The sounds of battle were still audible, echoing through the valleys. The previous two days had been nightmarish for nine-year-old Phurpa Lhamu, with an eruption of artillery and machine gun fire in the hills around the idyllic Sangti valley. Chinese columns were converging here, pushing back the Indian army frontally. Simultaneously they were rounding up Indians, ambushing them from the rear and converting every bottleneck into a bloody killing ground.
More terrifying for Phurpa was the absence of the village youngsters, who the Gaon Bura (village elder, referred to universally as GB) had rounded up and sent off to haul ammunition to the army’s forward posts. For three days and nights, almost without a break, they had ferried supplies to Indian pickets at Thembang and Chhander. This had served no purpose; the advancing Chinese had blown away those positions in a night. And the retreating Indians had walked into the ambush.
Peering out of her window in the early morning light, Phurpa saw two lines of soldiers in battle fatigues moving cautiously down the twin spurs that led down to Sangti. At first she assumed they were Indians but, as they came closer, she realised that they walked differently, were more spread out and had weapons at the ready. Even when they were in plain sight and she could see their Chinese features, the awful reality took some time to sink in: the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was here in Sangti. The Indian army was gone. Nobody knew, or was ready for, what might lie ahead.
As the Chinese crossed the Sangti Nala and approached the village, Phurpa saw the elders walk out to greet the Chinese, holding out khatas (white silk scarves) in the traditional Buddhist welcome. Phurpa could hardly believe her eyes. These were the monsters who, just three years earlier, had tried to kill the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, causing tens of thousands of Tibetans to flee their homeland, passing through the Dirang and Sangti valleys on their way to new lives as refugees in India. But here the Chinese were, bowing politely and accepting khatas, behaving for all the world like honoured visitors. For a full month to come, they would continue to live in the area, cultivating the villagers, fetching water, harvesting crops and even holding feasts. But PLA would never succeed in gaining the trust of locals or in becoming a part of their lives.
In all the writing that has come out of the 1962 war, and in popular Indian imagination, that disaster appears to have unfolded in a freezing, uninhabited, high-altitude desert where a star cast of ill-prepared soldiers struggled manfully to implement ill-judged orders from misguided politicians and bureaucrats. This is true to some extent in Ladakh. But the North East Frontier Agency, or NEFA, as Arunachal Pradesh was called in those days, is also the story of an Indian people who were abandoned to the Chinese by the Indian army and administration that had neither the grit nor the capacity to stay with the people that they had made their own.
Forgotten in the shame of 1962 are the stories of the Monpas of Monyul, Membas of Menchuka and Mishmis of Walong. These are the only Indians who have lived under foreign occupation since Independence. And when Indians cringe at Jawaharlal Nehru’s abandonment of Assam in the face of China’s advance — his infamous response, in an All-India Radio broadcast, was, “My heart goes out to the people of Assam” — how much shoddier then was the treatment of NEFA’s people who did not even rate a pro forma mention?
On October 22, the Chinese swept into Tawang, quickly consolidating control over that densely populated valley. In a second offensive on November 18-20, PLA captured the areas beyond Sela — the fertile Dirang valley, Bomdi La, the Rupa-Tenga valleys, Kalaktang, and all the way down to the eponymous Foothills, on the border of Assam. After declaring a unilateral ceasefire on the midnight of November 20, the Chinese stayed in Dirang and Tawang till the end of December, governing Tawang for two months, and Dirang for a month. Simultaneously, PLA occupied the Menchuka valley, and the Walong valley, along with small enclaves elsewhere. Here too, they governed till the end of December.
Telling the story of China’s short-lived rule over these areas is not just an act of catharsis or self-realisation, it is also the story of India’s only real victory of 1962, where China’s spectacular military success was rendered meaningless by the refusal of NEFA’s people to warm to the conquerors or succumb to their blandishments. In that war, as in those of 21st century conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, victory was less about destroying military forces than about winning public affection. PLA had come prepared to fight, and also to win hearts and minds through a coordinated, made-in-Beijing public relations campaign. This was uniformly implemented, down to the last phrase, across all the areas that they occupied in 1962. Our research across the Tawang area, in Menchuka, and Walong and Kibithoo in the eastern corner of Arunachal Pradesh, found locals recounting exactly the same phrases that PLA soldiers used while dealing with the people of NEFA.
