By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Mar 14
Lieutenant General TB Henderson Brooks was clearly worried that his inquiry into the army’s 1962 defeat at the hands of the Chinese might be made into a whitewash job that confined itself to minor tactical questions, while ignoring the bigger issues --- questions of higher defence management --- that had actually led to national humiliation.
That worry is evident from the very start of the “top secret” Henderson Brooks Report (HBR), large chunks of which have been posted on the internet by former journalist and author, Neville Maxwell, now settled in Australia.
Despite those apprehensions, or perhaps because of them, Henderson Brooks and his co-author, the iconic, Victoria Cross winning Brigadier PS Bhagat, boldly stretched their mandate to investigate and point out flaws in the political and top military handling of the run-up to and conduct of war.
In the very first page of his report, Henderson Brooks makes the startling disclosure that the army chief --- General JN Chaudhuri, who was appointed after the 1962 debacle led to the resignation of his predecessor, General PN Thapar --- advised him not to review the functioning of Army Headquarters (AHQ) while carrying out his inquiry.
Henderson Brooks believed that excluding AHQ from his investigation would mask crucial events and paint an incomplete picture. He says it would have been “convenient and logical” to begin tracing events from AHQ, through command headquarters, to the field formations that actually did the fighting.
According to the posted HBR, General JN Chaudhuri’s order to exclude AHQ from the enquiry meant, “The relationship between Defence Ministry and Army Headquarters and the directions given by the former to the latter could, therefore, also not be examined.”
Henderson Brooks remained determined not to let that happen. He doggedly scrutinised AHQ decisions, if not through AHQ documents, then through written orders, instructions and minutes that AHQ issued to Headquarters Western Command (HQ WC) and Eastern Command (HQ EC).
The posted HBR notes that, “the actions and developments at Army Headquarters have had to be traced from documents available at Command Headquarters. In this process, a number of loose ends concerning Army Headquarters could not be verified and have been left unanswered.””
It remains unclear why General JN Chaudhuri restricted the scope of Henderson Brooks’ “operations review”, as the inquiry ordered by the army chief on December 14, 1962, was termed. Not only was AHQ placed off limits for Henderson Brooks, his mandate was skewed towards just one part of the war --- the Kameng sector, around Tawang.
According to the HBR blogpost, Henderson Brooks was ordered, “to go into the reverses suffered by the Army, particularly in the KAMENG Frontier Division of NEFA”, i.e. the Tawang sector of the North East Frontier Agency. He was to enquire into tactical issues --- specifically what went wrong with training, equipment, system of command, physical fitness of troops, and the capacity of commanders at all levels to influence the men under their command.
Eventually, Henderson Brooks framed his own expansive mandate. Besides scrutinising AHQ wherever possible, and commenting on MoD and Intelligence Bureau (IB) functioning, the enquiry also focused on Ladakh (i.e. the Western Command) as intently as on Kameng. The posted report notes, “It is also obvious that the developments in NEFA were closely correlated to those in LADAKH, and, thus, any study of NEFA operations must be carried out in conjunction with… the Western Theatre.”
Henderson Brooks consciously viewed the big picture, choosing to examine “developments and events prior to hostilities as also the balance, posture and strength of the Army at the outbreak of hostilities.”
It is perhaps for this reason --- and for the occasionally blistering comments on political and civilian agencies --- that successive governments in New Delhi have chosen to keep the Henderson Brooks report “top secret.”
For example, the posted report is scathing about Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon’s fetish for keeping meetings unrecorded. The posted report notes “The Army Commander (Lt Gen LP Sen) in his report… has brought out that the Defence Minister categorically stated that in view of the TOP SECRET nature of the conference, NO minutes would be kept. This practice, it appears, was followed at all conferences that were held by the Defence Minister in connection with these operations. This is a surprising decision and one which could and did lead to grave consequences. It absolved in the ultimate analysis anyone of the responsibility of any major decision. This, it could and did lead to decisions being taken without careful and considered thought on the consequences of those decisions.”
Pointing out “military decisions must only be taken by those who are in the full knowledge of the military situation and can appreciate the tactical implications,” the posted HBR is withering about the deeply flawed evaluations of BN Mullick, the Director IB (DIB). Other than Mullick’s calamitous opinion that the Chinese would not use force against Indian troops that were pushing forward into contested territory, the HBR blogpost also terms “militarily unsound” the DIB’s opinion that scarce forces should be diverted to hold areas like Taksing, Mechuka and Tuting in NEFA, which the report termed the “frittering away of forces.”
The posted HBR also slams Foreign Secretary MJ Desai’s gung-ho suggestions at a time when Sino-Indian tensions were boiling over after Indian jawans moved to the disputed Thagla Ridge. Says the HBR acerbically, “The Foreign Secretary’s suggestion of establishing a post on THAGLA Ridge alongside the Chinese, viewed against the happenings in LADAKH, seems incredible.”
Yet, ultimately, the HBR reserves most of its disapproval for AHQ, which neither insulated the field formations from powerful, interfering civilians, nor allowed the units to plan and execute their battle. The posted report notes: “(F)or proper planning and orderly progress, it is essential that lower formations are left to execute orders without interference and undue pressure from Army Headquarters, who neither know the local conditions nor details of execution…”