50th Anniversary Of The India-China War The Battle Of Tawang
Maj. Gen. KK Tewari, PVSM, AVSM (Retd) was commissioned in the British Indian Army in 1942. In 1962, he was Commander Signals of the 4th Infantry Division based in Tezpur, Assam. On October 20, 1962, as he was visiting his forward troops, the Chinese attacked India. He was taken prisoner and sent to Tibet where he stayed for nearly seven months. He is today 90 years old and lives in Auroville, South India. He spoke to Claude Arpi
As a result of the Chinese threat on our northern borders, sometime in 1959 the Headquarters of Eastern Command at Lucknow was given the operational responsibility for the defence of Sikkim and NEFA. I was at that time, the Commander Signals of the 4th (Red Eagle) Infantry Division located at Ambala. We were immediately ordered to move to Tezpur in Assam.
This Division, trained and equipped for fighting in the plains, had suddenly to be deployed to guard these high mountain regions. While a normal division occupies an area frontage of 30 to 40 km in the plains, we were assigned a front spreading on more than 1800 kilometers of mountainous terrain!
But worse! Before the Division could take its operational responsibilities to defend the border with Tibet, orders for the execution of an Operation Amar 2 were received from Lt Gen BM Kaul, the then Quarter Master General in the Army HQ. We were suddenly supposed to build temporary basha (house with straw house) accommodations for the Division.
Besides the fact that my regiment had to provide communications for the Division in an entirely new and undeveloped area, we had now to become engineers and builders! You have to understand that a Signal Regiment is a functional unit in war or peace which is supposed to cater 24 hours a day to the various types of communications for its formation.
So, immediately after arrival in Tezpur, the Regiment got involved in the mad rush of building: the Prime Minister was to inaugurate the newly-built bashas.
My first four months in command were a real nightmare. We would certainly have preferred to rough it out in tents and spend the time developing a reasonable communications set-up, getting our equipment properly checked and maintained and getting the men used to working with the available equipment in the mountains.
It was a personal relief when, on April 14, 1960, the inauguration was over. Only then did we turn any serious attention and effort towards our operational responsibilities. Even our equipment was antiquated and unsuitable for mountainous terrain and the excessive ranges.
At that time, there were hardly any roads existing in any of the five frontier divisions (FD) of Arunachal Pradesh. The road into Kameng FD, the most vulnerable, finished at the Foothills just beyond Misamari [4 days walk from Tawang].
We were faced with shortages of every kind. It was during these early days in NEFA that one of the COs of an infantry battalion sent a note written on a chapatti. When asked for an explanation, he gave a classic reply: “Regret unorthodox stationary but atta (wheat flour) is the only commodity available for fighting, for feeding and for futile correspondence.”
Sometime in 1962, orders came from Army HQ for Operation Onkar (the famous “Forward Policy”), which directed all Assam Rifles posts to move forward, right up to the border. Of course, we were to back them. The idea was to establish the right of possession on our territory and to deter the Chinese from moving forward and occupying it, as was claimed by them. This order was certainly not supported by resources.
At that time, our Division had done almost three years non-family station service and some of the units were already on their way out on turnover. Suddenly all moves out of the area were cancelled and orders reversed.
Brig John Dalvi, the Commander Infantry Brigade who was in Tawang was ordered to move his HQ on a man/mule pack basis to Namka Chu River area. An ad hoc Brigade HQ was created for Tawang sector overnight with hardly any Signal resources.
At that time, I was the only field officer of Lt Col or higher rank who had the longest tenure at not only the divisional HQ but among all the divisional troops. I should have been posted out after a two-year tenure in a non-family station. But I had also a sort of premonition, and I recorded it in my diary, that a severe test was in the offing for me to assess my faith in the Divine. I certainly had no idea that I would be taken a prisoner of war.
On September 8, 1962, the Dhola post manned by the Assam Rifles on the McMahon line, was encircled by the Chinese. A few days later, we had a meeting of the senior commanders from the Army Commander downwards at Tezpur. A relief party had been ordered to relieve the besieged Dhola post. This linkup was expected by nightfall on the 14th of September: Everyone was tensely waiting for the news of the link-up. Naturally all eyes were on me; as the communications `chief’, to bring them the message. But there was no news until late in the evening.
After this incident, a new Corps HQ was created to take charge of operations in NEFA. Lt Gen BM Kaul was appointed as the Corps Commander. He arrived from Army HQ in a special aircraft at Tezpur in the late afternoon of October 4. At about 10 pm, Lt Gen Kaul announced in his typical flamboyant style that he had taken over command of all troops in NEFA. It was all so dramatic!
