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New research looks into Chinese treatment of Indian Army Gorkha prisoners during the 1962 Sino-Indian War
The one-month long Sino-Indian War ended on November 21, 1962 when China declared a ceasefire and simultaneously announced that it would withdraw from all the areas it had occupied. This article examines claims in a British diplomatic file (371/170851) that soldiers from Indian Army Gorkha regiments in Chinese hands were singled out for special interrogation aimed at turning them into Chinese agents on their return to Nepal. On the National Archives website, under Nepal, this file is listed as: “Political relations: People’s Republic of China: border incidents 1963.” Given the title, I was searching for information on Khampas, and I was surprised to find diplomatic correspondence dealing with the claim mentioned. However, before assessing its validity, it is worth addressing the wider questions of the numbers of Indian Army soldiers taken prisoner, when they were released, and how they were treated.
Beyond total figures, it is difficult to find a consolidated breakdown by unit or ethnic origin of Indian Army soldiers who were killed, captured, or declared missing. Getting a breakdown by time and location is equally difficult. On June 10, 1963, after China declared that all prisoners had been released, J.A.G. Banks, the British High Commissioner in Delhi, was tasked with getting information on Indian Army Gorkha ex-Prisoners of War (POWs). This request reflected a growing fear in London, verging on paranoia judging from the number of references to it in diplomatic files, that brainwashed Gorkha ex-POWs would soon be returning to Nepal with subversive intent and that this would lead to regime change and the ending of Gorkha recruitment into the British Army. Equal fears were expressed that the Kathmandu authorities were being slow to react to this new threat. These concerns explain what seems at this distance of time to be the disproportionate amount of interest the United Kingdom had in Gorkha POWs as reflected in diplomatic traffic between London, Kathmandu, Delhi, and Peking.
On June 27, 1963, Banks reported back that he could get little information. He reported that, “There is a certain amount of covering up when people were questioned about the subject. Indian Army Headquarters have from the start been vague about the number of prisoners and missing sustained by individual units.” He also commented that the Indian media had been relatively muted about insisting that every prisoner be accounted for: “But in defence of the Indians’ behaviour one must bear in mind that the return of the prisoners is part of the unilateral Chinese cease-fire, and withdrawal proposals, and the Indians have, therefore, no agreement under which to demand the return of the prisoners; indeed the more fuss the government makes about them the more they emphasise their own dependence on the wishes of the Chinese.” I can add at this point that I was unable to find a definitive number for Gorkha POWs beyond some press reports speaking of around 700.
During my research I found further references to Indian Army POWs in a number of files in the National Archives. One dispatch (from 371/170709) dated February 21, 1963, from the embassy in Peking, gave interesting details that are worth setting down for the record. It was written by a mid-ranking diplomat, who in 1984, as Sir Richard Evans, returned as ambassador and conducted the final negotiations that led to Hong Kong being handed back to China in 1997. He was a distinguished Sinologist, who in retirement wrote a much-acclaimed book on Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping and the Making of Modern China. The dispatch was based on identical official figures given in the People’s Daily of February 11, 1963 and in the English language weekly the Peking Review on February 15, 1963.
The Chinese declared that 3,940 Indian Army soldiers had been captured. (In 1965, the Indian Defence Ministry released casualty figures of 1,383 killed, 1,696 missing and 3,968 captured. The difference of 28 in those captured is not significant and could reasonably be accounted for by the two sides counting some figures in different ways—for example, over the number of those who died from wounds in captivity. In addition, there are reports that 15 fit soldiers were released in December 1962 when the Chinese used them to return captured weapons.) Of the 3,940, 716 sick and wounded were released to the Indian Red Cross. Of these, 105 captured before November 16, 1962 were released at Jang on December 31, 1962. Another 611 captured after November 16, 1962 were released at Bomdila, Mechukha, Walong, Dirang Dzong, and Jang between December 5 and 31, 1962. A further 10 who were seriously wounded or sick died despite treatment. Their names and causes of death were sent to the Indian Red Cross.
The names of the 611 released were given to the Indian Red Cross at the time they were released. The names of the other 105 released were included among six lists mailed by the Chinese Red Cross to the Indian Red Cross between December 16, 1962 and February 10, 1963. (The final list of 820 names was handed over on February 10, 1963.) The names on these six lists can be split into two groups: 1,131 were captured before November 16, 1962, and 2,188 were captured after November 16, 1962. The first group included a brigadier general, 9 field grade officers, and 12 company grade officers. The second group included 17 field grade officers and 20 company grade officers.
