1971 war: history
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The liberation of Bangladesh
Bangladesh was the product of the ineptitude of Pakistan’s military establishment, the selfishness of West Pakistan’s political elite, the liberation struggle of the people of Bangladesh, and India’s brilliant military campaign.
India’s leadership was clear that the thrust of the effort in the liberation of Bangladesh had to be internal, even if the Indian army delivered the final coup de grace. The chief martial law administrator and commander of the eastern command of the Pakistan army, Lt Gen AAK ‘Tiger’ Niazi, surrendered to the joint command of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini on the afternoon of December 16, 1971, almost to the hour on the 13th day of the War of Liberation of Bangladesh.
A summary of the events
The last military skirmish between India and China took place at Nathu La in September 1967. Before it escalated to artillery guns and threats of fighter jets, there was a scuffle between the soldiers of the two armies.
As reports of deaths of Indian soldiers in a violent faceoff on Ladakh border emerged, many took solace from the fact that no rounds were fired during the physical clash with the Chinese soldiers.
While this certainly makes these deaths more brutal than being shot and killed, it also gives hope that an escalation to kinetic means – rifles, howitzers, rockets, missiles and fighter jets – can be avoided between the two nuclear neighbours.
The history of the conflict between the two sides, however, splashes some cold water on such hopes.
The last military skirmish between India and China took place at Nathu La in September 1967. Before the skirmish escalated to artillery guns and threats of fighter jets, there was a scuffle between the soldiers of the two armies.
The clash eventually left 88 Indian soldiers dead. More than 300 Chinese soldiers were killed.
In the weeks and months ahead of the clash, the Indian side had decided to fence the border with three layers of barbed wire. Work started on August 20, 1967.
On August 23, about 75 Chinese in battle dress, carrying rifles fitted with bayonets, advanced slowly towards Nathu La in an extended line, and stopped at the border. The Political Commissar — identifiable by a red patch on his cap, and the only one who could speak some English — read out slogans from a red book, which the rest of the party shouted after him.
The Indian troops were “standing to”, watching and waiting. After about an hour, the Chinese withdrew. But they returned later, and continued their protests.
On September 5, as the barbed wire fence was being upgraded to a concertina coil, the Political Commissar had an argument with the Commanding Officer of the local infantry battalion, Lt Colonel Rai Singh. Thereafter, work stopped.
Work was, however, resumed on September 7. This provoked about 100 Chinese soldiers to rush up, and a scuffle ensued. Beaten down by the Jats, the Chinese resorted to stone-pelting, and the Indians responded in kind.
The Nathu La and Cho La clashes are of extreme importance for India because they were a redemptive comeback for the Indian Army after the defeat in 1962 India-China War
India and China have had a series of fluctuating relations. Besides the full-fledged 1962 war, there exist several minuscule and also serious combats. The Nathu La and Cho La clashes of 1967 between India and China also constitute this bloody array of violence and bloodshed.
The Nathu La and Cho La clashes began as a result of China’s claim over India’s protectorate state-Sikkim. The Nathu La clashes commenced on 11 September 1967, when several attacks from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were recorded on the Indian posts at Nathu La. However, the attacks stopped on 15 September 1967, after Chinese casualties skyrocketed. The Cho La military duel, on the other hand, got under way, and persisted till the end of 1 October 1967. India distinguished itself as the victor in both the instances. But what was the reason, or rather the multiple reasons, behind these two military events?
A major contributor to this inter-country battle is speculated to be the apparent dispute between India and China regarding the disputed border land in Chumbi valley. In addition to the disputed border, India and China have always been at loggerheads with one another, and the reasons are endless.
The Nathu La and Cho La clashes are of extreme importance, for India at least, because the war was a redemptive comeback for the Indian Army after the shockingly shameful defeat in the 1962 India-China War. The Indian Army, after the war of 1962, made every possible attempt to establish a dominant military presence in the world, so much so that it is said to have grown by a staggering 200 per cent following the despicable conquest.
Surabhi Sanghi, a peer tutor of history at Ashoka University, elaborates on the same: “The Nathu La and Cho La battles were India’s so-called comeback into the world-avenue of military consciousness. As much as I’m tempted to add that both the sides fought just as fiercely, I’m also aware that India stood unbeatable. China was embarrassed enough to disclose heavily tampered figures of their casualties, as well as monetary loss while India held on to candour.”
