Himalayan Blunder by Brigadier J.P. Dalvi : My Review

Aditya Prakash
6 min readJul 24, 2021
Tawant Monastry, which was briefly occupied by the PLA in 1962

The book details the events that led to the 1962 war with China and has been written by Brigadier John Dalvi, Commander of 7 Brigade which fought the Chinese in the eastern sector at the Namka Chu River Valley.

In the words of the author, the book has been defined in the following words

“This book is one more tree in the inevitable forest which will grow around the Indian humiliation of 1962”

This book was a tough read, at times it made you angry and at others, it made you sad, one reads in horror the collective failure on part of our political leadership to gauge the Chinese threat and also military incompetence during those fateful months of Oct and Nov in 1962.

The author doesn’t hold back in spelling out the guilty men behind the debacle and setting the record straight. Starting with Pandit Nehru, who was not only the Prime Minister but also the Foreign Minister during the same time. Thus, all decisions relating to India’s foreign policy and relations with China had to have had Pandit Nehru’s sanction. The book is also very critical of Indian Defense Ministers since Independence who were not fit for the job and did not chart out a proper strategy for India’s defense, most scorn was reserved and deservedly for Mr. VK Krishna Menon who was Defense Minister from 1957 till the war in 1962 when he was forced to resign. Mr. Menon would go down in infamy for his troubled time as Defense Minister where he demoralized the Indian Army, played favorites, promoted incompetent generals, and refused to accept suggestions made by the Indian army to improve its defenses against the Chinese. His rivalry with then Finance Minister Morarji Desai further ensured that the Indian Army was starved of vital funds and he further kneecapped our ability to build up arms by discouraging Private Industry and having faith in our incompetent Ordnance factories to provide us weapons.

The Problems all began soon after Independence when in 1950 the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marched into Tibet and annexed it. For the first time in Indian history, we had a border or frontier with the Chinese. Sardar Patel in his now-famous letter to Pandit Nehru warned of the dangers of having the Chinese on our borders, however with Sardar Patel passing away shortly after writing that letter, we were lulled into not taking the Chinese threat seriously, Given the ongoing Kashmir conflict, the main focus was always on Pakistan. It is not surprising, that even after 60 years the main threat was still perceived to be Pakistan till finally in 2020, there is recognition of the Chinese challenge.

Though we were quick to send in troops to consolidate Indian sovereignty in North East Frontier Agency(NEFA) which is modern-day Arunachal Pradesh in accordance with the McMahon Line, we didn’t do the same in the western frontier in Ladakh. Thus giving the initiative to the Chinese to occupy Aksai Chine throughout the 1950s.

The entire decade would prove to be a lost decade for India to build up its military in the face of a Chinese Army which was far bigger and had modern weapons. This complacency in the Indian Strategic thinking meant that we never built the necessary border infrastructure which was needed to defend our frontiers. On the Indian side, the journey from one military post to another would be decided in days and not kilometers. The Chinese on the other hand had built modern roads and railways to ensure uninterrupted supply lines for their troops. This complacency was rooted in the belief that the Chinese would never attack. This is a theme seen throughout the book. The slogan “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” was common throughout the decade as we ceded more and more ground to the Chinese, it was only until the Aksai Chin highway was discovered and the first major border clashes happened in 1959, did India realize the extent of the problem and the vast territory of Aksai Chin which the Chinese had usurped through Chicanery.

Even after 1959, the higher leadership was not willing to accept that the Chinese could possibly attack us, from 1959–62 we made half-hearted attempts to improve our preparedness again because the belief was that the Chinese would never attack. That is why even in Oct 1962 at Namka Chu in NEFA, we had just 7 brigade lead by Brigadier Dalvi protecting that frontier, whereas the Chinese outnumbered the Indians by almost 10:1 if not even more. It was against these insurmountable odds that India was supposed to evict the Chinese from Indian territory.

If it was political ineptitude that ensured that we did not build up our defenses. There was also a complete failure on part of the military leadership. Here the blame lies with the men in charge of the defense of NEFA namely General Kaul who was commander of IV corps headquartered in Tezpur and Chief of the Indian Army Gen Thapar. The inability of the military men to assess the situation and inform the political leadership that they were being led into a trap where needless lives would be lost also cannot be ignored.

The final death nail came when the Chinese launched a major offensive on 20th Oct 1962 at the Namka Chu in NEFA. The Indian troops had no hope, they were underclothed, underfed, underequipped, but fought valiantly making the ultimate sacrifice. It was a humiliation like no other. The Indian army that had earned praise for its brilliance for over 2 centuries was left embarrassed with nowhere to hide.

As the author writes-

“Free India had followed the same path as her feudal past, her brave soldiers were not given the semblance of a chance to win this battle. Inept leadership and mental black-outs had set up 7 brigade for destruction, trapped and without an escape route”

The aftermath of the humiliation of the war proved to be fatal for India and its world image. Throughout the 1950s Pandit Nehru had stood tall in the international Arena as the founder member of the Non-Aligned Movement, we spoke for the oppressed, talked of solidarity with other countries which went through the colonial experience, gave rousing speeches at the UN, etc. In a way, we were punching well above our weight as we were still a poor and impoverished country. The Chinese invasion and subsequent humiliation at the battlefield cut India to size, it also showed the rest of our South Asian neighbors who the real hegemon was in Asia. Though India would have some redemption it would have to wait till 1971.

To some up the 1962 war, the Author gives a very sobering reminder to all

“1962 was a National Failure of which every Indian is guilty. It was a failure in the Higher Direction of War, a failure of the General Staff (myself included); it was a failure of Responsible Public Opinion and the Press. For the Government of India, it was a Himalayan Blunder at all Levels”

Given the border clashes with the Chinese in 2020, our interests have peaked with respect to the border issue and what needs to be done to protect our borders against Chinese aggression. This is where I find the book fascinating as it is as relevant today as it was back in 1962. Many of the problems with the Indian Military regarding Defense Production, Military Objectives, Budgets, Infrastructure all still persists. Many of the recommendations made by Brig Dalvi in the book also remain on the drawing board.

One can only hope that the higher leadership can guide India through what appears to be a very difficult decade ahead with the Chinese ever so aggressive.