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LESSONS OF 1962: A stock taking after 40 years


Paper 693                                       26.05.2003

by R. Swaminathan 

(Many would  have read at least some of the many pieces written and published on the 40th anniversary of the Chinese attack across the Indo-Tibetan border in 1962. 

In addition, specific attention is invited to the "History of the Conflict with China, 1962" by Dr. P. B. Sinha and Col. A. A. Athale, edited by Dr. S. N. Prasad and published by the History Division of the Ministry of Defence, Government of India, in 1992.  This "history" was based on the records of the Army, the Air Force and the Ministry of Defence, including the Henderson Brooks Report. Published material was also examined.  The "Restricted" monograph can now be accessed via the website of the Times of India.   Articles by Neville Maxwell  written in May 2001 on the Henderson Brooks-PS Bhagat Report may also be referred to. )

I am reluctant to use the popular terminology of "Sino-Indian War of 1962".  The 1962 conflict involved only small fractions of the Indian (Two plus Divisions) and Chinese armies (Four plus Divisions).  Both the countries did not use their air forces, except for limited supply and transport purposes.  There was no intention to occupy and retain each other's territories or to impose any major change of policy.  The whole operation was aimed at "conveying a message" about each country's position on the border issue.  It was therefore a classic border skirmish (or conflict, if you wish), albeit on an enlarged scale.



In view of the limited time available to us today, I suggest that we concentrate on National Security Management - collection, collation and analysis at the micro level and coordination, assessments / advice and decision making at the macro level. We need not today go into the details of the causes of the armed clash or of the military preparedness, deployments or tactics.  In any case, the Indian armed services have redeemed their position in the minds of the people by their performances in 1965, in 1971 and in Siachen and Kargil. 

Briefly stated, the Chinese launched a pre-emptive offensive all along the eastern and the western sectors on October 20, 1962.  They overwhelmed the feeble but initially determined resistance of the Indian troops and advanced some distance in the eastern sector.  On October 24, Beijing offered a cease-fire and Chinese withdrawal on the condition that India agrees to open negotiations: The offer was refused and both sides built up over the next three weeks.  When India launched a local counterattack on November 15, the Chinese renewed their offensive.  Many units of the once crack Indian 4th Division dissolved into a rout hardly giving battle and, by November 20, there was no organised Indian resistance anywhere in the disputed territories.  Beijing then announced a unilateral cease-fire and intention to withdraw its forces. 

Intelligence Collection 

One of the highly articulated reasons for the "military debacle" of 1962 was the "failure of intelligence".  This was probably necessary at that time, on top of the depiction of V.K. Krishna Menon as the evil genius and B.N. Mullik as the ingenuous hawk who had pushed the Prime Minister into the "disastrous" forward policy, for salvaging the reputation and the morale of the army.  The intelligence community meekly accepted the role of scapegoat, sticking to the traditional response of "we will neither confirm nor deny".  However, what was the factual position? 

Intelligence had reported that the Chinese were building a road through Aksai Chin.  Yet the Government, apart from a few angry condemnations, chose to ignore its strategic significance for many years.  The "History" records that the Army top brass believed that the Chinese would not react strongly to the Indian moves under the forward policy.  Brig D.K. Palit, DMO, said in a meeting at HQ 4 Inf Div in August 1962 that, in the appreciation of the Army HQ, a shooting war with China could be ruled out. China would not react and was in no position to fight.  Their belief permeated to the lower echelons of the Army, with the result that even field formations had become complacent.  Further, they erred on the lower side in assessing the military capabilities of China.  Whatever intelligence was available did not receive careful attention by the Army HQ. For example, GOC IV Corps received a message from Army HQ on 9 Oct 1962, conveying a reliable intelligence report that some 300 mortars and guns had been seen moving near Tsong Dzong towards the McMahon Line and that Tawang could be the objective.  Lt Gen Kaul had also got from intelligence full and complete information about the dispositions and strength of Chinese troops at Thag La Ridge. 

However, internal introspection was carried out and, for the first time since 1947, the Govt of India had a comprehensive look at our capabilities for intelligence collection, analysis and assessment relating to China - as well as stay-behind requirement.  I will mention some of the major lessons learnt and the steps taken to meet (or at least reduce) those inadequacies.

