Learnt and the Way For­ward

In­dia’s na­tional se­cu­rity frame­work and its an­ti­quated civil-mil­i­tary re­la­tion­ship have not grown in step with the needs of new se­cu­rity chal­lenges. We need to change our mind­sets and at­ti­tudes and look be­yond the nar­row bound­aries de­fined by turf and par

SP's LandForces - - FRONT PAGE - Gen­eral (Retd) V.P. Ma­lik

In­dia’s na­tional se­cu­rity frame­work and its an­ti­quated civil-mil­i­tary re­la­tion­ship have not grown in step with the needs of new se­cu­rity chal­lenges.

“Re­la­tions be­tween great pow­ers can­not be sus­tained by in­er­tia, com­merce or mere sen­ti­ments.” —Aaron Frei­d­burg

in New Repub­lic, Au­gust 4, 2011

T HE IN­DIA-CHINA WAR IN 1962 was in­de­pen­dent In­dia’s most trau­matic and worst ever se­cu­rity fail­ure which left an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion on our his­tory and psy­che. This Oc­to­ber marks its 50th an­niver­sary: an ap­pro­pri­ate oc­ca­sion to re­flect on its strate­gic lessons and our cur­rent politi­comil­i­tary sta­tus vis-à-vis China.


It all started with China’s oc­cu­pa­tion of Ti­bet, and their sur­rep­ti­tious con­struc­tion of a strate­gic road through Ak­sai Chin, join­ing Ti­bet with Sinkiang. The Government of In­dia took two-and-a-half years to con­firm the road con­struc­tion and an­other one year to dis­close it to the Par­lia­ment on Au­gust 31, 1959.

The upris­ing in Ti­bet caused fur­ther wors­en­ing of re­la­tions. In March 1959, the Dalai Lama fled from Ti­bet and took shel­ter in In­dia. China sus­pected that In­dia was help­ing the Khampa re­bel­lion and had en­abled Dalai Lama’s es­cape to In­dia. This, along­side skir­mishes on sev­eral bor­der posts, re­sulted in the hard­en­ing of at­ti­tudes. In­dia adopted a strate­gi­cally flawed ‘for­ward pol­icy’ of erect­ing iso­lated check posts with­out tak­ing any mea­sures to im­prove bor­der in­fra­struc­ture or the armed forces’ ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Fail­ure of the government pol­icy put Prime Min­is­ter Jawa­har­lal Nehru un­der in­tense domestic pres­sure. He or­dered the mil­i­tary to throw out the Chi­nese from in­truded In­dian Ter­ri­tory– a task that was well be­yond its ca­pa­bil­ity.

In Oc­to­ber 1962, the Chi­nese mil­i­tary launched pre-med­i­tated and cal­i­brated puni­tive at­tacks in In­dia’s north­west and north­east sec­tors of Ladakh and North-East Fron­tier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh). In­dia suf­fered its worst ever mil­i­tary de­feat, and a ge­o­graphic surgery that con­tin­ues to fester in the form of line of ac­tual con­trol (LAC) till date.

There are many lessons. My em­pha­sis is on strate­gic think­ing and plan­ning, civil-mil­i­tary re­la­tions and ca­pa­bil­ity-build­ing to tackle po­ten­tial se­cu­rity threats.

Grand Strat­egy

Ac­cord­ing to a Pen­tagon his­tor­i­cal study pa­per on the Sino-In­dia Bor­der Dis­pute, de-clas­si­fied in 2007, “De­vel­op­ments be­tween late 1950 and late 1959 were marked by Chi­nese mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­or­ity, which, com­bined with cun­ning and diplo­matic de­ceit, contributed to New Delhi’s re­luc­tance to change its pol­icy to­ward the Bei­jing regime for nine years.”

