An excerpt from AS Bhasin’s book on the history behind the relationship between India and China

by AS Bhasin

In the meantime, clashes which for sometime were confined to western sector began taking place in the eastern sector too. An attack on an Indian patrol, three miles to the south of the Thagla Ridge in the eastern sector, had resulted in three casualties. In yet another incident, one Chinese was killed and one injured. The Chinese not only demanded compensation for the killed and injured, but also an apology.

This was a new situation. The attention now appeared to be shifting from the western sector to the eastern one. Che Dong in the eastern sector became the new hotspot. It was the place where the incident had taken place and China claimed it to be north of the Thagla Ridge in Chinese territory. On 20 September, China had already lodged a protest against the Indian troops crossing the McMahon Line and establishing an aggressive strongpoint at Che Dong, Le Village.

India rejected China’s accusation of crossing the Thagla Ridge, which was the boundary defined by the McMahon line in that region, and instead accused China of intruding south of the line into Che Dong of Le village in the Indian territory.

India described the Chinese demand for apology as “misconceived” and insisted that no Indian forces or defence works of any kind existed to the north of the Thagla Ridge. Along with these fresh cases of intrusion in the eastern region, the incidents of border violations in the western sector, too, continued unabated.

Che Dong in the NEFA area had become active since 8 September. It was under dispute, as China claimed that it lay north of the McMahon Line and India insisted it was south of it. In its note of 13 October, China accused India of air-dropping its soldiers north of the McMahon Line “in preparation for war” and warned that the Chinese frontier guards would continue to strike back resolutely. India had rejected the Chinese accusation and accused China of adopting a “dual” policy of professing a desire for peaceful settlement, while pursuing the “path of flagrant aggression”. India strongly asserted that “no threat of force or use of force (would) deter the GoI from their firm determination to defend the territorial integrity of India”.

The escalation in border incidents and casualties bode ill for peace between the two neighbours. A worried Government of India had for some time been thinking of measures to retrieve some of its freshly occupied territory by China in the eastern sector. It thought that this would convey a strong message to China – that India would not take Chinese intrusions lying down any more.

At a review meeting in the chamber of the minister of defence on 22 September, the chief of army staff had asked specifically “whether action to evict the Chinese can be taken as soon as the Brigade has concentrated”. It was pointed out that “the decision throughout has been, as discussed in the previous meeting, that the army should prepare and throw the Chinese out as soon as possible. The Chief of the Army Staff was accordingly directed to take action for the eviction of the Chinese in Kameng division of NEFA as soon as he was ready.”

It was clearly meant to be a limited action by a brigade in the specific area of Kemong Division where the Thagla Ridge was located. A brigade could not launch attacks all along the border, stretching for thousands of kilometres. Nehru on 12 October, while he was leaving for Colombo, said to journalists at the airport that he had issued instructions to the army to clear the Indian territory of Chinese intrusions, and the date for it had been left to the army to decide.

This impromptu remark proved most unfortunate. Coming from the highest political authority, it sounded like a war bugle.

Nehru’s was an unqualified statement giving the impression that India was about to undertake some action against China. It provided China an alibi to act on its aggressive agenda all along the borders in both the sectors in full force. Some confusion had already been created by a press report in the Times of India that said:

[A] task force was being sent to NEFA charged with pushing the Chinese out.

It was probably a leak, but a garbled version of the above-mentioned decision had appeared in the Times of India. Nehru objected to the report and asked the army chief, Gen Thapar, on 5 October 1962 about it and yet, a week later, he himself made that provocative statement. Though the Times of India report was denied, the real damage was done by Nehru’s casual but provocative warning to China.

Two days after Nehru’s warning, on 14 October, Defence Minister Krishna Menon poured more fuel to the fire with his thundering speech in Bangalore where he reiterated: “India’s determination to push the invading Chinese out of NEFA areas...” His remarks following the prime minister’s did give the impression that something indeed was cooking.

These remarks were exploited by the Chinese to pin the responsibility for the war on India’s shoulders. Nehru’s biographer, Dr Gopal, making light of Nehru’s remarks described it as a “wholly unobjectionable statement”. He said that the policy of evicting the Chinese was not a new one, and he quoted another statement of Nehru in Colombo, “I do not think they have the slightest claim, historically, politically, or anything.” Whatever the justification, to announce publicly and casually a decision with wide implications, when the tension on the borders was already running high, could hardly be described as prudent.

Gopal felt there was no complacency in Nehru’s approach. Nehru had seen that the situation in the eastern sector was deteriorating fast and, at long last, he had realised that trouble on a big scale was in the offing.

Was India actually prepared or was preparing for the action that happened on 20 October?

If one were to analyse the above mentioned decision of the meeting held at the defence ministry, it was meant to be a localised affair in the Kemong Division of the NEFA in the area where border violations were taking place in recent days. A brigade can take action in a limited area specifically assigned to it. Even otherwise, the ground situation and the circumstances did not justify a large-scale action.

Defence Minister Krishna Menon was in New York from 17 to 30 September to attend the UNGA session. On 8 September, the prime minister had left for London to attend the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference and returned only on 2 October after visiting Paris, Lagos and Accra and was again away to Colombo for a pre-scheduled engagement from 12 to 16 October. The chief of general staff, Lt Gen Kaul, was holidaying in Kashmir until 2 October.

It is inconceivable that a country preparing for a war would allow its top political leaders and military brass, responsible for crucial war-related decisions, to be away from the capital.

As against this, if one were to look at the massive attack China launched all along the frontier in both the eastern and western sectors, it would convince anybody that China indeed was in any case ready for an all-out war, as otherwise, logistically speaking, it was not possible to gather such a massive force scattered along the most challenging borders in a week’s time after Nehru’s impromptu remarks of 12 October.

That China had actually decided to go to war with India on the border question has been admitted by a Chinese scholar Chaowu Dai, distinguished professor at the Yunnan University and the director of YNU Institute for India Studies in Kunming, who in his lengthy paper said:

From 1960 to October 1962 judging that India was unwilling to negotiate a solution, China made preparations for deployment of its military and adopted a policy of “never yield while striving to avoid bloodshed, create interlocking positions for long-term armed coexistence” on the border issue ultimately proceeding to the border conflict.