“A good plan violently executed right now is much better than a perfect plan executed next week”
This quote by General George S Patton fits well on the heroes of a violent clash, which not only gave India the confidence to take on any bully without fear, but also dented the image of the so called invincible China, ruled then by the dictator Mao Zedong. 11 September 2019 is the 52nd anniversary of the surprise victory that India achieved over a marauding Chinese force at the summit of Nathu La in the Indo-China clashes of 1967. Despite being subjected to constant Chinese hooliganism and a murderous hail of bullets, our men in uniform refused to give up and after three days of intense fighting, forced the Chinese to retreat.
This was a turbulent time. Indira Gandhi was only a year old as India’s PM, and the Indians were upbeat and confident after back to back wins over their arch rival Pakistan, whether in the field of sports like Tokyo Olympics 1964, or the legendary war of 1965, where Pakistan had to beg for a ceasefire. As such, the Indians were now better equipped, and equally ready to face the Chinese in any circumstance.
The bone of contention for India and China in 1967 was the state of Sikkim, which at that time, was a small kingdom, under the protection of the Indian government. For tactical reasons, China wanted to usurp this state on the lines of Tibet, while India, being the benevolent nation, just wanted to protect the small kingdom without significant political benefits.
Soon enough, the then commanding officer of the 17th Mountain Division, and a subsequent war hero, Major General Sagat Singh was deputed with the task of sealing the borders of Nathu La with barbed wires and fences, following repeated intrusions by the Chinese forces. Major General Sagat Singh had once boldly refused to vacate the Nathu La pass on Chinese orders in 1963, saying that the pass was situated at the natural boundary itself.
At that time, the Chinese communism was at its peak, with their dictator Mao Tse Tung or Mao Zedong in power. They were brimming with overconfidence post the humiliation they meted on the Indian forces in the 1962 war, and never thought that the Indians would have the audacity to challenge their supremacy at Nathu La. They were horribly wrong on that part.
On 13 August 1967, matters came to the head when the Indian forces found the Chinese digging trenches that directly faced the Sikkimese border. Pointing it out to the local Chinese commander, the Indian forces asked him to withdraw, which fell on deaf ears. To add fuel to the fire, the Chinese dug further trenches, and added 8 more loudspeakers to the existing 21, in a clear act of defiance to the Indian warning.
Taking the intrusion seriously, the Indian forces decided to fence the border, which at that time, was made by a mere line of stones at the centre of the pass. The Indians had the advantage of height and landscape, courtesy the Sebu La complex, while the Chinese had the luxury of manpower. On 18 August 1967, wires were stretched along the borders. Aghast at the defiance of Indian forces, the Chinese tried to subject the Indians to manhandling and a show of weapons, but in vain.
7 September 1967 was the day when Lt. Col. Rai Singh assumed command in letter and spirit. When the local Chinese commanders rushed to the spot and threatened him with dire consequences, he neither retreated from the spot nor complied with the diktats. Following an attempt to manhandle him, the Indians lost their temper and engaged in a violent scuffle with the Chinese, leaving soldiers on both sides injured.
However, the main episode was yet to come. On 11 September 1967, the Indian forces decided to set up a barbed fence across the border that ran from the pass between Nathu La and Sebu La. They were intercepted by a Chinese political commissar and the Chinese troops, who warned them with dire consequences. Ignoring their bullying, Lt. Col. Rai Singh exhorted his men and the engineers, along with the assisting battalions of Rajput Regiment to carry on with their work at Nathu La. When the Chinese heckled Rai for the same, the soldiers indulged into another scuffle, roughing up the Commissar twice. Enraged by the defiance, the Chinese went back to the bunkers, while the soldiers resumed their work. However, they weren’t ready for what came next.
A whistle from the Chinese side, followed by the murderous hail of bullets from the Chinese medium machine guns, shocked the Indian forces at work. Due to the lack of cover on ground zero, the soldiers suffered serious casualties. Lt. Col. Rai Singh exhorted his men to keep their cool and fight back the Chinese marauders, giving them the necessary covering fire. Captain Prithvi Singh Dagar and Major Harbhajan Singh tried their best to give a breakthrough to the Indian forces, but were martyred during the process. While Prithvi Singh Dagar was awarded posthumously with the Vir Chakra, Major Harbhajan Singh was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra posthumously.
Following the Chinese invasion, the Indians replied with full force, using every resource at hand. From bayonets to artillery shells, nothing was spared, and the battle went on for three full days. During the course of the battle, Lt.Col. Rai Singh fought with supreme courage, taking on the MMG post himself when the men at helm were brutally massacred.