Here was a new situation, normally a Corps HQ in those days would be served by a corps signal regiment and another communication zone signal regiment. These had yet to be raised.
To compound these difficulties, Lt Gen Kaul had his own way to send messages.
Normally, a signal message is supposed to be written in an abbreviated telegraphic language. But all messages from the new Corps Commander ran into a couple of typed sheets in prose language and were all marked Top Secret and Flash. They were not addressed to the next higher HQ but directly to Army HQ. You should understand that it required to stop all other traffic to clear FLASH messages.
In September 1962, the higher authorities had obviously assumed that it would be easy to beat the Chinese. Otherwise, one cannot imagine how such an order to engage the enemy could have been issued by Delhi to the ill-equipped, ill-clothed, ill-prepared, fatigued, disillusioned troops.
PoW IN TIBET-Maj. Gen. K.K. Tewari, PVSM, AVSM (Retd)
ON THE ROAD TO TIBET
On October 20, 1962, the Indian prisoners were marched along a narrow track across the Namkha chu (river); later we went up to the Thagla pass (about 15000 feet). On our way, we passed huge stocks of unfired mortar shells by the sides of our mortar positions, while on the northern side of the ridge, Chinese parties were still bringing up 120 mm mortars on a man pack basis.
After three days walk, we reached a place called Marmang in Tibet. From there we were taken in covered vehicles at night. During the journey, the Chinese tried to demoralise us; they would make fun of our army: “You do not even have cutting tools for felling trees. You use shovels to cut down trees.” It was true; they had seen our troops preparing their defensive positions near the Namkha chu. There were other remarks such as, “You people have strange tactics. You sit right at the bottom of the valley to defend your territory instead of sitting on a high ground.”
We arrived at the PoW camp located at Chongye [in Central Tibet] on October 26 and were accommodated in Lama houses which were all deserted although we could see some activity in the monastery above these houses on the side of a hill.
We were to spend over five months in this camp, located south west of Tsetang, off the main highway to Lhasa. The prisoners were segregated into four companies: No. 1 Company was all officers, JCOs and NCOs. Majors and Lt Colonels were also separated from the JCOs and men. No. 2 and 3 Companies were jawans of various units. No. 4 Company, consisted only of Gorkhas and was given special privileges, for obvious political reasons. Each company had its own cookhouse where the Indian soldiers selected by the Chinese were made to cook.
In our house, we were four Lt Colonels (M.S. Rikh of the Rajputs, Balwant Singh Ahluwalia of the Gorkhas, Rattan Singh of 5 Assam Rifles and myself), while John Dalvi was kept in confinement in Tsetang, a few km away from Chongye.
When we made representations to the Chinese that under the Geneva Convention on PoWs, officers had the right to be with their men, we were told quite bluntly that all these were nothing but imperialist conventions.
I shivered through the first couple of nights but then had a brain wave. I had noticed a pile of husk outside. We asked the Chinese if we could use it. Luckily, they accepted, and we could use the stuff as a mattress as well as a quilt.
For almost a month after our arrival, we were not let out of the room. Each of these lama houses had its own latrine in one corner with an open but very effective system of soil disposal. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, the `disposal squad’ of pigs had itself been disposed off by the Chinese.
There was an English-speaking Chinese officer, Lt. Tong who was with us almost throughout our stay in the PoW camp. He would come daily and talk to us individually or together. The theme of his talk with the PoWs was monotonously the same: the Chinese wanted to be friends and it was only the reactionary government of Nehru, who was a lackey of American imperialism that wanted to break this friendship. “Then why did you attack us on October 20?” They would try to explain that India attacked first and the Chinese attacked only in self-defence.
On December 5, we were given for the first time some books and magazines to read. This consisted of Mao’s Red Book, some literature on the India-China boundary question and a few Red Army journals. But whatever they were, they were most welcome for me at least. There was something to do at last to occupy the mind. I took notes from the Red Book. It is a pity that our government did not read some of the Mao’s thoughts. I noted them down at that time: “Fight no battle unprepared, fight no battle you are not sure of winning” or “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy halts, we harass, the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”
Towards the end of December 1962, the Red Cross sent us one parcel each with two packets in it. One packet had warm clothes, a German battle dress, a pair of long johns, warm vest, muffler, cap, jersey, warm shirt, boots and a towel. The second packet contained foodstuff including a bar of Sathe chocolate, tins of milk, jam, butter, fish, packets of sugar, atta (wheat flour), dal (pulses), dried peas, salt, tea, biscuits, condiments, cigarettes and vitamin pills. It certainly was a very well thought-out list of items.
