By Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, VSM (Retd)
In 1967, India and China had a stand -off in the heights of Cho La and Nathu La at the Sikkim border. This time, unlike in 1962, overcoming the odds, India stood its ground and triumphed. Probal DasGupta in his wonderful account ‘Watershed 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory over China’; gives rare granularity into the clashes that were central to India regaining control in these strategically significant border areas. India did not win any territory in this battle but won its lost confidence after the defeat of 1962. The book covers events that preceded the clashes, the action itself, and the aftermath.
Part 1, is aptly titled the ‘Road to 1967’. We are exposed to the China – Pakistan collusivity through Sheikh Abdullah and his meeting with a CIA operative Duanne Ramsdell Clarridge in Jeddah in early 1965. Sheikh Abdullah had earlier met Premier Chou EnLai during the Asian African Conference in Algiers in February that year and had been told about a plan China and Pakistan were launching in concert to attack India for which they wanted the support of the local population in Kashmir.
He now revealed the sensational plan to the CIA including exhaustive details of the infiltration which was to be followed up by a conventional attack with the aim of forcing India to give up Kashmir. A ‘Crisis Game’ was held in Langley which predicted the war in 1966; with Pakistan ‘capturing Srinagar airfield and rolling towards Jammu’ and the Chinese ‘instigating a fierce battle’ in the East with ‘Sikkim being the point of vulnerability for India’; as Sikkim had been ‘demanding autonomy from India, the PLA would be seen as liberators’.
The war never went as predicted but the Chinese did try to break India’s momentum against Pakistan and prevent its ability to pull out troops from the East by announcing the creation of Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) on 01 September, warning India against building military structures on TAR soil on 08 September and on 17 September giving an ultimatum to dismantle bunkers within three days. Finally, it amassed troops on the border in Sikkim.
DasGupta clearly states that” it was Chinese belligerence that led India to accept the ceasefire in spite of its position of military advantage over Pakistan”. After the announcement China announced that “Indian troops had withdrawn their military structures”; but these had never existed to begin with.
This part also covers the perplexing Chinese allegation that India had stolen sheep and yaks and threatened ’a repeat of 1962’; in response to which Atal Bihari Vajpayee took a herd of sheep to the Chinese Embassy with a placard saying “ eat me but save the world’. It also covers the Chinese build up at Jelep La and Nathu La and the contrasting responses by the respective Divisional Commanders with Major General Sagat Singh’s unwillingness to vacate the forward positions at Nathu La, a decision which undoubtedly prevented China from gaining a huge tactical advantage in this sector. This decision has been validated by events that have followed.
Part 2; covers the battles of Nathu La and Cho La. In the summer of 1967, during China’s Cultural Revolution, tensions rose between India and China including the illegal detention and public trial of two Indian diplomats in Beijing, including Krishna Raghunath who later became the Foreign Secretary with the Red Guards besieging the Indian Embassy. India responded by deporting Chinese diplomats.
Other issues highlighted include Chairman Mao interacting with Naxalite leaders Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal as well as the use of air in Aizawl against Mizo insurgents who had been supported by both China and Pakistan. Incidentally, as per Probal, two of the pilots who were part of this mission were Rajesh Pilot and Suresh Kalmadi. It also covers the tensions between the Chogyal and the Indian government with him seeking greater autonomy and his wife Hope Cooke questioning the grant of Darjeeling to British India in 1835 by an ill-timed article. China was also steadily increasing its gap of military capability with India and had tested its first thermonuclear device in June 1967. These anecdotes add tremendous value to the book.
In August, Chinese troops attempted to set up installations at Nathu La, just across the Chinese border within the territory of Sikkim and targeting Indian troops with propaganda through loudspeakers. By September, tensions had escalated due to the laying of the barbed wire fence and brawls were taking place, but at 0745 hours on 11 September, Indian troops were met by Chinese machine-gun fire, followed by artillery fire. This resulted in the death of nearly eighty eight personnel and injury to many brave soldiers. The battalion responded by machine gun fire but the opening up of artillery fire was delayed due to the permissions involved.
Over the next few days, Indian troops were able to destroy Chinese installations and it is estimated that in NathuLa the Chinese lost 340 men and there were over 450 personnel injured. Finally a ceasefire was declared on 14 September.
In late September, Chinese troops made a similar attempt at nearby Cho La, and captured Point 15450 in a bloody skirmish but were beaten back by the bravery and combat skills of 7/11 Gorkha Rifles and were taken by surprise by the manner in which the battalion launched the Counter Attack.
