October 20, 1962  is etched in abject humiliation for India.  On that day, even as the world was seized with the Cuban missile crisis,   Chinese PLA  troops crossed the contested McMohan Line  and  launched an attack against India. This  Chinese use of military force that was personally endorsed by Chairman Mao to teach India and PM Nehru a ‘lesson’  is 50 years old this year – and it is pertinent to review the lessons Delhi  has learnt over the last half a century.

Ill equipped Indian  soldiers were thrown into battle by a leadership that was totally rattled. PM Nehru and his Defence Minister Krishna Menon displayed levels of incompetence that were appalling.   The country which had attained freedom in 1947 went through a humiliating experience that had some very relevant indicators about what constitutes true leadership  in a democracy and the deplorable  abdication of this basic ‘dharma’ by   those elected to govern.

The Henderson-Brooks  report which reviewed the military failure remains shrouded in unwarranted secrecy and no attempt has been made to  examine the failure at the highest levels of government.  Whether India ought to have used air power has come back into focus over the last few days thanks to the Air Chief  'Charlie' Browne  taking a definitive professional view on the subject.

At the level of the Indian collective consciousness that is often reflected by the  Indian parliament and the mass-media, it is moot to note the striking contrast with other issues that animate and excite the great Indian democracy. After this national disaster of 1962  , there have been few attempts by the Indian political leadership to make an objective assessment about what went wrong – and how to redress the inadequacies that led to the fall of  Tawang and the  inglorious and  shameful abandoning of  Assam.

In the last 50 years, rarely has the Indian parliament  engaged in meaningful debate and discussion  in the light of the China  factor, about the most optimum manner to  enhance comprehensive national power with special emphasis on the military component. Debates when they have occurred have been rare and  partisan in nature. The deliberations focused more on defending the leader (PM Nehru after 1962 ) or deifying the leader (PM Indira Gandhi after  the 1971 victory )  or  distorting the debacle and  the avoidable loss of  lives  (PM Rajiv Gandhi and  the Sri Lanka fiasco). Even the 1999 Kargil War and the 2008 attack on Mumbai  have seen brief,  episodic and emotive responses  than the informed, measured and long-term review  about national security that a mature and confident democracy ought to exude.
Apropos China and 1962, it  merits repetition that it is unlikely that such an experience can be replicated – meaning that 50 year down the road – India is in a better position to defend its  sovereignty and integrity – if push comes to shove. The domestic context for both nations has changed significantly, the regional  and global environment  has a techno-strategic texture of a  different order wherein the nuclear weapon and missile introduce an altered dynamic  and above all – the current pattern of globalization and inter-linked dependencies raise the bar for any imprudent military action. However the recent China-Japan tension over tiny islands in the East China Sea  are indicative of how nationalism and territoriality can be linked with emotive perceptions of sovereignty.

In a rather unintended manner the humble canvas shoe of brick color becomes the symbol of  how little India has learnt from the lessons  of 1962 – and the indifferent attitude of the civilian leadership towards matters of national security. In one of my early visits to  Beijing  I enquired  about the 1962 war and the view from China about what had transpired. By and large my Chinese interlocutors were not keen to recall the episode in any detail and put it down to  unfortunate ‘historical experience.’  When I persisted about any documentation or any public recall,  in a rather elliptical manner it was conveyed that  the   Chinese leadership were taken aback  by the capitulation of the Indian troops at the time. The  Chinese  were also aghast that the Indian soldiers taken POW were so poorly equipped, and clad in  coarse cottons,  ill-fitting  sweaters and yes – the humble brick colored canvas shoe at heights of 14,000 feet  - where they were defending the honor of the motherland.

Five decades after that debacle it is deeply distressing – but perhaps not surprising – that the Indian government, according to media reports -  is yet to take a decision on upgrading the ‘sports-shoe’  equivalent for the Indian jawan. What had been sanctioned in 1962  is still the ‘authorized’ item – and the decision for about 8 lakh shoes is pending in the entrails of the great Indian octopus. It is reported that this issue will be taken up at the Army commanders conference on October 12.
But it is the larger collective apathy and  dismissive attitude about national security that should cause deep concern – but rarely does. India’s obsession with cricket, religion, cinema/entertainment  and corruption/crime is aptly  reflected in the mass-media and the prevailing national discourse. A parallel recall of  other events in October may be instructive of this  Indian attitude  or deeply ingrained strategic culture.

October 5 this year marked two other 50th anniversary punctuations – the release of the first James Bond film, “Dr. No”  on October 5, 1962. The other entertainment event was the release of the first Beatles song in England  on the same day. Both the film and the song  acquired cult status globally – and  the  nostalgic recall and  the tributes paid in India are understandable.

The rather bleak 50th  anniversary of October 20, 1962  will be upon us soon and it will be instructive to  note  how this event is  recalled in India. The families of those who lost loved ones will mourn their  loss  in solitude. The Indian state  has a very short memory when it comes to its gallant martyrs and forgets how callous and parsimonious it can be – even  when it comes to the humble canvas shoe – let alone  artillery guns and fighter aircraft.