China always speaks of the 1962 War against India as a ‘Self-Defence Counter-Attack’. In this context, the setting up of the Z-419 Force was a turning point in the unfolding confrontation between India and China.
Though some Chinese records call it ‘the Tibetan Z-419 Army’ (“Z” standing for ‘Xizang’ or Tibet), we shall call it the ‘Z-419 Force’; equivalent to a Division, it is also known as ‘Advance Command Post’. It is called ‘Tibetan’ because it was mainly composed of troops and officers having served in Tibet during the previous five years; the Tibetans themselves were not directly involved.
The chronology of the short-lived Z-419 Force, as well as the situation in China at the time the setting up of the Force, is worth looking into to better grasp what happened on the Eastern front in October – November 1962. It will show that there was no question of ‘counter-attack’ as the Dhola Post on the Namkha chu (river) was created after the setting up of the ‘Tibetan’ Force.
Early 1962: Mao Temporarily Leaves the Stage
One of the greatest crimes against humanity has been the ’Great Leap Forward’ which began in China in February 1958, and resulted in the largest man-made starvation in human history. By initiating his Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s objective was to surpass Great Britain in industrial production within 15 years. For this purpose, every Chinese household had to start producing steel at home with a backyard furnace. In agriculture, Mao thought that very large communes would cater for a manifold increase in the cereal production to make China into a paradise of abundance. Introduced and managed with frantic fanaticism, it did not take much time before the programme collapsed. However, the more the plan failed the more the party cadres provided inflated production figures to Mao and yet more people died of starvation.
The Great Leap Forward was to continue till 1961 – 1962 and it is today estimated that between 40 and 50 million died of hunger in China during these three years.
Mao Out of Power
At the beginning of 1962, while tension was increasing on the Indian border, did Nehru realise that China was a starving nation? Probably not. How many realized that, by the end of 1961, Mao was practically out of power? Dr. Zhisui Li, Mao’s personal physician recounts how in 1961 Mao was: “…depressed over the agricultural crisis and angry with the party elite, upon whom he was less able now to work his will, Mao was in temporary eclipse, spending most his time in bed.”
At the beginning of the 1962, Mao’s situation had not improved, Dr Li noted, “1962 was a political turning point for Mao. In January, when he convened another expanded Central Committee work conference to discuss the continuing disaster, his support within the party was at its lowest.”
During the Conference, known as the 7,000 Cadres’ Conference, Lui Shaoqi declared: “…man-made disasters strike the whole country.” He was targeting Mao. After a month, as the meeting could not conclude, Mao decided that it was enough: he would temporarily retire to stage a comeback against ‘Left adventurism’ and the ‘capitalist roaders’ later.
Armed Coexistence, Jigsaw Pattern
By the summer of 1962, Mao would return with a bang. The conflict with India would be closely linked with his comeback. Mao’s physician remembered: “In the summer of 1962, [Mao] emerged from his retreat. …I knew that his counter offensive was about to begin.” The timings of the Sino-Indian conflict coincide exactly with the beginning of Mao’s return to the political stage in China. This also coincided with the Sino-Soviet dispute. In his main argument with Khrushchev, Mao had rejected the possibility of ‘peaceful transition’ from bourgeois regimes like Nehru’s India to proletarian dictatorship and insisted that “they would have to be overthrown by revolution.”
The policy of the Chinese government in the first months of 1962 followed the motto Armed Coexistence, Jigsaw Pattern. Practically, for India’s borders, it meant that while the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continued to build its position on the Tibetan plateau, Beijing would keep ‘coexisting’ with New Delhi, exchanging a voluminous correspondence, sometimes bitter, sometimes more conciliatory. This jigsaw policy (strengthening the preparation and offering negotiations) could have continued longer, at least till the winter, but this would be without taking into account the ‘return of Mao’. It is in this context that the new PLA division was created. But before going into the formation of this new Force, let us continue for a while to look at the unfurling events.
Creation of Force Z-419
Before the situation on the Tawang front became hot with the setting up of the Dhola Post on the Namkha chu, Mao had started the preparations for the War in May – June 1962; this fact would be discovered much later. In an interview in February 2005, General Yin Fatang, an old-Tibet hand and Political Commissar of the new Force, admitted that on June 11, 1962, the Tibet Military Command officially created a special Unit or Force, “The Tibet Military Command Advance Command Post for China-India Border Self-Defence Counter-Attack”. Chai Hongquan, Commander of Shannan (Lhoka) Military Sub Command was appointed the Commander of the Z-419 Force.
