1962 Indo-Sino war completed 50 years in 2012. This war was one of the bad memories of India where the country saw humiliating defeat from China. The 1962 Indo-Sino war defeat was the not only result of poor political and military leadership but also lack of preparedness of the Indian soldiers. Though many consider 1962 debacle a biggest failure of India, there was an event where Indian Army showed their potency to Red Dragons in 1967 forcing them to retreat.
In the skirmishes at Nathu La and Cho La in Sikkim during the period of 1st to 30th September 1967, Indian troops taught a tough lesson to Chinese Army in their own words. This was the only first time when Chinese Army got bloody nose from valiant Indian soldiers.
The beginning of the skirmishes
The two strategic points Nathu La Pass and Jelep La Pass were the main root points of confrontation between India and China. During the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Nathu La witnessed skirmishes between soldiers of the two countries. Adamant China categorically rejected the Macmohan Line, which India claims an international border between India and China. During the 1965 India-Pak war, China extended its support to Pakistan and Chinese Army served an ultimatum and demanded that India withdraw its posts at Nathu La and Jelep La. Over confident of being winner of 1962 war, Chinese Army made several attempts of instigating India for war at both passes since 1965. Ultimately, in 1967 the hostility turned in a battle where India gave tit for tat to China.
According to HQ XXXIII Corps, the main defences of 17 Mountain Division were at Changgu, while Nathu La was only an observation post. In the adjoining sector, manned by 27 Mountain Division, Jelep La was also considered an observation post, with the main defences located at Lungthu. In case of hostilities, the divisional commanders had been given the authority to vacate the posts, and fall back on the main defences. Accordingly, orders were issued by corps headquarters to both divisions to vacate Nathu La and Jelep La.
As a result, 27 Mountain Division vacated Jelep La, which the Chinese promptly occupied. However, Major General Sagat Singh, GOC 17 Mountain Division, refused to vacate Nathu La. He reasoned that Nathu La and Jelep La were passes on the watershed, which was the natural boundary. Vacating the passes on the watershed would give the Chinese the tactical advantage of observation and fire, into India, while denying the same to our own troops. He also felt that the discretion to vacate the posts lay with the divisional commander, and he was not obliged to do so, based on instructions from higher headquarters.
China’s pressure tactics
The Chinese had installed loudspeakers at Nathu La, and warned the Indians that they would suffer as they did in 1962, if they did not withdraw. However, Major General Sagat had carried out a detailed appreciation of the situation, and reached the conclusion that the Chinese were bluffing. They made threatening postures, such as advancing in large numbers, but on reaching the border, always stopped, turned about and withdrew. They also did not use any artillery, for covering fire, which they would have certainly done if they were serious about capturing any Indian positions. Ultimately, Sagat's fortitude saved the day for India, and his stand was vindicated in 1967, when there was a show down at Nathu La.
11th September to 1 October when Indians refused to blink
In order to de-escalate the situation it was decided by the Indian military hierarchy to lay a wire in the centre of the Pass from Nathu La to Sebu La to demarcate the perceived border. This task was to be carried out by the jawans of 70 Field Company of Engineers assisted by a company of 18 Rajput deployed at Yak La pass further north of Nathu La. The wire laying was to commence at first light on the fateful morning of 11 September 1967.
11 September, the engineers and jawans started erecting long iron pickets from Nathu La to Sebu La along the perceived border while 2 Grenadiers and Artillery Observation Post Officers at Sebu La and Camel’s Back were on alert. Immediately the Chinese Political Commissar, with a section of Infantry came to the centre of the Pass where Lt. Col Rai Singh, CO 2 Grenadiers was standing with his commando platoon. The Commissar asked Lt Col Rai Singh to stop laying the wire. Orders to the Indian Army were clear. They were not to blink. An argument started which soon built up into a scuffle. In the ensuing melee, the commissar got roughed up. Thereafter the Chinese went up back to their bunkers and engineers resumed laying the wire.
Within a few minutes of this, a whistle was heard on the Chinese side followed by murderous medium machine gun fire from north shoulder. The pass is completely devoid of cover and the jawans of 70 Field Company and 18 Rajput were caught in the open and suffered heavy casualties which included Col Rai Singh who was wounded. He was awarded MVC later. Two brave officers – Capt Dagar of 2 Grenadiers and Major Harbhajan Singh of 18 Rajput rallied a few troops and tried to assault the Chinese MMG but both died a heroic death. They were posthumously awarded Vir Chakra and MVC respectively. 2 Grenadier opened small arms fire on North shoulder but it was not very effective. Within the first ten minutes, there were nearly seventy dead and scores wounded lying in the open on the pass. Within half an hour, Chinese artillery opened up on the pass as well as in the depth areas but it was mostly prophylactic fire due to lack of observation and failed to do much damage.
Meanwhile artillery observation post officers asked for artillery fire, permission for which came a little later. Because of excellent domination and observation from Sebu La and Camel’s back, artillery fire was most effective and most of the Chinese bunkers on North shoulder and in depth were completely destroyed and Chinese suffered very heavy casualties which by their own estimates were over 400. The artillery duel thereafter carried on day and night. For the next three days, the Chinese were taught a lesson.
Between 7 and 13 September 1967, China's People's Liberation Army and the Indian Army had six-day "border skirmish", including the exchange of heavy artillery fire.
On 14 September, Chinese threatened use of Air Force if shelling did not stop. By then the lesson had been driven home and an uneasy ceasefire came about. The Chinese, true to form, had pulled over dead bodies to their side of the perceived border at night and accused us of violating the border. Dead bodies were exchanged on 15 September at which time: Sam Manekshaw, Aurora and Major General Sagat were present on the Pass.
The Indian casualties in the action were just over two hundred - 65 dead and 145 wounded. The Chinese are estimated to have suffered about three hundred casualties.
Every battle has its own share of heroism, faint heartedness, drama and humour. The Nathu La skirmish was no exception. 2 Grenadiers were initially shaken up due to the loss of Capt Dagar and injury to their CO but found their man of the moment in Lieutenant Atar Singh who went round from trench to trench to rally the troops and was later promoted as Captain on the spot. On the lighter side was one artillery observation post officer at Sebu La whose radio set was damaged due to shelling and he was out of communication with his guns. He rightly decided to go back to the base at Sherathang in the depth to get another radio set. While he was on his way back, Commander Artillery Brigade was coming up. He stopped the young captain, accused him of running away from the battle and sent him back after reducing him to his substantive rank of a second lieutenant. Casualties could not be evacuated for three days and nights as any move to do so invited a hail of Chinese bullets. Some wounded may well have succumbed to cold and rain. There were awards for bravery as also court martial for cowardice. However, what stood out was the steadfastness of the commanders and bravery of the jawans and junior officers. The Indian casualties in the action were just over two hundred - 65 dead and 145 wounded. The Chinese are estimated to have suffered about three hundred casualties. Indians refused to blink and the mighty Chinese dragon was made to look ordinary. This was the first time the Chinese got a bloody nose, and the myth of their invincibility was broken.
Has India taken lesson from 1967?
Even after 46 years of bloodish skirmish between India and China, there is no change in the situation at the border. The year 2013 saw number of intrusion bids by China in Indian territory including Sikkim. Chinese Army not only intruded in Indian area but also claimed the territory threatening locals. However, so called political leadership of our country is not yet ready to recognize Chinese threat. Defence minister A K Antony rules out reports of incursion and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh advocates for bilateral ties with China. Defence experts have warned that neglecting China’s moves at border will be dangerous for national security. India needs strong political leadership and strong military defence to tackle cross border threats.