By Syed Nazakat
The rugged, mountainous terrain beyond Ladakh was barren. The enemy stayed invisible, hiding in tunnels and digging bunkers under the cover of darkness. It was only after a while that the military headquarters in Delhi sensed that something was amiss at the eastern border. Soon, some troops were dispatched to conduct reconnaissance. Captain P.L. Kher, a young officer of 1/8 Gorkha Rifles regiment, was the first to be sent to the Chushul valley in Ladakh. He saw Chinese soldiers stockpiling ammunition, artillery and gasoline, and joked with his soldiers that the Chinese did not rest even during winter. The atmosphere was still calm. And then came the pre-dawn attack.
A brigade of Chinese troops, consisting 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers, launched a massive attack to capture the strategically located Chushul airfield on October 20, 1962. Though badly outnumbered, Kher and his troops chose to fight on, using the natural strategic advantage of the Gurung Hill Pass. “From my post, out of 60 soldiers, only 14 survived,” said Kher, who retired as major general. “From many other posts, nobody survived.” Kher’s valour saved Chushul, while India lost Aksai Chin in Ladakh and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh after China declared ceasefire on November 21, 1962.
Fifty years later, the debacle remains a subject many within the military establishment do not like to discuss. The internal inquiry, known as the Henderson Brooks report, which allegedly put the blame on poor equipment, unpreparedness and non-existent communication links, still remains a top secret. “We lost because we were not prepared. We had this mistaken belief that an unprepared Indian Army could take on China. We had just four vintage AMX-13 tanks and six artillery guns to defend the whole of Ladakh,” said Kher.
The question whether the use of Air Force would have prevented the humiliating defeat still lingers. Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne touched upon it at the annual Air Force Day press conference on October 5: “If air power was used at that time, the outcome would have been totally different.” Lt-Gen. (retd) Nirbhay Sharma echoes the same view. He said the biggest lesson from the 1962 war was China’s ability to achieve strategic deception and India’s inability to read the indicators. “Our performance in 1965 and the resounding victory in 1971 against Pakistan bear testimony of our recovery [from the defeat of 1962],” said Sharma.
Though the aftertaste of the war still lingers, India is keen on improving its ties with China. “Today both countries are trying to move ahead and the world is watching how India and China are dealing with their past and building their future,” said Mohan Guruswamy, chairman of the Centre for Policy Alternatives. India and China constitute 40 per cent of the world population and their economies are expected to shape the 21st century. China has already become India’s largest trading partner and India ranks 10th among China’s trading partners. The annual bilateral trade is expected to touch $100 billion by 2015. Major Indian companies like Reliance Industries, Mahindra & Mahindra, NIIT, Infosys, TCS and Wipro have China operations, while Chinese companies like Sinosteel and Shougang International have established offices in India. The people-to-people contact is also on the rise with five lakh Indians visiting China annually and one lakh Chinese coming to India.
Even as trade ties blossom, China’s military expansion and its aggressive posturing trigger anxiety in Delhi. China’s defence budget has nearly doubled in the last two decades. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China’s annual defence spending rose from over $30 billion in 2000 to about $160 billion in 2010. India’s defence budget for this year is $41 billion, of which only $17.5 billion is reserved for procuring new equipment. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the largest army in the world, is equipping its soldiers with asymmetric warfare capabilities. It continues to invest in cyber-attack capabilities, short and medium-range ballistic missiles, submarines and aircraft like J-20 stealth fighter which will eventually give the Chinese military a platform capable of long-range, penetrating strikes into complex air-defence environments. Indian defence planners are also bothered about China’s security agreements with India’s neighbouring countries.
