Lest We Forget: The Life and Times of my Father Brig. John Dalvi

"Brigadier, you should know, losing armies don't get medals"! It was these kinds of statements that broke his will, spirit, resolve and left him an embittered, lonely and angry man."


Lest We Forget: The Life and Times of my Father Brig. John Dalvi

My father, was a brilliant student, educated by Jesuit Brothers, and schooled in Latin, at St. Mary's School & St. Xavier's College in Bombay. When WWII broke out he was already a graduate. He decided to join the army, eventually passing out from the Indian Military Academy in June of 1941, an enthusiastic and patriotic 21-year-old. His younger brother, Jaiwant, followed two years later from the IMA in 1943. My father joined a far off Battalion-10/5 Baluch, (now in the Pakistani Army). Jai became a Cavalryman (Armoured Corps), joining 8 Cavalry.

Balochistan was a far cry from the cobbled streets of Bombay. Father's initial postings were in Quetta, Fort Sandeman and Muree. The Battalion was in training to go off to fight the Japanese in Burma. Training and living amongst these rugged, fearless and simple tribesmen was a completely new world. He was subjected to a brand-new culture system, where justice, even in the Army, was often swift and harsh. Death was no big deal.

Finally, circa 1942, came the expected call to move to Burma, via Madras port. Here, an incident occurred, that left a deep & lasting impact on his psyche. As a young student in Bombay he was never really subjected to any form of racial discrimination; but Madras was another story.

10/5 Baluch was billeted in tented accommodation on the outskirts of Madras, waiting to be shipped to Burma. An urgent message for the British CO of the Battalion was to be hastily delivered. He was dining at the prestigious Madras Club. Well, Second Lt. J P Dalvi, motor bike borne despatch rider, duly arrived at the porch of the club to be confronted by a sign stating something to the effect that "Dogs & Indians not allowed". His blood boiled. After all, were Indians not fighting the war for the British?

But there was nothing he could do except let this fester in his mind. Orders are orders and he stood his ground, as the instruction was to give the message to the CO, and no one else. The CO came to the porch, opened the telegram & sent his youngest officer off to inform 'the men' that movement orders had finally arrived and to 'polish bayonets', so to speak. Off to Burma then!

Years later, when I was working in Madras, and he was visiting, I could not understand his 'strong' and persistent desire to visit the Madras Club. Only when the cigars & cognac were out did he relate this story. That was typical of him, stoic, reticent & profound.

Burma was hell. Mosquitos, snakes, leeches, disease and the constant threat of a Japanese bullet. As his English was second to no Englishman, he was seconded to the Staff of Gen. Sir Montague 'Monty' Stopford, GCB, KBE,DSO,MC, Corps Commander XXXIII Corps and later Commander, 12th Army. Several important battles were fought, lost and won, till, eventually the Japanese were vanquished. Three important Companies of the Indian Military Academy are named after memorable battles won by Indian soldiers, in WW II.

Meikteila, Imphal & Kohima. The Baluchi's were part of 19 Division, and part of the larger army of Field Marshal Sir William Slim. It was the era of the legendary & heroic Chindits, who fought lengthy, bloody & legendary battles and, in the process, crisscrossed the Chindwin & Irrawaddy rivers, in a ding-dong slugfest for military supremacy.

What has all this got to do with 1962 and the Himalayan Blunder? Plenty. The fresh 21-year-old who had gone off to war returned from Burma, a battle hardened, steely, fearless professional soldier, all of 25 years of age. It changed him irrevocably. It made him impervious to fear and danger. It made him a professional soldier, and he opted to continue serving the Indian Army.

Brigadier John Dalvi in Dress Uniform

Then came partition, Independence and traumatic times again. He was briefly sent to 2/5 Gorkha Rifles, in Dehradun, having been withdrawn from the Baluch Regiment, which, naturally, stayed in Pakistan.

His very unpleasant task was, during those horrific months of 1947, to escort & supervise the transfer of refugees back and forth from India to Pakistan, under escort. Muslims from here and Hindus & Sikhs from the other side across the newly created border. Gorkha troops were considered "neutral" and hence their 'escort' presence with each truck load of refugees.

His career was on track and he was considered one of Independent India's brightest young officers. He was an Instructor at the IMA, commanded the prestigious 4th Guards (at the age of 32), was posted to the crucial DGMO for 5 years, at Army Headquarters, was Dy Commandant of the IMA and Brig, Admn 15 Corps, at Udhampur, in J&K. All systems were on "GO", and then came his elevation to Command 7 Infantry Brigade, in Tawang, then in NEFA, now Arunachal Pradesh.

