A tale of two wars, two different results
Now that India is once again in the part of the year when the Kargil War was fought in 1999, it may be instructive to analyse what accounted for victory in it and humiliating defeat at China’s hands in 1962. Both were fought in the Himalayas and India was caught unprepared during both. In the case of the Kargil war, India woke up to find that the strategic mountain heights abandoned by it with the advent of the winter of 1998-1999, had been occupied by Pakistani troops. It was a stupid mistake on our part and we paid for it.
As for 1962, it was clear since 1957, that China claimed large tracts of Indian territory and significant border clashes had started occurring since 1959. The Government had ample time to prepare for the war in 1962. It did not because, the rapid build-up of Chinese forces in Tibet and other indications notwithstanding, it raised to the level of an article of faith the belief that the Chinese would not launch a major attack. Consequently, neither was any military strategy drawn up to cope with such an attack, nor were the arms, ammunition, supply lines and troops provided to implement such a strategy. Instead, the Government went in for the infamous ‘forward policy’ involving the deployment of small, isolated contingents of troops, with inferior weapons, inadequate ammunition and virtually non-existent supply lines, to checkmate any Chinese advance!
It is hardly surprising that they failed to do so despite heroic resistance by out-gunned and out-numbered Indian soldiers. Significantly – and also astonishingly – our mistake in both wars lay in our assumption that the enemy would not attack us. What made the difference in terms of the outcome of the two wars was the difference in our reactions and the fact that our ability to wage war was vastly superior in 1999 compared to 1962.
An important factor in India’s victory in Kargil was the use of the Indian Air Force in softening up Pakistan’s entrenched positions at forbidding heights, thus facilitating their capture by Indian troops, and performing useful reconnaissance. This was in sharp contrast to the situation in 1962 when, despite the locational and logistical advantages the Indian Air Force enjoyed over its Chinese counterpart, this country did not use air power in support of its outnumbered, outgunned and ill-equipped Army battling daunting odds to hold up the Chinese advance.
This was because of the inexplicable fear that the move might broaden and escalate the war. The harsh fact is that wars have to be won and, for that, it is not only necessary to capitalise relentlessly on one’s advantages but to sometimes undertake risky manoeuvres that can recoil on one. One of the most outstanding examples of the triumph of such tactics was provided by Napoleon’s victory over the combined Russian and Austrian Armies, led by Tsar Alexander I and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, at the battle of Austerlitz on 2nd December, 1805. He deliberately left a gap in his right flank to entice his enemies to launch an attack on it. They did just that but were confronted by the French III Corps which had rushed in on a forced march from Vienna. Meanwhile, the concentration of forces in the attack on the French right flank, had weakened the Russo-Austrian centre, which collapsed against a massive assault by the French IV Corps, which then routed the enemy forces by sweeping through both their flanks.
Napoleon took two major gambles – the first was acting on the belief that the Russo-Austrian forces would step into his trap and, the second, in assuming that the French III Corps would arrive in time. Both succeeded and his victory in Austerlitz has gone down in history as one of the greatest triumphs of military genius. In sharp contrast, the Indian Army was hamstrung 1962 by a political leadership that was not only lily-livered but devoid of any idea of warfare. In the war with China, the use of the Indian Air Force was an absolute imperative at a time when India was staring at a humiliating defeat. Yet, the political leadership did not have the courage to do so.
Things were made worse by poor military leadership. The Commander of the Fourth Division, panicked in 1962 when the Indian stronghold at Sela pass, a strong, natural tactical position that was sought to have been turned into fortified redoubt in the Tawang-Sela-Namkachu Valley grid in the then North-East Frontier Agency, came under Chinese pressure. His response lacked even the semblance of operational coherence and sense. The order given to the 7th Brigade to retreat was disastrous and the account of what happened and much else by Brigadier JP Dalvi, in Himalayan Blunder: The Angry Truth About India’s Most Crushing Military Disaster, is trenchantly revealing.
The functioning of the Tezpur-based IV Corps, in overall command of the North-Eastern sector of the war, was as dismal as that of the Fourth Division. All this is known and has been dwelt upon in several books, including Brigadier Dalvi’s and, of course, the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report, the contents of the first volume of which was posted on his website in 2014 by the journalist and author, Neville Maxwell, who wrote India’s China War. The question is: What lessons should one draw from the lessons of 1999 and 1962?
First, it will be most unwise to assume that a country with a hostile posture will not go to the extent of waging a war. As in the case Britain, whose Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain failed to see the coming of World War II and thought that the surrender at Munich (1938) had brought peace “in our time”, failure to foresee war is invariably disastrous. Second, if attacked, one must use every strategy and every means at one’s disposal. We foiled Pakistan’s designs in 1965 by opening up the Lahore and Sialkot fronts, which relieved Pakistan’s pressure on our troops in the Chamb-Jaurian sector. We won the Kargil War because we used our Air Force, and lost to the Chinese in 1962 because we did not. Third, the knowledge that we can give more than what we receive is a great deterrent against aggression. President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States spoke sense when he said, “Talk softly but carry a big stick.”