As THE WEEK reported in its cover story on September 19, 2010, India is reinforcing its position along its 3,488km-long disputed border with China. In the Ladakh region, India is building critical military infrastructure, which includes border roads, an all-weather tunnel in Rohtang and new airfields to prevent an offensive from the Aksai Chin. New tank brigades are deployed in Ladakh and the northeast. Ladakh-based 14 Corps will have a full-fledged airfield at Kargil to enable operations of all major transport aircraft such as the newly-ordered C-17 heavy-lift aircraft. This is a part of India’s strategy to deal with a “two-front war” against Pakistan and China. In Arunachal, three full corps—the Sukhna-based 33 Corps, the Tezpur-based 4 Corps and the newly-augmented Dimapur-based 3 Corps—are being put in place.
The Air Force has moved 30 squadrons of Sukhoi fighters to the new air bases in Tezpur and Chhabua. Additional air bases are coming up in Jorhat, Guwahati, Mohanbari, Bagdogra and Hashimara and six squadrons of the anti-aircraft Akash missile are planned to defend the northeastern airspace. India’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, Agni-V, has the capability to target any Chinese city, in case of an all-out war. India plans to raise a new mountain strike corps in the northeast, consisting of about 40,000 soldiers, to strengthen defences in Arunachal and counter a “Kargil-type adventure” by China. The new strike corps will strengthen India’s defence against any such adventure in a region where China still claims 90,000sq.km of Indian territory.
Beijing’s policy of giving stapled visas to Indians from Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh, its rising claims about territories in Arunachal, and aggressive posturing along the disputed borders show that genuine peace is still a mirage. Recently, Chinese troops threatened Indian contractors and labourers who were building a canal at Phukchey, some 240km from Leh. The work on the 3km long canal was started in 2005 but because of Chinese interference, it is yet to be completed. “As long as the territorial status quo is not accepted, the possibility that the Chinese military will strike again cannot be ruled out,” said strategic expert Brahma Chellaney. “Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s emphatic statement in the Lok Sabha that China will not attack India thus seems more than gratuitous. Disturbingly, the more timorous Singh has been, the more belligerent China has become.”
Apart from the border dispute, the issue of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan refugees in India add to Sino-Indian tensions. China accuses Tibetan refugees in India of fuelling separatism in Tibet. Tibetan leader Lobsang Sangay’s demand that the issue of Tibet should be on the table during Sino-Indian talks has not gone down well with the Chinese leadership. India, in any case, is unlikely to broach the issue during bilateral talks.
Notwithstanding the irritants caused by a rough patch of history, India and China appear to have taken a deliberate decision to build a stable and secure partnership. Both countries downplay any talk of rivalry and at multilateral platforms share views on global issues like climate change. “There are plenty of reasons why China and India won’t go to war,” said Sharma. But beneath the newly found bonhomie, it is important not to forget the lessons of the 1962 war. For Kher, no matter what today’s generation thinks about the war, it was a moment he will never forget. “The war taught us that we need to expect the best from our enemy and should always remain prepared for the worst,” said Kher. “Otherwise we are doomed.”
The Indian Army hopes to have a strike corps based in the northeast soon. The proposed corps will consist of about 40,000 soldiers. It will have its own mountain artillery, combat engineers, anti-aircraft guns and radio equipment. It will provide India with strategic capabilities that were missed badly in the 1962 war. After 1962, India’s policy was not to build any offensive formations in the eastern sector, fearing it might provoke Beijing. The sanctioning of a strike corps, therefore, indicates a new assertiveness in New Delhi. The proposal to raise a new strike corps was recommended by the China Study Group, a government body that considers all strategic issues related to China. Thereafter, in 2007, the Army formally proposed the plan to the government. On May 14, 2009, the cabinet committee on security approved the plan. The finance ministry, however, felt that the cost involved—about Rs 65,000 crore—was too high, and sent the file back to the ministry of defence for reconsideration. There were also questions whether this step would end up being more provocative than effective in the long run. Contrary to what has been widely reported, Gen. Bikram Singh has not given up on the plan. He told THE WEEK that the proposal was very much on the cards and would be cleared soon.
(October 21, THE WEEK)