Before the event fades into the annals of history, its special significance for the combative spirit of the Indian army soldier needs to be highlighted and etched in stone.
By Maj Gen Shashikant Pitre
15th June (15/6) was just not an ‘another day’ in the chronicles of the Indian Army. That is so, not only because twenty gallant Indian soldiers made the supreme sacrifice for their motherland and attained martyrdom. It is also not because an unknown number of Chinese soldiers much larger than twenty were killed in the duel. A grateful nation paid its tributes repeatedly for the divine oblation for the Indian martyrs. The clash was voluminously covered in the print and television media; dissected, analysed and its raison d’être’ unceasingly questioned by expert carpers. Ostensibly, all that was to be said about the episode was said.
However, before the event fades into the annals of history, its special significance for the combative spirit of the Indian army soldier needs to be highlighted and etched in stone. The incident brought out some relevant lessons regarding the feeble potential of a Chinese soldier and the intrepid fighting psyche of an Indian soldier. It is necessary to pause and assimilate their significance. Not that this is any new discovery, yet it will be of benefit to restate the obvious.
The Indian Army came face to face with the PLA on a large scale for the first time in 1962. For a variety of reasons; such as the inept political vision including non-utilisation of the Indian Air Force, total lack of appreciation of the enemy capability and intelligence, the flawed ‘Forward Policy’ entailing deployment in tactically unacceptable penny-packets right in the ‘shop-window’ with no depth, induction of ill-equipped, inadequately clothed, ill-administered and unacclimatised troops and injudicious as well as impulsive decisions of senior military officers like the attack on strongly held Thagla Ridge or premature vacation of fairly formidable defences at Sela; India suffered an ignominious and decisive defeat. These blunders were at the level of grand and operational strategy. At the tactical level, the Indian soldier fought valiantly.
Ironically, the most damaging aftermath of the 1962 debacle was at the tactical level: the ill-conceived and unreal larger- than- life image of a Chinese soldier generated in the minds of not only the Indian populace but even that of the soldiers.
Fortunately, we had to carry this baggage only for a brief period of less than five years. It was demolished in 1967, when the Indian troops mauled the Chinese garrisons at Nathula in Sikkim on September 11 and at Chola in Arunachal Pradesh on October 1 of that year. The Chinese suffered grievously on both occasions and were totally humbled.
In Nathula, we were fortunate to have a staunch Divisional Commander of the calibre of Gen Sagat Singh, who gave orders to attack the Chinese post and even brought artillery fire on the post. There was an equally capable and brave Commanding Officer of the Grenadier battalion, Lt Col Rai Singh who carried out those orders in true letter and spirit, in spite of being wounded. A resolute response was displayed by the Indian soldiers. While 65 Indian soldiers were martyred, the Chinese casualties were in the region of 300-350. Another incident when the Chinese were taught a lesson took place during the same month at Chola, on the border in the Arunachal Pradesh, when a Gorkha JCO standing with his leg on a boulder was told by a Chinese soldier to take it off because, according to him, the boulder was in the Chinese Territory. When the Indian JCO told him sternly that he was standing in the Indian Territory, the Chinese made a threatening gesture. The Gorkha JCO took out his Khukri and sheared off the arm of the Chinese. In a battle which took place the next day, the Gorkha battalion recaptured the post at Point 15450.
These incidents are mirror images of the June 15 incident under the able command of Col Suresh Babu. There is a lesson to learn from all of them and that’s the purpose of this narrative.
The Indian soldier in 1950s primarily came from a rural background. As such, the Indian Army never carried the Martial Race mindset. The soldiers came from everywhere throughout the length and breadth of India, yet they had one thing in common. They were simple, amenable to good order and discipline, possessed a high sense of loyalty to ‘Naam, Namak aur Nishan’, had frugal personal needs and could be groomed in excellent fighting combatants. Under good leadership, they formed an incomparable fighting machine. They are the rightful claimants of the maxim of ‘man behind the machine.’ That can be equally stated about the junior leadership of the Indian Army. With rigorous selection methods, quality training and high levels of motivation; they are an apt counterpart of the men they lead. Together they form the sharp edge of the sword blade which has to cut through the enemy time and again. With mediocre weapons and weapon platforms, they have won every war and the battle they have fought and also performed exceptionally well against the terrorists.
With the passage of time, the higher proportion of entrants is now from the urban origin, more educated and with higher aspirations. The Indian soldier is also now better paid, and attuned to comfort due to the enhancement in his quality of life. The art of the higher leadership is to ensure that these assets do not degrade the fighting potential particularly of soldiers of the infantry and other fighting arms. The 15/6 episode has shown that it has not. It has demonstrated that he can be ferocious and savage if the enemy challenges him to be so. It has shown that he can excel in the technique of unarmed combat, not merely on the training ground but right in the face of the Chinese, using if necessary, enemy’s crude implements of the medieval era and pay him back in his coin. Notwithstanding those huge congregations of Chinese awesome modern weapon platforms of armoured vehicles, missiles and guns paraded on their Independence Day, what is going to matter is the will and ‘never-say-die’ spirit of the Indian soldier fighting in the freezing high altitudes of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh on the Actual Line of Control (LAC).
In the present scenario, the chances of China launching a major offensive in that arduous mountainous terrain are lesser than he trying to use his ‘Salami Slicing’ stratagem to grab tactically important territory on the LAC and attempt to gain moral ascendency over India. The fragile spirit and physical weakness of the Chinese soldier was exposed in various duels fought since May 5, which became glaringly apparent during the 15/6 episode. The combative zeal and expertise of the ‘Ghatak’ platoons, the Commandos, of forward infantry battalions actually won the day. This asset of the Indian soldier will dissuade the Chinese to grab small pieces of territory on the LAC. Maximum endeavour must be made to nurture and intensify this psyche. The PLA is surely not that dumb not to take note of this gradual enhancement in the moral ascendancy of the Indian Armed Forces. This is the significance of 15/6.
(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. He was GOC 9 DIV, COS ARTRAC. Views expressed are personal.)