LIEUT GENERAL K. UMRAO SINGH – THE FORGOTTEN HERO OF THE 1962 WAR
The recent publication of the Henderson Brooks Report by Neville Maxwell has brought back memories of the traumatic events of 1962. The true story has not been told in its entirety, thanks to the lack of vision of the political leadership and the bureaucracy, including those in uniform. During a session titled 'Indian Military History: The Missing Links' at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012, when most of the speakers were talking about the effect of the non availability of authentic war records on the training of young officers, a young lady floored us by asking why we were all talking only of the impact of the non disclosure of records for research and training etc. As a citizen, she wanted to know how and why our soldiers fought and died in 1962. We had no answer.
There have been several books written by people in and out of uniform about the 1962 debacle. The list of those who have been blamed for the debacle comprises several political and military leaders, including Prime Minister Nehru and Defence Minister Krishna Menon. Other prominent personalities who have been held culpable are the Director Intelligence Bureau (IB), B.N. Mullik; Army Chief General P.N. Thapar; and GOC-in-C Eastern Command Lieut. General L.P. Sen. However, very little has been written about Lieut. General Umrao Singh, GOC 33 Corps, who refused to follow the orders to ‘throw out the Chinese’, and paid the price by being sidelined. Had Nehru and Krishna Menon listened to Umrao, and he had been backed by his military superiors, Thapar and Sen, the debacle and ignominy that India suffered in 1962 could have been averted. Nine years later, when Indira Gandhi asked the Army Chief, General Sam Manekshaw to go into East Pakistan in April 1971, the latter refused. Sam later told Indira that if her father had listened to his military advisers in 1962, he would not have been humiliated as he was.
Umrao Singh was born on 5th December 2011 at Jaipur. He was the fifth out of ten sons of Thakur Devi Singh of Chomu, one of twelve kotris (principalities) of the princely state of Jaipur. He was of the Nathawat branch of the Kachwaha clan, which claims descent from Kush, the second son of Lord Rama. The Kachwaha dynasty established its rule in Dhoondar or Amber (later Jaipur) in early 13th Century after defeating the Meenas. Around 1600 AD, Prithviraj, who ruled Amber during the reign of Sikander Lodi, gave each of his 12 surviving sons his own fief (kotri) to rule. The third son, Nathoo, was assigned Chomu, his descendants being known as Nathawats. The family has, since then, had a very illustrious military tradition. Having proved his mettle in various battles, the ruler of Chomu was appointed to command the vanguard of the Jaipur army and the first seat on the right-hand side of the Maharaja was granted to him in Durbar – a privilege he enjoyed till amalgamation of Jaipur into the Indian republic in 1947. According to James Tod, the Political Agent to the Western Rajput States In early 19th Century, Chomu was the largest of the 12 kotris, contributing the maximum revenue and the largest personal quota of horsemen to the ruler of Jaipur.
Umrao was educated at the Prince of Wales Royal Military College (PWRIMC) at Dehradun, which was established to train Indians for admission to the Royal Military College (RMC), Sandhurst. He joined Sandhurst in July 1930 and was commissioned on 28th January 1932 into 5/6 Rajputana Riles (Napiers). He was 4th out of the 11 Indians who passed out on that date, and 13th overall out of 41 cadets in his course. Three years later, his younger brother, K. Bhagwati Singh (IC-1) passed out with the first course commissioned from the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. Bhagwati’s son Madhvendra Singh joined the Indian Navy and retired as the Chief of Naval Staff.
Umrao saw active service with his battalion in Waziristan in 1932-35. During World War II, he served with his battalion in Hongkong. During the Jammu and Kashmir Operations in 1947-48, he commanded 43 Lorried Brigade and later 5 Infantry Brigade, which took part in the relief of Punch. From 1949 to 1953, he was the Brigadier General Staff at HQ Eastern Command at Ranchi, where the Army Commander was Lieut. General Thakur Nathu Singh. Subsequently he commanded 19 Infantry Division in Srinagar followed by a stint as Chief of Staff under Lieut. General S.P.P. Thorat at Lucknow, where HQ Eastern Command had moved from Ranchi. In 1961, he was promoted Lieut. General and appointed GOC XXXIII Corps at Shillong, which was then responsible for the defence of the whole of Eastern India including NEFA.
The infamous ‘forward policy’ was first enunciated by Prime Minister Nehru during a meeting on 2 November 1961, in which he directed that Indian forces should occupy the whole frontier from NEFA to Ladakh and cover all gaps by setting up posts or by means of effective patrolling. However, he ordered that our troops should not fire except in self-defence. On 5 December 1961, Army HQ instructed Western Command to patrol as far forward as possible in Ladakh sector, with a view to establishing additional posts to prevent the Chinese from advancing further and also to dominate existing Chinese posts. This order also specified that the ‘forward policy’ shall be carried out without getting involved in a clash with the Chinese. Similar instructions were issued for UP and other Northern areas, Eastern Command being told to go forward and occupy the whole frontier, covering the gaps by patrolling or by posts. As will be noticed, the orders from Army HQ went a step further than the instructions issued by the Prime Minister. The ‘forward policy’ was the genesis of the deterioration in the situation on the border, culminating in the Chinese attack and the final debacle. It is generally believed that forward policy was the brain child of Lieut. General B.M. Kaul, the Chief of General Staff (CGS) and B.N. Mullik, the Director IB.
