War of 1962

India-China war: the true story

Print edition : April 18, 2014

A wounded victim of of the war being carried to an Indian Air Force helicopter in NEFA for evacuation to a hospital. Photo: The Hindu Archives

December, 1962: Nehru and Defence Minister Y.B. Chavan talking to jawans in one of the bunkers in the forward areas in NEFA. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

April 19, 1960: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru greeting Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai upon his arrival in New Delhi. Zhou's visit have the Jana Sangh an opportunity to address a memorandum to Nehru on China's supposed evil designs on India. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Lieutenant General T.B. Henderson Brooks receiving the Vishisht Seva Medal (Class I) from President S. Radhakrishnan on May 21, 1965. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Prem Singh Bhagat, who as, as a Brigadier, was Henderson Brooks' colleague in the inquiry into the 1962 war. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Wajahat Habibullah, who, as Chief Information Commissioner, rejected an application for a copy of the Henderson Brooks report. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

November 14, 1962: A rally in Bangalore in support of the military action. The nation, fed on myths, believed that the McMahon Line was under threat. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

November 27, 1962: Tibetan refugees haul long sticks of wood along a mountain road in NEFA to help Indian troops. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Now that the Henderson Brooks report is out in the public domain, are we at least now prepared to accept the historical truths, swallow false pride, alert the nation to the truths and make an earnest, determined bid for a solution to the boundary dispute with China?

“IF Maxwell were to put the report online, no red faces will be noticed in South Block. They will be covered with egg.” I take no credit at all for this prediction (“Publish the 1962 War Report now”; The Hindu, July 2, 2012). For the last two decades I have been pleading for its publication (“Looking back: A case for publishing the Henderson Brooks report”; Frontline; April 10, 1992). I cited evidence to prove that Australian journalist Neville Maxwell had a copy of the report, a fact which I learnt as far back in 1970 from the proofs of his article in The China Quarterly (London). I pointed out also that his book India’s China War, published by Jaico (Bombay) in 1970, was very much based on that report, which was prepared by a two-member internal inquiry team comprising Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier Prem Singh Bhagat of the Indian Army.

The Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) Wajahat Habibullah, who on March 19, 2009, rejected Kuldip Nayar’s application “to make available a copy of the report”, had egg on his face when the report was put online on March 17. Unlike him, his colleague, Information Commissioner M.L. Sharma, did not give press interviews or appear on the TV to justify the report on spurious grounds.

Even more shameless was the reaction of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) spokespersons. Never short of venom, they picked on Jawaharlal Nehru as the target of their fusillades. In this, they are being dishonest, characteristically so (see box). Predictably, Maxwell came in for abuse because he is uncritically and stridently pro-China, whether on the Sino-Soviet boundary dispute or on Hong Kong. We are in for a repeat performance of this pantomime when Maxwell fulfils his promise: “A second edition of which [his book] will appear shortly” ( Economic & Political Weekly; December 22, 2012). He had earlier, in the same journal, revealed his possession of a copy of the report: “The Henderson Brooks Report is long (its main section, excluding recommendations and many annexures, covers nearly 200 foolscap pages)” ( EPW; April 14, 2001; emphasis added throughout). Thanks to Habibullah’s disgraceful order, the public is deprived of a vital part of the report—the recommendations, besides, of course, the telltale annexures. No prizes for guessing the identity of the source who revealed to the media that the annexures contain Lieutenant-General B.M. Kaul’s letters with juicy details.

In 1962, Kaul was Chief of the General Staff under General P.N. Thapar, Chief of Army Staff. Kaul’s Deputy was Major-General J.S. Dhillon. Brigadier D.K. Palit was Director of Military Operations. The Eastern Command, based in Lucknow, was headed by its GOC-in-C, Lt.-Gen. L.P. Sen, ever at loggerheads with Lt.-Gen. Umrao Singh, who led the XXXIII Corps based in Shillong. Lower down came 4 Division, based in Tezpur, commanded by Major-General Niranjan Prasad with its two Infantry brigades. 7 Brigade was commanded by the famous Brigadier John Dalvi, author of Himalayan Blunder.

Reading the 190 pages of the report, one admires, and feels grateful to, Neville Maxwell for providing in 1970, in elegant prose, an extremely lucid and readable survey of the report. This document is itself ably written and free from jargon. Predictably, the issues it raises are overlooked in the partisan noises as well as the disingenuous efforts by some to belittle the document.

