‘It Was Entirely Unexpected That the Chinese Would Attack’
By Bertil Lintner | IANS
(Editor’s Note: For far too long, Neville Maxwell’s narrative on the 1962 war — which sees India as the aggressor and China as the victim — has held court. Nearly 50 years after Maxwell’s book, Bertil Lintner’s “China’s India War” argues that China began planning the war as early as 1959 and proposes that it was merely a small move in the larger strategic game that China was playing to become a world player. Following is an exclusive extract from “China’s India War”)
It was entirely unexpected that the Chinese would attack. The Indians had observed a massive build-up across the border and there had been several encounters between the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA in the days before the main attack, including bombardment of Dhola and Khenzemane on October 19, 1962. But the ferocity and the sheer coordination of the Chinese attacks on October 20, 1962, and the days that followed stunned the Indian security establishment as well as international observers. At day-break on that day, artillery guns and mortars began intense bombardments across the Thagla Ridge.
According to Brigadier John Dalvi: At exactly 5 on the morning of 20th October 1962, the Chinese Opposite Bridge III fired two Verey lights. This signal was followed by a cannonade of over 150 guns and heavy mortars, exposed on the forward slopes of Thagla… this was a moment of truth. Thagla Ridge was no longer, at that moment, a piece of ground. It was the crucible to test, weigh and purify India’s foreign defence policies.
Dalvi called it “The Day of Reckoning — 20th October 1962”. The all-out assault on Indian positions north of Tawang was on.
On the western front in Aksai Chin, the fighting was spread out over a swathe of land from north to south, covering a distance of approximately 600 kilometres. But the thrust of the Chinese towards the south was confined to a relatively narrow area, which measured approximately 20 kilometres from west to east. Most of the attacks by the PLA seemed to be confined to dislodging Indian troops from the outposts that had been established as a result of the government’s Forward Policy rather than for capturing territory. According to Indian military analysts, “In the Western sector, [the] Chinese had a limited aim. They were already in occupation of most of the Aksai Chin plateau through which they had constructed the Western Highway connecting Tibet and Xinjiang. In this war, their aim was to remove the Indian posts which they perceived were across their 1960 Claim Line.”
They had no intention to move forward deep into Indian territory, as they did in NEFA (The North-East Frontier Agency).
The Aksai Chin plateau was and still is virtually unpopulated; this had made it possible for the Chinese to build their highway there in the mid-1950s without the Indians finding out about it until a year after it had been completed. The name Aksai Chin means “the desert of white stones”, and the altitude varies between 4,300 and 6,900 metres above sea level.
In the past, some Ladakhi villagers used the area for summer grazing and made it part of the Cashmere wool trade, but otherwise there has been no commercial activity worth mentioning in the area. Whatever ancient trade routes that existed were secondary, and the only valley, if it may be called such, is along the River Chip Chap that flows from Xinjiang to Jammu and Kashmir. During the 1962 War, the Chinese captured several Indian positions in the valley and have since controlled most of the area.
During the weeks of fighting in this western sector of the theatre of the 1962 War, it became obvious that the Chinese knew exactly where the Indians were, how many there were at each position, and what kind of weaponry they had. As was the case in the NEFA in the east, pre-war intelligence gathering had been carried out in the Aksai Chin area by small teams of surveyors who could move freely and, presumably, undetected on the barren plateau.
A contentious issue on the eastern front was the location of the Indian outpost at Dhola in the River Namka Chu gorge, where the borders of India, Bhutan, and Tibet intersect northwest of Tawang. The post was created on February 24, 1962, and according to the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report, the site “was established north of the McMahon Line as shown on maps prior to the October/November 1962 edition. It is believed that the old edition was given to the Chinese by our External Affairs Ministry to indicate the McMahon Line. It is also learnt that we tried to clarify the error in our maps, but the Chinese did not accept our contention.” The Chinese, in any case, would not have paid much attention to Indian maps. Their objective was entirely different: To teach India a lesson.
