Chinese counter-action, which Kaul had foreseen, came on 10 October. That day at dawn, Kaul was shaving outside his bunker and his batman was boiling water for tea, when the calm of the Namka Chu Valley was shattered all of a sudden. The Punjabis at Tseng-jong were under attack.
It was the Punjabis’ routine morning patrol that was first engaged by the Chinese. Later, around 0800 hours, a full battalion tried to overwhelm the isolated locality. Only 56 of the Punjabis were holding the area, but they fought back the attack. An hour later, the Chinese re-formed for a second attack. By then, the Punjabis’ section on the spur of Karpo La II had moved close to the flank of the Chinese forming-up place. While the latter were bunched together this section let them have it. The Chinese suffered heavy casualties and reacted by opening up with heavy mortars.
When the first shots rang out, the Rajputs were strung along the South bank of the Namka Chu. They were on their way to the crossing place whence they would climb to Yumtso La. Their forward company was approaching Temporary Bridge and the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier) Maha Singh Rikh, was following the second company. When he reached Bridge IV, he saw Kaul. With him were Niranjan Prasad, Dalvi, Brigadier (later Lieutenant General) K.K. Singh,12 Brigadier (later Major General) M.R. Rajwade,13 and some other members of Kaul’s staff. Kaul called Rikh over to him and ordered him not to advance further.
“¦ the Chinese had not been idle. Their preparations for a showdown were in evidence all along the McMahon Line and in Ladakh.
He said that the situation had changed and the Chinese had reacted more violently than he had anticipated. He then told Rikh that his battalion would hold the South bank with one company each at Bridges III and IV and Temporary Bridge. When Rikh pointed out that these positions were dominated by the Chinese and would be impossible to hold in case of attack, Kaul told him that the Chinese would not attack if the Indian troops remained on the South bank. He then added that in any case, after a few days, the Indian offensive would be resumed.
Having given these orders, Kaul turned to Dalvi. “It is your battle” he told him. Having exercised personal command on the front since his arrival on 6 October, he was handing back the brigade to its commander. He had decided, he said, to go to Delhi and place before the COAS and the Government ‘a first-hand account of the situation’. Senior commanders have been known to assume personal command of operations in a crisis. For example, Auchinleck after Sidi Rezegh. Here Kaul was relinquishing personal command in a crisis. Also, field commanders do not have to rush from the battlefield to give first-hand accounts to the Government. He could have sent a report through a courier; after all his chief staff officer was with him on the spot. But he chose to go himself.
Kaul and his party, including Niranjan Prasad, left around 1000 hours. They went by the Hathung La route; dalvi had, therefore, to pull out a company of the Gorkhas to escort them part of the way. By dusk, the party was at the foot of Hathung La. Kaul spent the night there in great pain; he had developed pulmonary oedema. It was the result of disregarding the basic precautions of acclimatizing himself before venturing on to high altitude areas. He had to be carried across Hathung La next day and by the time he left Tezpur, he was running a temperature.
At Tseng-jong, the Chinese attacked again at noon. Major M.S. Chowdhary, the company commander, had been asking for mortar and machine-gun fire support but Dalvi decided against such a course. He felt that such fire would escalate the skirmish into a full-scale battle and imperil the Rajputs on the river. He, therefore, ordered Chowdhary to disengage and withdraw. By then, the Chinese were into the locality and hand-to-hand fighting had begun. Chowdhary was wounded but he displayed remarkable courage and leadership in extricating the remnants of his two platoons. Man for man, the Punjabis gave a good account of themselves. One of them brought back a Chinese rifle. The skirmish cost them 22 killed, wounded and missing. Peking radio admitted to a 100 casualties.
Soon after the outbreak of firing on Tseng-jong, Dalvi had recommended to Kaul and Niranjan Prasad to take a realistic view of the situation and withdraw the brigade to a more defensible position”¦
The Indian Press and Government spokesmen highlighted the skirmish. No doubt Indian troops made a good showing but it was not something to crow over. In fact, the Chinese had held their hand. They could have cut the Punjabis’ route of withdrawal but they allowed them to pull out and take back their wounded. Obviously they wanted to give the impression that they did not want war. Later that day, the Chinese buried the Indian dead with full military honours. Indian troops on the South bank could watch the scene; they were impressed, though it was all done as part of Chinese propaganda.