Honest appraisal

But the report brooks no underestimation. It is an honest appraisal, in restrained language, which is amply documented in the record. It squarely raises four issues: (1) Its origin. Why was the inquiry set up? (2) The course of the inquiry and the hurdles put in its way; (3) The bogey of violating the terms of reference; and (4) What does the report actually say? There are, however, issues beyond and outside the report which the BJP dare not reckon with because, along with others, it was complicit in the folly of spurning a compromise and seeking a military solution to a boundary dispute.

We must also consider the implications of the CIC’s order in the light of the law, international practice and the many contradictory and self-serving explanations to the media by its chief, Wajahat Habibullah. It is as unprecedented as it is highly improper. Lastly, it is imperative that we reflect on the fundamental issue— are we at all prepared even now to accept the historical truths, swallow false pride, alert the nation to the truths and make an earnest, determined bid for a solution to the boundary dispute with China? All comments have centred on the military aspect—the Forward Policy—to the neglect of this basic question which persists still.

True, it was an internal army inquiry, but one instituted to allay public disquiet and in fulfilment of Prime Minister Nehru’s promise to Parliament on November 9, 1962. “I hope there will be an inquiry so as to find out what mistakes or errors were committed and who was responsible for them.” Informing Parliament of the conclusion of the probe, Defence Minister Y.B. Chavan acknowledged on September 2, 1963, that “ this inquiry is the type of inquiry which the Prime Minister had in mind when he promised such an inquiry to the House in November 1962”. But “publication of this report which contains information about the strength and deployment of our forces and their locations would be of invaluable use to our enemies.” Even Chavan did not suggest that publication would undermine India’s case on the boundary dispute or affect its relations with China as Habibullah said nearly 50 years later.

Hampering the probe

The probe was hampered from the word go by none other than the main culprit, Kaul’s confidant, the wily D.K. Palit (see his book War in the Himalaya, Lancer International, 1991; pages 388-392). He refused to hand over the documents, telling Henderson Brooks, falsely, that following the Army Chief Gen. J.N. Chaudhuri’s orders he had not kept “a copy of my review in the Directorate” (page 389). But earlier (page 376) he records how he gave the Chief “two copies of my Summary of Events and Policies” and told him defiantly that “I intend to keep a personal copy too” when the Chief said “I don’t want any record of this kept in your office.” He also refused to hand over the papers to Lt.-Gen. Prem Bhagat, Henderson Brooks’ colleague in the probe. “I was not authorised to hand over government files, records or notes” and the Army Chief had no authority either. “Only the PM or the Defence Minister can authorise the documents in question to be released to a non-ministerial committer of inquiry” (page 389). This was sheer nonsense. The Chief and the man he had asked to inquire had that authority. It is a pity that Brooks and Bhagat did not seek an explicit mandate from the Defence Minister after this stone-walling. It is a pity, no less, that they did not ask Kaul and Dalvi to give evidence “nor (to the best of my knowledge) … my [Dalvi’s] repatriated Commanding Officers”.

R.D. Pradhan, Private Secretary to Chavan, records Chavan’s decision. “The inquiry would be ordered by the COAS on the basis of a directive from the Defence Minister himself.” The COAS nominated Lt. Gen. Henderson Brooks and Brigadier P.S. Bhagat V.C. to undertake the probe ( Debacle to Revival; Orient Longman, 1998; page 138). The Cabinet Secretary, S.S. Khera, who was also the principal Defence Secretary, was asked to prepare a statement on the report for Chavan to read in Parliament (page 143). The job was actually done by one of the ablest civil servants we have known who, sadly, died prematurely, Deputy Secretary Susheetal Banerjee. It was revised by Pradhan. The report, including the appendices, ran into seven bound volumes. It was in two sets and was not available to the Defence Ministry or Army HQs for several years (page 175). Maxwell, Pradhan claims, “could not have seen the report”. Pradhan’s book was published in 1999. Maxwell’s access to the report was known by 1970. Small wonder that the report repeatedly refers to inadequate information and lack of “access to Army Head Quarters documents”. Minutes of important meetings were not kept on Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon’s orders, the report repeatedly complains. There was no telephonic log, either.