The story of the debacle and public humiliation of 1962 has been the subject of several books, by all manner of authors, many who had never ever donned the Olive Green. Several of the  Army authors had never lifted their posteriors off their cushioned chairs in their air-conditioned offices in far away New Delhi. Several Indian Army Officers have opined on the subject and on individuals. I was amused to read on the Net, where some ex-Army Officers, enjoying what must have been a post - golf drink at the NOIDA Golf Club, calling my father a "Plastic Soldier"!!

I wonder what kind of soldier he was?? Perhaps one of those with strong political connections, getting to the top without seeing a gun ! But then, that seems to epitomize some of the chosen and favoured officers of the time. More talk and less action. More opinions and less knowledge.

On a personal level, nothing could have been more traumatic, for me. Domestic life was unstable. Despite being the wife of a very senior officer, my mother was sharing accommodation with another Army officer’s family, in a bungalow, on Mall Road, in Meerut Cantonment. The fact that the two families were old & close personal friends was incidental, and providential as both Col. & Mrs. Ram Singh were of invaluable strength & solace in the drastic days that were to come, sooner than later.

We did not have a permanent address. Because of the nature of the assignment in NEFA, and the inherent dangers, my mother was extremely stressed out. Remember, she had only just 'recovered' her husband from WW II, in 1945, barely a few years earlier!! Once again, she was forced into the role of a war wife. The mood in the Army was tense & uncertain. The Indian Army seemed sure, notwithstanding the Nehruvian chants of "Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai" that the Chinese were building up towards some form of armed action.

I was in my final year at the Doon School, Dehradun and did a good deal of 'too-ing and fro-ing' from Meerut. Not the best of situations. The summer of 1962 was spent studying for the Senior Cambridge Exam. We made short trips to see my father in Lucknow, for that was where his HQ was, and that was as far as he wanted to be from his Brigade. We saw him for five days! Almost as long as it took by train, to and from Lucknow, in those days.

The winter of 1962 was one of stressful uncertainty. My father's letters, via APO addresses were untypical of him. The supreme confidence was missing. A subtle pessimism and unease underlined his epistles. Though I was only 16 years old at the time, I was gripped by a sense of foreboding. Yet, I could not put a finger on it then. It is, as ever, only the hindsight and perspective of history that provides a clear picture.

It was the era of Radio news. Computers were unheard of. 24x7 TV was not even a Sci-Fi phenomenon. There were only a few newspapers, and those being published were influenced by Govt propaganda, aimed at misleading the Indian public. In fact, even Parliament was grossly deceived at the time by a treasonous distortion of the truth.

A famous saying was so true of the times. " if you don't read the Newspapers you are uninformed; if you read the Newspapers you are misinformed" !! BBC Radio provided authentic and unbiased news. Reuters was to be trusted with the written word. I used to wait for the newspapers, displayed on a large table outside our "Common Room", in Tata House, for any bit of news on the latest border situation.

October 1962 arrived, and we were all suddenly very confident, spurred on by Prime Minister Nehru’s strident & reassuring words, that the Indian Army would teach the Chinese PLA a fitting lesson. Amongst his vain boasts was that he had "instructed his army to throw out the Chinese aggressors". This vainglorious utterance was to haunt my father later on, during his incarceration.

The Chinese Commissar who visited him during his 'solitary confinement' , in an abandoned army barrack on the outskirts of Lhasa, taunted him weekly about this foolish boast. One was too young to question as to where the bear-hugs with Chou-En-Lai and Mao had gone ? One was too naive to see that Hindi-Chini bhai bhai" was a fallacy. One was, actually, too young to question anything.

But one was not too young to sense that his father was in a danger - zone and that the military situation was desperate.

October came and went. Army postal services were not regular, and, of late, father had not been regular, obviously due to his other pressing preoccupations. So, when, on a cold & dreary winters evening, in around mid-November, I was summoned to the Headmaster's residence, it was no big deal. After all I was a senior Prefect of the school & interactions with the HM and our faculty were commonplace. But, when I entered HM’s drawing room and found R L Holdsworth (Dy HM)  & also my tutor, along with two Army officers, I sensed that something was desperately wrong, and had a terrible sinking feeling.

After brief introductions, there was a dreadful and painful period of silence when nobody really knew what to say, and certainly not how to say it! I broke the ice by saying one word. 'Father?' The Army officers, and, in retrospect, I was glad for their presence, as the uniform, and all it stood for, was part of my life, and provided a sombre and solemn solace, despite the awesome message they had brought.

