India’s ambitions – Irfan Hussain


THE recent skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley resulted in a score of Indian soldiers dead, and many more wounded.

Even though the soldiers fought without guns, the Indians took on a foe trained in unarmed combat. Luckily, the scale of the conflict was much smaller than the Indo-Chinese War of 1962 in which the Chinese thrashed the Indians, killing over 1,000 and wounding many more.

Hopefully, a negotiated settlement will not be beyond Indian hawks. But if history is any guide, India’s long-term aim is to redraw its north-western border at China’s expense. Obviously, China will not accept such a challenge to its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

After its humiliating defeat in 1962, the Indian Army commissioned Lt-Gen Henderson Brooks to write a report on the causes of the debacle. That report has still not been released even after 60 years, but a copy was uploaded by Neville Maxwell on his blog in 2014 in an effort to push the Indian government to release it officially. No such luck.
Hopefully, a negotiated settlement will not be beyond Indian hawks.

Of course, Maxwell, The Times’ correspondent, was reviled as an India-bashing commie when he published his extensively researched book India’s China War in 1970. Sadly, my copy has been misplaced in my travels, but I have drawn on a lot of Maxwell’s work, including an article (‘How the Chinese Saw the Conflict’) written in 2011.

Apart from using the report in his book, Maxwell has reproduced old Chinese as well as British colonial maps and documents. The British drew the McMahon line to demarcate the border, and although this cut into territory earlier controlled by China, Mao accepted it rather than reopen old claims.

Details of a meeting held in the PM’s House in November 1961 tell a disturbing story of divisions in the Indian camp. Determined to launch Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’, the army was instructed to adopt more aggressive patrols. The HQ/Western Command demanded a four-brigade division to reinforce its scattered forces in the area.

The Indian Intelligence Bureau’s assessment of Chinese capabilities was less than flattering as its director declared that “the Chinese were not likely to use force against any of our posts even if they were in a position to do so…” One senior officer offered the opinion that “experience in Ladakh had shown that a few rounds fired at the Chinese would cause them to run away…”

All this sounds similar to Gen Musharraf’s obtuseness in planning the Kargil operation.

In the New Delhi meeting, only Lt-Gen Daulat Singh of the Western Command showed any sense of realism in pointing out that China had a well-equipped division of 15,000 men with supporting arms, while India’s thinly spread-out troops would be “defeated in detail”.

When India continued probing and pushing, and hostilities broke out in October 1962, this is exactly what happened, with Indian survivors being pushed back, unable to regroup and resist. To complete this Indian humiliation, the Chinese halted their advance unilaterally and withdrew to their original point of departure.

The conflict and the clashes leading up to it put the Chinese in an awkward position as they were viewed as the aggressors. Mao was even berated by Khrushchev for a clash in 1959 when an Indian soldier was killed. To forestall such accusations, and to show his goodwill, Mao ordered a 20-mile (32 kilometres) pullback and urged India to reciprocate, and to accept negotiations. India refused to follow suit, and rejected the invitation to peace talks out of hand.

In a Central Military Commission meeting held in October 1962 to decide Chinese strategy in the face of constant Indian pressure, Mao said: “… Since Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him, for us not to fight with him would be unfriendly — courtesy emphasises reciprocity.”

As a footnote, let me add a story my late father told me connected to these events. As a Unesco official, he was based in Paris where he met a Western diplomat who had been in Islamabad in 1962. According to him, as the fighting was at its height, and India had sent most of its mountain divisions from Kashmir to the war zone, the Chinese ambassador in Islamabad called on Gen Ayub Khan to ask why Pakistan had not taken advantage of the situation to seize Kashmir.

Ayub passed on this information to the American and British ambassadors who sought urgent instructions from Washington and London. They returned the following day, begging Ayub to do nothing, and promising that after the fighting had ceased, their governments would pressure Nehru into holding the UN-mandated vote in Kashmir. Ayub and his coterie thought it would be in Pakistan’s interest to follow the UN route rather than fight a war.

I have no documents to prove that this actually happened, but it doesn’t seem too unlikely. After all, we all know how often our generals have got it wrong before and since then.

Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2020