The release of the Henderson-Brooks report was in national interest when the BJP was in opposition, but not when they are in power.

WrittenBy:Anand Ranganathan
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Those who are fearful of their History, are fearful of their future.

On February 7, 2014, the 87 year-old author and war historian Neville Maxwell uploaded a document that sent shivers down the Indian government’s spine. Its first reaction was to block Maxwell’s website. But it was too late. Within minutes of Maxwell’s intransigence, the so-called Henderson-Brooks report that our government didn’t want anyone to see or read, was being pored over by millions around the world. We lost this war too.

“Those who gave me access to the Henderson-Brooks Report when I was researching my study of the Sino-Indian border dispute laid down no conditions as to how I should use it,” wrote Maxwell in his blog. Then he said something explosive: “In 2012, noting that all attempts in India to make the government release the Report had failed, I decided on a more direct approach and made the text available to the editors of three of India’s leading publications. To my surprise the editors concerned decided, unanimously, not to publish. Although surprised by this reaction, unusual in the age of Wikileaks, I could not argue with their reasoning. Later I gave the text to a fourth editor and offered it to a fifth, with the same result. So my dilemma continued – although with the albatross hung, so to speak, on Indian necks as well as my own. As I see it now I have no option but, rather than leave the dilemma to my heirs, to put the Report on the internet myself.  So here is the text.”

And there it was indeed – a pdf document containing grainy, scanned pages of the top-secret Henderson-Brooks Report.

Maxwell had earlier written a book called India’s China War, when he was working for The Times back in 1970. Large parts of this book were based or sourced on the Henderson-Brooks report to which Maxwell had somehow obtained access. It is remarkable that a foreign historian managed access to a top-secret Indian military document even as his Indian counterparts twiddled their thumbs. Forty years later, when Maxwell off-loaded this “albatross round my neck”, all hell broke loose in Delhi.

Raksha Mantri AK Antony unsurprisingly echoed his earlier statement on the Henderson-Brooks Report, which was that its contents “are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value”. It speaks volumes of the banality of our defence preparedness that we believe a 50 year-old report is still of operational value.

Needless to mention, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pounced on the Raksha Mantri and his ruling Congress party. The first to clash swords was none other than the incumbent Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. “Any society is entitled to learn from the past mistakes and take remedial action. With the wisdom of hindsight, I am of the opinion that the report’s content could have been made public some decades ago. Was the Himalayan blunder of 1962 in fact a Nehruvian blunder? Are we willing to learn the lessons from 1962?” he wrote in his blog. National Democratic Alliance minister Ravi Shankar Prasad added, falling short of asking for resignations, “We have a right to know what went wrong. We lost the war because of Nehru. What is Congress trying to hide by making the war report classified?”.

Spring turned to summer and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was defeated in the 2014 general elections. BJP came to power on the strength of a Modi wave. Arun Jaitley became the Defence Minister of India. His first act, with the wisdom of hindsight, was to stress that the Henderson-Brooks report “is a top-secret document and has not been declassified so far. Release of this report, fully or partially, or disclosure of any information related to this report, would not be in national interest.”. His second act, with the wisdom of foresight, was to stealthily delete the anomalous blog from his website. Unfortunately for him, his earlier utterances had merrily been posted on his party’s website, from where a gleeful newspaper extracted it. In it, Mr Jaitley elaborates why according to him the Henderson-Brooks report should be made public.

