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1967: The Forgotten War


A clash between soldiers of India-China. Pic credit: Sainik Samachar

Hrishabh Tiwari

25/06/2021

 

Two neighbours with a lot in common and much to contrast; crowded cities, humongous population, gleaming infrastructure, gazillion bucks worth of trade, 3,488 km of shared land border and the teachings of Buddha may seem to bring these to-be superpower countries together but not often the case. The democratic India and the autocratic regime China might have vital economical relation but the two nation never see eye to an eye over the border and military issues. Both the countries are only separated by a petty margin when it comes to the strength of Armed Forces but as far as superiority is concerned India Armed Forces have time and again sent the Chinese PLA back packed with a bloody nose.


India have had to fight at every stage, be it confronting and overthrowing British for the independence or waging in a full-fledged battle with Pakistan and China for defending its own territory, Indian Armed Forces have never backed down an inch. 1947-48 war with Pakistan had cleared all the doubts about the bloodshed that the future held for these two newly independent neighbouring nations but the surprise came from Peking in 1962, the Indo-Sino war that concluded with China capturing a cosmic 38,000 sq km of Aksai-Chin. The forfeited war was a humiliation to India and its forces.


Indian Forces were however very quick to realise the mistakes that led to the mislay of 1962, and soon they started piling up the artillery and acquiring newer weapons to not let any rival nation replicate the shade of 1962. On the other hand, Pakistan and China devised a plan to bring India on negotiating table by waging it into a two front war. In the early 1965, Pakistan Army started clashes with Indian soldiers in various sectors of Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan, its main plan was to occupy Kashmir while China was attempting to capture Sikkim to cut North-eastern states from mainland India. At both these points there existed vulnerable corridors which if captured could hurt India badly. A dreadful war broke out between India and Pakistan starting August 1965 after months of skirmish culmination but the staggering performance from land, sea and air by the Indian Armed Forces didn't let Pak and China succeed in their foul intentions.


At that time, Sikkim was a monarchy state and it wanted to remain independent despite constant bullying and browbeating by Peking (Beijing) and annoyance from Delhi. After the 1965 war, India had taken an edge over Pakistan but on eastern front China maintained a permanent stay abutting Sikkim border, which had led to various brawls between soldiers of both the camps but never had there been a bullet fired. But things were to change after troops of both nations clashed at Nathu La over laying of barbed wire fence. The Indian Army troops months ahead of the clash had decided to lay three layered barbed wire fence but once the fencing began on August 20, 75 Chinese soldiers carrying bayonet-fitted rifle came till the border to protest but soon returned. A long chain of diplomatic coercing set off by Chinese threatening India of a 'grave consequence'.


On September 7, when the work of upgrading the barbed wire to concertina coil was afoot, 100 Chinese soldiers rushed to the fencing and thence a scuffle ensued, beaten up by the JAT soldiers of Indian Army, Chinese resorted to stone-pelting which was responded equally. Four days later when the work resumed, Chinese PLA troops once again tried breaking the fence led by their political commissar (only person who could speak English) , when the CO Lt Col Rai Singh went to have a talk with them, he was met with gun fire that resulted him being grievously injured. Seeing their CO, officers and soldiers hit, Indian troops responded with artillery and smoked every Chinese post in vicinity. Indian Army and Chinese PLA both suffered a lot of casualty but India had taken the revenge of 1962. An edgy peace prevailed at Nathu La until October 1, when another skirmish broke out in Cho La, Indian Army led by Lt Gen Sagat Singh proved its mettle once again and defeated the Chinese twice in a fortnight. Later Lt Gen Sagat Singh decided to have a permanent presence in the Sikkim corridor. The audacious decision of Lt Gen Singh to hold a permanent camp at Nathu La and Cho La proved beneficial in 1971 war. Had China had control over Nathu La sector, it would have linked easily to East Pakistan and severed north-east from mainland. In the 1967 war, more than 300 Chinese soldiers died while 88 Indian brave soldiers fell in the line of duty but taught the Chinese PLA a much important lesson-Never mess with India.

