“We saw the lightning and that was the
guns and then we heard the thunder and
that was the big guns; and then we heard
the rain falling and that was the blood
falling; and when we came to get in the
crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”
– Harriet Tubman
This quote passed through my mind when I stood on a lovely green grassy meadow in the far eastern sector of Arunachal Pradesh. As I heard my father vividly recap the war we fought with China in the autumn/winter of 1962, I was standing on the Nam Ti plains, overlooking the Lohit River. As I looked all around me, I saw the majestic mountains with their tall trees, the narrow gorges, the valleys where numerous small settlements have mushroomed over the years, the gushing rivers and their tributaries. And then I heard the silence. A silence so eloquent that I could hear our dead soldiers.
The Indo-China War of 1962
The India China War of 1962 is a war that brings out angst and frustration in a lot of people who were part of the war. Many did not live to tell the tale. Those who did, carry with them memories that haunt them every now and then. My father is one of them. His voice betrays the emotions he felt 53 years ago. The lost look as he reminisces what had happened on those fateful days and nights will forever be etched on my mind.
What it means to live through a war, or fight a war, majority of us will never know. A lot has been written about the 1962 War between India and China. There is a China version, an India version, the Army version and innumerable accounts of individual soldiers who fought and lived to tell the tale. This is not an analysis of the battles that were fought across different areas in Arunachal Pradesh. This is just an expression of emotions of a daughter lucky enough to be born to an Indian Army officer who has lived to share his experience with her.
Deconstructing a war
My father was commissioned in the 44 Heavy Mortar Regiment in December 1959, and moved to his unit after completing the Young Officers course in July 1960. He was sent to Tezu – Walong sector as part of 4 Artillery Brigade. In the 1960s, infrastructure had not developed at all in the Northeast, the way we see it today. Everybody who was posted there as part of the army, had to walk to the forward posts for days. My father walked seven days to reach his unit!
It is said by experts of war that to launch an offensive on the enemy, one must understand the terrain completely, build a strategy using the strengths of the topography and use tactics accordingly. Our forces did that, with whatever resources were available. However, we were a poor army, with not enough weapons, ammunition and man power to deal with the impending war. This reality hit me very strongly as I stood on the Nam Ti plains, at the memorial built to pay homage to hundreds of soldiers who died there. If I have to describe the entire terrain in that part of Arunachal Pradesh, it is only in one word – tough. The tall mountains stand very close to each other, hence giving rise to narrow gorges and valleys. The Lohit is the prominent river of the region, originating in China and flowing into India in this region. Hence, this place is also called Lohit district.
Walong sector is strategic in more ways than one. I understood this when I was explained the war with the help of a
detailed map. In the north, there is our traditional border with Tibet following the watershed between Di Chu in India and Lati Chu in Tibet. I asked what the terms Chu and Ti meant as they cropped up frequently in our conversations. Both meant the same…river or tributary is called Chu in Chinese and Ti in the local language in Walong. The tri junction of India, Burma and China is in the extreme east of the Lohit district. There are steep
mountain ranges on the southern side, along with south east and south west boundaries of the district. I am told, even today, crossing over to Myanmar takes a three day walk along this route.
The Lohit River divides the district into two – eastern and western parts. While we were driving through the mountains, I saw remnants of the old bridges called the foot suspension bridges. Earlier, the only way to cross the river divide would be with the help of steel wire ropes spanning the river. Today, there are a couple of bridges that carry vehicles from one side to another. However, all along the Lohit, one sees foot suspension bridges that enable the locals to cross over.
There are five tributaries that join the Lohit along the gorges – Sat Ti, Tamun Ti, Dandi Ti, Nam Ti and Yapak Ti. It is the Nam Ti plateau that turned into killing fields on that fateful day in November 1962. Though the river bed is at an altitude of over 900 metres, the surrounding mountains rise steeply up to 5600 metres. The mountain sides were covered with pine forests till about 3800 metres and other bushes, shrubs and stunted plants from there to the top. The dense growth obstructed movement and view. Some of the mountains had flat plateaus on the top, which we had staked out and occupied with whatever resources we had.
The time to believe in friendly neighbours ended on October 20 when both in NEFA and Ladakh, the Chinese came down the Himalayan slopes overrunning manifestly inadequate Indian defences in their way. Having achieved their immediate objective they halted their offensive five days later. All hell broke loose and the region reverberated with the sounds of machine guns, enemy mortar and artillery. Amidst this cacophony, the Kumaonis, Sikhs and Gurkhas fought valiantly, withholding waves of enemy attack. Classically outnumbered in strength, they stood firm, holding ground. Having run out of ammunition they fought valiantly with scant regard to personal safety.
The valiant soldiers, porters, tribals
The Chinese, buoyed by the success, wanted to exert relentless pressure in maintaining momentum. They decided to launch multiple attacks on adjacent localities with numerical superiority, their main objective being Tri Junction. Our troops fought on relentlessly, despite the shortage of every resource. We lost many lives and many were taken prisoners by the Chinese. However, it was when the fighting descended to Nam Ti, that the Chinese also realised what mettle the Indian Army was made of. One of the many unsung heroes of the Battle of Walong was Lt. Bikram Singh, who untiringly made the enemy shed blood for every inch of the ground. His ingenuity and tactical acumen paved way to extricate our boys falling back from Kibithoo and Mc Mahon Ridge. Two more names that need special mention are those of Lt. Yograj Palta and Lt. S. C. Chawla. Their daring exploits in the face of the enemy earned them the admiration of their boys who stood by them as a mighty bulwark against the enemy onslaught. Their devil may care attitude led them to repulse repeated enemy attacks against our troops.
I must talk about another group of unsung heroes my father talks of very fondly – the porters who helped carry ration items besides arms and ammunition. More than 140 porters were engaged by the army to support our soldiers. These porters mostly belonged to the local Mishmi tribe, as did a lot of Chinese who came across from Tibet. A large number of these porters used their ethnic ties with the Chinese and helped minimise causalities and destruction.
The paddy fields of Nam Ti became killing fields when we could not protect our own. The Chinese had surrounded us from heights and we were sitting ducks. Despite that situation, our soldiers engaged in hand to hand combat, killing more than 250 Chinese.
Decisions at the highest level were taken without any military appreciation and we paid a very heavy price as a country. Standing there, at the Nam Ti Memorial, reading what Bernad S. Dougal has written, I cannot help but wonder about the sheer passion, commitment, bravery and valour of all our soldiers who have shed their blood to keep us alive, to keep our sovereignty alive:
“The sentinel hills that around us stand,
Bear witness that we loved our land,
Amidst shattered rocks and flaming pine,
We fought and died on Nam Ti plain,
O Lohit gently by us glide
Pale stars above us softly shine
As we lie here in sun and rain”.
– Bernad S. Dougal