That India lost the 1962 war against China is known to all. Yes, it was a defeat but it was the defeat for the then political top brass headed by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and not the military which fought like lions despite being outnumbered and outgunned.
Two years later, Nehru died, but the loss to China was not forgotten. A more aggressive Indian military was born and just three years later, in 1965, we defeated Pakistan.
Yet China believed that since they had defeated us in 1962, we would not be a match to their military might ever.
So in 1965, the belligerent Chinese demanded India hand over Nathu La, which is today a scenic tourist spot along the Indo-Tibet border in Sikkim. To their shock, India showed them the middle finger.
Why Nathu La
Nathu La is a strategically important pass 14,200 feet above sea level. It was then all the more important because Sikkim was not part of India at the time. It was a protectorate state, meaning that the Indian Army was responsible to defend it from enemy aggression.
China wanted India to vacate Sikkim and take control. Imagine what would have happened if India had done that. The Chinese border would have been at West Bengal and, perhaps, the seven states of the northeast would not have been India’s part.
At the time Maj Gen (later Lt Gen) Sagat Singh was the GOC of the Mountain Division in Sikkim; Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora was the Corps Commander and Lt Gen (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw was the Eastern Army Commander. The same three men would later go on to script history in the 1971 war with Pakistan.
The Indian Army commanded two strategically higher positions Sebu La and Camel’s Back overlooking the entire Nathu La region giving them a tactical advantage over the Chinese. Since the ‘big brother’ myth propagated by Nehru had been shattered in 1962, the Indian Army installed two artillery positions on the two heights just in case the Chinese made a move. This decision would later prove to be a game changer.
Since the Chinese and the Indians patrolled very close to each other along the pass, scuffles were common. To prevent that, the Indian side decided to demarcate the border by laying a wire. The task was commenced early in the morning of September 11, 1967.
The Morning Of September 11, 1967
The Indian Army’s engineers were being guarded by a company of 18 Rajput. The 2 Grenadiers and artillery deployed on strategic posts at Sebu La and Camel’s Back were on alert.
According to the personal account of Maj Gen Sheru Thapiyal, who was then a young officer deployed in the area, a Chinese army unit came at the centre of the pass and demanded that the Indian Army stop laying the wire. Our boys did not flinch and continued on regardless.
Sulking, the Chinese went back to their bunkers. It was presumed that they had got the answer and their political leadership would only be able to take the matter up in political circles. But here is where the Chinese showed their true colour again. (In case you don’t know, the 1962 war happened because of China’s betrayal of India.)
The Chinese started firing without warning at the Indian soldiers, who were deployed at Yak La pass further north of Nathu La as a shield to protect the engineers.
Since there is no cover in the high ground of Nathu La, the Indian soldiers were caught in the fire. Lt. Col (later Brigadier) Rai Singh, the CO of 2 Grenadiers, was wounded but continued fighting back. Captain Dagar of 2 Grenadiers and Major Harbhajan Singh of 18 Rajput were martyred bravely countering the enemy attack.
While Capt Dagar was posthumously honoured with the Vir Chakra, Maj Harbhajan Singh was honoured with the Maha Vir Chakra. Lt. Col Rai Singh was awarded the MVC.
But perhaps too drunk over their win in 1962, the Chinese had underestimated the Indian Army.
Artillery shelling began from the strategic posts at Sebu La and Camel’s Back and were so accurate that nearly every Chinese bunker was destroyed.
The shelling continued till September 14. So devastated were the Chinese by Indian Army’s constant shelling of their positions that they issued an empty threat of using their air force. There was nothing that they could have done at that point, but the Indian side agreed to a ceasefire on September 15.
By the end of the Nathu La incident this was the casualty on both sides:
India: Around 70 dead.
China: Around 300 dead.
October 1, 1967: Cho La
In 1967, however, the Chinese were little too haughty. At least the Chinese political establishment still is but we were in a time when war wounds were fresh.
The Nathu La incident had made India increase its defences in Sikkim while the Chinese, insulted at Nathu La, were looking for trouble.
Following the skirmish at Nathu La, India deployed the newly formed 7/11 Gorkha Regiment along the Cho La pass just north of the Nathu La pass.
On October 1, a Chinese platoon deliberately got into an argument with a forward platoon commander Naib Subedar Gyan Bahadur Limbu and bayoneted him at Cho La. But the Chinese forgot that they were facing the Gorkhas, unarguably the most daring warriors in the world.
So Limbu’s men retaliated and chopped off the arms of the Chinese soldiers who killed their commander. That quickly escalated into a fierce gunbattle which continued for the next 10 days.
India lost some brave soldiers but were able to drive back the Chinese three kilometers behind the Cho La pass. Two soldiers, Rifleman Devi Prasad Limbu and Havildar Tinjong Lama, were honoured with the Vir Chakra.
The total number of Indian casualties in both Nathu La and Cho La incidents stand at 88 while 163 were wounded. China lost around 400 soldiers and was left with 450 wounded.
An Uneasy Calm?
The Chinese have never dared the Indians at Nathu La or anywhere along the Indo-China border ever since, and even if they did (like in Ladakh), they quickly went back before a bashing from the Indian side.
Nathu La has since remained peaceful and is now a popular tourist destination. Located on the border is a hut where the Chinese and the Indians meet to exchange letters and other items such as rum etc.
But till date, it remains the only place along the Indo-China border where soldiers of the two armies stand literally face-to-face with each other just meters apart.