The emergence of the Henderson-Brooks report during election season should have set the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons in India. But clearly it has not. The reason is that most people today simply don’t care.
We are talking of something that took place fifty years ago, when most of its principals have passed away. It is important to understand what the Henderson-Brooks report is, and what it is not.
It was essentially a review of the Army operations in the Kameng Frontier division of NEFA (where Tawang is located in modern day Arunachal Pradesh) where India faced the biggest disaster to its arms in 1962, when IV Division collapsed without a fight, and the Chinese forces reached the foothills of Assam. The task of the two-man committee was to look at issues of training, equipment, system of command, ability of commanders and so on.
Indian troops being inspected before leaving their posts in northern India during the border clash with China in 1962. Pic/Getty images
It was not a review of India’s China policy relating to the Sino-Indian border. Indeed, it was not even a review of the functioning of the Army HQ, which conveniently ordered that it be excluded from the scope of the Henderson-Brooks inquiry.
So, the inquiry officers, Lt Gen T B Henderson Brooks and Brigadier Prem Bhagat had no access to the papers of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Defence Ministry or the Army HQ. Whatever references they have made to these institutions came through the papers available at the Eastern and Western Command headquarters.
The essential conclusion of the Henderson Brooks report was that the government initiated a Forward Policy to check Chinese incursions into what it considered Indian territory in Ladakh at the end of 1961.
Unfortunately, the Army HQ failed to arrive at a correct military assessment of the situation and correlate it to developments in NEFA. Had a proper assessment been made, perhaps “we would not have precipitated matters till we were better prepared in both sectors.” Instead Indian policies triggered a ferocious Chinese response catching the Indian side completely off guard.
Unlike NEFA where the McMahon Line defined the border, there was nothing in the West. India had a notional claim, China had a strategic need. If the Indian case for the Aksai Chin was weak, the Chinese one was weaker. But because the region was vital for them, the Chinese backed up their claim by occupation and consolidation between 1951-1959. And when India sought to restrict the Chinese advance in 1961, a clash became inevitable.
The maps attached to the White Paper on States published in 1948 and 1950 showed the border in the region from Karakoram Pass to the UP-Nepal-Tibet trijunction as undefined.
The decision to include Aksai Chin firmly within India was only taken in 1953, and in 1954, Prime Minister Nehru ordered that a hard line be drawn there outlining the border. Older maps were withdrawn and new ones issued in their place. The fact that this was done unilaterally, without consulting the other disputant, China, set the stage for an inevitable clash.
There was no problem here till the Chinese consolidated their authority in Tibet by the mid-1950s. As part of this, they built a highway linking Xinjiang to Tibet which traversed the Aksai Chin plateau.
This road was very important for China as it was the only road that was open throughout the year and not affected by either weather or the Khampa guerillas that plagued the Sichuan route in the east and the central route via the Chinghai plateau.
The Indian case, scholar Steven Hoffman has pointed out, notes that the Indian case for Aksai Chin rested on nationalistic assertions, backed by some legal claims. While the Chinese claim was largely anchored on its strategic necessity.
In 1959, Sino-Indian relations reached their turning point; there was a revolt against Chinese authority in Tibet that resulted in the Dalai Lama escaping to India and being given asylum there. In September, through a letter, Zhou also declared that the Chinese did not recognise the McMahon Line and that in the Chinese view, the entire border was subject to negotiation.
The government now handed the border to the Army and suddenly became energetic in pushing a policy to contain the Chinese who had been advancing in Aksai Chin for the previous decade. Unfortunately, it did little to strengthen the Army to undertake the tasks it was asking of them and the outcome was foreordained.
The Henderson-Brooks report has focused on the Army’s faults in handling the border issue. But, if we are to truly learn from the sorry history of the times, the government needs to throw open the archives relating to the actions of Prime Minister Nehru, his associates and the Ministries of External Affairs and Defence. The Army was merely an instrumentality, a weak and in some areas incompetent one at that, as the Henderson-Brooks report reveals.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi