Sunday, 18 November 2012

Book Review: India’s China War by Neville Maxwell

Heavy reading: I bought this book over a year ago, read the first three chapters and put the rest on hold. Around 20 October 2012, as the 50th anniversary of the India-China War was commemorated, a flurry of articles in various newspapers and magazines, including an interview of Neville Maxwell, re-kindled my interest and made me finish off the last two chapters. The fourth chapter, a detailed and precise description of the actual war, especially makes for grim reading, if you’re on India’s side, that is. Mind you, this book was first published by Jaico in 1970, eight years after the 1962 war between India and China. The current edition has been brought out by Natraj Publishers and I should add that the quality of printing leaves a lot to be desired.

Neville Maxwell: Neville Maxwell was The Times’ South Asia correspondent for eight years from 1959 and during his tenure in New Delhi, had the opportunity to see the India-China border dispute from the Indian side. Maxwell’s account admittedly suffers from a lack of access to Chinese sources, comparable to the sort of access Maxwell had to India’s dirty linen. Nevertheless, Maxwell’s India’s China War is considered to be one of the most authoritative books on this topic, especially because Maxwell is supposed to have somehow accessed the yet to be declassified Henderson Brooks report.

Entirely India’s fault: Maxwell’s thesis is very simple. India inherited its borders from the British, who by virtue of being the paramount power in the region, arbitrarily drew boundaries as it suited them. After the British left, India clung to those boundaries, though China, which had taken over Tibet by then, disputed them. Maxwell says that after India’s independence, ‘the boundaries of India ceased to be the pawns of the British in their Great Games with imperial rivals, and became cell walls of a national identity. No longer could boundaries be conceived or shifted by men whose concern was no longer territory, but strategic advantage; henceforth they enclosed the sacred soil of the motherland, and politicians could tamper with them only at their peril.

Nehru refused to negotiate with the Chinese, though he went out of his way to please them in other respects, such as in admission to UN membership. Later, India instituted a forward policy which involved aggressive border patrolling by the Indian army and the setting up of puny, indefensible pickets very close to the McMahon line. According to Maxwell, one of the pickets, the Dhola Post, on the Thag La Ridge, was actually a few miles north of the McMahon line, in other words, outside Indian territory. This happened because the McMahon line did not pass through the highest point in the Khinzemane sector, but the Indian government thought it ought to. Maxwell says that in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) China was willing to let India occupy territory south of the actual McMahon line and not the McMahon line as arbitrarily redrawn by India. When the PLA aggressively surrounded the Dhola Post, Nehru ordered the Indian army to throw the Chinese out of India’s borders. The Indian army started planning Operation Leghorn, an attack on Chinese pickets surrounding Dhola Post, even though Dhola Post was definitely north of the line drawn by Henry McMahon. Mind you, the order was publicly announced with a lot of fanfare. Talk of overconfidence and the element of surprise!

Faced with the possibility of an attack by India, China launched a pre-emptive strike on 20 October 1962, which coincided with the Cuban missile crisis. The initial Chinese attacks routed the Indian army. After that there was a lull for over 3 weeks. The second phase of attacks from 14 November 1962 onwards, completed the Chinese victory. In the Western sector, China occupied and held Aksai Chin. In NEFA, the Chinese retreated to the McMahon line, after handing back to India a huge quantity of captured stores. Nehru and other Indian leaders had repeated ad nauseum how China would find it difficult to supply its troops on the border. It turned out that China had good supply links through the relatively flat Tibetan plateau, which in winter receives less snowfall than the mountainous NEFA. It was India which struggled to supply its troops and Maxwell claims that many Indian soldiers died of cold and exposure, compounded by inadequate clothing and lack of food, during forced marches.

Empty talk: Maxwell tells us that ‘both sides were sabre rattling, but India’s scabbard was empty.’ India’s army was weak since India had been focussing on growth and development. More importantly, defence minister Krishna Menon liked to cut army chiefs to size. Nehru and Krishna Menon were confident that China would not attack and more importantly, the Chinese army would not resist India’s forward push. Here’s an interesting OutlookIndia article which supports what Maxwell says.

