Memory, Agony and Ecstasy
Center for Multilevel Federalism, New Delhi
The highway from Tezpur to Tawang gradually winds its way from the plains of Assam to the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh. After Bhalukpong, it slowly starts climbing to Bomdi La and Se La (La means a mountain pass in Tibetan) before heading towards Tawang. The road is dotted with memories – not happy but painful. Memories of a war we had lost, in which 1,383 Indian soldiers had sacrificed their lives, 1,047 were wounded and 3,968 became prisoners of war. The passage of time by almost six decades has not succeeded in healing the emotional scars left by the 1962 war with China, and probably never will. More so, because we lost the war not because our army lacked courage or strategy, but because of the abject failure our political leadership.
In October-November 1962, the Chinese forces had attacked and invaded India through three fronts: Tawang and Anjaw districts in Arunachal Pradesh and Eastern Ladakh - through the same areas where the two armies now stand staring at each other. In 1962, however, the Indian army was unprepared, without ammunition, supplies and provisions, even without proper shoes or winter clothing. They had no logistics, political or diplomatic support, and fought an unequal war with the well-armed and well-provided for Chinese who vastly outnumbered them in every sector and every flank.
At Tawang in westernmost part of Arunachal Pradesh bordering Tibet, the fiercest battle was fought at Zimithang in the valley of Namka Chu (Chu means river in Tibetan). In September 1962, some 9000 Chinese soldiers had descended from the Thag La on the McMahon Line opposite the Namka Chu valley and surrounded the Indian post at Dhola. The war started on October 10. The Chinese launched a multidirectional attack but met with stiff resistance from a platoon of 1 Sikh under Subedar Joginder Singh, suffering heavy casualties. Ultimately, however, the Chinese overran them, killing many and taking many more as prisoners of war, including the commander Brigadier John Dalvi who later gave an account of the war in his famous book, “Himalayan Blunder”.
On another flank, the Chinese attacked Nuranang valley between Tawang and Se La. The 4 Garhwal Rifles beat back three consecutive waves of Chinese attack in which Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat displayed exemplary raw courage with the colonial-era arms and equipment against the machine gun-wielding Chinese, ultimately laying down his life. A memorial, aptly named Jaswantgarh, built at an altitude of 10,700 feet not far from Se La, stand testimony to his courage and sacrifice.
On the eastern flank, On 21 October, the Chinese invaded the border village of Kibithu, 40 km away from Walong heights where the Indian army held them for 22 long days against all odds, fighting without ammunition or winter clothes, sleeping on bare ground, and without having a morsel of food during the last 7 days, as the Chinese managed to disrupt the supply lines. After 400 soldiers had died from starvation, finally they were forced to withdraw - the Chinese casualties were estimated to be ten times higher. In January 1963, the Time magazine wrote about the Battle of Walong: “At Walong, Indian troops lacked everything. The only thing they did not lack was guts.”
In Ladakh, major confrontations took place at Rezang La, Maggar Hill, Gurung Hill and Spanggur Gap and also at Chusul. Many of these again are sites of the current confrontation between the two armies; thankfully, the Indian army is no longer unequipped or unprepared. Instead of holding the ridge line east of Chushul which was not held by Chinese at that time, the Indian forces had occupied the low grounds at Maggar Hill, Gurung Hill and Rezang La in 1962, which were rolled down by the Chinese rather easily. The two most important features were Black Top and Mukhpari near Chusul which the Indian army did not occupy. Holding these would have allowed them commanding positions at heights overlooking the Chinese build-up opposite Chushul. In the current standoff, the army has occupied some of these heights gaining strategic advantage against the Chinese, and also on the northern bank of Pangong Tso (Tso meaning lake).
On 21st November, 1962, the Chinese had declared unilateral ceasefire and withdrew behind the McMahon Line. Given the extended and tenuous supply line of Chinese army, the harsh Himalayan winter would have made it extremely difficult for them to support their troops far south of the McMahon Line.
Some photographs from each of these three sectors where India had fought and lost the war are presented in the accompanying slides. They bring back emotions and memories which overlay a landscape of breath-taking beauty. A part of that landscape is washed by a river – Lohit – the Red River, or Bura Luit as the Assamese call it - a river that makes an indivisible, indissoluble bond with the land it flows through and its people. A bond that is as old as time.