Perhaps to demoralise us, the Chinese would often play Indian music on the public address system in the camp. One of the songs which was played repeatedly was Lata Mangeshkar’s “Aa ja re—Main to kab se khari is par….” [Come, I have been waiting for so long]. This would make us feel homesick.
With my habit of writing a diary, I kept notes as a PoW also. In the first week or so, the only available papers to write on, were some sheets of toilet paper in my para jacket pocket. The question was how to keep these papers from being discovered by the Chinese. What I had done was to open the stitching on the ‘belt’ part of the trousers and then slide the folded papers inside. This was how my diary notes on toilet paper could be brought out to India.
One other episode of our stay in the camp is worth recording. One day, towards the end of our stay, at our request we were taken to see the palace and the monastery. It was a shock to see the palace with all the beautiful Buddha statues of all sizes and fabulous scrolls (tankhas) lying broken, defiled and torn and trampled on the ground.
On December 25, we, the seven field officers were taken in one of the captured Indian Nissan trucks to spend the Christmas morning with Brig. John Dalvi at Tsetang. He was kept all alone and was comfortably accommodated. We had breakfast and lunch with him and were shown a movie. Dalvi had suffered a great deal mentally being all by himself. He was now better.
The first letters we received from home came only in the third week of February 1963. Some of us, including myself, received parcels of sweets too.
On March 26, we were informed that we would soon be released and taken for a conducted tour of the mainland China. Suddenly we became VIPs, though still held as prisoners. We were given various comforts and given new clothes and shoes.
Before leaving the PoW camp, we asked the Chinese to take us to the graves of our soldiers who had died in our camp. There were seven of them including Subedar Joginder Singh, who had been awarded a PVC. We were told by the Chinese that he had refused to have his toes, which were affected by frost-bite, amputated. According to the Chinese, he had told them that his chances of promotion to Subedar Major would be adversely effected if his toes were amputated. We were told that he died of gangrene.
On March 28, we left the camp, ironically in an Indian captured vehicle and were driven to Tsetang to pick up Brig John Dalvi and three other Lt. Colonels and five Majors. On March 29, we were all driven in a bus to Lhasa. On April 5, we were flown in two IL 14 aircraft to Xining [Qinghai Province]. After a long tour of China, during which we were shown China’s ‘progress’ after the Communist revolution, we were informed on April 27 that we shall be handed over to India at Kunming on May 4.
At the handing over ceremony, we witnessed a last surprise performance by the Chinese. Throughout our tour of China, an immaculately dressed Chinese had accompanied us. He was not dressed in cotton-padded clothes like all the others. He commanded a lot of respect from the other Chinese. We used to refer to him as the ‘General’. He had a chap trailing around behind him always, helping him with things, offering a chair, a cup of tea, etc. We used to refer to that fellow as the orderly to the General. At the handing over ceremony, however, the person who sat down and signed on behalf of China was the ‘orderly’ and the one who stood behind to pass him the pen to sign was the ‘general’! Such are the Chinese ways!
On May 5, we took off at 9.10 a.m. from Kunming and were scheduled to land at Calcutta at 1.20 p.m. Before reaching Calcutta, the pilot announced that there was some problem with the under carriage not opening and that we might have to crash land, finally we landed at 2.30 p.m. at Dum Dum with all the fire tenders lined up. It would have been such an irony of fate if we had been killed in a crash landing in India!
In my opinion, the Chinese had prepared their attack for at least two or three years. I can give you few examples: one day a Chinese woman came and recited some of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s poems, much to our delight. The Chinese had certainly prepared for this war most diligently because they had interpreters for every Indian language right in the front line. This Urdu-speaking woman must have lived in Lucknow for a long time. Same thing for one of our guards, though he had not said a single word for five months (we used to call him Poker Face), we discovered that he could speak perfect Punjabi when he left us in Kunming. Their constant brainwashing was to make us accept that we had attacked them.
One day, Lt. Tong took us out and we were allowed to sit near a wall. Though we could not see over it, we heard voices in Hindi from the other side. It was a Hindi-speaking Chinese talking to some jawans. The talk was going in the usual way about how India had attacked first. A jawan told the Chinese that his company was sleeping when the Chinese attack came, so how could India have started the war? The Chinese tried to explain that the jawan was only thinking of his own unit, but India had attacked elsewhere and China had to take action in self-defence. The jawan was fearless and outspoken, he answered: “I do not know what you are talking about but the whole of my ‘burgerade’, (Punjabi for ‘brigade’) was sleeping when you attacked first.”
