Continuing the three-part series on the 50th anniversary of the Indo-China war, here are stories from the first town in Assam that felt the impact of the invasion.

At 70, Meenakshi Bhuyan is tall, slim, with short grey hair that enhances her gamine features. A born storyteller, there is not a single street, paddy field or ancient ruin of her home town — Tezpur in Assam — whose story is not embedded in her repertoire.

A history buff, she says that the 1962 India-China war changed her small town forever. “It looked the same, but I felt the spirit got affected.”

It is exactly 50 years since Meenakshi and her family heard Prime Minister Nehru’s address to the nation in 1962: “Huge Chinese armies are marching into North East India... my heart goes out to the people of Assam.” Meenakshi recalls, “My mother said ‘what is he saying? Has he abandoned us?’ We all looked at each other and each of us felt the same.” They knew Tezpur was the first town in Assam the Chinese could take if they reached the plains….

Meenakshi recalls, “Things started unravelling three years before the war when the whole town woke up to welcome the Dalai Lama’s entourage in 1959. A huge crowd gathered at the Darrang College ground to see him. As the head of the Municipal Corporation, my father was the one who welcomed him with a khada (a scarf given to honour visitors).”

The Tibetans were housed in a refugee camp at Misamari, some 45 minutes drive from Tezpur. Used to living in the high mountains, they were not prepared for the heat. Bundles of cotton cloth were sent to the Tezpur Mahila Samiti to make clothes for them. Meenakshi’s mother, who was the secretary of the Mahila Samiti, and her friends stitched bakhus (the traditional dress of Tibetan women) for the refugees. The children worked as volunteers to put together food packets. Meenakshi was then 20. Years later she was to step into her mother’s shoes and become the secretary of the same Samiti.

Born in April 1942, Meenakshi was only three days old when Jawharlal Nehru came as a guest to their ancestral home, Poki. This house, with wide rounded arches and grey stone floors, is today the museum and office of Assam’s cultural department. The Agarwala family lived as one big joint family. Meenakshi’s great-grandfather came to Assam as a pioneering businessman from Churu, Rajasthan, when the British set up tea gardens in Assam. He bought two gardens — one in Bholaguri and the other in Tamulbari. He never returned to Churu, choosing instead to marry an Assamese woman from Gohpur, raise a family and imbibe the local culture.

Meenakshi grew up in a family steeped in Gandhian ways and involved in the freedom struggle. Her uncle, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, was already feted as the Rajkunwor (Prince) of Assamese literature and, in 1935, had made the first Assamese film Joymati. Her father, Kamla Prasad, was a lawyer and held public office as Member of the Legislative Assembly and then as Member of Parliament. Her mother, Meena, was a social worker.

Training for the worst

After her matriculation, Meenakshi went to Darjeeling for her intermediate and then to the Benaras Hindu University for her BA. Each time she came back during her holidays, she heard disheartening news. There was a series of border skirmishes between India and China in early 1960-61 after the Dalai Lama got asylum in India. That was to have far-reaching effects on Tezpur.

“There was a whole lot of talk of security. Then mother and her friends enrolled to be trained by the Home Guard for civil defence duties. They were trained to march and handle guns by a lady named Mrs. Manekji, who had been especially sent by Nehru. My frail mother looked hilarious carrying a gun.”

Soon thereafter, people in Tezpur began noticing the growing presence of the army and the air force. “There were men in uniform everywhere. By October 20, the war started and we did not know what was really happening on the border. Our house became the centre of frenetic activities. Mother and her friends were told to knit woollen socks, gloves and sweaters as there was a shortage of warm clothing for the soldiers. They worked day and night. Lots of blankets began pouring in. I enrolled as a volunteer to care for the wounded. Most of the men flown in to the Saloni (now Tezpur) airport were frostbite cases.”

Meenakshi regrets that all this is now history; in a few more years the generation who witnessed the 1962 war will be no more. Some of her friends from that era also remember those turbulent times. People like Akashi Das Baruah and Prasan Kumar Saikia vividly bring the past alive with their memories. They recall how, as the war progressed, fresh rumours swept through Tezpur every day.

People talked animatedly at street corners. They heard Bomdila had fallen. Tezpur was given evacuation orders. There was panic everywhere. Those days there was no Kaliabomla bridge linking the north and south banks of the Brahmaputra, nor had the Saraighat bridge been built. To reach Guwahati one had to travel by steamer on the Brahmaputra.

As the 1962 war took place in winter, it was bitterly cold on the open ghats where people leaving Tezpur gathered to be transported. At night, waiting families set up hundreds of camp fires on the river banks.

Among these fleeing families was that of Akashi Barua Das. On November 18, 1962, her heavily pregnant mother, Kamala Kiran (just 20) along with her three children and a single steel trunk, boarded a ferry from Panpur to Silghat. She had left behind her husband, an employee of Bargang tea garden. Kamala Kiran sat on the trunk, hugging her children, afraid of what the future held for them as the ferry sailed without any lights down the ink black river.

