Kuldip Nayar, one of India’s most widely known journalists, was at the centre of all political activity when the 1962 Sino-Indian War began. In the following excerpt from his memoir Between the Lines, he recalls the day-by-day escalation of conflict, and the helplessness with which Nehru watched the Chinese overrun Indian territory:
October 20, 1962
Home Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri looks anxious about the happenings on the Sino-Indian border. The war has begun; the Chinese have attacked the Thag La ridge this morning. Attacks have also been made on the Ladakh side. But the newspapers play it down; they give more prominence to a crisis in the UP Congress over a land tax proposal before the State Legislature.
“If only we were better prepared,” Shastri says. “I don’t mind approaching any power for help to fight the Chinese… Panditji trusted the Chinese too much. We are the ones who, in fact, introduced Prime Minister Chou En-lai to the non-aligned powers in Bandung.”
October 22, 1962
The press is told that the Chinese have suffered heavy losses, on the NEFA front, and newspapers lap it up. The Cabinet, however, is horrified at the speedy advance of the Chinese forces. A few, particularly Nehru, still expect Peking not to proceed too far and to stop before long. But most ministers have no such hope. They insist that the nation should be told the facts. But it is agreed not to raise a scare in the country. At the same time, Nehru is to make a broadcast to the nation to build up public support. All political parties, including the Communists, are to be approached for cooperation, and Mrs Indira Gandhi is to appeal to women to prepare to meet the Chinese aggression.
One regret that stretches all the way to the top levels is that the Intelligence Department failed to give timely warning about the enemy’s build-up. It is evident that the Chinese have been planning the attack for many days. Had there been prior intimation, the Army would have fared better…
Defence Minister Krishna Menon is nobody’s favourite, except Nehru’s. Shastri makes no secret of his dislike for him. He has told me that all ministers freely speak against Menon behind Panditji’s back. They think Menon has let the country down.
October 30, 1962
Nehru seems to have waited too long for the Chinese to make “some conciliatory gesture”. The border situation is worse. Except in Ladakh, everywhere else the Chinese are cutting through Indian defences like knife through butter. Pressure inside the Congress Party is building up in favour of asking America and Britain for help…
The people, who feel horrified and helpless over the performance of the Indian forces at the front, have been given the sop that some armaments have been received from abroad and more are expected. This is true, but the fact is that very little has been done to buy or procure arms…
November 8, 1962
Moscow’s response to Nehru’s letter is disappointing. Khrushchev’s reply contains clichés like “friendship” between two great Asian countries and neighbourly relations, but says nothing in support of India… New Delhi’s bigger disappointment is that Moscow is not sending much-needed, much-promised and much-publicized MiGs.
Word has arrived from Paris that France will supply arms to India on a “priority basis”. But the price asked for is stiff, and it has to be paid cash down. An effort is made to have the condition of cash payment waived, but it appears that these “are the instructions of General de Gaulle”.
November 19, 1962
Nehru has sent an SOS to America for massive air help. In an urgent appeal to President Kennedy he has asked for the US Air Force to come to India’s rescue. It is obvious that the US planes when they come are to operate from our airfields even though Nehru has not specifically mentioned anything about the place from where they are to operate. A man who was reluctant to ask anything except small arms at the beginning of hostilities is now desperately looking for all that he can get from any quarter to stem China’s rapid advance.
November 20, 1962
Things look gloomy. A good deal of NEFA has fallen. Indian forces have retreated to Tezpur, near the foot of the hills. The pall of helplessness is spreading and seems to have affected even those who have been putting up a brave front. The Prime Minister remains determined but has no clue about how things might shape up… He must be the unhappiest man in India today, seeing all that he has built on the basis of peace with China crumbling. His household reports that he is quieter than usual, keeping his thoughts to himself, often in a reverie and sometimes trembling…