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Henderson Brooks Report: Implicit Political Lessons Not Learnt

Paper No. 5678                                        Dated 31-Mar-2014

By Dr Subhash Kapila

Implicit in the leaked Henderson Brooks Report on India’s military debacle in 1962 are Indian political leadership failures which cry aloud for attention.  Successive Indian political leaderships and pointedly the present one from 2004-2014 have failed to learn the 1962 lessons.

After partial leakage recently of the Henderson Brooks Report by Neville Maxwell on his blog site there has been a furore in India demanding the complete release by the Indian Government and rightly so, as more than 50 years have passed when ordinarily in other countries such reports are de-classified after 30 years. The Congress Governments which have been longest in the saddle and the BJP Government which ruled Delhi for some years both failed to release this Report despite persistent demands by the strategic community.

While the Congress Governments had significant reasons not to release the Report in the public domain to protect their leadership failures, what reasons impelled the BJP Government to follow suit? Who was the BJP Government shielding? This is absolutely inscrutable.

Those opposed to release of Henderson Brooks Report in 2014 have questioned on the timing of the leakage at this juncture implying dubious political motives.

The motives stand explained by Maxwell now nearing 90 years of age who explained that he believed he was “Complicit in continuing the cover-up” by keeping the Report to himself and therefore felt impelled to do so. This can be understandable.

More damningly he adds that “The reasons for the long term withholding of the Report must be political, indeed possibly partisan, perhaps even familial”.

Retrospectively, it appears that the then Government’s order for commissioning the Henderson Brooks Report when the Indian Army had already imitated corrective steps with its own in-house review becomes suspect. By ordering Terms of Reference for this Review as solely to a military review, the then Government had presumably hoped that military shortcomings would divert attention and provide a camouflage for any parliamentary debates on the Himalayan shortcomings of Prime Minister Nehru’s political leadership in the handling of the emerging China Threat and not providing resources to the Indian Army in the run-up to the 1962 Debacle.

Presumably what was not foreseen was that even a military review expressly limited to operations at Corps Headquarters levels and below would very much draw-in conclusions and inferences of the political failures of the anticipation of The China Threat, the erroneous intention readings of how China would react to India’s ;Forward Posture’ and the political management of The China Threat and associated impact of these failures on Indian Army readiness and capacity to effectively the impending Chinese aggression in 1962.

However what is not currently leaked are the Annexures and other Sections of the Report which are reported to be throwing pointers towards failures of the political leadership in the higher direction, management and intentions readings of Chinese strategies and the failure of Prime Minister Nehru in being oblivious to India’s woeful war preparedness to meet a possible Chinese invasion.

Notably, the Henderson Brooks Review on orders of the Government was restricted to a review w of Indian Army operational functions and command failures at Corps Headquarters and below. The Terms of Reference for this Review conveniently left out the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Committee access to and examination of Army Headquarters functioning and processing of policy directives, intelligence assessments of Chinese intentions received by Army Headquarters from the Ministry of Defence and also political decisions that were imposed on the Indian Army by Prime Minister Nehru and his meddlesome Defence Minister V K Krishna Menon.

Review of Army Headquarters functions by the Henderson Brooks Committee would perforce have drawn-in examination and review of the political directives given by the Prime Minister/Defence Minister and their failures which contributed to the ignominious military humiliation of the Indian Army for no fault of theirs. 

Keeping the Army Headquarters out of the Review was therefore a calculated attempt to protect Prime Minister Nehru and Defence Minister Menon’s political failures in the Higher Direction of War to cope with the Chinese Threat both in the run-up to the 1962 debacle and in their interference in military matters during the war itself.

The Indian Army following the military reverses inflicted on it by the failures of Indian political leadership had in December 1962 itself by in-house review initiated corrective measures in terms of changes in its operational doctrines, training programs and logistics management. This I can vouchsafe from personal experience of soldiering pre-1962 and post- Sino-Indian War 1962.

By 1963-1964 the Indian Army had reorganised its organisational structures with raising of Mountain Divisions and induction of effective weapon systems and equipment. Finally and tragically, PM Nehru was forced to shed his strategic delusions on the looming China Threat and listen to Indian Army Generals to provide resources for a rapid transformation of the Indian Army--- something that should have been initiated in the time period 1954-1959 but stymied by Prime Minister Nehru and his Government’s severe disconnect with the Indian Army hierarchy by Nehru’s own imposition of an archaic civil-military relations template on the Indian Armed Forces.

 What was beyond the Indian Army’s transformation was National Security mechanisms, higher direction of war, defence infrastructure improvements in border areas, and increased defence budgets to meet enlarged threats from India’s enemies. In the absence of a co-terminus review of failures of India’s political leadership leading to the 1962 Debacle these political and strategic deficits were not addressed. These aspects lay in the domain of the Indian political leadership.

