History & Culture

For the debt of salt

Memorial to lost soldiers: The heap of stones at Bumla. Photo: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: Mail pic GRJGM

On a sunny July day in 2010, when workers of the 110 Company, Border Road Task Force, were trying to dislodge a huge boulder to widen a road to Walong in Arunachal Pradesh, they came across an identity disc. It read: No 3950976 Sepoy Karam Chand, 4 Dogra. Found alongside were the soldier’s mortal remains, a rundown pay book, a fountain pen and a silver ring. The young soldier had died fighting the Chinese on a cold October evening in 1962. He still lay in his summer uniform in the isolated bowl of Walong, which runs parallel to the Lohit and climbs onward to Kibithu, the last Indian frontier before the border with China. The hills of Arunachal Pradesh are silent witness to many such sacrifices of Indian soldiers that remain unsung and unknown.

History tells us that, by the early 1960s, the much-publicised ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’ was on the wane. China was increasingly flexing its muscles in Indian territory to demonstrate that it did not believe in the British demarcation of the McMahon Line. Having forced the Dalai Lama to seek asylum in India in 1959, they were the new masters of Tibet. By April 1961, to counter this aggressive neighbour, Nehru — still hoping for a peaceful solution — ordered the ‘Forward Policy’ of inducting Indian troops into the Indo-Tibetan border areas. In the words of the Government it was to be “Limited defence measures to contain the Chinese incursion into Indian territory.” As a result, numerous remote outposts sprang up, each manned by 40-odd men, with near-obsolete equipment inherited from the time of Independence, no suitable clothing to survive the winters in altitudes of 10,000 feet and above, outdated training, little ammunition, and completely dependent on air supply and no other back-up.

The army, which had taken part in the Burma Campaign in World War II and the Kashmir operations immediately after Independence, was now tasked with a new role of defending the Himalayan mountains. But in an India that was just into its Third Five Year Plan, the meagre funds made available were the leftovers. Very little was done to reorganise and re-equip the army. As late as 1960, the Border Roads Organisation came into existence, hastily put together to cater to the crying need for tracks and bridges to ensure mobility of troops to forward areas. Living conditions and medical facilities were primitive.

Himalayan blunder

In November 1962, Brigadier Thompson, military correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, wrote in his column, “The Chinese have better land access as they have been building frontier roads and airfields since they annexed Tibet. In the vicinity of the Tibetan Frontier of NEFA, there are passes up to 16,000 feet. On the Indian side, the precipitation is great. The mountains are covered with dense forest and thick snow in winter. Land communications with the area from India are exceptionally difficult. On the Tibetan side, the high plateau, over which the Chinese have built approach roads and airfields, is extremely cold but snowfall is light. The military problem is not the relative size of the Indian or Chinese armies but how many troops each side can maintain in the frontier areas. India cannot match China’s ability by means of air transport and dropping of supplies by parachutes. Even so, in establishing a favourable air situation for the use of her air transport she may find herself at a disadvantage.”

Brigadier Thompson’s observation was on the dot. Some of the worst fighting in the Indo-Chinese war took place in Arunachal’s Kameng sector. In 1962, there were just two routes from the plains of Misamari to Tawang. One was a mule track from Udalguri-Kalaktang-Morshing-Phudung-Mandala to Dirang, ahead of Bomdila. The other route used was from Misamari, onwards to Foothills, Chaku to Tenga and then to Bomdila.

From Bomdila it took the soldiers two days of force march to reach Sela. It was from this formidable height of 12,000 feet, in 1962, that troops walked for five days to reach the operational areas, in the present day Tawang district. The two important sub- sectors where the 1962 war took place were Zimithang (Namka Chu valley) and Bumla (north of Tawang), while Tawang was the most important religious and political town.

By early September 1962, China had warned that if India played “with fire, they would be consumed by fire.” On September 8,800 Chinese soldiers descended from the Thagla Heights (an important pass that is part of the McMahon Line opposite the Namka Chu valley) and surrounded the Indian post of Dhola.

Neither side opened fire for 12 days but, by their sheer numbers, the Chinese clearly displayed their strength and intent to act. On September 18, the Indian spokesperson announced the government’s intention of driving the Chinese forces from Dhola. It was the last straw. By October 20, the war started, changing the equations forever.

In his book The Himalayan Blunder, Brigadier J.P. Dalvi, Brigade Commander of 7 Infantry Brigade, wrote movingly of the men of 9 Punjab who were part of the infamous battle of Namka Chu, which formed a de-facto military boundary between the Indian and Chinese forces.