To be sure, Brooks and Bhagat crossed their remit in some respects, but, inevitably so. The Army Chief instituted an “Operation Review” on December 14, 1962, to go into the army’s reverses and what went wrong with training, equipment, system of command, physical fitness of the troops, and “ capacity of commanders at all levels to influence the men under the command”. That “capacity”, surely, depends on their ability to inspire respect and confidence. Now, read at page 74 of the report. “In any case, the General Staff, sitting in Delhi, ordering an action against a position 1000 yards north-east of Dhola Post—to say the least—is astounding. The country was not known, the enemy situation vague, and for all that there may have been a ravine in between, but yet the order was given. This order could go down in the annals of history as being as incredulous as the order for ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. That no action was taken on this signal is natural, but it was orders such as these that could well shake field commanders’ confidence in their higher commanders and the General Staff.” This was a reference to a signal of September 15, 1962, ordering capture of China’s post “1,000 yards North East of Dhola post”. Could this have inspired confidence among the ranks? Was this then not a valid part of the remit?

The quality of intelligence is also a relevant factor. The report can hardly be faulted for scrutinising the intelligence set-up. It also mentions “the irritation and frustration felt by lower commanders if higher formations ordered minor tactical moves”. The Army HQs, that is, Kaul, micromanaged moves on the ground from their perch in Delhi.

Crucial questions

The censures on Kaul, the Army HQs and even Krishna Menon are well known. What needs close analysis are two questions, why was the Forward Policy decision taken at all? Next, why did the Government of India react as it did, fatefully, to the Chinese troops surrounding the Indian post at Dhola on September 8, 1962?

The report says: “The background to the government’s decision on the ‘Forward Policy’ is not known. Nor are the minutes of the meeting laying down the ‘Forward policy’ available.”

A meeting, however, was held in the Prime Minister’s office on November 2, 1961, and was attended, among others, by the Defence Minister (Krishna Menon), the Foreign Secretary (M.J. Desai), the Chief of the Army Staff and the Director, Intelligence Bureau (B.M. Mullik). It appears that the Director of Intelligence Bureau was of the opinion that “the Chinese would not react to our establishing new posts and that they were NOT LIKELY TO USE FORCE AGAINST ANY OF OUR POSTS EVEN IF THEY WERE IN A POSITION TO DO SO”. (Army Headquarters letter No. 71939/GS/MO1, dated December 20, 1962, para 7, Annexure 10; capitals for emphasis.)

“This was contrary to the military intelligence appreciation, as brought out in the CONCLUSION of Army Headquarters Annual Intelligence Review—China-Tibet, 1959-1960 (Annexure 9); which clearly indicated that the Chinese would resist by force any attempts to take back territory held by them” (page 8 of the report).

Three operative directions

Three operative directions were issued—posts to be established in Ladakh to prevent China from advancing; the one on U.P. is not material now; lastly, behind our forward posts, there should be “ major concentration of forces to provide support. But the Army HQ’s directive omitted the third precondition.

“This review is not concerned with the probability of conflict, with or without the ‘Forward Policy’, but with its introduction the chances of a conflict certainly increased. It is obvious that politically the ‘Forward Policy’ was desirable and presumably the eviction of the Chinese from Ladakh must always be the eventual aim. For this, there can be no argument, but what is pertinent is whether we were militarily in a position at that time to implement this policy.”

Thirty-six new posts were set up which activated the Chinese. They set up stronger posts adjacent to our end, in many cases, virtually surrounded our posts. As early as on November 28, 1961, Nehru claimed that “progressively the situation has been changing, from a military point of views… in our favour”. Blitz, a weekly close to Krishna Menon, published a map to depict India’s “gains”.

The Western Command, headed by the formidable Lt.-Gen. Daulat Singh, protested against the Forward Policy on August 17, 1962. (Like all other documents it figures in full in an appendix). He wrote: “It is imperative that political direction is based on military means. If the two are not coordinated there is a danger of creating a situation where we may lose both in the material and moral sense much more than we already have. Thus there is no short cut to military preparedness to enable us to pursue objectively our present policy aimed at refuting the illegal Chinese claim over our territory.” Kaul like, Mullik, Director of Intelligence Bureau, and above all the Prime Minister, were all convinced that China would not react. Foreign Secretary M.J. Desai heartily concurred. Kaul’s deputy, Major-Gen. Dhillon, told Lt.-Gen. L.P. Sen in September 1962 that the “experience in Ladakh had shown that a few rounds fired at the Chinese would cause them to run away”.

Why the Forward Policy at all?