They told me, briefly, that the Army had lost contact with my father, and his forward HQ, sometime around noon on the 20th of October. That was the day the Chinese had attacked, and what was to come to be known as the beginning of the ‘Battle of the Namka Chu’. Chu, in the local language, means River. Apparently, his HQ had been overrun & that he, along with some troops, and certainly some of his immediate staff officers were trying to link-up with another of his Battalions. Alas, that was in the pre-GPS era.

They explained that the last visual sighting of the Brigade Commander had been in the early afternoon of the 20th. The terrain was mountainous, deeply forested & hostile. Rations and provisions were scarce, if not non-existent. Most ominously, it was confirmed that the Chinese troops had reached positions, way behind his last known location! In short, the message was " lost, presumed killed in action".

That is Army parlance for a battlefield death. Suddenly, my world had turned on its head. I was numb. I was too proud to break down, especially not in the presence of my HM & Dy HM, and certainly not in front of the olive green. Only I know what it took to keep my dignity. Maybe it was the numbness.

Having passed on their game-changing news, the Officers departed, but not without a comforting arm around my drooped shoulders. My masters told me to stay back, and then was displayed another example of what great men J A K Martyn & R L Holdsworth were. They said I was not to be too concerned about the SC exams I was in the midst of. I could stay another year. They went on to say that I was not to worry about my school fees. That would be taken care of. What I had to be worried about was my mother.

Apparently, the same two officers had come to Dehradun, via Meerut, and broken the news to her. The news had broken her. She was in a state of virtual collapse, but in the comforting company of Col & Mrs Ram Singh, God bless them! They were unable to get through to Meerut, on the telephone. Remember, those were the days when, to achieve a connection, you needed to twirl your arm several times round, and always speak through an "operator".

Meerut had a military exchange. Anyway, it was decided, Martyn sahib, along with Holdie, would accompany me, at the crack of dawn the next day, to Meerut to meet the 'old lady'. Thereafter, there was some animated discussion on whether it would be Holdie's dilapidated jeep or John's equally antiquated Fiat. The Fiat won the Meerut sweepstakes.

Mother was a mess. The future was suddenly bleak & uncertain. The winter vacations came and went in a blur of inactivity & depression. School term came again, and I went through the motions. Cricket kept me alive. Then, sometime around March 1963, I was woken by the Tata House chowkidar to say that Holdie's servant had come to fetch me, "Sahib nay bulaya".

Again not an ominous portent. But, at 10.30 pm in the night? I rushed across the Chandbagh Estate and froze. Holdie and Martyn again! But, this time there was good news. Holdie, a BBC radio addict, had heard, on the late news, that the Red Cross had announced, with categorical proof, that one of their operatives had actually met with my father and that he was "very much alive & in reasonable spirits".

He was a POW of the Chinese PLA. Holdie to John - "I think this calls for a celebration - a scotch for you and me and a glass of beer for Michael " ? Good Lord, the School captain enjoying a drink with two senior masters. Anyway, no one would believe it !  Another animated discussion. The Fiat won again. Mother was relieved & ecstatic. Widows weeds were summarily discarded. But, would they ever send our POW's back? If so, when? Euphoria was tinged with nagging doubts.

Remember, this is being written with hindsight. At that time no one could say with any certainty what the outcome of the bilateral talks would be. The Chinese had proven to be unreliable friends and ruthless enemies! And, in cold war times, very non-transparent. Information was certainly not forthcoming. The Red Cross was the lifeline. But, hope springs eternal. At least, he was alive.

During his incarceration, the commissars kept harping on the fact that the Indian army had attacked first. They had a case. To establish our territorial claims along the McMohan Line, Prime Minister Nehru had embarked on an ill-advised policy fraught with danger - the 'forward policy' which entailed the establishment of forward posts, & a demarcation & unilateral interpretation of the McMohan line.

But, if this was the eventual goal, why had we deployed an understaffed brigade of only some 3500 men, when the Indian army had an approximate strength of 4.5 million? The planning was warped. Intelligence Agencies had no clue. The Army was shouting from the rooftops that they were facing 4 or more heavily trained Mountain Divisions.

And why did we not upgrade the WWI rifles? Did the mandarins in Delhi really believe that the WWI vintage Lee Enfield .303, (10 shot bolt - action rifles) could rival the semi-automatic-AK 47?

Indian soldiers were criminally ill equipped in the 62 debacle

What about big guns? Ammunitions? Infrastructure? Roads? Accommodation? Front line fortifications? Supply routes. 'An army marches on its stomach.' Rations & food?