According to Jianglin Li’s forthcoming study1 of the suppression of the Tibetan resistance to Chinese occupation 1956-1962 and imposition of Maoist ‘Democratic Reforms’, Wei Ke, Director of Z-419’s Political Department, observed that in May 1962, Beijing decided to “create conditions for peacefully resolving the border dispute by resolutely fighting back” against the ‘advancing’ Indian Army. Quoting the same official, Li writes that it was also decided that the main front would be the Eastern sector, namely the Tawang and Walong areas; on June 07, 1962, General Tan Guansan, the commander of the Chinese forces during the Tibetan Uprising in March 1959, “chaired a military meeting and transmitted directives from the CCP Central Committee and Central Military Commission (CMC) regarding the preparation for combat with the Indian Army on the border.” During this meeting the Z-419 Force was formed, it would comprise 154, 155 and 157 regiments along other supporting units; altogether, it would have some 8,000 troops.
The meaning of ‘419’ is not clear, but it probably means ‘April 19’, the date the Force might have been conceived (or the date it was decided to fight ‘back’ the Indian forces). According to the same source, in October 1962, military personnel belonging to 11 Infantry Division, 308 Artillery Regiment and 136 Engineers Regiment joined the Z-419 ‘Command Post’; practically, it meant that some 10,300 men were assigned to fight the 7 Infantry Brigade of Brigadier John Dalvi in the Namkha chu and Tawang sectors. Jiangjin Li says that on June 18, the PLA General Political Department of the CMC issued a Directive on Political Work regarding the “Campaign against Military Provocation by Indian Reactionaries”.
Meeting with Krishna Menon
It was in these circumstances that India’s Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon met Marshal Chen Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister on the sidelines of the Conference on the Neutrality of Laos in Geneva in July 1962. During this meeting, Chen Yi promised Krishna Menon that China would never attack India.2 The records of Menon’s talks with Marshal Chen Yi, the tough Foreign Affairs Minister of China, are not available. A few years ago, The Hindu, quoting declassified Chinese documents asserted that on July 23, 1962, Chen Yi met Krishna Menon in Geneva over breakfast. The Chinese Foreign Ministry reported that Menon suggested that both sides should make clear their perception of the Western [Ladakh] boundary: “Both sides could establish posts, but they would not attack each other. There should be a distance between posts of each side …Mr. Chen instantly opposed the suggestion.”3 The Aksai Chin was Chinese, he argued.4 But Chen Yi apparently gave an assurance to the Indian Minister that nothing untoward would happen.
According to the same sources, Menon did not respond favourably to Chen’s suggestion to issue a joint statement to the effect that both nations could restart the negotiations. Menon also decided to refer the matter to Nehru, but before he could get an answer, Chen had left for Beijing where he briefed Mao about his talks with Menon.
The Preparations Continue
In early October, Z-419 Command Post moved from Lhasa to Tsona near the Indian border of the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) at a location close to the Thag-la ridge, a short distance from the Dhola post where the first armed encounter would take place in September 1962. The rest is well known. On October 08, 1962, Mao Zedong called a meeting to discuss the conflict on the border. Attendees included Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Liu Shaoqi, Zhu De, He long, Nie Rongzheng and Luo Ruiqing.
On October 13, Zhang Guohua, the Commander of the Chinese forces in Tibet, flew back to Lhasa from Beijing. He conveyed the CMC’s directive for the upcoming battle. The instruction was to “be prudent in the first battle, and once started, it must be successful.” At 1:30 pm in the afternoon of October 17, Mao called and chaired another meeting to discuss the situation, and it was at this meeting that the final decision was made. That same day, the CMC issued a ‘Battle Order to annihilate the invading Indian Army’.
More on the Z-419 Force
An article5 in the Chinese media gives us more details on the role of the Z-419 Force: “In the battle between China and India in 1962, the Chinese Army won a great victory, and India learned the fiasco and bloody lesson: Chinese soldiers killed 4,885 Indian troops, including a Brigadier-General [Hoshiar Singh of 62 Brigade], and made 3,968 prisoners, including a Brigadier-General [John Dalvi of 7 Brigade]. In addition, a large number of military equipment such as aircraft [three helicopters], tanks and artillery were seized. The Chinese border guard killed 722 people and injured 1,697 people. The disparity of victory and defeat is rare in the history of world military. For the Indians, this war is a wound that is indelible in their hearts.”
For the victory, the Z-419 Force is praised: “In the counterattack against India, there was a Force that could be said indispensable. They are the authors of many outstanding achievements; that is the PLA’s ‘Tibetan 419 Army’. Not many people know about it.” It quotes the interview of General Yin Fatang, Political Commissar of the Z-419 Force: “During the interview, the old general revealed the past and present life of this army.” Yin Fatang, who would become Party Secretary between 1980 and 1985, said in 2005: “Tibetan 419 troops were not originally a unit (force), but a code name for a command post called the Tibet Military Command (TMC) Advance Command. This command was formed in June 1962. At that time, there were only three regiments in the TMC. They all came under the command of the Z-419 Force for the war on the Sino-Indian border.