Evans concluded his dispatch by saying that the figures broadly corresponded with those seen in reports from Delhi about the total number of missing officers and men, and that the breakdown showed that the fighting was much heavier on the eastern sector than on the western, and also that the Indian Army suffered its heaviest losses during the second phase of the Chinese offensive, beginning on November 16, 1962.
A further dispatch from Peking, dated April 3, 1963, carried news that both surprised and astonished the world, including India. A statement by the Chinese Ministry of Defense published in that day’s People’s Daily announced the decision to release and repatriate all captured Indian military personnel, who now numbered 3,213. This was to start on April 10, 1963 with the release of 144 POWs. Another batch of 469 was to follow soon after. The releases started smoothly but on April 19 the Chinese government introduced a complication when it informed India that, “at the request of some of their number, 27 captured senior officers, including Brigadier Dalvi, are to be taken on a conducted tour of China, including Peking, and will thereafter be released at Shumchun on the Hong Kong border.”
Following strong Indian objections, the idea of the Hong Kong handover was dropped but the tour did go ahead. On March 29, 1963, the group were driven to Lhasa to start their long tour of China which ended when they were handed over to India at Kunming on May 4. A description of the tour is given by one of the group in a 2002 interview of retired Major General KK Tewari by Claude Arpi. He was a lieutenant colonel in 1962 in the post of the Divisional Commander Signals. In the interview Tewari comments instructively on the situation he observed on the Namka Chu during the build-up to the Chinese attack, including during Lieutenant General BM Kaul’s chaotic and ill-fated short visit, and on the morning of the attack when he was taken prisoner. (His insightful observations on his time in captivity are well worth a read.)
In mid May, toward the later stages of the release process, various press reports originating in Delhi stated that no Gorkha POWs had yet been released. The reason for this is suggested in one of J.A.G. Banks’ dispatches dated April 8, 1963. He reported that the Nepal desk officer in External Affairs had told him that “the Chinese Government had been in correspondence with the Nepalese Government, suggesting that as the Indian Gorkhas that they had captured were Nepalese subjects, the Chinese Government would be willing to release them direct to Nepal. The Nepalese Government had replied to the Chinese that it was far from true to say that all Gorkhas lived in Nepal and they were not interested in taking up the Chinese offer.”
How far the Chinese pushed this offer is not clear but the very late release of the Gorkha prisoners suggests that they did have some hope that their suggestion would be accepted. At a press conference on June 15, Nehru finally confirmed that the Chinese had returned all the Gorkha POWs to India. The Indian military attaché in Kathmandu also passed this information to the British ambassador. I found no evidence to support a contrary view. Only the Indian authorities know the full truth. They hold the consolidated list of prisoners by name, rank, and number, passed from the Chinese Red Cross to the Indian Red Cross. Similarly only they can pronounce authoritatively on the number of Gorkhas held captive and the number designated as killed or missing.
The British files do refer to a letter dated February 1, 1963, which referred to an unconfirmed report by a Brigadier Smyth, which said that brainwashed Gorkhas had been returned direct to Nepal and were actively preaching communism in the hills. Given the date of the report, such an early return in January would not make sense for prisoners captured in November. In addition, all the northern passes would have been shut and would have remained so until late April at the earliest. Further research indicated that the informant was Brigadier Sir John Smyth VC MP. At this stage he was making regular and passionate speeches in Parliament opposing proposed cuts in British Army Gurkha numbers. In a debate on March 4, 1963 he claimed, “There is more than a possibility that China will enlist the soldiers we do not want. Certainly, they are making every effort to do so.” This claim attracted some attention in Kathmandu and Delhi but was quickly and rightly dismissed as ludicrous.
After the confirmed return of all the POWs to India, media attention turned to how they had been treated and in particular to the subject of brainwashing. All the POWs had to go through a debriefing process, which also checked their physical and mental state. All media reports on the subject carried the same stories. This strongly suggests official briefings as the source, and much of the detail was later confirmed in diplomatic dispatches. Physically, most of the prisoners were in reasonable shape. Gorkhas were separated from other Indian POWs at a very early stage. They were treated differently, perhaps better, and subjected to a different line of interrogation. The Chinese effort with the Indian POWs was directed mainly at weakening their fighting spirit by trying to drive a wedge between officers and men. Contrasts were drawn between the gap in privileges in the Indian Army compared with the claimed equality between ranks in the PLA. With Gorkhas, the aim was to persuade them to abandon fighting as mercenaries for India.
