Indian troops confronting advancing Chinese invaders in the Ladakh region

India lost nearly 4,000 soldiers in the month-long war and suffered its most humiliating defeat — an event that still casts a shadow on its ties with China

by Amrita Nayak Dutta

New Delhi: At the crack of dawn on this day, 56 years ago, China attacked India over multiple points across the border, leading to a month-long standoff between 10,000 to 20,000 Indian soldiers and 80,000 Chinese troops.

Unprepared for the offensive, India lost nearly 4,000 soldiers in the war and suffered its most humiliating defeat.

As India and China prepare to revive their bilateral army exercise in December, ThePrint revisits the war that shaped the complicated relationship the two Asian powers share today.

The Cause

The leading cause for the 1962 war was China’s perception that India was meddling in its internal affairs in Tibet. After Independence, India largely maintained cordial relations with China. It did, briefly, protest Chinese occupation in Tibet.

In 1954, both countries signed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, or Panchsheel. Late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru started promoting the ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’ slogan around this time.

However, in March 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and found asylum in India, People’s Republic of China leader Mao Zedong did not take it lightly. He claimed that the Lhasa rebellion in Tibet was fuelled by India. China felt that the political asylum to the Dalai Lama amounted to interference by India in China’s internal affairs.

The relations between the two countries grew increasingly tense.

The Invasion

Smaller conflicts between the two countries increased in 1962. On 10 July, over 350 Chinese troops surrounded an Indian post at Chushul, Leh. Using loudspeakers, they told the Gurkha regiment to not fight for India.

And on 20 October the People’s Liberation Army invaded India in Ladakh, northern Uttarakhand and across the McMahon Line in the then North-East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh), catching India completely off guard.

The attack began simultaneously in all sectors of the border at the same time — 5 am — synchronised as per Beijing time.

Convinced that there would not be a war, India didn’t deploy enough soldiers, while China launched a full frontal attack.

A panicked India reportedly sought US assistance to control the Chinese aggression. Nehru wrote to then US President John F. Kennedy to provide “air transport and jet fighters” to India. But US largely stayed away.

Meanwhile, China proposed that Ayub Khan, then Pakistan President, should attack India. Pakistan chose not to.

The Lessons

The war officially ended on 20 November, 1962, after China finally announced a ceasefire along the entire Sino-Indian border, even as some minor conflicts continued in NEFA and Aksai Chin.

The Sino-Indian War put the spotlight on India’s unpreparedness in a war situation and underlined the need to modernise its armed forces.

It also highlighted the crucial strategic mistakes India committed, including not using the Indian Air Force.

On the 50th anniversary of the war, former Indian ambassador to Iraq RS Kalha wrote that then Chinese President Liu Shaoqi told the Sri Lankan leader Felix Bandaranaike after the war that the conflict was “to demolish India’s arrogance and illusions of grandeur”.

The Doklam standoff last year showed the situation in border areas remains a matter of concern, diplomatic or otherwise.