While the Indian Army has transformed its operational doctrines, training and perspective planning after every war with whatever resources were niggardly allocated to it, the major question that begs an answer is whether India’s political leadership even after 50 years after the submission of the Henderson Brooks Report which within its lines sends implicit messages of failure of India’s political leadership has cared to transform itself by overcoming Indian political leadership’s “Strategic Culture Deficits”?

The Indian Republic must know that in terms of India’s external security and internal security at every stage of modern India’s history, national security failures have resulted from failures and flawed policies/lack of policies of India’s political leadership and an obstructive bureaucracy in the Ministry of Defence, and not the Indian Armed Forces who have time and again have risen to the occasion and safeguarded India’s sovereignty and National Honour despite the flawed approaches of its political masters.

Coming to the political failures inherently implicit in the Henderson Brooks Report on a reading between the lines, and with more than 30 years of soldiering in the Indian Army, the Indian Republic needs to be pointed out as to how the Indian Army which had excelled in two World Wars all over the world had a military debacle heaped on its head by the sheer ineptitude of India’s first Prime Minister and his meddlesome Defence Minister. It would take a whole book to enumerate the failures of these two worthies but here one would like to limit the scope of examination to some of the more salient political failures which continue to plague the whole National Security template even till today

These can be enumerated as follows:

  • “Strategic Culture Deficit” in India’s Prime Ministers, Defence Ministers and Ministry of Defence Bureaucracy.
  • “Severe Disconnect” between the Prime Minister and the Indian Armed Forces Hierarchy.
  • India’s Anticipation of Military Threats, Threat Assessments and Threat Analysis-The Flaws
  • Archaic Civil-Military Relations Template Reinforcing the “Severe Disconnect” stated above
  • Political Leadership’s Propensity for Political Appointees in Indian Armed Forces Hierarchy.

Intelligence Failures by Agencies Tasked for Provision of Timely Intelligence for the Armed Forces.

Prime Minister Nehru, Defence Minister Menon and the Indian Defence Ministry bureaucrats interposed by Nehru as a firewall between the Prime Minister and the Indian Army Generals were sadly and regrettably suffered from a severe “Strategic Culture Deficit”. They had no grasp of matters military or in the anticipation of threats and threat-management. India’s national security cannot be subordinated to idealistic impulses of the Prime Minister and his yearning for international recognition. This malaise sadly persists till today even when India has a National Security Adviser and a National Security Advisory Board. India’s shoddy war preparedness today in face of enhanced threats today would not be so had they had the strategic vision necessary.

India ‘s Defence Minister in the run-up to the 1962 Debacle may have been a brilliant person but he proved a no-good Defence Minister who was mostly curt and rude to the Indian Army Generals. With his close proximity to Prime Minister Nehru he could have prevailed upon Nehru to fast-track India’s war-preparedness. India’s Defence Ministers with the exception of George Fernandes have been lack-lustre individuals with no strategic culture and more often than not allowing the bureaucrats to rule the roost. Presently India has an “honest” Defence Minister who in the pursuit of honesty has put India’s war preparedness back by a decade and consequently India’s national security that much more vulnerable. India deserves highly intelligent, strategic- cultured Defence Ministers who can synergise with the Indian Armed Forces hierarchy, who by their professional expertise and military conditioning can best provide sound advice on national security challenges than civilian bureaucrats of the Defence Ministry or even National Security Advisers.

Nehru had a “Severe Disconnect” with the Indian Army hierarchy of Generals despite all of them having participated in the Second World War and distinguished themselves. Had Nehru sought their timely advice and placed them in the defence decision making loop India would have been spared the 1962 Debacle.

But Nehru severely distrusted the Indian Army and had a congenital dislike for them. Despite Indian Army having fought four major wars and safeguarded India’s National Honour every time, successive Indian Prime Ministers have persisted with this “Severe Disconnect” with the Indian Army hierarchy. This stands manifested with the present Prime Minister having advocating the de-militarisation of Siachen Sector on the wrong advice of his close advisers., The China Threat de-emphasis at apex political levels, the downplaying by the Defence Minister of beheading of Indian soldiers on the LOC by Pakistan Army Commandos and allowing the Foreign Minister to make statements dismissive of Chinese recent aggressive intrusions are nothing but a continuance of the old syndrome.

Nothing condemns Prime Minister Nehru, Defence Minister Menon, the Director of the Intelligence Bureau and the then Foreign Secretary for not anticipating The China Threat. Their misreading of Chinese military intentions against India’s ill-fated “Forward Posture” on the Himalayan Borders with Tibet, arose from all the above illustrious personalities coming to the Conclusion that China will not militarily react to what Mao perceived as Indian provocations against a much more powerful Chinese Army backed by an extensive defence infrastructure in Tibet,

In sharp comparison India’s Himalayan borders suffered from a lack of back-up infrastructure and logistics build-up, a fact known to Nehru and the advisers stated above, and yet despite the above, Nehru grandiosely ordered the Indian Army to “evict” the Chinese. Such blunders render Nehru and his advisers to puny strategic stature

Threat assessments and threat analysis focussing on China was non-existent or shoddy with major contributory factors being keeping the Indian Army divorced from the preparation and management of the looming China Threat.

