The stand off between Indian and Chinese troops on the Dolam plateau in Bhutan has all the potential of leading to full scale war. My Battalion 4 Guards (1RAJPUT) has had three tenures in Sikkim including two at Jelep La and I have been fortunate to have visited the state several times thereafter. I also have personally known Gen. Sagat Singh and the Sikkimese Princesses Pema Tseuden and Pema Choki whose contributions to India and Tibet need to be better known.
The Chumbi Valley is like a dagger pointed at the neck. Only a thin strip of land between the Himalayan state of Bhutan and Tibet connect Assam to the rest of India. In 1903 it was through the Jalep La pass and Chumbi Valley that the Younghusband mission went to Lhasa massacring many innocent and unarmed Tibetans on the way. Not many people know that both the 1890 Anglo Chinese Convention and the 1893 Tibet Sikkim Convention have a Hong Kong link. The negotiations were carried out between two Englishmen Henry Durand from the Indian side and James Hart representing the Chinese Imperial Customs and Frontier Service. The British were keen to obtain concessions for their interests in China particularly Hong Kong and Kowloon. To obtain these they accepted some spurious demands of the Chinese. Hong Kong as an entre-port for opium was a more attractive market than barren Tibet. The 1890 treaty was thus signed by a Britisher who was employed by the Chinese, and not by any Chinese official! Also not well known is the fact that the Chumbi Valley towns of Gyantse and Yatung used to be the summer capitals of Sikkim till 1948.In 1903, it was through the Jelep La pass and Chumbi Valley that the Young husband mission went to Lhasa massacring many innocent and unarmed Tibetans on the way.
Chinese claims over Tibet are weak at best, notwithstanding their high decibel claims that Tibet was always a part of China, which is not factual. Chinese claims on Tibet are premised on the fact that during the reign of the Mongol Emperor Chengez Khan and his heirs particularly Kublai Khan when Marco polo visited China, Tibetan representatives were seen in the Court at Peking. But at that time, China itself was a part of the Mongolian Empire and Tibet and Mongolia have always had close relations which continue even till today. When Chengez and Kublai ruled China, the relationship between Tibet and Mongolia was never between master and vassal, but as equals. So why did Nehru cede Tibet to China?
Nehru’s knowledge of history was sketchy and moreover stemmed from the viewpoint of the English, who wrote that history. But more than his lack of knowledge of history was his shocking ignorance of geography. In a letter he wrote to the Chief Ministers during his journey from Sikkim to Bhutan via the Chumbi Valley, he expressed surprise at seeing trees and forests when all he expected was a barren waste land, which perhaps also explains why he thought Ladakh too was a wasteland where not a blade of grass grew! His admiration of the socialist cause and the Stalinist model of governance made him more amenable to the Chinese viewpoint at the expense of the Tibetan people, which has led to the near extinction of an ancient civilisation and people, and also created an insoluble problem for India. Morally and legally, the ‘Hanification’ of the Tibetan population is genocide by another name. Linguistically, racially, culturally, and genetically the Tibetan are a different race from the Han Chinese and so are the Mongols, Manchurians, and many other ethnic minority groups, millions of whom have been killed in the process of Hanification.
Another fact which has been kept hidden from the gaze of the Indian public is that in 1951, just after the relics of the Buddha’s disciples which had been returned by UK had been exhibited in Gangtok and Kalimpong, India not only facilitated the journey to Lhasa but played host to the newly appointed Chinese Military Governor of Tibet, General Chang Chin Wu even after having received reports of atrocities being committed by the first batch of Chinese invaders led by General Liu Po Cheng. At this point in time, access to Tibet from China was very difficult, so much so that the Chinese Military Governor of Tibet had to proceed to Lhasa via Calcutta and Sikkim like Younghusband before him. If one Chinaman found it difficult to go to Lhasa directly how much more difficult it would have been to move an entire Army and then support it. India’s blindness after Independence led to the fiasco in 1962.
The Face-off at Nathu La At this point, mention need to be made of what happened in 1967, just a few years after the debacle in 1962. Here, the role of General Sagat Singh needs special mention. Sagat is rightfully remembered for his role in the 1971 War, but to me, his audacity and moral courage in disregard of his superior’s orders in taking on the Chinese in Sikkim in 1965 and 1967 is unequalled. It must not be forgotten that these actions took place just three years after India had been humiliated by the Chinese in 1962. Our Government and the defence establishment was extremely apprehensive and nervous about our Army’s ability to handle the Chinese. Sagat however had no such doubts and turned the tables on the Chinese. For this action alone he deserves a special place in the annals of Indian military history, for the action at Nathu La restored our self-confidence and pride which proved to be battle winning factors in 1971.
In 1965, during the Indo Pakistan War, the Chinese, in order to help Pakistan, issued an ultimatum to India to vacate Nathu La, Jelep La and the adjacent passes on the Sikkim Tibet boundary. General Manekshaw was the Eastern Army Commander and General Aurora was GOC XXXIII CORPS under whom was 17 Division with Sagat as GOC at Gantok, responsible for Nathu La and Cho La. Jelep La near the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and Tibet was under GOC 27 Mountain Division. Eastern Command and HQ XXXIII Corps had issued orders to 17 Div and 27 Div that in case of hostilities they were to vacate the posts on the watershed and fall back to the depth positions at Chhangu and Lumthu respectively, leaving behind only observation posts at the passes.
