In September 1967, clashes between the People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Army across two high-altitude passes in Sikkim — Nathu La and Cho La (15,000 feet) — left hundreds of dead on both sides. It was the first time since the 1962 war that the two nations had exchanged artillery fire. It remains the most recent exchange of fire in what has turned out to be an intriguing military standoff between the two large neighbours. There has been continued hostility and recurring face-offs without bloodshed across what is probably among the most inhospitable stretches of frontiers on this planet. It was a peculiar calibration of conflict between two rising powers.
The tipping point for the crisis came on September 11 in a round of pushing and shoving in which the commissar was allegedly roughed up by Indian soldiers. The PLA quietly withdrew after the scuffle and the Indian fence-laying party of 70 Engineer Regiment, continued their fencing operation along with 18 Rajput. Soon after, the PLA opened fire with MMGs accompanied by mortar and artillery fire, inflicting about 40 casualties on the Indians. Rai was injured and two young officers were killed in action while rallying the troops. It took a while for the Indians to calibrate a suitable response. In the ensuing riposte, scores of PLA soldiers are said to have been killed by well-directed Indian artillery fire, which blasted Chinese bunkers and silenced MMGs in a display of outstanding gunnery. Clearly, the PLA — which had stunned and shocked the Indian forward defensive line in all the sectors in 1962 — had received a taste of its own medicine.
PK Roy, an Indian reporter for the Baltimore Sun, wrote quite disparagingly about the fitness and preparedness of the PLA soldiers as compared to their Indian adversaries. He observed that the Chinese 11 Division was stationed near Nathu La, but most of the Chinese soldiers seemed to be less acclimatised to the high altitude than the Indians. Chinese soldiers had been seen gasping while climbing. The impact of good leadership, fitness and morale of the Indian troops at Nathu La was telling, as was the decision to surprise the Chinese with artillery fire. Two weeks later, in a concerted attempt to hit back after the reverse at Nathu La, the PLA attempted to overrun another Indian position at Cho La, the highest pass on the Sikkim-Tibet border located at a height of over 15,000 feet. By then, the Indian Army had reinforced defensive positions with crack paratroopers who along with the determined Gorkhas, pushed the PLA 3 km back. Brigadier Vivek Sapatnekar, who commanded India’s parachute brigade in the mid-1980s, was at Cho La as a young officer during the skirmish. He recalled that the Indian Army used its positional advantage to blunt the Chinese attack and once again effectively used mortars and field artillery.
In a telling assessment of the larger strategic picture, Joseph Lelyveld — better known for his controversial biography of Mahatma Gandhi, Great Soul — praised India for its firm stand at Nathu La in what he described as a Himalayan street fight. He wrote in The New York Times that in their military and diplomatic posture, the Indians sought to reflect firmness and restraint. Emphasising this, he wrote, “This was not just posturing. In 1962, when they were woefully underprepared to meet the Chinese, they engaged in a good deal of braggadocio; the Chinese ruthlessly made them eat their words. This time, after five years of building up their Himalayan defences, the Indians felt no need for brave words.”
India’s politico-military leadership of the time demonstrated great self-assurance . . . As the firing peaked on September 14, Sam Manekshaw, Jagjit Singh Aurora and Sagat Singh visited the scene of battle. This gave much cheer and confidence to the Indian troops, whose morale had remained high . . . despite the loss of two officers and the wounding of a battalion commander. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made her first major public statement about the skirmish only after the Cho La incident on October 1. In Mumbai, she said that she “hoped that it would only prove to be a local affair like the previous exchange at Nathu La.” She also went ahead with her plans to visit Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) even as the Defence Minister Swaran Singh, and the Chief of Army Staff, General PP Kumaramangalam, continued their official visits to Moscow and France respectively. . .
Notwithstanding the robust response, an all-round analysis of India’s defence preparedness was undertaken within its military and strategic establishment. There was a realisation that India would never be able to confront the Chinese on equal terms if it had to defend a border with too many forward positions.
Extracted with permission. The author is a military historian and former Air Vice-Marshal
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