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HOW THE TIGER GOT MAULED BY THE DRAGON

Fifty years ago, on October 20, 1962, the Chinese army routed its Indian counterpart in the valley of a small Himalayan rivulet called Namka Chu in the Kameng sector of what was then the North-East Frontier Agency (present-day Arunachal Pradesh) where Bhutan, India and China meet. The fight for the Dhola post was over in less than half a day, thereby signalling the beginning of an unprecedented military deluge which left every Indian wondering as to how everything had gone wrong with them and right for the Chinese. So swift and agile was the Chinese attack that it virtually wrecked the spirit of the Indian defenders, the sporadic incidents of bravado notwithstanding.

Understandably, the conflict automatically generated an intense curiosity about China’s People’s Liberation Army, its history, traditions, art of war and protagonists. One was forced to turn the pages of history of the Hans and the search led to the The Art of War by Sun Tzu, the celebrated philosopher-general of sixth century BC. It is believed to be the oldest military treatise in the world. The Chinese army led by Mao Zedong is often referred to as the torchbearer of Sun Tzu’s philosophical and military doctrines. The Chinese owed their success in the battlefield in 1962 to The Art of War. This was evident in the precision and the efficiency with which it launched an early morning assault on the valley of Namka Chu.

It may be pertinent to recapitulate Captain B.H. Liddell Hart’s thought-provoking words in this context. “That short book was embodied almost as much about the fundamentals of strategy and tactics as I had covered in more than twenty books.” That indeed is a rich tribute by a “Captain who taught the Generals”. It reaffirms the eternal utility of Sun Tzu’s principles of war.

The seeds of India’s military disaster were sown on account of the army’s unprofessional kowtowing to the we-know-it-all attitude of the bureaucracy and the political establishment. The army shared an uneasy relationship with these two institutions. The Indians fought, but without the psychological preparation that was needed to take on the might of the Chinese army.

Consequently, the inevitable did not take long to occur. Significantly, the pattern of the conflict seemed to echo Sun Tzu’s dictum in letter and spirit. “Generally, he who occupies the field of battle first and awaits his enemy is at ease; he who comes later to the scene and rushes into the fight is weary. And therefore, those skilled in war bring the enemy to the field of battle and are not brought there by him”.

The Chinese occupied the field of battle (across the Namka Chu) first and held on to their elevated terrain from before. The Indians, coming late into battle from the plains of India’s heartland, rushed in without acclimatising themselves and soon became weary. The Chinese had laid the bait with precision. With an exhausted bunch of soldiers, overstretched and rickety lines of supply, archaic communication systems and limited ammunition, the Indian battalions, including those of the 1st Sikh, 2nd Rajput, 1/9 Gurkha, and 9 Punjab were decimated in a matter of few hours in the valley of death. The debacle mirrored another rout, that of Lord Auckland’s British Indian army in the first Anglo-Afghan war.

The 7th infantry brigade ceased to exist with the capture of its commander by the Chinese. The glorious fighting record and reputation of the 4th Indian infantry division — which had faced, and fought against, the might of the German Panzer division under the legendary Erwin Rommel in North Africa — lay in tatters in the course of the war with the Chinese.

The aftershocks of the debacle also shattered the perceived invincibility and credibility of Jawaharlal Nehru. Be it the prime minister or the army general, none could escape the public fury. Ironically, ‘intelligence failure’ emerged as one of the foremost villains behind the crushing defeat. The steady supply of erroneous information jeopardized the plans of the Indian army on the border with China.

One wonders whether the Indians possessed any idea of Sun Tzu’s important treatise? After examining relevant literary, oral and other accounts, it transpires that the oft-quoted military dictum, ‘forewarned is forearmed’, was conspicuous by its absence on the Indian side. It would, however, be incorrect to blame the Indian army for this sorry state of affairs. The role of the then redoubtable chief of the Intelligence Bureau, B.N. Mullick, too deserves a fresh look. All the more, because the IB chief virtually constituted the eyes and ears of Nehru. And what was Mullick’s intelligence input on the Sino-Indian boundary in the Ladakh sector? In his The Chinese betrayal (page 278), he writes, “The Karakash river, which had its origin north of Kuen Lun mountain and flowed into Shyok and finally into Indus, and the Chang Chenmo river, which took its rise in the lakes in western Tibet and followed a similar course, were both north and east of the Karakorum range, which therefore was not the watershed”.

There has been a gross misrepresentation of geographical facts in this context. The Karakash river does not “flow into Shyok and finally into Indus”. Strictly speaking, the origin of the Karakash river is a glacier east of the Karakoram Pass, north of the main Karakoram range and west of the Kuen Lun mountain. The Karakash flows from south to north — north of the Karakoram range and not north to south as that would mean that the river flows through the the main Karakoram range. In fact, the Karakash is the only important river originating from the north of the Karakoram range. Almost all other rivers in the region (Chip Chap, Galwan and Chang Chenmo) flow in the north-south direction.

The next point is that the Chang Chenmo, unlike the Indus, does not rise in the lakes around the Kailash-Mansarovar axis. It has its origins in western Tibet. Thus, after taking into account the picture of the region around the Karakoram mountain system, it would not be wrong to state that the Karakoram does form the natural watershed between Ladakh and the extreme western part of Tibet (China).

According to the noted geographer, O.H.K. Spate, “The divergence of Himalayan and Karakoram trends is most clearly seen north of the Shyok”. Thus, there is no way that the Karakash river can cross the watershed called the Karakoram range and flow into Shyok and finally into the Indus.

One bumped into several other gross inaccuracies pertaining to the information revealed by the then IB chief on the Sino-Indian border dispute. One, however, does not claim that the IB erred in its information entirely in the 1960s. One can be wrong, however, if only a host of maps such as ‘The Time Atlas’ (1967 edition, page 31), ‘The Canadian Oxford Atlas of the World’ (1957 edition, page 58-59), ‘The Citizen’s Atlas of the World’ (1952 Edinburgh edition, page 90-91) and the ‘Royal Geographical Society Map Of The Karakoram (I/750,000, 1939)’ are in the wrong. Nevertheless documentary records show a lamentable lack of correct information of the terrain where Sino-Indian forces fought in 1962.

One drew attention to the above mentioned aspects to make an important point. There is credible evidence to draw a connection among Sun Tzu’s theory, the 1962 war and the failure of Indian intelligence, both civil and military. Given the gravity of the errors that had been committed, there was no way in which India could have done justice to its soldiers and prove Sun Tzu wrong in the process. “War is a matter of vital importance to the state; the province of life and death; the road to survival and ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied”. China studied Sun Tzu’s text carefully. India chose not to do it and paid a heavy price.