The study records that the Chi­nese diplo­matic ef­fort was a five-year mas­ter­piece of guile, planned and ex­e­cuted in a large part by Chou En-lai. The Chi­nese Pre­mier de­ceived Nehru sev­eral times about Chi­nese maps and care­fully con­cealed Bei­jing’s long-range in­ten­tions. He played on ‘Nehru’s Asian, an­ti­im­pe­ri­al­ist men­tal at­ti­tude, his pro­cliv­ity to tem­po­rise, and his sin­cere de­sire for an amica- ble Sino-In­dian re­la­tion­ship’ and strung along Nehru by cre­at­ing an im­pres­sion through equiv­o­cal lan­guage that (a) it was a mi­nor bor­der dis­pute, (b) Bei­jing would ac­cept the McMa­hon Line, and that (c) old Kuom­intang pe­riod Chi­nese maps would soon be re­vised.

The Pen­tagon study claims that the Chi­nese and even Nehru saw the use of diplo­matic chan­nels as the safest way to ex­clude the In­dian pub­lic, press, and Par­lia­ment. They used th­ese chan­nels ef­fec­tively for sev­eral years till it be­came a mil­i­tary fait ac­com­pli for In­dia due to the Chi­nese forces ex­er­cis­ing ac­tual con­trol of the area. The study con­cludes that “in the con­text of the im­me­di­ate sit­u­a­tion on the bor­der where Chi­nese troops had oc­cu­pied the Ak­sai Plain in Ladakh, this was not an an­swer but rather an im­plicit af­fir­ma­tion that In­dia did not have the mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity to dis­lodge the Chi­nese”.

Many re­searchers have pointed out that the then rag­ing Sino-Soviet ide­o­log­i­cal war played a role in the Chi­nese de­ci­sion-mak­ing, lead­ing to the Sino-In­dian 1962 war. Chi­nese lead­ers were also con­cerned that the US might use a Sino-In­dian war sit­u­a­tion to un­leash Tai­wan against the main­land. They used diplo­matic sub­terfuge to ob­tain re­as­sur­ance on both th­ese fronts be­fore the war.

In­dia’s Se­cu­rity Pol­icy Dur­ing this Pe­riod?

It is ev­i­dent that de­spite Sar­dar Pa­tel’s prophetic ad­vice to Nehru on Ti­bet, China and In­dian se­cu­rity is­sues on Novem­ber 7, 1950 (con­tents of this let­ter were kept se­cret for 18 years), the In­dian Government showed no strate­gic fore­sight or plan­ning. When Chi­nese forces reached Changtu on their way to Lhasa, the In­dian del­e­ga­tion in the United Na­tions blocked con­sid­er­a­tion of a pro­posal to cen­sure China. In De­cem­ber 1950, Nehru pub­li­cally sup­ported the Chi­nese po­si­tion on the grounds that Ti­bet should be han­dled only by the par­ties con­cerned i.e. Bei­jing and Lhasa. The government even al­lowed Chi­nese food ma­te­rial to go through Cal­cutta and Gang­tok to reach Chi­nese troops in Yatung. In Septem­ber 1952, In­dia agreed with Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties to with­draw its mil­i­tary-cum-diplo­matic mis­sion in Ti­bet.

In the decade pre­ced­ing 1962, the In­dian rul­ing elite was con­vinced that hav­ing wo­ven China into the Panchsheel Agree­ment, it had man­aged to craft a sound ‘China pol­icy’. It was nei­ther alert to the Chi­nese mil­i­tary de­vel­op­ments in Ti­bet nor to the con­struc­tion of Sinkiang-Ti­bet road which be­gan in March 1956. Even af­ter 1959, when China dis­played its ag­gres­sive de­signs, In­dian lead­ers were pro­foundly af­fected by the re­mote­ness and dif­fi­cul­ties of Ak­sai Chin and Ti­betan ter­rain, for­get­ting that Zo­rawar Singh, Macdon­ald and Colonel Younghus­band had led In­dian troops to th­ese very ar­eas for strate­gic rea­sons in the past. Pri­mar­ily due to ide­o­log­i­cal and emo­tional rea­sons, the Chi­nese geostrate­gic chal­lenges and threats were ei­ther not ac­cepted or un­der­played till the Par­lia­ment and pub­lic opin­ion forced the government to adopt a mil­i­tary pos­ture against China for which it was never pre­pared.