The battle of Nathu La is now making a reappearance into the present psyche through cinema. Paltan, an adaptive film by JP Dutta encircling the two 1967 Indo-Chinese wars, is all set to release in theatres countrywide on 7 September 2018. The star cast includes Jackie Shroff, Arjun Rampal, Sonu Sood and Sonal Chauhan among others.
Lessons from the 1967 conflict
The current India-China standoff along the frontier in Sikkim is similar to one in 1967 that led to four days of bloody clashes between the soldiers of the two countries.
The bloody clashes between Indian and Chinese troops nearly 50 years ago at Nathu La in Sikkim, the scene of an ongoing standoff, are a grim reminder of how the unsettled border of the two countries has triggered hostilities.
The fighting that erupted on September 11, 1967 was preceded by months of accusations from both sides about incursions and territorial intrusions.
The language used by China at that time to warn Indian authorities was strikingly similar to the aggressive narrative emanating from Beijing five decades later. It even included references to the 1962 border war, which was fresh in the minds of military commanders on both sides at the time.
“The Chinese Government must tell the Indian Government in all seriousness: You must draw lessons from your past experience, stop provocative activities along the China-Sikkim border and cease all your calumnies against China, otherwise you are bound to eat the bitter fruits of your own making,” said a note handed over by China’s foreign ministry to the Indian embassy in Beijing on April 11, 1967.
On September 10, a day before hostilities broke out, the foreign ministry issued another terse warning , calling Indian leaders “reactionaries” who were “component part of the worldwide anti-Chinese chorus currently struck up by US imperialism and Soviet Revisionism in league with the reactionaries of various countries”.
The message, sent to New Delhi through the Indian embassy, said: “The Chinese Government sternly warns the Indian Government: the Chinese Border Defence Troops are closely watching the development of the situation along the China-Sikkim boundary. Should the Indian troops continue to make provocative intrusions, the Indian Government must be held responsible for all the grave consequences.”
The external affairs ministry countered the Chinese allegations with its own version of events, saying China’s troops had violated agreements.
“The Chinese Government is well aware that the Sikkim-Tibet border is a well-defined international border and has been recognised as such by China. By launching an armed attack the Chinese Government is seeking to build up tension at a point on the border which has never been in dispute,” the external affairs ministry told Beijing in a note.
The initial clashes in 1967 lasted four days. While the 1962 war was a debacle for New Delhi, the Indian Army proved more than a match for the Chinese five years later. According to an account of the clashes written by Maj Gen Sheru Thapliyal, who was posted in Sikkim at the time, the Indian side lost more than 70 soldiers while the Chinese casualties were more than 400.
“We gave them a bloody nose,” a former Indian diplomat told Hindustan Times.
A second round of clashes erupted at Cho La on October 1, 1967, leading to more casualties. But Indian troops stood their ground and forced the Chinese soldiers to withdraw at Cho La.
Since then, the border in the Sikkim sector has remained free of violence. In 1967, Sikkim was a protectorate of India and it joined the Indian union as a state in 1975. China recognised the frontier in the Sikkim sector in 2003.
The last bullet fired along the China-India frontier was in the Arunachal Pradesh sector in October 1975 , when border patrols from the two sides accidentally came face-to-face amid dense fog at Tuhung La and an Indian soldier was killed. This is often cited by Indian politicians and diplomats to drive home how calm the boundary with China is, say, compared to that with Pakistan.
How the U.S. viewed the 1967 conflict
Fifty years ago, on September 13, 1967, Indian deputy prime minister Morarji Desai, who was visiting the U.S., appeared on the “Today” show. The first five questions he was asked were about the “fighting up in Sikkim” – the reference was to the clashes that had taken place from September 11 at Nathu La and would continue till September 14.
During the 1965 India-Pakistan war, there had been Chinese pressure on India, but the Nathu La fighting was seen as the first major clash between China and India since the 1962 war. And that war shaped how the Sikkim clashes were seen within and outside government in the U.S. In particular, it meant a focus on two aspects of the clashes – first, the likelihood of escalation and, second, Indian preparation and performance.