It is sad that this nonsense of India attacking China is still prevailing today in some quarters.
As told to Claude Arpi
Do you realise that when Dalvi’s brigade arrived near the Namka Chu river after forced marches, he was ordered to throw the Chinese out of the Thagla ridge.
I have to tell you a telling incident: arriving near the river, after an exhausting journey, the brigade signal officer discovered that the generating engine to charge the wireless batteries was not here. A porter had dropped the charging engine in a deep khud on the way. It could not be retrieved. I believe it was dropped deliberately, because some of these civilian porters were in the pay of the Chinese.
But I was in for a still bigger shock when it was discovered that almost all the secondary batteries had arrived without any acid. I presume that what had happened is that the porters must have found it lighter without liquid and they probably decided to lighten their loads by emptying out the acid from all the batteries.
How to establish communications when the batteries are dead and could not be recharged? Despite of our good relations with them, the Air Force helicopter boys refused to carry acid. There was no question, of course, of dropping sulphuric acid by air. What was I to do? Fate was also pushing me to my inevitable destiny.
We filled up a jar of acid and marked prominently it: `Rum for Troops’ and on October 18, I flew from Tezpur to Zimithang where I met with the GOC, Maj. Gen. Niranjan Prasad. Later, I went to Tsangdhar near the Namka chu in a two-seater Bell helicopter with just the pilot and with the `Rum’ jar strapped onto my lap. I landed there in the late afternoon and I marched down to Brig Dalvi’s brigade HQ.
As I arrived there, I could quite clearly see the massing of the Chinese troops on the forward slopes of Thagla ridge.
When I discovered that every unit on the front had numerous signals problems, I decided to extend my stay by a day. It is where fate caught up with me!
On the 19th, Brig Dalvi informed over the telephone the GOC at Zimithang. He pleaded with his boss to let him move out of the `death trap’, up to a tactically sound defensive position. Brig Dalvi was told not to flap but to obey orders and stay put. He was extremely upset and passed the telephone to me saying, “You won’t believe me, Sir, but talk to your `bloody’ Commander Signals and he will tell you what all he can see with his naked eyes in front.”
I spoke to the GOC equally strongly saying that one could see the Chinese moving down the Thagla Ridge like ants and also see at least half a dozen mortars which were not even camouflaged. I added that the Chinese could not be there for a picnic. I was also told to concentrate on my work and not to worry.
I stayed on with the Gorkhas during the night of 19th October. Early on the 20th morning, I was woken up from a deep sleep by the noise of an intense bombardment. There was utter confusion in the pre-dawn darkness, shouting and yelling and running around in the midst of these exploding shells. I came out of the bunker and somehow found my way to the Signals bunker with two of my signalmen.
I looked out of the bunker. It was mystifying to see no visible movement outside. There was no one in sight. I peeped out of the bunker again. I saw a line of khaki clad soldiers with a prominent red star on their uniforms advancing towards our bunker. I had never seen a Chinese soldier till then at such close range.
I used to carry a 9 mm Browning automatic pistol in those days with one loaded clip.
The thought immediately was that one’s dead body should not be found with an unfired pistol; it must be used, however hopeless our situation. So, when a couple of Chinese soldiers approached our bunker, I let go the full clip at them. And suddenly hell was let loose with the Chinese yelling and firing and a number of them converging onto our bunker. My two assistants were killed and I was alive, but a PoW.
In his book, Himalayan Blunder Brig. John Dalvi wrote: “Col. Tewari was a gentle, God-fearing man in addition to being a first rate signaler. He had worked against tremendous odds through the operations and had overcome difficulties which would have taxed an Army Signals Regiment. He is due much credit for providing communications with obsolete equipment and the distances involved. Instead of praise they came in for criticism for not being able to work miracles with out-dated sets and distances which were beyond the range of divisional signals”.”
Dalvi added: “There was a sad sequel to Tewari’s visit [on the Namkha chu]. …When the Gorkhas were attacked, Tewari found himself in the midst of an infantry battle. He was taken prisoner after the Chinese had over run the position. Who has ever heard of a Commander Signals being sent to an infantry battalion on the night before a massive attack, if there was any anticipation of a battle? He would have been at Divisional HQ attending to the Division’s communications.”