Mil­i­tary Strat­egy

To­wards the end of 1961, Mao con­vened a meet­ing of China’s Cen­tral Mil­i­tary Com­mis­sion and took per­sonal charge of the ‘strug­gle with In­dia’. Mao as­serted that the ob­jec­tive was not a lo­cal vic­tory but to in­flict a de­feat so that In­dia might be ‘knocked back to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble’. By early Septem­ber 1962, China started warn­ing that if In­dia ‘played with fire’; it would be ‘con­sumed by fire’. On Septem­ber 8, 1962, 800 Chi­nese sol­diers sur­rounded the In­dian post at Dhola. Nei­ther side opened fire for 12 days. The dice was cast for a show­down. The Chi­nese had con­veyed their in­ten­tion but we still thought that they were bluff­ing.

On Oc­to­ber 6, 1962, Mao is­sued a di­rec­tive to his Chief of Staff Lou Ruiquing, lay­ing down the broad strat­egy for the pro­jected of­fen­sive. The main as­sault was to be in the east­ern sec­tor but forces in the west­ern sec­tor would ‘co­or­di­nate’ with the east­ern sec­tor. The Chi­nese Mil­i­tary Com­mand ap­pre­ci­ated that the In­dian Army’s main de­fences lay at Se La and Bomdi La. The con­cept of op­er­a­tions was to ad­vance along dif­fer­ent routes, en­cir­cle th­ese two po­si­tions and then re­duce them. Mar­shal Liu Bocheng out­lined the mil­i­tary strat­egy of con­certed at­tacks by con­verg­ing col­umns. In­dian po­si­tions were split into numer­ous seg­ments and then de­stroyed piece­meal. The speed and fe­roc­ity of the at­tacks un­hinged the In­dian de­fences and pul­verised the In­dian com­mand, re­sult­ing in panic and of­ten con­tra­dic­tory de­ci­sions. Politico-mil­i­tary de­ci­sion not to use com­bat air power was an un­for­giv­able er­ror of judge­ment.

De­cep­tion and sur­prise are en­dur­ing el­e­ments in the Chi­nese mil­i­tary strat­egy and Sino In­dian 1962 war was a clas­sic ex­am­ple. The In­dian de­ba­cle was pri­mar­ily the re­sult of a fail­ure of In­dia’s strate­gic fore­sight and mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Bei­jing jus­ti­fied the in­va­sion as a “de­fen­sive act”. It must be noted that China, in­volved in the largest num­ber of mil­i­tary con­flicts in Asia, has al­ways car­ried out mil­i­tary pre-emp­tion in the name of strate­gi­cally “de­fen­sive act” with no fore­warn­ing—Ti­bet in­va­sion, en­try into Korean War, 1962 con­flict with In­dia, bor­der con­flict with the Soviet Union in 1969, and at­tack on Viet­nam in 1979.

Strate­gic Think­ing

In his book, On China, Henry Kissinger treats the In­dia-China bor­der war of 1962 as an im­por­tant il­lus­tra­tion of the Chi­nese state­craft wherein “de­ter­rent coex­is­tence” and “of­fen­sive-de­ter­rence”, de­fined as “lur­ing in the op­po­nents and then deal­ing them a sharp and stun­ning blow”, are im­por­tant com­po­nents. Ac­cord­ing to him, the con­fronta­tion trig­gered the fa­mil­iar Chi­nese style of deal­ing with strate­gic de­ci­sions “thor­ough anal­y­sis; care­ful prepa­ra­tion; at­ten­tion to psy­cho­log­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal fac­tors; quest for sur­prise and rapid con­clu­sion”. He em­pha-

sises on the dif­fer­ence be­tween the Chi­nese “com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach” to “seg­mented pol­icy-mak­ing” by other na­tions. Kissinger con­cludes that be­hind the façade of “prin­ci­pled” ide­o­log­i­cal firm­ness/po­lit­i­cal tough­ness/his­toric civil­i­sa­tional pa­tience, the Chi­nese lead­er­ship is ca­pa­ble of ex­treme elas­tic­ity and pli­a­bil­ity, as seen in the phys­i­cal con­tor­tions of a Chi­nese cir­cus gym­nast. Two other im­por­tant lessons that emerge from this episode are: po­lit­i­cal re­al­ism ver­sus ide­o­log­i­cal wish think­ing, and in­ter­lac­ing of grand and mil­i­tary strat­egy.

