When the Dragon Took a Beating|Aniket Singh Charan

Aniket Singh Charan

My roommate is an Army BRAT. A proud, headstrong, ‘The Indian Army is the best organisation in the world’ kind of BRAT. I, on the other hand, am a Navy BRAT. I agree with him on most points and hold the Armed Forces in the highest of esteem, however, our long chats (or comparisons as you may call them) often end up in the occasional confrontation (friendly). ‘Navy toh bas macchli pakad ti hai’ (the Navy only catches fish) he says ‘Aur Army toh bas golf khelti hai’ (and the Army only plays Golf) I retort. We seem to automatically become advocates of the 2 forces and continue to take pot shots at each other for hours. On one such occasion, while he was narrating his experiences in the North East to me, he mentioned Tawang. Having read up briefly on the 1962 Sino Indian War the name seemed to ring a bell. “Wasn’t Tawang overrun in ’62?” I asked. “10 points to Gryffindor” He replied. Sensing his sarcasm I backed off. The mention of 1962 didn’t seem to settle very well with him. I understood that as a fellow fauji kid and a proud Indian. He looked at me very quietly and asked, “Have you ever heard of the Nathu La and Chola Incidents?” I gave him a blank stare. I hadn’t, but I wasn’t going to let him know that. Mustering whatever little G.K I knew, I replied, “Those are mountain passes right?” “Yes. But do you know what happened there?” I gave in “No”. “That’s the problem man! Everyone seems to remember 62 but no one even knows about what happened in 67’!” I was now curious. Having always considered myself to be well versed with Military History, I was caught off guard. I looked at him and asked innocently, “What happened in those mountain passes?” He then began to narrate exactly what happened there and by the time he finished I cursed myself for not having read up on this earlier. I felt that this was something that every Indian should know as it is bound to instil not only a sense of pride in our military capabilities but also provide us with the assurance that the Dragon may be kept at bay in light of the escalating tension between India and China. Thus begins the story of the Chola and Nathu la incidents, or as Major General Sheru Thapliyal, SM (Retd) the time when the Indians gave the Chinese a bloody nose.

After the 1962 Sino Indian War, the morale of the military was at an all time low. It was a disastrous conflict which has been described aptly by Brig John Dalvi as a ‘Himalayan Blunder’. There was however very little respite for India and three years later we were at war again only this time, it was Pakistan. While we battled Pakistan in the West, Chinese aggression in the East grew. They threatened our border defences and throughout 1966 and 1967 skirmishes took place between Chinese and Indian Patrols. China issued an Ultimatum to India to abandon the Nathu La and Jelep La passes on the Sikkim-Tibet border. India withdrew from Jelep La but refused to withdraw from Nathu La. Maj Gen Sagat Singh was at the time the General Officer Commanding the 17 Mountain Division in Sikkim and he refused to withdraw from Nathu La. He claimed that his soldiers dominated the heights and had a better field of fire than the Chinese sitting on the Northern Shoulder of the Pass. He was convinced that if Nathu La were to fall into Chinese hands, they would dominate the region and Indians would have no effective way of striking back. China too realised this and continued to adopt aggressive tactics. The border too, was vague at best and was demarcated by the Nehru Stone which commemorated Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s trek to Bhutan through this pass in 1959. Chinese soldiers would advance in huge numbers to the so called border and retreat; they would take threatening postures against Indian Patrols and often confrontations were often inevitable. In view of de escalating the entire situation, Indian hierarchy decide to lay a wire from Nathu La to Sebu La. This was the turning point of the entire crisis which would result in a full scale battle.

On the morning of 11th September Lt Col Rai Singh, who was at the time the Commanding Officer of 2 Grenadiers, stood along the said boundary with his commando platoon. He was providing cover for the work being undertaken by the 70 Field Company of Engineers being assisted by men of 18 Rajput. The Chinese Political Commissar on the other side of the border saw this and immediately confronted Lt Col Rai. A scuffle ensued and the Commissar was roughed up. He returned to his post and soon after the Medium Machine Gun fire opened up on the Indian Troops. What must be noted here is that there is very little cover on the pass and the Indian Troops were caught in the open. Lt Col Rai was himself wounded and the casualties soon started to mount. The Indian Artillery Officers saw this and immediately retaliated with accurate artillery fire on the Chinese Positions. Maj Gen Sagat’s decision not to abandon Nathu La resulted in the Indian’s getting a significant advantage over the Chinese. Most Chinese Positions along the Northern Shoulder were destroyed in the 3 day artillery barrage that followed. The Chinese then threatened to use their Air Force if the barrage didn’t stop. Indian patrols now took up their positions and were in possession of Chinese Casualties. It is believed that the Indians lost 65 men in the said skirmish whereas the Chinese are estimated to have lost around 300 men. On 15th of September Bodies of the soldiers were exchanged and Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw was said to have attended the same.

There was more to come. On 1st October the Chinese attacked the Chola outpost which was a few kilometres north of Nathu La. The said assault was planned with the singular intention of avenging the Nathu La defeat and establishing Chinese dominance in the Region. The only problem was that India was prepared. A recently raised Gorkha regiment was stationed in the region and it was in this battle that it was blooded. A scuffle had ensued the same morning between the Chinese commissar and Naib Subedar Gyan Bahadur Limbu the forward platoon commander over the boundary demarcation. This scuffle resulted in the Gorkha’s taking out their Khukri’s and chopping off the head’s of the JCO’s assailants. The same evening, the Chinese sent their commando’s across the line to attack the Indian Positions. This was soon to be followed by an assault by the Chinese infantry. The strike was meant to shock the Indian troops and force them to retreat. This was not meant to be. The strike failed miserably and resulted in the loss 40 elite Chinese Commando’s. The retreat by the Chinese too was very shabby and the Indian troops did not attack the retreating Chinese. This was primarily because the Chinese had suffered major casualties and India honoured age old military traditions by not assaulting them. The Chinese were forced to retreat deep into Chinese territory to a place called Kam Barracks where they remain to this day.

The story of these incidents is one that must be told to any and every person who still remains under the 62 spell. If we look at only our loss and shame our military and political leadership, we must also praise them for the victory achieved against the same Adversary. A lesson learnt which would otherwise see me court the general ignorance.

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