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In Conversation

Let down by the leadership

In military circles, Shiv Kunal Verma first shot into prominence in 1992 when he produced the highly acclaimed film on 60 years of the Indian Air Force, Salt of the Earth. This benchmark film was followed by a series of films on the Indian Navy and the Army, culminating with his filming Kargil War and Aakash Yodha, which again covered the aerial dimension of the conflict with Pakistan in 1999. The Standard Bearers (National Defence Academy) and The Making of a Warrior (Indian Military Academy) were among the various films he made on military training institutions in the country. Verma is also the author of The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why and the highly acclaimed Northeast Trilogy that documents the region in meticulous detail. Among his other works are the books on the Assam Rifles while he has also co-authored Courage & Conviction, the autobiography of the former Chief of Army Staff, General VK Singh.


MGD: Generations brought up on stories of swarming Chinese hordes and Indian troops fighting in PT shoes to the last man, last round, are going to be in for a shock. More than half a century after the event, how difficult was it to put the narrative together?

SKV: Quite honestly, I think the information has always been there, it is just that no one really wanted to talk about it. Those who did write about the conflict were more concerned about exonerating themselves. It’s a great pity that not only was the truth glossed over, it was also deliberately suppressed. This was an army that was simply not allowed to fight by our own people—it wasn’t so much the Chinese who ran over us in NEFA, it was our own leadership.

MGD: The Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report is still under wraps, at least partially. Do you think access to those papers would have thrown up any additional facts?

SKV: I don’t think so, simply because though the report was asked for by General JN Chaudhury after he replaced General Thapar as the COAS, its terms of reference were changed within a couple of days and they were asked to confine themselves entirely to IV Corps’ Operations. Later, then Defence Minister YB Chavan used it as a major sleight of hand in Parliament to deflect the blame from Prime Minister Nehru and his immediate advisers to the army leadership.

MGD: Neville Maxwell says Nehru was to blame for the ’62 conflict. Even our own history textbooks in schools acknowledge Nehru’s Forward Policy resulted in the clash between the two Asian giants.

SKV: Buying into what Maxwell says as the gospel truth is to do a great injustice to ourselves. As Krishna Menon pointed out in 1968, India simply failed to realise that Communist China was expansionist by nature. Nehru’s failure lay in his inability to avert the clash. Before 1949, China was nowhere in the equation. The annexation of Sinkiang in 1949 first and then Tibet in 1950 changed all that. Sardar Patel read the situation perfectly and his letter to Nehru written 38 days before he died, spelt out the changed situation at the time.

MGD:You talk of the Himmat Singh Committee that was constituted in 1951 and the General Kulwant Singh Report in 1953. They all seemed to warn Nehru.

SKV: In retrospect, who didn’t warn Nehru? General Cariappa did and Sardar Patel did. Even the Kulwant Singh Report said in 1953 that there was a major likelihood of an armed clash between China and India in the next nine years—it was as specific as that. Just as the Chinese, after having annexed Tibet, were pushing forward to secure what they thought was the border, the Himmat Singh Committee did much the same though the main focus of the recommendations was on the restructuring and deployment of the Assam Rifles. This was to lay the ground for the Forward Policy. If these boys hadn’t pushed forward into what was then wild, hostile country, just as the Chinese did in Aksai Chin, that was devoid of Indian presence, they would have emerged one fine day at the foothills. On the larger map, the Himalaya would have been the Thagla Ridge, the Brahmaputra, the Nam Ka Chu, the Khasi and Garo Hills, and the Tsangdhar Ridge.

MGD: Indeed. Nehru was too confident of himself on China. He even snubbed Jayaprakash Narayan, whom he considered his successor, for suggesting otherwise. By the way, Exercise Lal Qila was Thorat’s brainchild… it also spelt out the situation on the ground two years before the Chinese attacked.

