The Spectre of October ‘62

This is the third article of a four-article series which analyses in detail, the 1962 Indo-China War. In the previous article, we discussed the deterioration in relations between the two Asian behemoths. Now we start a discussion about the actual war.

“The Autumn of 1962″ witnessed clashes between Indian and Chinese troops on the border. Nehru had thus begun to come around, at least in part, to the view articulated by Vallabhbhai Patel in 1950. The Chinese state was more nationalist than Communist. Still, he felt that there was no chance of a full-fledged war between the two countries. To protect India’s interests, Nehru now sanctioned a policy of “forward posts,” whereby detachments were camped in areas along the border claimed by both sides. This was a pre-emptive measure, designed to deter the Chinese from advancing beyond the McMahon Line. But, it was also provocative.

In July 1962, there were clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the western sector, followed by skirmishes in the east. The Chinese launched a major military strike in the third week of October. In the west, the Indians resisted bravely; in the east, they were slaughtered. The Chinese swept through the Brahmaputra Valley, coming as far as the town of Tezpur in the state of Assam. Once the capital of British India, Calcutta (now Kolkata) was in their sights. However, on November 22, the Chinese announced a unilateral cease-fire and withdrew from the areas they had occupied in the east. But the territorial gains that they had made in the west before 1962, however, stand to this day.

One school of thought argues that the military adventure in the Himalayas by the Chinese was to distract the attention of the Chinese people from domestic events, such as the failure of the Great Leap Forward. This led to increasing criticism of Mao within the Chinese Communist Party, to deflect and answer which the plan to invade India was sanctioned.

Whatever the actual reason may be, this conflict emotionally broke PM Nehru down. India, still a young nation, was bleeding. After the fall of Bomdila, in his address to the nation on All India Radio on November 20, 1962, Nehru said, “Huge Chinese armies have been marching in the northern part of NEFA. We have had reverses at Walong, Se La and today Bomdila, a small town in NEFA, has also fallen. We shall not rest till the invader goes out of India or is pushed out. I want to make that clear to all of you, and, especially our countrymen in Assam, to whom our heart goes out at this moment.”

The Tezpur Pandemonium 

After the speech, mass hysteria prevailed in Assam. Panic spread as the Indian army retreated from Arunachal, and the evacuation of people from Tezpur took place. It was the same Tezpur, where the Dalai Lama was given a warm welcome into India. People were leaving their homes by any means possible, even on foot. Since there was no bridge connecting the north and south banks of Brahmaputra so to get to Guwahati, people had to take a steamer. It was a chilly winter and families would wait for the ferry along the open ghats and set up campfires at night. Tea planters, which were mostly British, packed their belongings, handed over the administration of their tea-plants to their Indian managers, gave away their pets or shot them dead, and flew to Calcutta.

The Indian Army was fighting alone with mules carrying ammunition over the mountain passes. The supply line was cut off due to the non-availability of the frontier airbase and motorable train/road links. Army’s ammunition stocks were being blown up by the enemy’s explosions. It seemed that the word had already spread that the Chinese were decided to come down to Tezpur.

The Tezpur Branch of the State Bank of India –  the oldest commercial bank in the Indian subcontinent – dumped all the coins it had in the nearby Padum Pukhuri Lake and all the paper currency was burnt so as to prevent it from falling into Chinese hands. The gates of the Tezpur Mental Hospital were opened; and the inmates let off. An eerie silence swept across the town with only a few people remaining.

India rapidly deployed troops to the war front in a total of three divisions. There are plenty of revelations from the surviving soldiers and officers of the pitiable uniform, artillery, and ration for these soldiers 

As an anecdote goes, Lieutenant Colonel Eric Vas, who led the first battalion that was inducted in Tawang, tried to highlight the problems by dramatically writing a letter on a chapati as there were shortages of everything from ammunition to clothing and even stationary. But sadly Vas was later sacked from his command. The chocolates which were to be issued as an emergency ration was not issued to the soldiers by the defense hierarchy as it was considered to be a monopoly of the elitists.

Dazed and Confused

On the other hand in Assam, people responded vehemently to the call for donations for the suffering Indian soldiers.  They gave their precious jewelry and savings, but most of it was lost to politicians. Even untrained NCC cadets were mobilized for fighting alongside the military. Seven army divisions were deployed on the Chinese side, and the attacks were conducted in waves. Three of those seven divisions India were intentionally made up of  Assam Rifles, so that “China is not annoyed” – as Dr. Dilip Dutta puts it. 

The Soviet Union which India counted to be the closest ally, refused to stand on the opposite side of China. Great Britain and the USA mainly offered sympathetic words and some non-logistic help. So, India was all alone in facing the Chinese wrath.

H.E. Kuldip Nayar, India’s Ex-Ambassador to the UK; who interestingly had a stint in Assam as a journalist in his early days, in his autobiographical ‘Beyond the Lines’ has revealed, “As the war began, the Shah of Iran sent Nehru a copy of a letter he had written to Ayub Khan, suggesting that he send his soldiers to fight alongside Indian forces against the ‘red menace’.

At the end of hostilities, PM Lal Bahadur Shastri recalled the Shah’s letter and said that had the Pakistani soldiers fought alongside us and ‘shed their blood with Indian soldiers’, it would have been difficult to say ‘no’ to Pakistan even if they had asked for Kashmir. The discourse of history would have been different then.

In the Brahmaputra valley, initially, the administration was quite upbeat that India will give the Chinese a bloody nose. The villagers went about their day to day as usual without much worry or even having any knowledge of the confrontation. But as the news about Chinese armies spread, even non-conscript NCC (National Cadet Corps) were conscripted into service of maintaining law and order in central Assam. With a perception of the Chinese occupation of Assam, Indian exodus trickle in the meantime became a deluge. The European and American nationals (mainly Tea Executives) were airlifted out of Assam.

In the coming weeks, the Assamese roads saw rows of military convoy roaring pass the villages and towns packed with head bowed down Indian soldiers traveling in the opposite direction of Tezpur not knowing about the fate which awaited them. 

No doubt, the defeat was excruciating – a personal debacle of PM Nehru, who never recovered from this. The deceptive Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai era had ended. The psychological impact on the country was catastrophic. President Radhakrishnan accused his own government of “credulity and negligence”. In fact, PM Nehru admitted: “We had been living in a world of our own making”. 

This marked the end of a dream – a dream in which the two Asian civilizations could have come together heralding a new era. The mood of the general population of India became extremely anti-China, which continues to this day.

In the next article, we would analyze why China withdrew after winning it all, the lessons we learned, and how this defeat still haunts the Indian military establishment. 


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