(This story was first published on 5 July 2017. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the end of the 1962 Indo-China war.)
The Indo-China war, that began on 20 October 1962, saw a month-long standoff between approximately 10,000-20,000 Indian troops and 80,000 Chinese troops. The war ended on 21 November, 54 years ago, after China declared a ceasefire. Amid the barrage of information available on the war, here are a few things about the war that you might not be aware of.
The Question of Who Started the War
India firmly believes that it all began with the Chinese onslaught, while China insists that the war was a repercussion of India’s ‘forward policy’ which had sought the raising of military outposts in areas claimed by the Chinese.
In an article, RS Kalha, a former Indian ambassador to Iraq, writes that there are many documents to prove that the fighting began because China wanted to teach India a “lesson”. In his article for the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, he writes:
“The then Chinese President Liu Shaoqi told the Sri Lankan leader Felix Bandaranaike that the 1962 conflict was ‘to demolish India’s arrogance and illusions of grandeur. China had taught India a lesson and would do so again and again.’ Mao Zedung confirmed this line of thinking when he told a Nepalese delegation in 1964 that the ‘major problem between India and China was not the McMahon Line, but the Tibetan question’. In 1973, Zhou Enlai was to tell Kissinger that the conflict took place because Nehru was getting ‘cocky’.”
Was the War Synchronised As Per Beijing Time?
Kalha further asserts that to get an idea of how well planned the attack was, you only need to look at one fact: “The Chinese attack began simultaneously in all sectors of the border, both in the west and in the east, at the same time – 5 am IST on 20 October 1962 – completely synchronised as per Beijing time.”
Where Were Nehru and Krishna Menon?
Kalha brings to notice that the then defence minister Krishna Menon had left for New York on 17 September 1962 to attend the UN General Assembly and returned to India only on 30 September 1962. Even Nehru left Delhi on 8 September to attend the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s conference, returning on 2 October, only to leave again on 12 October for Colombo. He returned to Delhi only on 16 October 1962. Even Lt Gen Kaul, the Chief of General Staff, was on holiday in Kashmir till 2 October, while the Director of Military Operations (DMO) was on a cruise on the aircraft carrier Vikrant.
The Infamous Decision to Not Use the Air Force
The narrative around the India-China war delves a lot into India not using the Air Force, with many critics citing that as the reason for India’s defeat. The one-month long war was fought only by the Indian Armed Forces.
Retired Air Commodore Ramesh Phadke in an article asserts that it was a “disconnect between the military and civilian political leadership” and “the inexplicable reluctance to talk to the military leadership” which caused Nehru to think that the Chinese would not attack India.
He further asserts that Indian Army had provided viable military options to the government of India. He writes that while Lt Gen SSP Thorat showed a set of plans about requirements on the border to Krishna Menon, he dismissed them as alarmist and never showed them to Nehru. Nehru is known to have, in the aftermath of the war, taken a look at the plans when he called Thorat to meet him, but it was obviously too late.
India Asking the US For help
The then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had sought American assistance and wrote to the then US president John F Kennedy to provide India jet fighters to stem the Chinese tide of aggression, wrote Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official, in his book JFK’s Forgotten Crisis: Tibet, the CIA and the Sino-Indian War.
This letter written by Nehru in a state of panic was hand delivered by the then Indian Ambassador. Nehru had requested 12 squadrons of fighter jets and a modern radar system.
Was Pakistan Planning to Attack India During the War?
Bruce Riedel’s book also sought to reveal that China had proposed that Ayub Khan, the then President of Pakistan, join in attacking India, presumably for the “trophy” of Kashmir, Khalid Ahmed wrote for The Indian Express in 2015. Ayub Khan reportedly demanded Kashmir from the US in return for not attacking India. The book reportedly also says that the then President Kennedy even offered India $500 million as military assistance, but the plan couldn’t go through because of his assassination.
The Famous Lata Mangeshkar Song
It was in the backdrop of the 1962 war that Lata Mangeshkar sang the patriotic song Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon (Oh, the People of My Country) on 27 June 1963.
She sang the song in the presence of Nehru, according to several reports. The song, composed by C Ramchandra and written by Pradeep, is said to have brought the prime minister to tears.
(With inputs from Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, The Indian Express and India Today.)