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26 March, 2014

A skeleton in the cupboard

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The humiliating rout India suffered in the brief border war with China still rankles half a century later. Little wonder, then, that the government was embarrassed by the appearance of a part of the officially classified report of Lt Gen TB Henderson Brooks and Brig PS Bhagat, who undertook an operational review of the conflict, in a foreign website. It got service providers to block access to the report from India.
This is not the first time that the contents of the report have come into the public domain. Neville Maxwell, who worked for The Times of London from New Delhi in the 1960s, had revealed parts of it in his dispatches. He provided more material from it in his 1970 book India’s China War. Now he has posted on his website 126 pages described as Part 1 of the report.

The Army justifies withholding of the report from the public, saying as a rule it does not publish reports of operational reviews. In fact, it claims, it does not even share them with the government. It is, however, known that the Army chief sent the Brooks-Bhagat report to the Defence Minister in July 1963 and that he in turn forwarded it to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

It is believed that Congress governments have been unwilling to declassify the report as it shows the political leadership, more specifically Nehru and then Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon, in a poor light. That explanation raises the question why the non-Congress governments did not publish it. Even prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who, as leader of the Bharatiya Janata Sangh, was a trenchant critic of Nehru and Krishna Menon, did not publish the report.

The Army certainly does not want the report to be published. Answering a question in Parliament in 2010 Defence Minister AK Antony said it could not be declassified as its contents were not only extremely sensitive but were also of current operational value.

The plea of sensitivity is understandable. But if the claim that the report contains material of current operational value is correct, it reflects poorly on the lessons the Army learnt from the debacle and the measures it has taken to improve its capabilities.

The military and civil wings may have reasons for wanting to keep the report under the wraps. But they must realise that its contents have been discussed publicly and privately around the world for decades. The report is said to have figured in the 1972 talks between US president Richard Nixon and Chinese prime minister Zhou Enlai in Beijing.

Non-publication of the report appears to have caused some damage by giving it an air of authenticity which it probably does not deserve. Although it was meant to be an operational review, judging by material that is in the public domain, it sidesteps crucial operational issues and reduces the process to a blame game.

The Brooks-Bhagat finding that the Army erred in following a “forward policy”, against its own better judgment, at the instance of the political leadership, is not without merit. However, it cannot be taken as the whole truth, especially since the commission did not have access to the records of either the Defence Ministry or the Army headquarters.

The political leadership’s conduct cannot be judged in isolation. It must be viewed against the background of the jingoistic cries that reverberated in the country in the wake of large-scale Chinese incursions. There were misjudgments and miscalculations on both sides.

India was the first non-communist country to recognise the People’s Republic and it fully backed Beijing’s claim to China’s UN seat. Also, overlooking the objections of some influential leaders of his own party, Nehru accepted China’s sovereignty over Tibet, which the colonial regime had turned into a buffer state. In the event, he viewed the Chinese incursions as an act of perfidy.

China, on its part, believed Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was encouraging India to move forward. Zhou was peeved that Nehru, with whom he had built a rapport, did not respond to three urgent messages he sent him when the border came alive.

As hordes of Chinese soldiers poured in through the Himalayan passes, the newly raised and totally unprepared Indian corps scattered in disarray. Before the Indian troops could regroup, Beijing announced a unilateral withdrawal, obviating the need to maintain long supply lines. Now that the trauma is over, India must be ready to face the skeleton in the cupboard squarely.-- Gulf Today, March 25, 2014

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