Torture, not firing, behind China border deaths in 1975, recalls veteran

Col. B.R. Shah. Photo: Special Arrangement  

The four Indian soldiers who were killed in Tulung La in 1975 — the last reported firing and combat deaths along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) until the incidents of this summer in Ladakh — were not likely killed in firing but captured alive and subsequently tortured to death, recalls a veteran who was tasked with recovering their bodies 45 years ago.

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The Tulung La incident has been frequently invoked in the wake of the recent firing incidents south of Pangong Lake in late August and early September. In the 45 years that have followed, the memory of what really transpired on the Tulung La ridgeline, in the eastern sector of the India-China border in Arunachal, has been not only forgotten but rewritten in subsequent retellings of the event, according to Col. B.R. Shah (retd.), who is now 84 and remembers the sequence of events as if it all happened yesterday.

At the time, he was a Lieutenant Colonel who was the commanding officer of the 3/1 Gurkha Rifles, stationed at Sela top. Speaking to The Hindu, Col. Shah remembers the minute details of his three-day journey to Tulung La, and of the shock and horror that followed when he went to retrieve the bodies of the four Assam Rifles jawans who had gone missing on October 20, eerily on the exact anniversary of the 1962 attack.

“At 10 in the morning on October 20, I was in my bunker at Sela top, when we received a message from Tezpur,” he said. “Two of the patrol had returned saying they had been ambushed and they fled. The situation was grave. I volunteered to go with my men and find out what happened, but we were not given the go-ahead to approach the Chinese.”

Tulung La was a barren ridge line that was three days away from Sela. When Col. Shah arrived there on October 23, there was a sense of fear and low morale among the Assam Rifles jawans there.

For seven days, they waited for clearance. “Finally,” he said, “it came 45 minutes after midnight on October 28. The message came that the Prime Minister [Indira Gandhi] had said I could proceed, with 19 of my men, and we had to meet the Chinese at 11.30 a.m. on October 28.”

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Then came the first problem. He was told he cannot take the Indian flag but to go with a blue flag. Moreover, they had to be completely unarmed — a decision that did not go down well with the men, following the October 20 ambush. “Where was I to find a blue flag in a few hours? All I had was a white bedsheet, so I went around asking every man to empty the ink from their pens, and we dyed it blue,” he said.

Tulung La sits at 17,200 feet, and it’s a four-hour climb from its base at Lungar. They made the climb early on October 28, and the Chinese were waiting for them.

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“The first thing I saw is they had used explosives and demolition, flattened the entire ridgeline and made bunkers for their guns,” he said, saying this showed the ambush had been entirely planned, and taken the patrol, which was on its usual route up to the ridgeline where the border ran, by complete surprise.

What troubled Col. Shah was why it took seven days for the Chinese to acknowledge what had happened. “When I saw the bodies, I knew immediately,” he said. “There were marks from cigarette burns all over, and at odd places, they had been punctured by bayonets. This was the only indication that at least some of them had been alive when they were captured, and not killed in firing. They must have tried their best to extract what they could, but what information could they give? They were soldiers.”

Before they had the chance to question the Chinese — which was, in any case, an impossible task without interpreters — they had to end the exchange abruptly when the accompanying Assam Rifles jawan in the group, who was there to help identify the bodies, turned emotional at the sight of the bodies.

“The sad truth is from 1962 to 1975, we had just become too casual, and this was the entire political leadership and the military leadership,” said Col. Shah. “We never learnt any lessons. I felt terrible at what had happened, and how we just accepted it. Is this how we accept loss every time? The problem with us is we cry for seven days, and then go back to sleep.”

The unanswered question, 45 years later, is why the ambush happened in the first place and what motivated the Chinese moves on the ridgeline. Only five years later, another patrol that was lost in the fog and crossed the border in the Sikkim sector was met by the Chinese, returned unharmed, and treated well by their accounts, over a period of a few days.

The motivations for the PLA’s actions still remain a mystery — one thing, Col. Shah notes, that hasn’t really changed 45 years later.

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2020 5:05:39 PM |

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