Das Gupta is at his strongest describing the clashes. He has described the lay of the land at Nathu La, and at Cho La, analysing the terrain, a key element in any battle, well. Though a large portion of the book follows then Major General Sagat Singh, GOC 17 Mountain Division under whose jurisdiction the clashes took place. A truly remarkable soldier who carried a bounty on his head in Portugal for his role in the Goa Operations in 1961, he would go on to play a major role in reducing the insurgency in Mizoram and in making a dash for Dacca as the 4 Corps Commander in 1971.He ‘stood ram rod straight’ and was always present at the decisive point.
However, once battle commences, Dasgupta shifts the focus not only to the ‘calm and unflappable ‘Brigade Commander Brigadier MMS Bakshi, MVC, but also the two outstanding and fearless Commanding Officers Lieutenant Colonel Rai Singh of 2 GRENADIERS who was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra and Lieutenant Colonel KB Joshi of 7/11 Gorkha Rifles and the other officers, JCO’s and the men who all played their parts in this clash.
This includes Havildar Tinjong Lama of 7/11 Gorkha Rifles who destroyed many bunkers with his accurate RCL firing, Rifleman Debi Prasad who fearlessly used his khukri to cut down the Chinese while assaulting their defensive wall, Major Ram Singh Rathore the Company Commander all of the same battalion, who laid down his life at Point 15450 . Captain Sheru Thapliyal who brought down devastating artillery fire on the Chinese and Major Harbhajan Singh of 18 RAJPUT who was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra for leading the Counter Attack at Nathu La, as well as Major Bishan Singh and Captain PS Dagar of 2 GRENADIERS who were responsible for laying the barbed wire fence.
General Sagat Singh’s leadership, including placement of artillery guns, ensured that a difficult situation could be salvaged and turned into India’s favour quickly. The artillery used at Nathu La changed the course of the battle.
In Part 3, Dasgupta has rightly argued that an Indian victory in 1967 forced a rethink by China that ultimately shaped the subcontinent. The significance of the win of 1967 left a deep geopolitical impact. India was now perceived as ‘possessing the capability of repelling Chinese aggression deftly’. It had direct repercussions on the Indo-Pak war of 1971, unlike in 1965 China did not pressurise India by making claims and moving troops in spite of being asked to do so by Henry Kissinger, the US National Security Advisor.
The significance of 1967, lies in the possibilities that could have constrained our actions in 1971, had we not won. Incase India had ceded the Sikkim border zone, the 1971 War that led ultimately to the formation of Bangladesh might have gone very differently. Chinese control of the areas around Sikkim would have made it much easier to cut off Eastern India, and would have allowed China to give Pakistani forces the backing they needed in East Pakistan. But India was able to support the formation of Bangladesh and thereafter incorporate Sikkim into India in May 1975, a move not acknowledged by China until 2003.
India’s victory over China in 1967 proved to be a watershed in history. The two countries would not go to war against each other again for a long time, ushering in over fifty years of a tense peace interspersed with stand offs, until the two countries were involved in a barbaric skirmish in Galwan in 2020.
The book explains the strategic landscape in the sub-continent during the tumultuous days of the 1965 India-Pakistan War; the twists, turns and intrigue regarding the amalgamation of the kingdom of Sikkim into the Union of India; and the constant Chinese attempts to prevent the accession. It also brings out the parallels between India’s actions in 1967 and similar boldness during the Sumdoring Chu standoff with China in 1987. In 1987 it was the combination of the then Eastern Army Commander General VN Sharma and the Chief General K Sunderji who recommended and executed aggressive action against the Chinese. This zeal and confidence was also witnessed during the tense 2017 Doklam stand-off. While the story of a similar resolve and bravery by our troops at Galwan in 2020 is well known and part of recent memory.
Sandwiched between the two India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, the impact and relevance of the Nathu La and Cho La clashes of September 1967 have not been given their rightful due. However, India’s victory in 1967 set the stage for its future posture towards China.
The book also tells the reader how decisions taken then set the course for decades to come. It also shines a spotlight on the incredible bravery of the Indian soldier and how General Sagat Singh, with his foresightedness and moral courage, delivered India victory in this conflict. While easy to read it is a gripping and fascinating book, based on extensive research and interactions with various participants and is a must read particularly for those interested in Indo- China relations.
(Reviewer of the book is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).