Threat Assessments and Threat Analysis need to be studied in more detail in India. In my Book “India’s Defence Policies and Strategic Thought: A Comparative Analysis” I have devoted a complete Chapter on this subject and how India went wrong in the run-up to the 1962 Debacle.

Nehru imposed an archaic Civil-Military Relations Template contrary to the advice of his outgoing senior British advisers. All advanced democracies of the world do not adhere to the subordination of their Armed Forces to the civilian bureaucracy of the Defence Ministry. “Civilian Control” of the Armed Forces implies the Armed Forces submitting to the control of the political leadership of the day. India’s national security was bedevilled in the run-up to 1962 by a flawed Civil-Military Relations Template and continues to be so even more hazardously today. India’s mediocre Defence Ministers are exploited by their bureaucrats to rub-in their questionable superiority on the military brass.

The Indian Republic must guard against the propensity to foist political appointees or those politically pliable on the Indian Army. Let it be noted that in the 1962 Debacle there are contrasting pictures of Indian Army’s combat effectiveness on India’s Northern Front in Ladakh and India’s Eastern Front in NEFA.

 India’s 1962 military debacle did not take place on the Northern Front. There was no military rout in face of Chinese attacks even though Indian Army forward posts were run over by superior Chinese massed attacks. It was so because the Army chain of command in Ladakh was headed by a professional soldier and not a political appointee foisted on the military hierarchy.

Contrastingly, India’s Eastern Front was the scene of the worst Indian military humiliation and its 1962 Debacle because here Nehru and his Defence Minister foisted a political appointee in the person of Lieutenant General B M Kaul over the heads of the Indian Army hierarchy. General Kaul was related to the Prime Minister and 4 Corps was especially created for him because the erstwhile 33 Corps Commander was reportedly opposed NEFA military operations without adequate logistics and infrastructure build-up. General Kaul was a disaster for the Indian Army and also for himself. Propensity still continues for politically pliable appointees by manipulating chains of command and worse still edging out Chiefs of Services too strong for the Defence Ministry bureaucrats, as media reports reflect.

Intelligence failures by agencies tasked for providing timely intelligence to the Indian Army was the most significant and glaring cause for the 1962 Debacle. Director Intelligence Bureau Mullick compounded the intelligence failures with encouraging Prime Minister Nehru into the strategically disastrous ‘Forward Policy’ against the Chinese by providing gross misreading of Chinese intentions.

Never did Nehru ever condescend because of his “Severe Disconnect” with the Indian Army military hierarchy to consult them and seek a second opinion on the intention-readings grossly misrepresented by his much-favoured Director Intelligence Bureau. The results are for all to see.

Intelligence failures by the intelligence agencies in India’s subsequent wars have persistently plagued India’s national security planning apparatus. The Indian Army military intelligence is not authorised to penetrate and collect cross-border intelligence and perforce has to rely on whatever intelligence inputs provided by India’s intelligence agencies. Notably, even today one hears a lot of discussion on Pakistan Army’s ISI intelligence outfit but there is no discussion on the Chinese intelligence outfits targeting India.

The Henderson Brooks Report was rendered to the Government by two highly professional respected senior officers who examined India’s military shortcomings in the preparation, management and conduct of operations on the Northern Front in Ladakh and on the Eastern Front in NEFA. The Report has not been sparing in its critiques. As initially pointed out the Indian Army initiated in-house reforms and re-structuring in December 1963 without waiting for the Henderson Brooks Report.

The Government of the day or the one that follows it needs to recognise the imperatives of a full disclosure of the entire Henderson Brooks Report in its entirety, including all Annexures and Maps attached to it.

In the run-up to the final stages the Indian Army stood handicapped by a Prime Minister with a severe “Strategic Culture Deficit” and in “Severe Disconnect” with his military hierarchy, his favourite Defence Minister saddled with the same shortcomings, an Army Chief in awe of the Prime Minister and hence not forceful in emphasising the looming Chinese aggression to Nehru, a Chief of General Staff who was a political appointees being related to PM Nehru ,and later foisted as General Officer Commanding 4 Corps tasked to combat the China Threat.

Concluding, it needs to be forcefully reiterated that Indian Army’s military humiliation by China in the 1962 Debacle flowed from political leadership failures and not Indian Army failures. India’s Prime Minister failed the Indian Army by ordering it grandiosely “To evict the Chinese” totally oblivious to strategic and military realities that he as Prime Minister had failed in laying the groundwork for the Indian Army to do so.

The Henderson Brooks Report sections recently leaked while confined to military operational aspects contains implicit pointers to political leadership failures recounted above. These cannot be ignored any longer.

Future of India’s national security dictates imperatives for full disclosure of the Henderson Brooks Report so that relevant lessons are learnt and an overdue complete restructuring of the political mechanisms for national security management can be undertaken and India’s civil-military relations template is recast to avoid a repetition of the 1962 Debacle.

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