Soon after the outbreak of firing on Tseng-jong, Dalvi had recommended to Kaul and Niranjan Prasad to take a realistic view of the situation and withdraw the brigade to a more defensible position, leaving flag-posts on the Namka Chu. However, Kaul told him before leaving that Operation ‘Leghorn’ was to be held in abeyance but there was to be no withdrawal from the positions already held.
On arrival in Delhi, Kaul attended a meeting on the night of 11 October at the Prime Minister’s house. Present at the meeting, besides Nehru, were Menon, the Secretaries of the Cabinet, External Affairs and Defence, the COAS, the Air Chief and Sen. After Kaul had made his report, various courses of action were discussed. According to Kaul, the decision that was finally taken was to cancel the eviction order but stick to the positions held at the time.14 Kaul returned on 13 October to Tezpur and conveyed the decision to all concerned.
Meanwhile, events had taken a curious turn. On the morning of 12 October, Nehru left for Colombo to attend a conference. At the airport, newsmen asked him about India’s future course of action with regard to the Chinese occupation of Thag La. The Prinie Minister’s reply was a guarded statement on the situation but the key words said to have been spoken by him, “our instructions are to free our territory”, were reported by some papers as ‘the armed forces have been ordered to throw the Chinese aggressors out of NEFA’. All India Radio too broadcast Nehru’s statement on 12 October. In some quarters, the Prime Minister’s words were construed as a declaration of war.
The statement at the airport astonished those who had attended the Prime Minister’s meeting the previous night. Kaul was later to say: “I wonder if Nehru’s statement did not precipitate their [Chinese] attack”.15 It certainly riled the Chinese. Later, during his captivity in China, Dalvi was confronted with questions like ‘How can Indians talk of throwing out the Chinese People’s Army when even a mighty power like the United States had not been able to do that?’
Looking back, it seems there was substance in what the Prime Minister had said. Indications soon came that the Government did want the eviction operation to be put through. On 16 October, 4 Corps received fresh instructions. According to these, the locality at Tsangle was to be built up to a battalion, aggressive patrolling was to be undertaken and the requirements for the eviction operation were to be submitted. Dalvi has stated that the Defence Minister specified 1 November as the ‘last date acceptable to the Cabinet’ for the operation.16 Apparently, either the situation on the Namka Chu was not sufficiently clear to the political leadership, or the country was being put on a suicidal course by someone who worked behind the scenes.
For their part, the Chinese had not been idle. Their preparations for a showdown were in evidence all along the McMahon Line and in Ladakh. However, for the moment, we shall confine ourselves to events in the Kameng sector. The Chinese had occupied Tseng-jong and a feature East of Tsangle in strength. Mules were bringing their mortars and machine guns right up to the river and they were strengthening their positions with wire and panjis (bamboo stakes sharpened at one end). On the night of 15/16 October, they began to probe the Indian positions at Tsangle and Bridge V. Two nights later (17/18 October), they brought them under heavy fire for 90 minutes.
On 19 October, there were unmistakable signs that an attack was imminent. Large numbers of mules were seen coming across Thag La to the North bank of the Namka Chu, carrying stores and equipment. An observation post of the Rajputs counted about 2,000 Chinese coming down and concentrating below Tseng-jong. Their marking parties could be seen at work, preparing for night attacks.
By then, much had happened South of the Namka Chu also. 4 Grenadiers, which had earlier arrived at Towang, was placed under the command of 7 Brigade. It had come as poorly equipped as the others and was the least acclimatized unit. Dalvi had established his Headquarters at Rong La, less than a kilometre from the Assam Rifles’ post at Che Dong.Tactical Headquarters 4 Division had moved to Ziminthang and the Signals had completed the laying of telephone lines connecting Tsangdhar with most of the positions on the river. Between 13 and 16 October, about 450 pioneers from the Border Roads Organization arrived. To Dalvi, they proved more of a headache than a help. They came without snow-clothing and had to be provided essential items by withdrawing these from the troops. This was naturally resented by the latter. Within a few days, 50 per cent of the pioneers were on the sick-list.