In­dia’s Mil­i­tary Ca­pa­bil­i­ties

Prior to the 1962 war, there was a steep ero­sion of ev­ery as­pect of In­dia’s mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties: civil-mil­i­tary re­la­tions, mil­i­tary lead­er­ship and mo­rale, force lev­els and ar­ma­ments.

Through­out the 1950s, the In­dian Government paid scant at­ten­tion to the re­quire­ments of the armed forces. This ne­glect led to a grad­ual yet steady de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of their fight­ing ca­pac­ity, skills, and like any other rot within, re­mained hid­den till th­ese were bru­tally ex­posed by the war in 1962.

This pe­riod also saw Nehru’s con­temp­tu­ous and De­fence Min­is­ter Kr­ishna Menon’s acid-tongued, acer­bic wit and rude be­hav­iour with se­nior mil­i­tary lead­er­ship. There were in­ci­dents like Gen­eral Thi­maya’s re­tracted res­ig­na­tion, Lt Gen­eral S.D. Verma’s dis­agree­ment over Nehru’s mis­lead­ing state­ment in the Par­lia­ment on the sit­u­a­tion in Ladakh, lead­ing to the former’s su­per­s­es­sion and res­ig­na­tion. Po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age al­lowed Gen­eral B.M. Kaul’s el­e­va­tion and ar­ro­gant be­hav­iour amongst se­nior of­fi­cers. Th­ese events sent the mes­sage down the line that one could stand up only at one’s own peril. It also af­fected their lead­er­ship and per­for­mance on the field.

Look­ing at the present state of the armed forces, it ap­pears that we have not learnt from that ex­pe­ri­ence. The armed forces are not in any ma­jor strate­gic con­sul­ta­tions and de­ci­sion-mak­ing loop; not even on is­sues that se­ri­ously af­fect the wel­fare and mo­rale of sol­diers. There are vis­i­ble signs of dis­sat­is­fac­tion amongst serv­ing sol­diers and veter­ans over sta­tus, pay and pen­sion anom­alies. There is mount­ing dis­con­tent­ment over the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship’s in­abil­ity to set things right.

One of the cor­ner­stones of democ­racy is a healthy politico-mil­i­tary re­la­tion­ship. A ma­jor rea­son for the fragility of In­dia’s politico-mil­i­tary re­la­tion­ship is that in­stead of main­tain­ing ‘po­lit­i­cal con­trol’, it prac­tises a unique sys­tem of ‘bu­reau­cratic con­trol’ over the mil­i­tary. With bu­reau­cracy en­sconced in be­tween, there is hardly any dis­course.

The Way For­ward

On the face of it, In­dia and China have a cor­dial bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship with bur­geon­ing eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion. But the deep strate­gic fis­sures can­not be ig­nored. In re­cent years, China has been more vo­cal and as­sertive on its claim over Arunachal Pradesh. China is non-com­mit­tal over nu­clear arm­ing of Pak­istan and in­duc­tion of the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA) in Gil­git-Baltistan area of Pak­istan Oc­cu­pied Kash­mir (PoK). By is­su­ing sta­pled visas to In­dian pass­port hold­ers from J&K, Bei­jing is vir­tu­ally ques­tion­ing the sta­tus of the state, pro­vid­ing sup­port to Pak­istan’s po­si­tion on the is­sue, and en­sur­ing greater se­cu­rity to its oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory in Ak­sai Chin.

Some Si­nol­o­gists say that China does not

We have weak strate­gic cul­ture and think­ing. De­spite sev­eral for­eign ag­gres­sions in our post-in­de­pen­dent his­tory, we seem to lack re­al­ism.