However, after a few bursts of machine gun fire, Lt. Col. Rai was himself hit twice on the stomach. Despite being greviously wounded, and suffering another injury when a splinter hit him on the head, he did not give up and continued to inspire his men even as he was evacuated. A young officer, 2nd Lt. Attar Singh, showed supreme courage as he exhorted his men to fight, despite the mounting casualties. As a result, he was given an out of turn promotion, and he was promoted to the post of Captain.
Joining the ranks of the very few bravehearts who survived those horrifying injuries, Lt. Col. Rai Singh made it and proudly wore the Maha Vir Chakra on his chest, i.e. India’s second highest wartime gallantry medal, which was awarded for his courageous act on the occasion of the Republic Day in the year 1968.
However, it looked like the Chinese were yet to learn their lessons. A minor scuffle between Sikh sentries of the Jammu & Kashmir Rifles and the Chinese soldiers on 30th September on a flat patch of icy land of about five metres on the unmarked boundary at Cho La was the start of the standoff. The Indian sentry roughed up the Chinese and he lost his tunic button.
The news about the scuffle reached quite late to the commanding officer, Major KB Joshi, but he didn’t waste any time in anticipating a Nathu La like backlash. The CO decided to take stoke of the situation and thus reached Rai Gap area on the way to De Coy positions in morning. While the Indian Sentry at post 15450 was visible, Major Joshi also observed that the post was being surrounded by section strength of Chinese troops. Major Joshi at once informed Lt. Rathore of what he had seen. The latter informed Major Joshi that the Chinese Coy Commander and the political commissar were staking claims to the boulder at the sentry post.
As the turmoil between Major Joshi and the Chinese was going on, Naib Subedar Gyan Bahadur Limbu was having a heated argument with his counterpart at the sentry post during which he rested his right foot on the boulder under dispute. The Chinese kicked his foot away. Gyan put his foot back and challenged them. Events were moving quickly.
By this time the Chinese had taken up their positions, presumably because their commander had already taken a decision to escalate the incident, and one of the Chinese sentries bayoneted Gyan wounding him in the arm. That proved costly for the Chinese bullies as Gyan chopped both the arms of his assaulters with a Khukri. At this point the Chinese opened fire and the two sides engaged in a firefight at close range.
Lance Naik Krishna Bahadur, the Post Commander, then led a charge against the Chinese in the vicinity who were forming up for an assault. Although hit and incapacitated, he continued to exhort his men forward. Rifleman Devi Prasad Limbu directly behind his Post Commander was already engaged in a close quarter battle with the enemy and his Khukri took off five Chinese heads. However, he was soon claimed by a direct hit. For his actions he was awarded a posthumous Vir Chakra.
Meanwhile at Pt. 1540 Lt. Rathore was wounded in his left arm as soon as the firing started. He nevertheless continued to lead until he was hit in the chest and abdomen and he later succumbed to his injuries. It was then that the CO took the matter into his own hands and his accurate mortar fire on Chinese positions around Point 15450 put an end to further activity in this area.
J&K Rifles stationed there suffered heavy casualties when one of their bunkers received a direct hit by RCL fire. Major Joshi’s escort was killed and a handful of Chinese soldiers tried to move towards Major Joshi’s party. Though the troops withdrew after Major Joshi took down two Chinese soldiers’ single-handedly, the fighting continued.
Irritated by the valor of the Indian soldiers, the Chinese wanted to shift the location of fight and hence stopped firing. However, Indian soldiers immediately retaliated by bringing down the fire on Timjong’s position, which was close by. Undaunted by his position, Major Joshi continued to fire until all ammunition was exhausted. By 11:30 AM troops were withdrawn back from Pt. 15450 under covering fire from MMGs on Pt. 15180.
Despite the bravado, Pt 15540 was still under Chinese control. Thus an operation was launched at 1700 hours in order to recapture the peak. Soon Captain Parulekar and B Coy were given the task to capture Pt 15540, but they fumbled in the darkness. The Chinese fired magnesium flares to see the activity but failed. At 06:40 pm, Major Joshi ordered Parulekar and the platoon to outflank the enemy from a north-west direction, while the rest of the company and supporting mortars were readied for a frontal assault.
The offensive was about to be launched when the Chinese saw Indians occupying key positions to nail them. Thus they retreated and Pt 15540 was captured without firing a single shot. During the whole standoff, the Chinese lost more than 50 soldiers while Indian Army conceded 15 of its valiant soldiers. The so called Chinese invincibility was reduced to smithereens with these two clashes, and we can never forget the contributions of such brave soldiers, who risked their own lives to ensure that India is no more treated as a pushover in any way.