Throughout the conflict and afterwards, the Chinese consistently claimed that the POWs had been treated with respect, and the injured particularly so. In 2008, Chinese sources uploaded to the Internet a documentary film called The Crushing Moment: China-India 1962 War (Part I and Part II), which repeated these claims. Indian sources called the documentary propaganda but acknowledged that the black and white film did show authentic footage from the 1962 war. The film shows Chinese nurses feeding soup to injured Indian soldiers and doctors treating the wounded and the captured.
What was the official Indian view? A press cutting of a report in The Times of London from June 27, 1964 gave details of an official statement from the Indian government, dated the previous day, accusing China of having used subversion and persuasion, pressure and punishment, to break down the loyalty of Indian POWs. The most serious charge listed was that Brigadier John Dalvi was kept in solitary confinement in a small, cold room and that he was made to listen to Radio Peking broadcasts and not allowed to hear anything else, not even music. Another accusation listed was that with the exception of Chinese communist literature no other reading matter was provided.
Alleged violations of the Geneva Convention listed included an accusation that the Chinese falsely obtained background information on prisoners by issuing forms said to have been required by the Indian government. Another allegation was that the Chinese went out of their way to humiliate and degrade officers by making them remove their badges of rank and forbidding the men to salute their officers and give them respect. It was also claimed that no batmen were provided and officers had to do all their own work.
Unpleasant and inconvenient as some of these impositions would have been, apart from the treatment of John Dalvi, they hardly qualify as serious breaches of the Geneva Convention. A more balanced view emerged in the interviews of ex-POWs carried by many newspapers during the media coverage to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the war in 2012. The Tribune on November 18, 2012 recorded a Garhwal Rifles veteran as saying that the Chinese treated prisoners with the utmost care and that they were not harassed and received food on time. A number of prisoners reported that they were harangued from time to time about how the Chinese government and its policies were better than India’s, but they let it all pass over their head.
One of the longest and most informative interviews was with a retired brigadier who was taken prisoner as a second lieutenant. It appeared on Rediff.com on October 18, 2014. He reported that the Chinese made repeated attempts to get them to admit that India had been the aggressor. Asked if he was fed properly he said, “The Chinese were not well off themselves. I could see this. We had to eat rice and radish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We had to survive with this.” He did however say that the Chinese gave them warm clothing. On Gorkhas he asserted that, “The 1/9 Gorkhas were kept separately, they wanted to show that Chinese and Gorkhas are related, they were given a better deal.” KK Tewari in his 2002 interview also states that the Gorkhas were kept separate and that “they were given special privileges, for obvious political reasons.”
Further detailed insight on the treatment of Gorkha POWs is given in a dispatch dated June 21, 1963 from Guy Clarke, the British ambassador in Kathmandu, sent in response to persistent enquires from London about the mental state of returning ex-POWs. The dispatch opened by stating that that the first report received was an alarming one from an officer who had met an ex-prisoner on a train who could not converse coherently and that “he was in a state of mental incapacity due to injections given to prevent him from recalling details of his internment.”
Since then, Clarke said, an account of an entirely different kind has been given by a returning ex-POW who was interviewed at the British Gurkha depot in Paklihawa. The dispatch records that he said the prisoners were very well treated and were given everything they asked for within the resources of their Chinese guards. They were given three injections at ten-day intervals, which were ostensibly to improve their health. They demurred at first, but agreed to the injections after the Chinese officers had received injections in front of them. The ex-prisoner said that though there had been rumors of men going mad or dying, he himself remained fit and had been passed fit at an Army medical inspection on his return to India.
On brainwashing, Clarke reported that the ex-prisoner said that they had a short pep talk most days on the virtues of communism and on the foolishness of fighting for the Indian capitalists. They were told that the Chinese and Nepalese were brothers and that before long India, Pakistan, Nepal, and other small countries would become part of communist China. In addition to the daily pep talks, each prisoner had three private interviews of three hours each, of which the object seemed to be to obtain information about the conditions of service and welfare in the Indian Army. The ex-prisoner stated that he and his companions had treated all this as a joke and had no intention of being influenced against their Indian officers by what they had been told.
