The South Asia Channel

Burying Open Secrets: India's 1962 War and the Henderson-Brooks Report

Political scandal is routine in India during election season. It's an old game, digging out the opposition's secrets, in hopes of swaying voters and winning allegiance. Nothing is sacred: As long it is controversial, it will do. So in late March, the incumbent government and the opposition began playing tug-of-war over a dead horse - the Henderson Brooks-Bhagat report, a classified report examining India's defeat in the 1962 war with China. Written in 1963 and classified as top secret since, this report still has the capacity to open old wounds.

The report packs in a lot of political mileage in a sensitive cocktail: national humiliation, political misadventures, military shortcomings, the many fault lines of India's China policy, both past and current, and a potential taint on the legacy of the country's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. However, many of us watching heated television debates in our drawing rooms were left wondering how any of these revelations, now recycled fodder for political mudslinging, were new.

Neville Maxwell, an Australian journalist and former India correspondent for the British Times, released the report with a blog entry entitled, "My Henderson Brooks Albatross." The 87-year-old Maxwell explained that he accessed the documents while researching the Sino-Indian border dispute. His book, "India's China War," published in 1970, contained the "gist of the report," since his source laid down no pre-conditions on how he could use the material. When the Indian government failed to declassify the document five decades after the war, Maxwell decided to take a stand.

The Indian government's immediate reaction was to block access to the blog, not realizing that few things die on the web. The blog has now resurfaced after being reproduced in the media and on various websites, including that of the Indian Defence Review. Interestingly, India's official history of the 1962 war (also leaked to the media and available to the public) acknowledges drawing from the report heavily; making the official response seem puzzling

Uncomfortable but open secrets

Some in India have viewed Maxwell's work on the India-China war as China-sympathetic, while others see it as a useful insight into India's political and military thinking. Yet the index of errors, brought out by the report, Maxwell's book, and works by other by war historians, have been debated in detail much before this blog made headlines.  

The report's revelations mainly center on Nehru's firm belief that China would not respond to India's infamous "Forward Policy," the aggressive Indian patrolling of disputed land claimed by China, and an underestimation of China's military capacity. It also includes evidence of poor military advice provided to the political brass by a "coterie of generals" who dismissed reports of unpreparedness coming from their troops on the ground, a divided army leadership, and inferences of bureaucratic interference. Finally, it discusses in detail the political leadership's insistence on completely recapturing the territory on the disputed border, despite the lack of force capacity and a gross underestimation of the terrain and infrastructure advantage to the Chinese forces. All of these issues have been known and debated before the outing of this report.

But even in 2014, many of these debates remain relevant - in the form of a border dispute with China that flares from time to time (as in late April-May 2013), the slow progress on constructing India's border infrastructure, or the many contentious issues of contemporary civil-military relations. With these issues splashed across Indian newspapers and television screens almost routinely, how would the release of the Henderson-Brooks Bhagat report impinge on national security?

While Maxwell's move has generated embarrassment for the incumbent Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance government -- which at the moment is trying to save itself from an election rout -- the report takes a far harsher view of the military leadership's failure to advise the political masters, rather than blaming the defeat squarely on Nehru.

Military historians like Srinath Raghavan have interpreted the report's core message as "if only we had had generals capable of standing up to overbearing and strategically ignorant political leaders," 1962 could have been avoided. The ramifications on the ground, Raghavan and other military analysts argue, was the idea of politicians not interfering on operational matters of the military, and the rise of the bureaucratic class to fill in the gap left by lack of political attention.

These traditions have taken root and now form the axis of evil that continues today in form of bitter turf battles and blame games between the civilian bureaucracy and the armed forces. So once again, what exactly about the report is new?

The political ostrich act

Apart from the ineffective blocking of Maxwell's blog, the Indian government refused to make an official statement, acknowledging the leak of the report. The National Security Advisor, when pressed by the media at an event, said it was "unnecessary to dignify the report with a response," since it was "not critical to current national security." On the other hand, the Ministry of Defence issued a short press statement calling the report "extremely sensitive" and claiming that its contents are of "current operational value." This was a reiteration of what the Defence Minister AK Antony told the parliament on April 19, 2010, to justify keeping the report secret. While the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has used the ammunition to blame the government for masking its leaders' mistakes, many Indians have also pointed out that, when in power from 1999 to 2004, the BJP-led coalition government did nothing to release the report.