One must pause here and ask why such a policy was conceived at all in the first place, quite irrespective of how it was executed. What was the motive? Kaul reveals, “Nehru was aware of the mounting criticism of the people on this subject but also knew the handicaps from which our Armed Forces were suffering. He was therefore anxious to devise some via media and take action, short of war, in order to appease the people. Nehru accordingly had a meeting in his room somewhere in the autumn of 1961 in which Krishna Menon, General Thapar and I were present. He first saw on a military map all the recent incursions China had made against us. He said that whoever succeeded in establishing (even a symbolic) post, would establish a claim to that territory, as possession was nine-tenths of law. If the Chinese could set up posts, why couldn’t we? … A discussion then followed, the upshot of which I understood to be that (since China was unlikely to wage war with India), there was no reason why we should not play a game of chess and a battle of wits with them, so far as the question of establishing posts was concerned.

“If they advanced in one place, we should advance in another. In other words, keep up with them, as far as possible, and maintain a few of our symbolic posts—where we could—on what we were convinced was our territory. This defensive step on our part at best might irritate the Chinese but no more. This was how, I think, this new policy on our borders was evolved which was referred to by some as ‘forward policy’. By the end of the year (1961), we had established over fifty such posts in Ladakh and NEFA (North-East Frontier Agency] and hence our occupational rights in some 2000 square miles of Indian territory. These posts were set up, not for the purpose of administration, as there was no population there, but to ensure that the Chinese did not repeat the Aksai Chin story in NEFA or even in Ladakh. I think Nehru framed this policy principally for the benefit of the Parliament and the public and also perhaps as a ‘strategy’ of beating the Chinese at their own game.” (B.M. Kaul; The Untold Story; Allied; 1967; pages 279-281). The Chinese were expected to sit back and watch.

Nehru’s refusal to negotiate

However, there was more to it than this. Even before Zhou En-lai’s arrival in New Delhi in April 1960, Nehru had said that there was no “common ground” between the two sides. He rejected Zhou’s offer which included acceptance of the McMahon Line. He told the Rajya Sabha on February 20, 1961, “The question will only be settled when they leave this territory.” India’s case was “almost foolproof”.

Nehru had painted India into a corner by his adamant refusal to negotiate; his unilateral changes to the official map in 1954; and, what is little realised, unilateral changes to the alignment of the McMahon Line. It is a border which is not described in the agreement in words (The Indo-Tibetan Exchange of Notes on March 24, 1914). It is simply delineated on a map attached to the Notes; a line drawn with a thick nib dipped in red on a map (8 miles to the inch) which suffers from the cartographic infirmities of a map of 1914. We have aerial cartography now. Here again, Nehru arrogantly did the incredible and the illegal, if not indefensibly immoral.

On September 12, 1959, Nehru candidly told Parliament that, in “some parts”, the McMahon Line “was not considered a good line and it was varied afterwards by us. On June 4, 1962, the Dhola Post was set up within that altered line but beyond the map line—an area of 60 square miles. On September 8, Chinese troops took up positions dominating it. Responding to public anger, Nehru ordered their eviction.

Taxed for laxity in Ladakh, Nehru had always pleaded, “We attached more importance to it (NEFA).” Now, the McMahon Line itself was in peril, as he wrongly imagined. Fed on the official myth, so did the nation, and so it does even now. The BJP will not accept that nor will the other opposition parties. But as far back as in September 1959 China had demurred to the Indian claim on the precise alignment of the McMahon Line, as distinct from its legality. This was made all too clear on a map published by Peking Review on September 15, 1959. It was not banned then.

The most important part of the report is the section dealing with this venture. “DHOLA Post was established NORTH of the McMahon Line as shown on maps prior to October/November 1962 edition. It is believed the old edition was given to the Chinese by our External Affairs Ministry to indicate the McMahon Line. It is also learnt that we tried to clarify the error [ sic] in our maps, but the Chinese did not accept our contention. The General Staff must have been well aware of this; and it was their duty to have warned lower formations regarding the dispute. This was not done, and the seriousness of the establishment of the DHOLA Post was not fully known to lower formations.” The post was set up on June 4, 1962. In 1954 Nehru had ordered revision of the 1950 map to depict the Aksai Chin as Indian Territory and demanded that China accept the 1954 map. He repeated this on the McMahon Line as well.