SKV: The Thorat Plan was what one would have expected of any Indian army officer who was of sound mind. It was based on pure military logic, which took into account the fighting capabilities of the Assam Rifles as well. But once Nehru had played the resignation card and literally destroyed Thimayya, there were no checks and balances left to stop General Kaul who simply steamrolled everyone and everything around him. The two men who could have brought some sanity into the situation were Generals Bogey Sen and Pran Thapar. But once Nehru through Menon had begun tampering with the Army’s command structure, the men on the ground subsequently were, as Thimayya put it, cannon fodder for the Chinese.

MGD: You’ve almost ignored VK Krishna Menon in the book. Yet, his is the first name that comes to mind when we scan the pages of history.

SKV: Krishna Menon was only doing what Nehru wanted him to do… he was the cat’s paw who was brought in by Nehru only when Thimayya became the Chief of Army Staff. By then Kaul was already the man to watch within the Army. Once the balloon went up and the Chinese got aggressive, Krishna Menon frankly had little to contribute. Unfortunately, our own IB files are not easily available. It would be interesting to see what role BN Mullik, the Intelligence Chief, played in building up Thimayya and the military take-over bogey with Nehru. It’s also quite likely that most of this was never put in writing, just as Krishna Menon ordered that no written records of all policy meetings in Army HQ were to be maintained.

MGD: Finally, where was the IAF in all this? In your book you virtually accuse the IB of having lied to the Government in their appreciation of the PLAAF.

SKV: The report given to Nehru was a joke, but then what exactly was the Air Chief doing? He just went along with it without a murmur… I first heard of it from former Defence Secretary HC Sarin in 1992 when we met him in connection with our IAF film. Then Air Marshal HC Dewan more or less confirmed it. I still remember the shocked faces when we played the tapes from the interview in Air HQ. Sarin told us about the letter written by Nehru to Kennedy, begging for US air support. He conveniently failed to mention he had drafted the letter along with Foreign Secretary MJ Desai.

MGD: Post-war I served in NEFA… I took a Long Range Patrol to retrace the path that the Chinese had taken. Even now it is hard to believe they could have so easily brushed the Indians aside. Could the Army have acquitted itself better?

SKV: Almost certainly. Even on the Nam Ka Chu, it was a complete failure of command. When 2 Rajput was attacked on October 20, just 1,000 yards to its right 9 Punjab sat and watched, simply because there were no instructions from above. Without someone controlling and coordinating the battle, there was nothing they could do. What can one say when even after the event General Kaul writes a book in which he confuses Se-la with Tse-la, two passes that are quite a few miles apart. Our troops had endured a lot of hardships and had dug in whereever they were told to go, but in the absence of any command and control, they frankly did not stand a chance.

A lot of officers bemoan the fact that we failed to hold Se-la for a week… I think if we had held it for three days and the GOC had pushed forward from Dirang Dzong instead of breaking backwards towards Bomdila, the Chinese would have been in serious trouble. Their gamble paid off then… but they knew they were overstretched. That’s why they quietly withdrew from NEFA. The Western Sector was a different cup of tea: the total quantum of Indian troops that actually clashed with the Chinese was less than one infantry battalion.


1962: The War That Wasn’t

FOR the first time in twelve years, Nehru was unsure of himself as he rose from the prime minister’s seat in the Lok Sabha on 28 August 1959 to face the rest of the House. Clamouring Opposition members who were demanding a statement on the Longju incident fell silent as attention turned to the prime minister. Speaking in his usual clipped style, every word that Nehru uttered stunned the assembled MPs.

The prime minister admitted to the people of India that serious disputes existed between China and India regarding the India-Tibet border and that several thousand square kilometres of Indian territory in Ladakh was under Chinese control. He then disclosed the fact that the Chinese had built a highway across the Aksai Chin, adding that the government had thought it fit not to make the disputes public, as that would have made their settlement even more difficult. He then went on to talk of the border clash between the Chinese and the Assam Rifles first at Khenzemane and then at Longju. However, it was the last part of Nehru’s statement that was to have far-reaching consequences: ‘We have in fact placed this border area of NEFA directly under the military authorities …The Assam Rifles will of course remain there and such other forces as will be necessary will be sent, but they will function now under the army authorities and their headquarters.’

