Oct 10th - Subedar Ram Singh of 9 Punjab regiment was tired, though relatively young, his lungs were killing him and fear was gnawing deep in his bones & mind. At 14,000 feet, a height his tired body was not accustomed to, pulmonary edema was setting in. He hacked and coughed most of the time, his headaches were severe and his stomach churned. Sometimes his head reeled and he almost collapsed from dizziness, sometimes he had eye bleeds. The cotton clothes and boots he wore were inadequate for the mighty cold of the black Karkoram Mountains and the Namka Chu area. The Lee Enfield 0.303 with its razor sharp bayonet was his only weapon against the well armed Chinese. He had exactly 40 bullets left. He cursed Nehru, Krishna Menon and Gen Kaul, the people he held responsible for sending him and his troops to these miserable heights, to fight an enemy (he had himself shouted Hindi Chini bhai bhai a few months back) unprepared & under equipped, mentally & physically. The Chinese came in hundreds with their AK47’s. His men dropped like flies. The rest of the war at Namka Chu is recorded here.
V.K.Krishna Menon became Defence Minister in 1957 bringing with him a fresh breath of air into a ministry that had been ignored for eight years. Menon fought for his men, improved their pay scales, introduced welfare programs and so on. When Krishna Menon saw the ill equipped condition of the 3.5 million strong army, especially their use of Lee Enfield 0.303 bolt action rifles, World War 1 vintage, he was appaled. He pressed for automatic SLR’s and other defense expenditures to modernize the armed forces. But his detractors would not allow it. Menon again proposed doubling of the officer strength in the army & manufacture of automatic weapons but the proposal was shot down by Gen Thimayya. In 1957, Acharya Kriplani speaking on the Defense Budget in the Lok Sabha said “The mounting expenses on the Army must be cut down. The followers of Gandhi and adherents of universal peace should not increase military expenditure”. It was also a time when the Sterling reserves were down and a monsoon failure plus lack of other resources conspired to ensure that quick arms imports were out of the picture. Menon was forced to start a longer gestating program of indigenous manufacture with Ordnance factories. The grave situation was made even worse by a personal feud between the then Finance Minister Morarji Desai and the Defense Minister Krishna Menon which resulted in an obstructive finance ministry that did not allow the release of essential foreign exchange to buy what little equipment that had been sanctioned.
When Dalai Lama sought asylum in India, after a revolt with the Chinese in 1959, Krishna Menon sensed a deepening gloom. It was only a few years earlier that Menon had worked hard to convince the world that the Chinese should be admitted as a UN member, despite strenuous objections from the Americans ( He had remarked then – China is the elephant in the room, can we avoid it?) and the West. When the Chinese, upset over the Lama’s stay in India & India’s support for Tibetan rebels, started to vacillate on the border issues, Menon was still quietly confident that diplomacy would win the game. Internal politics and rabid sessions in parliament ensured that Nehru had to show decisive action. It had already started with the Bombay elections in 1962 when Kripalani who changed colors conveniently changed his Gandhian non violent tone to - Chini hamla hote hain/Menon Saab sote hain/Sona hai tho sone do/Kripalani ji to aane do. (As China advances, Menon sleeps/Let him sleep if he must/But call Kripalani to be with us).
The Forward policy was being executed in the meantime, and on the other side, the Chinese had completed the road into Tibet through the Aksai Chen plains. Bajpai, Lohia, Kriplani and others were continuously after Nehru to get the Chinese out. On April 11, 1961, Kripalani launched a blistering attack on V.K. Krishna Menon. Under Menon's stewardship, said Kripalani, the same Kriplani who had previously screamed at the increasing defense outlay, "we have lost 12,000 square miles of our territory without striking a single blow”.
The under prepared military was at that point of time undergoing many changes in structure. Following a fight with the opinionated Menon, army chief Thimayya got sidelined. Gen Kariappa resigned, Manekshaw made it clear that he took Thimmayya’s side. Gen Thapar was appointed to replace Thimayya. Nehru was in support of a kinsman GM Kaul. Gen KM Kaul, duly appointed to take over a key position to head IV corps convinced Nehru that the military brass had to act to drive the Chinese away from the NFEA Aksai plains. Menon stated in parliament on Aug 1st that this was going to be a fruitless exercise and that the army would be routed. He tried hard to get his political bosses back to the negotiating table, even starting side discussion with the Chinese negotiators to compromise. Lt. Gen. B.M. Kaul “told Ambassador Galbraith on 16 July that the Indian army viewed the Chinese as set in a ‘mood’ of weakness and that Indian policy was to take maximum advantage of this mood by establishing even more new posts. In contrast to the policy ‘ambiguities’ of a year or two ago, Kaul continued, the Indian army ‘is not now in a mood to be pushed around’.”