Call for B. M. Kaul: We are told that when Lieutenant General Umrao Singh, General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Siliguri-based XXXIII Corps questioned the practicability of Operation Leghorn, putting his objections in writing, Army Chief General Thapar and Lt. Gen L.P. Sen, the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the Indian Army's Eastern Command, sought his removal from his command of XXXIII Corps. Lt. Gen L.P. Sen suggested that Major General Manekshaw be appointed to replace him. Krishna Menon baulked. Earlier Manekshaw had faced charges of anti-national expressions and disloyalty and had been denied promotion to Lt. General. So, a new corps, the IV Corps, was created and the Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. B.M. Kaul, the very same man who had filed a complaint against Manekshaw, was tasked with heading it. Kaul had never commanded troops in combat, but no one cared, save for the soldiers. Kaul’s performance was so bad that, at the end of the war, President Radhakrishnan responded to the rumour that Kaul had been captured by the Chinese by saying ‘it is unfortunately not true.

The View From Peking: Though Maxwell doesn’t have access to Chinese sources, he tries to understand the rationale behind China’s actions. China obviously found Indian terms (a total refusal to negotiate) totally unacceptable. There were other reasons which might have persuaded the Chinese leadership to go for the military option. A war could prompt US assistance to India, as it did, and expose to the USSR how close India was to the Americans. Maxwell does not subscribe to the western theory that China wanted to humble India and put a brake on India’s growth and development. Maxwell says that Chinese never considered India to be China’s equal. India had a very good reputation as a peaceful nation while the Chinese communists were considered to be war mongers. The longer the dispute dragged on, the more sympathy India generated. By defeating India decisively and at the same retreating to their original positions in NEFA, China made it clear that it only wanted India to come to the negotiating table and settle its international boundary.

For the official Chinese view on the border war, please watch this YouTube Video which seems to have been posted by the Chinese government or with its approval.

Riveting but sad: Maxwell writes very well. For example, while detailing the launch of the actual assault by the Chinese, he tells us that ‘at 5:00 a.m. on the 20th October 1962, the Chinese fired two Very lights; on the signal, Chinese heavy mortars and artillery, drawn up without cover on the forward slope of the Thag La ridge, opened a heavy barrage on the central Indian positions. .....The weight of the Chinese attack was thrown against the Indian positions in the centre of the river line; the Gorkhas and the Rajputs bore the brunt of the assault. Their positions had been infiltrated. The Indian units fought back fiercely against overwhelming odds, but one after the other, their positions were overrun – the Indians met the final Chinese assaults with the bayonet. By 09:00 the Gorkhas and Rajputs on the river line were finished. The Chinese had by then brought Tsangdhar under attack. By then this vital position was defended only by a weak company of Gorkhas – which had been preparing to march out to Tsangle – and the two paratroop guards. Firing over open sights, these fought on, until the crews were wiped out.

Not Front Page News: Even as late as October 1962, Indian newspapers did not always carry the border dispute on their front pages. The dispute with China competed for attention with a wide variety of news items such as Nehru having been burned in effigy in Nepal, the fall of government in Kerala and Sikh politics in Punjab.

International opinion: The US, UK and other western governments sided with India. The USSR adopted a surprisingly neutral note and seemed to be more in favour of China than India. This was mainly on account of the Cuban missile crisis - the USSR desperately needed Chinese support. Most non-aligned governments stayed non-aligned and India was disappointed. No Arab country expressed sympathy or support for India. Nkrumah of Ghana actually rebuked the UK for sending aid to India, this despite Nehru having visited Ghana very recently. Ethiopia and Cyprus were the only non-aligned countries to support India.

Formosa was willing to side with India in any hostile action towards China, but on the boundary dispute, its position was the same as that of China’s. Maxwell tells us that ‘one of the last acts of the Chinese Nationalists’ Ambassador in New Delhi was to remind the Indian Government that China did not recognise the McMahon line, and held the (1914) Simla Convention invalid.

