Sunday, April 28, 2013

India-China standoff: Journey to Tawang recalled

In the backdrop of the current face off between India and China in Ladakh, I thought it would be useful to recall my travel to the Eastern front--to the Kameng Sector--to commemorate half a century of the 1962 war. So here it: Still pictures, a half hour documentary, several articles. Its a longish post. Take a look for whatever it is worth.

September 2012 was a busy, educative and humbling experience for me. 

In trying to piece together the story of the 1962 border war between India and China, half a century later was not easy.

 In the end however, all the trouble--physical and mental--has been worth it. 

In the process, several discoveries were made: The biggest was that most of contents of the over-hyped Henderson Brookes Report on the military aspects of India's biggest and only defeat since 1947 was already in public domain courtesy the Official History of the 1962 war co-authored by Col (retd) Anil Athale. Col Athale had that report in his physical possession for two years! He has quoted extensively from that report! So much for secrecy, scoops and claims about the HB Report.

My travel to Tawang was a different experience altogether. Missed deadlines, half done work, shoddy planning on the infrastructure front was really saddening.

Another disheartening fact was the Indian Army's blockade of information and access to areas along the China border. Half a century later, the Army should have been proudly talking about the changes it has brought in terms of both preparedness as well as mindsets. It would have been appropriate for the Army to showcase the difference between 1962 and now. But the Brass told journalists that areas under Eastern Command and Eastern Ladakh are out of bounds for them. The logic was: Why up the ante against the Chinese? Still under confident? Afraid of the Chinese? Or pure and simple obduracy?

I have never been able to understand the logic.

Nevertheless, here's the sum total of my small effort to bring the 1962 war back in focus. The links below:

and the latest write up.

(details below)

Remembering the India-China border war

By Nitin Gokhale - 22 October 2012 12:33 PM

Nitin Gokhale is Security and Strategic Affairs Editor with India's leading broadcaster NDTV.
On Saturday, India observed the 50th anniversary of its comprehensive military defeat in the brief border war with China in the winter of 1962. It is important to look back at the events leading to the skirmish before attempting to assess what the future holds for the relationship between the two Asia giants.

In a way, the origins of the border war can be traced to two unrelated events in 1959. In March that year, Tibetan temporal and spiritual leader Dalai Lama fled to India through Arunachal Pradesh (then known as North-East Frontier Agency or NEFA) following a Chinese crackdown in Tibet. New Delhi's decision to grant the Dalai Lama political asylum did not go down well with China although Beijing did not make its annoyance too obvious.

The second event was India's discovery of a road, connecting China's mainland to the restive Sinkiang, built by China through the Indian held but unmanned Aksai Chin area in Ladakh. That discovery triggered the ill-thought 'Forward Policy', initiated by India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in consultation with his cousin Lt. Gen BM Kaul, a non-combat officer.

Under that policy the army was ordered to establish posts with less than  dozen soldiers in areas that were neither connected by road nor had any strategic value just to show that the land belonged to India. The establishment of these 300-odd 'penny packets', as one general later described them, led China to believe that India was preparing for a showdown over the border. Nehru, under pressure from the opposition and the people, was goaded into ordering a reckless plan to 'evict' the Chinese from Aksai Chin and NEFA against the professional advice of his military brass.

The so-called Indian provocation apart, Mao Zedong by some accounts also wanted to teach India a lesson since India and China were both competing for leadership position in Asia of the time. Mao seized the opportunity by coinciding the attack with the Cuban missile crisis. Col (ret'd) Anil Athale, who co-authored the official history of the 1962 war for India's Ministry of Defence says Mao used the tension between the US and the USSR to launch the offensive against India.

'The Chinese were aware of the impending Cuban missile deployment and calculated that the US would be engaged in a major confrontation with the erstwhile USSR to come to India's aid. The Chinese methodically built up its supplies and troops in Tibet to wait for the onset of the Cuban missile crisis. That opportunity came on 20 October when the US decided to confront the USSR on Cuba,' Athale told me.
Fifty years after that bloody confrontation in which India lost over 4,000 soldiers, much has changed on the ground. Indian deployment all along the line of actual control, as the de facto boundary is called, is sufficiently strong although border infrastructure on the Indian side is still below par

A repeat of 1962 is unlikely but tension between the two countries over the unresolved border issue continues to simmer despite rising bilateral trade ($US73 billion last year).

The intense India-China geopolitical rivalry is playing out in both South and South East Asia. China is making big inroads into India's neighbourhood by increasing its presence in countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. Beijing's long-standing relationship with Pakistan continues to be a constant threat to India; the increasing Chinese footprints in the Gilgit-Baltistan province of Pakistan, abutting Ladakh, worries India no end.

