The last time India and China were engaged in a major military stand-off in Sikkim was in 1967.
On that instance, just five years after India’s traumatic 1962 war defeat, the Indian Army gave the Chinese a bloody nose, according to accounts from the time. More than 80 Indian soldiers were killed, while estimates say between 300 to 400 Chinese troops were killed.
It was certainly a different time: One account suggests that to protest China’s actions then in Sikkim, which reportedly included a Chinese complaint of a herd of sheep being stolen, a 43-year-old Member of Parliament by the name of Atal Bihari Vajpayee drove a herd of sheep to the Chinese Embassy in Shantipath in New Delhi to stage a rather colourful protest.
There are fascinating parallels from the 1967 incident. That was also a stand-off that began with pushing and shoving, when the Chinese filled up trenches that India had dug.
That stand-off was also marked by Chinese irritation at the Indian Army’s presence in the then Kingdom of Sikkim. This month’s stand-off, in the Doklam plateau contested by China and Bhutan, has reflected China’s annoyance with the Indian Army’s presence in Bhutan. China’s government said this week that Bhutan was “a sovereign country” and no “third party” should interfere.
“The Chinese were not comfortable with Sikkim being an Indian protectorate with the deployment of the Indian Army at that time,” recalled Maj Gen Sheru Thapliyal (retd), who was in 1967 posted in nearby Sebu La and later commanded the Nathu La brigade.
As he wrote in an essay published in 2004 in Force magazine and later published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, the stand-off began as engineers and jawans started erecting long iron pickets from Nathu La to Sebu La along the perceived border, which was agreed by both sides under the 1890 treaty between Great Britain and Qing Dynasty China. A scuffle began as China objected to the laying of the wire, and the PLA Political Commissar was roughed up.
The Chinese returned days later. “A whistle was heard on the Chinese side followed by murderous medium machine gun fire from north shoulder. The pass is completely devoid of cover and the jawans of 70 Field Company and 18 Rajput were caught in the open and suffered heavy casualties which included Col Rai Singh who was wounded. Two brave officers – Capt Dagar of 2 Grenadiers and Major Harbhajan Singh of 18 Rajput rallied a few troops and tried to assault the Chinese MMG but both died a heroic death,” recalled Maj Gen Thapliyal.
He adds, “On 14 September 1967, Chinese threatened use of Air Force if shelling did not stop. By then the lesson had been driven home and an uneasy ceasefire came about. The Chinese, true to form, had pulled over dead bodies to their side of the perceived border at night and accused us of violating the border. Dead bodies were exchanged on 15 September at which time: Sam Manekshaw, [then Eastern Army Commander], Aurora [Lt Gen Jagjit Aurora, Corps Commander] and Sagat [Maj Gen Sagat Singh, GOC Mountain Division in Sikkim] were present on the Pass.”
He recalled the situation “again flared up twenty days later when on 1 October 1967 a face-off between India and China took place at Cho La, another pass on the Sikkim-Tibet border a few kilometers north of Nathu La”.
“Despite initial casualties, 7/11 GR and 10 JAK RIF stood firm and forced the Chinese to withdraw nearly three kilometers away to a feature named Kam Barracks where they remain deployed till date. Cho La Pass is firmly in Indian hands. Indian Army had got better of the Chinese yet again.”
He wrote, “No wonder, Sino-Indian border has remained peaceful ever since to the extent that today Chinese soldiers come and ask their Indian counterparts at Nathu La for cigarettes, rum and tea, mail is exchanged twice in a week in a hut constructed specially for this purpose and border personnel meeting takes place there twice a year.”
The 1967 incident marked the last incident of casualties on both sides in the Sikkim sector. And the last death in any sector of the India-China border was in 1975 at Tulung La, and that was by accident, when two patrols were lost in the fog. So despite the close parallels, 50 years on history is unlikely to repeat itself with the border remaining largely tranquil in the decades since.
By: India Today
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