50 years before Doklam, there was Nathu La: Recalling a very different standoff

At 14,200 feet, Nathu La is an important pass on the Tibet-Sikkim border through which passes the old Gangtok-Yatung-Lhasa trade route. Chinese and Indian soldiers are deployed barely 30 metres apart — the closest they are anywhere along the 3,488 km Sino-Indian border.

Written by Sushant Singh | Updated: September 13, 2017 8:15 am
Doklam, Doklam STANDOFF, Nathu La, Nathu La standoff, india china, india china standoff, india china conflict, indian express, tibet sikkim border, indian express, explained At Nathu La, a shrine to Harbhajan Singh, a sepoy with 23 Punjab, who drowned in a nullah in 1968. The shrine is believed to have healing powers. Express Archive photo

Through the nearly two-and-a-half-month standoff at Doklam, the Chinese media bristled with belligerent rhetoric, reminding India of its defeat in the 1962 war. Barely five years after that war, though, India and China had again clashed militarily — a conflict the Chinese rarely talk about. It took place at Nathu La, not far to the northwest of the Doklam plateau. More than 300 Chinese were killed in four days, while India lost 65 soldiers. By comparison, in the monthlong war in 1962, China lost only 722 soldiers. Nathu La, 1967 was the last military conflict between the two countries.

At 14,200 feet, Nathu La is an important pass on the Tibet-Sikkim border through which passes the old Gangtok-Yatung-Lhasa trade route. Chinese and Indian soldiers are deployed barely 30 metres apart — the closest they are anywhere along the 3,488 km Sino-Indian border. The Chinese hold the northern shoulder of the pass; India holds the southern shoulder.

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In 1967, Sikkim was an Indian protectorate, with the Indian Army deployed on its borders with China. On June 13, 1967, China had expelled two Indian diplomats from Peking (as Beijing was then called) accusing them of espionage. The rest of the embassy staff were kept captive inside the compound. India responded with reciprocal action against the staff at China’s mission in Delhi. The siege was lifted on July 3, but relations between the countries had reached their nadir.

The story, in fact, went farther back. According to Major General Sheru Thapliyal (retd), who later commanded the Nathu La brigade, the Chinese had given an ultimatum to India to vacate both the Nathu La and Jelep La passes on the Sikkim-Tibet border during the Indo-Pak war of 1965. After orders to vacate the passes were sent to the Army, Jelep La was vacated — and it remains under Chinese control even now.

But Maj General Sagat Singh (later Lt General and a hero of the 1971 Bangladesh War), refused to pull out of Nathu La. Through loudspeakers, the Chinese warned the Indians of a fate similar to 1962. They advanced in large numbers, but on reaching the border, stopped, turned around and withdrew. Sagat Singh had called their bluff, and it left them angry.

Through 1966 and early 1967, China continued its tactics of propaganda, intimidation and attempted incursions into Indian territory. By mid-August, 1967, they had hoisted 29 loudspeakers on the south shoulder. Sagat Singh decided to fence the border with three layers of barbed wire and, on August 20, started work. On August 23, about 75 Chinese in battle dress, carrying rifles fitted with bayonets, advanced slowly towards Nathu La in an extended line, and stopped at the border. The Political Commissar — identifiable by a red patch on his cap, and the only one who could speak some English — read out slogans from a red book, which the rest of the party shouted after him.

The Indian troops were “standing to”, watching and waiting. After about an hour, the Chinese withdrew. But they returned later, and continued their protests.

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On September 5, as the barbed wire fence was being upgraded to a concertina coil, the Political Commissar had an argument with the Commanding Officer of the local infantry battalion, Lt Colonel Rai Singh. Work stopped, but was resumed on September 7, which provoked about 100 Chinese soldiers to rush up. A scuffle ensued. Beaten down by the Jats, the Chinese resorted to stone-pelting, and the Indians responded in kind.

On September 10, the Chinese sent across a warning through the Indian embassy: “The Chinese Government sternly warns the Indian Government: the Chinese Border Defence Troops are closely watching the development of the situation along the China-Sikkim boundary. Should the Indian troops continue to make provocative intrusions, the Indian Government must be held responsible for all the grave consequences.”

According to Sagat Singh’s biographer, Maj General V K Singh (retd), Sagat Singh was to go on leave on September 12, and had ordered the fence to be completed on the 11th. That day, as work started, the Chinese came to protest, led by the Political Commissar. Lt Col Rai Singh went out to talk to them.

Suddenly, the Chinese opened fire, and Singh fell to the ground, injured. Seeing their CO hit, the infantry battalion attacked the Chinese post. They suffered heavy casualties, including two officers, who were both given gallantry awards. Soldiers in the open were mowed down by Chinese machine gun fire. The Indians responded with artillery fire, and pummelled every Chinese post in the vicinity. Many more Chinese perished in these heavy fire assaults than the number of Indians who were killed in the initial engagement. Taken aback by the strong Indian response, the Chinese threatened to bring in warplanes. When the Indians refused to back off, the Chinese news agency Xinhua denied these plans.

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Multiple versions of these events exist in regimental histories, but the most authoritative account is from the personal notes of a young Second Lieutenant of Signals, N C Gupta, who was present at the site, took part in the action, and was awarded the Sena Medal, even though he was recommended for a Maha Vir Chakra. While there were anecdotes of bravery during the skirmish, more than three dozen soldiers were court-martialled for running away from their posts.

Having sent its message militarily, India, on September 12, delivered a note to the Chinese offering an unconditional ceasefire across the Sikkim-Tibet border beginning 5.30 am on September 13. This was rejected, but the situation remained largely peaceful until the 14th.

On September 15, the Chinese handed over the bodies of Indian soldiers with arms and ammunition, saying they were acting in the interest of “preserving Sino-Indian friendship”. Gupta’s notes state that “the most amazing event was the recovery of a wounded soldier from the fence after six days in the open. It was nothing short of a miracle”.

Sam Manekshaw, then the Eastern Army Commander, Jagjit Singh Aurora, then the Corps Commander, and Sagat Singh were present to receive the bodies. In another four years, these three men would deliver India’s finest military triumph in Bangladesh.

On October 1, another skirmish erupted at Cho La, but the Indians again repulsed the Chinese. At Nathu La and Cho La, at least some ghosts of 1962 had been laid to rest.

sushant.singh@expressindia.com

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