When China Invaded India

The 1962 Chinese Invasion


Brahma Chellaney

(c) Hindustan Times 

At sunrise on October 20, 1962, China’s People’s Liberation Army invaded India with overwhelming force on two separate flanks – in the west in Ladakh, and in the east across the McMahon Line in the then North-East Frontier Agency.  The Chinese aggression, and the defeat and humiliation it wreaked on an unprepared India, remain deeply embedded in the Indian psyche.

            India was taken completely unawares by the invasion.  This reflected political naivete on its part.  It also bared a woefully flawed intelligence network that failed to pick up the movement of heavy artillery and other Chinese military activity along the Himalayan frontier in the months ahead.  The invasion of India was carefully planned well in advance and came after extended military preparations, including the improvement of logistics and the movement of heavy artillery from opposite Taiwan to Tibet, where PLA had since its annexation maintained infantry troops in large numbers to suppress the local population without the need to induct heavy weaponry.  That began to change by the spring of 1962, but Indian intelligence remained horrifically oblivious.

Decades later, some gnawing issues stand out.  One relates to the timing of the invasion masterminded by Mao Zedong.  The aggression was executed cunningly to coincide with the Cuban missile crisis that brought the United States and Soviet Union within a whisper of nuclear war. 

The timing, which precluded the possibility of India getting any immediate outside help, was made doubly favourable by two other developments – an American promise earlier in July to hold Taiwan from initiating hostilities across the straits that enabled China to single-mindedly mobilise against India, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s subtle yet discernible tilt towards Beijing on the Sino-Indian border issue in an apparent effort to buy Chinese support in the looming Soviet confrontation with the United States.

            Two key interrelated questions need to be addressed. Why did Mao order the invasion?  And having captured most of the forward Indian military posts in both sectors in the first wave of assaults, why did Beijing carry out a second, more vicious round of attacks after a gap of three weeks?  Mao had several objectives on his mind in turning border skirmishes into a full-fledged war.  None was military.

            Mao’s aims were mainly political.  The military objectives had largely been achieved in the earlier years through furtive PLA encroachments that had, for example, brought Aksai Chin under Chinese control.  The PLA – not an independent power centre then – was merely an instrument to help Mao accomplish his political objectives in 1962.  Roderick MacFarquhar, in the third and final volume of his masterwork, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, published in 1997, aptly calls the aggression “Mao’s India War”. 

            The first political objective was to humiliate India, China’s Asian rival.  Mao was determined to cut India to size and to undermine what India represented – a pluralistic, democratic model for the developing world that seemingly threatened China’s totalitarian political system. 

The PLA’s military adventure against India was clearly punitive in nature, a judgement reinforced by Premier Zhou Enlai’s ready admission that it was intended “to teach India a lesson” – a lesson India has not forgotten to this day.  The second wave of assaults was designed to heap ignominy by soundly thrashing India.  Such have been the long-lasting effects of the humiliation it imposed that China to this day is able to keep India in check, despite transferring weapons of mass destruction to Pakistan and opening a new strategic front through Myanmar.

            Another aim of Mao was to wreck the image of Nehru, who until then had been a towering figure on the international stage and an icon in many parts of the developing world.  Nehru stood diminished and demolished by November 1962.  Defeat, especially decisive defeat, usually turns a statesman into a beaten, worn-out politician and shatters a nation’s international standing.  The crushing rout, in fact, hastened Nehru’s death. 

            But more than Mao, it was Nehru who contributed to his own disgrace by blundering twice on China.  His first blunder was to shut his eyes to the impending fall of Tibet even when Sardar Patel had repeatedly cautioned him in 1949 that the Chinese communists would annex that historical buffer as soon as they installed themselves in Beijing.  An overconfident Nehru, who ran foreign policy as if it were personal policy, went to the extent of telling Patel by letter that it would be a “foolish adventure” for the Chinese Communists to try and gobble up Tibet – a possibility that “may not arise at all” as it was, he claimed, geographically impracticable!

            In 1962, Nehru, however, had to admit he had been living in a fool’s paradise.  “We were getting out of touch with reality in the modern world and we were living in an artificial atmosphere of our creation,” he said in a national address after the Chinese aggression.

Nehru had ignored India’s military needs despite the Chinese surreptitiously occupying Indian areas on the basis of Tibet’s putative historical ties with them, and setting up a land corridor to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir through Aksai Chin.  Although Indian military commanders after the 1959 border clashes and casualties began saying that they lacked adequate manpower and weapons to fend off the PLA, Nehru ordered the creation of forward posts to prevent the loss of further Indian territory without taking the required concomitant steps to beef up Indian military strength, including through arms imports.  Nehru had convinced himself grievously that the Chinese designs were to carry out further furtive encroachments on Indian territory, not to launch major aggression. 

            A third objective of Mao was to undermine India’s non-aligned status.  No sooner the PLA began the first wave of assaults than an unnerved Nehru appealed to the United States for military help.  He implored that Washington grant military aid without insisting on a formal alliance.  But no U.S. military aid came while the Chinese were still attacking India.  Kennedy waited until Khrushchev’s capitulation over missiles in Cuba before sending Nehru a letter promising “support as well as sympathy”. 