In the confusion of defeat after the Namka Chu battle on October 20, as Monpas fled Tawang on the heels of the army and the administration, it was easy to be overtaken by fleet-footed PLA patrols. The Monpas who were caught, and those who stayed behind because they were too poor, old or infirm to leave, found the Chinese giving them a uniform message. Tashi Khandu, who went on to become an MLA in Arunachal Pradesh, stayed on in his village, Kitpi. According to him, the Chinese would regularly say, “Our fight is with the Indian government, not with the people of Tawang. Look at you and look at us: we are the same people.” There seemed to be little recognition, or at any rate acknowledgement, among PLA soldiers and apparatchiks, of the bitter anti-Communist feelings of the Buddhists of NEFA (the Chinese ingress was almost entirely in Buddhist areas). With the Monpas having actually seen the Dalai Lama pass through the villages of Tawang after entering India at Khinzemane in March 1959, and heard first-hand from Tibetan refugees of PLA’s brutal subjugation, few Monpa bought PLA’s simplistic thesis that the Chinese and Monpas were one people.
But the Monpas’ inherent politeness, combined with a sense of self-preservation, prevented the locals from countering Chinese propaganda. As Phurpa Tsering of Dirang points out, “Our elders met Chinese soldiers with khatas not because they were happy to see them but because they were community leaders, responsible for their people, who had to work with whoever was in charge.”
Along with political commissars, PLA contingents in each area were equipped with Monpa-speaking translators, usually Monpas from Tsona just across the McMahon Line. This made the locals even more suspicious of the Chinese. Khandu says, “Since they had translators, none of us spoke while the Chinese were offered tea. And when we spoke, we made sure we said nothing that would anger them.” But the Chinese, who favourably contrasted the Monpas’ cheerful cooperation with the sullen resentment that they continued to face in Tibet after the 1959 revolt, believed they were making headway in winning hearts and minds. During the period of occupation, PLA’s young soldiers routinely offered to help locals till their fields, harvest the crop, and even gifted clothes. Leaving a vessel full of water on the doorstep of an elderly Monpa was another PLA tactic.
Even as the Monpas subconsciously rejected these gestures, there was admiration for the discipline that PLA displayed, especially when contrasted with the unseemly flight of the defeated Indian army. The Chinese would always dress smartly, and would never ask the locals to work as porters, something that the Indian army of that time regarded as a natural privilege. Although most of the Chinese soldiers were very young, not a single case was recounted of misbehaviour with Monpa women. Anything taken from the locals was scrupulously paid for. But while generating respect, PLA failed to gain trust. As the Chinese pull-out neared, PLA invited local notables for barakhanas (community feasts) in all the big villages. There was little choice but to show up, but as one invitee recounts, “We drank their liquor, but nobody ate their food. Everybody believed the Chinese were serving us dog meat.”
Poised to leave in December, before the passes were closed by snowfall, PLA sent out a farewell message: “We are going now but rest assured, we will return. This is a part of China and we know that you are not happy with what the Indian government has done for you. But the Chinese government will be different. We will look after your interests.” Lekie, who lives in Thembang village on the route of the Chinese invasion, describes her response: “We were happy that China was leaving and that the government of India would come back. Even though India’s officials and army had run away, we knew they would do good for us when they returned. But if the Chinese were to stay, we were afraid that they would kill us.”
Such steadfastness from a people who had experienced the Indian administration for barely a decade, and who had very recently been abandoned, did not occur by accident. It stemmed from India’s restrained and sensitive non-interference with local tradition, a policy backed by Nehru himself, his powerful tribal affairs advisor, Verrier Elwin, and a superb cadre of officers that was organised in 1953 into the Indian Frontier Administrative Service. The sophistication of this policy is reflected in an entry in Elwin’s diaries which remarks on Nehru’s belief that this frontier was not necessarily India, but it could be made so.
That belief has been vindicated. The People’s Republic of China continues to struggle in Tibet, the underlying reason for China’s military attack in 1962. Notwithstanding India’s military defeat, Arunachal is today a full-fledged and enthusiastic Indian state and the only one amongst the Seven Sisters of the northeast that has never had a separatist movement. In 1962, the Chinese guns spoke, scattering the Indians. But the people of NEFA spoke too, and they won India the war.