Why Nathu La is a historic pass for India and China
It's the diplomats in New Delhi, Beijing and Thimphu who must ensure lasting peace.
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It was 0530 hours on September 11, 1967. Capt Prithvi Singh Dagar, a young officer of 2 Grenadiers was officer in charge of the party laying a wire fence at Nathu La to demarcate the boundary between India and China. This was being done along the south shoulder of Nathu La. A Chinese army patrol tried to stop them from laying the wire. There was a minor skirmish.
The Chinese patrol returned to its side. Soon a loud whistle was heard and the Chinese army opened fire at the wire laying party. Though heavily outnumbered and out gunned and hit on the hand, Capt Dagar picked up the rifle of a fallen soldier, took position and fired back at the Chinese position, killing two Chinese soldiers. But a Chinese MMG position continued to fire at the Indian troops.
Capt Dagar launched a direct assault on the Chinese MMG position and hurled a grenade inside silencing it before he made the supreme sacrifice of his life. Major Harbhajan Singh of 8 Rajput led the other assault on the Chinese post. And soon the Chinese artillery opened up.
Post 1962, India was building up its defences and the Indian response was swift and punitive. The artillery duel lasted three days and three nights. 70 Indian soldiers made the supreme sacrifice of their lives defending Nathu La from Chinese aggression. The army citation at the Nathu La border at an altitude of 14,150 feet says by China's own account its army lost 400 soldiers in that three day skirmish.
Nathu La means the pass of the Listening Ear. It served as a link on the old silk route between Gangtok and Kalimpong in India and Yatung in Tibet. This is the route where China suddenly and arbitrarily stopped the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra over its differences with Bhutan over the boundary and miffed with India coming to Bhutan's aid.
China issued a series of rather shrill and provocative statements initially. It also stopped the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra from the Nathu La route and its army announced a 35 tonne tank live firing drill in Tibet. India and Bhutan's response to the shrill rhetoric was calm and measured stating facts on ground and seeking activation of laid down procedure to address boundary issues.
The patrols of India and Bhutan continue to face off but sources say the situation is not as tense as it was on day 1. The armed forces were well deployed but given confidence building measures that are in place, there is no serious apprehension of situation going out of control.
India did not join issues with China on shrill talk of a Chinese army Colonel reminding India of 1962 except defence minister Arun Jaitley telling my colleague Rahul Kanwal that 2017 is not 1962. This is the calm confidence on ground too. Tourists continue to visit Gangtok and Nathu La. The army unit deployed there shows them around with a smile, even posing for an occasional picture. Tourists are also encouraged to buy a certificate signed by the Garrison Commander certifying their visit to the border post at 14,150 feet.
This reporter also bought a certificate that says: ''Nations Have no permanent friends and foes. They only have permanent interests. It takes years to build capabilities, intentions can change anytime.''
This is as true of 1962 as it is of 1967 and 1987 situations. Security forces are confident of their training, tactics, weapons and deployment but not seeking conflict with China. There are gaps in weapon platforms and infrastructure development but none that would lead to a repeat of 1962.
The signboards on various battalion and regiments speak of the confidence. An artillery regiment is 'Forever High' and another formation proudly announces the army is here to stay. The locals and tourists are also enjoying the lush green cover on mountains and the rains.
It's the diplomats in New Delhi, Beijing and Thimphu on whose shoulders rests the responsibility to ensure peace prevails. As the last resort the armed forces are there to ensure it does in the long run.