The rivalry, in a way, also extends to South East Asia as New Delhi gets sucked into the South China Sea and East China Sea disputes Beijing is involved in. China is wary of India's rising defence and economic ties with Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan and Australia. But the biggest irritant between New Delhi and Beijing in coming years will be in the form of growing bilateral ties between the United States and India. Strategists in Beijing think Washington is cosying up to New Delhi to balance China's preeminent position in Asia.

As India looks back at the 1962 border war, its leadership will do well to realise that an increasingly assertive power like China will strive to keep India 'off-balance' by what can rightly be described as 'creeping tactical belligerence' on all fronts even while it seeks to develop economic and cultural ties with New Delhi.

In the final analysis, New Delhi must learn to look after its own national interests even as it attempts to deal with its increasingly powerful China.

Photos courtesy DRP, Govt of India.

With Neten Tashi, a SIB spy in 1962 who escorted
the Dalai Lama from Khinzamane to Bomdilla in 1959

With my closest friend, travelling companion, fellow journalist
Samudra Gupta Kashyap at the Tawang War Memorial

Doing a Piece to Camera at Tawang War Memorial
Tezpur to Tawang--a pictorial journey
Pelting rain greets us

At Bhalukpong on the border of Assam and Arunachal

BRO labourers at work

Jimmy Jesibo, a local activist based in Bhalukpong, a town on the Assam-Arunachal Border  is  very angry. The reason: the abysmal condition of the road going right upto Tawang and beyond along the China border.

Bearing the brunt of resentment is the hardworking staff of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), entrusted with widening and improving the roads. Enraged residents, unable to bear the hardship any more, have attacked BRO officials, destroyed their vehicles and have thrown heavy tippers and bulldozers down the steep valleys in the past six months.

Half a century earlier, this was where the marauding Chinese routed the Indian army, pushed into a war it was not prepared for in a tough terrain it was not used to. 

Today the soldiers are definitely better looked after and unlike in 1962, they  are well-trained to fight in the high-altitude terrain of Arunachal Pradesh.

But five decades down the line, infrastructure, especially the main arterial road connecting Tawang to  the rest of India remains a major worry.

Jimmy Jibeso says, "Since the 1962 war, this route is very important for the north-east due to the Indo-china border. If the condition of the road is bad then how will Bofors reach the border in case of an attack. What will we do then? One needs good and big roads for Bofors. This is our main concern. Second concern is that medical help is not good up in Tawang and other places. If a patient has to be taken to Tezpur, Guwahati and other places, the road is so jerky and bad that the patient dies on the way. So we want good roads."

The Army, more than anyone else really requires this axis to be an all-weather road.  Since 2010, it has inducted a full new division - over 20,000 additional soldier -for  this sector.

Deteriorating roads

The majestic Kameng
The Border Roads Organisation, a quasi-military organization is entrusted with building and maintaining these strategic roads. Come rain or winter, labourers of Border Roads Organisation work to keep the only road link to Tawang open through the year but at the moment they are fighting a losing battle. The fault lies not with them but with people higher up who planned  the widening of the only road without building an alternative.

Constant landslips, frequent blockades are a recurring challenge. But landslides apart , BRO officials tell us that they are plagued by a shortage of labour in this sector. Earlier, large groups from Jharkhand and Bihar made their way to these parts.  No longer, since now plenty of work is available in their home states. Excruciatingly slow environmental clearances both by the central and state governments add to the delays.

Many such waterfalls by the road. Koyla was not shot here though

Landslides are a common phenomenon

Once a journo, always a journo!

A BRO labourer

For most of the 300 km, the road is as rough as this

My colleague Nirmal hard at work

One of the lesser known war memorials

Clouds just before Sela

Sela behind me

At Sela--13700 feet

The lake after Sela
The War Memorial at Tawang

Archival pix at the War Memorial. Indian PsOW

A Monpa man

A young monk taking a break in the Tawang Monastery

School children at Jang

At Jaswantgarh--the most famous War Memorial in this sector

No matter what the condition of the road, Army vehicles continue to ply

Unusual site: BRO labourers taking a chess break!

Terribly slushy road

The difficult road

At the Sela zig-zag--doing a piece to camera

Chinese agression in 1962. Captured in a photo 

The Buddha statue inside Tawang monastery


  1. After 50 years of the incident, it is really very interesting to navigate into the issue again. Wonderful story