“Are archival records are to be kept away from public gaze indefinitely?” wrote Mr Jaitley. “Any Nation is entitled to learn from the mistakes of the past. The security relevance of a document loses its relevance in the long term future. What has been made public is Part-I of the report. It has been reported in the media that pages 112 to 167 are still not known. Is it because these pages contain some material which can be embarrassing to those in power in 1962? The first 111 pages having been made public, it is now necessary that the balance pages also be made public rather than allow public opinion be influenced by unauthentic sources. The contents of the report also raise some legitimate questions. The military strategy of the then government has been seriously questioned. The intelligence assessment of the Chinese attitude was a flawed one. The military strategy in creating ‘forward posts’ has been criticized as providing to the Chinese a pretext for invasion. It further appears from the report that the Prime Minister and his favourite set of officials both in the Army and in the Intelligence establishment were flawed in their assessment. In fact, the opinion of these officials close to the Prime Minister had cost this country heavily. The unpreparedness of the Armed forces is writ large in the contents of the report. Was a Himalayan blunder of 1962 in fact a Nehruvian blunder? The leaked contents of the report serve as a lesson for us today. How prepared are we in our military strategy? Contemporary evidence indicates that our defence procurement has suffered. This adversely hurts our armed forces who are professionally amongst the best in the world. Are we willing to learn the lessons from 1962?”.

So, the release of the Henderson-Brooks report was in national interest when the BJP was in opposition, but not when they are in power. As U-turns go, this one is difficult to beat. Fear not, the BJP seems to have accepted the challenge, as this continuing series shall attempt to elucidate.

To sift the rabble from the rouse, it is important first to understand what the Henderson-Brooks report was all about. This was no ordinary report. We are talking of an age when our reports used to be commissioned, investigated, and written by men of honour – even a cursory reading of the leaked report brings this out. The authors had no axe to grind. Quite the opposite. They had national interest at heart and they spared no one.

In the long history of war, defeat has always proved a better teacher than victory. The 1962 episode proved it once again. But no nation can afford to have many such teachers – SN Prasad

In 1992, the History Division of the Ministry of Defence published a monogram titled History of the Conflict with China, 1962, authored by PB Sinha and AA Athale, and edited by SN Prasad. It was for restricted viewing (with footnotes deleted as an extra precautionary measure), until it was leaked. It, too, is largely based on the Henderson-Brooks report. The monogram confirms the long-held view that it was the Tseng-jong episode of October 10, 1962 that triggered the large-scale conflict that followed 10 days later and lasted a month.

Bharat Rakshak, a consortium of Indian Military websites describes the events of that day 50 years ago. “October 10th dawned without a hint of what was to come. At first light, Lt. Gen. Kaul was shaving while his batman was preparing tea. Suddenly the calm of the morning was shattered by the incessant fire of small arms fire and the thumps of mortars…”

The monogram History of the Conflict with China is painful reading, its every detail, military and political, paints an astonishing picture of what went wrong. Well, almost everything that could go wrong, did. India failed to avoid a war during the transition period (between arms imports and indigenous arms production); India relied on wrong Intelligence forecasts; and most crucially, India did not use the Air force as an offensive power.

That we lost the 1962 war with China, and lost it soundly, is brought out best through the following question: What if we had won it? In his at once brilliantly engrossing and distressing essay, the writer Rajeev Srinivasan attempts to answer just this question. Had we won, he writes, Tibet would have been liberated, China would have retreated into its shell instead of becoming an aggressive imperialist, and India’s Marxists would have been defanged. India fumbled when it shouldn’t have.

Rajeev is right. From start to finish, from top to bottom, we blundered. The Henderson-Brooks report would have told us why. The men responsible for the 1962 disaster, in which 2000 of our finest soldiers died, survive till today as heroes. Their passing away only added to the aura we as Indians built around them. They remain unblamed, unblemished. But not in the eyes of Lieutenant General TB Henderson Brooks and Brigadier Premindra Singh Bhagat, as described sparklingly by Sandeep Unnithan.

Krishna Menon, Defence Minister: “Did not keep minutes of the meetings he had with the military leadership. This had grave consequences. It absolved anyone in the ultimate analysis of the responsibility of any major decision. It led to decisions being taken without careful and considered thought on the consequences of those decisions.”

BM Mullick, Director Intelligence Bureau: “Intelligence was haphazardly collected, badly processed, unimaginatively put across and inefficiently disseminated. No notice was taken of the carefully assessed build up brought out in 1960 and 1961, but reliance was placed on verbal interpretation by the Director of Intelligence Bureau of his assessment based on isolated cases.”