During the next few months, a number of new posts were established near the McMahon Line and existing posts were reinforced. Although those posts were being manned by Assam Rifles, they were physically established under supervision of the Army. Most of the posts were of platoon strength and almost entirely dependent on air-dropped supplies. By May 1962 the Chinese had also reinforced all their posts all along the Indo-Tibetan border. By the end of September, 36 Indian posts had been established in Ladakh against 47 posts set-up by the Chinese in the region. Around Chushul the Indian and Chinese posts confronted each other at close range and in the south around Rezangla and Demchok the Indian posts reached almost up to the international border. In NEFA, by 20th July, 34 posts had been established. Among these posts was the one at Dhola, established a little south of the Namkha Chu on 4 June. The force level in NEFA at this time was two infantry brigades and 74 platoons of Assam Rifles.
The above military preparations were followed by a spurt in provocative activities by Chinese troops and intrusions in Indian Territory. In July and August there were a number incidents in Ladakh in which Indian posts were surrounded and patrols ambushed. Such incidents were reported from Galwan, Daulet Beg Oldi and near the Karakoram Pass.
In the Eastern sector, during the period June/July, the Chinese had intensified their border patrolling opposite the Subansiri and Siang Frontier Divisions. They had intruded about 140 meters inside Indian Territory at Lhola in the western part of Siang Frontier Division. All Chinese border posts had moved forward and had been considerably reinforced. They had constructed defence works in all the forward posts and the troops had been issued modern machine-guns in place of the old weapons. The biggest threat was posed by the Chinese in the Eastern sector in August when they moved troops to the Thagla Ridge in the Kameng Frontier Division and occupied it. By the end of August 1962, they had concentrated about 400 troops in the area.
At this time HQ 7 Infantry Brigade under Brigadier J.P. Dalvi was located at Tawang, along with two battalions, 9 Punjab and 1 Sikh. On 8 September 1962, about 300-400 Chinese crossed the Thagla Pass, demolished two bridges over the Namka Chu and surrounded the Assam Rifles post at Dhola. By 4 pm the message had been passed on battalion wireless net to the Battalion HQ which immediately conveyed it to Brigade HQ on telephone.
The post had been surrounded by the Chinese at 8 am but the information reached the Brigade HQ eight hours later at 4 pm. The information was conveyed to Divisional HQ and to Commander 7 Infantry Brigade, who had proceeded on leave, but was still at Tezpur. Orders were issued to the post commander at Dhola to hold out at all costs and reinforcements were on their way. Next morning the Brigade Commander arrived at Tawang by helicopter and conferred with COs of 9 Punjab and 1 Sikh. By the evening of 9 September the Chinese strength around Dhola was reported to be about 600.
Along with the rapidly changing situation in the forward areas, considerable activity was taking place at higher echelons of the Army as well as the political leadership. On 9 September 1962, a high level meeting was held in Delhi, chaired by Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon. It was attended by COAS, General P.N. Thapar; GOC-in-C Eastern Command, Lieut. General L.P. Sen; the Cabinet Secretary, S.S. Khera; the Director IB, B.N. Mullik; and a few others. At the meeting it was decided that the Chinese must be evicted from south of the Thagla Ridge immediately. The Army Chief accepted the decision, and orders were passed to Eastern Command accordingly. To carry out this task, orders were issued for the immediate move of 9 Punjab to Namka Chu, with the rest of 7 Brigade to be ready to follow within 48 hours. The eviction operation was code-named ‘Leghorn’.
Two days later at another meeting held in Defence Minister’s office, General Sen reported that there were some 600 Chinese in Dhola and he had ordered 7 Brigade to deal with them. Based on the advice of Sen, Krishna Menon approved the decision to mount an attack on the Thagla ridge. On 12 September 1962, Sen conveyed the decision of the government to expel the Chinese from Thagla to the corps and divisional commanders during a conference at Tezpur. General Umrao Singh, who had already consulted General Prasad and Brigadier Dalvi on the issue, clearly told the Army Commander that the task was beyond the capability of the troops available to him. He also questioned the wisdom of moving the only brigade available for the defence of Tawang, the vital ground, to Thagla. However, Sen was not convinced, reiterating that the decision had been taken by the government, and they had to follow it. Immediately afterwards, Umrao sent a formal letter to HQ Eastern Command, giving a realistic appraisal of the military situation, based on an appreciation carried out earlier.
