Saturday, September 29, 2012
1962: The sleeping burgerade
One morning in early 1963, Lt. Tong, a Chinese translator takes four senior Indian officers out for a walk. They are allowed to sit near a mud wall at the outskirts of the ancient monastery where they have been kept under confinement.
Tong does not let them peep over the wall, though they can hear voices speaking on the other side. A Hindi-speaking Chinese is addressing some Indian jawans. They debate the People’s Liberation Army’s pet subject since the capture of the Indians on the Thagla ridge a few months earlier; ‘admit that India attacked China first on October 20’, says the Chinese voice.
A jawan speaks; he tells the Chinese that his company was sleeping when the Chinese poured down the ridge. How could India have started the war while sleeping? The Chinese officer calmly explains once again to the jawan that he only thinks of his own unit; everywhere else India attacked and China had no choice but to retaliate in self-defense. But the jawan is fearless and outspoken, he tells his interlocutor: "I do not know what you are talking about, but I know that the whole of my ‘burgerade’, (Punjabi for ‘brigade’) was sleeping when you attacked us."
Indeed, everyone was sleeping when the Chinese mortars began shelling the bunkers on the Namkha chu (river) on that fateful morning.
Worse, the leadership in Delhi had also been sleeping (and dreaming of throwing out the Chinese from what they perceived was India’s territory).
Unfortunately, the non-sense of India attacking China still prevails in some Indian quarters today.
In the Introduction of his Himalayan Blunder, Brig. John Dalvi, the Commander of the ill-fated 7 Infantry Brigade writes: “On the night of 21st November 1962, I was woken up by the Chinese Major in charge of my solitary confinement with shouts of 'good news — good news'. He told me that the Sino-Indian War was over and that the Chinese Government had decided to withdraw from all the areas which they had overrun, in their lightning campaign. When I asked the reason for this decision he gave me this Peking [Beijing] inspired answer: “India and China have been friends for thousands of years and have never fought before. China does not want war. It is the reactionary Indian Government that was bent on war. So the Chinese counterattacked in self-defence and liberated all our territories in NEFA and Ladakh, in just one month.” He added: “We have proved that you are no match for mighty China”.
But where was the question of the Indian Army ‘attacking China’ with no food, no clothes, no armament or ammunition supply?
Apart from Chinese apologetics, who have simply repeated what they have been told to repeat, other sources have also confirmed that the Chinese leadership believed that India attacked.
On November 8, 1962 Dr. Malcolm MacDonald, a former British High Commissioner to India met Robert Donhauser, the US Consul General in Singapore. During a business lunch, McDonald briefed the US official about his visit to the People's Republic of China and his lengthy discussions with Zhou Enlai and Marshal Chen Yi.
The US official later cabled Washington: “Chou [Zhou] took exception to UK position that Peiping [Beijing] was aggressor in border dispute. [Zhou] stated he realized UK must support India as member of Commonwealth but did not have to charge Chinese [of] aggression. He [Zhou] wished to go to conference table but India had made impossible demands prior to discussions, particularly since territory under dispute was not Indian, but Chinese. MacDonald, of course, upheld UK position.”
This brings two questions. Did the Chinese really believe that India had attacked China in the West Kameng district? Why pretend that it was Nehru who attacked when it is so obviously not true?
The answer is the Chinese probably knew that India was not prepared, further they wanted to teach ‘arrogant’ India a lesson for granting refuge to the Dalai Lama three years earlier.
On October 6, 1962, Mao Zedong addressed several senior Chinese generals in Beijing: “It seems like armed coexistence won't work. It’s just as we expected. Nehru really wants to use force. This isn't strange. He has always wanted to seize Aksai Chin and Thagla Ridge. He thinks he can get everything he desires.”
The Chairman continued: “Now the Indians want to fight a war with us. Naturally, we don't have fear. [But] we cannot lose ground; once we lose ground it would be tantamount to letting them seize a big piece of land equivalent to Fujian province. …Since Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him, for us not to fight with him would not be proper. Courtesy emphasizes reciprocity.”
Why? One of the reasons might be Operation Leghorn planned by a flamboyant new Corps Commander.
On October 3, Lt Gen Kaul took over Corps IV, a Corps especially created ‘to throw the Chinese out’. On his arrival in Tezpur, Kaul addressed the senior officers: “The Prime Minister himself had ordered these posts [near the Thagla ridge] to be set up and he had based his decision on the highest Intelligence advice.” The ‘intelligence’ inputs turned out to be a bad joke.
Niranjan Prasad commented: “Also, explicit in his reply [to officers] was a warning that failure or dragging of feet in completing the task could result in serious consequences for those responsible, in other words, for 4 Infantry Division. So that was that.”
It appears that the Chinese military intelligence had gathered that Indian forces were planning to start Operation Leghorn to occupy the Thagla Ridge on 10 October (the information was absolutely correct).
As today Beijing can enter any computer system, in Mao’s days, the Chinese intelligence knew everything about Kaul’s and his acolytes’ plans.
In his memoirs, Prasad recalls: “From our own Signals channels I had received reports of a pirate radio operating somewhere in our area, but when we referred this to higher authorities the matter was dismissed: we were curtly told that there was no pirate radio transmitter on our side of the border. Subsequently it was confirmed that the Chinese had indeed sneaked in a pirate transmitter to Chacko (on the road to Bomdila) in the Tibetan labour camp. The aerial of their transmitter was concealed as a tall prayer-flagstaff so common in the Buddhist belt of the Himalayas.”
This is probably how Mao was aware of Operation Op Leghorn.
But there was something else, the Indian officers on the ground had some doubts about the exact location of the boundary.
When on 14 August, 1962, Brigadier D.K. Palit, Director of Military Operations visited the Corps Headquarters in Tezpur, he told the officers that according to Intelligence input “there was little or no probability of the Chinese resorting to armed hostilities”. About the issue of the Thagla ridge, he said that though the Divisional Headquarters had sent a report on August 4 asking for confirmation of the boundary’s location, the Army Headquarters in Delhi had only received it the day before he left for Tezpur (14 August morning). He promised to look into this and send an answer ‘as soon as he could’.
In his insider’s assessment of the conflict, War in the High Himalayas, Brigadier Palit recalls the encounter: “On my return to Delhi I referred the Thagla dilemma to the Director of Military Survey. The latter commented that as the existing maps of the area were 'sketchy and inaccurate, having been compiled from unreliable sources', the map co-ordinates of the new post quoted by the patrol leader were of doubtful accuracy.”
Wanting to clarify the exact position, Palit went to meet Dr. S. Gopal, the Director of the Historical Section, who explained to him that since the boundary talks with the Chinese in 1960, the Government of India had been aware that the actual terrain in the area of the tri-junction was different from that depicted on the quarter-inch scale map Simla sheet.
But Palit added: “What Gopal had not told me — and I found out only later —was that the Chinese had not accepted our arguments and had counter-claimed Thagla ridge, as well as the valley at Khinzemane, as Chinese territory.”
If Mao was aware of these doubts, he would have used it as a pretext to say that India walked ‘into China’, but the fact remains the entire ‘buregade’, not to speak of the 4 Infantry Division, were sleeping that morning.
In any case, who attacked in the Eastern sector of NEFA (Walong) and Ladakh (Chushul), if not China?