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The Legend of Zoru
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Claude Arpi | Date:17 Jun , 2018 2 Comments
Claude Arpi
Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

Last month, India lost its most decorated general; Lt Gen Zorawar Chand Bakshi, known as Zoru to his officers and friends, passed away at the age of age of 97.

Very few noticed. No tweets from the Prime Minister or the Defence Minister.

General Bakshi was born in 1921 in Gulyana town, Rawalpindi district, of today’s Pakistan. Like several soldiers of his generation, he served in the British Army; in this, he followed the footsteps of his father, Bahadur Bakshi Lal Chand Lau.

During World War-II, Zoru fought with the Baloch Regiment against the Japanese in Burma; he covered himself with glory and his name was mentioned in dispatches for conducting successful ambushes against the enemy.

Following the Partition of India, the family moved to India, and after briefly serving in the Punjab Boundary Force, a military force set up to restore peace on the Punjab border, he was commissioned into the 5th Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force). During the 1947-48 operations in Kashmir, he was already noticed as a great soldier; he was awarded the Vir Chakra.

Later, he would fight two more wars against Pakistan and get more decorations, including the Maha Vir Chakra.

It is because of the military mission he undertook to Tibet in 1949 that I got to know Gen Bakshi. At the end of the 1990s, while working on my book The Fate of Tibet, I had a burning question, “why did India not militarily intervene in Tibet in 1950?”

I was told by one of his colleagues from the Burma World War II days, “why don’t you meet Zoru Bakshi, he went there”. Not only did he go to Lhasa but he was awarded the MacGregor Memorial Medal, a decoration instituted in 1888 in memory of Sir Charles MacGregor, the founder of India’s original secret service, the ‘Khufiya Bureau’, for his visit to Tibet. This most-prestigious decoration is given to army personnel for exceptional feats of reconnaissance. Gen Bakshi was the first recipient (only 15 have received it so far).

Here is Zoru’s Tibet’s adventure.

In the summer of 1949, the Government of India, though not ready to get involved in a full-fledged military operation in Tibet, was still studying different options. But in order to have a proper assessment Delhi decided to send someone to survey the eventual routes. The information thus collected could be used to send troops and ammunition in the event of a ‘political’ decision to defend Tibet. The officer was also asked to check on the military preparedness of the Tibetan Army.

After some tussle with the Army HQ, which was keen to send its own Military Intelligence officer (one Capt Kovil), the Ministry of External Affairs (and probably Nehru himself as a minister), Maj Bakshi was selected.

The reason why Lt Govil was not sent was probably a note from Lt Gen Nathu Singh, the Eastern Command commander who was in favour of an armed intervention in Tibet: “[China’s] recent activities, their declared policy towards liberation of Tibet, clearly indicate the writing on the wall. The Communist menace is gradually spreading towards the very borders of India,” wrote Nathu Singh.

But the Prime Minister believed in non-violence.

The independence of mind of Gen Nathu Singh and his desire to send its own man (Lt Govil) to scout Tibet, prompted the MEA to select someone who would directly report to the Ministry.

On September 3, 1949, Harishwar Dayal, the Political Officer still thought that a ‘party’ would be sent for the purpose: “this party should be as UNOBTRUSIVE as possible and should go as TREKKERS or as officers visiting Gyantse escorts.” He did not want the ‘party’ to have an armed escort.

The fact that this covert mission took place under the direction of KPS Menon, the Foreign Secretary, is proof that in the summer of 1949, the Government of India was still keeping all its options open. Gen Bakshi who was a man of a few words, explained to me: “My mission was very simple. It was to see the routes in these areas. In the army, we always prepared for eventualities. The Army does not decide to go anywhere, but should we be asked to go anywhere, we must know where the routes are. In fact the Army does not make any recommendation at all [that we should go for war or not]. Nothing like we should go to Tibet.”

On his return, Zoru made his recommendations: “Nothing was impossible, after all Younghusband had done it 45 years earlier under much more compelling conditions. But it was a ‘political’ choice.”

One of the questions Bakshi had to study was ‘should India send arms and ammunition to Tibet?’

On July 4, 1949, KPS Menon, the Foreign Secretary had emphasized the need for the Indian Mission to continue to supply arms and ammunition supply to Lhasa. He also suggested finding out ‘other ways’ to ‘give our moral support to Tibet’ and the strengthening of India’s northern frontiers.

Nehru himself wrote: “We should certainly try to maintain and continue our friendly relations with the Tibetan Government and give them such aid as we have been giving them in the past.”

One year later, when the PLA troops crossed the Yangtze and invaded the Land of Snows, Nehru’s determination would disappear, but this is another story. It is more than a decade after meeting Gen Bakshi, that I came across his report, a fascinating document.

The young major first looked at the ‘strength, composition and location’ of the Tibetan Army: “The Tibetan army is about 8,000 strong. There are approximately 10 battalions in it.”

Bakshi explained that these battalions do not have a fixed strength, though ‘normally’ battalions have approximately 900 strong soldiers; further the battalions have ‘no fixed scale of weapons and equipment’. They are equipped with rifles, brens and sten guns and a few 2-inches mortars.

The report confirmed that some of the Tibetan soldiers and officers had been trained in firing by Indian Army instructors. Bakshi also mentioned the state of training and discipline: “I have had a few opportunities of seeing the men of Kusung and Trapchi Regiments on parade in Lhasa. The standard of drill, with and without arms, is very poor. I have no hesitation in saying that an IA [Indian Army] recruit, after two weeks training, is much smarter than the soldiers of the Tibetan Body Guard Regiment.”

He added: “The Tibetan soldier shows no pride in being a soldier. The standard of turn out and discipline is shocking. The soldier does not seem to wash himself and his clothes.”

But Delhi was not ready to get involved in a conflict on the Tibetan plateau. The rest is history, a few months later India abandoned a weak and unprepared Tibet to its fate. It would then become clear for other ‘non-aligned’ nations that India was not in a position to play the high-moral role she pretended to play in world affairs.

It remains sad that India did not pay officially homage to one of its greater soldiers.


This article The Legend of Zoru appeared in
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2 thoughts on “The Legend of Zoru

  1. Somehow every civilian govt (be it bjp or congress) miss to give due respect to the humble soldier. Congress did it when FM Manekshaw passed away and BJp is in power when the most decorated General officer of the army passed away. India lost a great son who served his motherland in every war till he was in uniform. And no one bothers when he closed his eyes forever☹️☹️☹️☹️. Such great Generals do not come so frequently.

  2. Great post to say the least. I wonder if any present Indian strategic analyst has bothered to dig into the files of India’s policymaking in the past vis-a-vis Tibet to set the record straight.

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