The Force, equivalent to a Division, was tasked to take part ‘in the counterattack in the Sino-Indian border self-defense’. In June 1963, the code name ‘Tibetan 419 Army’ was cancelled; therefore, it existed for a year only. The article justifies the early Chinese preparation for War: “At that time, the whole country [China] was fighting against the United States and assisting North Korea, while Nehru was pursuing his ‘Forward Policy’, taking advantage of the opportunity to encroach on our territory.” It added that Delhi had further created the ‘illegal’ McMahon Line and opened a new front in the West, in Ladakh: “There was also another armed conflict with our border guards. It was most intense in the Aksai Chin area on the Western Front. As the Indian army continued to increase its strength on the Western Front, it caused frequent armed confrontation, and nibbling became more intense.”
The article says that the vast majority of the PLA commanders and fighters heard this and were filled with indignation; their blood was ready for the battle, though at that time, China had no plans to fight a war with India. At that point in time, the Z-419 Force started the political education of the troops in order to “make commanders and soldiers understand the origin and nature of the China-India border issue, and see the true color and essence of the Nehru government as collaborator of anti-China imperialists”, and to arouse soldiers’ patriotic passion and sense of political responsibility.
While India was still dreaming of ‘Hindi-Cheeni bhai-bhai’, Beijing was taking a tough stand on the border; it is at that time that the Z-419 ‘Command Post’ started to collect intelligence of the future battle zone and to work on plans: “Meanwhile, it started intensive military training, from individual soldiers’ battle manoeuvers, coordinating training for each unit all the way to real battle exercises at regimental level.” What is interesting in the argument of Jianglin Li is that the troops who had joined the Z-419 Force had been used for the past four or five years of struggle against the Tibetan resistance in the plateau. They were now ready to affront the Indian forces: “based on the lessons learned from fighting the Tibetan resistance, Z-419 replaced physically unfit officers and soldiers. A group of well-trained rocket launcher operators were dispatched to Tibet from Wuhan, and artillery personnel were sent from several military commands. Beijing Military Command sent communications equipment and operators. Over one hundred English, Hindi and Tibetan interpreters from different areas were sent to Tibet for the coming ‘self-defence counter-attack’,” wrote Jianglin Li.
It is well-known that the PLA had translators for most Indian regional languages whether on the front and later on, in the PoW camps; another fact showing the high degree of preparation (and intelligence gathering) of the Z-419 Force is the fact that the Z-419 could build a road between Tawang and Bumla in 18 days.
The Role of Z-419 Force
In June and July 1962, Chairman Mao proposed a policy specifically to fight against the Indian ‘invasion’: “Never give in, strive to avoid bloodshed; mix up teeth with long-term armed coexistence.” This was the ‘Armed Coexistence, Jigsaw Pattern’ already mentioned. As a result, preparations for military struggles were never stopped. From June to September 1962, the Z-419 Force entered intense military training as well as political mobilisation; it involved tactical training and live ammunition exercises from individual soldiers, squads, platoons, companies, battalions and regiments. The ‘Tibetan 419 Force’ (Z-419) was temporarily and specifically set up to cope with an armed conflict on the Sino-Indian border. According to some Chinese records, “At the beginning of the formation of the Z-419 Force, there were only a headquarters and a Political Department; there was not even a Logistics Department.” The cadres of the Force mainly came from officers who have been serving in the Tibet Military Command (TMC).
As mentioned earlier, the Z-419 Force had three infantry regiments (154, 155, 157 Regiments) and several support units (308 artillery Regiments, 136 Engineer Regiment). At the time of the formation of Z-419 Force, the different units of were scattered at separated place in the TMC: “the distribution range was very wide. For example, the 157 Regiment was stationed in Chushul, about fifty or sixty kilometres away from Lhasa, and it was close to the left bank of the Lhasa River and the Yarlung Tsangpo River; the 155 Regiment was stationed at the Drakchu (Bahe) Bridge, North-west of Nyingchi, more than 200 kilometres away from Lhasa; 154 Regiment was further away, stationed in Mu, about 700 kilometres away from Lhasa. The total strength of the Z-419 troops was 8,000 men; it is only later that Tibet constituted a real border guard,” explained the article.
The War Starts
The Chinese media observed that on October 12, 1962, Nehru publicly declared that he would ‘kick out’ the Chinese Army from the Thagla ridge area. Around the same time, Indian Defense Minister Menon clamoured openly: “We will hit the last person, the last gun; we must drive the Chinese out.” The article continues: “On October 17, the Indian Army launched an offensive against the Chinese Army on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. The next day, Indian Defense Ministry officials declared that they had achieved a unique Napoleonic victory.” This is, of course, pure propaganda, as the war had not yet started, but the Chinese article notes: “[It is] the arrogance of the Indian authorities pushed the scale of the armed conflict to the war step by step.”
