For the first time in 12 years, Nehru was unsure of himself as he rose from the prime minister’s seat in the Lok Sabha on August 28, 1959, to face the rest of the House. Clamouring Opposition members who were demanding a statement on the Longju incident fell silent as attention turned to the prime minister. Speaking in his usual clipped style, every word that Nehru uttered stunned the assembled MPs.
The prime minister admitted to the people of India that serious disputes existed between China and India regarding the India-Tibet border and that several thousand square kilometres of Indian territory in Ladakh was under Chinese control. He then disclosed the fact that the Chinese had built a highway across the Aksai Chin, adding that the government had thought it fit not to make the disputes public, as that would have made their settlement even more difficult. He then went on to talk of the border clash between the Chinese and the Assam Rifles first at Khenzemane and then at Longju. However, it was the last part of Nehru’s statement that was to have far-reaching consequences: “We have in fact placed this border area of NEFA directly under the military authorities.... The Assam Rifles will of course remain there and such other forces as will be necessary will be sent, but they will function now under the army authorities and their headquarters.”
Nehru’s unconsidered remark had major national and international implications. By committing Army HQ, which had no troops of its own in NEFA, into the existing defence structure of manning border posts, the prime minister was committing it to a policing role. Any plans for the defence of the region that could be based on a forward line held by the police (Assam Rifles) and an inner line held by the army evaporated.
In his office in South Block, General (K.S.) Thimayya was oblivious of the drama that was being played out in the Lok Sabha less than a kilometre away. Around noon, there was a knock on the door and the Director, Military Intelligence, Brigadier Prem Bhagat, walked into the army chief’s office. Without any preamble, Bhagat told Thimayya that the joint secretary in the Ministry of Defence, H.C. Sarin, had just briefed him on the prime minister’s statement in Parliament. “Nehru has finally told Parliament the truth about the northern border. He spoke at length about the National Highway G219 and the loss of the Aksai Chin. He then spoke of both the Khenzemane and Longju incidents.”
“It had to happen.... I’m surprised it took so long for the press to realise everything isn’t quite bhai bhai with the Chinese,” said Thimayya, shaking his head.
“There’s something else...,” Bhagat hesitated, not quite sure if Thimayya was already in on the decision. “The prime minister has announced that as of today the entire border in NEFA with China is henceforth the army’s responsibility.”
The usually calm and unflappable Thimayya now stared at Bhagat, not quite sure if he had heard him correctly. He moved back to his desk and sat down slowly. “What else did Sarin say?” he asked incredulously.
“Nothing more, really. From his demeanour I gathered the Ministry of Defence had no idea this was coming. If Mr Krishna Menon was consulted by the prime minister, he certainly did not inform anybody else in the ministry.”
In 1957, when it was becoming obvious to Nehru that his Panchsheel policy with China was going nowhere, he had turned to Krishna Menon.... As the defence minister of India, his appointment coincided with the elevation of General Thimayya to the top job in the Indian army. Temperamentally, Krishna Menon was a loner, and having had no ministerial or administrative experience, he found it necessary to dominate the military bureaucracy by trying to make a dent in the solidarity of its senior ranks. In this he succeeded to the extent that Bijji Kaul fell for his blandishments and for a time an unwonted relationship was established between the minister and the general officer.
Bijji Kaul had not even commanded an infantry company; he was plucked from obscurity to serve as India’s military attache in Washington.
Menon would have probably never have ventured into playing these devious mind games if the signal had not come from Nehru himself. It was Nehru who had built a strong rapport with Kaul; he had allowed this friendship to often overshadow the official relationship, sometimes summoning him for purposes outside the call of army duty, even when Kaul was only a lieutenant colonel. In 1953, Nehru entrusted Kaul with the delicate task of overseeing the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah and acting as a political troubleshooter in Kashmir.
