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The ghost of 1962 and other stories

In the wake of the Chinese Premier's visit to India and all the talk of 'more friends than rivals', two war veterans look back at the 1962 war. Nivriti Butalia reports.

delhi Updated: Dec 19, 2010 01:39 IST
Nivriti Butalia

This Parliament session, a little before the Chinese premier's visit, Mulayam Singh Yadav invoked a ghost that's been haunting India — the 1962 India-China war.

Yadav stressed India's needs to be cautious of the neighbour, who he said "may attack India soon". Pranab Mukherjee assured Yadav that the issue will be discussed.

The war has always set the tone for Indo-China relations.

On his visit to India this week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao took pains to assure us that the elephant and

dragon could learn to tango. "Never was a single shot fired across the border for two decades," the Chinese reminded us during the much-publicised visit. There was also much emphasis on the new relationship being that of "friend, not rival," but what do soldiers who fought in 1962 make of all the new-found "co-operation"?

We spoke to two 1962 war veterans. One is disappointed. The other is indignant. Both fought the battle of Chushul (an airfield on the road to Leh) in Ladakh in November 1962. Both have closely followed India's relations with its neighbour. Both are wary of recent developments. Neither has forgotten the psychological scars left by the war.

General P.L Kher (retd), AVSM, VRC, and SM, remembers vividly the events of November 18, 1962. Then a Captain, Kher says "We were occupying Gurung Hill (at 0545 hrs - 5.45am) when the Chinese attacked the two platoons there…" The gist: it was a long battle. The airfield remained intact. Kher was wounded, with severe stomach, chest, shoulder and arm injuries that kept him in hospital for months.

"I wasn't impressed," says Kher, of Wen's visit. "The Chinese are a shrewd and mature people. Little has changed in the last 50 years. They think they're the middle kingdom — totally evasive on the Security Council seat. And their approach in '62 was the same as it is now — to not give up their claim."

With the 50 trade pacts worth $16 billion signed on day one, Kher can understand the need for being

"partners for co-operation" given that both are rising economic powers. Even the military relationship is fine — "in no stage of threat," according to him. But he is not satisfied with the slow progress of border talks.

General A.K Dewan (retd), AVSM, VC is known by fellow officers in the Armoured Corps as the man who took his tanks up the Himalayas. He knows Arunachal Pradesh like the back of his hand. Like Kher, Dewan, too, fought in the battle of Chushul — in the western sector where the army did good, thanks "to good commanders", unlike in Eastern areas such as Namka Chu (in Arunachal Pradesh) where there were heavy casualties. "We lost a full brigade — that is three battalions: 4-5,000 men," he remembers. Why did we lose that one? "Bad political leadership."

Other criticism: Bad logistics, bad terrain. "Wars are fought on a ground more suitable for defense. Tawang is not the right area to fight", he says, recommending Brig John P Dalvi's controversial Himalayan Blunder as a must read.

Dewan reiterates that it boiled down to bad leadership. He says politicians must understand wars are not won by them dictating to the army that not an inch of territory should be lost — generals already know that.

National pride doesn't allow him to buy what the Chinese are selling — even when it comes to their products. "Trade wise, we're a dumping ground for Chinese goods" he says. As for the border issue, Dewan says: "It can only be solved if we give them (the anyway-inaccessible) Aksai Chin and tell them to let us have Arunachal."