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In 1967, India fought a battle against China to restore its self-respect and protect its land and won. The 1967 battles of Nathu La and Cho La pass changed the Indo-China political dynamics forever. But why has this resounding victory, which was achieved after India’s disappointing defeat at the hands of China in 1962, been forgotten?
In his book, ‘Watershed 1967: India’s forgotten victory over China’, army veteran Probal DasGupta explores these unanswered questions.
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“When you look at 1971, China didn’t interfere in the India-Pakistan war. Not many have asked that question as to why, but there are many reasons why 1967 is an important yet underrated reason why China did not go down the Siliguri corridor and cut India out. Thereafter, at various stand-offs, whether it is Daulat Beg Oldi or Doklam in 2017, India has always used that template and obtained a dominating position in stand-offs against China.”Probal DasGupta, Author
“I think that has set the template and has also ensured, what I’ve maintained – that peace is obtained when you achieve parity. Hence, there was a parity that was obtained in 1967, which got back India’s pride and was also responsible in conveying to China that they’re militarily a bigger power and that they could not overrun India anymore,” added DasGupta.
What Happened in 1967?
Relations between India and China were already tense in 1967 but matters came to a head in August 1967. Irked by India’s decision to erect iron pickets along the border from Nathu La to Sebu La, the Chinese began to heckle Indian soldiers. What followed soon was a full blown clash with the Chinese attempting to wrest control over the Nathu La pass from India. A daring decision by the commanding officer, Lt General Sagat Singh stopped their plans from succeeding.
“As India was going up against Pakistan on the Western front, Chinese troops had amassed across the border near Sikkim, and that was the time when it was expected that Indian troops would pull back from Nathu-La. But General Sagat refused to do so because that would give the Chinese easy access to the Siliguri corridor down the Sikkim axis. Therefore, he disagreed with his superiors and stuck to his decision.”Probal DasGupta, Author
Had General Sagat Singh not stood his ground, Chinese troops stationed at Nathu La would have captured the pass. This would give them easy access to the Siliguri corridor during the 1971 war. The outcome of the 1971 India-Pakistan could have then been very different.
“Psychologically, the political leadership was rattled and was even quite demoralised in 1962 as far as China was concerned. We had achieved some success against Pakistan in 1965. However, the overall attitude towards China was still very much different and defensive. Going against the grain of leadership was extremely creditable of General Sagat at that point of time.”Probal DasGupta, Author
In October 1967, another clash at Cho La ended in a similar manner as the one in Nathu La. Gorkhas and Grenadier troops of Indian Army demolished Chinese PLA forces in these battles. At least 88 Indian soldiers and over 340 Chinese troops lost their life in the battles and over a thousand were injured.
DasGupta believes that it was the right kind of political and military leadership of officers like General Sam Manekshaw and General Sagat that made the difference in the battles of 1967.
Probal DasGupta attributes multiple reasons why the battles of 1967 were forgotten.
“It was an era when India had suffered reverses a few years before that. Five years before that, in the 1962 India-China war, India had suffered a heavy setback. So, when this happened, it wasn’t covered as much in the media and people couldn’t really come to terms with what had happened there.”
Secondly, it was also because India and China had kind of not wanted to play it up as much. So, I think tacitly it was agreed to not play it up in the international fora. Thirdly, the most important reason was in 1971 when India had registered a resounding victory which whitewashed a lot of things that had happened in the past.”Probal DasGupta, Author
Probal DasGupta’s journey into research of the book took him across the country. From a village in Lamahatta near Darjeeling, to a prince’s estate who was a former general who fought in the battle, DasGupta recounted the stories he heard from the soldiers who were a part of the historic battles.
Why Is It Important To Declassify Military Records?
Highlighting the importance of declassifying military records, Probal DasGupta adds,
“The impact of not having it done is that it denies scholars, historians and your countrymen to know about their history. And, of course, military officers and generals and others to learn from their mistakes and to savour their victories. If I were to give you an example, the one thing that has happened in the past is if you don’t write your history, somebody else will.”Probal DasGupta, Author
Pointing that history shapes a narrative, DasGupta said, “The history of 1962 was written by Brigadier John Dalvi, who was the commander of the 7th Brigade, one of the first Indian brigades to be defeated by Chinese forces. Brigadier Dalvi was taken a prisoner and he was kept in China for some time. After he came back, he wrote a book. It was bitter and explosive, but we banned the book.”
“Thereafter, Neville Maxwell wrote a book on India and China; it was sympathetic to China. What happened with that is when Henry Kissinger went to China in 1970-71, he visited Beijing and he met Zhou Enlai, and Zhou Enlai gave him that book as a gift. Henry Kissinger’s drift on China and his entire anti-India narrative was based heavily from around his learnings from the book, which he found to be extremely impressive. So this is what history does. History does shape a narrative,” he added.