Monday, 14 September 2020

Have the Chinese forgotten the 1967 defeat?


While we have been celebrating surgical strikes, here are the details about India’s most forgotten war. We take you to Nathu La in Sikkim, where, 53 years ago, India fought a bloody war with China and got more than even with its neighbour. It was also the last time we exchanged fire with China. The Chinese were beaten severely and ran away with a bloodied nose. A couple of days later at Cho La, again the Chinese were beaten again, a big loss of face.  India defeated China in the 1967 war. And after that they never dared to do anything in Nathu La, and for almost twenty years there was peace and tranquility in the India-China border areas. This was a morale booster for India and the Indian army. The Chinese for once realized that messing with India the retaliation is strong and will not allow to be pushed around by the Chinese.

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The Chinese betrayal, with war thrust on  India and the debacle in 1962 affected the Indian psyche and the Indian army, though in some sectors, the Indian army fought valiantly till the last man. Nehru died in 1964 as a broken man. Lal Bahadur Shastri became the next Prime Minister. The Indian defeat to China in 1962, emboldened Pakistan. In 1965, Ayub Khan decided to take advantage and attack India. The Pakistan army attacked India along the LOC in Kashmir, thinking that since the Indian morale was down, it could easily run through and take over Jammu and Kashmir. They miscalculated that India would be bogged down in Kashmir and would not escalate the war. But their plans misfired badly, India defended at the LOC and also opened a new front across the international border in Punjab and attacked Pakistan. They were caught unaware. They were never prepared for this. India pushed in further, ferociously attacked the enemy and almost reached Lahore. Realizing their folly Pakistan agreed to mediation by Russia. And the accord was signed, it was known as the Tashkent Declaration. It was agreed that the troops on both sides should go back to their positions where they were before the war. Unfortunately, Shastri died in Tashkent under mysterious circumstances. But officially it was declared that he died of a massive heart attack. Indira Gandhi became the next Prime Minister.

The 1965 victory over Pakistan was a morale booster for India and the Indian army. They once again believed in themselves and realized they were a powerful and disciplined fighting force with a long history of bravery, and remembering the sacrifices of the many brave soldiers, regained their lost confidence. The Indian army was back in action and was equipped with the latest equipment, clothing for high altitude, guns and ammunition. And they were led by able and experienced men and officers. The morale was high and the forces were ready for any eventuality. However the new Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was inexperienced and was yet show her acumen. But incidents in the coming years, 1967 China war, merger of Sikkim in the Indian Union in 1975 and in 1971 Bangladesh war showed she was made of sterner stuff with a political will and ability to take timely and tough decisions.

The Indian military, overcoming the loss in 1962, got a chance to retaliate, they dealt a severe blow to PLA in 1967 in Nathu La sector that resulted in the death of over 400 Chinese soldiers and a few days later in Cho La, a fact neither debated in Beijing nor Delhi. The Vietnamese Army had dealt a similar blow to PLA in 1979 along the Sino-Vietnam border merely four years after unification of Vietnam.

The Nathu La (September 11–14, 1967) and Cho La clashes (October 1, 1967), were a series of clashes between India and China along the Sikkim border. According to a Sino-Indian expert, the conflict ended with the defeat of China. Indian troops drove back the attacking Chinese forces. Many PLA fortifications at Nathu La were destroyed, and for the first time got the taste of Indian fire power and ferocious retaliation by Indian army with the 1962 loss in the back of their minds. . According to the defence ministry, 88 Indian Army personnel were killed and 163 wounded while China lost over 340 soldiers and 450 were wounded during the two incidents. China, as always however, claimed a lower number of casualties. The Sino-Indian border remained peaceful after these incidents till 2020 China–India skirmishes.


The Nathu La and Cho La clashes were a series of military clashes between India and China alongside the border of the Himalayan Kingdom of Sikkim, then an Indian protectorate. The Nathu La clashes started on 11 September 1967, when the People's Liberation Army (PLA) launched an attack on Indian posts at Nathu La, and lasted till 15 September 1967. In October 1967, another military duel took place at Cho La and ended on the same day.

