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Recollections of a tense month
- A veteran talks about the Sino-Indian war

Heramba Sarmah of Tezpur had played a leading role in training Assamese youths in the use of arms to fight the Chinese army.

Today, nearly 50 years after the Sino-Indian conflict, the octogenarian recollects those tense days

It was a fine day in October 1962. An all-Assam one-act play competition was on in Tezpur and I was its organising secretary. That morning I heard the news on radio that Jawaharlal Nehru had ordered our troops to throw out the Chinese army from our borders.

The day was October 20, 1962.

It was only later that we came to know that it was an incursion by the Chinese.

As news of heavy fighting came in, Nripen Baruah (former personnel manager, transport), a few others and I formed the Youth Emergency Organisation in Tezpur to train Assamese youths in the use of arms and other defence tactics just in case we were called upon to fight for our country.

Another thing we did was to clear the road from Rangapara to Tezpur of boulders so that army vehicles could ply on the road smoothly.

And then came Nehru’s heartbreaking announcement, “My heart bleeds for the people of Assam,” when Bomdila, now in Arunachal Pradesh, fell to Chinese troops.

During those days, around 6 to 6.30 every evening, leaders of our organisation, administration officials and other political leaders used to gather at the Congress office to discuss the day’s events. But what was most interesting and has remained a mystery was the fact that whatever we used to discuss was relayed ad verbatim on the 7 o’clock evening news from Dhaka, then in East Pakistan.

Around this time, I and Nripen Baruah undertook a survey by boat on the Brahmaputra and found that the nearest location for evacuating people of Tezpur, if required, would be to Bhurbandha on the south bank.

Our suggestion was accepted and soon, the government ordered evacuation from Tezpur, which was just 60-70 km away from the war theatre and the threat of bombing was looming large over the town.

Three ships were pressed into service. It is difficult to imagine the scene unless one has lived through it. There were pregnant women delivering babies on the sand and families getting separated and finding each other again. Utter chaos prevailed.

We stayed behind in Tezpur after the evacuation and during a visit to a chapori, we located a radio after a long search. When we turned it on, we heard the news that the Chinese had declared unilateral ceasefire throughout the region.

It was the morning of November 20, 1962.

On the day the Chinese evacuated, we went to Bomdila and saw many bodies of our soldiers lying on either side of the narrow treacherous road.

On our return, we visited villages in Biswanath and Gohpur where we found that the political leaders had all left.

Many court martial cases were instituted because retreating Indian soldiers had allegedly pillaged tea garden bungalows for food and other essentials.

A lieutenant colonel, who had asked me to defend the accused, told me that they were not equipped or trained to fight in the mountains. “We can fight from foothills to the plains and the Chinese cannot defeat us, but we have not been trained to fight in the mountains,” he had said.

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