The September 08 Incident: The situation was getting hotter by the day. In Beijing, Mao Zedong had begun his comeback to the political stage in Beijing. In the morning of September 08, 1962, the Chinese launched a first offensive precisely, against the Dhola Post. The Official Report said: “Troops were noticed moving across the Namkha Chu in the Tawang sector. In a few hours about forty of them crossed the river, virtually surrounded Dhola and threatened the small post manned by troops from 9 Punjab. The Chinese troops also destroyed two bridges near the post of the Namkha Chu. The Chinese settled into positions near and dominating the post, thus repeating the tactics that they had adopted in the Northern sector against Indian posts.” It was panic in the Indian camp.
While the Indian Army was trying to reorganise and hurriedly (and anarchically) send reinforcements to the Namkha river, the Chinese watched from their dominating position and this, for a week. But as the Official Report recorded: “The Chinese resumed firing after a short interval. After the incidents of September 20 and 21, there was intermittent firing from September 22 to 25. On September 28, the Chinese used automatic weapons. The Indian troops retaliated. In those bloody clashes, both sides suffered casualties. Suddenly, the Chinese stopped firing. But it turned out to be the proverbial lull before the storm.”
That was it! The point of non-return had been reached. Mao could launch a full-fledged military campaign against India to ‘teach her a lesson’ that she would remember ‘for decades’. He had the necessary pretext – the Indians troops had crossed the Red Line of the 1914 map (though ironically, Beijing would continue to treat the Line as ‘illegal’).
On September 16, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing in a Note to the Indian Embassy in China stated: “Indian troops recently again crossed the so-called ‘McMahon Line’, intruded into Che Dong [Dhola Post] of the Le village (approximately 27°49’ N, 91°48’ E) in China and constructed barracks and defence works there in preparation for prolonged entrenchment.” Beijing added: “After swallowing up by force large tracts of Chinese territory South of the ‘McMahon Line’ on the Eastern sector of the Sino-Indian border, the Indian side went further to intrude into Khinzemane North of the Line in 1959 and has since hung on there. And now, it has further intruded into Che Dong [Dhola Post]. These systematic nibbling activities fully reveal how ambitious the Indian side’s aggressive designs are. They also show that the Indian side is actively extending the tension to the entire Sino-Indian border. The Indian Government must be held responsible for all the consequences arising therefrom.”
Four days earlier, Niranjan Prasad had received Lieutenant General LP ‘Bogey’ Sen, the Army Commander based in Lucknow at the Tezpur airport: “He greeted me coldly; and during the drive back to Divisional Headquarters he did not utter one single word and, disconcertingly, ignored all my questions.” At a conference at Divisional Headquarters, Sen announced that the Thagla Ridge was Indian territory and that the Chinese would have to be “driven out, the operation, codenamed Operation Leghorn, was to be executed at all costs.”
On September 20, New Delhi complained that two Chinese soldiers had crept up to an Indian patrol post and thrown two hand grenades. The next day, Beijing retorted: “Indian troops in the Che Dong [Dhola Post] area of Tibet, China, North of the so-called McMahon Line, into which they had intruded, made a sudden armed attack on Chinese frontier sentries standing on guard West of the Che-jao bridge.” In these tense circumstances, one understands that there were no questions about rethinking India’s position on the border.
A Flamboyant Corps Commander
On October 03, Lieutenant General BM Kaul took over IV Corps that was especially created ‘to throw the Chinese out’. On his arrival in Tezpur, he had a briefing by Niranjan Prasad, the 4 Infantry Division Commander, who recorded: “My proposal was to have stronger posts further away from the border as bases for patrols operating up to our claim line.” Later, Kaul addressed the senior officers. According to Prasad: “At the conference, however, General Kaul’s mannerism changed completely.19 His reply to me was brusque and final: “The Prime Minister himself had ordered these posts to be set up and he had based his decision on the highest Intelligence advice.” Also, explicit in his reply was a warning that failure or dragging of feet in completing the task could result in serious consequences for those responsible in other words, for 4 Infantry Division. So that was that.” A story of utter confusion!
