Col Ajay Singh (Retd)
Pune, 26 October 2022: Around this time, 55 years ago in November 1962, the Indian Army suffered its most humiliating – and only – defeat since independence. It was a body blow to the young nation, then only 15 years old, and left an impact on the Indian psyche that remains even today.
You can see the story of the India-China war of 1962 in this video –
To understand the story of the debacle, we must go back to its history and geography. The problem began in 1950 when China annexed Tibet, and India and China became neighbours. The line dividing the two nations in the East was the McMohan Line – an unclear and demarcated line between India and Tibet that the Chinese never recognized or accepted.
The Indo-China border runs 3,800 kilometres from Burma to the East to Kashmir to the West. In the Eastern Sector, the Chinese claimed the entire area up to Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet. In the Western Sector, they claimed all of Aksai Chin in Ladakh. Despite this dangerous portend, the government remained blind to the threat, with Nehru pinning his hopes on a Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai policy.
Border incidents along the demarcated border have been occurring since 1959. In 1960, to counter Chinese incursions, Nehru, wrongly advised by the defence Minister Krishna Menon and the Intelligence Bureau, embarked on a Forward Policy – this meant India would establish posts all along the border in the area we claimed as its own. It was a disastrous policy that sent troops in penny pockets and often cut off, in indefensible positions, without any support.
The flash point came in June 1962, when Indian troops occupied a post at Che Dong (which was actually inside Chinese territory). The Chinese responded violently and occupied Dhola Ridge, a feature inside the Indian Territory. Unknown to Indian intelligence, the Chinese had been preparing for over two years and built up the 54th Army in Tibet for this operation. Indian strength was woefully short, with just one brigade (7 Brigade) holding the area. Worse, the responsibility to defend the area was given to a newly raised 4 Corps under Lt Gen B M Kaul, an incompetent officer, with no battle experience who was related to Nehru. Indian troops were sent forward towards Dhola ridge to ‘throw the Chinese from Indian territory’ as was reportedly said by Nehru. This was the provocation the Chinese were waiting for and on 20th October ’62. The Chinese poured out of their concealed positions to launch a concentrated attack in both the Eastern and Western sectors.
The Chinese Attacks
At 5 am on 20th October, the silence of the Himalayas was broken by the roar of artillery guns as the Chinese began a two-hour bombardment of Indian positions all along the border. Two Chinese divisions poured down the road from Bum La to Tawang, overrunning the Indian 7 Brigade. This brigade had been ordered to occupy a virtually indefensible position in the Namka Chu Valley and less than six hours of fighting was virtually wiped out. They now moved forward relentlessly towards Tawang, which they occupied by 23rd October. Ironically, the Indian shortcoming of not developing roads till the border now came to its rescue, as the Chinese were forced to develop a road from the border to Tawang to funnel in supplies. There was a pause in operations as the Chinese built their road, in just 14 days, which provided some time for the Indians.
Using the pause in operations, Indian troops were pushed up. But the troops were from the plains, with no knowledge of the area, in summer uniform, with no heavy weapons and just their pouch ammunition. The neglect of the army and in use of troops in superfluous activities such as building barracks at the expense of training was showing and the troops were unprepared. They still held on to vintage single-shot .303 rifles since the new automatic rifles had arrived without ammunition. There were no logistics or supplies. The leadership – both military and political – was poor. There was nothing but the spirit of the soldier.
On 17th November, the Chinese launched their second phase of operations which outflanked the Indian position at Se La. Se La was strongly held but was ordered to withdraw prematurely. In the confused withdrawal, the Chinese attacked. Sela was the worst battle of the campaign, which claimed 1800 casualties in just two days. The Chinese advanced from Se La to Dirang to Bom dila as the Indian army withdrew in disarray. In each case, they followed a standard tactic of infiltrating behind their positions, attacking from different directions, and cutting off our troops. They were aided by a poor military leadership that gave no clear directions and ordered panicked withdrawals when they should have held firm. The only saving grace was in the Ladakh sector, where a slightly better-coordinated battle prevented the Chinese from reaching Chushul airfield, and they were well delayed at the bitter battles of Rezang La and Chushul. Then when the Chinese were virtually at the foothills of Assam, on 21st November, they announced a unilateral ceasefire and withdrew back into their territory. The curtain rang down on this tragedy of arms.
The war raged from 20th October – 21st November ’62, but the actual fighting was for less than seven days. Yet the Indian army suffered 30,78 deaths, 3,018 wounded, and 3,587 taken prisoners, a grievous loss. The only saving grace was that the army learnt, reorganized itself and focused on training and modernization. In the years that followed, it developed into a more professional and cohesive army that more than held its own on every other battlefield. The lessons of 1962 had come at a high cost. Let us hope that we never forget them.