The mandarins in Delhi failed to even provide basic tools to dig trenches with!! Our soldiers were literally using their bare hands to dig themselves in? Somebody should have paid for this unforgivable neglect with their jobs rather than our brave soldiers with their lives.

Actually, it was a disaster and failure at all levels. High ranking Bureaucratic & Military Officials as well as Politicians were responsible. Many of the culprits of 1962 have been, subsequently, lionized by a distorted interpretation of history. Prime Minister Nehru never really recovered from what he considered Chinese 'treachery', and passed into questionable history, dying in May 1964.

More importantly, VK Krishna Menon was dumped into the dustbin of history, and eventually faded into oblivion. However, overall, when the dust had settled, it was apparent that the Army & Political System needed drastic renovation & revival. But we had passed up a golden opportunity to effect a major overhaul of our lives, in a frenzy of fault-finding.

Then, miraculously, some letters from father. They arrived by a circuitous & complicated route - Chinese army - Chinese communist party censors- UN Authorities- Red Cross Authorities- Indian Army censors- and then to MD c/o The Doon School, Chandbagh, Dehradun. It's a wonder there were any words left ? I kept the letters, in the hope that on his eventual repatriation, he could explain what he had actually written. Just one example. Most of his letters exhorted me, as usual, to concentrate on my cricket - at the nets, sweat, practice, till your hands are blistered and sore & that there were "no shortcuts to success" !

One garbled letters interpretation was that he had said something to the effect that "remember to keep your left elbow high, and play the ball late, to penetrate the enemy extra cover". To the Chinese censors this was obviously some sinister coded message advising his son to lead a counterattack on the Great Wall. By the way, our censorship was no better.

Father would probably have died of hunger & exposure anyway, as he, and some 40 Jawans and a handful of officers had been without food, water and shelter for more than 48 hours. It is important to remember they were at heights in excess of 17000 feet, and at temperatures well below zero. My aunt had sent him from Canada a Canadian Air force Fliers fleece lined leather jacket. He never wore it. Not if his troops were not similarly clad. It remained in his Orderly's backpack for the entire time. One of the Officers with him was Maj. later Gen. Rex Kharbanda. Somewhere along the path they came to a fork.

Typically, my father took out a coin and asked Maj. Kharbanda to call. He won and was asked to decide whether he wanted the left or the right track. He opted to go left. My father, apparently, and I heard this from an officer who was there with him, chose who would go left and who went right. Rex Kharbanda and his half of the men went 1000 yards down the left path and found themselves in Bhutan. Unknown to them this was the exact spot of the tri-junction of China, Bhutan and India! A 1000 yards down the right path and my father ran into 1000 Chinese soldiers. He was taken into custody. He was officially a POW of the Chinese PLA. That's fate!!

Captivity was not easy. For a gregarious human being, solitary confinement was hell. He became reticent and brooded deeply for hours on end. He hovered perilously close to becoming depressed. Then there was that terrible feeling that, perhaps, he could have done more to prevail on his Div. Cdr and, above all, Gen Kaul, to save his troops, from certain annihilation

He spent his time playing table tennis, cards & chess with his captors. The regular PLA soldiers were like those of any other peasant army. Simple and semi-literate. It was the hard core commissars who attempted the 'mind breaking' bit. I used to pester him to tell. He spent his time reading simple books provided to him.

The Chinese are not English speaking. They had no library of English books. After weeks they got him a pen and some reams of paper. He would write down the names of all the books he'd read. All the movies he'd seen. All the actors and actresses he could think of. Each week the commissar would come, take the notes from the guards and tear them up.

The whole process would start again! The food was atrocious and cooked by his guards. It was far from nutritious. Potato was the staple, served twice a day. They gave him an egg on two occasions. It was simple vegetarian fare. They gave him a chicken to eat on Christmas night, 1962. This was part of their pathetic propaganda ! He promptly shared it with his guards. His hair was cut once a month. He was shaved every day, by a barber. They did not trust him with blades.

One event worth relating was that, around the end of April, 1963, all Indian POW's were moved to Peking. It was the first time, since October of the previous year that he met his officers. My father guessed, rightly so, that the Chinese would attempt to display them as part of the May Day parade, on May 1 on the streets of Peking, in complete contravention of the Geneva Convention and all norms governing the treatment of prisoners. Who knows, maybe in shackles, to portray Indian soldiers in poor light. He put his foot down, and with the aid of the UN officials, the idea was dropped. Language was a problem. Eventually, he got his way. They watched the parade from the side-lines!!