“At Bridge II on the Namka Chu, I met the Company Second-in-Command, Subedar Pratap Singh. I was taken aback at seeing him at the front, as I had attended his farewell party in Tawang and had also met him in Misamari awaiting a berth on the train bound for Meerut, his Regimental Centre. He was to go on pension after 28 years of gallant service, mostly in the field in WWII, and thereafter guarding India’s extensive borders. When I asked him why he had not left for Meerut, he gave me an answer, ‘Sahib, is this the time to go on pension when the battalion is likely to be involved in action?’ He had voluntarily rejoined the unit and had walked many miles to Namka Chu. He was later killed in action.”

Like the unsung Subedar Pratap Singh, there are many fallen soldiers whose heroism is known only to their battalion and the comrades who fought alongside them. Soldiers like Pratap Singh died as they lived; in the line of duty, in harness, selfless, determined to keep the enemy from capturing any part of their country.

A heroic tale

In the course of the battle, the Chinese infiltrated behind Indian lines by launching a multi-directional attack. After overrunning some of India’s defences along the IB they met with stiff resistance from a platoon of 1 Sikh under Subedar Joginder Singh. The platoon fought fiercely, losing more than half their men. Subedar Joginder Singh, despite a bullet injury in his thigh, refused to be evacuated and fought on bravely to stem the Chinese advance. The Chinese attacked in waves and finally regrouped in larger numbers to attack the post. Using the lone light machine gun, Subedar Joginder Singh killed many advancing Chinese. When the situation became desperate, he and his men, with their bayonets unsheathed, emerged from their trenches with their war cry, “ Wahe Guruji ka Khalsa wahe guruji ki fateh.” Subedar Joginder Singh was captured by the Chinese, but refused treatment and died a prisoner of war. He was awarded the Param Vir Chakra for his gallantry. There is a memorial to him on the road to Bumla.

On the other flank, the Chinese attacked Nuranang valley, which is between Tawang and Sela. The 4 Garhwal Rifles beat back three consecutive waves of Chinese attack. During a lull in the attacks, three brave soldiers — Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat, Rifleman Gopal Singh Gusain and Lance Naik Trilok Singh Negi — equipped with most basic arms, slithered to the Chinese positions and lobbed grenades into their bunkers.

Charging into the bunker, Rawat found that their attack had killed two Chinese soldiers, while the third one lay dying holding on to the machine gun. He snatched the machine gun from the Chinese soldier but just, as he was crawling into his own trench, was hit by a Chinese bullet. He died on the spot holding on to the captured machine gun.

The raw courage displayed by the soldiers of 4 Garhwal made them the only battalion in 1962, in Kameng sector, to be awarded a Battle Honour for the Battle of Nuranang. A memorial, aptly named Jaswantgarh, has been built at an altitude of 10,700 feet. All those passing along the road to Sela pay their respects to the young men who died.

There are many other soldiers, whose saga of courage remains unheard and unsung, who only make up the statistics of those that died in the 1962 war. Wikipedia estimates that, in the 1962 war, 1,383 Indian soldiers died, while 1,047 were wounded and 3,968 became prisoners of war.

Of all the memorials, the one at Nyukmadong on the Sela-Bomdila axis near Dirang is the most picturesque. Designed in the Buddhist Chorten style, the flat land of the memorial was where the Chinese laid out the Indian soldiers they had killed in an ambush. Lobsang, a gaon bura and an office bearer at Dirang headquarters, recalls seeing hundreds of bodies in Nyukmadong. “It was a terrible sight. After the Chinese left, following the unilateral ceasefire, the villagers got together and cremated them.”

The plaque on the black granite memorial at the Tezpur Circuit House declares that the ashes of unknown soldiers from the 1962 war were immersed in the Brahmaputra a year later, on November 18, 1963, in Tezpur.

The winding road from the plains of Assam that makes its way from Tezpur to the forest-rich Bhalukpong — past the swift brown waters of the Jaibharoli and climbs to Tenga, Bomdila and onwards to Sela pass and Tawang — is dotted with reminders of the 1962 war. The memorials are halt points for the men who continue to guard the frontiers.

On January 26, 1963, poet Pradeep’s song — “ Aye mere vatan ke logon, jara aankh main bhar lo pani”, sung by Lata Mangeshkar — became the requiem for the soldiers of 1962.

For all Indians this conflict will always remain an emotional war — unequal, unprepared, as it sent its men to fight without the requisite arms, ammunition or support. It was a political rout that let India’s fierce fighting army down.

Five decades later we need to put the ghost of 1962 to rest and celebrate the spirit, fortitude and valour of the soldier. Successive wars — 1965, 1971, 1999 — have all proved that our army is combative, prepared and will not allow any intrusion into its territory.

Perhaps no other song resonates their courage as the one adopted from the Indian National Army as an anthem for war: ‘ Kadam kadam badhaye ja, khushi ke geet gaye jaa, yeh zindagi hai kaum ki tu kaum pe lutaya ja’. It symbolises the army’s valour, raw courage and fortitude to fight and die for the debt of salt, sans flourish, sans fanfare.

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2020 1:50:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/For-the-debt-of-salt/article12556470.ece

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