COULD THE 1962 WAR HAVE BEEN AVERTED BY NEHRU IN 1951?
Maj Gen VK Singh
The reasons for the debacle in 1962 are well known, with all the top political and military leaders sharing responsibility for the ignominy suffered by the nation. However, the genesis of the disaster was a little known decision by Nehru more than ten years earlier, in 1951. Apart from Nehru, the dramatis personae were two military officers, Lieut. General Thakur Nathu Singh, then GOC-in-C Eastern Command and Major General Hira Lal Atal, the Adjutant General. They had very little in common except that both were KCIOs, trained at Sandhurst.
Nathu Singh was a Rajput from Gumanpura, in the princely state of Dungarpur in Rajputana. He was educated at the Mayo College, Ajmer where he topped all his classes. He was a rebel even in school and was nicknamed 'Baghi' (rebel), by his colleagues for his outspoken and forthright manner. In 1921 he was selected for Sandhurst from where he passed out on 1 February 1923, being commissioned in the 1/7 Rajput Regiment During his stay in England, he met Subhas Chandra Bose who was in the Indian Civil Service (ICS) at that time. They had a common meeting ground, in their dislike of British rule and desire to be rid of it. Even at Sandhurst, Nathu’s anti-British views led to his being dubbed the ‘Fauji Gandhi' by his Indian colleagues.
Throughout his service, Nathu Singh was known as a stormy petrel and his brushes with authority are now a part of legend. A nationalist to the core, he was frequently in trouble for his anti-British views. He was almost thrown out of the Army in his first unit, the 1/7 Rajputs, when he refused to dine in the officers mess with British officers. He remained in close touch with almost all prominent leaders of the freedom struggle, such Moti Lal Nehru and his son Jawahar Lal, Jinnah, Sarojini Naidu etc. In 1926, when he wanted to resign and join the freedom struggle, the elder Nehru advised him not to do so. When the INA trials were ordered in 1945, he protested vehemently, writing an eight page letter to the C-in-C, General Auchinleck, couched in the strongest language, even though he was just a lieutenant colonel. In November 1946, when he was a brigadier, he was offered the post of the first Indian C-in-C after Independence by Sardar Baldev Singh, the Defence Minister in the interim government, which he declined, since Cariappa was senior to him.
Hira Lal Atal was a Kashmiri Brahmin, like Nehru and ‘Bijji’ Kaul, who were destined to play prominent roles in 1962. His father, Major Pyare Lal Atal was an army doctor in the Indian Medical Service who was killed in France in 1914 during World War II. Incidentally, Jawahar Lal Nehru’s father-in-law, Jawahar Mal Kaul of Bazaar Sita Ram in Delhi was the real son of Dewan Kishan Lal Atal who was later given in adoption to Bishamber Nath Kaul of Hardoi. Hira Lal was educated at the Prince of Wales Military College, Dehradun, where he became the first Head Boy. He too was trained at Sandhurst, and was commissioned on 29 January 1925 into the 16th Light Cavalry. Significantly, Atal was the last among the five Indians, and 15th overall out of 16 cadets who were granted King’s Commissions on that date.
After a none too illustrious career – he did not take part any major campaign in World War II- Atal became Independent India’s first Indian Adjutant General in May 1948. His major achievement was designing the Param Vir Chakra medal with the help of Savitri Khanolkar, a Russian-Hungarian who was married to his friend, Captain Vikram Kanolkar, from the Sikh Regiment. Ironically, the first PVC was awarded to Savitri’s only daughter’s brother-in-law, Major Som Nath Sharma of 4 Kumaon in 1947.
Soon after Independence, the Prime Minister held a conference of senior Army officers, to elicit their views regarding keeping British officers for some more time, as advisors. Nehru felt that Indian officers lacked the experience to take over the responsibility for such a large Army, and wanted to retain British officers for a longer period, as Pakistan had done. Almost everyone agreed with Nehru, except for Nathu Singh. He said: "Officers sitting here have more than 25 years service, and are capable of holding senior appointments in the Armed Forces. As for experience, if I may ask you Sir, what experience do you have to hold the post of Prime Minister?" There was a stunned silence, and Nehru did not reply. Finally, it was decided to keep the British advisors for some more time, as proposed by Nehru.