At a meeting on September 12, 1962, the Army Commander (East) Lt.-Gen. L.P. Sen said that “there was some doubt in the minds of Officers regarding the alignment of the McMahon Line west of Khinzemane”. The doubt was shared by none other than the Commander of the 4 Division in the affected sector, Maj. Gen. Niranjan Prasad based at Tezpur, as Palit mentions: “westward from the Khinzemane, the Line was marked as lying well to the South of the main Thag-la ridge” (Palit; page 188). Dalvi reminded the Army Commander Lt.-Gen. L.P. Sen that “we had all along been apprehensive of establishing a post in an area which the Chinese do not concede to be ours” (page 170). He calls it “a disputed area” and the post a “potentially explosive commitment” (page 134).

Prof. H.K. Barpurjari is a historian of international repute who specialised in the history of Assam. He noted that “in NEFA the Assam Rifles pushed up and occupied several new positions; some of these, particularly Dhola or Che Dong, South of the Tag La ridge was located a few miles North of the (McMahon) Line.” ( Problem of the Hill Tribes: North-East Frontier 1873-1962; Spectrum Publications, Gauhati; 1981; Vol. III; p.318).

Doubts on alignment

The report says: “It is clear in the planning stage and after the establishment of the DHOLA Post that XXXIII Corps and formations under it were working under the impression that the McMahon Line as such was as given in the map then available to them. XXXIII Corps letter of 24 February 1962 (Annexure 37) recommending the establishment of posts specifically mentioned the establishment of a post at the old version of the TRI JUNCTION (Sketch H). Later, in their letter of 15 August 1962 (Annexure 42), after the DHOLA Post was established, XXXIII Corps brought out the doubt and asked for clarification as also the fact if Posts could be established on the THAGLA Ridge. No clarification of the alignment nor decision for establishing posts was given till this conference. Had this been done earlier perhaps we might have forestalled the Chinese. The Foreign Secretary’s suggestion of establishing a post on THAGLA Ridge alongside the Chinese, viewed against the happenings in LADAKH, seems incredible.”

The report sets out the deliberations on the schedule for China’s eviction. Kaul leaked to Prem Bhatia his eviction plans which he reported in The Times of India on September 27, 1962. On October 4, Kaul was made head of a new IV Corps. Nehru and the nation entire were bent on staking the country’s prestige on this disputed piece of land and on territory in dispute all through the 19th century, as the British consistently accepted—the Aksai Chin.

China’s position

Annexed to the famous “Premier Zhou En-lai’s letter to the Leaders of Asian and African countries on the Sino-Indian Question”, dated November 15, 1962, were a set of six tell-all maps including the Indian Surveyor General’s map of 1950 and Nehru’s altered one of 1954 as well as the map annexed to the India-Tibet exchange of Notes on March 24, 1914 (in 2 sheets) and an enlargement to show Indian posts beyond the McMahon Line. The legend read thus: “This is an enlargement of that part of the original map of the illegal McMahon Line showing the western end of the Line. It can be seen that the western extremity of the Line is at 27 degree 44.6’N, 91 degree 39.7’E, that the Line runs from here eastward, and that the Kechilang River and the Che Dong area are north of the Line. But the Indian side insists that the western extremity of this Line is at 27 degree 48’N, 91 degree 40’E. In this way the Line is pushed north of the Kechilang River. This is arbitrarily shifting the position of the so-called McMahon Line. The Indian troops’ intrusion into the Kechilang River and the Che Dong area on this pretext was all the more a deliberate violation of the line of actual control between the two sides and a provocation of armed conflict.”

The location of Dhola

All this was known to anyone who cared to read the maps which New Delhi “wisely” kept under wraps. In 1962, The Indian Express, which had its main editorial set-up at Sassoon Docks in Bombay under the editorship of Frank Moraes, had on its staff an English journalist Stephen Hugh-Jones who wrote also for The Manchester Guardian and The Economist, which he joined in 1964. After his recent retirement he contributes now an erudite column to The Telegraph on the quirks of the English language. I began writing a column in The Indian Express in April 1961 and stopped writing for it in 1992. Stephen and I became, and remain, good friends. Imagine my surprise when in September 1962, shortly after the Dhola post incident, he showed me a map he had bought in London, which unlike Indian maps, showed the coordinates in detail and revealed that the Dhola Post was to the north of the McMahon Line. Stephen denounced China when it launched its armed attacks on October 20, 1962. The Embassies in New Delhi were no less informed. Zhou’s letter had a huge impact.