Eventual repatriation took place in 1963. The family was provided accommodation in Defence colony. Male servants and even a maid appeared miraculously. My father always suspected they were intelligence operatives. Whenever we went out we were followed. Those operatives were horribly inept. We had fun suddenly stopping to window shop in Connaught Place. These bozo's would almost bump into us. Father was terribly cut up. He was “under suspicion”  !! The final ignominy.

If memory serves me, he and his officers were repatriated by the Red Cross from a military airstrip in the Chinese city of Kunming. Apparently the plane ferrying them had to circle Dum Dum airport for some time to burn fuel. The undercarriage refused to come down ! After all they had been through - to die in an air crash. But, all ended well and they landed safely. Then on to Ranchi by train to be "debriefed". The train journey was a travesty.

In a characteristic display of disrespect & departure from protocol he was 'interrogated' by a second Lieutenant from Army Intelligence ! He had to prove he was not 'brainwashed' and had not become a commie ! The young officer was embarrassed & apologetic, & very conscious that he was 'interrogating' one of the senior most Brigadier General's of the Indian Army.

Dad had become single-minded. During the time when his status was, conveniently, "missing presumed killed in action" the actual culprits of the previous years ignominious debacle had clearly made him the scapegoat. Here was this inept Brigadier who had "handed his brigade to the Chinese, on a platter" . Case closed. Brigadier JPD and his reputation dead and buried. (It is ironic that this much maligned Brigadier was given command of a brigade, on the East Pakistan border, within 24 hours of the outbreak of hostilities, in September, 1965) Now this inconvenient development - the man was alive, and worse still, would eventually head home, telling a different and inconvenient story. The "other" truth would come out.

He was told the remnants of his brigade were "furious" with him, and were blaming him for all their casualties. This was part of the bureaucratic propaganda being dished out by the Ministry of Defence. For many a reputation, it was an end game of sorts. His first step was to go to see his brigade, then stationed in Ambala. The rag tag left overs actually staged a parade for him. He was deeply moved and spent some days with his 'boys'. So much for being 'furious'. When he casually asked one of his NCO's whether he'd been on leave the reply was typical Indian Army. How could he go to his village ? How could he show his face there with his CO & Brig in Chinese custody. Great spirit as always.

He was the man on the spot. He had witnessed, first hand, the unbelievable gallantry, selflessness & bravery of his troops, which was way beyond the call of duty. Our simple, sturdy & undemanding Jawans had acquitted themselves with honour & respect & bravery. He was very keen and desperately determined  that gallantry medals be awarded to those who had fought to the last bullet and the last drop of blood. A majority of them would have to be awarded posthumously. It would entail piecing together actual battle situations indicating individual acts of gallantry. All these would eventually be put before the country, and the world, in his book - 'Himalayan Blunder' published in the winter of 1969.

The Govt. of India promptly banned it. Why would they not. It ruthlessly exposed the incredible ineffectiveness, apathy, arrogance, ignorance of matters military & nepotism of the Political and Bureaucratic classes. No surprise then that the 'Henderson Brooks Report', an in-depth study of the actual reasons for the defeat, co-authored by the redoubtable and legendary Lt. Gen P.C Bhagat, never saw the light of day. Almost everyone involved with the '62 ops were, at one time or another, interviewed by this duo.

Any other country would have hungered for an 'expose' of the truth, if only to rectify matters. Not surprisingly, the report has still not been put in the public domain. Fifty years on and not even available under the vaunted RTI Act. What's there to hide ? I'm sure the Indian public would eventually want to know. But then it might just tarnish the historical reputation of some pretty well known characters.

Sadly, he never really came to terms with the indifferent attitude of the Establishment. He was told, by one revered leader, "Brig, you should know, losing armies don't get medals"! It was these kinds of statements that broke his will, spirit, resolve and left him an embittered, lonely and angry man. Added to this was the debilitated state of his body-broken and battered due to scurvy & malnutrition during his POW days.

About this time, he also began to feel the symptoms of muscular atrophy, definitely acquired during his incarceration. All put together these aspects took a final deadly and fatal toll. There was a brief bright period when he met and came under the spell of the charismatic Minoo Masani. He actually joined the Swatantra Party. However, that was the briefest of respites for his troubled soul and he died, sad, broken and disillusioned at the age of 54, in October 1974, at INS Ashwini, the Military Hospital in Bombay.

Any which way—RIP dad—you did your duty in the best traditions of “an Officer and a Gentleman.”

(This obituary has been written by Michael Dalvi, son of late Brigadier John Parashram Dalvi. Views expressed are the authors and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')


Book: Himalayan Blunder by Brig. John Dalvi (1969)
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Book: Himalayan Blunder by Brig. John Dalvi (1969)

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