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R Prasannan
R Prasannan


Humiliation of a general

  • On war-footing: A truck convoy on its way to the northeast border-China front | Getty Images
  • Disciplined days: From the day he had taken charge, General K.S. Thimayya had been focused on redressing the various problems that faced the Indian Army | Getty Images

Shiv Kunal Verma's latest book gives a total picture of the 1962 war, including the politics behind it

Military historian and filmmaker Shiv Kunal Verma has the military all around him, except in his clothes—he is a civilian. His father had fought as a captain in the 1962 war and retired as a major-general. Verma has been filming and writing about the military for a quarter century now. His documentaries—Salt of the Earth on the Army, Akaash Yodha on the Indian Air Force, The Naval Dimension on the Navy—have been widely acclaimed in military circles, and his film on the National Defence Academy, The Standard Bearers, is considered a classic. He has also written a brilliantly illustrated account of the Siachen conflict titled The Long Road to Siachen, and a northeast trilogy.

His latest book, 1962: The War that Wasn't, is a gripping narration of the controversial and heroic incidents that happened in the mountain battlefields and in the closed-door meetings in the Army headquarters and the defence ministry. Apart from gleaning through the official records of the period, Verma has picked up the threads of the story from the officers and men who planned and fought the war. While most previous accounts, like J.P. Dalvi's Himalayan Blunder and B.M. Kaul's The Untold Story (which give contrary views) have been largely single-person autobiographical accounts trying to justify the authors' own conduct or assessment, Verma's book is one of the few comprehensive accounts pieced together to give the total picture—not only of the battlescape, but also the political space. The book opens with the infamous run-ins between the Jawaharlal Nehru-Krishna Menon political leadership and the K.S. Thimayya-led military on the other, but quickly moves on to be with the officers and men on the ground. It presents the story of how they fought the Chinese and among themselves and against the ferocious forces of weather against which they had no defence.

Excerpts from the book

Nehru was waiting for Thimayya and for the first time, the normally reticent Timmy exchanged angry words with the prime minister. He told Nehru that his arbitrary decision of making NEFA [North-East Frontier Agency] the responsibility of the army, made public in Parliament, was preposterous and completely against Indian interests. Thimayya felt that Nehru had completely compromised the army.

Without providing the additional resources required, handing over the borders to the army was a meaningless gesture; this would allow the Chinese the opportunity to claim that the Indians were the aggressors, for they always went to great pains to describe their own troops as border guards. Thimayya asked Nehru to find a way out of the mess in the next couple of weeks, after which he departed. Immediately after Thimayya’s departure, the shaken prime minister summoned Krishna Menon to Teen Murti.

81JawaharlalNehru Talking heads: Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon | Getty Images

Nehru and Krishna Menon knew that the prime minister was in serious trouble. He had got away with the admission in Parliament earlier in the day only because the triple whammy—ongoing clashes on the border, the construction of National Highway G219 across the Aksai Chin and the Khenzemane and Longju incidents—had come as a shock to the members of the House. At any rate, it was unlikely that any of the parliamentarians knew the terrain or understood matters pertaining to the military to raise any meaningful questions. Thimayya wanted Nehru to undo the mistake; but should the prime minister formally withdraw his statement about deploying the army and revert to the previous arrangement, he would be committing political hara-kiri. The threat of Thimayya taking over the reins of government, at least in Nehru’s mind, was very real.

Politics is full of subterfuge, and survival, when the chips are down, is perhaps the biggest challenge. Not only did the Nehru-Menon team now have to survive, they had to neutralize Thimayya. Three days later, Krishna Menon sent for Thimayya in ‘a highly excited state of mind’ and vented his anger at the chief for having approached the prime minister directly, suggesting instead that the matter should have been resolved at his level. Threatening Thimayya of ‘possible political repercussions if the matter became public’ Krishna Menon ended the meeting. A seething Thimayya returned to his office, and after a brief conversation with his wife, Neena, promptly sent in his resignation letter.

The letter, which was received by Teen Murti on the afternoon of 31 August, was put up to Nehru who promptly sent for Thimayya in the afternoon. By now Nehru was far more assured in his manner, using his authority and personal charm to good effect. After a long conversation in which the prime minister persuaded the army chief to withdraw his resignation letter in the larger interest of the nation, especially since the problem with the Chinese had flared up, the matter of the resignation was deemed closed.

However, after Thimayya’s departure, news of his resignation was deliberately leaked to the media while the subsequent rescinding of the letter was held back. Quite expectedly, the Thimayya resignation made banner headlines the next morning. Through the day, there was no formal reaction from the government, as the prime minister was preoccupied with General Ayub Khan, the president of Pakistan, who was in transit through New Delhi. By the evening the Press Trust of India had announced that Krishna Menon had also resigned, only to withdraw its report a short while later.

On 2 September 1959, the prime minister once again rose in Parliament to make a statement. He told the Lok Sabha that he had persuaded the chief to withdraw his resignation. He then went on to speak about the supremacy of the civilian authority over the military and then, had surprisingly, proceeded to castigate Thimayya, saying the issues that led to his resignation were ‘rather trivial and of no consequence’, and that they arose ‘from temperamental differences’. He then chided the chief and reproached him for ‘wanting to quit in the midst of the Sino-Indian border crisis’.