Lt General BM Kaul, Chief of General Staff and later Commander 4 Corps: “So far effort has been made to keep individual personalities out of the review. General Kaul, however, must be made an exception. Kaul set up impossible targets for the troops on the ground. Kaul also bought into the government’s myth that the Chinese would not react to the forward policy. Kaul took over the reins of a newly constituted 4 Corps in NEFA (present Arunachal Pradesh) leaving the post of CGS vacant. No one with any military knowledge would have formed or accepted a Corps to direct a major operation on the day of its inception.”

MJ Desai, Foreign Secretary: “At a meeting in the defence minister’s room on September 22, 1962, Desai said that the Chinese would not react to the Indian forward policy but would perhaps, capture one or two posts.”

Brigadier DK Palit, Director Military Operations: “The Director of Military Operations as late as August 1962 openly declared at headquarters 4 Infantry Division that the Chinese would not react and were not in a position to fight.”

Indeed, some of the details are heart-breaking, like for example on page 175 of the report: Flight from Dirang Dzong and Collapse of Bomdila. At this time, however, 65 Infantry Brigade with its troops was also in BOMDILA, but with NO charter. The Divisions Commander would NOT give it a task till his recommendation for the relief of Brigadier SAYEED, the Commander 65 Infantry Brigade, was carried through. Thus valuable time was lost in the preparation of the defence of BOMDILA.”

Almost every second page carries such accounts of the debacle. But there are two glaring absentees – the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the then Army Chief VM Thapar. What was their role? What decisions did they make? How much blame did they take? The leaked portion of the report is silent on these crucial questions. The withheld part of the report is not, according to many. This has only led to insinuations and wiping of slates. One of the men indicted in the Henderson-Brooks report DK Palit, when interviewed years later by journalist Saikat Datta, sang like a canary.

On Nehru: “We were not clear in our minds about what the enemy was like. Nehru had fixed ideas and was convinced that Hindi-Chini were bhai-bhai. So he never thought they would attack. We were amateurish and had never fought a war outside the Commonwealth. We were done in by Nehru’s stupid ideas.”

On Army Chief Thapar: “When the Chinese attacked, Thapar said, let us defend Tawang. I told him that was impossible because it was on an incline. So we went to Nehru. But he just said, I am not a military man, these are decisions you have to take. Thapar was a weak man and allowed himself to be pushed around by Nehru. To the Chinese, it was important to build a road from Sianking to Tibet. We should have let them and imposed a nominal rent. All the senior army commanders hated Thapar. He had no combat experience.”

On the Air Force not being deployed: “Someone wrongly advised the government not to deploy the Air Force as the Chinese would the attack Indian cities. But they did not realise the Chinese didn’t have air fields in Tibet so they couldn’t have done that. Had we deployed the Air Force, we could have hit targets in Tibet. There was a time during the war when our troops had enough ammunition to fight just an hour’s battle. With no roads, we were dependent on air drops”.

Who to believe? Who to trust? In absence of detailed historical and commissioned accounts, the accused turn accusers.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seen the withheld portions of the report – that is what all Prime Ministers gleefully do the day they are elected – tell their Man-Friday to fetch all top secret documents to satiate their stifled curiosity. He knows the truth. But only he does. And he wants to keep it that way. He is fearful of our future. He wants us to be fearful of our History. There is little doubt that we shall repeat it if we continue to be fearful of it.

The Henderson-Brooks report, that begins with the quote: “Know yourself, know your enemy: A hundred battles, a hundred victories – Sun Tzu” ends with secrecy – a secrecy that our leaders are prepared to preserve at all costs. Sun Tzu would have called these leaders Little Men.


Author’s note: Yesterday (April 21, 2015) some newspaper reports indicated that the present Defence Minister has assured Dr Subramanian Swamy that the Henderson-Brooks Report may be – with a little editing – declassified soon. The operative words are “may” – i.e. that it may or may not happen in the near future – and “editing” – i.e. the declassified report would be edited according to the whims and wishes of the powers that be.

(Read Part 1 of the series here.)


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