The ferry left them at Silghat, in the early hours of the morning. No one had eaten, so a few women decided to make lalchai. They were gathering sticks when suddenly there were shouts of alarm and the thud of hooves. A resting rhino, disturbed by the women, had taken off in fright. “Everyone felt, if the Chinese won’t get us the rhino will,” says Akashi quoting her mother. The next day a tea garden truck took Kamala Kiran to Jakhalabanda hospital where Akashi was born. To this day her mother calls Akashi, her “Chinese daughter”.

A ghost town

If Kamala Kiran’s husband sent her away with the children and stayed back at work, so did Prasan Kumar Saikia (84) after leaving his family at Naugaon. In 1962, Saikia was 33 and working as Assistant Manager at the District Commissioner’s office in Tezpur. He was told to requisition vehicles for the army to carry them to border areas.

“Jeeps and jongas would come daily from Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Shillong, Guwahati, Goalpara, even Darjeeling. Every day we would commandeer 25 vehicles and send them to the Army. I had to ensure they had enough petrol to reach Misamari where the troops were stationed.”

Saikia recalls how, after Nehru’s speech, the tea planters — mostly Scottish and some British — all left Assam. “The planters drove down to the airport where there was a special Dakota service to take them to Kolkata. They just abandoned their homes and left their cars at the airport, with keys left in the ignition. The DC, P.K. Das, went to leave his family at the airport but was forced by his wife to accompany them to Kolkata. By early November 1962, Tezpur was a ghost town.”

The Additional Deputy Commissioner asked Saikia to take all government files and store them safely in the District Court. He was also witness to Bhatnagar, Manager of the State Bank, burning paper currency notes in all denominations, along with stamp papers in a big bonfire. “Huge sacks full of coins were emptied into Padam Pokhri (a local pond). That evening I saw some people diving and recovering these.”

"Thankfully, a ceasefire was declared on November 21, 1962 and people began returning. Saikia then had to requisition jeeps for film stars who travelled around Tezpur entertaining wounded soldiers. Bhupen Hazarika was one of the first artistes to reach. Moved by what he saw, he returned to compose a poignant song that began ‘Kato jawan mrithu hoi’ (How many young men have laid down their lives….).”

Perhaps the fieriest of Meenakshi’s friends was Promilla Barua, known in Tezpur as Promilla Baido (elder sister). At 85, painful sciatica forces her to walk with a limp, her once stout heart troubles her from time to time, she has lost most of her teeth, but her eyes still smoulder. She was just six, a student in the primary school in Dekhargaon, when she heard from her headmistress Chandrabala Barua that Gandhi had come to Poki and that people were burning “bilaiti bastra” (foreign clothes) on the Polo ground. “I went to see the burning. That was also the first time I understood Indians were slaves and Gandhi would be the one who would get us freedom”.

Promilla left school at 14 and became involved in the independence movement. Born among the landed gentry, she became influenced by Marxism. She remembers supporting Gandhi’s Quit India movement in 1942. “The streets of Tezpur were full of soldiers who would march shouting, ‘Up Up Union Jack’. My friends and I would shout them down with our slogans of ‘Down Down Union Jack, Up Up National Flag’.”

The call to ‘Do or Die’ inspired her. In 1942 she became the lone woman from Tezpur to join the Mrityu Bahini started by Jyoti Prasad Agarwala. Her personal album has photos of Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru and other freedom fighters who inspired her. While her family wanted her to marry, she told them her life belonged to the country.

To her comrade Himango Biswas who professed his feelings for her, she said, “First I love Assam, then I love my country and then I love the world.” She is silent for a while, then she adds that he went on to marry a girl from Kolkata. Promilla became Secretary of the Mazgaon Mahila Samiti and, along with Communist leaders Purnanarain Singha and Biswadev Sarma, formed the ‘China Pratirudh Samiti in 1962.

“We vowed to fight Chinese occupation of Assam. It was because of this vow that I stayed back in Tezpur as the town emptied out. I wore my brother’s clothes and a trench coat. I had a gun. I was determined, come what may, Tezpur would never fall into Chinese hands,” she laughs.

She stayed alone for the next month. “One day there was a lot of noise, I saw some half dressed and a few naked people yelling and running around the streets. They were inmates from the mental hospital set free, like the prisoners from Tezpur jail. I remember going to town and stopping some men from setting fire to the electric supply board. There was a bomb wired on to the supply board in case the Chinese came to Tezpur.”

In her lifetime Promilla Baido has said goodbye to many friends and comrades. “What I learnt from Gandhi I will take with me,” she says, sitting in her small cottage full of books, plaques and numerous japis (traditional bamboo hat) that validate her work as a freedom fighter. This staunch nationalist is pained by the rift and the violence she sees in her state and around the country today.

“People have stopped valuing each other. That, for me, is the worst thing that can ever happen, as it divides us. We should all stay together, it’s the only then we can beat all foreign forces. I just pray that God keeps my country together.”