By Col (retd) Dr Anil Athale
A tribute to Lt Gen Eric Vas (15 May 1923-18 Aug 2009)
It was 1960, and the 'Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai' slogan had lost much of its sheen.
There were clashes on the Ladakh- Tibet border. Having gracelessly removed General Thimmaiah and superseding General SPS Thorat, Defence Minister Krishna Menon and his chosen coterie ruled the roost.
In a bizarre twist to the drama, some armchair Generals thought of a 'brilliant' idea of pressuring the Chinese on the Eastern front in Arunachal Pradesh (the erstwhile NEFA or North East Frontier Agency). It fell to the lot of Eric Vas, then a Lieutenant Colonel in command of first Nine Gorkha Rifles battalion, to lead the first regular battalion to be inducted in Towang area. Earlier, the border was sparsely manned by the Assam Rifles, a para-military outfit. The journey to Towang and the border was over 300 kms, mainly mule tracks through one of the toughest terrains in the country.
Vas was given the 'task' of defending Towang district -- which at that time was larger than the present state of Kerala -- with less than 400 men at the end of a long, tenuous line of communications. There were shortages of all kinds, from boots and warm clothing to ammunition.
Eric Vas decided to do something about it. Since there was shortage of even paper to write on, he wrote a letter on a 'chapati' to the higher ups highlighting the shortages and warning that the Indian army was in no position to take on the Chinese unless these were rectified.
At a time when 'the Chinese will not attack' was a mantra that substituted for realistic strategies, Vas became a marked man for speaking the truth. There was furore in Parliament, with opposition MPs (who were to turn 180 degrees later) raising the issue of lack of 'discipline' in the army. Eric Vas was moved from his command and posted to Mumbai as head of the National Cadet Corps, regarded as a punishment posting.
Image: Lt Col Eric Vas in Towang, 1960. Lack of supplies meant there were no razors for shaving.(All photographs courtesy Maureen Vas, from the Vas family album. Unauthorised reproduction prohibited.)
Also see: Unsung Heroes: Know Your Men