My interview with Wing Commander 'Jaggi' Nath What if Nehru had used the IAF in 1962, appeared in

'If we had sent a few aeroplanes (into Tibet), we could have wiped the Chinese out.' 'And everything could have been different in the 1962 War.' 'They did not believe me there was no Chinese air force.' 'Can you imagine what would have happened if we had used the IAF at that time?' 'The Chinese would have never dared do anything down the line.'

Wing Commander Jag Mohan (‘Jaggi’) Nath is the first of the six officers to have been twice decorated with the Maha Vir Chakra (MVC), India's second highest war time military decoration. He was awarded the MVC for his contributions in the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and Indo-Pakistan War of 1965.

‘Jaggi’ Nath was born in Layyah in undivided Punjab in 1930 into a family of doctors; he studied in the prestigious Government College in Lahore. Soon after Partition, he joined the Royal Indian Air Force as a trainee; he was commissioned in the Indian Air Force in October 1950 and served till 1969, when he took voluntary retirement to join Air India.

In a letter to Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha in 2014, Wing Commander Nath spoke of his mentor, Marshal of IAF Arjan Singh: “Like a father figure, he had always been concerned and caring. I owe my Bar to MVC [in 1965] strictly to him. His personal allocation of all reconnaissance tasks, code naming me ‘Professor’, kept me safe and alive on all my missions. I owe my happy times to him –of the 11 years on Canberras, 8 years in 106 [Squadron] without a break only on [the] Canberra, his consistent appreciation gave the squadron a sense of achievement and kept my spirits sky high.”

Wing Commander Jag Mohan Nath

He received his first MVC for his role in reconnaissance missions over the Aksai Chin and Tibet, before and during the 1962 war; the citation says: “As Flight Commander of an Operational Squadron, Squadron Leader Jag Mohan Nath has fulfilled a number of hazardous operations tasks involving flying over difficult mountain terrain, both by day and by night, in adverse weather conditions and in complete disregard of his personal safety. He has displayed conspicuous gallantry, a very high sense of duty and a high degree of professional skill.”

His missions proved immensely useful to learn everything about the Chinese military build-up on the Tibetan plateau. Unfortunately, the political leadership refused to believe the hard evidence gathered during of his sorties or use them.

His conclusions were: China had NO Air Force worth this name on the Tibetan plateau in 1962. The fate of the Sino-Indian War could have been totally different had India used its own Air Force, but the Government in Delhi chose to ignore to the findings of the brave airman. 

The soon-nonagenarian meets Claude Arpi in his modest flat in Mumbai. He is still fired-up by the events of 1962.

CA: Tell us about the years before the 1962 conflict with China? Tell us about 106 Squadron, using Canberra planes. Once you said that the planes are not just Air Force assets, but national assets!

JMN: I got to know exactly what was happening [in Tibet]. 

But let me tell you from the start. I joined 106 Squadron on January 1, 1960. My Squadron was involved in strategic Aerial Photographic Reconnaissance; Canberra air planes were used all over the border to survey and update the maps. We covered the entire Indian territory three or four times; this could be done only with the Canberra and not with the Dakotas, which were used in the early years, as they flew at lower altitude. The Canberra, a bomber, was perfect for surveying. 

I will give you one example, 106 Squadron was tasked to survey the Aksai Chin; one day, we were flying towards Xinjiang when we saw a white line, which was the Aksai Chin road; we spotted troops on the road, when we saw this happening, we passed on the information to the Air Force Headquarters. This was probably at the end of 1960 [in early 1961, 14 J&K Militia (Ladakhi) moved its Headquarters to Partapur; it was feared that the Chinese, who had already penetrated along the Chip Chap river, might occupy Daulat Beg Oldi or DBO].

We put on our reconnaissance cameras on; there was one single camera used for survey and four other cameras for taking pictures; the findings were later reported on maps; each time we saw something interesting, we switched on the photographic cameras. 

CA: You were the only one do this?

JMN: I was not only one. That was the job of the Squadron to survey these areas. This information was passed on [to the Air Headquarters], but nobody said anything.

In late 1960 or early 1961, the Chinese had a confrontation with the Jammu & Kashmir Border Police at DBO; it was the first confrontation. The J&K Police had already realised that they Chinese were up to some tricks, but everything was kept at a low key because Pandit Nehru and Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister, were totally switched off [from reality].

The first reconnaissance flight of Squadron 106 over this area was done by me. My Commanding Officer [later Air Marshal] Randhir Singh was on leave at that time, I was alone. I was briefed by Western Air Command to go, find out from where the Chinese have come and take photographs.

CA: In the White Papers on China, the Chinese government always complains of some Indian planes ‘intruding’ in Tibet air space. Was it you?

JMN: Yes, that was me.

I flew several times, in some cases up to three to four hours over Tibet, which was under Chinese occupation. My reconnaissance used to start from Gilgit area [Karakoram Pass] and I went westward; I would sometime do reconnaissance over the entire Himalaya, sometime till the trijunction with Burma [today’s Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh]. I photographed the entire route, following the Brahmaputra [Yarlung Tsangpo], not one time, but so many times.