Unlike most of the other generals who were army and corps commanders at the time, Kaul had virtually no combat experience. After being commissioned into an infantry battalion, Kaul had voluntarily shifted to the Army Supply Corps while he was still a junior officer. Kaul used the term ‘national priority’ to explain the reason for this shift—a somewhat dubious explanation, as no junior officer was likely to be accorded that sort of importance. As a result, Bijji Kaul had not even commanded an infantry company, let alone a battalion, either in war or peace. Though commissioned into the army well before the outbreak of World War II, Bijji Kaul was assigned sundry jobs, none of which had anything to do with combat.
After Independence, his rise had been spectacular and completely at odds with the existing ethos of the armed forces, where each appointment in an officer’s career is a vital cog in his own training that enables him to take on responsibility at the next level. In 1947, Kaul was plucked from obscurity to serve as India’s military attache in Washington DC while also being a member of the quasi-political Armed Forces Nationalisation Committee. In 1948, he was again selected to be the military advisor to the Indian delegation to the Security Council on the Kashmir issue, which was where he first met Krishna Menon. Nehru then entrusted Kaul with the command of the Jammu and Kashmir Militia, but he had to be withdrawn from this post owing to his differences with Sheikh Abdullah, the then prime minister of Kashmir. By the early 1950s, it was fairly obvious to the rank and file that Kaul was Nehru’s trusted man.
After Independence, Kaul repeatedly served under (S.P.P.) Thorat. Almost each and every time, despite Kaul’s political connections, Thorat would diligently put down on paper that in his opinion, Kaul had reached the limits of his professional competence. In an army where one bad report usually seals a man’s fate, Nehru’s repeated interventions kept Kaul’s flag flying.
Subedar Dashrath Singh was dying, slipping in and out of consciousness as the blood seeped out of his torn and horribly mutilated body. All around him, men from No. 9 Platoon of 2 Rajput’s Charlie Company lay scattered—most of them had been torn apart by mortar and artillery fire. The firing had died down hours ago as the last few men, reduced to using stones to fight, were shot through the head at point-blank range. Just a few minutes earlier, Dashrath had fallen to the ground as a Chinese soldier emptied his entire AK-47 magazine into his stomach. “I felt no pain,” he would recall years later, “just relief that the nightmare was over. The manner in which we were deployed, we had known for days that we stood no chance if and when the attack came.”
Krishna Menon would find it necessary to dominate the military bureaucracy by trying to make a dent in the solidarity of its senior ranks.
Just 11 days ago, on October 9, 1962, Lieutenant General B.M. ‘Bijji’ Kaul, camping at the Bridge 3 location on the Nam Ka Chu, had outlined an ambitious attack plan to occupy the Thagla Ridge across the Nam Ka Chu. Every officer and JCO present at the briefing knew the general’s plan was nonsensical. To Dashrath’s experienced ears, it sounded like the general was issuing orders for an advance the next morning across the river and up the Thagla slopes on the assumption that the Chinese did not exist. All the officers were sitting in stunned silence as Kaul droned on, using impressive jargon that included terms like ‘positional warfare manoeuvre’, something neither Dashrath nor any of the others present had ever heard before. Maj Gen Niranjan Prasad, GOC 4 Division, was staring at his shoes the entire time, while Brigadier John Dalvi, the commander of 7 Brigade, meekly tried to point out a few technical difficulties like limited ammunition, lack of snow clothing, artillery support and other factors. The corps commander, deeming them minor irritants, impatiently brushed them aside.
Having spelt out his objectives, the corps commander asked the assembled officers and JCOs if they had any questions. While the officers were still recovering from the shock of Kaul’s master plan, Subedar Dashrath Singh from 2 Rajput, who had seen five years of close combat with the Japanese in Burma and had then fought in the Jammu and Kashmir operations in 1948, spoke up: “Yeh larai to maine pehli bar dekhi hai, saab, jisme hum nalle mein aur dushman upar pahar par.”
“Yeh bhi pehli baar aapne dekha hoga ki koi general frontline mein khara ho,” was Kaul’s glib response. “Aapne apni baat to keh di, saab, lekin hamare sawal ka jawaab nahin diya,” said Dashrath. At this point Kaul lost his temper and demanded that the JCO be arrested on the spot and dismissed from service. While Niranjan Prasad and Dalvi tried to pacify the corps commander, Dashrath was quietly asked to leave the conference.