Indian media, and not politicians, fanned hostility to China in 1960s

THE INTRODUCTION to the Henderson-Brooks report by Gen J.N. Choudhary, a former chief of the Indian army, exposes the failure of political leadership and the wrongly appointed army commanders that led to India’s defeat in the 1962 war with China.

It is claimed in the report that India had no shortage of arms and stores. But the report cannot deny that Indian soldiers without acclimatisation and adequate winter clothing were pushed into the mountain snows. Many researched and informative articles have been published in newspapers.

Recently Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne stated that the use of the Indian air force, proposed by the military and disallowed by the government, would have changed the course of the conflict. He is right.

(The Henderson Brooks report is an analysis (operations review) of the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Its authors, Lt Gen Henderson Brooks and Brig P. S. Bhagat, are former officers of the Indian army). The report has been kept classified by the Indian government because its contents “are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value”).

The report is said to be openly critical of the Indian political and military structure of the time, as well as of the execution of operations.

The Chinese media have dismissed these claims by asserting that their air force was much too powerful then. Indian commentators have echoed the Chinese view. It is wrong. At that time even the US view was that due to logistics, the terrain and poor refueling facilities, the Chinese air force would have been ineffective.

The strident criticism in Indian parliament by Acharya Kripalani, Minoo Masani, Atal Behari Vajpayee and others has been recalled by commentators as the reason that forced the government into ill-prepared hostility to China. Implicitly a chauvinistic opposition is blamed for the government’s follies.

What the writers have omitted is the fact that there was also a sustained demand by critics to purchase arms from the West for immediate need and not to persist with the plodding, time-consuming official policy of building self-reliance in armaments inspired by the Soviet model.

The opposition leaders were not leading the charge against the government’s China policy. It was the media. The opposition was too weak at that time. Mainly it was Sri Mulgaokar, Frank Moraes and, later, Prem Bhatia who led the charge. These editors were not inspired by the politicians. The politicians were led by them.

Mulgaokar was my editor. I was around 25 and had returned after a two-year stint in Britain, dividing my time there between journalism and dish-washing in cafes. I think a flavour of those times based purely on memory would not be out of order for critics today.

The truth is that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Defence Minister Krishna Menon were not only woefully ignorant about strategy, about realpolitik and security, but were also besotted with misplaced notions about the Soviet Union. Both were mentored by liberal Brits.

For years while Nehru foolishly kept chanting Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai (India and China are brothers), the Chinese were steadily preparing for war. Nehru’s advisers in Britain were as silly as their Indian protégés that included an entire Indian intellectual class conditioned by the British.


Those who rightly criticised India’s China policy were in those Cold War days described as CIA agents. The Economist of London in its intelligence report, restrictedly distributed to subscribers, wrote that Mulgaokar who was leading the charge against the government’s blind spot on China was inspired by the CIA.

Mulgaokar wrote a sharp letter of protest to the weekly’s editor, Donald Tyerman. The latter wrote a profuse letter of apology which I read. In those days my brother Rakshat Puri, very recently deceased, was the India correspondent of London’s New Statesman and Nation, which was a Bible for Indian intellectuals. He wrote an expose about the road being clandestinely built by the Chinese in disputed border territory.

The Indian government was aware of course, but kept parliament and the nation in the dark. The New Statesman editorially echoed the Nehru-Menon approach. After the 1962 war, the weekly’s legendary Editor, Kingsley Martin, visited India. He was god to most Indian intellectuals. He visited the India Coffee House on Delhi’s Janpath and shared a chat with a few of us. As a brash youngster I hauled him over the coals. I asked him whether or not he owed an apology to those of us in India who had been warning of the catastrophe India would suffer and had been rubbished by the likes of him.

I think he was not used to such criticism, particularly from an Indian. He mumbled, hummed and hawed and could give no reply. That was the mood of that time.

Now it is galling to read about chauvinistic critics who pushed Nehru into the Sino-Indian conflict and no recognition is given to those who accurately foresaw the defeat.

The government’s silly approach on China provoked me to write an article in 1960, which as a whole-time cartoonist I did very infrequently those days, demanding Prime Minister Nehru’s resignation. I took the article to Mulgaokar of the Hindustan Times, where I was employed. Mulgaokar read it and said: “No, I can’t go as far as this!”

I guess it required a brash 25-year-old to say that the Emperor wore no clothes.

I subsequently had the article published in a small weekly, Thought, edited by Ram Singh. In that article I wrote: “This is therefore as good as a time as any for Nehru to resign from the prime ministership. Propriety demands it, wisdom counsels it and sympathy pleads for it.

Nehru should resign primarily because his China policy of high stakes has not succeeded. It has contained omissions which have facilitated an infringement of our sovereignty by the Chinese.

“This is no place to go into the whole depressing record of honest mistakes, dire circumstances, crass negligence and political naivete which has brought us to our present situation, where we have to sit round a table and argue with aggressors the legal validity of our claims matched against theirs on territory in their possession and control…that chunks of our territory were occupied by the Chinese and neither Parliament nor people were informed at Nehru’s sole instance, but instead led at that very time into the soporific bhai-bhainess of Panch Sheel, was an unpardonable lack of the sense of responsibility.

“The least that Nehru should offer, and the least that the nation should expect is his resignation… After Neville Chamberlain had appeased Hitler…Winston Churchill was entrusted the task of forging a policy to see Britain through the war…The moral applies to Nehru…Under no circumstances would the nation ask Nehru to resign. Nehru can resign only by a decision of his own making.”

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