When the Indo- China Conflict took place in 1962, I was just 11 years old but that event left an indelible scar on my memory. Growing up with a fascination for the military, psychology, and history, I have since tried to read as much as I can on those unforgettable events of the winter of 1962. I remember many books like , “The Himalayan Blunder” by Brig John Dalvi who took part in this conflict, commanding the ill-fated 7 Infantry Brigade; “India’s China War” by Neville Maxwell, the Delhi correspondent of The Times; and last but not the least, “The Untold Story” by Lt Gen B M Kaul , General Officer Commanding the IV Corps – one of the main protagonists of the entire drama.
I have no hesitation in saying that Shiv Kunal Verma’s “1962 The War That Wasn’t” is probably the most comprehensive and objective of the lot. The book was first published by Aleph Book Company in January 2016 , over 50 years after those tumultuous events. The access to more data, to more participants of the war, painstaking research over many years, and a higher level of awareness of India’s political and military strategy post Independence gives , in my view, Verma’s book the clear edge over the many others on this controversial topic. This was without doubt one of the most shameful periods of India’s history- particularly for the Indian Army which had a sterling reputation as a fighting force ( as the British Indian Army) in the two World Wars.
A few takeaways from me from Verma’s book: In the initial books that I read, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Defence Minister Krishna Menon and Lt General Kaul – Nehru’s most favoured officer in the Indian Army- were largely held responsible for the disgraces that fell upon India. Reading Verma’s book reveals that middle and senior officers of the Indian Army were equally responsible for the shameful events. It is sad that none of them were censured or pulled up for their disgraceful conduct. Sadder still that the junior officers, and men of the different Regiments by and large fought very bravely often overcoming tremendous odds but were let down badly at crucial moments by their leaders. Yes, undoubtedly successive blunders by the trio of Nehru, Menon and Lt Gen Kaul created havoc in the Indian Army but in this book we see how the then Chief of Army Staff, Gen Pran Nath Thapar, the Commander of the Eastern Army Command, Lt Gen L P “Bogey’ Sen, Maj Gen Anant Singh Pathania, GOC 4th Indian Division, and many others of Lt Col and above rank bear equal responsibility for the humiliating defeats.
Let us remember that in October 1962, China attacked India without formally declaring war and ended the conflict by calling a cease fire themselves after they had gained their objectives. That the top politicians in India and the top brass of the Indian Army came to know of the cease fire from Western media and not from the Indian Embassy in China is typical of the almost weird events of those times.
The Indo-China conflict- that lasted just for 1 month- October 20 to November 21, 1962 put an end to Nehru’s image as a world statesman. In the days to come, he was a pale shadow of his former self. He passed away broken in spirit in May 1964.
Verma’s book highlights how Nehru’s partiality in selecting officers to man key positions in the Indian Army had terrible consequences. The various important appointments given to his pet Lt Gen Kaul is one example. Indeed even the appointment of Lt Gen P N Thapar as the Chief of Army Staff was controversial. Nehru overlooked the more deserving Lt Gen Thorat to have the more pliable Gen Thapar as the Chief when Gen Thimayya retired.
The 1962 conflict ruined reputations built over decades. The famous 4th Infantry Division known as the Red Eagle Division which had won laurels in the Second World War – much to everyone’s disbelief- was wiped out in a few days! The decision not to use the Indian Air Force even when most experts felt it was stronger than the Chinese Air Force of those times -was most baffling to say the least. It appears the Indian leadership feared bombing of Indian cities as a retaliatory measure. They therefore chose not to use Indian fighter and bomber aircraft in the course of this conflict.
There is a famous quote which says those who do not learn lessons from history are doomed to repeat it. The Indo China conflict of 1962 was an object lesson for Indian politicians and military historians and strategists alike. A lack of leadership caused eminently defendable positions built over years -like Tawang- being dumped in days!
There were a few stories of incredible bravery and courage in the Indian Army but sadly these were over shadowed by blunder after blunder as our top leaders did not know what was happening in the real world. They were in a world of their own far removed from reality. The Indian soldier suffered the most. It is reckoned that over 1300 died, over 1000 were wounded, 1700 went missing and more than 3900 became Chinese Prisoners of War. The advantage in the high Himalayans – in NEFA and Ladkah- was seized by the Chinese, they nearly reached the border of Assam, throwing the Indian leadership into greater panic- and dominated the narrative for the next few decades.
Verma’s is a definitive account of the conflict. He lays bear some ugly truths which we would do well to accept. The poorly equipped Indian soldier fought bravely in extremely difficult terrain in the Himalayan mountains. The Chinese were determined to prove Nehru wrong and in this they succeeded far beyond their own expectations. Time and again during this conflict, the Chinese military leaders were surprised to see battles being won by them without a semblance of a fight from the Indian side.
I must thank the author, Shiv Kunal Verma for this interesting and educative book about a war that no one wants to remember! Highly recommended.