CIC decision

This brings us to the CIC’s “Decision Notice” on March 19, 2009, on Kuldip Nayar’s application. It cited only three grounds for the rejection. “There is no doubt that the issue of the India-China Border particularly along the North East parts of India is still a live issue with ongoing negotiations between the two countries on this matter. The disclosure of information of which the Henderson Brooks report carries considerable detail on what precipitated the war of 1962 between India and China will seriously compromise both security and the relationship between India and China, thus having a bearing both on internal and external security. We have examined the report from the point of view of severability u/s 10(10) (of the Act). For reasons that we consider unwise to discuss in this Decision Notice, this Division Bench agrees that no part of the report might at this stage be disclosed.”

The duo, the CIC Wajahat Habibullah and M.L. Sharma, were shorn of doubt though all the three grounds cited are manifestly spurious. It is not “a live issue” in the negotiations with China. The dialogue has moved far in the last half a century. The subtext of course is the Army’s “doubt” on the Dhola Post—a tacit but honest admission of the truth about it. But that truth, known to the knowledgeable even in 1962, is now accepted by all except the Establishment and its stooges. It cannot possibly affect the talks.

That applies also to the second ground—“The detail on what precipitated the war of 1962”. That is as well known and it is puerile to say that it will “seriously compromise” (a) “security” and (b) the “relationship between Indian and China”. China will not be offended by India’s acceptance of the well-known truth. It might be pleased. On this fatuous conclusion is built another plea—“thus having a bearing both on internal and external security”. Even enlightened babus would know better; only Establishment babus would write thus, and they are the ones who abused the law to block the offending websites.

But the Central Information Commission is a quasi-judicial body set up by a statute, the Right to Information Act, 2005. The order is too clever by half. It cites a Delhi High Court ruling that access to information is the rule and its refusal an exception. Section 8(1)(a) of the Act has the usual bar on disclosure inter alia of information which affects “security” or “relation with a foreign state”. But Sub-section (2) has an overriding proviso, which says: “Notwithstanding anything in the Official Secrets Act, 1923, or any of the exemptions permissible in accordance with sub-section (1), a public authority may allow access to information, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.”

To be sure, this is quoted in the “Decision”—as a prelude to the result which makes a mockery of it. It is not open to a judge or a member of a quasi judicial tribunal to give press interviews or appear on the TV. Wajahat Habibullah did so with abandon. The episode serves as a warning against planting civil servants on the CIC.

Let us consider at least four of Habibullah’s apologies. On August 25, 2010, he told a correspondent: “The report reveals the incompetence of the military top brass. But that was not why we rejected the plea for its disclosure. It (CIC) felt that the report hinged on the question [ sic] which are still items of negotiation between India and China” ( The Times of India; August 26, 2010).

1. Apart from the impropriety of the interview, unprecedented in a quasi-judicial body, the first part compounds it. He abused his privileged access to the report in a public capacity under a statute arrogantly to pronounce in a personal capacity, in a press interview, his opinion on the conduct of the army which he professes to love ardently. In this, he had no greater rights than any citizen. But he barred access to the citizen while feeling free himself to pronounce his opinion. The second part, “items of negotiation”, to use his quaint language, is, as the record shows, utterly false.

2. On October 22, 2012, Hindustan Times published yet another Habibullah fatwa based on his privileged access to the report. It bears quotation in extenso, for it is most revealing. “India presented contradictory maps on the McMahon Line to China in the fifties and in 1960-61, which ultimately led to the war with China in 1962. This revelation was made by Wajahat Habibullah, former Chief Information Commissioner (CIC), perhaps the only civilian besides defence secretaries to have officially accessed the top secret Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report.

“‘We had given maps with serious contradictions on the layout of the McMahon Line to China. This led the Chinese to believe that one of the pickets being controlled by our forces in the Northeast was theirs—according to one of the maps given to them by us,’ said Habibullah, declining to name the picket along the Arunachal Pradesh border with China. ‘Accordingly, on October 20, 1962, the Chinese army crossed over to occupy the border picket, leading to open hostilities.’” The report, he revealed, was in 28 volumes.

The offence is repeated with a palpably wrong appraisal of the cause of the conflict. “Stating that he still believes the report should not be declassified, Habibullah said: ‘From 1962, the deployment of our armed forces has not substantially changed in these areas. So, declassifying will lead to supplying the Chinese with defence information.’

