The recent public controversy in India over the release of a secret report on India's 1962 military defeat by China reveals a lot about some of the big strategic problems India faces.

The so-called Henderson Brooks Report was an independent report commissioned by the Indian Army in the months following its humiliating defeat at the hands of China in October 1962. Conducted by Lieutenant General Henderson Brooks, the report was scathing about political interference in the army, the incompetence of India's generals and their failure to provide honest advice to India's civilian leaders.

Indian memorial to the 1962 Sino-Indian war (Wikipedia.)

After being kept secret for more than 50 years, portions of the report have now been circulated on the web, sparking controversy in the run-up to India's election.

The 1962 war was a short border war that occurred after China lost patience with India's so-called 'Forward Policy' of moving troops further into disputed territory in the Himalayas. Unfortunately for India, the arrogance of its political leaders, led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and the extraordinary incompetence of a small number of Indian military leaders, led to disaster and humiliation. Thousands of Indian troops were killed or wounded and some 4000 captured.

Despite the heroism of many Indian soldiers, proud regiments of the Indian Army were routed in a matter of days, to the extent that the Chinese army could have marched all the way to Calcutta with little or no opposition. Nehru was reduced to pleading for American and British military help to turn the tide. Luckily for India, after 'teaching India a lesson' Mao Zedong ordered the unilateral withdrawal of Chinese troops to their original positions, which they have to a large extent continued to occupy since then.

The historical soundness of India's territorial claims in the Himalayas, Nehru's refusal to countenance Chinese requests to negotiate and India's subsequent defeat were documented in excruciating detail in a 1970 book by Australian journalist and academic Neville Maxwell. Whether or not one agrees with all the details, Maxwell made a damning case against Nehru and the leadership of the Indian Army which has never been properly refuted. Many of Maxwell's observations are firmly supported by the Henderson Brooks Report, which has been kept from public gaze all this time.

The Henderson Brooks Report (and Maxwell's book) makes clear that the immediate cause of the conflict was Nehru’s order for an unprepared and undergunned Indian Army to clear Chinese outposts from territory claimed by India.  The well prepared Chinese army responded with overwhelming force. Unfortunately, it has been in the interests of New Delhi (and the West) to characterise the conflict as a case of unprovoked communist aggression.

But the 1962 war is not just an unfortunate and short-lived episode in history. The causes and consequences of that war live on in New Delhi's stance about the disputed borders, its fears about a rising China and in the continuing inadequacies in the organisation of India's military.

Continuing bitterness about the war is probably still the greatest single factor in Sino-Indian relations. This includes Delhi's inability to compromise on the border dispute (although to be fair, China's stance has probably hardened since the early 1960s) and the visceral fears of many Indian strategists that China is trying to 'surround' India.

The defeat also highlighted severe deficiencies in the Indian military that have never been properly rectified. The Indian military is kept far, far away from the centres of decision-making in Delhi; it is given edicts by the civilian bureaucracy which it is expected to obey without question or consideration for the realities on the ground. There is little opportunity for Indian military leaders to provide advice to the government on the strategic environment or on military options. India has no Chief of Staff to provide unified military leadership, leading to severe deficiencies in planning and the ability of the armed services to work together. This organisational structure was originally driven by the reputed disdain for the military felt by India's post-independence leaders and fears of military coups. All of these problems were evident in the aftermath of 1962 and none have been addressed.

The failure to tackle these issues can to a large extent be traced to India's failure to have an open public discussion about the 1962 defeat. Neville Maxwell was vilified over his book and the Henderson Brooks Report was kept under lock and key. The release of portions of the Henderson Report (engineered by Maxwell, now 87 years old) has reignited these issues in the run-up to India's general election. The extent of the controversy is highlighted by Maxwell's claims that he was forced to make the report available on the web after several Indian newspaper editors refused to take it.

It is a telling aspect of Indian political debate, and the extent to which India's Congress Party is still invested in the reputation of Jawaharlal Nehru, that a 50 year-old report written by a long-dead general should become an election issue. One hopes that the next Indian government will be prepared to have an open discussion about the 1962 war and address the many strategic concerns that live on half a century after that conflict.