1962: Face to Face with the PLA
“Nobody can however be sure of the intentions of China…… the best way to face the situation is to be prepared to meet any (Sic. contingency)……. India’s policy is to continue to hold what they (Sic. we) had and strengthen their (Sic. our) position…..” P M Nehru, 30 July 1962.
“ Captain Baljit Singh was awarded The Chief of Army Staff Commendation Card for gallantry and distinguished service for his excellent route-charting work at Bara Hoti, 17,000 ft…..” Major General D K Palit, Vr C, May 1971.
Come October 2012, the fiftieth anniversary of Independent India’s first and decisive politico-military defeat at the hands of China in the Namka Chhu valley, the detractors of Mr Nehru’s China Policy will be out with sharpened knives. Be that as it may, could the Indian Army have done better to implement Mr Nehru’s above quoted policy intent? With the hide-sight of five decades and especially not forgetting the fact that the Army comprised eleven Infantry Divisions in all, I find that on balance they had risen to the call of duty manfully and with alacrity, from the Kara-Koram Pass in the West to Longju in the East. Perhaps I can best illustrate that fact, by recounting the events which unfolded in the Central Sector of the India-China boundary, where I was principally involved on the ground.
He placed his index finger over a map and said (words to the effect), “this is BGG which the Chinese intend to usurp from India.
In the backdrop of brazen Chinese intransigence all along the Himalayan water-shed, in mid March 1962 I was ordered to proceed forthwith to Head Quarters, 9 Infantry Brigade Group at Lucknow. Two days later, as I sat facing Brigadier Bireshwar Nath (a burly and blustering six foot plus), he handed me a signal from Army Headquarters marked, “Top Secret and Personal for the Commander,” directing the Brigadier to establish an Army post at the Rim-Kin ridge which dominated the Bara Hoti Grazing Ground (BGG), the soonest but not later than 15 May, 1962. And that Captain Baljit Singh was to command the BGG Special Task Force (STF) till the Rim-Kin perimeter defence was effectively established.
The Brigadier then led me to an adjoining room, one wall of which was covered with maps of BGG and Tibet. He placed his index finger over a map and said (words to the effect), “this is BGG which the Chinese intend to usurp from India. I have personally picked 120 of the fittest and highly motivated soldiers from the 14 Rajput Battalion, to constitute the Rim-Kin STF. Your task lies in inducting them from Ghamsali onwards either en-block or in driblets across the Chor Hoti Pass, approximately 16,000ft ASL. You have a Carte Blanche sanction from the Army Headquarters to hire/purchase specialized equipment and mountain guides and travel any-where in the Country, to do so. Any questions?” I hadn’t quite grasped what had been placed in my lap and so said, “I would like to meet you tomorrow, Sir, with my tentative plan and meanwhile would your staff kindly book me on a flight to Bagdogra ex Delhi, the day after. And concurrently, could the 120 brave-hearts of the STF be flown to Srinagar to imbibe the fundamentals of the physiological and psychological challenges of living and soldiering above 12,000ft ASL, at our Ski Warfare School, Gulmarg.” The Brigadier looked distinctly uncomfortable to be “ordered around”, by a six year old green horn!
In truth, I must admit that they were so exhausted that they could have been taken hostages without a murmur, at the mere asking.
Now why did the Army Headquarters pick on me to command the BGG STF? Well, in 1959-60 I was exposed to snow, rock and ice craft techniques under the tutelage of Tenzing Norgay at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling. With this BGG STF challenge thrown at me, I was intuitively driven to seek out Mr Tenzing for technical counseling. Mr Tenzing heard me out and reminded me that just as I and my fellow students were led across the Zongri Pass (14,000 ft) to the Base Camp, the BGG STF should be handled by me on the same lines. Period! And he made available four High Altitude Sherpa Guides who would procure adequate equipment for getting the STF up to and across the Chor Hoti Pass. For the first time in days, I felt reassured to handle the assigned task.
In the meanwhile, Lieut Colonel K M Pandalai of the 14 Rajput, had had the basic rations of the STF for a period of 10 days, moved on ponies from Joshimath to Ghamsali, beyond which there were foot paths only. The final launch pad to get across the Chor Hoti was Kala Zabar (KZ), 14,500ft ASL, a day long tough assent especially for men laden with 25 kg of personal kit and food stuffs. I felt that KZ ought to have at least 3 days food stocks which had to be humped by soldiers; tough going but paid dividends in acquiring a measure of acclimatization to high altitude duties.
The four Sherpas and I had preceded the STF by four days. The Chor Hoti ridge was a narrow horse shoe, with 10 to 15 feet of snow deposit. Once the sun touched the area, the assent was very exhausting, even for seasoned climbers. The descent from Chor Hoti was down a near vertical rock face and we set to fix two Manila-hemp ropes of 150 ft length each. The going beyond for about three km was over an almost level, snowed up plateau, ending at another rock step. Here again, two rope hand-rails were fixed for 250 ft, ending close to the spine of the Rim-Kin ridge, our ultimate goal post! We bivouacked for the night, unarmed and taking comfort that the Brigadier did not expect the PLA to show up before mid May! On the return journey, we marked the entire route (bamboo sticks with red cloth streamers), right up to KZ. By 17 April, Capt R S Taragi with 30 STF soldiers had concentrated at KZ. We decided to make the first push, leaving KZ at 2300 hrs, on April 19. The snow on the approaches to Chor Hoti was firm and compacted by night and by 0400 hrs on 20 April, all of us were atop the Chor Hoti saddle. The descent using fixed ropes was a new experience for the soldiers and almost all of them had to be led, one by one, by myself and the Sherpas. In the event, the last man reached Rim-Kin at 1845 hrs on 20 April, 1962 and in so doing consolidated India’s claim on BGG. In truth, I must admit that they were so exhausted that they could have been taken hostages without a murmur, at the mere asking.