Cariappa had taken over as C-in-C on 15 January 1949, and retired after exactly four years, on 14 January 1953. At that time, the three Army Commanders were Maharaj Rajendra Sinhji, Thakur Nathu Singh, and S.M. Shrinagesh. In 1951, Major General Hira Lal Atal, who was then Adjutant General (AG), at Army HQ, proposed that the tenure of the Army Chief and Army Commanders should be limited to four years, even if they had not reached the age of superannuation. Nathu Singh felt that the one tenure system of four years, proposed by Atal, was primarily to ensure his own promotion as Army Commander. Atal had no chance of ever becoming a lieutenant general, since there were only three appointments in that rank and all three incumbents had several more years to serve before they superannuated. Nathu Singh wrote to General Cariappa, making specific allegations against Atal. The letter was brought to the notice of the Prime Minister, who turned down the allegations. This was not surprising, considering that Atal was a Kashmiri, and close to Nehru. As for Nathu Singh, he was conveyed the 'displeasure' of the Government of India, for trying to impugn the character and military reputation of another officer.
Whatever one may say about the propriety of Nathu Singh's representation, it is difficult to refute the logic of his arguments. The four year rule ensured that senior officers retired at a comparatively young age - Cariappa at 53, Nathu Singh at 51, and Thimayya and Thorat at 55. This was at a time when the Indian Army needed officers with experience and had decided to retain British officers on this account. In fact, the British heads of technical Arms, such as Engineers and Signals - Major General Harold Williams and Brigadier C.H.I. Akehurst - continued up to seven years after Independence, as did the C-in-C of the Navy, Vice Admiral C.T.M. Pizey. The only persons affected by the four year rule were the Army Chief and the Army Commanders, where experience was needed the most. The rule did not apply to the civilian bureaucracy, or to the Navy and the Air Force. Even in the Army, it was made applicable only to the Chief and Army Commanders, and not the heads of technical Arms and Services. It is difficult to believe that Cariappa supported the move; perhaps he acquiesced, since he must have felt that to do otherwise may appear selfish, since he too was affected. And being the gentleman he was, that was the last thing he would have liked to be accused of. In the event, he recommended the proposal and Nehru accepted it, without going into the implications. If he had done so, perhaps the Indian Army would not have had to suffer the infamy of 1962.
As was later revealed, Thorat had warned the political leadership about the threat from China in 1959, when he was the Eastern Army Commander. When he found that the Prime Minister and Defence Minister were not taking serious note of the problem, he decided to put it in writing. On 8 October 1959, Thorat produced a paper on the defence of NEFA, and sent it to the COAS. This was forwarded to the Ministry of Defence but Krishna Menon did not show it to the Prime Minister, accusing Thorat of being an alarmist and a warmonger. Subsequently an exercise, code named LAL QUILA, was held in Lucknow, in March 1960. This was attended by the Chief and all Principal Staff Officers in Army HQ. It was clearly brought out that with the troops, weapons and equipment available at that time, a Chinese attack could not be contained or defeated, and the 'forward policy', being advocated by Menon and Kaul was not practicable. Thorat also gave out a time table, showing how the defences would fall day by day in case the Chinese attacked. Kaul, who attended the exercise as Quarter Master General, had different views. By that time Thimayya's position had been undermined and he had lost all authority. In May 1961 both Thimayya and Thorat retired and Kaul was appointed CGS. With Thapar as the Army Chief, Kaul had a free hand to implement his ideas. The rest is history.
If the four year rule had not been promulgated, Thimayya as well as Thorat would still have been around to say 'No' to Nehru and Krishna Menon, as Sam Manekshaw did to Indira Gandhi in April 1971, when she wanted to go to war with Pakistan. By approving this rule, Nehru committed a blunder, which indirectly resulted in the ignominy India faced in 1962. As regards Atal, poetic justice awaited him. Though he succeeded in getting Nehru to approve the four year tenure, he never became a lieutenant general and retired in the rank of major general.