When the PLA launched the second series of attacks, the U.S. carrier force, USS Enterprise, steamed not towards the East or South China Sea but towards the Bay of Bengal to serve as a psychological prop to the besieged Indians.  John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in his memoirs, Ambassador’s Journal, that he had, as U.S. Ambassador to India, recommended the despatch of the aircraft carrier to ease Indian nerves.

Once Beijing declared a unilateral cease-fire, the issue of U.S. arms sales to India got caught in the perennial and still-prevalent U.S. demand – that New Delhi open talks with Pakistan on Kashmir – forcing the Nehru government to hold five rounds of futile discussions with Islamabad as a quid pro quo for receiving low-line American arms.  The Chinese aggression was seen in Washington as creating an opportunity for what America has always desired and still seeks to pursue – closer and better ties with India while maintaining old bonds with Pakistan – to help promote ‘regional stability’, a euphemism for subcontinental balance.    

            A fourth objective of Mao, who had been seething over Nehru’s grant of sanctuary to the Dalai Lama and his followers, was to effectively cut off India’s age-old historical ties with Tibet.  In one stroke, all outside links with Tibet – religious, temporal, cultural, medicinal and trade – collapsed.  This meant that Tibetans could no longer maintain their ancient ties with Gaya, Sarnath, Sanchi and other seats of monasteries, and that Indians no longer had access to Mansorovar Lake and Mount Kailash.

            Fifthly, the war came handy to Mao for domestic politics.  At a time when China’s economic calamities, including famines, and Mao’s insistence on a domestic class struggle were spurring grassroots problems, the swiftness and brute power with which he managed to teach India a lesson not only boosted China’s image internationally, but also helped him to politically consolidate at home.  Success, after all, has a thousand fathers, while defeat leaves an orphan.

            What Indian policy did not appreciate then and has yet to come to terms with is that the invasion was triggered more by a Chinese ambition to dominate Asia than by a territorial dispute.  In that sense, 1962 represented far more than the loss of national pride or territory for India; it meant the beginning of an undeclared war for pre-eminence in Asia – a raging war in which India has steadily lost ground, with China making inroads into even the traditional spheres of Indian influence, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

            For Mao, it was a victory for the asking, because the Indian leadership had made no effort to plug the glaring vulnerabilities in the defence of India.  In true Sun Tsu style, however, Mao waited for the right time to strike, invading India when it least expected to be attacked.  The PLA’s preparations to invade India started after 1959 but were camouflaged in the form of extended border negotiations that Beijing held with New Delhi.

Border negotiations with India were employed not only to feign reasonableness but, more importantly, to buy time for military consolidation and to bide time for the right opportunity to strike.  The building of border roads after 1959 was indicative of the Chinese efforts to upgrade military logistics along the mighty Himalayas.

In the same vein, the current series of largely fruitless border talks since 1981 – the longest continuing inter-state negotiations in post-World War II history – serve as a cover for China to pursue containment of India with engagement. 

Also, in a fashion reminiscent of the current Beijing approach to depict all Chinese actions as defensive and peaceful, Mao sought to paint India as the provoker with its ‘forward policy’ – a line of reasoning lapped up by some biased Western analysts, particularly a self-confessed Maoist, British journalist Neville Maxwell, who contended in his book, India’s China War, that it was India that had been the aggressor.

When the PLA marched hundreds of miles south to annex Tibet and establish a Sino-Indian military frontier for the first time in history, that was supposedly not expansionist or forward policy.  But when the Indian Army belatedly sought to set up posts along its unmanned frontier in Ladakh to try and stop further Chinese land grabs, this was christened ‘forward policy’ and dubbed provocative!

The Indian predilection for talk rather than action was on brazen display in the run-up to the 1962 war.  This was best illustrated by Nehru’s offhand remarks to reporters while leaving for Colombo on October 12: “Our instructions are to free our territory.  I cannot fix the date, that is entirely for the Army”.  Such loose talk was a god-send to the Chinese communists to fix the date for their attack.

            Mao needed no Indian provocation to launch a military attack.  He was provoked by his own logic to defeat the alternative model that India represented and the ideas and principles that Nehru symbolised.  Had India not started building forward posts, Mao would have found some other pretext to attack India.

In fact, Nehru, the architect of the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai festivity, had gone out of his way to propitiate communist China, accepting even the Chinese annexation of Tibet in a 1954 agreement without settling the Indo-Tibetan border.  While Nehru thought he had bought peace with China by accepting Chinese rule over Tibet on the basis of his doctrine of panchshila, or the five principles of peaceful co-existence, Mao and his team read this both as a sign of India’s weakness and a licence to encroach on strategically important areas of Ladakh.

Not only did the Nehru government cling to the belief that China was a benign neighbour despite the 1959 border clashes, its thinking and policy also precluded the defence of India on the Kautilyan principle that to maintain peace, a nation had to be ready to defend peace. 

