Will India and China fight a war again?

There is an equilibrium in Sino-Indian affairs that makes recourse to force extremely improbable. Both now read their semaphores well and know how much of the sword must be unsheathed to send a message 

Mohan Guruswamy Delhi 

While 1962 will still be the seminal year for Sino-Indian relations, it was in 1967 that Indian and Chinese troops last clashed at Nathu La. Nathu La, at 14,200 feet, is an important pass on the Tibet-Sikkim border through which passes the old Gangtok-Yatung-Lhasa Trade Route. Although the Sikkim-Tibet boundary is well defined by the Anglo-Chinese Convention of March 17, 1890, the Chinese were not comfortable with Sikkim being an Indian protectorate and the deployment of the Indian Army at that time. During the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, the Chinese gave an ultimatum to India to vacate both Nathu La and Jelep La on the Sikkim-Tibet border. For some strange reason, the Mountain Division, under whose jurisdiction Jelep La was at the time, vacated the pass. It remains under Chinese possession till date. At the time of the clash, 2 Grenadiers was holding Nathu La. This battalion was under the command of Lt Col (later Brigadier) Rai Singh. The battalion was under the Mountain Brigade being commanded by Brig MMS Bakshi, MVC.

I am reproducing in full the account by a young officer of what he witnessed: “The daily routine at Nathu La used to start with patrolling by both sides along the perceived border which almost always resulted in arguments. The only one on the Chinese side who could converse in broken English was the political commissar who could be recognised by a red patch on his cap. Sentries of both the forces used to stand barely one metre apart in the centre of the Pass which is marked by Nehru Stone, commemorating Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s trek to Bhutan through Nathu La and Chumbi Valley in 1959. Argument between the two sides soon changed to pushing and shoving and on September 7, 1967, a scuffle took place. 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 September 11, 1967…

That morning dawned bright and sunny unlike the normal foggy days. 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, Commanding Officer (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 Maha Vir Chakra (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. The 2 Grenadiers opened small arms fire on north shoulder but it was not very effective. Within the first ten minutes, there were nearly 70 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, we as 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 that 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. 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 in the presence of Maj Gen Sagat Singh, GOC Mountain Division in Sikkim, Lt Gen Jagjit Aurora, 33 Corps Commander, and Lt Gen. Sam Manekshaw, the Eastern Army Commander…”

On October 1, 1967, this event repeated itself at Cho La when 7/11 Gurkha Rifles and 10 JAK Rifles were tested by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China and similarly not found wanting. The lesson of 1967 has been well learnt by China, just as the lesson of 1962 has been absorbed by India. Not a single shot has been fired across the border since then and even today the Indian Army and the PLA stand eyeball to eyeball, but the atmosphere now is far more relaxed and the two armies frequently have friendly interactions.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2012