Galwan Valley: The Lessons We Didn’t Learn In 1962

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On the evening of 15th June news began coming in of a commanding officer and two Indian soldiers having died in some remote area of Ladakh, in what appeared the most barbaric way. But, there was more to come. By midnight the ferocious, cave age encounter with stones, batons filled with nails and rods began emerging and the news of 20 of our brave men having died at several thousand feet, in the most uninhabitable and risky terrain sent shockwaves through our collective consciousness.

I write here as an ordinary citizen of this country and not as some defence expert, but, I do have a very close association with the armed, forces, and so, such news causes immeasurable agony. My father had gone into training when it was the Royal Air Force and by the time he got commissioned, it had become the Indian Air Force. It was, perhaps, one of the earliest batches, as his service number was just in 3000s. His papers were signed by the first president Dr. Rajendra Prasad.

Coming to this recent Indo-China encounter my mind goes back to 1962. When, the euphoria of the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai’s visits and the sloganeering of Hindi Chini, Bhai Bhai had died and Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru had got the rudest shock. His sense of betrayal was felt by the entire country.

But, what comes to my mind is the total unpreparedness at that time. Our soldiers had been sent to snow covered areas in canvas shoes and our mothers were overnight knitting woollen socks for them to somehow protect them from frost-bite. It was a very depressing episode and even though I was just a child then, felt the anger & humiliation all around: that of my father and all his colleagues.

Something similar is being felt by the country at the moment: anger, anguish and humiliation; and betrayal, not just by China alone, but by our own establishment and political leadership.

For 72 hours there was no word from government or prime minister, who tweets so promptly, had no word of condolence or salute for our brave soldiers. There is still no clarity as to what exactly happened and rumour mills are abuzz. The question arises on whose orders they had been sent unarmed in a confrontational situation. When pushed the Minister of External Affairs was made to give a cryptic statement saying they always carry arms. Then why didn’t they use it. No mention was made of soldiers missing. Today 10 of our men including officers were released by China. According to some retired officers guns were used, even artillery and mortar. By not giving a statement the government has allowed grist to rumour mills.

Apparently, this time there was enough intelligence on the build up. Then why government did not take it seriously. Also, after Dokhlam, the standing committee report submitted by Shashi Tharoor had warned about being wary of China’s designs, and that it needed to have healthy scepticism in dealing with China, yet, the casual approach is stupefying.

Clearly, we hadn’t learnt our lessons from 1962. The difference between then and now was that then we were a newly independent country and the then prime minister, Nehru had genuinely believed the two countries could restart their centuries old relationship of trade and commerce. But, India of today is not the same. Neither is China. We are both stronger, economically and militarily; maybe China has an upper hand in certain areas but we are no pipsqueaks. Indian soldiers are battle hardy and strong having fought several wars by now.

India and Pakistan  were formed in 1947, and the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. India tried to maintain cordial relations with China from the start; in fact, India was among the first countries to give diplomatic recognition to China. Ironically, India vigorously supported China inclusion within the UN.

The problems with China started when PLA defeated the Tibetan army in 1950 and Lhasa accepted Chinese sovereignty over Tibet in 1951. By then, China had extended numerous posts in Aksai Chin, while, India was busy stopping Ladakh from being taken by Pakistani troops.

In 1954, China and India concluded the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence under which India acknowledged Chinese sovereignty in Tibet. At the same time, the Indian side presented a map to the Chinese that included the McMahon Line in our territory and the Chinese side did not object.

In 1956, Nehru expressed concern to Zhou Enlai over that Chinese maps were showing some 120,000 sq.kms of Indian Territory as Chinese. To which, Zhou responded that these were minor errors in the maps and that they were of little meaning. Nehru believed the Chinese since he had supported them on various issues.

However, in 1958, news of China having built a road between Xinjiang and Tibet through Indian Territory in Aksai Chin (historically a part of Indian state of Ladakh) came and it outraged the Indian public.

However, Nehru’s move to allow the Dalai Lama asylum in India was perhaps, the turning point.  Mao Zedong was greatly humiliated by the reception the Dalai Lama received in India in March 1959.

Most Chinese at that time believed in the ridiculous idea that India planned to seize Tibet and turn it into a colony of India and that Nehru was on capitalistic expansionism. Because of these supposed fears, China treated the Indian Forward Policy of the 1960s as the beginning of Indian expansion into Tibet.

In 1960, Zhou Enlai unofficially proposed that if India dropped its claim to Aksai Chin, China would withdraw its claims from NEFA. Zhou tried many times to get Nehru to accept conceding Aksai Chin; he visited India four times in 1960. However, Nehru believed that China did not have a legitimate claim to either of these territories and was not ready to cede an inch. China needed the highway through Aksai Chin to maintain an effective control over the Tibetan plateau.