 

The build-up to the 1967 war

 
Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah

Referred to as "Sher-e-Kashmir", founding leader of the 'All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference' and the 1st elected Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir in 1948 after its accession to India, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was the pivot around which the whole politics of Kashmir revolved since partition but by virtue of politics he has been seen as a rebel leader who had been proponent of 'Article 370' (then Article 306A), infact he was very instrumental in the drafting of Article 306A. In 1953 he was deposed and arrested for brief time and again detained in 1958 on the charges of being a Pakistani agent. For what he meant to the Kashmiri people can be decoded by the fact that on his release from house-arrest in 1964, a swarm of over 20,000 Kashmiris gathered to see him.


After his release, he had been touring various countries and often made controversial remarks over Kashmir, in one of the article written by him in an American magazine, he advocated for the 'self-determination' of Kashmir which allured a heap of approval praise from Pakistan and equal criticism from Indian government. Since the 1962 Indo-Sino war, the American foreign intelligence agency CIA had been taking great intrest in the Asian military strategies and policies and Abdullah was drawing a lot of attention for his Pakistan favoured comments. He was getting very close to Chinese CCP leaders and Pakistani government. During one of his visit to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1964 he met a CIA agent whom he talked through the Pakistan-China's maturing plans to attack India in the late summer of 1965.


India had have had problems with Pakistan for forever but China had been creating newer problems by digging border related issues. Pakistan too was not left alone from the aggressive invasion of China, the then President of Pakistan Muhammad Ayyub Khan on a stopover in Delhi in 1959 had proposed a plan to Indian government to fight the Chinese together but the plans were rejected on the context that it favoured Pakistan in Kashmir settlement. In the coming years, Pakistan and China joined hands to counter India. The growing bitter rivalry between India-Pakistan was only helping China's plan to disintegrate India as it tried and succeeded in 1962. After the Indo-Sino War, India underwent a lot of changes, politically and militarily. Shri Lal Bahadur Shashtri took over as prime minister of India after the death of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. India also had to turn towards Soviets for artillery and weapons dropping its non-aligned status, while India was trying to recover from the shock of 1962, Pakistan was on a rise militarily and economically, it was also receiving all possible military aids from USA for its anti-communist ideologies which favored USA in countering the Soviets.


The news of Pakistan-China joint attack on India shell-shocked the CIA, the pundits at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), Virginia, USA started brainstorming the impact of to-be fought war between India-Pak-China on international politics and the ways it would resolve. They predicted the war to break out somewhere in August-September of 1966 with Pak-China on one side and India on the other as stated by Sheikh Abdullah. IDA also predicted the pattern of the dual front war, firstly Pakistan would attack in Kashmir by land and then wage into an aerial war thereafter China will start invading into eastern parts of India. The war would conclude after reaching to a settlement dialogue between warring nations led by USA and USSR. Even the hypothetical plan's layout drafted by IDA seemed very worrisome and if Pak-China had succeeded in their motives, it would have changed the face of South Asia for forever.


Starting August, 1965 Pakistan began to infiltrate the troops from Azad Kashmir Regular Force into Kashmir under codenamed 'Operation Gibraltar' to cause uprising among local Kashmiris against Delhi. But after the failure of the mission, Pakistan pursued with the conventional war and attacked Akhnoor. However it is to be noted that the attack took place a year prior to what government run private think-tank agency IDA had predicted. The reasons were pretty simple, India was on a streak to upgrade its military capabilities, be it procuring weapons from Soviets or increasing the man-strength of the army, Indian government led by Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri was leaving no stone unturned. The traditional .303 rifles used in 1962 were started to be phased out and newer 7.62mm SLRs (Self-loading Rifles) were being inducted. Pakistan was in a rush to attack as the weapons procured from western countries and USSR were still being inducted and soldiers were yet not fully used to the switch. Had Pak attacked any later, it would have met a newer and improved Indian barrage.

