India-China dispute: Nathu La battle, 1967 – The last time India and China fired bullets at each other

Limited scuffle and skirmishes have been going on between the two sides since the Nathu La firing but the situation did not escalate the way it has at Galwan Valley in Ladakh this time.

Two Asian giants are facing each other in the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world and, strategically important for both the nation. They are in an eye ball to eye ball position at Galwan Valley that they believe is part of their territory. On June 16, the Indian Army spokesperson confirmed that 20 Army men succumbed to injuries in sub-zero temperatures. It’s alarming for India as for the first time in more than five decades that skirmishes between the two armies have led to casualties of this monumental size. There are conflicting reports on the number of casualties the Chinese side has suffered and the PLA is yet to declare its official statement on the issue.

What happened at Nathu La?

Nathu La was the flashpoint between the Indian Army and PLA in September 1967. A scuffle broke out between the two armies’ soldiers which ultimately led to fights with artillery guns and threats from fighter jets. The whole episode left 88 soldiers dead on the Indian side while the PLA had to suffer the loss of 300 lives of its PLA soldiers.

Chronology of the clash at Nathu La

The Indian side had decided to fence the frontier with three layers of barbed wire in the weeks and months ahead of the clash and the fencing work had begun on August 20, 1967.

On August 23, about 75 Chinese in battle dress, carrying bayonet-fitted rifles, slowly advanced in an extended line toward Nathu La and stopped at the border. The Political Commissar — identifiable by a red patch on his cap, and the only one who could speak some English — read slogans from a red book that was shouted after him by the rest of the party. The Indian troops stood, observed, and waited as the Chinese withdrew after over an hour, only to return later for a continued protest.

On September 5, the Political Commissar had a disagreement with the Commanding Officer of the local infantry battalion, Lt Colonel Rai Singh, as the barbed wire fence was being converted to a concertina coil and it led to the suspension of the fencing work.

However, the fencing work was resumed on September 7 which led to around 100 Chinese soldiers rushing towards the Indian side of the border, ultimately leading to a scuffle. The Chinese resorted to stone-pelting, Indians responded in kind.

The Chinese had on September 10 sent India a ‘stern warning’ via the embassy that its border defence troops were closely monitoring the situation along the China-Sikkim boundary and the Indians were to be held responsible for ‘grave consequences’ in case of continued ‘provocative intrusions’ by the Indian troops.

The Indian corps commander had on September 11 ordered completion of the fence. That day the Chinese, led by the Political Commissar, came to protest as work began. Corps commander Lt Col Rai Singh went out to converse with them when the Chinese immediately opened fire at him, leaving him wounded.

Having seen their CO struck, the Chinese post was targeted by the Infantry battalion but the Indian army suffered loss as its soldiers who were patrolling in open were taken down by the Chinese machine gun.

After suffering heavily at the hands of Chinese, the Indian Army responded with artillery fire and destroyed the presence of every Chinese post. The final round of assault by artillery by the Indian Army killed more soldiers on the Chinese side than the casualties they had to bear in the initial round of firing started by the Chinese army. Caught napping by the heavy firing in response from the Indian Army, the PLA had threatened to strike with warplanes but Indians held their ground and subsequently the Chinese backed off from the post.

After attaining a relative position of strength, India had on September 12 sent a note to the Chinese with a proposal of an unconditional ceasefire across the Sikkim-Tibet border from September 13 at 5:30 am. The proposal was dismissed but it led to calm down of the nerves until September 14.

The Chinese on September 15 handed over the Indian soldiers’ bodies with arms and ammunition saying they were behaving in the interests of “preserving Sino-Indian friendship.”

Limited scuffle and skirmishes have been going on between the two sides since the Nathu La firing but the situation did not escalate the way it has at Galwan Valley in Ladakh this time. Various media reports are claiming that the casualties on the Indian side can be around 20 as some of the soldiers who got injured in the attack by the Chinese are in critical condition.

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