In his answers to the Today show interviewer, Desai tried to reassure the audience on both these fronts. He noted that Chinese behaviour could not be predicted, but said he expected the fighting would remain localized. Noting that India had been preparing and could defend itself, he asserted that India would not succumb to pressure.
Asked about heightened Chinese rhetoric and warnings, Desai assessed, “They are mainly angry about the fact that we are not submitting to their pressures and their bullying…They would like us to fall in line with their strategy or their policy of dominating Asia and, ultimately, the world, as I see it.”
The U.S. in 1967 shared this Indian concern about China and its desire to dominate Asia. The Sikkim clashes came even as American troops were fighting in Vietnam, in the midst of Chairman Mao’s unfolding Cultural Revolution, and a few months after China had conducted its first hydrogen bomb test. Since a decade before, American administrations had seen India as part of their China strategy – as a potential counter-weight and democratic contrast to communist China. Indian success, therefore, was seen to be in American interest and a way of addressing the China challenge.
The 1962 war had been a major setback – in both geopolitical and psychological terms – to this strategy, as well as to how India was seen globally, regionally and within the U.S. That war, and setbacks related to Indian economic development and food supply, had shifted the American emphasis from the need to build up India to the need to prevent it from falling. Given this objective, any escalation on the China-India front was seen as potentially having consequences for Indian security and economic development – including by leading to even greater defense spending at the expense of development – and, potentially, requiring greater American involvement.
Thus, the U.S. government kept a close eye on the Sikkim clashes. American intelligence assessments had observed a deterioration of the China-India relationship, with a worsening of Chinese actions and words vis-а-vis India throughout 1967 amid the Cultural Revolution. Along with attacks on and expulsions of Indian diplomats, there had been numerous articles in People’s Daily in praise of the Naxalites, and Naga and Mizo insurgents, and calling for revolution in India. There had also been Chinese military probes into Bhutanese territory that summer. The Central Intelligence Agency indeed later saw the September clashes as “military expressions of intensified political relations.”
During the Nathu La clashes, American officials received updates through various means, including discussions with Indian officials. American and Indian military and diplomatic officials exchanged assessments in Delhi, Washington and Calcutta, including perplexity about Chinese motivations. Indian officials stated that they believed Chinese actions were localized, but deliberate.
The CIA director asked his staff for better reporting on the Sino-Indian border situation. Updates on the clashes made President Johnson’s daily brief each day between September 12 and 15, and then again after a clash took place at Cho La on October 1.
Officials particularly watched the scale of the clashes, the anti-India protests and propaganda campaign coming from China, whether Chinese logistical capabilities had been increased in the area, and Chinese troop dispositions not just at the point of the clashes, but also all along the border.
When the clashes ended, American Embassy officials reported back that “Indians confident they had the best of the incident.” There was a sense of relief within the U.S. government and outside – not just that the clashes had remained limited, but also with regard to how India performed both militarily and diplomatically. Noting that, unlike 1962, Delhi had not engaged in a war of words, The New York Times had indeed approvingly commented on Delhi’s demonstration of “firmness and restraint.” Press reporting on the incident had noted assessments that the clashes would remain limited, but there had simultaneously been concern that the 1962 war had been preceded by just such incidents and also that major Chinese offensives had followed lulls.
There was also an acknowledgement in the media, however, that India was better prepared than five years before. Finally, there was speculation about China’s motives, but also assessments that, whatever they were, they would have the consequences of weakening any voices in India calling for improved relations with China, “speed[ing] India’s movement toward cooperation with other nations of Asia in some kind of anti-Chinese front,” and strengthening those calling for India to develop nuclear weapons.
This wasn’t just the assessment of external analysts. Intelligence briefings to members of Congress noted that Sino-Indian border incidents would be ongoing and “could flare up at any time.” There was a sense, however, that China was unlikely to attack in a major way at that time and more confidence in India’s capabilities. But there was also a concluding assessment: that the clashes would do nothing to ease Indian concerns about China and, in particular, “growing Indian fear of Chinese nuclear capabilities could eventually force India to build its own bomb.”