This one account can hardly be taken as representative of the state of mind of all returning Gorkha ex-POWs. Humiliating defeat, particularly when committed to battle poorly clothed and inadequately equipped, followed by incarceration, is not normally conducive to maintaining high morale. For various reasons, memories of battles and their aftermath can quickly get distorted, which is why in most regimental histories everyone is invariably portrayed as standing firm and resolutely doing their duty. In reality, this is not always the case. For many reasons, most notably the quality of junior leadership shown, performance can vary. Only those who were there know the truth and for many reasons might never speak it. Similarly, soldiers will react differently to how they are treated in captivity, to what their guards say, and how they say it. Such factors as the number of casualties taken by their platoon or company, and how they saw their officers perform, are among many variables that will impact the mind of captives in different ways. Depending on the state of organization and leadership within the prison camp, the morale of most POWs will recover quickly but others inevitably will remain depressed and vulnerable.
A professional assessment of the chances of the Chinese having some success with their approach with Gorkha POWs is given in a document written by a senior FO official at the time. He says that he discussed indoctrination with a member of “the Foreign Services” who had direct personal experience of the subject. His judgment was that, “Four and a half months is time enough for the Chinese to carry out some fairly effective indoctrination, at least of a negative sort, if not enough to produce full-scale political converts.” In fact, as I have outlined, some Gorkha POWs were in Chinese hands for six months.
In sum, it is hardly controversial to say that we cannot be sure exactly how the Chinese treatment of Gorkha ex-POWs might have influenced their behavior, either immediately, or perhaps more particularly, many years later. Some of those who were held captive in this war would later have returned on pension to a Nepal that was still an autocratic state. If they lived in places like Rolpa and Rukum they would have found a society that was still verging on feudal. They would also have found that the traditional power of the local Thakuri rulers, and their supporters, was being strongly challenged by their kinsfolk who had been fired up by revolutionary communist ideas throughout the 1950s.
These districts are chosen deliberately. Mohan Bikram Singh formed the communist party of Pyuthan in 1953. He set up and ran three-month long training courses for a large numbers of cadres. By 1954, organized large scale demonstrations were taking place for peasants’ rights. As Anne de Sales has shown in her article The Biography of a Magar Communist, in neighboring Rolpa, revolutionary ideas also took root in the 1950s, and spread more quickly after Mohan Bikram Singh spent a few days in Thabang in the spring of 1956 after his release from prison in Salyan. The formidable Barman Budha became an influential communist leader. He started the first school in Thabang in 1959 and employed an ex-Indian Gorkha soldier who lived in Thabang to teach in the school. In the first general election in 1959, all the voters of Thabang voted for a communist candidate.
In her article Maoists, People and the State as seen from Rolpa and Rukum, Kiyoko Ogura highlights the fact that, inspired by Mohan Bikram Singh, there was another movement in Rukum even before the people of Thabang had become communist. Kami Budha Magar was the first communist in Rukum. He was an ex-Indian Army soldier and one of the activists who had rebelled with K.I. Singh in Bhairahawa against the Delhi agreement in 1951. After K.I. Singh escaped to China, Kami Budha returned to Rukum and formed an alternative government. To avoid arrest by the administrator in Salyan, Kami Budha went to Humla in north-western Nepal, where he and his group captured the government office and stayed for some time. But he was arrested and taken to Jumla where he was killed by the police in 1955.
Thabang, often mentioned as the epicenter of the Maoist revolt, had a history of army recruitment going back to the pre-1947 Indian Army. Based on field research carried out in 1977, Augusta Molnar recorded in her book The Kham Magar Women of Thabang that 31 percent of households in the village had one member currently serving in the Indian Army and 10 percent were drawing a pension from a current or deceased member. Rolpa and Rukum were among the traditional recruiting areas for the 8th Gorkha Rifles, and the first battalion of the regiment had taken part in the heroic defense of the airstrip at Chushul in Ladakh in the 1962 war, during which it took very heavy casualties, including an unknown number taken prisoner. The second battalion was committed to operations in the northeast at the later stages of the war.
