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Notes from a frontier

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Fifty years ago, they exchanged bullets. Today they share food. And rifleman M. Nath has a serious grouse. “The spread presented by the Chinese side is usually bland. Our Indian Chinese food is tastier,” says Nath, referring to the India-China flag meetings held along the border four times a year. “But it’s still a great party.”

Indian and Chinese armies hold “informal interactions” on the 16,500-foot high border spot of Bumla, about 37 kilometres from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, as a confidence-building measure. Assamese Nath posted at an Indian military camp halfway between Tawang and Bumla, attended the just concluded October meet.

“It’s a mela,” agrees Tawang deputy commissioner Kemo Lollen. The DC says there might be some closed-door talks, but civil authorities and the people are not privy to these. “We are just guests there partaking of the cultural delights,” Lollen adds. “But generally these meets are not about high-level security talks.”

The DC’s office handpicks civilians from among 1,000 applications every year. After the DC’s nomination, the army gives the final approval. “People in Tawang show an overwhelming interest in the meets — but around 100 or so finally make it.”

Tsering Deki, a 30-something state electricity board employee in Tawang, has been present on several occasions. “The Chinese have a fascination for our Indian currency, which they want in exchange for their money. But they are not very friendly,” Deki says.

Fifty years have passed since China attacked North-East Frontier Agency or Nefa (now Arunachal Pradesh) and Ladakh over the McMahon Line which the Chinese refused to recognise as a valid border between the two countries. Following a series of incursions through September, 1962, China mounted a massive attack on Nefa and Ladakh on October 20. In a letter to chief ministers on October 21, 1962, Prime Minister Nehru wrote with a heavy heart, “...the Chinese have attacked us with overwhelming strength and firepower, and this had led to a grave setback to our forces in Nefa where they have captured some of our posts and driven back our forces.”

Memories of the war are still alive in Tawang, home to the Gaden Namgyal Lhatse, the largest Buddhist monastery in India. The cloud-filled valley perched at 10,000 feet — now with a population of around 40,000 people, mostly belonging to the Monpa tribe — fell to the Chinese on October 24, 1962.

A mix of emotions — awe, fear, friendliness, suspicion and aloofness — is apparent when Tawang locals talk about India-China friendship gestures along the border. Norbu Tsering, 70, a retired state intelligence bureau employee who lives in a modest cottage on a hilltop in Tawang, can still rattle off the exact number of dead Indian soldiers he saw at various mountain passes during the war.

He was then working at Zemithang, in the northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh, ensconced between Bhutan and China. “We were patrolling the border when we heard the Chinese were entering our territories,” recalls Norbu. Along with others, he fled the area and walked all the way to Bhutan and from there to Rangiya and Guwahati before taking shelter in Shillong for a month.

“Our soldiers didn’t have enough weapons — I saw most of them carrying only .303 rifles and a handful of grenades,” he says. “At Sela Pass, Indian soldiers pelted the enemy with stones when they ran out of ammunition.” He adds that many soldiers were killed because of the insurmountable mountains — some fell off the hills, unable to negotiate the steep slopes.

Major General Hardev Singh Kler remembers how panic spread among the soldiers. He was the commander, signals, 5 Infantry Division, responsible for communications between army units. “At the end of hostilities, we tried to look into why a disciplined force panicked and abandoned well-defended Sela pass position without a fight,” recalls Kler, who now leads a retired life in Los Angeles. “It seemed the Chinese cut off the only supply route to our troops. The General in charge seemed to panic and ordered his troops to withdraw.”

He adds that while retreating, the troops were ambushed by Chinese patrols. “That created more panic. Soldiers who came down at foothill bases were undernourished and their clothes were tattered.”

The US, he adds, sent India arms and ammunition. “These started arriving a bit too late to influence the outcome,” he says. “While retreating, the Chinese wrote on US boxes of automatic riles, that lay unused on the Indian side, ‘Take these and fight the Imperialists’ (meaning Americans).”

Veteran journalist and author Kuldip Nayar writes in his autobiography, Beyond the Lines: “Never before had India sought armed assistance from abroad, but after China’s attack it did. Nehru sent a frantic message to President Kennedy...”

Kler blames the 1962 debacle singularly on a complete “lack of political leadership helped by the lack of a military leadership”. He says, “The troops were not to blame. They were ill-equipped, but fought ferociously.”

People in Tawang and its neighbouring areas are not without apprehensions. “We keep hearing about the Chinese coming down to Indian army posts vacated in winter or that they are building dams on our rivers,” says businessman Dorjee Phuntso. “These may be rumours as we have full faith in our army.”

Others say they would rather worry about local problems than about a Chinese threat. “Tourism is down, thanks to bad roads and the discontinuation of chopper services (after former chief minister Dorjee Khandu’s death in a crash),” says Sikha Saikia, who runs a restaurant-cum-lounge bar in Tawang.

But the youngsters are busy carrying on with their lives. “We have a mast life,” says Konchuk Tsering, a 20-something state government employee. “Playing snooker is a hot pastime for the youth here.”

Memories of the war are, however, not easy to erase. The 143km steep stretch from Dirang to Tawang is dotted with war memorials — Nyukmadong memorial, near Dirang, for soldiers who lost their lives in the West Kameng district; Jaswantgarh, near the Sela Pass, which has a temple in memory of rifleman Jaswant Singh who stopped the Chinese army’s march for about 72 hours; and the war memorial near the Tawang helipad that has a shrine dedicated to Subedar Joginder Singh, who held the Chinese in a fierce gunbattle at Tongpen La.

War memories are particularly painful for Chinese immigrants. “My father and I worked in tea gardens as contractors,” says W.H. Tham in Assam’s Sonitpur. “As soon as the news of the war broke, we were ambushed by a group of locals at Balipara, near the Assam-Arunachal border. We were called ‘Chinese agents’ and beaten up.”

The Thams were picked up by local police and eventually transferred to a special jail in Nagaon where they were detained for two-and-a-half years. “We fear if there is a repeat of ’62, we could be made to go through yet another harrowing experience,” says Tham, now an Indian citizen.

But experts say a repeat is unlikely, even though China still claims areas in Tawang and Aksai Chin in Ladakh. “China is now focused on economic modernisation and they have enough problems in East and South China Seas,” says D.S. Rajan, who retired as a China analyst, cabinet secretariat, and is now director, Chennai Centre for China Studies. “So they won’t be too eager to open up a front with India.”

To top it, Rajan adds, India today has a stronger defence preparedness, modern weaponry and a solid presence — over 10,000 troops, according to sources — along the Sino-Indian border.

In times of peace, war is a distant thought.

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