Nehru believed that historian Dr Gopal’s opinions on the borders and legality lent more support to India’s claims than China’s, after the Tibetan accession. When China found that Russia were also being supportive of India, they were alarmed and decided to act at an opportune moment, which presented itself in mid 1962 – a period when Russia had taken on USA over the Cuban missile crisis at the Bay of Pigs. To make mattes worse, China infuriated the hardliners in India by discussing the borders with Pakistan. Nehru & the parliament were incensed. Menon who had been wary of the Forward policy tried to reason saying that the army was not trained, resourced or capable of fighting at those high altitudes. Menon explained that India "had not conditioned her reserves for war purposes." The Indian soldiers were fighting at high altitudes without due acclimatization, and had to be air supplied, whereas the Chinese could be easily supplied from the Tibetan table land. Kriplani and others used every opportunity and continued to accuse Menon of not driving the Chinese out and wasting time.
Kaul and his boss Thaper argued that it was possible to unseat the Chinese. Menon vainly suggested that the air force be used, Nehru refused outright stating that this would escalate the conflict to a full war fearing the might of the Chinese air force (which were of Russian origin but were actually grounded due to lack of spares – The Russians were delaying spare part supplies, this was only known much later). The IB & Ambassador Panickkar stated that the Chinese may not retaliate by land, but could with their air force. Nehru chose to satiate public opinion. With that Menon’s diplomacy ideas collapsed. On Oct 11th, it was actually decided that the soldiers would stay put and hold their lines. However on Oct 13th, much to everybody’s surprise, Nehru announced to the press in Colombo that India would act to drive out the Chinese from the Aksai plains.
Nehru informed the journalists that the advantage lay with India in NEFA, and by that time, this belief had become an accepted truth in India. Menon then suggested that India take on the Chinese in the plains but he was ridiculed again in parliament as supporting the Chinese. Menon explained that it would be strategically better to "let (the Chinese) come into Indian Territory in depth before giving them a fight." Eventually, he and Nehru consciously went against the strategic advantage to mollify an uninformed and shallow "public opinion."
Contrary to public opinion, Menon was not cozy with Gen Kaul. Kaul was Nehru’s man. In fact Kaul even went on leave during Sept 1962 (Debacle to revival – RD Pradhan) to protest differences of opinion with Menon. But Kaul, who was heading Operation Leghorn was by certain accounts not the right person, in the sense that he had no combat experience. He also had the reputation as being cozy with the press at a time when Menon had given orders not to document or discuss any secret meetings. Kaul who visited NEFA to oversee action, fell ill on Oct 18th and came away to Delhi!! Much through those days, Kaul communicated directly with Nehru (Greater game by David van Praag).
The Chinese attacked on Oct 20th, and the Indian army fought valiantly on some fronts, but retreated in others. The defeat was demoralizing. The parliament was in uproar, the press and the public were baying for Nehru’s and Menon’s blood. Krishna Menon, Nehru’s right hand and confidante, was the favorite whipping boy of the media, even as the poison arrows were directed against the prime minister himself. On October 23, the Congress charged Menon for having misled Nehru, Parliament and the country. On October 31, Nehru took over the Defense portfolio as Menon continued in a new post in the Cabinet as a Minister for Defense Production. Days later, on Nov 9th, Menon resigned and left active politics. The Chinese war lasted 30 days. As critics commented later, India spent 18 days trying to drive out Menon, the scapegoat, from the defense ministry (Sankar Ghose – Nehru Autobiography)
As defense minister, Menon was responsible for many of the failures. Amongst the guilty, next to Nehru, Menon and the military leaders, was the Opposition. They were largely responsible for pushing Nehru into a corner and forcing him to fight the Chinese at the wrong time and place. Nor can they escape responsibility for ignoring the defense needs after 1959. Another issue was that Menon blindly followed the thesis as propounded by Nehru that there was no threat to India's external security. Menon was unfortunately a pacifist, not cut out for the role of a war leader.