Nehru’s unconsidered remark had major national and international implications.By committing Army HQ, which had no troops of its own in NEFA into the existing defence structure of manning border posts, the prime minister was committing it to a policing role. Any plans for the defence of the region that could be based on a forward line held by the police (Assam Rifles) and an inner line held by the army evaporated.

In his office in South Block, General Thimayya was oblivious of the drama that was being played out in the Lok Sabha less than a kilometre away. Around noon, there was a knock on the door and the Director Military Intelligence, Brigadier Prem Bhagat, walked into the army chief ’s office. Without any preamble, Bhagat told Thimayya that the joint secretary in the Ministry of Defence, HC Sarin, had just briefed him on the prime minister’s statement in Parliament. ‘Nehru has finally told Parliament the truth about the northern border. He spoke at length about the National Highway G219 and the loss of the Aksai Chin. He then spoke of both the Khenzemane and Longju incident.’

‘It had to happen… I’m surprised it took so long for the press to realize everything isn’t quite bhaibhai with the Chinese,’ said Thimayya, shaking his head.

‘There’s something else…’ Bhagat hesitated, not quite sure if Thimayya was already in on the decision. ‘The prime minister has announced that as of today the entire border in NEFA with China is henceforth the army’s responsibility.’

The usually calm and unflappable Thimayya now stared at Bhagat, not quite sure if he had heard him correctly. He moved back to his desk and sat down slowly. ‘What else did Sarin say?’ he asked incredulously.

‘Nothing more, really. From his demeanour I gathered the Ministry of Defence had no idea this was coming. If Mr Krishna Menon was consulted by the prime minister, he certainly did not inform anybody else in the ministry.’

In 1957, when it was becoming obvious to Nehru that his Panchsheel policy with China was going nowhere, he had turned to Krishna Menon… As the defence minister of India, his appointment coincided with the elevation of General Thimayya to the top job in the Indian Army. Temperamentally Krishna Menon was a loner, and having had no ministerial or administrative experience, he found it necessary to dominate the military bureaucracy by trying to make a dent in the solidarity of its senior ranks. In this he succeeded to the extent that Bijji Kaul fell for his blandishments and for a time an unwonted relationship was established between the minister and the general officer.

Menon would have probably never ventured into playing these devious mind games if the signal had not come from Nehru himself. It was Nehru who had built a strong rapport with Kaul; he had allowed this friendship to often overshadow the official relationship, sometimes summoning him for purposes outside the call of army duty, even when Kaul was only a lieutenant colonel. In 1953, Nehru entrusted Kaul with the delicate task of overseeing the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah and acting as a political troubleshooter in Kashmir.

Having destroyed its combat readiness by tampering with the military hierarchy, the Indian Army was deployed in both NEFA and Ladakh as a glorified police force. More than half-a-century later, shorn of the myths and half-truths, this is a superbly told story that needs to be understood by future generations—General (Dr) VK Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs & Former Army Chief

The author at Kibithu in the Walong Sector of NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh)

Unlike most of the other generals who were army and corps commanders at the time, Kaul had virtually no combat experience. After being commissioned into an infantry battalion, Kaul had voluntarily shifted to the Army Supply Corps while he was still a junior officer. Kaul used the term ‘national priority’ to explain the reason for this shift—a somewhat dubious explanation as no junior officer was likely to be accorded that sort of importance. As a result, Bijji Kaul had not even commanded an infantry company, let alone a battalion, either in war or peace. Though commissioned into the army well before the outbreak of World War II, Bijji Kaul was assigned sundry jobs, none of which had anything to do with combat.

