The 1962 Sino-Indian War: Recalling a War that was not …it was an Indian Rout

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Fought both along the 890 km long McMahon Line and opposite Western Tibet in the Ladakh region of our 4056 km long Sino-Indian borders, the 1962 War showed us at our worst in terms of strategic, operational level and tactical decision making. The Indian Army fought last-man-last-round in a manner, which the world and even China recognised and lauded. Maj Gen Rajendra, a war veteran, revisits the war, exclusively in Different Truths.

At a just-concluded ‘Military Seminar’ (6-7 Oct 2017) by Welham Boys’ School, Dehradun, a reputed public school, the 1962 War (among India’s other wars) came up for animated discussion between senior children across gender from 26 of India’s top public schools. They spoke their hearts out on our wars since Independence and the reasons why we won or lost; the lessons that we learned or have failed to learn; the reason why women cannot join combat forces in India when so many of them wish to and are capable.

Their nuanced, wise, well-researched queries were thrown at speakers, panelists, mentors which included author/director/photographer/speaker of the acclaimed Indo-China War book; “The War that Wasn’t”, Shiv Kunal Verma, Lt Gen Mohinder Puri who led India to success during the Kargil War in 1999, the ex VC of AMU, Lt Gen ZU Shah, Brig Devinder Singh, a Braveheart Kargil War Commander, Commodore Uday Bhasker, the well-known strategic analyst, Honorary Captain Bana Singh, PVC and I, among others. It also included the erudite, history-minded Chairman Welham Boys Governing Board, Darshan Singh, Board member Lt Gen PC Bharadwaj, a decorated war hero who retired as Vice Chief and Principal Gunmeet Bindra who so ably and wisely steered the program planned by the Schools Brains Trust for this prescient event.

I find it relevant to mention this on BBC Punjabi because this is the first time in India that a school has had such well researched, extended discussions with experts and mentors who’ve ‘been there, done that’ on India’s wars by passionate and well informed 15-17-year-old boys and girls who discussed India’s victories with as much objectivity, panache, and frankness as they did India’s dismal loss to China in 1962.

Fought both along the 890 km long McMahon Line and opposite Western Tibet in the Ladakh region of our 4056 km long Sino-Indian borders, the 1962 War in a strange but understandable way, showed us at our worst in terms of strategic, operational level and tactical decision making as much as it showed that wherever we had strong commanders at tactical level, the Indian Army fought last-man-last-round in a manner, which not just the world but even China recognised and lauded.

The war was premised on the “forward deployment” policy; a ploy attributed to Lt Gen Bijji Kaul but which was actually begun by China commencing June 1961. Called “Armed Co-existence” China cleverly advanced 112 km southwest of its 1958 positions to set up many well connected/well supplied forward posts. Nehru responded on 2 Nov 1961 with his “forward policy” to “stop further Chinese advance and dominate their posts in our area”. This among other critical details becomes clear from a study of a Chinese official account of the war translated as The Other Side of the Hill – a USI study translated by a high-powered study team and edited by Maj Gen PJS Sandhu in 2015 (Vij Books).

The Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai euphoria, which had existed between the two nations started unraveling with the escape of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959 and peaked with the ill-fated (for India) border clashes on 28 Aug 1959 at Migyitun, Longju (McMahon Line) and on 20 Oct 1959 at Kongka La (Aksai Chin, Ladakh) which drew adverse Indian Parliament reaction ending in an off-the-cuff, poorly thought through order by PM Nehru in autumn 1962 to “throw the Chinese out”.

On a parallel track, China, fearful of American and Russian interference, if it chose to go to war with India, was heartened by developments in June 1962 when the USA assured China that it would not back Taiwan if it invaded mainland China. The Russians, deeply involved with Cuban missile crisis, published maps showing Aksai Chin and NEFA to be parts of China. Premier Zhou-en-Lai took these to be indicators of non-interference and ordered China to prepare for an October 1962 War even as in India, we dithered and traded in mindless rhetoric instead of making pragmatic military preparations for war.

The Chinese PLA launched their main thrust at 5 AM on 20 Oct 1962 in the Tawang-Thag La Sector and by 1200 hours that day, 7 Infantry Brigade was decimated. By 22 October, 4 Infantry Division had lost its Lumpu/Zimithang bases. At 4.30 AM, 23 Oct, the Bum La ridge which was adjacent was attacked for opening the track to Tawang. Sub Joginder Singh, one Sikh, in charge of 11 Platoon/Delta Company earned his PVC here with death-defying heroism; captured after being gravely wounded and dying in captivity. In the Ladakh area, heroic Maj Dhan Singh Thapa, 1/8 Gurkhas on 21/22 Oct also earned his PVC at Sirijap, on the Pangong Tso but was captured.

