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The Sumdorong Chu Incident: a strong Indian stand
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Claude Arpi | Date:04 May , 2013 7 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.

A few years ago, I wrote an article on the India, China and Tibet relations in which I mentioned the Sumdorong Chu incident in 1987.

The strong stand then taken by the Indian Army allowed the visit of Rajiv Gandhi to Beijing to be rather successful a year later. The Indian Prime Minister could discuss from a respectable position with Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues.

The area which witnessed the first clashes during the 1962 conflict was for years considered as a sort of neutral area, however in the early 1980s the Indian Army had reinforced its positions in the forward areas.

It is not the case today, if Mr Khurshid goes to China.

Extracts of my article:

We have mentioned the Sumdorong Chu confrontation in NEFA (soon to be Arunachal Pradesh). To appreciate better the respective positions, it is necessary to give the background of the stand-off.

In July 1986, at the time the 7th round of border talks was to be held, the Indian media flashed the news that Chinese incursions had occurred into the Sumdorong Chu valley in NEFA. Early 1987, large-scale troop movements were reported on both sides of the McMahon Line. For many, there was the possibility of a new war between India and China.

Sumdorong Chu (the Indian post was known as the Wangdung IB under the Zimithang circle of Tawang district), is a small river flowing west-east into the Nyamjang Chu in the Thagla triangle bounded by Bhutan in the west and the Thagla ridge to the north.

On June 26, 1986, the Government of India lodged a formal protest with Beijing against the Chinese intrusions. Beijing immediately denied any such intrusions, stating that the valley belonged to China.

The area which witnessed the first clashes during the 1962 conflict was for years considered as a sort of neutral area, however in the early 1980s the Indian Army had reinforced its positions in the forward areas.

…The Chinese military and civil personnel are given a call to proceed with three top-priority preparations: to prepare urgently for a military offensive…

During the summer of 1984, India had established an observation post on the bank of Sumdorong Chu. It was to be manned by the Special Security Bureau (SSB) during the summer and vacated in the winter.

In June 1986, an Indian patrol found some 40 Chinese working on permanent structures. Soon some 200 men reinforcements arrived on the spot. By August after the Chinese had constructed a helipad, the Indian Army took a more aggressive stand along the entire front in the NEFA.

In September, in order to diffuse the tension Delhi suggested that, if the Chinese accepted to withdraw their forces during the coming winter, India would not re-occupy the area following summer. The proposal was flatly rejected by Beijing.

Delhi reacted swiftly, by October, an entire Indian Army brigade was airlifted to Zimithang, the closest helipad.

It is known as Operation Falcon. In its obituary (Warrior as Scholar) of General K. Sundarji, then Army Chief, India Today wrote: “Sundarji’s place in history will probably rest on the lesser-known Operation Falcon. Spooked by the Chinese occupation of Sumdorong Chu in 1986, Sundarji used the air force’s new air-lift capability to land a brigade in Zimithang, north of Tawang. Indian forces took up positions on the Hathung La ridge, across the Namka Chu river, the site of India’s humiliating 1962 defeat and manned defences across the McMahon Line. Taken aback, the Chinese responded with a counter-build-up and in early 1987 Beijing’s tone became ominously similar to that of 1962. Western diplomats predicted war and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s advisers charged that Sundarji’s recklessness was responsible for this. But the general stood firm, at one point telling a senior Rajiv aide, ‘Please make alternate arrangements if you think you are not getting adequate professional advice’. The civilians backed off, so did the Chinese.”

As in 1967 in Sikkim, India had taken a strong stand and shown the Chinese that they could no more bluff their way through into Indian territory. The Chinese leadership had earlier always considered India to be a weak nation.

In October, Deng Xiaoping warned India that China would have to ‘teach India a lesson’. This was conveyed by the US Defense Secretary.

In the meantime, in December 1986, Arunachal Pradesh became a full-fledged State of the Indian Union. This angered China further.

The spring and summer of 1987 media reported heavy troop movements on both sides of the border. The Tibetan Review mentioned: “All recent visitors from Tibet report fresh and hectic Chinese military activities on the Tibetan frontier adjoining India. A large number of troops are being sent there as what is being termed ‘troop replacement operation’. However, so far no one has witnessed corresponding withdrawal of troops already stationed there. …The Chinese military and civil personnel are given a call to proceed with three top-priority preparations: to prepare urgently for a military offensive; to stockpile foodgrains and other necessary materials; and to be ready for construction projects. More and more unemployed but able-bodied young Tibetans are being recruited for heavy manual work. They are paid 300 yuans (about US $ 60) a month and told their services will be called when the need arises. China is said to have moved in 20,000 troops from the 53rd Army Corps in Chengdu and the 13th Army in Lanzhou in the first months of 1987 along with artillery and helicopters. By early April, it had moved 8 divisions to eastern Tibet.”

India continued her built-up during the first months of 1987 with a massive air-land exercise known as Exercise Chequerboard which involved several divisions of the Army and several squadrons of the IAF.

The Indian External Affairs Minister’s visit to China in May 1987 helped lowering the tensions. Beijing and Delhi reaffirmed their desire to continue the on-going talks on the border. A few months later, the Indian and Chinese troops began to slowly withdraw from their positions in the Sumdorong Chu area.

Former Indian Army Chief, General V.N. Sharma, then Army Commander (Eastern Command) remembers: “We were on our territory and any withdrawal orders by government or army headquarters would be considered illegal as the army was tasked to defend India’s border.”

As in 1967 in Sikkim, India had taken a strong stand and shown the Chinese that they could no more bluff their way through into Indian territory. The Chinese leadership had earlier always considered India to be a weak nation. The former Army Chief added: “It was with renewed confidence that Rajiv Gandhi could plan his visit to China.”

In 1988, Rajiv Gandhi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit China after his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, who had gone to Beijing in October 1954 at the peak of the Hindi Chini Bhai-Bhai romance. Though Rajiv Gandhi once again conceded that Tibet was considered by India as an autonomous region of China, his visit had the merit of reopening a dialogue at the highest level after decades of mistrust and hatred.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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7 thoughts on “The Sumdorong Chu Incident: a strong Indian stand

  1. Nathu La is a busy trade center in the past,if 2 country keep peace,this place can be a great port again.Border issue anyhow is the legacy of British,divide and rule old trick.Both side should have some wisdom to make cedings each other.

  2. China will alwayz b n enemy as the with passing of days, the Indo China war, long overdue, is only getting postponed. But it will definitely happen with China openly supporting terrorists and their patrons. China is bound to face the same fate as Germany during World 2. Just b ready to write this story as well.

  3. We need to salute the two men every day because of whom Arunachal Pradesh is still with us. Read the two statements – Former Indian Army Chief, General V.N. Sharma, then Army Commander (Eastern Command) remembers: “We were on our territory and any withdrawal orders by government or army headquarters would be considered illegal as the army was tasked to defend India’s border.”

    Sundarji’s telling a senior Rajiv aide, ‘Please make alternate arrangements if you think you are not getting adequate professional advice’. The civilians backed off, so did the Chinese.”

  4. The Sumdorong Chu standoff started with the occupation of Wangdung opposite Lungrola pass and posturing took place within 24 hours of the incursion. The map that you have shown is of the Thagla Ridge which came into play about few weeks later. There are factual mistakes but overall the response of the Indian Army is well documented.

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