This remark in the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report is any way a far cry from the claim by Neville Maxwell and others that the establishment of the Dhola outpost triggered the 1962 War and that India was the aggressor.
Chinese troops had crossed the Namka Chu on September 8, surrounded an Indian outpost in the gorge, and destroyed two bridges on the river. The nearby Dhola Post was reinforced and firing from both sides continued in the area throughout September. Three Indian soldiers were wounded when the Chinese threw hand grenades at their position, but otherwise, there were no casualties.
When the final attack came on 20 October, the Indians found that the Chinese had cut all their telephone lines the night before. In preparation for the assault, the Chinese had also taken up positions on higher ground behind Indian defences and were thus able to attack downhill on the morning of the attack.
After the Chinese artillery barrage from the Thagla Ridge overlooking the Namka Chu, the PLA destroyed all Indian artillery positions and surrounding fortifications. The Indian border posts as well as Dhola and Khenzemane were overrun by ground forces within hours, and their defenders either lay dead or were captured alive. The strength of the Chinese attacking force was estimated at 2,000, while the Indians at those outposts numbered only 600.
Simultaneous attacks were launched on other positions, and the 2nd Rajput Regiment, which was also in the area, suffered horrendously. Of the 513 members of all ranks, 282 were killed that day, 81 were wounded and captured alive, and 90 were captured unwounded. Only 60 men, mostly rear elements got away. A Gurkha regiment, also in the area, lost 80 men, with a further 44 wounded, and 102 taken prisoner by the 90 China’s India War Chinese. The 7th Brigade lost a total of 493 men that fateful morning of 20 October. The total strength of the PLA units that were deployed for the operation on the Dhola and Thagla front was at least 10,000, supported by heavy artillery and more sophisticated weaponry than the Indians had in their arsenal.
After the Indian defences were crushed, the 7th Brigade commander, Brigadier John Dalvi, who remained a prisoner of war in China for almost seven months, described with a large degree of bitterness and in great detail how the chain of command had broken down, and how undersupplied his troops were. He quotes a fellow Indian Army officer as saying that their ‘mission was the defence of a political instead of a tactical position. The troops slaughtered along the Namka Chu River were spread out in a thin line, difficult to supply and impossible to defend.’
Apart from observing the camps that had been built by the Chinese for him and the other Indian prisoners of war, Dalvi also concludes that the ‘Chinese preparations began in earnest from May 1962’, so well before the incidents at the Dhola post. The emphasis here should be on ‘in earnest’; all available evidence points to the fact that intelligence gathering and construction projects began in the mid-1950s, when China wanted to challenge India’s role as the leading voice of the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa. The Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959 prompted the Chinese to switch from contemplating the possibility of a war with India to putting their ruminations into concrete action.
Dalvi also quotes, and ridicules, the Chinese version of events.
The Chinese told the world that: ‘At 7 o’clock (Peking time) in the morning of 20th October the aggressive Indian forces, under cover of fierce artillery fire, launched massive attacks against the Chinese Frontier Guards all along the Kachileng River and in the Khenzemane area.’ The poor Chinese were driven to self-defence by the fire of two out-ranged para-guns with 400 rounds of ammunition!
Maxwell (Neville Maxwell in his book India’s China War) is not as extreme as the Chinese in his version of events, but his pro-Chinese account of what happened in 1962 would nevertheless have been equally dismissible if it had not been accepted as the truth and often referred to in writings about the war and the border dispute, even by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger himself.
The war on the eastern front in NEFA (North-East Frontier Agency) was going to be very different from that in Ladakh. While the Chinese may not have encountered many civilians on the Ladakh front, interacting with the local population became an important issue for them in the NEFA, where they occupied several towns and villages. Once the road down from Bumla had been constructed by the Chinese, and Tawang was secured as a supply base, it became clear that not only had scouts been sent in advance by the PLA to collect crucial intelligence, but its soldiers and officers had also been trained in psychological warfare.
(Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong, the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet, and Jane’s Information Group in the UK. Lintner has written 17 books on Asian politics and history. This is part II of a two-part series, extracted with permission from Oxford University Press)