nurse ex­trater­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions. But there are many who feel that China never gives up its bor­der claims. The prob­lem is that most of China’s neigh­bours do not know which Chi­nese era is its ter­ri­to­rial bench­mark. What ex­actly is the Chi­nese ter­ri­tory? China recog­nises the McMa­hon Line as its boundary with Myan­mar but not with In­dia. Till date, it has not re­vealed its per­cep­tion of the Line of Ac­tual Con­trol (LAC) which will re­duce fre­quent lo­cal ten­sion and al­low im­ple­men­ta­tion of con­fi­dence build­ing mea­sures en­vis­aged in Ar­ti­cle 3 of the ‘Agree­ment on Con­fi­dence Build­ing Mea­sures in the Mil­i­tary Field along the LAC-1996’. China’s re­fusal to in­di­cate its ver­sion of the LAC points to­wards a larger ploy; of pro­gres­sively build­ing up a case of its claims over Ak­sai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. Its in­roads in In­dia’s neigh­bour­hood and as­sertive mar­itime dom­i­nance in the In­dian Ocean echo its long-term strate­gic mo­tives. Th­ese de­vel­op­ments will soon give it a wide ar­ray of op­tions, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary co­er­cion, to re­solve im­pend­ing dis­putes in its favour while bar­gain­ing from a po­si­tion of strength.

China now has the ben­e­fit of an ex­ten­sive mil­i­tary-ori­ented in­fra­struc­ture in Ti­bet which pro­vides ca­pa­bil­ity for rapid build-up of forces and a smooth chain of sup­ply, sup­ple­ment­ing its power pro­jec­tion ca­pac­ity. Lack of in­fra­struc­ture on the In­dian side cre­ates huge lo­gis­tic dif­fi­cul­ties and re­stricts mil­i­tary de­ploy­ment and ma­noeu­vre.

In­dia is not ca­pa­ble of fight­ing a two-front war (Pak­istan and China) in the fore­see­able fu­ture. This must be avoided diplo­mat­i­cally. How­ever, such a sce­nario in Gil­git-Baltistan area can­not be ruled out. We must pre­pare our­selves; de­velop mil­i­tary in­fra­struc­ture along the North­ern bor­der, put in place syn­er­gised bor­der man­age­ment op­er­a­tions, and build greater sur­veil­lance (satel­lite, ae­rial and ground level), night fight­ing and rapid de­ploy­ment ca­pa­bil­i­ties for the moun­tains. We must mod­ernise our armed forces and be able to con­vince the other side that any ag­gres­sive move will in­vite coun­ter­moves.

Need for a Real­is­tic Strat­egy

Strat­egy and di­plo­macy in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions is based on the art of pos­si­ble and the ad­vance­ment of na­tional in­ter­ests. At strate­gic level, we re­quire a long me­mory and a longer fore­sight and vi­sion. We have weak strate­gic cul­ture and think­ing. De­spite sev­eral for­eign ag­gres­sions in our post in­de­pen­dent his­tory, we seem to lack re­al­ism. There is a sense of self-right­eous­ness and sin­gu­lar faith in words, with­out look­ing for un­der­ly­ing false­hoods and in­com­pe­tence.

In­dia’s na­tional se­cu­rity frame­work and its an­ti­quated civil-mil­i­tary re­la­tion­ship have not grown in step with the needs of new se­cu­rity chal­lenges. We need to change our mind­sets and at­ti­tudes and look be­yond the nar­row bound­aries de­fined by turf and parochial­ism. It is high time that we ask our­selves (a) Does our po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship demon­strate crit­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of larger strate­gic is­sues, con­straints, ef­fects and im­pli­ca­tions of mil­i­tary strate­gic and op­er­a­tional em­ploy­ment and its in­sti­tu­tional con­duct? (b) Does our mil­i­tary demon­strate crit­i­cal and cre­ative un­der­stand­ing of the strate­gic pur­poses and con­tri­bu­tions? Does it demon­strate a will­ing­ness to speak up and when nec­es­sary? (c) Are the civil­ian au­thor­i­ties who over­see the mil­i­tary ad­e­quately com­pe­tent in mil­i­tary strat­egy and de­fence plan­ning? Ob­jec­tive an­swers to th­ese ques­tions will lead us to a cor­rect strate­gic path.


De­fence Min­is­ter A.K. Antony, Mar­shal of In­dian Air Force Ar­jan Singh, the Chief of Army Staff, Gen­eral Bikram Singh, the Chief of the Naval Staff, Ad­mi­ral D.K. Joshi and the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Mar­shal N.A.K. Browne paid trib­ute to war heroes at Amar Jawan Jy­oti on the oc­ca­sion of 50th an­niver­sary of 1962 War, in New Delhi

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