Published September 6, 2012 | 12:17 pm
New Delhi: A total lack of strategic sense among the political leadership in New Delhi was the root cause of the bruising 1962 Sino-Indian war, experts said at a round table here Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of a conflict whose reverberations continue to be felt to this day.
“There was a total lack of strategic sense at the political level. The first mistake was at Bandung (the 1955 Asian-African conference) when India recognised Tibet as a part of China,” former Indian Army chief Gen. V.K. Sharma said at the round table “50 years after 1962: India-China Relations.
“Once that happened, it followed that the borders as they existed would have to be relooked,” Sharma said at the event jointly organised by the India Internaional Centre, the Society for Policy Studies (SPS) and the Subbu Forum.
“In any case, India’s borders were given to us by the British which was never accepted by China,” he added.
Indicative of the lack of strategic thinking, Sharma said, was the fact that repeated reports from the army’s long-range patrols of Chinese incursions,particularly in the Aksai Chin area, were ignored by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
He also faulted Nehru for not considering Aksai Chin to be of strategic importance because “not a single blade of grass grew there” as the prime minister had famously stated in parliament, attracting the ire of the opposition.
“If no grass grows in your backyard is it still not your own?” Sharma asked.
Adding to the army’s woes was the almost vertical split in the officer corps over loyalty to defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon.
“The officer corps was split, from the colonels to the generals, into the pro and agnostic camps. If you were pro Krishna Menon you were promoted; if you were agnostic, you were ignored. As junior officers, we wondered what to do with the political hierarchy,” Sharma revealed.
Sharma, in fact, echoed the previous speaker, Air Commodore (retd) Jasjit Singh, who pointed to the “failure” of the higher defence organisation in the decade leading up to the 1962 war, a situation that still prevailed.
“The higher defence organisation failed from 1954 to 1962, a situation that has still not been repaired adequately. Worse, during the war, the chiefs of staff committee did not meet even once. The decisions were taken by the minister and a joint secretary in the defence ministry.
“Thus, it is not Nehru alone but the defence minister who was more responsible” for the debacle, Jasjit Singh, who heads the Centre for Air Power Studies, contended.
Speaking about the lack of air support for the ground operations during the war, he said army headquarters never asked for this as it feared that if the Chinese fighters also went into action, this would disrupt the logistic support that was being provided by the Indian Air Force’s transport planes and helicopters.
Then, the “politcal leaders of Bengal put pressure on Nehru not to use the air force (fighters) as they feared Calcutta would be bombed and their memories of World War II (when the city was sporadically bombed 1942-44 by the Japanese) were still fresh,” Jasjit Singh said.
According to veteran journalist and commentator George Verghese, who reported on the 1962 war for The Times of India, the genesis of the conflict lay in the “mistaken belief that an unprepared Indian Army could take on China.
A year before, the Indian Army had overcome Portuguese resistance to free the western India state of Goa from colonial rule and this led to complacency that this could be replicated with the Chinese, Verghese said.
“Politics determined the military disaster. India never learnt the lesson that borders are more important than boundaries,” he added.
The round table was the first in a series of four that will review the 1962 conflict from different perspectives.