The PLA subsidiary thrust was launched in Walong Sector at the India-China-Burma boundary. After offering a fierce fight at Kibithoo on the McMahon Line, 6 Kumaon withdrew to Walong but the company screen at Namti Nallah, Ashi Hill led by Lt Bikram Singh, 6 Kumaon, imposed very severe losses on the PLA.

After an operational pause, the Chinese resumed their broad front attacks in November 1962. On 17 November 1962, the PLA attacked Nuranang, where 4 Garhwal Rifles gave a sterling account of grit and guts before withdrawing on orders to Se La. Sep Jaswant Singh was posthumously awarded an MVC here. Thereafter, the PLA advanced past Se La, Dirang Dzong, Bomdi La, past Chaku, routing the Indians completely and halting only at the foothills overlooking Tezpur on 20 November. Commander 62 Infantry Brigade, Brig Hoshiar Singh, IOM, IDSM, Croix de Guerre was fatally ambushed at Phutang Bridge, southwest of Bomdi La by PLA 2 Company/154 Regiment/Force 419 and retreating assemblage of three officers 29 soldiers shot or captured. On 23 November, retreating brave-heart Lt Col B Awasthy, CO 4 Rajput was ambushed at Lagyala Gompa and died fighting bravely along with seven officers and 163 other ranks. The Chinese lost heavily and honoured the officer by putting a signage indicating his burial spot.

On 18 November, the PLA attacked Gurung Hill, Chushul and Rezang La in the Ladakh region. The Indians here gave as good as they got from the Chinese but in the end, Gurung Hill was captured,  from 1/8 GR and Rezang La from deathless Charlie Company 13 Kumaon and their bravest-of-brave Maj Shaitan Singh. He, along with 114 of his men out of 128, died fighting to the bitter end and was awarded PVC posthumously along with several Vir Chakras to his command. Chushul defended among others by a squadron of 20 Lancers using AMX-13 tanks remained with India…The Chetan Anand film Haqeeqat recalls this great battle of Rezang La and the song “Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon” sung by Lata Mangeshkar on 27 Jan 1963 at Delhi (lyrics by Pradeep) is the nation’s ode to deathless bravery. It brought PM Nehru to tears…perhaps too little, too late. What is a right comparison is the linkage of Rezang La to the world’s famous “Last Stands” of which India has Saragarhi (12 Sep 1897) and Rezang La on the short list headed by the Battle of Thermopylae of Aug/Sep 480 BCE.

At Walong, the Chinese attacked the heights that dominated Walong Airstrip commencing 14 November. 6 Kumaon, 4 Sikh, and 33 Gurkhas fought their hearts out astride the Walong heights separated by the swift flowing and then-unbridged Lohit River. Green Pimple-Yellow Pimple-Tri-junction-Ladders-East Ridge-West Ridge-Maha Plateau-Lachman Ridge-Mithun-High Plateau all fell to 390/388 and 389 Infantry Regiments of the Chinese “Dong Command” after a show of exceptional bravery. Brig Naveen Rawlley’s troops began an orderly withdrawal commencing 1200 hours 16 November and by that evening, the PLA had captured Walong Airstrip.

My recall of 1962 is that of a 14-year-old. I recall going to Charbagh Railway Station, Lucknow (also the Headquarters of Eastern Army Command under whom the NEFA battle was fought) on cycle with school friends to see the Ambulance Trains that were arriving from NEFA….They were full of wounded soldiers, nurses, parents and well-wishers like us watching the trains unloading in silence and in respect. I recall my Mother making us listen to PM Nehru as he made his “my heart bleeds for the people of Assam” address on radio and how anguished we all felt. I also recall the fire and spirit of the public school children at the Welham Boys’ School Military History Seminar and feel delighted and proud that combating China the next time around won’t be what it was in 1962…We have moved on. We are a nuclear power today and will handle the war if it takes place, much better than we did in 1962. This is one lesson we have learned well and our children reflect that confidence and fire.

©Maj Gen Rajendra Singh Mehta

Photos from the Internet

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Maj Gen Raj Singh Mehta is a Cavalry officer who served the Army for over 38 years (until June 2006). He took part in the 1971 and later wars. He was seriously wounded in an encounter with Pakistani terrorists in South Kashmir in 1998. An author/editor of military books, he is a freelancer writing on diverse subjects. He is currently providing content for the Punjab State War Heroes Memorial and Museum using a talented Research Team.