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The Custodian Force of India and Lt General Thorat: The General who knew the way

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By Col (Dr) Divakaran Padma Kumar Pillay

Rare is a General endowed with both character and strategic vision. Gen Thorat was one, and he will remain one of the best Army Chiefs India never had. He rightly assessed and predicted as early as 1959, Chinese designs and measures to counter them. He was familiar with the Chinese, whose military methods he dealt with as the head of the CFI in Korea. If the whims of the coterie had not prevailed and he were the Chief as proposed by Gen Thimayya, the course of the Indo-China war in 1962 would definitely have been different.

Two out of the three elements of India’s largely unknown role in the Korean War 1950-1953 have been covered earlier. This is the third in a continuing series on that conflict and the men who earned a place in the annals of India’s military history.

The 38 parallel – a latitude with no parallel

As World War II drew to an end, the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 identified and drew the 38th parallel as a temporary division. North of the parallel, the U.S.S.R. was to accept the surrender of the Japanese forces in Korea; to the south, the Americans were to accept Japanese surrender. The onset of the Cold War saw the creation of a separate U.S.-backed regime in South Korea under Syngman Rhee and a communist regime in North Korea under Kim Il-sung backed by China and the Soviets.

The two Koreas went through a long-drawn war that broke out on June 25th, 1950. The war saw the involvement of Indian troops for the first time since independence and also was a litmus test of India’s policy of neutrality and non-alignment. Because of India’s persistent efforts and interventions from the UN down to the field ensured that the conflict remained localised and an uneasy peace returned to the peninsula. The story of the Medical cover provided by the Bucket brigade was covered here (https://m.economictimes.com/news/defence/forgotten-tales-of-courage-and-valour-the-bucket-brigade/articleshow/76872936.cms ) and that of NNRC headed by Lt Gen Thimayya is (https://bit.ly/301m4Ay) here.

Custodian Force of India (CFI)

The CFI was sent to Korea at the specific request of the UN Command as well as the Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese Peoples Volunteers Command. The task given to the Indian troops engaged there was novel and unique. It was not to guard a cease fire line or to fight an enemy, but to hold custody of 22,959 Prisoners of War (PW) of various nationalities of the East & Western Blocs and facilitate their repatriation or disposal otherwise.

The NNRC headed by Gen Thimayya (https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/forgotten-tales-of-valour-and-courage-nnrc-in-korea-and-lt-gen-ks-thimayya/articleshow/77035785.cms) , with the help of the Indian Custodian Force headed by Maj Gen SPP Throat was responsible for gathering non-repatriated prisoners into camps and explaining to them their rights and privileges. Prisoners could then choose to go home or remain with the side that captured them. The prisoner exchange was a sensitive issue and a difficult mission which had the attention of the whole world. This called for compassion, fairness and neutrality on the part of the Indian Custodian Force, who rendered yeoman service during the entire span of their mission from September 1953 to March 1954. India’s conduct and commitment in this capacity drew appreciation from many quarters.

Although the Custodian Force was sent to Korea at the specific request of the UN Command as well as the Korean People’s Army, and the Chinese People’s Volunteers Command, President Rhee of the Republic of Korea had taken a very unreasonable and anti-Indian attitude, saying if Indian troops attempted to land on South Korean soil he would oppose their entry with Armed Force. The United Nations Command was therefore forced to transport the CFI to the Demilitarized Zone without the Force touching South Korean soil. Despite difficulties faced by the Indian troops, their task was ably accomplished raising the stature of India and her Army in the eyes of all nations. This was evident by the series of farewell messages received by the Indians that summed up the Army contingent’s success. Even the other side was equally admiring and appreciative of the Indian Army’s efforts.

CFI had battle hardened units grouped together into the 190 Infantry Brigade . These were 3 Garwhal Rifles, 3 Dogra, RAJRIF and 6 Jat, with a company each of 3 Mahar and 2 Para, and a platoon of 74 Field Engineer Regiment, ancillary services like EME, ASC, Provost, etc., along with officials of MoD and MEA who were language experts and interpreters also accompanied the CFI . The famed 60th Field Ambulance (bucket brigade) joined the CFI on its creation.

