Debating India’s China War
Research Assistant, Centre for Development & Peace Studies

The over half-a-century old Henderson Brooks Report, an internal assessment of India’s worst military defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962, is still locked up in the vaults of the Defence Ministry and Army Headquarters - both located on the first floor of the South Block in New Delhi. India’s ‘best kept secret’ has now been leaked, leading to intense debates. This elusive report details the biggest faux pas made by Nehru’s government and the military establishment of the time. A fatal combination of militarily unsound plans, miscalculations by the Intelligence Bureau, a deep disconnect between Delhi and Army commands and a strange belief that there would be no armed response from Beijing to Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ plunged India into a war it was not prepared for.

On October 20, 1962, China’s People’s Liberation Army poured over the Himalayas with a devastating force on two separate flanks – in the west in Ladakh, and in the east across the McMahon Line in the then North-East Frontier Agency (Arunachal Pradesh). China had successfully occupied Aksai Chin- a strategic corridor linking Tibet to western China, the NEFA area, and almost reached the plains of Assam. The key army antagonist in the 1962 story turns out to be General B.M. Kaul, who took over the reins of the newly constituted IV Corps which failed miserably in defending NEFA (North East Frontier Agency). The PLA suffered 722 deaths and around 1400 wounded in comparison with the Indian military’s 1,383 killed, 1,047 wounded, 1,696 missing and over 400 prisoners of war. Although Beijing called for a unilateral ceasefire and retreated from India's northeast while retaining Aksai Chin, the defeat and humiliation caused by the Chinese onslaught in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) remains deeply embedded in the Indian psyche, which till today witnesses a Himalayan stalemate affecting bilateral relations between the two countries.

The conflict was painted in India as Chinese aggression across the Himalayas but the Henderson Brooks Report claims that it was New Delhi’s ‘Forward Policy’ and orders to establish posts far into the disputed border that acted as a catalyst for the war. What really happened in the months leading up to the war remains a mystery thanks to the Indian Government deeming it unnecessary to declassify the Report even over half a century later. This unresolved historical baggage continues to be the root of potential sources of hostility, mistrust and conflict, the latest being conflict over border incursions and sharing the waters of the Yarlung Tsangpo or the Brahmaputra.

Maxwell’s leak of the Henderson Brooks Report could spur much-needed debates which might clear the air and help India get rid of its “China is our enemy number one” syndrome. If it was indeed the Indian political and military leadership which is to be blamed, then it’s about time India come to terms with the truth rather than simply paint China as the evil aggressor and continue playing the victim card. And if New Delhi remains unable to come to terms with the truth even after 52 years, then its unlikely that the two countries will ever be able to sort out the disputed border issue.
While the Ministry of Defence claims the report needs to remain top secret “given the extremely sensitive nature of the contents which are of current operational value”, the question is what current operational value would this 52 year old report still hold? Unless the government is planning to model the newly created Mountain Strike Force along the disastrous 1962-type formations or is the army today planning to use the same operational strategy from 1962 when India faced debacle at Chinese hands?

The demands for the report to be made public have periodically been made in the past even under the RTI Act, but the government has remained unyielding. The BJP now may be criticizing the Congress-led UPA government ahead of elections, but even the NDA government didn’t take any initiative to declassify the
report when they were in office and had full access to it. What purpose does it serve to keep the report buried for all times to come other than hide the failures of planning and command? Without the report there can be no lessons learned and if anything, the report will be a handbook on what not to do in case of a conflict with China.

Maxwell wrote on his website of the frustration in not seeing the report being declassified after over half a century, “The reasons for the long-term withholding of the report must be political, indeed probably partisan, perhaps even familial”. Most Western countries including the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) declassify documents after a period of three or more decades. In India, the manual detailing the official procedure to declassify old files is itself apparently marked confidential! Though the government officially swears by the rule to make files public after 20 or 25 years, the policy remains unimplemented. Its 52 years later now with large sections of the report quoted extensively in Maxwell’s book ‘India’s China War’, part of it leaked, and the Ministry of Defence had prepared their own version of the Official History of the Conflict with China (1962), detailing the famous ‘operations’ in 474 foolscap pages. Despite this, the government insists on keeping it a secret. It is ironic that the Chinese government is more open in this matter as they have granted access to a large collection of Chinese documents detailing Beijing’s foreign policy during the Sino-Indian War of 1962 to the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center in the US. It means that the world will be able to study the 1962 conflict from a Chinese point of view, but still not from the Indian viewpoint.

National Security Advisor Shivashankar Menon said, “Everybody involved at that time had their own version of what happened… I do not think we should dignify it... making it as the true history or true picture of everything that happened.” If that’s his argument justifying why the report need not be declassified, then he should also make it clear on what basis he doubts the accuracy of the report prepared by Lieutenant-General Henderson Brooks and Brigadier P.S. Bhagat. It is disappointing that he thinks it is allright for the report to remain hidden and deny people a chance to choose which version of the story to believe just because he is not sure whether the report paints a true picture of what went on in the borders in 1962. He also mentions that the report was meant for the army from the security point of view and not to tell the whole world "what your weaknesses were". So in his reasoning, it is also okay to deprive people of Indian history at the cost of keeping India’s northeast and all other areas sharing borders with China in jitters, just so you can hide your weaknesses from the world and keep the political and military ego alive.

The Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report comes at a particularly relevant time when there has been frequent border incursions and debate over conflict on sharing the Brahmaputra, keeping relations tense between the two neighbours. Following the leak of the Henderson Brooks report, Chinese President Xi Jinping has asserted that he sees strengthening relations between the two countries as his historic mission. Xi is scheduled to visit India later in the year in what could provide the next government in New Delhi with a golden opportunity to revive bilateral ties. It is high time India gets over its China fixation and adopts a new approach towards China, not only for security reasons but also for trade, industry and markets. Friendship with China is also crucial for India’s Look East Policy. More than anything, there is a need to avoid any further misadventures with China. Nehru may have bid farewell to the people of Assam back in 1962, but now its time to bury all thoughts about that farewell speech and work towards strengthening relations with China. After all, 2014 is not 1962 and the stakes are higher.

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