So it is possible that there could be some link between returning ex-POWs and the spreading of revolutionary zeal in places like Rukum and Rolpa, but the profusion of evidence now available about the provenance of the ideas that led to the Maoist conflict indicates that it was unlikely to have been significant. No doubt highly motivated new cadres would have been welcome, but in 1963 there were already many people in these areas who were committed to revolutionary change and, as later events were to show, were well capable of leading it. However, this research suggests that to some extent it still remains an open question. The part played by ex-Indian Army Gorkhas, whether they were ex-POWs or not, in promoting and enabling revolutionary change in Nepal starting in the 1950s, is a field ripe for study. Perhaps this article will inspire someone to do it. I also hope that it might give rise to new evidence that will throw some fresh light on the question, based not on speculation but grounded on fact.
While doing research for this article, I discovered that one document in File 371/170851 was missing despite the National Archives declaring that it had been reunited with the parent file on January 1, 2014 after 50 years of closure. I soon discovered that the document was still retained by the Foreign Office. I submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). After the usual delay, it was released with some lines redacted in the middle of the sixth paragraph. The justification given was that under two parts of Section 27 of the FOIA release, the redacted information would be prejudicial to the UK's relations with China and Nepal.
It was a secret document, dated February 11, 1963, giving a summary of conversations which Guy Clarke, the British ambassador, had just had with Dr. Giri, the then Chairman of the Council of Ministers who had recently returned from a visit to China, and, separately, with the Inspector General of Police, PS Lama. Paragraph 6 of Clarke’s letter states,
“The realistic appreciation revealed by Dr Giri in this conversation of the menace of the Chinese presence on Nepal's northern frontier, was further reflected in a conversation I had recently with the Inspector General of Police in the course of which he told me something of the steps he is taking to keep track of Chinese intelligence activities in Nepal. He showed me a map in his office in which he had marked, among many other things, motorable roads and airfields constructed by the Chinese in the Tibetan areas adjacent to the Nepalese frontier.”
The next lines in Paragraph 6 are redacted but information in two other open dispatches in the same file gives a good indication of what is redacted. One written on March 13, 1963 stated, “The Nepalese are as you are well aware from paragraph 6 of my secret letter of February 11, alive to the danger of infiltration of Chinese agents from across the northern border and are doing their best to keep track of them. . . ” Another written on August 20, 1963 stated, “In my secret letter of February 11, I described in paragraph 6 an account given to me by the Inspector General of Police of the measures which he was taking to keep track of subversive agents in the northern frontier regions. This account included the story of an agent who was followed from Namche Bazar in Solu Khumbu until he was finally arrested in Kathmandu.”
The unredacted part of Paragraph 6 continues:
“Finally Lama said that he had personally been left in no doubt about the nature of Chinese intelligence sensitivities in Nepal by the fact that when, on one occasion, he had accepted an invitation to dinner from the Chinese Military Attaché, he had found himself the only guest and had been obliged to spend two hours alone with his host and an interpreter, during which time the Military Attaché had made various offers of aid for the police force and for the Inspector General’s personal use. The Inspector General said that he had related this experience to the King, who had instructed him to accept nothing from the Chinese.”
Clarke’s final paragraph in the letter states, “These two conversations indicate to me that, whatever their public position may be, the Nepalese government are in no danger of accepting Chinese protestations of friendship at face value, and are well aware of the potential menace from their northern neighbour both to the political independence of Nepal as a sovereign state, and also, through internal subversive activities, to the stability of the present regime.”
In sum, the loudly proclaimed British fears in 1963 about Nepal not being alert to the dangers posed by Chinese subversion were seriously misplaced. It is possible to take the view that Giri and Lama were telling the British ambassador what he wanted to hear, but, in its detail, Lama's testimony in particular suggests that they were speaking the truth. At this time and later, Lama passed to the British highly secret details of United States Central Intelligence Agency support to the Khampa guerrillas, which proved to be totally accurate.
What did this mean for India? After Mahendra's coup in January 1961, armed opposition to his autocratic rule, encouraged covertly by India, steadily built up through 1962 to a point that had the regime seriously rattled. After the November 1962 war, Indian opposition to Mahendra weakened rapidly and he was able to embark on his much acclaimed strategy of playing China off against India, which essentially consisted of worrying India that he was getting closer and closer to China. If India had known the extent of Nepal’s concerns about Chinese actions and intentions, its relations with Nepal in the post war period could, to put it mildly, have taken a much less accommodating line.
Cover photo: The Gorkha Regiment of the Indian Army, 2011. Jaskirat Singh Bawa/Flickr. Republished under CC license BY-ND 2.0.
Correction: December 9, 2014
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the brigadier mentioned in a letter dated February 1, 1963. He is John Smyth, not Smith.
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