After Independence, his rise had been spectacular and completely at odds with the existing ethos of the armed forces where each appointment in an officer’s career is a vital cog in his own training that enables him to take on responsibility at the next level. In 1947, Kaul was plucked from obscurity to serve as India’s military attaché in Washington DC while also being a member of the quasi-political Armed Forces Nationalisation Committee. In 1948, he was again selected to be the military adviser to the Indian delegation to the Security Council on the Kashmir issue, which was where he first met Krishna Menon. Nehru then entrusted Kaul with the command of the Jammu and Kashmir Militia, but he had to be withdrawn from this post owing to his differences with Sheikh Abdullah, the then prime minister of Kashmir. By the early 1950s, it was fairly obvious to the rank and file that Kaul was Nehru’s trusted man.

After Independence, Kaul repeatedly served under Thorat. Almost each and every time, despite Kaul’s political connections, Thorat would diligently put down on paper that in his opinion, Kaul had reached the limits of his professional competence. In an army where one bad report usually seals a man’s fate, Nehru’s repeated interventions kept Kaul’s flag flying.

A story that needed to be told. Superbly written and brutally honest—by far the most definitive book on the subject. Removes the fig leaves and sets the record straight, something that today’s context will profit by emulating—Dr YSP Thorat, Former Chairman, NABARD

Subedar Dashrath Singh was dying, slipping in and out of consciousness as the blood seeped out of his torn and horribly mutilated body. All around him, men from No. 9 Platoon of 2 Rajput’s Charlie Company lay scattered—most of them had been torn apart by mortar and artillery fire. The firing had died down hours ago as the last few men, reduced to using stones to fight, were shot through the head at point-blank range. Just a few minutes earlier, Dashrath had fallen to the ground as a Chinese soldier emptied his entire AK-47 magazine into his stomach. ‘I felt no pain,’ he would recall years later, ‘just relief that the nightmare was over. The manner in which we were deployed, we had known for days that we stood no chance if and when the attack came.’

Just eleven days ago, on 9 October 1962, Lieutenant General BM ‘Bijji’ Kaul, camping at the Bridge 3 location on the Nam Ka Chu, had outlined an ambitious attack plan to occupy the Thagla Ridge across the Nam Ka Chu. Every officer and JCO present at the briefing knew the general’s plan was nonsensical. To Dashrath’s experienced ears, it sounded like the general was issuing orders for an advance the next morning across the river and up the Thagla slopes on the assumption that the Chinese did not exist. All the officers were sitting in stunned silence as Kaul droned on, using impressive jargon that included terms like ‘positional warfare manoeuvre’, something neither Dashrath nor any of the others present had ever heard before. Major General Niranjan Prasad, GOC 4 Division, was staring at his shoes the entire time, while Brigadier John Dalvi, the commander of 7 Brigade, meekly tried to point out a few technical difficulties like limited ammunition, lack of snow clothing, artillery support and other factors. The corps commander, deeming them minor irritants, impatiently brushed them aside.

Having spelt out his objectives, the corps commander asked the assembled officers and JCOs if they had any questions. While the officers were still recovering from the shock of Kaul’s master plan, Subedar Dashrath Singh from 2 Rajput, who had seen five years of close combat with the Japanese in Burma and had then fought in the Jammu and Kashmir Operations in 1948, spoke up: ‘Yeh larai to maine pehli bar dekhi hai, saab, jisme hum nalle mein aur dushman upar pahar par.’

‘Yeh bhi pehli baar aapne dekha hoga ki koi general front line mein khara ho’ was Kaul’s glib response. ‘Aapne apni baat to keh di, saab, lekin hamare jawaab nahi diya,’ said Dashrath. At this point Kaul lost his temper and demanded that the JCO be arrested on the spot and dismissed from service. While Niranjan Prasad and Dalvi tried to pacify the corps commander, Dashrath was quietly asked to leave the conference.

From the beginning to the end, the book literally grabs the reader by the throat. Brutally honest, every detail of the conflict with China half a century ago is laid bare. Sooner or later Indians had to face the bitter reality of what actually happened in the high Himalaya. Perhaps now we can begin to bury the ghosts—Sam Rajappa, former editor, The Statesman

In conversation