CA: Do you mean to say that before 1962, the Army and Air Force Headquarters had a clear picture of what was happening?

JMN: Sometime at the end of 1960, one day, Air Chief Marshal Subroto Mukerjee, [the Chief of Air Staff or CAS] was on leave; he may have been sick. Air Vice Marshal [AVM] Diwan Atma Ram Nanda, then Deputy Chief of the Air Force, was holding forth in Delhi, at that time.

I am talking of the job given to the Air Force by the Army to survey DBO. AVM Nanda told me: “You go and take pictures and I will send an escort with you.” Can you believe it, an escort, in case the Chinese would attack me [with an airplane]!

The whole thing was weird.” AVM Nanda told me: “Another Canberra will escort you while you take the picture of DBO.”

That day, the clouds were very low. I had to fly below the clouds to take the pictures. While the Canberra at the back was armed with guns; my plane had no provisions for such a thing, it was purely a reconnaissance aircraft, fitted with cameras.

It was my first flight [over the Aksai Chin] and I was keen to get results.

As I went, the clouds were very low. I could not take a picture. I went to the Shyok river [The Shyok River, a tributary of the Indus River, flows through northern Ladakh. The river widens at the confluence with the Nubra River].

The river made a U turn and DBO is on the top.

So, I went ahead while Squadron Leader [AIK] Suares of 5 Squadron was keeping an eye on me in case the Chinese come. I went down under the clouds and followed the Shyok river valley, then I came up and went down again following the River. When I went down again, I had to slow down, because the turning radius of the Canberra is low (if you fly slow, the turning radius in smaller). Suares asked me “Jaggi, are you still carrying on”.

I said: “Yes, I am on, the cameras are on”. He asked: “Are you still planning to continue?” I answered: “Yes, I am going”. That was the discussion between both of us.

I kept going down like this and suddenly, I saw the Chinese there. I took photographs of the Chinese soldiers all over the place. I could have taken their portrait. They were all around.

Front page of Times of India for his first Maha Vir Chakra in 1963

CA: How many Chinese could you see?

JMN: I could not count them, but they were there in good number and I took photographs. That was enough [for my job]. Suares said: “It is enough, we have finished.” We had already taken the pictures. The job was done; later, all the photos were put in front of AVM Nanda, the acting Air Chief, and I explained to him how it had happened. I said that the pictures were taken from very low and all the details could be seen; the Chinese were clearly there. Then, messages came from Pandit Nehru, from Krishna Menon [the Defence Minister] and Lt Gen BM (Biji) Kaul; they would like to talk to the reconnaissance party.

CA: Gen Kaul was Chief of General Staff?

JMN: No, he had not yet taken over, but he was the main adviser of Pandit Nehru; he was the bloody favourite. So, with Air Marshal Nanda, I went to South Block to see Krishna Menon. We were waiting outside when Biji Kaul came. He started talking away: “I know, I know, these fellows [the Chinese] are there. They asked me to throw them back. I can throw them back, not a problem! But they will be back the next day. It has to be planned out properly.”

I was surprised that he would speak like this in front of a squadron leader. I was a junior officer, a low level officer. He continued shouting: “You saw the Chinese soldiers.” I said “Yes, Sir, I saw them. You can blow up the pictures.”

“OK, go to the Defence Minister,” he finally said.

So AVM Nanda and I landed up in the office of Krishna Menon. He did not ask anything, he just said “Did you see the Chinese soldiers?” I answered “Yes Sir, I saw them”. “That’s alright, you can go”, he said. He must have passed the information to Pandit Nehru, but a similar reaction.

There was a total breakdown; I still have such a poor impression of Biji Kaul shooting his mouth without knowing anything.

Krishna Menon also, I told him there were Chinese soldiers and that was it all. It was amazing. 

They did not know how to handle the situation.

They knew for more than a year about the Aksai Chin [cutting across Indian territory].

When the 1962 War started, [the Air and Army Headquarters] had all the information. You probably know that the confrontation had started earlier than October 20, [this probably refers to the Dhola Post incident in Tawang sector of the NEFA, when some 600 Chinese soldiers surrounded the Indian troops on September 8, 1962].

On October 20, it started in DBO, and the Galwan River [a tributary of the Chipshap River, which in turn drains into the Shyok River. The main stream of this river rises near the Depsang plain near DBO].

I am still getting worked up when I think of these things.

I remember the Aksin Chin, at that time. I went, the clouds were again low, the war had actually started. In one sortie, I flew over the Aksai Chin, I had to find out where exactly where the Chinese were, what were their positions, their backups, etc. It was well after October 20.

CA: Was it at the time of the battle of Rezang-la?

JMN: Yes, exactly.

I took pictures of the Northern borders; it was a three hour flight. I flew up and down [showing gesture of sweeping trajectory]. I could see the concentration of the Chinese; I would go around and take pictures. The Chinese could see me and started shooting with their rifles. How could they shoot down an aeroplane with a rifle? It was just not possible.

