Why did the victorious Chinese army withdraw in 1962? - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.
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Monday, 21 November 2022

Why did the victorious Chinese army withdraw in 1962?

 

By Ajai Shukla

Business Standard, 21st Nov 22

 

Sixty years ago, on November 21, 1962, with advancing Chinese columns virtually on the outskirts of Tezpur and the Indian Army in full retreat, Beijing unexpectedly declared a unilateral ceasefire and undertook to withdraw its forces 20 kilometres (km) behind the McMahon Line. This amounted to a declaration of victory, riding on the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) October attack on the handful of Indian soldiers of 7 Infantry Brigade, which was deployed on the Namkha Chu river north of Tawang.

 

To this day, opinion is divided on what motivated Beijing to call off the game at the moment of victory. Indian Army units deployed at Dirang and Mandala were racing for the exits, their attention focused on putting the Brahmaputra River between the PLA and themselves. Barely one-tenth of India’s fighting forces had been committed to battle against the Chinese, but the fullness with which the PLA had put them to the sword made it seem as if the entire Indian military had been thoroughly vanquished. New Delhi’s discomfiture was complete after Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru appeared to have declared defeat in a radio broadcast on the eve of the ceasefire.

 

“We have had reverses at Walong, Se La and today Bomdila, a small town in NEFA, has also fallen. We shall not rest till the invader goes out of India or is pushed out. I want to make that clear to all of you, and especially our countrymen in Assam, to whom our heart goes out at this moment,” said Nehru in a choked voice.

 

Tezpur, the first major Assam town, presented a scene of chaos. Flames flickered in the night as government officials frantically burnt documents. Outside the treasury, there was a bonfire of banknotes. The doors of the local “lunatic asylum” were thrown open to save “lunatics” from falling into Chinese hands. Tezpur was where the Indian public had received the Dalai Lama in 1959, so it was felt that the PLA would exact revenge here. The ferry across the Brahmaputra, operated by a private company – the RSN&IGN Company – was packed to capacity with fleeing citizens. Prominent locals, such as tea garden managers (many of them European) flew out in Indian Airlines flights, cramming them to capacity. Towards the end, the notables were leaving their vehicles at the airport with keys inside; they never thought they would come back and see their cars again.

 

Compared to this chaos, the area north of Bomdila was a picture of calm. Chinese troops had marched in and distributed themselves between villages, with individual units charged with administering specific jurisdictions. Acting on clear instructions to win the hearts and minds of the local Monpa people, Chinese soldiers helped locals with fetching water, harvesting crops and looking after livestock. The PLA had clear orders to win over the Monpas, which was evident from the similarity in PLA behavior all across the border from Walong to Tawang. Unfortunately for the Chinese, the Monpas accepted their help but gave no loyalty in return. The reason, Monpas still say, was simple: The Chinese are untrustworthy! After subjugating Tibet in the 1950s the PLA had similarly tried to woo over the locals. But, very quickly, they revealed their true faces to the Tibetans. With no love forthcoming from the Monpas, the PLA saw no benefit in a long-term presence in Tawang.

 

A simultaneous PLA ploy was to highlight the Indian administration’s abandonment of Tawang in the face of the Chinese offensive. The Indian government, which fled ignominiously, was incapable of looking after them, argued the Chinese to the Monpas. However, given China’s treatment of the Tibetans in the 1950s, the Monpas clearly preferred the “cowardly” Indians.

 

Each of these reasons mutually reinforced an ever more compelling administrative case for the Chinese to vacate Tawang, having “taught India a lesson”. Ultimately, however, it is likely to have been a tactical-operational consideration that took the PLA back across the McMahon Line in December 1962. Withwinter setting in rapidly, the PLA’s extended supply line was becoming a vulnerability. Soon, the snowed-under passes would have made it extremely difficult to maintain troops across the McMahon Line. 

 

Meanwhile, in response to Jawaharlal Nehru’s plea to US President John F Kennedy, American arms, ammunition and extreme cold clothing were flowing into India and being transported to Assam. The handful of Indian soldiers that had been defeated by the PLA was being replaced, reinforced and equipped with US weaponry.

 

At the extended points in Assam that the PLA reached on 20 November 1962, logistics would have made it easier for India to mobilise reserve formations, equipped with heavy artillery and tanks. The PLA faced the unappealing prospect of fighting US-equipped Indian forces without a route of withdrawal across the Himalayas. Deciding to quit while they were ahead, the PLA declared victory and withdrew to Tibet.


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