The pass in Arunachal has a history that few military veterans want to recall, but none can dare forget. It was the site of India’s humiliation in 1962.
When finance minister Arun Jaitley announced the construction of an all-weather tunnel under the Se La in Arunachal Pradesh, he suddenly turned the spotlight on the strategic salience of a mountain pass that is well known in the military, but not spoken about much.
Se La will have a tunnel like Zoji La in Kashmir and Rohtang in Himachal Pradesh. The move is of immense strategic significance because the Se La is what connects Tawang to the rest of Arunachal and the road to Guwahati. China, as is known, has always laid claim on Tawang as part of larger Tibet.
Unlike the other two passes in the western Himalayas, Se La has a place in history that few military veterans want to recall, but none can dare forget. It was the fall of Se La that made it possible for the Chinese forces to steamroll into India in 1962 – easily among its most humiliating moments.
Today, we have the Chinese version of the Se La campaign that took place in the second week of November 1962. The tactics of the campaign mirrored what the Chinese deployed in the famous Chosin Reservoir Battle against the US Marines during the Korean war.
Not surprising because the campaign at Se La was carried out under the command of Zhang Guo Hua, a veteran of the Korean war.
China’s battle plan
The Chinese version, which is called ‘A History of the Counter Attack War in Self Defence’, records that on 6 October 1962, Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Military Commission “decided in principle on a large scale attack to severely punish India”. The 6 October directive from Mao to PLA Chief of Staff Lou Ruiquing laid out the strategy: “The main assault is to be in the Eastern Sector but Chinese forces in the Western Sector would ‘coordinate’ with the Eastern Sector.”
In the East, the Chinese forces, in the first few days of war, attacked and captured Tawang as Indian forces fell back to Se La, resolute to defend this gateway into India.
Indian defences had been organised across the 101 km Se La-Dirang Zhong-Bomdi La axis. There were approximately 3,300 troops according to the Chinese estimate in Se La, which was brought out in a study of the Chinese records by the United Services Institute (USI).
There were another 1,500 troops in Dirang Dzong and about 2,200 in Bomdi La. The Chinese described the deployment as ‘Copper head, tail made of tin and a soft underbelly’. Se La was the ‘copper head’.
And so, a battle strategy was framed: “Smash the head (Se La), cut-off the tail (Bomdi La), snap at the waist (Se La-Dirang Dzong road) and dissect the belly (Dirang Dzong).”
China launched simultaneous attacks at each of the three points. The attack on Se La was carried out by the 55 Infantry division of the Chinese Army, with three infantry regiments supported by equal number of artillery units. They were given the task of ‘smashing the head’.
Simultaneously, three more infantry regiments moved from the West, through a narrow corridor between Se La and the Indo-Bhutan border.
They were to ‘assist’ in the capture of Se La, but move on from the western flank to Dirang Dzong to accomplish their other task. This was to team up with the 11 Infantry division that was coming in from the East to ‘dissect the belly’ and capture Dirang Dzong.
Meanwhile, four infantry detachments from the Shanan Military Sub-district had by-passed Se La to ‘snap at the waist’, which was to cut off the road from Se La to Dirang Dzong. They were later joined by more forces from Se La.
Another group of the 11 Infantry division outflanked Dirang Dzong and captured the road leading to Bomdi La, thus ‘cutting off the tail’.
India’s 4 Infantry division, which had organised these defences, found itself split in three pockets – Se La, Dirang Dzong and Bomdi La. The pockets then came under attack almost simultaneously.
In November 1950, the USI study notes, the US Marine division too had found itself split in three ‘isolated permiters (Yudam-ni, Hagaru and Koto-ri)’. But the US had its air force to support the Marines, which annihilated Chinese troops, allowing the Marines an opportunity to counter.
India did not use its air force in 1962. So while the Marines were able to ‘fight through’, the 4 Infantry division even found retreat difficult. Once the defences at Se La were broken and reinforcements couldn’t be sent, Bomdi La fell without much resistance.
The USI study notes that by the time the 4 Infantry division fell back to Tezpur, it had “ceased to exist as an effective fighting force”.
That also signalled the end of the border war as by then, China, for its own reasons, called for a unilateral ceasefire. Beijing decided to withdraw its troops even though they had stormed into the heart of present-day northeast India.