The point is that they did not have anything; NO weapon to shoot down an aircraft, No Air Force! 

I went down all the way to Kailash and Taklakot [trijunction Tibet-Nepal-India]; the flight lasted three to four hours.

I got the full picture of how many Chinese soldiers were there; I got everything. The Government had full information at that time.

I had already surveyed the Galwan river area; there too Delhi had the complete picture.

I was getting a full view seating in the front row and could tell how the war was progressing, what was happening. Without reconnaissance, you can’t do anything. Of course today, we are out of business, because of the drones and the quality of the cameras.

The SR-71 was still used for a long time, because it would fly at high altitude and nobody could shoot it down. [The Lockheed SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ was a long-range, strategic reconnaissance aircraft that was operated by the United States Air Force.]

For a long time, planes like that were still required to collect intelligence, because the results were immediate. But the SR-71 are today totally out of the game. For a long time, the images shot by the satellite were not immediate as it took time to analyse them.

[In 1962], I spent hours doing reconnaissance flights.

After October 20, 1962, I used to go with Air Marshal Elric Pinto, the Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Air Command, to meet the Chief of Air Force [CAS], Aspi Engineer. I used to go for a briefing of what needed to be done, but also about what I had done; so many times, I went [to meet the CAS]. I can tell you, that if Elric Pinto had been the Chief, things would have been so very different. Aspi Engineer was too low key.

I told the Air Headquarters: “I am flying hours over Tibet, if they had radars, they [the Chinese] should have picked up the phone and said there is a bloody airplane flying [over our country]. They had radars [but nothing happened]. I could fly three to four hours, but nothing would happen. It is the proof that they had no Air Force in Tibet [near the border]. The best proof is that I was never shot down, except with their rifles.

In 1962, we had all the information about the Chinese [deployment].

I mentioned this to Elric Pinto.

If we had sent a few air planes [in Tibet], we could have wiped them all out. I told AM Pinto: “we could wipe them out”. And everything could have been different in [the] 1962 [War].

CA: I was once told by Air Chief Marshal Anil Tipnis that when he was a young pilot in 1962, one day, he and his colleagues were ordered to board their aircraft in Ambala …to support the operations in Ladakh. And suddenly they were asked to deplane. Orders had come from the ‘higher ups’ in Delhi, not to use the Air Force. Who gave this order?

JMN: Listen to this. When I went to Elric Pinto and told him: “We could finish them off in no time, do you know what he said?”. He told me that the Indian Government believed that the Chinese had bombers, they could bomb Delhi and other cities. This information was passed by the top, by Pandit Nehru and Krishna Menon and [later] the information percolated down. [As a result] they decided not to commit the Air Force.

My feeling today is that question [of bombing big cities] may have come for discussion, but they did not believe me that there was no Chinese Air Force. They must have thought “will the IAF will be able to defend the cities!”

There was no [air] confrontation with the Chinese, but if we had had it, it would have been a different ball game; however there was Zero Possibility, as they had no Air Force. The person who should have put his foot down was Air Chief Aspi Engineer. Otherwise why was the Air Force not used to support the Army which was getting beatings everywhere. We could have [first] verified their positions [and then used the IAF].

Can you imagine what would have happened if we had used the IAF at that time? Chinese would have never dared do anything down the line.

What type of set-up India had?

We had the information at our end: the Chinese Air Force was grounded for lack of spares. They were mainly using MiG-17, but as China had problems with Russia, they did get the supply of spare parts; the planes were blocked; other planes were on the Korean front, from where they could not move.

Even a small aeroplane could not land in Tibet; they had no forward strip at all. Further for their fighter planes, it was a one-way trip [from Korea] as they had no fuel to go back.

All this information was available. What excuse did we have to not use the Air Force? Things could have been completely different, if the Air Force had been used.

Extracts of a letter addressed by Wing Commander JM Nath to Air Chief Arup Raha, in September 10, 2014:

It was always a common knowledge that China was equipped with Migs-15s and 17s. Delhi was out of their range. The shortage of spares as a result of falling out with Russia in 1960 had almost grounded their Air force.

Hours were spent by me personally in broad day light over Tibet and Aksai Chin. Most prominent - a 3 hrs flight at 100 ft AGL [above ground level] covering whole of Aksai Chin-DBO to Chashul [Chushul] and Demchok continuing to Shipkila pass [Himachal Pradesh] and Taklakot near Manasarovar. Thereafter, in broad daylight, the long flights from the origin of Brahmaputra till Pasighat (Trijunction of India, Burma and China) for four hours, numerous milk-runs over the eastern battle front and the adjoining 50-70 nm [nautical miles] area north into Tibet. Thousands of Squadron’s Recce photographs then are a matter of record with IAF and the Army Hq [headquarters]. One may ask, where was the Lack of Intelligence and where was China’s Air Force and their Air defence set up? This account may be considered as from a front seat witness to the 1962 tragic show.”