Sagat however felt that the natural boundary was the watershed at the passes and adjoining heights and refused to pull back his troops. Instead, he went about having the border demarcated by laying a wire fence at the pass to clearly demarcate the boundary. Sagat understood that in the mountains, anyone who controlled the heights had an unassailable advantage so he went about strengthening his positions and siting his observation posts from where they could look deep into the Chumbi Valley and bring down effective artillery fire right up to Yatung. There was a lot of pushing and jostling the like of which we have seen recently on TV but Sagat refused to budge and in fact at Cho La which is a few kilometres North of Nathu La there was a fire fight and the Chinese were pushed back a couple of kilometres.
On 13 August 1967 our observation posts reported that some Chinese troops had crossed over and dug some trenches on our side of the border. When they were challenged they filled up the trenches and withdrew. But they installed several loud speakers and beamed propaganda on to our side. Sagat countered this by installing more powerful loudspeakers in a tit for tat game of one-upmanship. He however realised that the Chinese were starting something new and after getting a clearance from Corps Headquarters decided to demarcate the border and strengthen the barbed wire fencing with concertina coils. The Chinese tried to prevent this and several eye ball to eye ball encounters which ended in scuffles took place. The Jat troops of 3 Grenadiers like all Jats are big in build and have a powerful physique so they always got the better of the Chinese. The Chinese, realising that they could not best the Grenadiers started to resort to stone pelting which was answered in a like manner by our troops. Several minor injuries were sustained by troops on both sides. On 11 December things came to a head when the Chinese opened fire on our troops laying the wire. Col Rai Singh, CO 2 Grenadiers was hit and so were several other troops. Seeing their CO hit, the Grenadiers went mad with rage and charged the enemy positions. Several of our men were mowed by Chinese machine guns but some managed to reach their bunkers and took on the Chinese with their bayonets and hand to hand combat. But a company of 18 Rajputs and the Engineer personnel laying the wire were caught in the open and suffered heavy casualties. Sagat, as was his habit, was close to the front. Seeing the situation had escalated and we had suffered considerable casualties, he ordered artillery fire from his medium 5.5 inch guns to be brought down on the Chinese positions. Ever since he had taken over 17 Division in 1965 he had positioned his artillery observation posts on heights overlooking the Chinese positions not only in the front but deep inside Chumbi Valley upto and beyond Yatung. These artillery OPs did a sterling job, and the Chinese positions at Nathu La were devastated and positions in the rear were also targeted and destroyed. Sagat as a Divisional Commander did not have the authority to open fire with his medium guns, so the moment HQ Eastern Command and XXXIII came to know that he had deployed his medium guns they called for an explanation. Anticipating this, Sagat made himself
unavailable on radio and telephone and continued to conduct the battle according to his own plan till all Chinese positions at the pass had been neutralised. Thereafter, a ceasefire was declared and bodies of the dead exchanged. Many acts of unprecedented valour were performed and Sagat ensured that they received due recognition. There were also a few cases of desertion of duty which Sagat enquired into and the guilty were brought before courts martial and those found guilty were punished. We had suffered heavy casualties — 65 dead and about 145 wounded — but the Chinese had lost many times more. Their dead were about three hundred and of the wounded about twice that number. After the ceasefire when normalcy had returned Sagat’s Division was in a commanding and advantageous position at Nathu La, but his superiors were none too pleased at his open defiance of their instructions and after a couple of months Sagat was shifted to the command of a non-operational formation, 101 Communication Zone based at Shillong. But no one could keep Sagat down, for just a few months later, Sagat was leading the campaign against the rebels in Mizo Hills and in two years had successfully restored normalcy.
Whereas Sagat went on to win further laurels in the service of India his counterpart, the obedient commander of 27 Division at Jelep La who vacated the pass when not even threatened has left behind a permanent headache and security problem for India. The problem has got more complicated as the exact spot where the recent incident has taken place lies within Bhutan and we are guarantors of Bhutan’s defence. It was heartening to see big built Sikhs pushing back the Chinese in the present face off at Dolam.
We are also fortunate that the Army has in General Bipin Rawat a Chief who like Gen. Sagat earlier is no push over and the country can feel assured that our interests will be safeguarded. The results of Gen. Rawat’s leadership can be seen in the increasing numbers of terrorists being eliminated in Kashmir. But what disturbs me is where are our left liberal shouting brigades when Bhutan, the most peaceful and beautiful country is being bullied by China. They are totally exposed and need to be dealt with. The Indian media needs to stop giving them free air time. The lesson of Nathu La is one we must never forget. Firmness pays. And National Defence can never be compromised.
Commissioned in 4 Guards, Major Chandrakant Singh, VrC is a veteran of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, where he was wounded and awarded the VrC for conspicuous gallantry and courage displayed throughout the war. Popularly called ‘Paunchy’ by his friends, he took premature retirement in 1977 and is now involved in writing and speaking on environmental and defence related issues.