On 18 September, a Government spokesman announced at a press conference that the Army had been instructed to drive the Chinese out of the Dhola area. On 20 September, Eastern Command issued instructions that all patrols and posts were to engage Chinese patrols that came within range of their weapons. At this time, Brigadier Dalvi accompanied by Colonel Misra was carrying out reconnaissance of the area occupied by 9 Punjab. At 10.30 pm while they were at Bridge II discussing the points to be included in his appreciation that had been asked for by Divisional HQ, the Chinese sentry threw a grenade into the Indian sentry post. Firing started from both sides of the Namka Chu and resulted in two Chinese being killed and two wounded. Indian casualties were five wounded.
The outbreak of firing on the Namka Chu and the build-up by the Chinese made their intentions clear. At a meeting in Defence Ministry on 22 September 1962, General Thapar asked the government to reconsider the decision to evict the Chinese from Thagla. Since Nehru and Krishna Menon were out of the country, the meeting was chaired by K. Raghuramaiah, the Deputy Defence Minister. The Foreign Secretary then explained the Prime Minister’s instructions that no infringement of the border in NEFA was to be accepted. It was decided that the Army would have to carry out the instructions of the government and evict the Chinese from the Dhola area. Thapar requested for a written order of the government on the subject. Soon afterwards, he received a note signed by H.C. Sarin, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Defence, which stated: “The decision throughout has been as discussed at previous meetings, that the Army should prepare and throw the Chinese out as soon as possible. The COAS was accordingly directed to take action for the eviction of the Chinese in the KAMENG Frontier Division of NEFA as soon as he is ready.”
General Thapar repeated the Government’s orders to Sen. He also warned Lieut. General Daulet Singh, GOC-in-C Western Command of the possibility of Chinese reaction in Ladakh and advised that Indian posts there should be strengthened. On 24 September Umrao personally conveyed these orders to Major General Niranjan Prasad, GOC 4 Infantry Division.
By this time, serious differences between commanders at various levels in the military hierarchy had surfaced. On 14 September, Sen had ordered Umrao to carry out an appreciation and formulate an outline plan for the operation. After passing through the corps and divisional commanders, the order reached Dalvi in 7 Infantry Brigade. Other than the Army Commander, all three – Umrao, Prasad and Dalvi – were convinced that the capture of Thagla was not feasible with the resources then available. However, Dalvi agreed to produce an appreciation highlighting the maintenance and administrative problems, hoping that this would convince the higher authorities of the unsoundness of the plan. His appreciation resulted in a plan with the modest aim of capturing Tseng-jong, a small feature on Thagla slopes, and then rolling down west to east to the Chinese positions on the Namka Chu. It was to be attempted with an out-flanking move from Bridge V near Tsangle. While working out the logistics for the plan, Dalvi made it clear that unless the proper administrative base was ready within a fortnight there would be no scope for operations during that winter.
Prasad approved the plan after some alterations and then submitted it to Umrao who had reached Lumpu on 26 September. Umrao also suggested some modifications in the appreciation and advised on a more modest tactical aim. The draft plan was revised accordingly and Umrao personally took it to Lucknow on 29 September. However, Sen refused to accept the requirements stipulated for the operation; it would have been impossible to meet them before the winter set in. Being unable to convince the Army Commander, Umrao submitted his views and assessment of the situation in writing on 30 September. There were other differences between Sen and Umrao, which came out in the open during a meeting on 2 October 1962, presided over by the Defence Minister. Umrao protested at the interference in his command and orders sent to him by Sen to send a company patrol to Tsangle to establish a post there. He felt that Tsangle had no tactical significance and would give away Indian intentions to the Chinese.
The Defence Minister returned from New York on 30 September. Two days later, Prime Minister Nehru returned from Nigeria. Sen had been insisting on the removal of Umrao and the appointment of a more pliable corps commander to carry out the orders of the government. The problem was solved by divesting Umrao of the responsibility for NEFA. It was taken away from XXXIII Corps and handed over to a newly raised IV Corps. Lieut. General B.M. Kaul, the CGS, was given command of the new Corps, with the specific task of evicting the Chinese from the Dhola-Thagla area.
The rest of the story is well known and is not being repeated. The fact that the brigade, divisional and corps commanders – Dalvi, Prasad and Umrao – were convinced that the operation was not militarily viable should have alerted the top military hierarchy – Sen and Thapar - about the impending disaster. Yet, they meekly succumbed to political pressure and went along. By putting the lives of their soldiers at risk and conducting an operation that had no chance of success, they displayed a singular lack of moral courage and professional integrity. As for the political leadership – Nehru and Krishna Menon – little needs to be said. They can be forgiven for not being familiar with military strategy and higher direction of war, but there is no justification for riding roughshod over professional military advice. The lesson was learnt, as subsequent events were to prove. Both Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi benefitted from this lesson, deciding to go by the advice their Army chiefs during the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan.
In the 1962 war, Umrao Singh stands out as the only senior military commander, apart from his subordinates, Prasad and Dalvi, who took a stand and refused to carry out orders that were militarily impractical and undoable. He placed the interest of the nation and the well being of his soldiers above his own, in the highest traditions of the military profession and of his ancestors.