The HUMINT capability needed to be improved, though we had a fairly good capability for the collection of tactical and topographical intelligence about Tibet.  We lacked a similar capability relating to Yunnan (and North Myanmar, by extension) and Sinkiang.  The network of intelligence collection outposts along the Indo-Tibetan border was revamped and strengthened.  We still have a lot to do relating to Yunnan and Xinjiang, but improved technical collection and better liaison arrangements are helpful. 

Rudimentary arrangements existed for the sharing of China-related intelligence between India and the US. However, US intelligence did not alert India about the Chinese military-build up in Tibet and the goings-on in Yunnan in 1962. [In retrospect, China may not have needed much of extra mobilisation and not too many indicators may have been available even to US intelligence at that time.]  It became necessary to improve the arrangements for exchange of intelligence and assessments with countries sharing India's concerns relating to China, without developing a dependence on them to meet our needs. Special and long-term arrangements were worked out and they have stood the test of time quite well.  We had also learnt the lesson that if you know something, you can get more to supplement it; but if you know nothing, no country will provide fresh information freely. 

We had, either in civilian or military establishments, hardly any worthwhile capability for the technical collection of intelligence (TECHINT) in 1962.  This was one lesson that was learnt very well and the gap filled adequately.  Without going into classified details, it can be said that the defence establishment (for the collection of tactical intelligence) and the IB and R&AW, its successor in the field of foreign intelligence (for the collection of strategic intelligence) have done very well in this area.  They have taken major initiatives and have developed very significant capabilities, skipping generations of techniques in the process. The present capabilities include communications intelligence, monitoring of nuclear tests and rocket firings, electronic intelligence relating to radar emissions, deep photo surveillance, satellite imagery (in cooperation with ISRO) etc.  I am proud to have been associated with the development of many of these capabilities, which are amongst the best in the world.  They have proved their worth in 1971, during the "flap" in 1989, in pinpointing trans border terrorist training camps, and during the Kargil operations.

How well we are able to make full use of the collected intelligence is a different matter. 

Intelligence Analysis

One criticism was that our threat perceptions had largely, if not exclusively, been focussed northwards towards Tibet and the likely Chinese threats from Yunnan in the East through North Myanmar and from Xinjiang were not adequately anticipated. There has not been much credible evidence that Chinese troops had attacked India through Myanmar.  This is not to say that such a contingency could be ignored.  At the same time, we can realistically be prepared against possible and plausible scenarios but not against all capabilities.  For example, we would find it almost impossible to protect ourselves against the capabilities of missile attacks by the United States or Russia or against a full-scale attack by the Chinese PLA.  We have to take into account the possible intention to use such total capabilities.

We had failed to foresee the likelihood of the confrontation with China resulting in the occupation of some of our territory by the Chinese.  Therefore, we had not developed a stay-behind capability for the continued collection of intelligence and harassment against the Chinese in Indian territory occupied by them.  Once the Chinese actually occupied portions of our territory, we hardly knew what was happening there and had to watch helplessly.  The creation of a stay-behind set-up was given high priority and an effective organisation and system put in place.  However, very recently that organisation has been "transferred" to other duties and the task left to the local authorities.  This erosion of our stay-behind intelligence collection and operational capabilities is a retrograde step. 

We lacked the capability to assess the mindset, perceptions, intentions, medium and long-term plans etc. of the top Chinese leadership.  We were handicapped by inadequate level of knowledge of the Chinese language and by the difficulties (faced by all countries) in interacting with Chinese leaders and officials at policy-making levels in Beijing.  We have come a long way in developing our language and strategic analytical capabilities.  All the same, we share with most other countries a difficulty in fully understanding the "inscrutable Chinese".

 It is encouraging to note that we have developed matching expertise in analysing intelligence collected through various technical means.  However, the meager quantities of such experts result in only partial utilisation and occasional delays. More concerted efforts are required to build on the existing base and make a quantum jump in the volumes of technical intelligence that we can analyse in as close to real time as possible.

 Coordination and Overall Assessments 

Our capability for a coordinated and meaningful analysis assessment of all the available intelligence, open as well as secret, was very poor.  Consequently, the advice to the policy-making level was often based on wishful thinking and personal hunches rather than on well-analysed and assessed likely scenarios.  Two of the major reasons for this have still not been overcome, though significant progress has been made:

* The survival instinct of the various organisations providing intelligence inputs to protect their "turf" and their "indispensability".  They are still reluctant to be forthcoming in sharing intelligence and analysis and prefer to advice the policy-making levels directly.