On October 12, General Zhang Guohua, who had earlier commanded the PLA’s 18th Army and was now TMC commander, returned to Lhasa after meeting Mao and the top brass. A day early, the Central Military Commission issued the ‘Combat Order to Eliminate the Invading Indian Army’ and stated, “This battle against the Indian reactionaries is related to national authority and military authority, and the first battle must be won. It can only be played well, not destroyed.” The combat mission issued by the General Staff was initially to stop the ‘invasion’ of a battalion of Indian troops in the Namkha chu area North of the McMahon Line.
The Battle of Namkha chu was the first battle “in the self-defense counterattack on the Sino-Indian border, and it was also the most intense and arduous battle”, says the article. General Yin Fatang commented that Z-419 Force was facing the ‘Ace Brigade 7 Brigade’ in this Namkha chu Sector, with the 5 Assam Rifles and the 9 Gurkha battalions, “The Gurkhas are known for their bravery and good fighting. They have a tradition of martial arts. They were British mercenaries as early as more than 100 years ago,” it remarks. It cites 2nd battalion of the Rajput and the 9 Punjab who had participated in World War II, the elite troops of the British Indian Army.
The Chinese troops who participated comprised all Z-419’s units, the 2nd battalion of the 32nd Regiment of the 11th Division, who belonged to the Shannan (Lhoka) Army Division, and one artillery and engineer units, a total of 10,300 people: “The enemy-to-self strength ratio is 1:3, three times the enemy.” All the troops were under the overall command of General Zhang Guohua. It was further explained that before the war, “Commanders at all levels conducted repeated reconnaissance of the enemy situation and terrain, and studied and formulated very detailed combat plans according to the actual situation.” The Chinese version said that it is only “after the Indian army attacked us continuously that our army launched a self-defense counterattack in the early morning of October 20 .”
Then Z-419 Force adopted “tactics of nocturnal attack and dawn attack, interspersed under the cover of the night, detoured to the enemy’s flanks and behind, and stood in standby at the attack departure place.” The task of attacking the right wing of the Indian Army was performed by the 154 Regiment alone while the 155 Regiment attacked the left wing of the Indian army and the 32nd regiment of the 11th division, and the Shannan army division, launched an attack on the two positions of the Indian army at 7:30 in the morning. The conclusion of the Chinese account was: “The two strong men meet and the brave wins.” It then explained that in the first battle, 64 Indian bunkers were captured. Many Chinese soldiers died, but continued to fight: “Such morale completely scared the Indian army. Our army’s original task of three days was completed in only one day. Most of the 7 Brigade of the Indian Army was annihilated at that time, and the rest were scattered in the jungle. They were soon cleared, and finally the entire Brigade was annihilated.”
The 1962 War reports, published in China in the 1990s, give more details of the exploits of the Z-419 Force. It is not necessary to deal with them here, but the fact that the Force was dissolved in June 1963, just one year after its formation tends to show that Mao had achieved his objectives to ‘teach India a lesson’ and re-establish his power within the Communist Party. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution would be the next ‘struggle’ for the Great Helmsman.
The creation of the Z-419 Force occurred just before the setting up of the Dhola post, which in many ways, triggered the War in October 1962; it means that Mao, though living a ‘retired’ life, had planned to teach India a lesson much earlier than usually thought. The Force was part of the larger policy of ‘Armed Coexistence, Jigsaw Pattern’ of the Chinese Government at that time. The meeting between Marshal Chen Yi, the Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister and India’s Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon in Geneva in July 1962, was more to put New Delhi to sleep, than being the ‘last chance’ to settle the dispute peacefully. The indoctrination and training of Z-419 Force was going on full swing on the plateau at that time. The Force was created for a specific task – that of ‘teaching India a lesson’ in the Tawang sector and it was dissolved in June 1963, after hardly a year of existence. How all these preparations escaped the Indian Intelligence is beyond comprehension.
Jiangjin Li, When the Iron Bird Flies: The 1956-1962 Secret War on Tibetan Plateau to be released in January 2022.
Apparently Krishna Menon never kept any minutes of this important meeting.
Ananth Krishnan, The Hindu, ‘A Last Opportunity, Missed’, see: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-last-opportunity-missed/article4031762.ece.
Sixty-seven years later, it is a tragic fact that we have to depend on Chinese archives to know what happened in 1962. I had hoped that a report of the breakfast meeting with Chen would be in the VK Krishna Menon Papers at the NMML; unfortunately, it was not. Another problem is that Menon often believed that he was not required to keep proper minutes of his meetings.
中印之战王牌先锋：神秘的中国“藏字419部队”(Ace Vanguard in the Sino-Indian War: Mysterious China “Tibetan 419 Troops”), see: https://www.sohu.com/a/247520584_531913 (August 16, 2018)