Defence Reviews

Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China review: Fiery Himalayan encounters at Nathu La and Cho La

Subsumed by the prominent discourse that attributes the current restrained texture of the India-China deterrence model to deft politico-diplomatic manoeuvring, the military dimension has often been consigned to the background. Among other reasons for the lack of awareness of the many face-offs and skirmishes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and the border with China across the state of Sikkim, is the lack of archival data and official narratives that are available in the public domain.

While there is still some reporting in recent times, the period between 1962 and 1971 continues to lie in the ‘grey zone’ of public consciousness with regards to the military dimension of the India-China relationship.

Probal Dasgupta, an ex-Indian Army officer who served in the Gorkha Regiment for several years before embarking on a career in consultancy, has written a detailed account of two fierce encounters between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) across two 15,000-feet mountain passes in Sikkim in Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory Over China.

Two fire fights

Sandwiched between the two India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, the Nathu La and Cho La fire fights of September 1967 have surprisingly been underplayed even in the Indian military with war colleges rarely discussing their impact and relevance.

The narrative explains the strategic landscape in the sub-continent during the tumultuous days of the 1965 India-Pakistan War; the twists, turns and intrigue in the progressive amalgamation of the kingdom of Sikkim into the Union of India; and the constant Chinese attempts to prevent the accession.

Even as Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh was orchestrating India’s military revival in the 1965 war with Pakistan, the Chinese played their cards carefully and commenced applying pressure on the Sikkim and Bhutan fronts, something that surely played on the Indian leadership as they negotiated a ceasefire.

The constant jostling for ground across the Tibet-Sikkim border including on the desolate Giagong Plateau in north Sikkim at 18,000 feet comes out vividly, and not many know that several Indian soldiers from the Assam Rifles were killed there in an attack by the Chinese in December 1965. This alerted Major General (later Lieutenant General) Sagat Singh, the divisional commander of the Gangtok-based 17th Mountain Division, that something was cooking. Sagat Singh and two battalions of the Indian Army, 2 Grenadiers and 7/11 Gorkha Rifles, are at the heart of the narrative. While the former showcased his initiative and aggression by going against the diffident posture demonstrated by his corps commander, and advocated a tough posture against the Chinese along the Sikkim watershed, the latter were more than a match when the guns boomed. Dasgupta does not hold back any punches when he writes that the Indian battalions at Nathu La and Cho La almost wilted in the face of the initial Chinese artillery barrage and withering machine gun fire.

However, it was excellent leadership at all levels that helped the Grenadier battalion fight back with extremely effective artillery support. The fight at Cho La a few days later was equally fierce, with close quarter combat seeing the Gorkhas get the better of the Chinese who retreated after suffering heavy casualties. While individual acts of gallantry get their due weightage, Dasgupta highlights the larger strategic landscape in which India chose to downplay the impact of the Nathu La and Chola skirmishes. He argues forcefully that it was the Nathu La and Cho La experiences that set the stage for India’s robust responses at Sumdorong Chu in 1986/87, and then again at Doklam in 2017.

The book is well-researched, and has impactful photographs and maps. It follows an easy-to-read crossover style of writing that would appeal to a wide cross-section of readers. Dasgupta does yeoman service to the broader discipline of military history by bringing into focus a turning point in India-China relations.

Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China; Probal Dasgupta, Juggernaut, ₹595.

The reviewer is a military historian and author of India’s Wars: A Military History 1947-1971.

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 9:41:12 PM |

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