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   November 7, 2002


The Rediff Special/Col (retd) Anil Athale

Col (retd) Anil Athale I think it was in 1988, at a talk at the IDSA (Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi) that Neville Maxwell peddled his thesis that it was India that was the aggressor in 1962, and claimed that China merely 'reacted'.

Maxwell is a self-confessed Maoist, and anybody who has had occasion to deal with the ideologically motivated scholars (?) of the pink variety knows how difficult it is to argue with them! Yet, having spent close to four years researching the subject, backed up by military experience/knowledge, field visits and hundreds of interviews, I was on sure ground.

The question I posed to Maxwell was simple... if it was merely reacting to provocations, how come the attack on October 20, 1962, took place at the same time in the Chip Chap valley in Ladakh and 1000km away on the Namkachu river? The precision and co-ordination speaks for a well thought-out plan and premeditation. To talk of these co-ordinated attacks over a wide front as 'reaction' is military nonsense.

The second and even more fundamental point is the huge resources in heavy artillery and mortars used by the Chinese during the operations, specially in the Ladakh sector. Tibet, in 1962, was a virtual desert, bereft of any local resources. Even a pin had to be brought all the way from the 'mainland', over a tortuous and single road from the railhead located nearly 2000km away. It is like the Indian Army fighting in Arunachal with the nearest railhead located at Kanyakumari.

In order to suppress the Tibetans, the Chinese indeed had a very large military presence in Tibet. But that was mainly infantry, not heavy weaponry. In fact, it was a journalist of The Hindustan Times who reported the rumours circulating in Kalimpong (Sikkim was then independent and heavily infested with Chinese spies) that heavy artillery from the Taiwan front had been moved to Tibet. The Chinese took a good six to eight months to gather all these resources. A reaction indeed!

Unfortunately for Indians, with no means to monitor Chinese movements, India was in the dark about these developments.

This does not mean that India, especially Nehru, did not make provocative statements. He did. The classic being the offhand remark while leaving for Colombo, when he told the waiting media that he had ordered the Indian Army to 'throw out the Chinese'! But there is a vast gulf between verbal and military provocations.

But the best-kept secret of the 1962 border war is that a large part of the non-military supplies needed by the Chinese reached them via Calcutta! Till the very last moment, border trade between Tibet and India went on though Nathu La in Sikkim. For the customs in Calcutta, it was business as usual and no one thought to pay any attention to increased trade as a battle indicator.

There is undeniable linkage between the Cuban missile crisis and the Chinese attack. This has been brought out in the official history and was also written about by me in the print media in 1992 (in The Sunday Observer).

The US ordered the call-up of reservists on September 11, 1962, when the Chinese attacked the Dhola post in the East. The naval blockade was ordered around October 16 and put in place by October 20, the exact time of the Chinese attack. Given the close Chinese relations with the erstwhile Soviet Union, it seems entirely plausible that the Chinese must have had prior information about the placement of missiles in Cuba. In December 1962, after the conflict was over, the Soviet Union charged China with 'adventurism' against India.

The unilateral Chinese ceasefire of November 21 and the quick withdrawal coincided with the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. The Chinese were afraid of intervention by the US Air Force. They were not very wrong, for literally within days the massive American airlift of supplies for India began on November 23/24, 1962.

In international relations there is no room for coincidences. Certainly not four or five! It would not be an exaggeration to say that had the Cuban missile crisis not taken place the Chinese would not have attacked on such a massive scale. This also explains Nehru's confidence that China would not attack. All these years, the need to maintain its non-aligned 'virginity' prevented India from acknowledging that it was the implicit American support against China that was at the back of Nehru's confidence.

It is best to quote Professor Thomas C Schelling (Arms & Influence, Yale University Press, 1966, page 53): "Our commitment is not so much a policy as a prediction... In the Indian case, it turns out that we [the US] had a latent or implicit policy [to support India against China]. It was part of the effort to preserve the role of deterrence in the world and Asia. Military support to India would be a way of keeping an implicit pledge...." (paraphrased)

Schelling then goes on to say that Nehru possibly anticipated it for 10 years and that was why he was so contemptuous of the kind of treaties Pakistan signed with the US. Nehru felt that his own involvement with the West in emergencies would be as strong without any treaty.

The tragedy was that Nehru could not anticipate the Cuban crisis that took away the 'shield ' of implicit American support.

Colonel (retd) Anil Athale, former director of war history at the defence ministry and co-author of the official history of the 1962 war, is a frequent contributor to

Part II: Missed Opportunities


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