It’s a secret that does no one any service
Details of the Sino-Indian conflict are usually associated with the Henderson-Brooks Report prepared in 1963. But the report’s findings remain zealously guarded by New Delhi
As the 50th anniversary of the debacle of 1962 approaches, it is necessary to have a fresh look into some of the events which led to the Himalayan Blunder. The Sino-Indian conflict is usually associated with the Henderson-Brooks Report prepared in 1963 by Lt Gen Henderson-Brooks and Brig Prem Bhagat. Today, this file is the most secret of the Indian Republic.
In 2008, the Union Minister for Defence told Parliament that the Henderson-Brooks Report could not be declassified after a MoD internal audit “had established that its contents are not only extremely sensitive but are of current operational value.” But Mr RD Pradhan, the Private Secretary to YB Chavan, who replaced Krishna Menon as Defence Minister after the 1962 War, wrote in his memoirs: “In 1965, it was considered too sensitive to be made public and although outdated today, the report unfortunately remains secret.”
Whom to believe? Mr Pradhan says that he is the only person alive who had examined the report (Neville Maxwell, the author of India’s China War probably saw portions of it). There is another report, 12 years older than the HBR which is also missing in action. It is the Himmatsinghji report, prepared after China’s invasion of Tibet in October 1950. It seems to have been misplaced in some North Block almirah. In November 2011, under the Right to Information Act, a petitioner applied to have a look at the Himmasinghji Report (as well as five other historic reports prepared by the MoD).
In its order, the Central Information Commission noted on October 12, 2011, that the Director (Vigilance) in the MoD had informed the CIC that only one report could be found: “None of the remaining five, (i) PMS Blackett Report 1948; (ii) Himmatsinghji Committee Report, 1951; (iii) HM Patel Committee report on functioning of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), 1952; (V) Sharda Mukherjee Committee report on restructuring of MoD, 1967 and (v) Committee on Defence expenditure report, 1990 are available in the MoD.” The officer had been authorised to make this statement by the Defence Secretary: “It is, thus, clear that the reports …of the RTI application are not available with the MoD and the question of supplying them to the appellant does not arise..”
Can you believe it? : Does it mean that the Himmatsinghji Committee Report is lost forever? The CIC’s conclusion was: “The MoD has not denied existence of these Reports; it has simply indicated their non-availability…In the premises, it is ordered that a copy of this order be sent to the Defence Secretary for information and appropriate action at his end.” The Ministry’s babus will probably sit on this order till their retirement and the CIC will forget about it; the Himmatsinghji Report will never be available to the Indian public. In any case most babus believe that military and strategic affairs are not the business of ‘common men’.
Why is the Himmatsinghji Committee’s report important?
Intelligence Chief, BN Mullick wrote in his memoirs that the decision to form a committee followed a note, ‘New Problems of Internal Security’, sent by the Intelligence Bureau in November 1950…as well as the letter of Sardar Patel to Nehru on Tibet. Mr Mullik takes too much credit for the IB, as it is undoubtedly Patel’s letter to Nehru (and an earlier one to Sir GS Bajpai) which started the ball rolling. Patel wrote to Bajpai: “The Chinese advance into Tibet upsets all our security calculations. Hitherto, the danger to India on its land frontiers has always come from the North-West…For the first time, a serious danger is now developing on the North and North-East side.”
On December 1, a committee was formed with Major-General Himmatsinghji, Deputy Minister of Defence as a Chairman. Two main decisions were taken: “(1) A small committee of military experts with a representative of the IB in Shillong would visit the NEFA agencies and propose the places near the frontier at which the Assam Rifles units should be posted. (2) A high-powered committee presided over by the Deputy Minister of Defence, Major-General Himmatsinghji, with representatives of Defence, Communication, Home, External Affairs and the IB would be formed to study the problems created by the Chinese aggression in Tibet and to make recommendations about the measures that should be taken to improve administration, defence, communication, etc of all the frontier areas.”
Mr Mullick informs us further: “The Himmatsinghji Committee also had before it the recommendations which had been made by a smaller Committee formed in Assam to assess the dangers in NEFA.” This Committee would have suggested that in the sectors where the boundary was undefined, India should decide its claims. Having decided on its claim line, effective steps should be taken to prevent unilateral occupation of these areas by Chinese or Tibetans. It is probably this ‘smaller’ Committee which decided to immediately march towards Tawang. The Committee also recommended the re-organisation of the administrative divisions of NEFA, the opening of new districts, and increase in the staff manning new posts, the extension of these administrative centres further towards the McMahon Line and the formation of a Frontier Service cadre for service in the frontier areas. An important increase of the Assam Rifles and the Civil Armed Police at strategic points was also sanctioned. The Committee suggested the construction of new roads and the improvement of existing ones to link the Assam Rifles posts with headquarters (it was in 1951!).
At that time, the entire area down to Dirang (south of the Sela Pass in Tawang district) was still under some vague Tibetan administration, with a Tibetan Dzongpon (district commissioner) still collecting ‘monastic’ taxes from time to time in and around Tawang. It is then that Major Bob Khathing, a Manipuri officer who served in the Assam Rifles, entered the stage. In January 1951, just as he had been posted as an Assistant Political Officer in Bomdila, Khathing was summoned by the Assam Governor, Jairamdas Daulatram who asked him to go and administer Tawang. On January 17, 1951, Khathing, accompanied by 200 troops, left for Tawang, south of the McMahon Line. The party was later joined by a 600-strong team of porters. The Assam Rifles of Bob Khathing reached Tawang on February 7. Was it Bajpai’s last homage to Sardar Patel who had passed away on December 15 and who had understood the importance of integrating all territories belonging to the Union of India?
As he arrived in Tawang, Khathing was warmly welcomed by representatives of the Tawang monastery, the local headmen and leaders. Nari Rustomji, the Advisor to the Governor of Assam, till then responsible for the border areas, was soon after transferred to Sikkim; he recalled: “The Chinese entry into Tibet in 1950 …dictated henceforward a more elaborate and complex administrative structure in the tribal areas than I had favoured, …Mine had been governance with a light touch, on a personal, paternalistic basis.” The Himmatsinghji Committee probably realised the light touch had to be balanced by military presence.
Some rumours have recently circulated that Nehru did not know about the Tawang operation; this would truly mean a serious lapse as the Assam Rifles worked directly under the Ministry of External Affairs and Nehru was then the Minister. A ‘military’ operation of this scale certainly could not be decided locally and needed the approval and funding from the Central Government. Did Patel and Bajpai decide the operation on their own and order Jairamdas Daulatram accordingly? It is impossible to answer this question unless the related files are found.
(The accompanying cartoon is by Ben Sargent. Courtesy: Slate.com)