity, unfortunately,
without the savvy to either rid courtiership when it manifests or to view the entire
spectrum of force application as a unity.
Finding Banquo’s ghost sitting at the head of the royal table, the horror-struck
Macbeth, speaks to it; and then recovers; telling his company “I have a strange
infirmity which is nothing to those that know me.” (Macbeth, III.iv) And so it is with the Indian Politico-Military Establishment, it too has a strange infirmity (in the form of a well entrenched self-centred bureaucracy) that is nothing to those that know it.
The spectres of Brooks and Bhagat will continue to consume us unless they
are exposed to the light of day.
[i] Shakespeare, William. Macbeth Act 4 Scene 1. The three witches from the play await the coming of Macbeth, the man who they said would be king. The witches with their incantations are piling up toil and trouble till they yield twice the toil and double the trouble for Macbeth.
[ii] SunTzu. The Art of War, translated by Griffith, Samuel B. Oxford University Press, New York 1963, Chapter IV, Paragraphs 13-14, p 87.
[iii] Time Magazine, Cover feature, India: Never Again the Same. Friday, 30 November 1962.
[iv] Sinha and Athale, The Official History of the Conflict with China (1962), History Division of the Ministry of Defence: 1992, www.bharatrakshak.com
[v] Arpi,Claude, The War of 1962: Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report, Indian Defence Review Vol 26.1 Jan-Mar 2011
[viii] See Woodrow Wilson Centre project on Cold War Archives at www.wilsoncentre.org/digitalarchive Collection on Sino-Indian geography.
Download full article here: Shankar, The Ghosts of Henderson Brooks and Bhagat
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Touche. Great arguments. Keep up the good work.