Pakistani Infiltrators caught after failed Op Gibraltar
American Press Comment on Op Gibraltar. Source: Archives MoD
Haji Pir Pass captured by Indian Army. Pic credit: Sainik Samachar

India in response to the Operation Gibraltar, attacked Haji Pir Pass which was earlier under Pakistan administration in Kashmir and captured it by August 28. The subsequent aerial war broke out between the two nations, there had been many individual excellency in the 1965 war and one of them embraced the story of CQH Abdul Hamid who had single-handedly destroyed seven Pakistani tanks. The battle of Asal Uttar saw the largest tank battle to take place since World War II. As the Indian forces started to gain momentum after initial Pak's success, China began to organize areas of Tibet and amid the war in the west, it served notice to Indian Defence minister YB Chavan to dismantle all the posts and bunkers inside TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region formed by grouping Tibet, Amdo, Kham and U-Tsang provinces). The main purpose of this intimidation was clearly directed to disable India in pulling out troops from North-east and deploying them in western Pakistan where a plan to attack Lahore was afoot. China began to rack up troops against India abutting the Sikkim border, the 1965 war just as it seemed to settle once again bubbled up.


The theatre of war drama had seemingly moved towards the east, the corridors which had handful of Chinese infantrymen was now brim packed with People's Liberation Army troops. After the partition in 1947, all the princely states were deciding on whether to join India or Pakistan but one small north-eastern monarchy wanted to remain autonomous, Tashi Namgyal, the king or the Chogyal of Sikkim had sought autonomy from Pandit Nehru against the will of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who wanted Sikkim to integrate with India. However he was not held for long, in the year 1950 Sikkim Royal Chogyal signed a treaty with India to become Indian protectorate against Chinese intimidations.

Ministry press release commenting on Sikkim Treaty 1950 & Delimitation of boundary. Source: Archives MoD

As the focus of the 1965 war moved eastward, 46 year old Major General Sagat Singh was closely monitoring all the Chinese build-up, through his primary field binoculars, he could see new trenches dug up, tent camps and bunkers being made. On the Sikkim border there's a significant pass in the Himalayan peaks that co-joins Sikkim and China. Situated on the Indo-Tibetan border 14450 ft. above sea level, Nathu La is one of the most important Himalayan passes in the country. Nathu means 'listening ears', and La means 'pass', it is famous for its picturesque beauty and beautiful environment.


Major General Sagat Singh was commanding the 17 Mountain Division in Sikkim but much before that he had caught everyone's attention more so of the Portugal government which had offered a reward of $10,000 to anyone who brings head of Sagat Singh. The Lisbon (Capital of Portugal) walls were all plastered with the posters of 'Wanted-Man Sagat Singh'. No man had the guts to turn him in and the elite officer lived to tell his side of the tale, on the decisive day of December 19, 1961 Maj Gen Sagat Singh along with his men from Parachute Regiment stormed into Goa to liberate it from the Portuguese rule.

Lt Gen Sagat Singh Rathore (PVSM)

Under the codenamed 'Operation Vijay' to liberate Goa, Major General Sagat Singh along with his PARA regiment men were airdropped in Panaji on December 19, 1961 where he was assigned the task to overtake Panaji. The Portuguese forces were surrounded by all sides and they offered to surrender, Sagat Singh was welcomed by the people of Goa as the liberators, something that irked the Portuguese government that they priced his head. Not only the liberation of Goa, the triumph list goes on and on for the gutsy officer of the Indian Army who had an important role to play in the 1967 war.


Bringing the attention back to the war in West Pakistan, Indian Forces were knocking at the door of Sialkot and Lahore, Pakistani administration rushed to China to meet Zhou Enlai (top grade leader of CCP) and Marshal Chen Yi to discuss the situation and seek China's help. Pakistan had earlier planned a short term war but China was adamant to create a prolonged war situation between India-Pak, it even advised Pakistan to be ready to lose Lahore in order to win big. China was plainly not in a mood to enter the war directly, however the diplomatic intimidation and browbeating never doused. On September 22, UNSC unanimously voted demanding India and Pak to reach a ceasefire which both the warring nation agreed to. India's leadership felt that the spectacular triumph over Pakistan was far from easy and Pakistan too was completely exhausted of resources and economy to sustain a longer war, hence Lal Bahadur Shastri and Ayyub Khan agreed to a ceasefire.