The PLA detachment of ten soldiers with 30 laden ponies arrived on 12 May, 1962 and attempted to bypass the RCP.
We had one radio set of American origin, somewhat dated, with an independent power source which had to be cranked manually for the duration of the transmission. But it worked! I communicated the news to the control at Joshimath and Lucknow using the Morse-key and requested for air-drop of tentage and basic food as per an agreed plan. There was no acknowledgement but on 22 April, we were awoken by the drone of air-craft over Rim-Kin. In the next twenty minutes, the two Dakotas dropped their cargo creating a cloud of floating white parachutes over Rim-Kin. And creating special history for many of us. Unfortunately, on touch down the white parachutes spread up to 2 km all around, merged with the snow and we could detect and retrieve only about 20 % of the cargo.
On 24 April, the Sherpas and I guided the second batch of 30 STF soldiers to Rim-Kin. Accompanying this batch were also 15 Constables of the UP Armed Constabulary who on 26 April set up a Revenue Collection Post (RCP), for monitoring the graziers’ pasturing in the BGG. The RCP was sited about 800 meters ahead of Rim-Kin, within effective fire-coverage of MMGs, if need be.
The BGG is a gigantic amphitheater of 13,500ft ASL mean elevation. On its NW and SW rim, are ridges one to three thousand feet higher than the BGG plateau-floor. But its NE rim which forms the International boundary with Tibet (China) is barely 500 ft higher than the surroundings, a gateway to BGG over the Tun Jan La (!4,500 ft ASL) for the PLA. Tun Jan La is also the origin of a stream which goes past the NE tip of the Rim-Kin ridge and ultimately flows into the Dhauli Ganga, near Malari; thus leaving no doubt that Tun Jan La is the water-shed ridge, per se. The Sherpas and I walked down the stream for about 4 km and felt that a mule track (ultimately a motor able road) from Malari to Rim-Kin may be possible and provide an all year access to Rim-kin by avoiding the Chor Hoti obstacle in the future, altogether.
P M Nehru’s China-border policy-construct flowed more from the ground realities rather than his oft insinuated proclivity for, Hindi Chini Bhai Bahi bonhomie.
The Armed Constabulary were fully established by 27 April and the Indian National Flag was hoisted with full military symbolism, including a bugle-call. Henceforth, this ceremony was performed daily. The PLA detachment of ten soldiers with 30 laden ponies arrived on 12 May, 1962 and attempted to bypass the RCP. We obstructed their attempts, physically blocking their maneuvering and all the while drawing their attention to the fluttering Tri-Colour. After a few minute of heated gesticulations, the PLA pitched their tents about 20 meters away from the RCP. We offered them a kettle of hot tea but they turned their backs and got inside a disused, graziers stone-walled enclosure. Sadly for the RCP, the 30 ponies of the PLA were the only live stock that pastured in the BGG and they refused to pay the revenue!
In mid June 1962, I handed my report at the Military Operations Directorate at the Army Headquarters. A week later I was summoned by Brigadier D K Palit, Vr C, the Director Military Operations. He asked me whether Rim-Kin could be a permanent military presence and how? I pitched for an immediate survey of the Tun Jan La stream from its confluence near Malari, up to Rim-Kin, by the Army Engineers detachment at Joshimath to check the road building feasibility. This indeed turned out to be do-able and track construction began in right earnest, the same year. Another recommendation which the DMO accepted was, that for air-drops in snow bound areas, we must manufacture parachutes of Red and Orange colours. This too was implemented by 1963.
The above narrative suggests that P M Nehru’s China-border policy-construct flowed more from the ground realities rather than his oft insinuated proclivity for, Hindi Chini Bhai Bahi bonhomie. The Chinese perfidy in BGG had come to light in 1958-59 when taking advantage of the Border Trade Agreement (over eight mutually nominated Passes), the PLA simply took possession of the un-held Tun Jan La, named it Hu Ji and set up a PLA post at the site where we ultimately confronted them on 12 May, 1962. By hoisting the Tri-Colour at the chosen RCP, did India compromise its claim to the water-shed at Tun Jan La, about 3 km ahead of Rim-Kin? Perhaps yes, but considering what it took to deploy at and hold Rim-Kin, and the inadequacy of our numerical presence, reliable logistics and fire-power, there is no way that we could have hoisted and retained the Tri-Colour at Tun Jan La. However, today we could think on those lines as indeed the Late General Sunderji had demonstrated in the Sumdorung Chhu valley in 1987, where he forced the Chinese to back-off. The General was able to deploy a better part of an entire Army Corps North of the Se La massif, in less than a month, with attendant logistics and fire power and showed us the way forward. It is time to shake off sloth, raise the additional Field Formations for a possible contingency in the trans-Himalayas and be counted among the comity of Nations, as a truly emerged power in South Asia.
This article was first published in 2012.