Abandoning a sensible defence plan: In October 1959, the Eastern command under General Thorat had recommended a triple tiered defence structure in the north-east. The first line of defence would consist of posts close to the McMahon line. These would act as a mere trip wire, expected to fall back in case of a Chinese advance. Secondary strong points would be set up behind the first line to fight a delaying action. The third tier was the actual defence line, where the attacker would be halted. Bomdi La was to be one of the anchors of this defence line, which would be easily supplied from the plains. The attacker would struggle with extended lines, whilst Indian troops would fight close to their supply lines. This was a good plan, but was abandoned since the politicians were unwilling to subscribe to a course of action which would result in losing large areas without a fight.

Thus the Indian army was stretched all across the McMahon line, deployed in small groups at places where the civilian Intelligence Bureau expected the Chinese to infiltrate through.

Compounding of mistakes: It was not just the political leadership which made so many errors. The military leadership under B.M. Kaul at first failed to provide a realistic picture to the politicians. Rather, they allowed the politicians to live in a fool’s paradise. Later, after the initial shock and retreat, ‘on 23rd October, orders went out from IV Corps to the force at Tawang that they were to withdraw to Bomdi La, some sixty miles back on the road to the plains; that in the calculations of the IV Corps, was the farthest point to the north where the Indians could build up more quickly than the Chinese. All formations concerned were informed that the build-up was to be at Bomdi La.’ However, Brigadier Palit urged that the stand be made at Se La, a high pass only fifteen miles behind Tawang. From Misamari on the plains to Se La was one hundred and forty miles, a round trip of six days for trucks. The politicians liked the idea though; less the terrain yielded to China, less the defeat for India. Therefore Lt. Gen. Sen countermanded the order to pull back to Bomdi La and ordered that Se La be held. ‘The decision was crucial and disastrous.

A birthday gift for Nehru: It was meant to be a birthday gift for Nehru. On 14 November 1962, Indian troops from the 6th Kumaon battalion attacked the Chinese at Walong. They got to within fifty yards from the crest and then stopped, spent. The Chinese not only wiped off the Kumaonis, but also followed up and attacked the main Indian defence positions on the 16th at first light. By 10:00 a.m. a general withdrawal ordered. Kaul and the G.O.C M.S. Pathania left Walong in the last Otter. When Kaul got to Teju, he sent out a frantic signal asking that foreign armed forces be invited to fight China.

Finally on the evening of 17th when Pathania wanted to pull troops from Se La, he could not contact Kaul. Army Chief Thapar and Lt. Gen L.P. Sen were available, but they refused to take a decision though they were Kaul’s superiors and had been involved in making war plans till then. Precious time was lost. In any event, withdrawal was no longer a great idea and the Chinese not only killed off many of the retreating soldiers, even the 48th Brigade at Bomdi La, the only organised Indian formation left in NEFA, was finally destroyed. Maxwell says that ‘the subsequent hour or so in quiet corps headquarters at Tezpur, with the Chief of Army Staff and the G.O.C-in-C Eastern Command refusing to take responsibility for an urgent operational decision, when there was no one else to take it, was the real nadir for the Indian army, not the impending debacle among the steep ridges of NEFA.

The Indian army faced a total rout in NEFA, but not so in the Western sector where Maxwell tells us that General Daulet Singh of the Western Command rapidly built up strength to reinforce the Ladakh front. Also, Western Command, unlike the Eastern Command, showed more concern for the survival of its troops, not ordering isolated units to fight it out in useless sacrificial gestures as was done in NEFA. ‘When there was a tactical reason for ground to be held, the troops did fight it out, to the last round or the last man; but they were not, as so often in the eastern sector, left to hold tactically insignificant and indefensible positions until overrun.’ About 90% of Indian casualties were in NEFA.

Small mercies: According to Maxwell, the Chinese did not attack Chushul or any other position outside their claim areas, though the Chinese had overrun the heights around Rezing La and had started shelling Chushul when the unilateral ceasefire came into effect.

China snatches a PR defeat from the jaws of total victory: After launching its attack on 20 October 19962, China claimed that Indian troops had launched large scale attacks against Chinese posts in Namka Chu in NEFA and Chip Chap and Galwan valleys in Aksai Chin and that Chinese troops had responded in self-defence. This self-obscuration was a mistake. Everyone knew that India did not have the ability to launch such large scale attacks. If China had spoken the truth, that its attack was pre-emptive, that Indian troops were planning an attack in Thag La as part of Operation Leghorn, it may have been believed.