The war in the west may have stopped but the already lamentable relations between Indo-Sino was on a verge of collapse and China was leaving no opportunity to intimidate India of a '1962 like war'. While India was fighting off Pakistan in the west, China accused India of stealing 800 sheep and 59 yaks that had crossed over to India from Tibet. On September 24, 1965 the then opposition leader Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee herded a flock of 800 sheep to the Chinese embassy in Delhi having placards, "हमको खाओ संसार को बचाओ" written over them which Peking sighted as a move backed by the Indian government to insult China. Peking also complaint that Indian soldiers had kidnapped four Tibet inhabitants, which was countered by Indian gov stating they came on their own will to escape from torturous situation in Tibet and take asylum in India, however they are free to go back.

Flock of sheep herded to Chinese embassy, Delhi
Map of 1967 face-off region

'The lovely level pass' or in local dialect Jelep La situated above 14,500 ft had been an important trade route and a way for refugees to commute between Sikkim and Tibet, while the build-up at Nathu La after the 1965 war was significant, Jelep La wasn't too far from the eyes of China, slowly and steadily PLA troops started camping at this pass too. In 1965, Jelep La was under the command of 27 Mountain Division led by Major General Harcharan Singh while Nathu La was commanded by 17 Mountain Division led by Major General Sagat Singh Rathore, these two divisions fell under the 33 Corps of the Indian Army. According to the plans devised by the 33 Corps commander Lt Gen GG Bewoor, in case of any escalation to a war, 17 and 27 Mountain Divisions would leave the Nathu La and Jelep La pass respectively and take a defensive offence position some 9-10 miles inside the Indian territory at Chhangu and Lumthu respectively. This plan was unacceptable to Major General Sagat Singh and he even called it 'absurd and stupid'. As the situation was growing tense, Chinese PLA crossed LAC in Ladakh and killed 3 Indian Policemen. The PLA troops in Nathu La and Jelep La had gathered in large numbers and started aggressive demonstration, they even accused Indian Army of disturbing peace along LAC. Amid all this, an order came from 33 Corps to vacate the Jelep La and Nathu La pass in order to avoid engaging China in a war.


The situation in India was very gloomy, one side we had just declared ceasefire with Pakistan and on the other China was trying its best to engage India in a war. Maj Gen Harcharan Singh in accordance to the orders vacated the Jelep La while Maj Gen Sagat Singh was adamant and stayed back at Nathu La defying the Corps Commander's order. Had Major General Sagat Singh vacated Nathu La, China would have got an opportunity to dominate the Siliguri corridor often called as 'Chicken's Neck' and disintegrated North-eastern states from mainland. China soon occupied the Jelep La but were irked seeing Sagat Singh still holding the Nathu La, the Chinese thence decided to wait for the right opportunity to occupy Nathu La. Over the next two years many minor skirmishes broke out between India and China, even the diplomatic war continued. China had used the 1965 Indo-Pak war to its advantage in expanding its control in TAR and Sikkim border regions. The Chinese Communist Party leaders and Mao Zedong's PLA troops were now waiting eagerly for the perfect opportunity to take over Nathu La.

Major General Sagat Singh at Nathu La

Watershed is a land area that channels and drains all the rainfall and streams to a common outlet such as river, water poured at any point in watershed would run to the deepest point of the region. The border passes of Nathu La and Cho La were along the watershed region between Sikkim and China. The Chinese never accepted the McMahon line and there had always been clashes along the watershed sourced to the unmarked borderline, since the precise location of the border wasn't set, the People's Liberation Army wanted to creep into the Indian territory as far as possible, the tactics that they employed in the 1962 war. The patrolling platoons of Chinese PLA would often try to invoke the Indian troops in Nathu La by lauding the victory of 1962, there had been many loudspeakers set up in the Chinese camp that blared the repeat of '1962 lesson' in Suddha Hindi but no soldier of 17 Mountain Division paid heed to as they were used to more colloquial language.