A prisoner of the prisoners – courage leadership and charisma at work

India, with its brigade-sized contingent, provided security to the POW camps; under the US the camps had seen highly incendiary events and revolts including the holding of US General Francis Dodd as hostage. As part of a deal to let him go, the Chinese extracted an admission of torture by the US—a huge embarrassment for the UN Command. There is an interesting anecdote around how Gen Thorat himself became a prisoner of the prisoners he was sent to protect. The Chinese PoWs who were so used to revolting due to various pressures, did the same with the Indians who now protected the prisoners from both sides.

A Chinese prisoner Sgt Won Chu surrendered to be repatriated. When the other prisoners learnt of his repatriation, they went on a hunger strike under the instruction of communist leaders. Gen Thorat learnt of this strike and went to Compound No 31/D with fellow officers—at grave personal risk to themselves—in an attempt to talk the prisoners into calling off the agitation. The dialogue was deadlocked; while the Indian detachment was leaving the compound the Chinese PoWs took the last man leaving the compound—Maj Grewal of 6 JAT—a prisoner ,and trundled him away deep inside. Gen Thorat returned and refused to leave the compound till Grewal was released. The Chinese prisoners barricaded the entrance physically; any miscalculated move by charged-up soldiers would have ended the reputation of Indian neutrality. Thorat’s presence ensured restraint from 6 JAT who would have by nature charged on the PoWs.

Gen Thorat remained calm and struck-up a conversation with an English speaking Chinese PoW, and admonished them by asking them what kind of hosts they were, adding, “You have not even offered a cup of tea or cigarettes to us, we are your guests and you haven’t taken care of us , looks like you forgotten your traditional Chinese hospitality.” This bonhomie broke the uneasy situation as the prisoners scampered to bring tea and cigarettes defusing the situation. Almost immediately they released Maj Grewal and Gen Thorat. The prisoners came to realise that the Indian troops were impartial and later wrote an apology letter saying “…. we are sorry for holding demonstrations under some misunderstanding. We hope you will kindly excuse us. We shall co-operate with you to the end”.

The Indians took their role of neutrality seriously and didn’t intend to use force like Americans had done earlier to break dissent and non– cooperation in the camps. Their professional ability and gentlemanly qualities earned them respect and regard of both the Commands and the soldiers and statesmen of nearly a dozen nations. Many foreign observers insisted on believing—in spite of amused denials— that every single man in the CFI was handpicked after very careful selection. General Thorat and the CFI earned respect for their soldierly conduct and humane approach, while projecting the neutral and humanitarian policy of the Indian Government. No military force could earn higher praise as was bestowed to the Indian Army. ‘For the Honour of India’ was its motto; the CFI lived up to it and the Indian Units can well be proud of being a part of it. On completion of their mission in May 1954 the units returned to India by sea.

The man behind the legend of CFI

Lt Gen Shankarrao Pandurang Patil Thorat, KC, DSO born on 12 Aug 1906 is another legendary officer in the annals of Indian Military history, who oversaw a momentous period of India’s transition from a dominion to independence. He was a Sandhurst commissioned officer and was among the very few Indians who rose to the rank of Brigadier during World War II, having seen action as CO of 2/2 Punjab in famous battle of Kangaw in Burma for which he earned a DSO for his gallantry. He was awarded a Kirti Chakra in Korea for his courage in handling a sensitive issue of abduction of Maj Grewal by the POWs and a Padma Shri for his distinguished service in Korea. He epitomised the old adage that an officer is a gentleman first.

It is wars that make great generals and it is the challenges that make great statesmen . Roosevelt said of Lincoln that if he lived in peaceful times no one would have remembered him. Rare are those men who rise to the occasion rarer are those who know whom to trust to lead a country at war.

