On November 21, 1962, after a month of fighting along its border with India, China declared a unilateral ceasefire, bringing to an end the Sino-Indian War.
With tension building on the border areas through 1962, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on October 12 said that he had instructed the Indian army to drive out “Chinese invaders” from Arunachal Pradesh (earlier known as the North East Frontier Agency or NEFA), which was claimed by both nations.
In response, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s Communist party, wrote on October 14 that it seemed Nehru had “made up his mind” to attack the Chinese frontier guards. “It is high time to shout to Mr. Nehru that the heroic Chinese troops…can never be cleared by anyone from their own territory,” the editorial said. “[W]e still want to appeal once more to Mr. Nehru: better rein in at the edge of the precipice and do not use the lives of Indian troops as stakes in your gamble.”
Putting the events just before the war into context, in an article on Rediff.com in 2012, Colonel Anil Athale (retd), the official historian of the 1962 war, wrote: “One author would later write ‘Nehru's casual statement only served to precipitate the Chinese attack on India.’ Many in India have swallowed this canard.” J.K. Galbriath, the American ambassador to India at the time, believed that the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict was accidental, Athale added, “a sort of escalation that neither side wanted”. But there is “clear evidence” that China was “well prepared” for an armed conflict, Athale wrote.
On October 20, the war began when Chinese forces launched two major attacks: to drive out Indian soldiers from Chip Chap valley in Aksai Chin in the Western theatre; and to capture the area around Namka Chu river in the Eastern theatre. In four days, Chinese troops were successful in capturing a chunk of the territory.
In the Eastern theatre, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had three regiments north of the river Namka Chu. In their line of fire on the southern banks of the river was a single, understaffed Indian battalion. Chinese fire targeted Indian positions, and its infantry launched an attack. Indian troops were eventually forced to leave Namka Chu, which fell into Chinese hands. In the Western theatre, Indian forces were overwhelmed by Chinese troops who quickly took control of areas such as Galwan Valley, Pangong Lake and Chip Chap.
Four days after the conflict started, the People’s Liberation Army was in a strong position and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai wrote a letter to Nehru calling for an end to fighting and settlement of the boundary dispute. However, the Indian Parliament passed a strong resolution against the Chinese “aggressors”.
The Soviet Union, which was bogged down by the Cuban Missile Crisis, refused to be drawn into the Indian-Sino border conflict. “Realising that he could not take on both the US and China at the same time, the Russian leader [Nikita Khrushev] changed his policy on India and China, no matter how temporarily,” veteran journalist and political commentator Inder Malhotra wrote in The Tribune in an article to mark the 50th anniversary of the Indian-Sino war. “We in this country were shocked and dismayed by the [Soviet government mouthpiece] Pravda editorial of October 25 that talked of ‘our Chinese brothers and Indian friends’ and advised India to negotiate practically on China’s terms.”
Nehru also appealed for help to American President John F. Kennedy during the war, requesting jets fighters and a radar system, but the United States rejected the plea.
Meanwhile, the fighting at the border resumed after a three-week lull and the Chinese continued to press forward to capture areas China claimed belonged to it. Having largely achieved its objectives, China declared a ceasefire. “Beginning from 21 November 1962, the Chinese frontier guards will cease fire along the entire Sino-Indian border,” the declaration issued on November 19 said. “Beginning from 1 December 1962, the Chinese frontier guards will withdraw to positions 20 kilometres behind the line of actual control which existed between China and India on 7 November 1959.”
The 1962 war remains a traumatic moment in Indian memory. An important consequence of the war was that India recognised the holes in its military preparedness and modernised its defence forces. Most experts believe that India was militarily and strategically underprepared for the war. Decisions by the Indian side like not using the air force to target Chinese positions have been criticised by some military observers. However, there are differences over who was to be blamed most for the debacle, and how much of the blame should be laid at the door of the prime minister.
“With the benefit of hindsight it should be clear that had the Indian state been functioning collectively as a modern and effective one should, it would have realised soon after March 1959 — when the Dalai Lama fled from Lhasa and was given asylum in this country — that the two countries were moving from the Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai era to the Hindi-Chini bye-bye era,” Malhotra wrote in his 2012 article. “The trend became even clearer when violent armed clashes began and at Kongka-la in Ladakh the Chinese drew blood for the first time….” But all these “red signals” were “ignored” because Nehru thought that while there would be border skirmishes and other clashes, Chinese would do ‘nothing big’. “For this the iconic first Prime Minister of independent India must take his share of blame.”
On the other hand, defence analyst K. Subrahmanyam had a more favourable opinion of Nehru’s role: “History will record that Jawaharlal Nehru’s perception of India’s problems of security was accurate. The policies he pursued were also perhaps the best under the circumstances. But he failed partly in their implementation and partly for reasons which could never have been anticipated, such as the local command failure in the 1962 war. If we take into account the magnitude of the crisis that India faced, it would seem that Nehru pulled her through it at a relatively low cost.”
Also on this day:
1991 — T.S.A. Chettiar, Indian freedom fighter and educationist from Tamil Nadu, passed away
1970 — Sir C.V. Raman, Indian physicist and Nobel Prize winner, passed away