The 9 Punjab company at Tsangle was a big drain on Dalvi’s slender resources. He had repeatedly sought permission to withdraw it as he thought that it would be the first objective of the Chinese if they attacked; also, they could easily cut it off. Kaul knew these difficulties, and had represented against the order from Army Headquarters for deploying another battalion at Tsangle. He had, in fact, recommended the withdrawal of the company there to the South bank. This had brought Menon to Tezpur on the morning of 17 October. With him were Thapar and Sen. Kaul tried to convince the Defence Minister that it would be impossible to maintain Tsangle during the winter. Menon overruled him, saying that ‘it was politically important’ to hold Tsangle as it was situated near the point where the borders of Bhutan, Tibet and India met.17
It has been estimated that the Chinese employed two infantry divisions and a specially trained formation in Kameng of this force, they used one division against 7 Brigade.
That evening, after he had seen off Menon and his party, Kaul was taken ill. He was evacuated to Delhi the next day. The departure of the corps commander at this juncture was unfortunate. But the mishap had even more serious consequences when, on arrival in Delhi, he did not go into hospital but went straight to his residence, whence he continued to exercise command over 4 Corps. According to Army rules, when a commander becomes a casualty and is evacuated, as Kaul was, his functions devolve upon the next senior. But in the Army of 1962, a person with Kaul’s connections could get away with anything.
Dalvi had been faithfully reporting Chinese preparations to Niranjan Prasad. On 17 October, he requested that he be allowed to withdraw, brigade from the Namka Chu quickly as he could not maintain his troops there. Niranjan Prasad promised to speak to the corps commander but the latter had meanwhile been evacuated. The next day, Dalvi received an order to immediately send a company from 1/9 Gorkha Rifles to Tsangle. The rest of the battalion would follow. This was in compliance with Menon’s instructions; for Dalvi, it was the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back. He urged against the move. The protest was relayed to Kaul in Delhi; the reply was that any officer who failed to obey orders would be court-martialled.
On 19 October, when he could see the Chinese giving the final touches to their preparations for an attack, Dalvi made a last bid to save his troops from massacre. He urged Prasad to permit a tactical redeployment of 7 Brigade to meet the expected attack. He told the GOC that rather than stand and watch the slaughter of his men, he was prepared to resign his commission. However, all Niranjan Prasad could do was to convey Dalvi’s request to 4 Corps. Brigadier K.K. Singh told him that he had no authority to sanction the change that Dalvi wanted but would get in touch with the corps commander in Delhi for orders. When Niranjan Prasad conveyed this information to Dalvi, the latter asked to be relieved of his command immediately as he was not prepared to continue in a situation in which the actions of his superiors had placed his troops. According to Dalvi, Niranjan Prasad was so overwhelmed with emotion at this that he broke down and promised to be with him the next morning ‘to share the fate of the brigade’.18
Fortunately for him, Niranjan Prasad did not visit the Namka Chu on 20 October, otherwise he might have shared Dalvi’s fate and given a chance to the Chinese to have an Indian general as a prisoner of war. Dalvi’s forecast regarding the attack proved correct. It came at 0500 hours with 150 guns and heavy mortars roaring in unison to announce it. The previous night, the Chinese had gone into their forming-up places on commanding ground. They made no attempt to hide their positions from the Indians facing them across the narrow stream, which was now fordable. They even lit fires to keep themselves warm.
“¦the Chinese chose to effect a breakthrough in its centre with outflanking attacks by infiltration against Tsangdhar and Hathung La.
It has been estimated that the Chinese employed two infantry divisions and a specially trained formation in Kameng of this force, they used one division against 7 Brigade. Its mission was to advance on Towang after finishing off the brigade. At Towang, it was to link up with a division advancing from Bum La. For dealing with 7 Brigade, the Chinese chose to effect a breakthrough in its centre with outflanking attacks by infiltration against Tsangdhar and Hathung La. With these key features in their hands, the rest of the troops on the Namka Chu could be dealt with at leisure.
At Rong La, the Headquarters, besides the usual ancillaries, Dalvi had 100 Field Company and a company of 1/9 Gorkha Rifles. On his right, at Bridge I, he had the Grenadiers, less two companies. The battalion had a company each at Drokung Samba and on the lines of communication at Serkhim. The Punjabis, less their company at Tsangle, held Bridge II. The remaining bridges, except for Bridge V, were held by the Rajputs. The Gorkhas were deployed astride the Tsangdhar-Che Dong track with a company (less a platoon) at Tsangdhar. A platoon of this company was on its way to Tsangle in compliance with the order that required a company from this battalion to be sent there. The medium machine guns were split into detachments. Heavy mortars and the two field guns were at Tsangdhar. The former still had no ammunition; the latter had about 400 rounds between them.