New Delhi: As India and China initiated disengagement steps in Eastern Ladakh, especially in the Galwan Valley, after 61 days of face-off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), an old newspaper clipping made its way to social media. The headline of the report from 15 July 1962, three months before the India-China war, read, “Chinese Troops Withdraw from Galwan Post”.
The clipping is still being widely shared online, including in WhatsApp groups, by serving officers.
This happened in July 1962. pic.twitter.com/LKqrhADHi8
— Nirupama Menon Rao, निरुपमा राउ, بینظیر (@NMenonRao) July 6, 2020
The old report gained relevance because government sources were gung-ho about the disengagement this time around while the Army was extremely cautious, following a policy of “trust but verify”.
The disengagement process that started in the Galwan Valley earlier this month was the second attempt by India and China to step back from their confrontation that has triggered fears of a larger conflict. The first attempt last month ended in a bloody clash near the Y Junction in Galwan on 15 June, leading to the death of 20 Indian soldiers and undisclosed casualties on the Chinese side.
The social media posts sharing the 1962 news report sought to draw a parallel with the latest border standoff. However, the events 58 years ago were vastly different.
How the headline came about
China’s annexation of Tibet, building of a road network in Aksai Chin and the Jawaharlal Nehru government’s ‘Forward Policy’ — under which the Army was tasked with the objective of moving closer to the border and setting up posts to prevent the Chinese from coming in and laying claim to India’s territory — led to a war in October 1962.
But months before that, the Galwan operation by an Army platoon remains a story of great courage and determination despite the harsh terrain and weather.
In accordance with the Forward Policy, the platoon managed to reach the Galwan Valley in the early summer of 1962 and set up a post on 5 July. The soldiers were from the 1/8 Gorkha Regiment who were brought into the Ladakh sector.
Four battalions were posted in Ladakh but the numbers were inadequate to defend the front, covering nearly 480 km from Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) in the north to Demchok in the south.
So, nearly 36 posts were created with a strength of just 10-20 soldiers each in forward locations. These posts were set up to show presence and to deter Chinese from coming further in.
However, the Galwan Post played two roles. While it established Indian presence in the Valley, it also cut the line of communication to a Chinese post further down.
Unlike how soldiers are flown in via helicopters now or driven down to the confluence of the Shyok and Galwan rivers, the soldiers in 1962 had to walk long distances in harsh terrain and poor clothing to establish the post.
Speaking to ThePrint, former Northern Army Commander Lieutenant General H.S. Panag (Retd) said there are two routes from the area of Hot Springs and Gogra Post. One goes to the east to Kongka La, which is almost the eastern edge of Aksai Chin. There is another route that goes from Hot Spring northwards to the source of the Galwan river.
“What people don’t realise is that in 1962 when we established the Galwan Post, it was 80 km upstream. And the route that we took was from Hot Springs,” he said.
“So from Hot Springs we approached the source of the Galwan river. We actually went and established the post in 1962 behind the Chinese. The direct access to Aksai Chin is from DBO and Galwan and hence the Chinese are very sensitive,” he added.
On 6 July 1962, the Chinese spotted the Gorkhas and reported this to their headquarters.
Four days later, about 350 Chinese troops advanced to the Indian post manned by about 30 soldiers. They closed in at approximately 45 m from the post and encircled it. Records show that on the night of 12 July, the Chinese came within 15 m of the post.
Despite being outnumbered, the Gorkhas stood their ground under Naik Subedar Jung Bahadur Gurung. They didn’t open fire as the instructions were clear — open fire only when fired upon.
The Chinese later moved back from the Indian post by about 200 m in what was seen as their attempt to allow the Indian soldiers to go back.
This resulted in the headline, ‘Chinese Troops Withdraw from Galwan Post’.
What happened at Galwan post later
Since the Indian post in Galwan had limited supplies, an attempt was made in the subsequent days to supply food and material to the 30 soldiers by helicopters.
Shiv Kunal Verma, a military historian, wrote in his book, 1962: The War that Wasn’t, that starting 4 October, 5 Jat’s Alpha company under Major S.S. Hasabnis was flown in to the post via Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters.
“The Gorkhas, having lived cheek by jowl with the Chinese for more than two months, were ferried out by returning Mi-4 helicopters over the next few days,” wrote Verma.
Hasabnis spoke to NDTV in 2012 about the incident, saying “When we were flown into that post we knew we were walking into a death trap.”
He added, “But the 60 had no meaning because more than 2,000 Chinese were around us in circled conditions and not only that, they had a very big ring around us of trenchers, morchas, communication weapons and they used to show their weapons and the jawans used to say, ‘saab yeh to haath baandh ke bhi ayenge to hum inko kahi nahi le jaa sakte (Even if they come with their hands tied, we can’t take them anywhere)’. Even our jawans were making a joke out of it.”
Hasabnis’ post was overrun in an hour on 20 October, the first day of the 1962 war. He was taken prisoner and had been in a prisoner of war (PoW) camp for seven months.
His son, Lt Gen S.S. Hasabnis, is now the Deputy Chief of the Army Staff, Planning and Systems.
Why was the Forward Policy devised?
Writing about Nehru government’s Forward Policy, acclaimed lawyer and political commentator A.G. Noorani said in 1970: “Few episodes in Sino-Indian relationship have aroused greater controversy than the ‘forward policy’ adopted by India towards the close of 1961. It has been cited variously in explanation, mitigation or justification of China’s military attack in October 1962.”
In his review of three books written on the 1962 war — Himalayan Blunder by Brigadier J.P. Dalvi, The Untold Story by Lt Gen B.M. Kaul, The Guilty Men of 1962 by D.R. Mankekar — Noorani wrote that the policy has been criticised within India itself as a typical case of allowing domestic political considerations to override those of national security.
With regard to patrolling, Noorani noted, Nehru approved the Army’s proposal to dispatch regular patrols “up to the frontier claimed by the Chinese according to their 1952 map”. The instructions were issued in December 1960 but weren’t implemented for some time due to lack of resources.
However, the Chinese remained active and spread even beyond the 1956 claim line in Ladakh and set up new posts and constructed roads linking them to rear bases.
“This advance and India’s apparent helplessness added to the mounting domestic criticism of Nehru’s entire policy towards China. The Forward Policy was devised in response to both the advance and criticism,” Noorani wrote.
Kaul, in his book that Noorani described as “laboured attempt at self-exculpation”, said Nehru stressed in the autumn of 1961 that whoever succeeded in establishing even a symbolic post would establish a claim to that territory.
“The whole basis of Forward Policy was the assumption that ‘China was unlikely to wage war with India’. When Mr Nehru thought of war, he always thought of total war and not limited war,” Kaul wrote.
In his book, Mankekar said the Army HQ directed its Western and Eastern Command to patrol as close as possible to the international border to establish additional posts to prevent the Chinese from advancing further and to also dominate any Chinese posts already established in Indian territory.
Records show the message also said, “This Forward Policy shall be carried out without getting involved in a clash with the Chinese unless it becomes necessary in self-defence.”