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This 1959 incident in Ladakh is behind the Police Commemoration Day observed today

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21 October is Police Commemoration Day, dedicated to paramilitary & police personnel who died on duty.

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the National Police Memorial Sunday, on the occasion of Police Commemoration Day.

The memorial is a 30-foot tall granite cenotaph situated between Rashtrapati Bhavan and Shanti Path in the diplomatic enclave of the national capital, and is dedicated to soldiers from the paramilitary forces and state police who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

It also bears testimony to an incident which took place 59 years ago, more than 700 kilometres away, in Ladakh.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the gathering at the inauguration of a refurbished national police memorial | Atul Yadav/PTI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the gathering at the inauguration of a refurbished national police memorial | Atul Yadav/PTI

A gruesome incident

On 21 October 1959, the first Chinese attack on India is believed to have taken place in the Aksai Chin region, the northern-most part of India’s 2,500-mile long border with Tibet. A party from the Intelligence Bureau and Central Reserve Police Force was allegedly attacked by the People’s Liberation Army, which killed 10 men and took seven as prisoners.

The incident occurred while Sino-Indian relations were in a state of flux, and official Indian accounts recount that the day before the incident, 20 October, “three reconnaissance parties were launched from Hot Springs in north-eastern Ladakh in preparation for further movement of an Indian expedition which was on its way to Lanak La”.

“While members of two parties returned to Hot Springs by the afternoon of that day, the third one comprising of two police constables and a porter did not return.


Also read: How India asked for trouble in 1962


“All available personnel were mobilised early the next morning in search of the missing personnel. A party of about 20 personnel of the Intelligence Bureau and CRPF led by Shri Karam Singh, DCIO, proceeded ahead on horseback, while others followed on foot in three sections.”

The release added: “At about mid-day, Chinese army personnel on a hillock opened fire and threw grenades at the party led by Shri Karam Singh. Since there was no cover, most personnel were injured. Ten of them died, seven were taken prisoner by the Chinese and the remaining managed to escape.

“Bodies of the 10 personnel were returned by the Chinese only on November 28, 1959, full five weeks after the incident. These bodies were cremated with full police honours at Hot Springs.”

As the incident evoked outrage across the country, at the annual Conference of Inspectors General of Police of States and Union Territories in January 1960, it was decided that 21 October would be observed as Commemoration Day in all police lines across the country. This would “mark the memory of these gallant men who were killed in Ladakh and all other police personnel killed on duty during the year”, it was agreed.

What led to the incident

The incident came in the backdrop of the changing relationship between India and China — a development marked by a series of events in the years 1958-59.

It started with a highway being constructed by China across Aksai Chin, which would connect Tibet and Sinkiang. Parts of the area traversed by the highway were believed to have been “part of the Ladakh region of India for centuries”, according to an informal note sent by India to the Chinese government, quoted by Priya Chacko in her book ‘Indian Foreign Policy’. The Chinese had not sought permission for the construction from India.


Also read: China’s real aim in 1962 was to cut Nehru down to size and neutralise India as a rival


Shortly after, the Tibetan uprising began in March 1959, and the Dalai Lama was given asylum by the Indian government. This worsened the situation, with China accusing India of interfering in its internal affairs.

Letters exchanged between the two countries that year also put territorial disputes under the spotlight — China claimed that the McMahon Line — which divides China from what is now the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh — was an imperial and illegal border, a product of British aggression and Chinese powerlessness. Aksai Chin, China claimed, had always been under Chinese jurisdiction. Some scholars say the problem arose because India had given the McMahon Line the status of full international border, marked it on maps, but not on the ground.

On Aksai Chin, however, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is believed to have taken an ambiguous stand. Addressing Parliament on two occasions, Nehru had said “the actual boundary of Ladakh with Tibet was not very carefully defined”.

He later noted: “The Aksai Chin area is in our maps, undoubtedly. But it is a matter for arguments as to what part of it belongs to us and what part of it belongs to somebody else.”

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