1962: The War That Wasn’t by Shiv Kunal Verma
Aleph Book Company
Hardcover: 512 pages
Price- Rs 697
The Higher Command Course, conducted by the Army War College, Mhow, was the brainchild of Lieutenant General Eric Vas, one of the sharpest brains in the Indian Army. It is easily one of the most incisive and wide ranging of military courses, where, typically, officers who have finished their command tenure are sent for a year to prepare them for higher appointments. This is where, for the first time in a soldier’s career, he is exposed to the intricacies of geo-politics. It’s almost as if a fish is taken out of a pond, given a pair of wings, and set free to soar like a bird.
In this context, the words of Major General “Monty” Palit, who was the Director Military Operations during the 1962 conflict with China, ring true. In the 1950s, he often articulated that the number of people in India who knew where Sinkiang or Tibet was located, could be counted on one’s fingertips. Even today, despite the fact that the information boom has shrunk the world, geo-politics remains an alien subject for most Indians. Hence, what happened once Communist China emerged from the ashes of the Kuomintang government had a direct bearing on the subcontinent, yet it remains a black hole in our history textbooks as also the consciousness of our people.
1962: The War That Wasn’t by Shiv Kunal Verma is a courageous book that, in my opinion, will become a benchmark for the genre of military writing in India. Most importantly, the author, unrestrained by the burden of rank, yet so steeped in the military’s ethos and ways, has penned down a book that potentially offers the layman an opportunity to get out of his or her pond and also expand their worldview — especially with regard to our most immediate neighbour to the north. In the 1950s, we as a nation stumbled when China, by annexing Sinkiang and Tibet, suddenly arrived at our doorstep, and then we fell badly when push came to shove in October/November 1962.
There were many reasons for the complete collapse on the Indian side in 1962 — and foremost among them was the complete lack of comprehension of China, the Chinese people and the PLA. Before plunging into the actual details pertaining to the fighting in NEFA and Ladakh, Verma’s comprehensive work traces the history on both the northern and southern sides of the Himalayan watershed, especially in the Northeast. While on the Indian side the focus is on the British, who displaced the Ahom kings and expanded northwards after making an entry from Burma, on the Tibetan side the relationship with China is the focus. What emerges is a fascinating account of a Himalayan kingdom that had as much to do with China as it did with the various Indian princely states.
So much so, the main route linking Lhasa to China actually ran through Kalimpong and Calcutta, and thence to China via the sea. This fact undermines the very assumption that Tibet was indeed a protectorate of the Qing Empire. Unfortunately, once Mao Zedong declared his version of Chinese history, there was no one on the ground who could adequately challenge him or the subsequent expansionist policies of the Chinese.
Post 1947, once Nehru was appointed Prime Minister, political power in India became more and more centralised, especially after the unfortunate demise of Sardar Patel. Once decision-making becomes individual centric, policies, especially against an adversary who is focusing on your weaknesses, become extremely vulnerable.
Nehru, who had complete sway over both External Affairs and Defence, played an active negative role in the evolving civil-military relationship, while simultaneously grand standing on the global stage.
Resultantly, he tied himself up in knots, while his chosen few, including Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon and Lieutenant General Kaul, played merry hell with the structure of the already severely depleted and weakened Army.
As has always been the case with the Indian Army, the J&K Militia and the Assam Rifles (and also units of border police), the valiant troops did their bit, reaching areas and establishing posts under conditions that are unimaginable.
However, having got there, the nation failed them; they had little or nothing to fight with when the Chinese finally made their moves. On the book’s back cover, the former Vice-Chief of the Indian Army, Lieutenant General Milan Naidu (whose own father-in-law became a martyr in NEFA in 1962) puts it succinctly: “The book underlines the criticality of higher command. No amount of guts and resolve at the lower level amounts to anything if the senior leadership is compromised.”
At first glance, seeing the exhaustive nature of the book, my immediate reaction was that it was going to be controversial, for it challenges a lot of assumptions my generation and our children have grown up with. But as I began to read the book, flipping seamlessly through pages and chapters, events that had hitherto been lost in a maze of half-truths and myths spun by earlier self-exonerating writers, were now clear as the light of day. Also, being familiar with the area having commanded a Corps in the Northeast, I realised that events must have occurred as outlined in the book or very close to it.
1962: The War That Wasn’t is a mirror that we have to look into. Until now I don’t think we as a people had the nerve or a sufficient appreciation of our geographical boundaries or perhaps even the vocabulary to critically examine what had really happened. It is a pity that we have had to wait more than 50 years for an authentic autopsy.
Lieutenant General Rakesh Loomba, PVSM, AVSM (Retd) is a former DGMI.