*Book Review: Himalayan Blunder*
Oct 20, 1959, Ladakh:
Havaldar Karam Singh and his 20-strong troop, doing their routine border
patrolling rounds amid heavy snowfall. In an eyewink nine men in the patrol
are buried dead under a hailstorm of bullets, and the rest including Karam
Singh are taken prisoners. Courtesy the Chinese army. What stuns the
Havaldar is not so much the unexpected onslaught as where it occurred: 40
kilometres right on this side of the border .
The Army Chief, General Thimmayya’s worst fears about China stood confirmed.
When he confronted the powers that be and requested an immediate
modernisation of the Armed Forces, and special attention to Chinese designs,
V.K. Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister, analysed the problem differently.
In his view, General Thimmayya was a soldier of the Raj era who was alarmed
easily. Pakistan, not China was India’s “number one” enemy, he opined. The
General’s response was interesting: I understand our Defence Minister’s
perspective. I have regards for his ability but I’m aggrieved at his
foolishness. One does not rank enemies as first, second and the rest.
Perhaps, it is done in Communist politics; as an Army Chief, I do not rank
The General submitted his resignation when Menon’s interference breached
tolerance. But a panic-stricken Nehru’s emotional entreaty charmed the
General into withdrawing it. In Parliament however, Nehru rose in defence of
Menon: I’ve spoken to General Thimmayya. He blows issues out of proportion.
He has unnecessarily created a misunderstanding with Krishna Menon, a
veteran diplomat. It is ridiculous to blame Menon for interference in the
issue of promotions in the Armed Forces. Silly! I totally reject General
This rather lengthy recount is one of the several significant botches
recorded in John P Dalvi’s Himalayan Blunder. The book is a Manual of War
Failure, recommended reading for everybody who wants to know why exactly
India lost the 1962 war with China.
It was banned almost immediately on its release, in 1969. I read the
abridged Kannada translation by Ravi Belagere. Which kind of struck me as
funny. And unfortunate that I had to read a translated version because the
original in English is banned. The excerpts I’ve quoted in this post are my
(re)translatations from Kannada. Funny, isn’t it? Happens only in India.
John Parashuram Dalvi was the Brigadier of the 7th Infantry formed to
“fight” at the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), which is today’s Arunachal
Pradesh and parts of Nagaland. His eyewitness account of the war, events
that led to it, as well as his wonderful insights into the 1962 humiliation
form Himalayan Blunder.
Dalvi recounts a chilling precursor to 1962. During his days in the
Wellington Defence Services Staff College in 1950, he quotes a colleague and
army veteran, Joe of British origin: Friends, leaders of your country have
no foresight. They are mum about the Chinese invasion of Tibet. They don’t
understand the reality that India’s backdoor has been broken down…. Boys!
Take it from me. Some of you folks sitting here will fight with the Chinese
army before you retire.
Foresight was least expected from Nehru who in those days hallucinated as
the champion of world peace. Nehru’s stand on the invasion of Tibet was but
a minor testimony to this: we don’t have any right to put our forces in
Tibet irrespective of whether it is independent, or is part of China.
Starting around 1951, China began its silent preparations: it laid roads
capable of transporting army vehicles (supporting something like 4 tonnes),
made airstrips to land its combat aircraft, set up telephones and
communication networks… In parallel, it began marching its troops into the
region and even gobbled up parts of Aksai Chin territory belonging to India.
Meanwhile, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Hindi-Chini bhai bhai symphony had reached a
crescendo. China played along–it had recently concluded a war with Korea and
badly needed time and resources for what it had in mind.
Brigadier Dalvi narrates with heart-rending precision the betrayal of the
political leadership at every step. However, the principal culprits
responsible for our defeat stand out clearly: Jawaharlal Nehru, Krishna
Menon, and General B.M. Kaul who Nehru had handpicked to lead the war
efforts against China.
B.M. Kaul sitting in Delhi had no clue about the situation on the ground in
Arunachal Pradesh. He had allowed himself to believe what–a mere month
before the actual Chinese invasion–Nehru said: China is not a warmonger.
They have a “minor border dispute” with us. Dhola Post was an unncessary
outpost created at B.M. Kaul’s behest: it was an invitation to attack. Yet,
on September 8 1962, when the first sparks of war flew, he was holidaying in
Srinagar with his family. And he didn’t think it was important to cancel his
vacation: after all, Pandit Nehru was abroad. B.M. Kaul finally landed at
the spot on Oct 10, 1962. Says Dalvi,
We watched the platoon of Punjabis under Major Chaudary’s leadership march
towards Yum Sola….General Kaul stood next to me, weighing the success of his
first stratagem. The platoon’s strength including Major Chaudary was 51.