Lakshmi Menon, Nehru’s roving Ambassador, Deputy Minister (external affairs) & parliamentary secretary (also a Krishna Menon critic) sums this up perfectly – quoting a rare outburst from Menon against his friend Nehru, in Sept 1962. He told Lakshmi “Now my enemies will attack me, but I cannot reply because Nehru was personally responsible for all decisions regarding the NEFA and had refused to concentrate as much force there as in Ladakh”. (Source - CIA files)
Krishan Menon said after resigning his post– “I do not feel that I have the right nor will my sense of propriety allow me to go into details of that period because, as a minister, when I resigned, I had the opportunity to make a statement, but I did not, and it was not a lapse. I refused to do that deliberately. I abstained for reasons that I set out in the resignation letter of Nov 9th when I said I should not say anything that would help the Chinese, anything that might reflect on my colleagues in the government, anything that might affect the position of the government as a whole. I regret neither my resignation nor my silence. I hope I shall maintain this position even under provocation” - and he maintained that silence until his death. (Source- VKKM Bio by Madhavan Kutty)
I will stop with this poignant note - On Oct 25th, Ambassador Galbraith wrote to President Kennedy stressing that India will soon ask for military aid – “Does important American assistance require his (Menon’s) effective elimination from the defense & UN scene?” Galbraith was advised as follows from Washington – “We again urge the importance of avoiding the slightest appearance of US initiative and responsibility in removing Menon” (S Mahmud Ali – Cold war in the Himalayas).
Nehru was a broken man after the affair; he died soon after, in 1963. Menon left the big arena; Morarji continued on, restored relations with China, later got embroiled in a case involving the CIA & S Hersh. Kaul & Thimmaya wrote books for posterity, Manekshaw continued with the Army & rose to the position of Field Marshall. The organizations started by Menon flourished and produced a fine backbone of support to the Indian Armed forces. The Air force always featured in future wars. As for the 0.303 rifles, unfortunately, they are still being used by state police departments in India and will someday be replaced with automatic rifles.
Menon was at times an abrasive and caustic person, who irritated and annoyed many. But he always supported his good friend Nehru, blindly. Narrating his own experience of cabinet meetings, Krishna Menon states that Nehru would sometimes say, "Here it is, let's agree on this", that usually at the end of the meeting he would mumble that everyone was agreed and that he was not a person who sought consultation." (The making of India’s foreign policy – J Bandhyopadhyaya). Nehru & Menon were above all, friends in need and friends indeed, they were always fellow travelers.
But despite his many weaknesses, Menon held his country’s interest utmost and worked ceaselessly for it. As R Murali Kumar wrote to the editor of Time - Those were the days when true patriots took part in the development of the nation and there were no linguistic, cultural or other factors, which decided one's victory in the elections. In 1967, Bombay’s Shiv Sena (SK Patil) targeted Krishna Menon (during Menon’s electoral bids to get back into parliament), from Mumbai for his "rhinoceros"-colored skin. Film actor Dilip Kumar was branded a Pakistani spy for supporting Menon.
Subedar Ram Singh survived the war, I saw him last week and ate an excellent Garlic Nan and Chicken Makhani served by him. Thin and gaunt, he still blames the Indian political masters. I wish I could sit and explain all this to him, someday. But geopolitics is always best understood, by mere mortals like us, only in hindsight. Perhaps Menon could foresee the calamity – it was he who once said - 'It is the habit of mediocrity to complicate a simple issue. It is the mark of genius to simplify a complex one'.
Today – I saw on TV & read this article – People prefer Chinese made Idols to Indian versions, they were cheaper & better made. Last year, when I visited Calicut, a place where Menon lived his younger days, I saw a Chinese bazaar doing roaring business, with deals like 10 batteries or bulbs for Rs10 and things like that. The Indian eye for a bargain meant that they were quickly purchased. NAM & Panchsheel were worn out usages, long forgotten. The 62 debacle was forgotten & globalization was fast taking root.
Authors note – I have read many a book on Menon, many a newspaper article of that time, MI5 files on Menon, CIA reports of the Sino China war and only some of what I read finds its way here. It is in no way an authoritative or complete account of events leading to or during the 62 war. This article is only a feeble attempt at explaining the general outlook at that time and a small defense for Menon, for there are far too many people who blindly repeat falsehoods against Menon without even knowing him.
Previous blogs on Krishna menon
An undiplomatic diplomat
The reluctant politician
Krishna The movie