Book Review: Shiv Kunal Verma. 2016. 1962: The War That Wasn’t (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company).
This is a well-written book and goes into some considerable detail on each of the major battles of the 1962 conflict between India and China in both the Eastern and Western Sectors. The narrative is riveting and supported by maps particularly of battles in the Eastern Sector as well as reproductions of photographs of many important personalities and events associated with the conflict culled from multiple sources. These definitely add a heft and immediacy to the book often lacking in many historical texts. Without doubt, this is a labour of love, much effort, including by the author’s own family members has gone into it. To recreate the amount of detail there is in the accounts of battle the Verma certainly had access to some very personal reminiscences and he communicates the immediacy and tension of battle as well as the bitterness of defeat with verve and feeling. For these reasons alone, this book must belong to the shelves of any student of India’s wars.
And yet, this book is not without its flaws. Both from an academic perspective and for reasons of prudence, a genuine student will be put off by the rather strange system of referencing quotes and material in the text as well as in fact, the lack of references or incomplete documentation in many instances. Thus, how does Verma reach the conclusion that ‘[T]hough there were no records kept of the meeting, it is now fairly obvious that the decision to mount an attack on the Thagla Ridge to clear out the Chinese was taken mainly on the advice given by (Lt. Gen. LP) Sen, who until then had not visited Tawang or any other part of NEFA’ (p.117)? There is also no source provided for the recounting that as early as 20 September, a Chinese soldier on the south bank of the Namka Chu threw a grenade at the Indian sentry post which eventually resulted in two Chinese casualties (p.121).
There is also an entire section on ‘Chinese Plans’ in the account of the battle in the Kameng Sector (pp.256-59) that seems to be based on Chinese sources but it is not clear how the author managed to access them. Similarly, in the chapter on the Western Sector there is a curious unreferenced statement that Chinese political officers in Xinjiang went around working up anti-Hindu sentiments (p. 327).
This book is not just an exercise in historical recreation but an attempt to put forward a very particular point of view and explanation of events. And that is where the book falters. The fact that the author wears his army connections on his sleeve also means that this is a book that reflects a very army mindset and thinking. Verma’s biases are often quite clear and of a piece with what many army officers across generations since Independence have largely thought of their politicians and leaders, and in particular Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister in 1962. And these biases seep through the pages at various points in the portraits that the author draws of Nehru and his supporting cast of apparently incompetent minions on whose heads lie the blame for India’s defeat. The opening of the book itself is a case in point – ‘Jawaharlal Nehru stared angrily out of the car… the Indian prime minister was furious at the newspapers for alerting the people of India to the carefully concealed fact that all was not well on the northern border with China’ (p.3). Angry Nehru might have been but the imputation that Nehru, the quintessential liberal democrat would have a problem with the Fourth Estate could not be further off the mark and risks conflating his political attitudes with those of others less respectful of the media whether from the political class or the military itself and there were and are surely many.
To be fair, Verma does not spare the army leadership either. He does say that while ‘Nehru, (Krishna) Menon and Bijji (Lt. Gen. BK) Kaul became the focal points at whose feet India’s defeat was laid… [i]n a way, this acted as a smokescreen and most of the culprits responsible for the debacle got away scot-free. None of the senior officers were censored or brought to book’ (p.318) and he is not afraid to take names throughout the book. And yet, the ascription of blame to senior officers is also part of a curious process of simultaneously washing off the stain of defeat or blame from the larger institution of the Army while ignoring the very structures within the Army that ensures that such mistakes as Verma describes in his book will continue. This book, in fact, forces us to confront larger realities about the Indian armed forces.
The susceptibility of army officers as they climb the hierarchy to political pressures or to engage in politicking themselves is somewhat well known in India. However, equally important is the reality right from the beginning of their careers of accepting senior officers’ orders even if they are patently lacking in logic or fairness. This is seen as a matter of ‘maintaining discipline’ – the core aspect that separates the Army from the apparently bumbling civilians. Officers might make mistakes but the Army has its own ways of punishing such lapses. In truth, the Indian Army has a massive colonial hangover – it has failed to realize that it is supposed to uphold political values quite different from what obtained when many of India’s regiments or armed units were first raised. What follows is fetishization – of the vardi, the uniform or unit cohesion or esprit de corps and a machismo of following orders. In fact, it is a question that needs asking whether the Indian Constitution is as important to the average Indian officer and soldier as the Indian flag itself or the izzat of the paltan. Are Indian officers and men, also thinking citizens of the Republic or lemmings who will not or are not allowed to question their superiors even when that authority will lead them to doom or is patently in the wrong? These are questions that remain pertinent even today.
This book does on occasion romanticize and reproduce clichés we have come to associate with India’s armed forces – the happy-go-lucky, ready-for-anything gallant young officer for one – but also depicts the reality shorn of gloss. Verma’s cites his own father’s words,
“The fear of the unknown plays a great part in conditioning the behavior of men, even if as soldiers they are meant to be able to face uneven odds at times… Patriotic ideals recede into the background, what now counts is the next man and JCOs and officers. They’re in it together and while fear has a numbing effect, a conscious effort has to be made to conceal it” (p.154).
Another reality that is often forgotten is of the dependence of young officers on their older, more experience junior commissioned officers as come out in this exchange between Major BK Pant and Subedar Dashrath Singh of 2 Rajput during the Chinese attack at Namka Chu, “Ab mein kya karu? Aap to purane aadmi hein” (p.158).
All wars are political exercises, not least Mao Zedong’s conflict with India in 1962, and success or blame both in the final reckoning belong to the political masters. But it is the duty of the generals to be prepared for when the call comes and to have ready themselves not for the war they want but for the war the enemy will likely thrust upon them. The same principle applies to the bureaucrats, the diplomats and the analysts in their respective lines of work. The author makes a telling remark towards the end in his discussion of how the Indian Air Force never ended up being used in the conflict that shows up all four groups – ‘[t]he problem probably lay in the difference between availability of intelligence and the ability to interpret it (p.384).
In 1962, the reality is that India’s troops successful in two World Wars across multiple theatres and kinds of terrain came up short. The failure was not just the result of lack of political foresight and diplomatic acumen but also of military leadership, of insufficient research and study of the communist regime on the northern borders, and yes, of the citizenry that clamoured for ‘action’ and ‘results’ despite the desperate odds faced by their soldiers. Over 50 years on and despite successes against Pakistan, events down to the present show that all sides concerned in India continue to prefer dealing with the ‘familiar enemy’ of Pakistan and ignore or delay the steps required to face up to the longer-term and substantive challenges posed by China – military and otherwise.
Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Shaped by Personalities and Events’, The Book Review, Vol. XL, No. 12, December 2016, 7-8.