John Dalvi commented: “The [former] Chief of the General Staff, General Kaul too must have been aware of the background to the Dhola area, and the possible military repercussions of treading on dangerous ground. Was Dhola established under Government orders or was it established by the Army Command purely as ‘an operational matter’? Did the Government say that we must hold Dhola?”
Fifty years later, the mystery remains – ‘Who ordered the setting up of this particular post?’ The issue is a sensitive one for the Chinese because it is in the vicinity of this post that the Dalai Lama crossed over from Tibet to India in 1959,20 an event that had (and still has) not been digested by the Chinese. In many ways, this was the most sensitive area of the entire India-China border from Ladakh to the Burma tri-junction. It was a place heavily charged with history.
Though Nehru had apparently declared that posts should be established in places ‘where we are convinced it is ours’, Dalvi commentated: “The Chinese had raised a dispute about the exact alignment of the McMahon Line in the Thagla Ridge area [during the 1960 talks]. Therefore, the Thagla-Dhola area was not strictly a territory that ‘we should have been convinced was ours as directed by Prime Minister Nehru, and someone is guilty of exceeding the limits prescribed by him.”
Indian historians had good reasons to be convinced that the Thagla ridge was the traditional border between India and Tibet, though the 1914 map shows it a couple of miles southward. One of the main proofs is that the pasture rights on the ridge have always been with the Pangchen villages which belong to the Monpa tribe, while the Lebus villages, North of the Thagla Ridge21 have always been under the jurisdiction of Tsona Dzong whose population are Tibetans.
But the point that the ‘historians’ did not grasp in 1962 was that the area around Khinzemane and Thagla ridge had a ‘historic’ significance for the Chinese. Historian G.N. Rao, who participated in the official talks of 1960 said that it was a mere theoretical difference, but a difference which was fully used by the Chinese as a pretext to attack India in self-defence, even though the extent of the attack demonstrates that it was just a pretext for Mao to reestablish his position inside the Chinese Communist hierarchy and to ‘teach India a lesson’.
Not only was the Dhola Post disputed by the Chinese but worse, as Dalvi said, it was militarily unsound: “Sometime in July or August 1962 GOC 4 Division represented the unsoundness of the location of Dhola to his superiors, but had not received a reply up to September 08, when the Chinese debouched across Thagla Ridge and threatened the post. The name of the person who did not give an answer, or failed to take a decision on this vital issue for over two months, will have to be made known as his was a major contribution to the events of September 1962.”
There are many ‘guilty’ men, generals or civilians in this story, but let us forget them for the time being and return to the front and listen to Dalvi: “We knew (or should have known) that Chinese Officials in the 1960 discussions had not conceded our version of the Line in this particular area.” This is an important point, because though the Indian presentation was far more accurate than the Chinese one during the 1960 border talks, Beijing had not agreed to the Indian point of view.
This explains the unhappiness of the local Brigade Commanders in NEFA. Dalvi wrote: “The Thagla Ridge had a tactical significance for the Chinese as it overlooked their forward base at Le. Chinese counter-measures would place us at a grave disadvantage, both tactically and administratively.” India had simply tried to bite more than it was possible for her to chew at that time.
The McMahon Line Again
In his memoirs, General Prasad comes back to the McMahon Line: “…The McMahon Line generally follows the Himalayan watershed. The line then comes down to Khinzemane [the border post with Tibet, contested by China], and thence, instead of following the main watershed of the Thagla ridge, it is drawn in as a straight line running to the India–Tibet-Bhutan tri-junction. The details of the area shown on the maps then existing bore little resemblance to the actual configurations of the ground, presumably because this area had not been explored when the McMahon Line was drawn.” As we have seen, there was a discrepancy between the Line printed on the map and the de facto and historical border which took into account the watershed and the rights of pasturage on the slopes of the ridge.