Gen Thorat must be remembered for his foresight and vision in detailing a realistic assessment of the threat from China in 1959 – three years before the actual invasion. He had the moral courage to tell Krishna Menon the truth before it happened. The humiliation the country faced at Chinese hands was because professional military advice was not heeded by Menon. In his autobiography “From Reveille to Retreat“ he recounts the sarcasm with which Menon dismissed his assessment of the Chinese threat calling him a scaremonger saying that if ever there was a threat from China he was capable of fighting them himself.

However the Chinese, despite Menon’s beliefs, were not playing according by his rules . In 1957 they had captured 9 men in Longju, in Hot Springs they had killed 9 ITBP personnel and captured 10 more. They continued to transgress in Bara Hoti and several other places with impunity which was brushed under the carpet attributing them to inexperience of Indian soldiers. When Menon was asked question on the floor of the house, his replies were either vague or shrouded on the grounds of national security. Ironically Assam Rifles was not under the command of the Army and they were the only force available in NEFA and the defence of NEFA was not a task entrusted to Eastern Army.

Gen Thorat having being labelled as a war monger decided to record his assessment on 08 Oct 1959 in a note to COAS which was shown to Menon. Sought after qualities in any military commander i.e, moral courage, persistence and courage of conviction was to be Thorat’s downfall as he was overlooked for the post of COAS despite being recommended by Thimayya.

He was obviously the right man for the job as he had made a very accurate prediction of Chinese designs in NEFA, demonstrated during Exercise Lal Quila – a very elaborate exercise that had enacted the possible scenarios by the Chinese. But then this earned the wrath of Krishna Menon who ensured that Thorat retired as an Army Commander.

Military thought in the Ministry of Defence was dominated by Menon, who assumed he knew everything about fighting a war; his protégé Gen Kaul, Chief of General Staff, assiduously avoided getting acquainted with the art of war-fighting.

When the chaos started in NEFA Kaul evacuated himself to Delhi feigning illness and was allowed to control the operations from that city. It is interesting that the first PVSM was awarded to Gen BM Kaul for the construction of 1500 barracks and the ‘grow more food’ campaign with troop labour while in Ambala. Despite failing to act on the assessment given by Gen Thorat in 1959, the government under the advice of Menon and Kaul, decided the Forward Policy which involved the location of small posts along the Mc Mohan line to establish our right.

Gen Thorat argued that such presence without an ability to maintain them was militarily unsound and the outcome of the war will depend on the ability to maintain troops whether it be Indian or Chinese. Brig JP Dalvi recounts in his book, “Himalayan Blunder” that it was to the credit of Gen Thorat and Gen Thimayya that we did not deploy beyond Bomdila in strength. They were adamant in creating an infrastructure to maintain the troops before a forward policy could be adopted but unfortunately the approach was abandoned the moment both Generals retired; the ill-conceived and ill-fated forward policy gave the Chinese an excuse to start the war in 1962.


Honour redeemed


It ought to be recalled that Nehru to his credit summoned Gen Thorat from retirement and sought his advice on why the debacle happened. Gen Thorat was prepared for an answer and said that he had warned the Minister and produced his note of 08 Oct 1959 and after the note was read Nehru questioned why was he never shown this. Thorat replied you should ask Menon to which he fumed “ Menon, Menon, why do you have knife in this man – don’t you realise he is an intellectual giant “ to which Thorat said as recorded in his book “ if he is sir one I haven’t seen any evidence of it” . Nehru said you Maharastrians are like mules; you are usually docile but when you dig your toes in you are impossible to dislodge you. Thorat asked him is it a bad trait when you know you are right , Nehru looked at him and smilingly said no but it’s irritating.

He asked him will the Chinese come down further , Thorat replied no they have already stretched their line of communication it would be most unwise . Nehru told him that he is thinking of creating a National Defence Council which would advice the government on matters of defence and he wanted Thorat on board . Ironically neither Menon nor Kaul were made members. In other words the Honour of the Man who upheld the honour of India in everything he did was redeemed against the very ones who sought to dishonour him.

Col ( Dr) Divakaran Padma Kumar Pillay, Shaurya Chakra, PhD is a Research Fellow, with the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. His twitter id is @dpkpillay12.

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