* The in-built resistance to making full use of the expertise for analysis available in academia and other non-governmental think-tanks.

A major step taken to evolve an effective and coordinated National Security Management (NSM) was the setting up of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in the Cabinet Secretariat.  Despite the best intentions, the JIC could not become anything more than a "cut and paste" set-up due to various reasons.  The Ministry of External Affairs did not seem to give it due importance or provide adequate political inputs. The intelligence organisations seemed more interested in getting their "paragraphs" included in the periodical reports and position papers than in achieving balanced and holistic assessments.  The JIC was converted into the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) in 1998. 

The setting up of the government-sponsored and government-funded Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) was, for a long time, the only visible concession to expertise at the "non-governmental" level.  The creation of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) in 1998 was aimed at strengthening the assessment capability at the non-governmental level.  It was expected to provide a structured and functional NSM setup. An ad hoc coordination mechanism was functional in 1971 and the result was the successful liberation of Bangladesh.  If such structure had existed in 1962, 1972 and even in 1987, the military "disasters" of 1962 and 1987 (foray into Sri Lanka) could have had different endings; and India could have come out better after the Simla Conference in 1972.  This major reform in NSM could easily become the cornerstone of coordinated approaches to future threats to our national security.  It seems, however, that its full potential is yet to be achieved.

Decision Making 

The political leadership that took over at the time of independence had had no exposure to national security as matters relating to India's foreign relations and defence were exclusively handled from London prior to 1947.  Further, to quote Adm JG Nadkarni, post-independence "India's military has always chafed at the bit when controlled by the 'babus'. Quite rightly they feel that they know far more about strategy than those in the Ministry of Defence.  On the other hand, the politicians can point to the occasions when they have listened to the army with disastrous results.  The 1962 debacle against China was a result of Jawaharlal Nehru falling prey to an inexperienced army general's advice.  Similarly, our better-forgotten adventure in Sri Lanka was undertaken at the behest of an ambitious army chief." 

"History" notes that the Indian defence set-up after independence lacked institutionalised support for decision making at the national level.  Well established and well respected agencies providing politico-military linkages did not exist.  It was personality-oriented decision making in the vital area of national security.

Further, the political thought process in the country precluded the possibility of considering China as a real military threat. There was a mismatch between our perception of the enemy and what the enemy actually did.  The deployment was based on the belief that the line we moved to occupy was just a political line to establish our claim and not a defensive line.  A study of the 1962 conflict, as also of the 1965 and 1971 wars clearly brings out the imperative necessity and urgency of educating the people about the basics of war and familiarising them with military matters, if a democratic state is to be safe and strong. 

India justifiably continues to have serious concerns over the modernisation of China's military, its nuclear and missile capabilities and its military assistance to Pakistan in the nuclear as well as conventional fields, its intentions in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal etc.  Despite these concerns, Indian attitude towards China has become more relaxed and more trusting.  The Special Task Force on the revamping of the intelligence apparatus set up by the Government in 2000 concentrated was just a political line temporarily to establish our claim to what we are holding on strengthening our capabilities vis-à-vis Pakistan without a similar exercise relating to China.  It is essential that we should continue to move forward in improving our relations with China, in order to blunt any move towards developing the intention to use the full military capabilities.  However, our keenness to move forward should not make us forget the painful lessons of the past.  We cannot afford another traumatic experience in our relations with China. 


We have learnt from and acted on most of the micro-lessons relating to collection, collation and analysis of intelligence.  We have, however, not done enough about the macro-lessons relating to coordination and fusion of all available intelligence, holistic threat assessments and making of policy based on proper analysis of all variables.  We have set up the apparatus that looks good on paper but still make security policy at the highest level based on gut feelings, hunches, electoral requirements and populism.  The maturing of the political leadership in all the parties to accept National Security Management as being beyond the pale of partisan politicking and requiring expert inputs is a painfully slow process in any country.  Let us hope that the process in India concludes successfully before we face the next serious threat.

R. Swaminathan is former Special Secretary, DG (Security), Government of India.  (e-mail :