“Moreover the report on the role of the Indian army is so scathing that it would have a demoralising effect on the forces even now.” Which is the true reason? The one on the deployment is laughable; the other on demoralisation disregards the Army’s justified resentment at the conduct of the top brass. It wanted them to be censured.

3. After the publication of the report, the tune changed. Habibullah made two pronouncements on the very next day, March 18, now injecting a tone of regret. He told DNA“that the question still trails him as to why he did not agree to release the ‘secret report’. ‘I often ask myself whether I should have allowed to release that Henderson Brooks report. Personally speaking, I strongly believe that every Indian has the right to know what had actually happened and what went wrong during the 1962 war.’ Disclosure of information, on what precipitated the war of 1962 between India and China will seriously compromise security and the relationship between India and China, and would have a bearing on internal and external security.

“Since I have an army background, I have a soft corner for the army. And if the report were allowed to be made public, it would have certainly had an impact on the morale of our armymen and might have compromised on national security.” In that case he ought to have recused himself, not hawked his soft corner to justify a wrong decision. But he still harped on “national security”, as even it is “I”, “I” and “I” all the time.

4. Faced with the anchor and other participants on a TV channel, his defence crumbled. He now pleaded that he grew up in a family with an army background and some of the senior officers he called “uncle”. Subtext? Forgive me, I was moved by emotion. What was shocking beyond words was this claim on the TV show in the evening of March 18: the CIC’s decision “was based on the decision of the Army headquarters”. If they had said so “ we had no objection”. This is abject abdication of a statutory duty. The Right to Information Act mandated him to decide as a matter of public duty whether the Army’s objections were justified or not. Instead, he “based” his decision on that of the Army. Personally—but, of course—he was only too willing to oblige and was sorry for the decision.

Wars are not fought over maps

Countries do not go to war over discrepant maps. Every student knows when China decided to go to war and why. Cheng Feng and Larry M. Wortzel mention in their brief study of the war that “In July 1962 Chairman Mao Zedong instructed the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] on the guiding principles to counter India’s canshi zhengce, or ‘nibbling policy’. Briefly stated, China’s ‘anti-nibbling’ rules told PLA troops: ‘Never make a concession, but try your best to avert bleeding; form a jagged, interlocking pattern to secure the border; and prepare for long-time armed co-existence. The PLA General Staff Department Headquarters told Chinese troops to implement the rules of engagement strictly, and explained the guiding principles in greater detail: If Indian troops do not open fire, Chinese frontier guards should not open fire. If Indian troops press on toward a Chinese sentry post from our direction, Chinese frontier guards should press on toward the Indian stronghold from another direction. If Indian troops encircle Chinese frontier guards, another Chinese force should encircle the Indian troops. If Indian troops cut off a retreat route for Chinese forces, Chinese frontier guards should cut off the Indian troops’ retreat. Chinese forces should keep a distance away from Indian troops, leaving them some leeway, and withdraw if Indian forces permit withdrawal.”

That was soon after India had planted a post at Dhola on June 4, 1962. The situation did not improve. Diplomatically there was a deadlock. On June 23, China struck a deal with the United States on Quemoy, enabling 500,000 troops to be withdrawn—to be sent eastward to Tibet. Mao Zedong returned to Beijing from Beidaihe on August 6. Xu Yan’s book The True History of the Sino-Indian Border War records that, on October 6, the border forces were ordered to hit back. On October 16, the Chinese decided “to annihilate Indian troops”. The orders followed the next day. On October 14, Khrushchev, had given the Chinese Ambassador his green signal for the attack.

The Chinese were faced with the Forward Policy, in both sectors, east and west, revealing Nehru’s decision to settle the dispute by recourse to force. In this the nation backed him; the opposition was the most vociferous on this.

The enduring lessons of the Henderson Brooks report is not so much on the military aspect as on the diplomatic aspect: for, that mentality still governs India’s policy which our Defence Minister A.K. Antony so well summed up on February 23, 2014, a propos the Italian marines’ affair—“There is no compromise.”


Ananth Krishnan reported that in October 2012 China declassified documents on the 1962 war ( The Hindu, October 20, 22, 25, 2012). On March 12, 2014, England’s Court of Appeal rejected the Prince of Wales Prince Charles’ claims of privacy in respect of the letters he had shot off to government departments on environment issues. In doing so, the three judges did not express any regret at their refusal to accept the plea of one who was like a nephew to them and whose mother, the Queen, they loved as much as one loves an aunt.

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