Pasang Droma was 23 during the winter of 1962 when the Chinese marched into India through the Kameng frontier in Arunachal Pradesh. We used to stay close to the helipad at Tawang,which suddenly became very busy. Dozens of helicopters would land and take off every day,mostly carrying back injured jawans to Tezpur or Missamari in the Assam plains.
Her husband,Netin Tashi,worked with the Subsidiary Intelligence Bureau (SIB) and with the Indo-Sino conflict breaking out,he had his hands full. Every time we heard gun shots and bombs echoing in the mountains,I would get under the bed with my son Lhamo who was 10 months old then. Then one day,we decided to flee, she says. Remembering the war in her home at Bomdila,some 180 km away from Tawang,Droma is happy to have survived that winter of 1962.
Since her husband was in the SIB,Droma says they could have been airlifted to Tezpur,but her husband refused,saying it was the jawans who needed to be airlifted first. Instead,they slowly made their way down the hills towards Assam.
We initially stayed at Darrang College in Tezpur which had been converted into a refugee camp. On the way to Assam,I lost contact with my parents and my brothers and sisters. A few days later,as news spread that the Chinese were advancing towards Tezpur,we took a boat across the Brahmaputra and went to Shillong. It was only about four months later when we returned to Tawang that we could find our family members, says Droma.
Dorjee Tenzing,a social worker at Bomdila,has memories of that year too. I was a Class II student at the Dirrang Primary School in Arunachal. While news came that the Chinese had defeated our soldiers and were advancing down from Tawang,we all fled from our villages and hid in a nullah in the jungle nearby. We could hear heavy gun-fight throughout the night. We came out two days later after our gaonburra (village headman) assured us that the Chinese,who had already occupied our village,would not harm civilians. We saw the Chinese bury dead soldiers,both theirs and ours,in our village, recalls Tenzing who now lives at Bomdila.
Tenzing says the Chinese remained in their village for more than a month,during which they organised song and dance programmes. Some people from our village fled to the Assam plains,others stayed put in the village. I remember how my father one day found a starving Indian soldier in the jungle,brought him home,gave him food and new clothes and helped him secretly slip away towards the plains, says Tenzing.
As part of his war memorabilia collection is a helmet of an Indian soldier that he found during the war and which has been with him for the past 50 years.
UP in Tawang at the Gaden Namgyal Lhatse,more popularly known as the Tawang Monastery,75-year-old Cho Gombo Lama is in an expansive mood. I was a young boy when news came of the Chinese coming. We first gathered in the monastery and then fled towards Bhutan in the west,and then down to Tezpur. The Chinese soldiers also entered the monastery and stayed here for nearly two months but they did not touch or remove anything, says Cho Gombo,who is now in charge of the museum in the monastery.
Cho Gombo was among hundreds of Monpas (the Monpa tribe lives in most parts of the Kameng frontier which is now divided into three Arunachal districts) who had taken shelter at various places during the war. We spent a couple of days at Bomdila,a day or two at Rupa,then at Rangapara,Tezpur and Nagaon in central Assam,south of the Brahmaputra. I remember seeing hundreds of our soldiers without adequate woollens shivering in the snowy winter, he says.
For the youngsters in Tawang,the 1962 conflict is more like something out of a story book. I have heard those stories,especially about how our brave soldiers fought with outdated weapons against a sophisticated and large army. Some people also talk about Prime Minister Nehru bidding goodbye to the people of Assam as the Indian Army was crushed at the hands of the Chinese forces. I think we are stronger now. But my generation doesnt want any more wars, says Karma Chomzom,a high school student who wants to become an army officer.
Books like The Himalayan Blunder by Brig JP Dalvi,commander of the 4th Battalion of the Guards Regiment,who was held captive by the Chinese for seven months,recreate Tawang as it was 50 years ago. It was a small place,not even a township,which had one civil officer called an assistant political officer. The army gradually developed its own establishments in view of the increasing Chinese threat that began in 1959. Today it is not only the headquarter of a district by the same name,but is also a major tourist attraction.
Much has changed since 1962 but the roads,though improved,are still in a sorry shape. The route from the foothills to Tawang was incredible. There was a steep climb to a place called Eagles Nest (9,000 feet); a further climb to Bomdila at 10,000 feet; a drop to Dirang (5,500 feet); the ascent to Sela Pass (13,500 feet); the vertical drop to Jang (5,000 feet); and the final climb to Tawang at 10,000 feet, writes Dalvi.
The only difference is that while those days the road was,as Dalvi writes,barely fit for a jeep (with) numerous landslips and slushy patches,it is now better,but the landslips and slushy patches still exist despite ambitious schemes to double-lane it.
In the heart of Tawang,close to the Brigade headquarters,stands the Tawang War Memorial,with a 40-foot-high stupa called the Namgyal Chorten. The frescos of the memorial bear the names of the 2,420 soldiers who were killed in the conflict.
For the people living in Tawang,the memorial is as sacred as the 1680-built Tawang Monastery. The chorten or stupa was blessed by the monks and residents of Tawang,who even donated scriptures,idols of Lord Buddha and gold and silver ornaments,which have been consecrated within the chorten. Everyday,a lama from the monastery comes in the morning to change the water in the 14 cups in the memorial pedestal and also replenishes the oil in the two lamps.
Inside the memorial,one chamber is dedicated to the memory of Subedar Joginder Singh,PVC,who,as Platoon Commander of 1 Sikh holding a defending position at a ridge near the Tongpen La 15 km inside from the McMahon Line,was the first to have resisted the first major Chinese aggression in October 1962.
The Chinese,who launched their offensive at 4.30 a.m. on October 23 from the north of Bumla,overwhelmed the Assam Rifles post and then attacked the ridge in three waves,each about 200 strong. Subedar Joginder Singh and his men mowed down the first wave of troops,but the second wave reduced them to half. As the third wave of Chinese troops charged in,the entire platoon,including the Subedar,was wiped out.
There are numerous instances of such heroic battles that our men fought, recalls Lt Gen (Retd) DB Shekatkar,who had served as the GOC of the IV Corps which was formed in the midst of the Chinese aggression in 1962.
The small museum room in the memorial also displays a detailed map of the progress of the battle that led to the fall of Tawang,with a photo gallery that has at least one photograph with a caption that says the Indian jawans were ill-clad,ill-armed,yet ready to fight.
The Chinese occupied Tawang unopposed on October 25,two days after the 62 Infantry Brigade vacated the township and moved back to Sela as the Chinese 55 Division moved in.
But even as the Chinese advanced deep into Indian territory,one group of brave men did put up a remarkable resistance to defend Sela,the 13,800-ft strategic pass. A pitched battle took place at Nuranangits now known as Jaswantgarhafter rifleman Jaswant Singh of the 4th Battalion of Garhwal Rifles,who put up a stiff resistance to the advancing Chinese until they were all killed on November 17. Jaswant,who was decorated with a Maha Vir Chakra posthumously,is now revered as baba in these parts,before whose memorial every passing army vehicle stops and prays for a minute.
The mountains in Jaswantgarh are strewn with remnants of 1962. The Army has carefully preserved various landmarks,including about 150 bunkers. In these hills where tributes to the Indian soldier are many,the Chinese soldier too hasnt gone unmourned. In a special enclosure in Jaswantgarh lie the remains of unknown Chinese soldiers,with a placard that reads: They also fought for their motherland.