Aroop Raha, the Indian Air Force chief recently articulated his disappointment that the country’s air power was not fully utilized during the first war with Pakistan in 1948. Likewise, he said, the airpower was not used during the 1962 war with China.
Raha said that while the Indian Air Force (IAF) was used as a “bridge” to transport troops to Kashmir for several months but when a military solution was in sight India went to the United Nations” taking the “the moral high ground”. The statement is largely true. The Air Force was used when the situation became desperate with the Pakistani regulars and tribal raiders came as close as sniffing distance of the Srinagar airfield threatening to overrun it. Even at that crucial juncture the prime minister was hesitant. The books and documents that have now come out clearly show the ambivalence of Prime Minister Nehru.
According to the various documents of the period, it seems a meeting of the Indian cabinet had been called after the Kashmir Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession. Among those present were the Prime Minister, Home Minister, Vallabhbhai Patel, and Defense Minister Sardar Baldev Singh. Late Field Marshal Manekshaw, then a junior officer, was also present presumably to assist his Defense Minister. Towards the end of the meeting Manekshaw was asked to give his assessment of the situation in Kashmir which he did with precision. On hearing him, the consensus was India should intervene as soon as possible but Nehru was still in two minds and was wondering whether to refer the matter to the United Nations. That is when the Home Minister, Vallabhbhai Patel reportedly snapped at him asking whether Nehru wanted to keep Kashmir in India or let go of it. Nehru is reported to have said, “Of course, I would like Kashmir to stay in India”. The moment he answered in the affirmative Sardar Patel asked his assistants to fly the Indian army to Kashmir. Because of the delay in taking this decision most men in first few sorties were reportedly, gunned down on landing.
It is indeed surprising that throughout the campaign the Indian Air Force remained largely under-utilized. It took quite an effort for the Indian Army to slowly push back the invaders out of the Kashmir Valley though the Air Force did a commendable job of breaking the backbone of the invaders by strafing them when they were gathered in strength near the airfield. The Air Force did play its role in making the invaders run for their lives. But, that was about all for an offensive role of the IAF as it was mostly used for logistics – transporting troops and supplies. In doing so, too, it did some remarkable jobs like those of landing on an untested airfield built by 40000 refugees in a week’s time at Poonch and landing Dakotas on an airstrip along the Indus River in Leh at a height of 11000ft, a height where these planes were not supposed to fly. Hundreds of sorties were flown with troops and arms and ammunitions and in the return journey, especially from Poonch, they brought back thousands of refugees. Even the then Governor General, Earl Mountbatten had remarked that in his view it was one of the biggest airlift operations till then anywhere in the world.
Meanwhile, Delhi was getting impatient. Jawaharlal Nehru is reported to have once said that India could not be fighting this war for months or even years. Besides, the brutally cold winter was approaching and the shortage of arms and ammunitions was also telling on the operation. What is more, he was being advised by the Governor General to refer the matter to the UN. It seems the Prime Minister had expectations that a reference to the United Nations would settle the issue speedily. Unfortunately, that did not happen and it took the UN half a century to treat it as an unresolved dispute. On reference to it the Kashmir issue became a victim of the then prevailing Cold War rivalries between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union. The former had a stake in the State as it could provide a location from which they could keep an eye on the latter. The West, therefore, was never inclined that Jammu & Kashmir should merge with India. For them, for various reasons, Pakistan was a better option being tactically better located. That attitude seems to continue till today. At the UN they, therefore, weighed in for Pakistan and some very biased debates had taken place.
What was most unfortunate, however, was that Nehru’s reference was made to the UN just as the Indian Army acquired the capability to throw out the Pakistani raiders from the State. Perhaps, under the influence of the Governor General the Army Headquarters issued an order not to initiate further operations without its orders. Some reports say that it was not Mountbatten but the US intervened and did not want India to recapture the lost J&K territories. Nonetheless, Mountbatten played a dubious (double) role. This was, therefore, not as much a matter of occupying “high moral ground” as of probably succumbing to pressure from a Big Power. So, a problem that could have been solved in 1948-49, thanks to Nehru, festers on and on till today and the country that was the aggressor has acquired in the meantime sharper teeth.
It seems, Nehru’s incapacity to take independent decisions at crunch situations did quite a lot of damage to India. While in the Kashmir war of 1948 Earl Mountbatten led him up the ‘garden path’, during the 1962 war with China it was the US ambassador, John Kenneth Galbraith, who was his advisor. It was largely because of Galbraith that the Indian air power, much improved after the 1948 Kashmir Operations, was not allowed to carry our combat operations. Besides, there was a total absence of intelligence from the other side about the enemy’s capabilities in air warfare. Intelligence Bureau chief, BN Mullik, did not have any intelligence about Chinese Air Force establishments in Tibet. In fact, information was circulated about two Chinese air bases in Tibet which never existed and, probably, do not exist even today.
There was thus an ‘intelligence vacuum’. For fear of an imagined retaliation by China, while the IAF planes were made to sit on their bases, Nehru wrote, surprisingly without consulting the IAF, to Kennedy requesting for air cover for the cities in the plains. This the US was not able to provide because of several reasons including the then ongoing Cuban Missiles Crisis. The result was IAF’s own Toofanies, Mysteres, Gnats, Hunters and Canberras remained virtually mothballed in their Eastern bases while the Army was deprived of much needed air support. The denial to the air force of an offensive role was such an implausible negative action that it is being researched and debated till today.
Raha, therefore, is not the only Air Chief to have highlighted this act of omission. Earlier, Ex IAF chief Air Marshal AY Tipnis, too, blamed Nehru for not using the country’s airpower and the consequential debacle in the 1962 war. Likewise, Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal (Retd) NAK Browne had to say later that the outcome of the 1962 war would have been different had IAF been allowed an offensive role. But such messy situations tend to occur when, instead of defense chiefs, wars are fought, instead of defense forces, by politicians, more so of indecisive variety like Nehru.