To understand what "current operational value" translates to 50 years after the war, I asked a dozen military officers, some in service and others retired, to air their views anonymously. They unanimously agreed that the report had no real value in terms of "operational sensitivity" today, since 1962 paved the way for massive military restructuring in operations and strategy for the armed forces.

Second, they admit that the report brings out the acrimony in civil-military relations and the apathy of the Indian establishment in buffering up border infrastructure like roads, highways and communication lines as compared to the Chinese, observations that largely hold true now as well. An interesting point raised by a senior officer was that "even if the government finds some sensitive information, why not block it out like is the practice in the United States and the United Kingdom and release the rest of the document to the public?"

Hiding the past

Many historians, journalists, students of foreign policy, and analysts at Indian think tanks say declassifying documents is easier said than done. For decades, students of strategic studies have made numerous requests to declassify the Henderson-Brooks report and other sensitive documents. Unlike the U.S. system, where law periodically dictates an automatic declassification of documents, in India this process is left to bureaucratic good will.

The mystery deepens when one tries to understand the process of declassification in India, since the manual on declassification is itself allegedly classified! A conceptual framework exists in the form of the Public Records Act of 1993, which outlines declassification procedures for government documents, but this has been widely neglected. Even the game-changing Right to Information Act of 2005, which has helped ordinary Indians fight back against the behemoth of red tape, includes an exception for agencies and information that would affect the "sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State" -- thus creating a loop hole for "national security" exemptions.

A former officer and colleague, Anit Mukherjee, now a researcher on military affairs in Singapore, says that while the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces lack declassification procedures, he feels "what is less well known is how they build walls to prevent scholars from accessing existing archives." He speaks from his experience of being repeatedly denied post-1962 documents from the history division of the Ministry of Defence.

He submitted another appeal under the Right to Information Act. In this case, the army pleaded "issue sensitivity" and the MoD simply said they were not aware of the exact location of the documents. In 2011, the Chief Information Commissioner, presiding over the case pronounced, "The MoD has not denied existence of these Reports; it has simply indicated their non-availability. Needless to say, the Reports deal with sensitive national security related issues and their 'non-availability' in the MoD is a serious matter."

The armed forces play hard ball as well, says Anit. "I encountered a Catch-22 situation wherein the MoD claimed only Service [headquarters] can declassify documents, whereas military officers said they have no instructions from the ministry to declassify! Bottom line is, it suits both to pass the buck to the other and appear helpless."

General (Retired) Satish Nambiar, a decorated veteran officer, argues that the roots of this problem lie further back in history. For example, the contribution of India's 2.5-million-strong army to World War II remains officially undocumented, and "the Indian foreign policy establishment still largely pretends that India's engagement with the world began on 15 August 1947." Nambiar served as a member of the NN Vohra Committee set up by the Ministry of Defence to review "official" histories of India's 1962, 1965, and 1971 wars, which recommended publishing the reports without any caveats. To date, with the exception of the 1965 report, these documents have not been officially released, notwithstanding the selective leaks to the media.

The need for closure

The Ministry of External Affairs has begun to declassify over 70,000 files over the past few years, undoubtedly a step in the right direction. However, the ministry has only employed a few former diplomats in this laborious exercise. While the Public Records Act and Public Records rules are in existence, most national security bureaucracies do not adhere to them. In essence, there is no uniform procedure followed by all agencies. Moreover, the Official Secrets Act of 1923, a draconian act that places stipulations on government communiqués, acts as the sword of Damocles hanging over any attempts at clearing files.

In the age of Wikileaks, secrecy may be over-rated. National security concerns certainly remain relevant, but governments can no longer hope to hide past follies under the garb of national security. Keeping the HBR report classified has not even succeeded in protecting its secrets: Most Indian scholars have used records de-classifed by the United States, China, and even Russia to put together the context of the 1962 war.

Lessons learnt from historic strategic encounters will only strengthen India's institutional memory, and aid its strategic community in terms of prescriptions for the future. Demands for the release of the report should be met with a mature response, even if that entails redacting information deemed sensitive. Such an exercise will not just reflect well in terms of the mature democracy India claims to be, but will help exorcise the ghost of 1962 symbolically from India's collective memory.

Shruti Pandalai is a television journalist and foreign policy analyst currently working with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a New Delhi-based think tank. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent views of the institute . Follow her on Twitter at @shrutipandalai.

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