Even today, the contents of Thimayya’s resignation letter remain a highly guarded secret. Instead, vague stories about Thimayya’s resignation were routinely floated where it was said that Timmy had resigned out of pique because of the manner in which Krishna Menon treated him. On careful scrutiny, that doesn’t hold water.

The much adored prime minister, who could do no wrong in the eyes of the public, had betrayed General Thimayya. Trapped in this bad situation, the chief had no option but to quietly endure the humiliation and get on with the job of trying to prepare the army to face the Chinese when the need arose.

The prime minister’s attitude towards Thimayya was damaging to the chief as well as the army. A whispering campaign started that speculated on the ‘rather trivial’ reasons for Thimayya’s resignation. That the chief was unhappy with the defence minister’s insistence on promoting certain officers was a well-known fact and pre-dated the Longju incident. It was hinted that the ‘temperamental differences’ were a direct result of this difference of opinion. General Thimayya was, by all accounts, a seasoned, disciplined soldier who would hardly have made issues over trifles. Only overriding national interests could have provoked him to take this step. Further, as a disciplined soldier he had accepted his prime minister’s assurance and withdrawn his resignation. From the day he had taken charge, Thimayya had been focused on redressing the various problems that faced the Indian Army, especially the evolving civil-military equation where the army seemed quite removed from the decision-making process on matters relating to defence. However, he found himself up against a wall in the form of the Ministry of Defence, which was either indifferent or hostile to his moves. After the resignation drama Thimayya was seen as an alarmist and a defeatist. Having thus weakened the office of the army chief, the prime minister now placed his hope in the man he believed had all the answers. In the corridors of power in New Delhi, it was Lieutenant General B. M. ‘Bijji’ Kaul whose star was on the rise.

The Chinese had the first laugh, as the Indians had so far played the game just as they would have wished them to. Even according to Chinese records, at no stage had there been any action that pitted more than an Indian infantry company against at least four to five times the number of Chinese troops. The Chinese officially admit to 2,419 casualties (722 dead and 1,697 wounded). The figure is quite stunning, given the situation in which each Indian position was asked to fight.

From all accounts, Bogey Sen’s presence in Tawang between 22 and 23 October only added to the confusion. Before landing at Tawang, the army commander had flown towards Zimithang to get an idea of the terrain which he was not familiar with at all. Once in Tawang, as we have seen, Sen did nothing to bolster the confidence of the garrison. The meeting with [Lt Gen Niranjan] Prasad later in the evening focused on two issues: the Nam Ka Chu rout of 7 Brigade and the immediate withdrawal from Tawang. Bogey Sen opposing a withdrawal only amounted to theatrics, for had he wished, as the army commander, he had the authority to overrule Prasad.

Both officers at the time were unaware that Army HQ, now represented by Monty Palit, was pushing for the same decision. There was a critical difference though—Prasad was planning on falling back on Bomdila with Se-la only playing the part of a delaying obstacle. Palit, on the other hand, based on the one incomplete reconnaissance made almost two years ago, had made up his mind to dig in at Se-la. [Army chief Pran Nath] Thapar having gone along with his DMO, who now had the tacit approval of Nehru, was relegated to the role of a spectator. The Thorat Plan, even though it hadn’t been implemented, at least had had some discussions around it and plans had been drawn up. Just as Tawang was abandoned on a whim, Se-la was seemingly chosen arbitrarily by Monty Palit who played the ‘cleared by the cabinet’ card to ride roughshod over any opposition.

In the coming days, the Indian military high command would take decisions that lacked even the most basic common sense. Even as Palit was coming out of the defence minister’s room with Nehru’s ‘the military must decide where to fight’ mandate, Bogey Sen had decided to sack Niranjan Prasad as GOC 4 Division. Less than three hours previously, as he was leaving Tawang, Sen had eventually endorsed Prasad’s decision to pull back from Bum-la and evacuate Tawang. Surely, having seen for himself the effect of the headlong retreat from Zimithang on Prasad and other senior officers, Sen was experienced enough to know that to pull back any further would result in losing not just all the supplies and material that had so painstakingly been put together, but a withdrawal without a fight would further sap the morale of the men and officers. So far, after the first couple of hours of fighting on the Nam Ka Chu, Tsangdhar, Khenzemane, and Bum-la, all Indian units that had come into contact with the Chinese were only fighting in penny packets or withdrawing. Had it been decided that Tawang was to be held at all costs, it would have made perfect sense to replace Prasad as the GOC since the army commander felt he had lost the will to fight. But to institute this change after the withdrawal order was given was to add considerably to the existing chaos.


On the evening of 23 October neither Delhi, Lucknow nor Tezpur had any idea where the next defensive line was supposed to be; the only orders given until then were to abandon Tawang and Bum-la and fall back on Jang. When Palit took the draft of the order to hold Se-la to the chief, it was decided that Thapar, Palit and the IB chief, [B.N.] Mullik, would fly immediately to Tezpur and discuss the matter with Bogey Sen in person. From all indications,Thapar was still not fully convinced about the decision to hold Se-la. On his own initiative, Palit put into place steps for the stocking of supplies for Se-la, working on the assumption that five battalions would be required to hold the feature.

1962: The War That Wasn't
By Shiv Kunal Verma
Published by Aleph Book Company
Pages 512; price Rs995

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