Foreign Aid: Once fighting started, American jet transports were landing in India at the rate of eight flights a day, each carrying about twenty tons of equipment – automatic rifles, heavy mortars and recoiless guns etc. The UK too threw in its support. The French however stayed true to their mercenary colours and wanted payment for any assistance given. Israel too helped, though when India suggested that Israel supply weapons using vessels that did not carry Israeli flags, Ben Gurion is supposed to have said, ‘no flag, no weapons.’ Israel finally sent a shipment of heavy mortars in a ship flying the Israeli flag.

Public reactions in India: India’s political classes and urban masses reacted with fervent patriotism. Several thousand ethnic Chinese were interned in camps in Rajasthan and Maxwell tells us that some of the internees were expelled to China. I don’t know how true the bit about expulsion to China is - I’ve never read that anywhere else.

After China launched its second phase of attacks in the middle of November, there was general panic in India since the press had led the public to believe that the initial drawbacks were the result of Chinese treachery and that Indian troops were poised to reverse their losses. In NEFA, the Indian government expected the Chinese to takeover Tezpur. Nehru made an urgent, open appeal to the United States for assistance with fighters and bombers. Maxwell tells us that Nehru’s request was very specific – for fifteen American airforce squadrons – non-alignment be damned. As the civil administration evacuated Tezpur, the government ordered a scorched earth policy, but luckily, the administration did not have sufficient personnel to blow up everything.

The government put behind bars communists who did not identify with the communist leadership’s support for the government. Nehru took pains to clarify that India was not fighting China and not communism. By mistake, many communists who supported the Soviet Union were also arrested. Rather than admit its mistake and order a large-scale release, the government released the detainees one by one.


Casualty figures released by the Indian defence ministry in 1965 showed that 1,383 Indian soldiers died, 1,696 went missing and 3,968 were taken prisoner. As mentioned above, about 90% of Indian casualties were in NEFA. Maxwell tells us that the Chinese army used three divisions in the NEFA fighting, which gave the Chinese a very narrow numerical superiority in NEFA. However, the Indian forces were so scattered that the Chinese had no difficulty in putting into effect Mao’s teaching: ‘in every battle concentrate an absolutely superior force.

Maxwell doesn’t talk of Chinese casualties, though he says that the Chinese suffered substantial casualties where Indians stood and fought, such as in Thembang on 17th November. Maxwell does say that not one Chinese soldier was taken prisoner. All Indian prisoners were repatriated by the Chinese within 6 months. Wikipedia says that 722 Chinese soldiers died and 1,697 were wounded.

On India’s claim to the disputed areas: The best bit about this 450 odd page tome is that the initial chapters contain a detailed discussion on the disputed territories and each party’s claim to those territories.

Ladakh and Aksai Chin

Ladakh, we are told, was historically a part of Tibet. After the tenth century, it asserted its independence, but has always been within Lhasa’s cultural pull. The famous Dogra chieftain Gulab Singh, who later acquired Kashmir from the British, invaded Ladakh in 1834 and captured it. Later, the Dogras went further, and captured Lhasa itself. The Dogra general (the legendary Zorawar Singh whom Maxwell doesn’t mention by name) made the tactical mistake of wintering in Lhasa and was marooned and killed, along with his forces. The victorious Tibetans followed up on their victory and advanced to Ladakh, but were beaten back by Gulab Singh’s armies. In 1846, the British made Gulab Singh the ruler of Kashmir and at the same time forbade him from adding to his territory without British consent. This was because the British were worried that the Chinese would assume that Gulab Singh had British approval for his adventures and would react against Britain.