They’d barely covered a few feet when the sky came apart. Around 800
Chinese, positioned at the bank of Nam ka Chu [river] and atop the Thagla
mountain began showering bullets. The first round hurt Major Chaudary’s
legs. The Punjabi Platoon retaliated furiously, and dismembered and wounded
a few hundred Chinese. Six of our men died in the first round. But General
Kaul’s enthusiasm didn’t wither. As our men readied themselves for the
second round of assault, a huge swarm of Chinese troops descended. Major
Chaudary yelled to General Kaul to save his men. Never the men to turn their
back from battle, our Punjabi Platoon looked at us, helplessly. All of us,
including General Kaul understood what that meant. Our men had run out of
The courageous General who had roared reassuringly to the Indian public
about teaching China a lesson, couldn’t stomach the reality he saw before
him. Dalvi recounts Kaul’s true character.
My God! You’re right. China has prepared itself for a full-scale war. It’s
each man for himself from now on. You’re in charge of your Brigade. This is
not in my reach. Only a Brigadier can execute this kind of war.
And he turned and left, leaving Dalvi to helplessly watch the massacre of
the whole platoon. Dalvi records several similar incidents where a grossly
underprepared Indian army faced the Chinese who were superior to them in
every single aspect. A most telling instance:
…. a soldier saluted me as I stepped into the bunker and said, “Sahib, look
there! the enemy is on the opposite slope. They’re burning firewood to beat
the cold.” I felt a slap of humiliation. This was one of the rare instances
this happened in thousands of wars throughout history. Burning a fire at
night is a sure invitation for the enemy to attack. But then, this enemy on
the slopes of the Thagla mountain was confident: both of his strength and
our sorry state. He knew for certain that we would not attack: we could not.
In his “final journey,” Dalvi pays pages of homage to every footsoldier,
Major, signaller, Havaldar…small and big, who died defending the
indefensible. And the reason? You can’t read this with a straight face:
The Chinese used the same war strategies in vogue for centuries but…. their
guns were more modern, and their clothes were warmer than ours…. out there,
away from the warm world, the October chill doesn’t descend from the skies;
it climbs from the depths of the spinal cord. All our men had to wear were
cotton clothes suited for summer, shoes which slide on snow… the only colour
my men could see was the ash-white colour of death. A flash of sunlight was
enough to blind them. This blindness caused several men to walk directly
into the waiting arms of the enemy. My request for snow glasses was granted,
all right, but when they arrived, the air-dropped bag dropped somewhere in
the abyss-like crevices…
You need to read this book to believe the shamelessless of Nehru’s
government, which failed to supply these unfortunate men with food. Towards
the end, Dalvi and those that remained went without food for more than 48
We descended the Dhola mountain after the Chinese disappeared from sight. We
gave up the final hope of even sighting a small tukdi (regiment) of our men.
I descended rapidly out of a sheer will to live. The slope ended in a
forest…the path was even tougher to navigate. Meanwhile, I had lost four of
the eleven men following me. I reached a clearing, which then led to a small
mud road. It was all over.
Dalvi had walked right into a full-fledged Chinese army camp. On October 22
1962, 9:22 A.M, John P. Dalvi was taken prisoner of war. He remained in
Chinese custody from October 22 1962 till about May 1963. What’s more
interesting is the aftermath.
We landed in Dum Dum airport in Calcutta on May 4 1963. We were received
cordially, appropriately. But the silence there was disquieting. I realized
later. We had to prove we weren’t brainwashed by Chinese ideology. We had to
prove we were still loyal to India. My own army maintained a suspicious
distance. The irony cannot be harsher: this treatment from a country, which
for more than a decade had brainwashed itself into holding the Chinese baton
wherever it went.
It is more apt to call the Indo-China War as the Battle of Thagla, the altar
where Pandit Nehru sacrificed hundreds of unprepared, ill-equipped, and
underfed Indian soldiers as the price of his ineptitude.
Small wonder, the book is banned in India. I wager that even if it was not
banned, we’d never learn because Himalayan Blunder has simply proven its
contemporary relevance in the sense of history repeating itself: notice
today’s Chinese cheerleaders who occupy disproportionate clout in the UPA
government. Yet none of us seem to pay heed to their misdeeds–from escalated
Naxalism/Maoism to their shenanigans in Nepal.
By the way, the Battle of Thagla began on October 20, 1962 and lasted just
over 3 hours, between 5 A.M and 8 A.M. An entire brigade was massacred.
Thanks and Regards,
(A call to return to the nature)