Sunday, 21 October 2012

Of Cotton Shirts and Canvas Shoes

October marks the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Indo-China war. This was a war in which the Indian army suffered a complete defeat in the erstwhile NEFA region and the extent to which the Chinese Army was able to invade in the Indian territory can be gauged from the fact that the city of Tezpur in Assam was ordered to be evacuated. The accounts of the events leading to the war, the dispatches from the war as it happened have all been extensively written about. Many commentators complain about the Handerson-Brooks report which was the Army's own official account of the war not being declassified by the defense ministry.

When I read these accounts what I see are the glaring similarities between the high altitude war of 1962 with China and the Kargil conflict of 1999. While the build up to 1962 and the actual war was for a longer duration than the Kargil war and with completely different outcomes, in both cases India was left unaware of extent of enemy incursions, enemy's strengths and was completely unprepared to fight the war. A reader may not agree with me on this and might say that we were not as unprepared for the Kargil war as we were for the 1962 war, but the fact is that in both these wars the soldiers on the ground were woefully ill equipped for the kind of conditions in which they had to fight and that is what is revealed in the repeated citing of the kind of clothes and equipment that the solders were supplied with during both these conflicts. In 1962 while the enemy infantry units were acclimatized to the harsh Himalayan conditions and were equipped with state of the art AK-47 assault weapons, the Indian soldiers were recently deployed in the region and the standard issue equipment they had was the Lee-Enfield .303 rifle which had already become obsolete after the second world war. They were sent to guard posts in difficult terrain with no road infrastructure to support their deployment and when the enemy attacked they were left to fight them off with only limited supply of ammunition with them.

The accounts of both the Kargil war and the 1962 war cite the bravery of the soldiers who fought against great odds but the fact remains that if bravery was the the only criterion for winning a war then why spend so much in training the top brass of the military in war strategy and why even have an elite top brass in the services with all the privileges it enjoys. Neville Maxwell's book 'India's China War' paints a very negative picture about the leadership of the Army and the civilian Indian government of the time. Although he has been criticized in India of being 'biased' against India, I find it completely plausible for the kind of disregard for sound military strategy, the nepotism in appointing the Army leadership of the time and the failure of diplomacy with China as has been cited in the book to have occurred. Please also be reminded that before Kargil came the Lahore bus diplomacy just as before 1962 came the Panchsheel accord. The Indian military and civilian leadership was lulled into a false sense of security on both occasions and were caught sleeping when the road in Aksai Chin or the Sanghads in Kargil built by the enemy were discovered.

I frankly do not want to write too much about the war preparedness or war strategy of the leadership of that time. I do not have the credentials to write about it either. It is best left to the experts, but what I want to mention is that condition of the Indian solders comes out as appalling in every account of both these wars which one reads. They were fighting a high altitude war in canvass shoes and cotton shirts. Half the Indian casualties in the Sino-India war were weather related. The soldiers who went up the hills of Kargil were also not prepared for the mountain warfare.The condition was poor 50 years ago and it remained poor 13 years ago. The question is whether it is acceptable today or will we continue to demand bravery from our solders against all odds to get us out of the situations which are a creation of our failure of leadership in the first place, while at the same time giving them barely sufficient in return.

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