In the mid 18th century, Britain invited China to participate in the demarcation of the boundary between Tibet and Ladakh, but the Chinese never played ball. When the British unilaterally demarcated the boundary, the terrain between the Pangong Lake and the Karakoram Pass, known as Aksai Chin, was left terra incognito. In 1865, an officer of the Survey of India, W. H. Johnson showed Aksai Chin to be a part of Kashmir, but his claim was treated with scepticism even by other Britons. Support for Johnson’s map came from Maj. Gen. Sir. John Ardagh, Director General of Military Intelligence in British India, whose main interest was to counter any Russian advance in India. In the early 1880s, China started to show interest in its southern frontiers and erected a boundary marker in the Karakoram pass and later dispatched an official, Li Yuan-ping to explore the southern stretches. Later Chinese officials specifically made a claim for Aksai Chin. Maxwell feels that the claim was most probably the result of Russian advice. George Macartney, a British representative in Kashgar commented that ‘probably part of Aksai Chin was in Chinese and part in British territory.

Though a few British officials favoured a forward policy which would make Aksai Chin part of British India, in 1899, Britain proposed the Macartney-McDonald line to China, which gave China almost all of Aksai Chin proper, but left with British India the Lingzi Tang salt plains, the whole of the Changchenmo valley and the Chip Chap River in the north. China did not respond to this proposal.

In the first decade of the 20th Century, Britain insisted that Aksai Chin was a part of Tibet, rather than a part of China since the former position would prevent Russia from encroaching into Aksai Chin. However, after the collapse of (Manchu) Chinese power in the second decade of the 20th century, Viceroy Hardinge recommended that Aksai Chin should be shown as British Indian territory. This recommendation was never acted on. In 1914 when Britain convened the Simla Convention in 1914, with Chinese and Tibetan delegates in attendance, maps presented by Britian showed Aksai Chin to be a part of Tibet. That China pulled out of the 1914 summit where Britain tried to divide Tibet into Outer Tibet and Inner Tibet, on the lines of Mongolia, is a different story all together. In 1940-41, the Government of Sinkiang, under Warlord Sheng Shi-tsai carried out a survey of Aksai Chin with Russian experts. Britain said and did nothing.


The Tawang tract, a wedge of territory to the east of Bhutan, connected Tibet to the Indian plains. Maxwell says that the British never considered Tawang to be anything other than Tibetan till the end of the 19th century. In 1907, the UK and Russia signed an agreement which required both to stay out of Tibet.

After the rise of Manchu China in the 19th century, China was in effective power in Tibet and British officials started to propose a forward policy which did not receive official sanction. Later, Britain held negotiations with Tibetans, without Chinese approval, based on which Henry McMahon, the British foreign Secretary for India, produced a boundary line which showed Tawang to be a part of British India. McMahon’s maps were accepted by the Tibetan plenipotentiary in exchange for British assistance in gaining independence from China. McMahon gave the Tibetans the idea that they could continue to collect taxes in Tawang. The McMahon line was not mentioned to the Chinese during the 1914 Simla convention. In 1929, when an authoritative record of the 1914 convention was published as the Aichison’s Treaties, Tawang was not shown to be a part of British India. The McMahon line remained forgotten till 1935 when a Deputy Secretary in New Delhi, Olaf Caroe, urged a forward policy and publication of the Anglo-Tibetan agreements. In 1937, a new edition of the Aichison’s Treaties was published, as if it was original 1929 edition, showing Tawang to be a part of British India. From 1937, the Survey of India also started using the McMahon line, though New Delhi rejected demands from frontier officials to permanently occupy Tawang.

The Tibetans later took the stand that since the British did not secure any degree of autonomy from China, they would not bound to recognise British claims to Tawang. British officials carried out occasional punitive expeditions to Tawang and in 1944, it was offered that the boundary should run through Se La, south of Tawang monastery. Nothing much came of that proposal, but in 1947 when India got independence, the British had set up Assam Rifles posts in various parts of Tawang and also excluded Tibetan administrators. In October 1947, Tibet formally asked India to return to Tibet a wide swathe of territory from Ladakh to Assam, including Sikkim and the Darjeeling district. India replied that Indo-tibetan relations should continue on the same basis as with the British administration.