Official policy had steadfastly refused to consider China to be a military threat, let alone to adopt counter-measures against the threat.  Forward posts were created not to militarily assert India’s claims by positioning troops at vantage points but to affirm a political line.  It was for reason that these posts were thinly manned and often on low ground in direct contravention of military logic.  In fact, the yawning mismatch between the officially encouraged perception of China and the ‘benign’ neighbour’s brutal aggression added to the severity of the shock that battered India.

So betrayed was Nehru by Mao’s war that he had this to say on the day the Chinese invaded: “Perhaps there are not many instances in history where one country has gone out of her way to be friendly and cooperative with the government and people of another country and to plead their cause in the councils of the world, and then that country returns evil for good”.

Four decades later, India has not forgotten the central lesson it was taught by Mao.  India’s rise as a military power with independent nuclear and missile capabilities is the consequence of a lesson learned.  Had the debacle not set in motion India’s military modernisation and reform of its defence techniques and strategies, India would not have fared well against Pakistan in the 1965 and 1971 wars.  In fact, without the post-1962 military buildup, it could well have lost the Kashmir valley to Pakistan in 1965.  However, with foreign policy still being shaped by personal predilections and idiosyncrasies rather than by institutional processes, India continues to repose faith in adversaries and then cries foul when they deceive it, as Kargil showed. 



A Question of Timing 

Brahma Chellaney

Mao directed two double-front attacks on India within a span of about a month.  In the style recommended by ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu who authored the treatise, The Art of War, Mao chose an exquisite time for perpetrating a ‘Himalayan Pearl Harbour’ against India.

The first wave of assaults on Indian border positions in Ladakh and NEFA began on October 20, 1962, five days after the CIA formally determined the presence of medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba on October 15 through reconnaissance photographs taken the previous day, triggering a major U.S. showdown with Moscow. 

A day before the PLA launched the attacks on India, Radio Moscow was citing U.S. naval manoeuvres in the Caribbean as preparations for an invasion of Cuba.  And the day the Chinese forces came pouring across the Himalayas, U.S. President John F. Kennedy had already put into effect a naval quarantine of Cuba.  By the time the Chinese halted their weeklong incursions into NEFA, while continuing to pick and target Indian posts in Aksai Chin, the Cuban missile crisis had brought the world to the edge of a nuclear Armageddon.

            Not content with the PLA’s battlefield victories against the outnumbered and outgunned Indian forces, Mao decided to launch a second wave of military assaults on India while the Americans and Russians were still embroiled in the Cuban crisis.  The threat of a nuclear holocaust had eased after Khrushchev gave in on October 28 and agreed to withdraw the nuclear-armed missiles from Cuba.  But the missile crisis was still lingering, with troops in Cuban military uniform taking up positions around the Soviet missile sites and strongman Fidel Castro refusing UN on-site inspections in Cuba as well as the withdrawal of Il-28 bombers.

            Making the most of the continuing global preoccupation with the Cuban missile crisis, and rushing to capitalise further before the abating crisis wound up, Mao employed the PLA for a second round of two-front attacks on India starting on November 18, a day before Castro gave in to the withdrawal of Il-28s. 

So scared were Indian policy-makers by a self-created fear that Calcutta would be bombed that they did not employ their superior air force against the invading Chinese, ignorant as they were of the fact that China had only one or two airfields in Tibet and that its fighter aircraft (including Ilyushin 24) were distinctly inferior to India’s British-made Hunters.  Had India employed its offensive air power, it could have overcome its tactical disadvantage of lacking artillery in Ladakh and been in a position to hit hard the foot and mule columns of the Chinese in the Tawang area.  But New Delhi was possessed by an irrational fear of Chinese retaliation against Indian cities – a fear that created a sense of panic in Calcutta.

According to Colonel Anil Athale, who has co-authored the official history of the aggression, “the best-kept secret of the 1962 border war is that a large part of the non-military supplies needed by the Chinese reached them via Calcutta!  Till the very last moment, border trade between Tibet and India went on though Nathu La in Sikkim.  For the customs in Calcutta, it was business as usual and no one thought to pay any attention to increased trade as a battle indicator.”

And such was the panic in New Delhi to the advancing Chinese columns in NEFA that Jawaharlal Nehru thought the fall of the plains of Assam was imminent and pretty nearly said good-bye to the people there in a national broadcast.  On the evening of November 19, as the Army’s 4 Corps began preparations to pull out from Tezpur, a panic-stricken move that triggered the collapse of the local administration by the following day, Nehru told the nation: “Huge Chinese armies are marching into the northeast of India … yesterday we lost Bomdila, a small town in Kameng division. .. my heart goes out to the people of Assam”.  Till this day, Assamese extremists cite Nehru’s ‘abandonment’ of Assam to stir up secessionist sentiment.  

But on November 21, coinciding with Kennedy’s formal termination of Cuba’s quarantine, Beijing announced a unilateral ceasefire and its intent to withdraw from NEFA while keeping the gains on the west.  The first U.S. emergency military supplies to India began arriving by November 24 while the Chinese withdrawal from India’s northeast started from December 1.  Mao knew it would not be wise to continue waging war on India after the United States was free from the Cuban missile crisis.

Copyright: The Hindustan Times, 2002 


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