In the summer of 1961, China began patrolling along the McMahon Line and entered parts of Indian-administered regions. Angered by this, the Indians launched a policy of creating outposts behind the Chinese troops, to cut off their supplies and force them to return to China. This has been referred to as the “Forward Policy”. There were eventually 60 such outposts, including 43 north of the McMahon Line.

In response to Indian outposts, Chinese forces would build more outposts to counter-encircle these Indian positions. This pattern resulted in an interlocking of Chinese and Indian forces. However, no hostile fire occurred from either side as troops from both sides were under orders to fire only in defence.

In May/June 1962, Beijing was battling the threat of an invasion from Taiwan. The Indian military too was not ready for full-scale combat. India had just annexed the Portuguese State of Goa and was also facing border disputes with Pakistan in Kashmir. So, the political leadership proposed diplomatic means to solving the problem, even though, the Indian military leaders, proposed that India should prepare for a full-scale attack.

Many border conflicts between India and China flared up throughout the summer and fall of 1962. In May 1962, the use of air force in NEFA and Ladakh was suggested. Indian Air Force started reconnaissance flights. But soon after an Indian Dakota plane was shot down, they were told to stop. By August, 1962, the Chinese military had vastly improved its combat readiness. China’s preparedness for war strongly contrasted with India’s, which had largely neglected its military throughout the 1950s.

On 3 October, Zhou Enlai again visited Nehru in New Delhi, promising there would be no war between the nations and reiterating his wishes to solve the dispute diplomatically.

But, by 18 October, it was clear that the Chinese were preparing for an all-out attack on India, with massive troop build-ups on the border.

According to Major General Sheru Thapliyal opportunities to negotiate a border settlement in the fifties existed, but were not seized.  Coupled with this, India neglected the improvement of infrastructure in the border areas. According to him, around 1959-60, the Army was ill prepared to fight a full-fledged war with China, but the army leadership still went along with the disastrous Forward Policy.

On 20 October, 1962, China launched massive offensives both in Ladakh, as well as, Arunachal Pradesh.  After having shocked India, the Chinese stopped the offensive for three weeks before starting again. Having done what they had to, they announced a unilateral ceasefire on 20 Nov 1962, completing India’s humiliation.

According to General Thapliyal, the lessons we should have learnt then were that defence preparedness is mandatory if a nation aspires to be a world power.  Without military power, diplomacy will have no teeth. Secondly, Armed Forces have to be an integral part of a nation’s foreign policy. Thirdly, war fighting is not only about weapons and ammunition. The crucial thing is infrastructure. If we are not able to put our forces swiftly on the borders, the war is lost anyway.  He concludes that this lesson has not been learned.

Successive governments have done little on this account as a result of which, even after fifty years, our infrastructure in border areas is inadequate, while, the Chinese have made giant strides in the modernisation of their armed forces and their strategic capability.

The parallels between then and now are only too glaring. The recent bonhomie between Modi and Xi Zinping had perhaps, lulled the government into complacency. On May 3, 2020 when Chinese build up started becoming visible, the government did not act. As Defence Analysts and retired generals began warning the government, they were dubbed anti-national and alarmist. How did we allow them to intrude further into our territory?

India is not the same today as in 1962, but in our political minds, perhaps, we are still there. We have convinced ourselves we cannot take them on even in limited conflicts. In the words of Better Centre at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Boston and the Centre for a New American Security in Washington, India maintains an edge in high-altitude mountainous warfare. The Better study also gives the Indian Air Force the qualitative edge over China, saying the Indian Air Force has far more experience. Also, it says our army is far more battle hardened having had so many wars and low intensity conflicts for years; while, China has not had a major war since 1979 which it had with Vietnam. China does have artillery and missiles stationed in Tibet, and also are technologically more advanced, but it is no longer an unequal situation like in 1962. We should capitalise on our strengths.

So why did we allow Galwan to happen? Clearly, we still suffer from some inferiority fears or we were too busy in domestic politics. Perhaps, the government had been lulled into the belief that Modi-Xi friendship will keep them at bay. Also, we have allowed China to insidiously creep into our economic fabric in a way we can’t do without them. China has invaded the world with its cheap products, made in their sweatshops and killed international competition and industry. The US has just realised it. We should too. Let us make a beginning by first cancelling all major projects. Indian traders are finally promising to renounce Chinese products, why can’t we do what we did to the British, when we boycotted all their products. It will need Indians to come together and sacrifice for a short period. But, in the long run it will be beneficial for us.

Preeti Tej Singh has written two books of poetry. The first was called ‘I’ . The second book is called Simantini (Boundless). She blogs at



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