Until 1949, the situation in NEFA was as the British had left it. India had an outpost at Walong, but other Indian positions were well back from the McMahon line. Tibetan administration in Tawang was unchallenged. However, from 1951 onwards, India started to occupy Tawang, despite Tibetan protests. Local people were not very happy. Maxwell tells us that ‘a strong Assam Rifles patrol, moving up the Subansiri River in the early 1950s, was warmly welcomed by one of the tribes, feasted and given shelter – and then massacred almost to a man. Seventy three riflemen and civilians died.

Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan

Maxwell also details how India acquired Sikkim and brought Nepal and Bhutan within its sphere of influence and the tussle with China over these territories. Since I’ve already exceeded the acceptable word limit for a book review, I shall desist from delving into those topics. Please do read this extremely interesting book yourself to find out more.

Could India have won the 1962 War?

Let’s for a moment forget who was to blame for the escalation and the war: could India have won the war if it had prepared better? India’s air force played a passive role in the fear that if Chinese targets were bombed, it could lead to a wider conflict. Maxwell does not delve into this issue, though he does point out to a number of strategic mistakes made by India leading one to assume that if such mistakes hadn’t been made, the Indian army would have fared much better, if not actually won the war. Here’s an article which argues that India could have won the border conflict in 1962.


Maxwell has argued that if India were willing to negotiate its boundary with China, it would have avoided the 1962 war. In all probability he is right. China had offered to give up its claim to NEFA in exchange for India relinquishing rights to Aksai Chin. Should India have accepted China’s offer? In my opinion, India ought to have accepted it. I am not sure if this offer is still on the table. If it is, India ought to grab it with both hands.

Fifty years ago, China’s hold on Tibet was tenuous and China could not have held on to the territories in NEFA it had captured in October and November 1962. These days, Tibet is well integrated with China, especially on account of the influx of Han people and the railway connection between Beijing and Lhasa. If there were to be another war between India and China and China were to repeat its 1962 victory, it might not want to unilaterally retreat to the McMahon line.

Amidst so much introspection into India’s mistakes and predictions about China’s future behaviour, it is easy to forget the Tibetans. As mentioned above, the Tibetans accepted the McMahon line in 1914 because they expected to receive British assistance in gaining independence from China. This promise wasn’t kept by British and its territorial heir, India. Why then should the Tibetan’s compromise on territory that has been a part of Tibet for many centuries? As mentioned above, in October 1947, Tibet had demanded from India the return of territories ranging from Ladakh to Assam to Sikkim and Darjeeling!

Let’s imagine a situation 100 years hence were, as a result of internal turmoil within China, Tibet has become a free country. It is quite possible that independent Tibet will demand Tawang and the rest of Arunachal Pradesh from India on the ground that they have been a part of Tibet historically. It is also possible that a demand may be made for Ladakh.

India has conceded that Tibet is a part of China. If one takes that argument to its logical conclusion, then China’s claim to Tawang and the rest of Arunachal Pradesh begins to carry some weight since Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang, has historically been a part of Tibet. However, the average Indian Joe has been led to believe that all the territory that falls within the official map of India is sacrosanct. These days, many Indian newspapers have started carrying articles on these topics which show the true picture rather than bleat the official line. Here is an interesting article on Tawang and Tibet carried by the Times of India.

Indian leaders and media need to re-educate the Indian public on these issues before India’s leadership is in a position to enter into meaningful negotiations with the Chinese and Tibetans for resolving the border dispute.


Anonymous said...

China is India’s natural neighbor. In 1962, some unwanted incidents occurred in India-china border, which could have been avoided by proper diplomatic intelligence. However, in 1965, when Indian army reached Lahore, an important city of Pakistan, India-china border remained peaceful. In 1971, when Indian army reached Dhaka, the then capital of East Pakistan, India-china border remained peaceful. In 1993 India-china border agreement is signed. The agreement is such that both sides are supposed to continue with their "claim”, but nobody will take any "action" and status quo will be maintained. So, presently India-china border is peaceful calm and quiet. One should be realistic before fabrication of fictions and unrealistic story of "probable attack from north" or story of “Sino - Pakistan axis”.

Winnowed said...

Anonymous, what you say is true, but Gary Bass tells in the Blood Telegram that in 1971, Zhou En Lai want to attack India to protect Pakistan, but was prevented from doing so by the northern threat from USSR. You can find more details here: