In many ways, 1959 was a seminal year in Indo-China relations. Three sets of incidents that took place during the course of the year destroyed the spirit of friendship and bonhomie that had prevailed since 1954.The first was the escape of the Dalai Lama from Tibet and his being granted asylum in India that greatly enraged the Chinese. The next was the uproar in Indian Parliament about the Nehru Govt’s China policy after information about Sinkiang
–Tibet Road passing through Aksai Chin, became public in India and the third was a minor border clash between the troops of two countries that generated strong public resentment against the Chinese and hardened its stand on border issue.
China was not amused by the turn of events Its leadership was unhappy at the role that India and its Premier, Nehru played in helping Dalai Lama make his escape and believed that events in India, after his arrival, were stage managed to provide widespread publicity to the cause of Tibetian insurgents.
The Chinese offensive began in Daulat Beg Odi sector in the early hours of October 20, and the Indian posts pounded with heavy mortar fire. At that time the posts established in the forward areas of Ladakh sector were manned by troops of 7 J&K Militia (Demchok & Posts in Indus Valley), 14 J&K Militia and 5 Jats (Daulat Beg Odi & Chip Chap Sector), 1/8 Gorkhas (Chusul sector and posts at Sirijap, Sppangguu, Yula). The overall responsibility for the defence of this territory lay with 114 infantry brigade, having its HQRs at Leh. As the smaller posts started falling, the army personnel were directed to fall back to the larger posts, which resisted the offensive on the first day. However, by the evening of October 21, even the larger posts fell under the threat of being overrun and the troops withdrew to comparatively safer posts in DBO, Mugo & Burtse. But these stations had also become impossible to maintain as Chinese troops had taken dominating positions over the supply routes. Hence on October 23, directions were given to the entire force to withdraw to Gapshun which were carried out.
In the Chushul sector, the Chinese assault commenced on October 21 and they overran the three posts comprising the Sirijap Complex, forcing the Indian side to withdraw their troops from the Yula complex to Gurung Hill. Chinese forces halted after their initial attacks here and resumed the offensive on November 17. In the Indus valley sub sector, China launched their attack only on October 27. After heavy fighting, Indian forces withdrew from the forward posts at Changla and new Demckhok to their Battalion HQR’s at Koyul. Thus by October 27, China had wiped all the posts, except in Chushul Sector and occupied the entire territory including Aksai Chin.
In the eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh), the Chinese troops managed to overrun the Indian positions through the twin elements of surprise and strength inherent in their assault. They crossed Namka Chu that resulted in loss of Sirkhim and Hathungla and finally the fall of Tawang. Indian forces, hauled and mauled, were badly retreating and fresh planning formulated to save Assam.
Starting a war, they say, is an act of valour and stopping it an art. In 1962 China showed that it possesses both of these qualities in abundance. It engaged in a brilliant diplomacy and while the war was on, it proposed a mutual withdrawal of troops, which Nehru spurned. While continuing war meant further losses to India, China declared a unilateral ceasefire on November 21, which Nehru and other senior leaders came to know only through the morning newspapers whose late editions carried reports of the announcements by Peking radio. Reacting cautiously, India realised its folly in continuing with the war and silently accepted the ceasefire. Nehru’s arrogance in avoiding border discussions and over-confidence had caused India to pay a heavy price on the battlefield.
Soon after the war, a committee headed by Lt. General Henderson Brooks was set up to study the policies and decisions that led to the war and the reasons for the reverses suffered. Though the report of the committee was not made public but it soon came to fore how Nehru’s flawed diplomacy had played a crucial role in the debacle. There was a hue and cry when it came to known that China had already constructed a road in 1959 linking Sinkiang with Tibet through Aksai Chin to the full knowledge of Nehru who had virtually conceded the area to China in lieu of China surrendering claims in Arunachal Pradesh. And Nehru in his defence told Parliament that Aksai Chin, under Chinese occupation, was an area where “not a blade of grass grows, not a bird flies”. Thereupon Mahavir Tyagi, a senior Congress member and former minister, held his bald head in both his hands and exclaimed: “Not a hair grows on my head. Does it mean that it should be cut off?”On another occasion, Vajpayee in his classic style taunted the prime minister: “There are three causes of war: zan, zar aur zameen (women, wealth and land). Land you’ve given away. What else would you give up”?
Author is a Practicing Chartered Accountant and can be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org