What the Henderson Brooks Report Really Says

Originally published as जबिन टी. जैकब, ‘नाकामी पर नई निगाह’, Dainik Jagran (Delhi), 23 March 2014, p. 10.

Large sections of the Henderson Brooks-Prem Bhagat Report of the inquiry into the Indian army’s 1962 defeat were recently released online by Neville Maxwell, a former India correspondent of a British newspaper. The release affords us an opportunity to reconsider some questions about both the Indian conduct of the conflict and the nature of policymaking in this country.

First, the Henderson Brooks Report which should have been available immediately on completion in the interests of public accountability and institutional reforms has still not been officially released by the Government of India. In a country where a former Right to Information activist is currently shaking up the established domestic political order, India’s foreign and security policies remain largely insulated from sustained and credible democratic oversight.

Second, while much of the Report was already referred to by Maxwell his controversial book, India’s China War, direct access throws some major questions about the role of the Indian Army leadership in the run-up to and during the conflict. The authors of the Report were, in fact, instructed to not to review the functioning of Army Headquarters as part of the inquiry, leaving ‘a number of loose ends’. What however, is clear is that the Indian Army failed to offer useful and credible alternatives to the political leadership’s idea of a ‘forward policy’.

This leads us to the larger issue of civil-military relations in India. These relations have always been difficult with the comparison with the situation in Pakistan only lending a false sheen to the situation here.

One of the legacies of 1962 and the lack of access to the full contents of the Report was that it became easy to blame Jawaharlal Nehru and his Defence Minister Krishna Menon for interference in the work of the Army and for thus contributing to the defeat. As a result, the culture of the politicians ostensibly leaving the military alone to carry out its responsibilities took shape.

But what in effect happened was that the bureaucratic class used or was used to fill in the gap left by lack of political attention. The bureaucracy appeared to gain importance or at least the ear of the politician or minister while military officials found it easy to lay the blame for the poor state of defence preparedness and other shortcomings in the armed forces at the door of the ‘civilians’.

There is clearly a lack of civilian understanding of the intricacies of the military craft or its physical and emotional difficulties –living in constant danger, separation from family and the involvement of the Army in internal security operations take a huge physical and mental toll on both officers and soldiers.

from the War Memorial at Walong, Anjaw District, Arunachal Pradesh
from the War Memorial at Walong, Anjaw District, Arunachal Pradesh

Yet, the military too often does not seem to understand that they serve not so much the nation as the Republic and its values. And military subordination to civilian authorities is a core principle of our democratic political system. Indeed, the several controversies during Gen. VK Singh’s tenure as Army chief and the recent resignation of Adm. DK Joshi, are reflective of the inability of the two professional services – the military and the civilian bureaucracy – to understand each other’s interests and views, and of the lack of political will or interest in mediating this conflict and pushing things forward.

In effect, the errors that led to 1962 have been compounded. And among these additional problems are the lack of accountability in the country’s defence industries and corruption in decisions on defence acquisitions.

Third and related to the issue of competence, it must be remembered that for over a decade many Indian diplomats in Beijing misunderstood the nature and objectives of the communist regime in China. Similarly, a principal source of the belief that the Chinese would not resist India’s ‘forward policy’ was the Intelligence Bureau. There are no official reports inquiring into the performance of the Foreign Ministry or of the Intelligence Bureau in the 1962 fiasco. Indeed, there is to this date, no form of parliamentary oversight over either of India’s two main intelligence agencies, as should be the case in any self-respecting democracy.

Fourth, why did both civilian and military authorities not better understand or anticipate Chinese actions in the run-up to the conflict in late 1962?

Clearly, the Chinese take-over of Tibet in 1950 should have resulted in a long-term exercise involving the military, bureaucracy, the political class and academics to study and research China in all its aspects more deeply and intensively and thus to prepare for and pre-empt any further territorial expansion by the Chinese. None of this happened – the Chinese-built road in Aksai Chin was discovered only by chance. In fact, following defeat, the government and its agencies went in the opposite direction leaving border areas under-developed in infrastructure and China Studies in the country short of attention and resources.

In over 50 years since the 1962 conflict, it has been far easier to target and blame individuals for mistakes made than to identify and correct failings and shortcomings in the institutions and processes that individuals are only a part of. It is only the active oversight and reform of institutions and processes that will prevent the repetition of mistakes.

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