According to independent sources, India achieved decisive tactical advantage and managed to hold its own against Chinese forces. Many PLA fortifications at Nathu La were said to be destroyed, where the Indian troops drove back the attacking Chinese forces. The competition to control the disputed border land in Chumbi valley is seen as a major cause for heightening the tensions in these incidents. Observers have commented that these clashes indicated the decline of claim strength  in China's decision to initiate the use of force against India, and stated that India was greatly pleased with the combat performance of its forces in the Nathu La clashes, seeing it as a sign of striking improvement since its defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

Following the 1962 Sino-Indian War, tensions continued to run high along the Himalayan border shared by India and China. Influenced by its previous defeat, the Indian Army raised a number of new units, nearly doubling their deployed forces along the disputed region. As a part of this military expansion, seven mountain divisions were raised to defend India's northern borders against any Chinese attack. Most of these divisions were not based near the border, save for the Chumbi Valley, where both Indian and Chinese troops are stationed on both sides at close range. Particularly at the Nathu La pass in the valley, alongside the Sikkim-Tibet border, the deployed Chinese and Indian forces are stationed about 20–30 meters apart, which is the closest of anywhere on the 4000 km Sino-Indian border. The border here is said to have remained un-demarcated. Chinese held the northern shoulder of the pass, while the Indian Army held the southern shoulder. Two major parts of the pass, south and north of Nathu La, namely Sebu La and Camel’s back, were held by the Indians. From 1963, small-scale clashes in the region were frequently reported in the press. On 16 September 1965, during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, China issued an ultimatum to India to vacate the Nathu La pass. However, GOC 17 mountain division's Major General, Sagat Singh, refused to do so, arguing that Nathu La was on the watershed which comprised the natural boundary.

Starting from 13 August 1967, Chinese troops started digging trenches in Nathu La on the Sikkimese side. Indian troops observed that some of the trenches were clearly to the Sikkimese side of the border, and pointed it out to the local Chinese commander, who was asked to withdraw from there. Yet, in one instance, the Chinese filled the trenches again and left after adding 8 more to the existing 21. Indian troops decided to stretch a barbed wire along the ridges of Nathu La in order to indicate the boundary. Accordingly, from 18 August, wires were stretched along the border, which was resented by the Chinese troops. After two days, armed with weaponry, Chinese troops took positions against the Indian soldiers who were engaged in laying the wire but did not fire.

Again on 7 September, when the Indian troops started stretching another barbed wire along the southern side of Nathu La, the local Chinese commanders along with the troops rushed to the spot and issued a serious warning to an Indian commander to stop the work, after which a scuffle took place in which some soldiers from both sides were injured. Chinese troops were agitated by the injuries to their two soldiers. In order to settle the situation, the Indian military hierarchy decided to lay another wire in the centre of the pass from Nathu La to Sebu La to indicate their perceived border, on 11 September 1967.

Nathu La - Accordingly, in the morning of 11 September 1967, the engineers and soldiers of Indian Army started laying the stretch of fencing from Nathu La to Sebu La along the perceived border. According to an Indian account, immediately a Chinese Political Commissar, with a section of infantry, came to the centre of the pass where an Indian Lieutenant Colonel was standing with his commando platoon. The Chinese Commissar asked the Indian Colonel to stop laying the wire. Indian soldiers refused to halt, saying they were given orders. An argument started which soon turned into a scuffle. After that, the Chinese went back to their bunkers and the Indians resumed laying the wire.

Within a few minutes of this, a whistle was blown from the Chinese side followed by medium machine gun fire against Indian troops from north shoulder. Due to the lack of cover in the pass, the Indian troops initially suffered heavy casualties. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese also opened artillery fire against the Indians. In response, Indian troops opened artillery from their side. The clashes lasted through the day and night, for the next three days, with use of artillery, mortars and machine guns, during which the Indian troops beat back the Chinese forces. Five days after the clashes had started, an uneasy ceasefire was arranged. Due to the advantageous position Indian troops had because of their occupation of high grounds at the pass in Sebu La and Camel's back, they were able to destroy many Chinese bunkers at Nathu La. The bodies of dead soldiers were exchanged on 15 and 16 September. The Indian and Western perspectives attributed the initiation of these clashes to the Chinese side. The Chinese, however, blamed the Indian troops for provoking the clashes, alleging that the firing had started from the Indian side.

Here I would like to narrate an incident which changed the mood and boosted the morale of the Indian army in the years to come. When the Chinese firing took place and with heavy casualties on the Indian side. A message was sent to Major General, Sagat Singh who was at the Brigade headquarters. He rushed to the spot, gathered his men boosted the morale of his troops to respond appropriately. For opening artillery fire, he needed permission from his superior officer, who wasn’t present. He tried contacting the Eastern Command headquarters at Calcutta, headed then by Gen Manekshaw. But he had gone to Delhi and was acting as Chief of Staff, since the then army chief was out. Meanwhile, Major General, Sagat Singh took full responsibility and ordered artillery fire. A message was flashed to Delhi. The message reached the then Prime Minister Indira, she immediately gave a go ahead. This decision by Major General Sagat Singh to open artillery fire changed the course of the war. The Chinese bunkers were pounded. The Chinese soldiers ran for their lives and they were chased by the Indians and many were killed. They will never forget this assault.

Cho La - On 1 October 1967, another clash between India and China took place at Cho La, another pass on the Sikkim–Tibet border, a few kilometres north of Nathu La. The duel was initiated by the Chinese troops after a scuffle between the two, when the Chinese troops infiltrated into the Sikkim-side of the border, claimed the pass and questioned the Indian occupation. China, however, asserted that the provocation had come from the Indian side. According to the Chinese version, Indian troops had infiltrated into the Chinese territory across the pass, made provocations against the stationed Chinese troops, and opened fire on them.The military duel lasted for a day, the Chinese got a taste of the strong Indian response. According to Indian Maj. Gen. Sheru Thapliyal, the Chinese were forced to withdraw nearly three kilometres in Cho La during this clash. . According to an Sino-Indian expert, the conflict ended with the defeat of China. Indian troops drove back the attacking forces.

Then in 1971, the Bangladesh war happened and India came out victorious. Sikkim became an Indian state in 1975, after a referendum which resulted in overwhelming support for the removal of monarchy and a full merger with India. The Indian merger of Sikkim which they called annexation of Sikkim was not recognised by China during the time. In 2003, China indirectly recognised Sikkim as an Indian state, on agreement that India accept that the Tibet Autonomous Region as a part of China, though India had already done so back in 1953. This mutual agreement led to a thaw in Sino-Indian relations. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said in 2005 that "Sikkim is no longer the problem between China and India." Hence China always tries to remind India about 1962 and conveniently forgets about the 1967 defeat.

Also read: India China Diplomatic Row in 1967

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Are we the same people?

A foreigner friend of mine once asked – ‘Are Indians and Pakistanis the same?

I told him – We may look alike. We may dress similarly. We may eat the same kind of food. We may share the common culture, history and tradition. There may be many commonalities, but we are not the same. If we were the same, then why did we part in 1947. Why did we fight three wars. You ask a Pakistani, he too might tell you the same. Though we share a common border, we are different just like we share a common border with China and are very different from them.

Some of the politicians from north are bent upon convincing that Pakistanis are our brothers, unjustly separated from us, who long for peace and friendship with India. The truth is that Pakistan is a separate nation, distinct, independent country. Just as you see the external similarities between us; look deeper, you will find distinct dissimilarities in us – in politics, the people, their approach to problems, their thinking, their home-grown problems, their government, etc.

However whatever happens in Pakistan will have some consequences for India. India has to be a quiet observer and watch what unfolds or happens there from time to time. It is clear – we are not the same people. And they too feel the same.

Trying to prove we are same, creates more mistrust and suspicion. Sometimes, being different and accepting it with mutual respect for one another, helps to give peace a better chance!

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