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1967 battle is an inflection point for China-India military narrative: Probal Dasgupta

China India War

Q: What prompted you to write the book, WATERSHED 1967: India’s Forgotten Victory Over China, so many decades after this battle happened?

One of the main reasons for writing this book is that the last response on India and China is always the 1962 war. China constantly harps on it in a derogatory way. Today people talk about the Galwan Valley because they have seen it on TV but they still do not know much about China. The man on the street knows about wars with Pakistan yet nothing on China. Two generations have passed but most of our understanding about China comes from the 1962 war. There is a big lack of understanding about China.

There exists a magnified and misinterpreted reference to the 1962 war while the 1967 battle of Nathu La and Cho La has not even been written about. Nothing has been written about 1967. Many people in our country, including in the armed forces, have not heard about our battle with China in 1967 where we had soundly defeated them. Therefore, it was important to bring up this information and memories from 1967. This was an important incident for India which slipped in the cracks of history. It was a story waiting to be told also because no one knew it.

Q: Writing a book is a project in itself. What was the trigger?

One day, I was at lunch in Hyderabad with a friend who is an author and told him about this battle that India had won against China in 1967. He stared at me in disbelief, and then said, “Why don’t you write about it.” When I began researching about it, I realized that I knew only 20 per cent of it. I began speaking with soldiers and survivors of 1967. I discovered that people have robust memories and they remembered the incidents till the last minute. I took leave from my office and over two years traveled across the length and breadth of the country interviewing people.

I spoke with soldiers, officers, bureaucrats and the locals at Sikkim. Most of these people are in the twilight of their lives and people hold different perspectives. People from villages on the Sikkim border even remembered the noise that the shells made. I scanned through the archives of the Grenadiers and the Gorkha Regiments and also connected with veterans of battalions that had fought in that battle. I also met Major General Randhir Singh—the former ADC and biographer of General Sagat Singh—who had led the battles.</p> I met people connected to the battle, people connected to the place and people connected to people who had fought there.

Q: It is a matter of pride and if 1967 battle is so significant, why don’t we talk about it?

It is because of a combination of factors. It was a battle which was not planned by politicians. This means to say that it was a battle led by military commanders but politicians were not involved or carried it forward. Moreover, the 1971 war happened soon after and everyone forgot 1967.

In a similar manner we do not talk much about the 1961 skirmish between the Portuguese forces and the Indian Army. Officially, it was known only as police action, which it was not. The Indian Army was involved in integrating Goa into India.

Q: What impact did this battle have on the Chinese psyche?

This battle changed the narrative for India for 50 long years. Till the Galwan Valley incident, China did not dare mount a military confrontation because of the psychological ascendancy we gained in 1967, amongst the other control measures put in place such as agreements and protocols. But 1967 set the template. China did not intervene in the 1971 India-Pakistan War even though it was tempting for it to do so. It could have cut us off at the Siliguri corridor and joined with Pakistani forces in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) but it did not. China could have moved additional forces to the border at Nathu La to scare India but did not do that either. China could have opened up a new front to distract India from the Bangladesh war but desisted from that.

In short, China had numerous options to exercise against India in support of Pakistan but desisted completely. A major reason was the defeat it tasted in 1967.Another reason was that many Western authors who had researched the 1967 conflict had arrived at the conclusion that China realized that it could not overpower India militarily. Also, Russia had placed a large number of its troops on its border with China, after its treaty with India, which was a big deterrent.

From 1962 till 1967, China had been very aggressive. It would fire upon Indian patrols and killed many soldiers. In 1967 too, it was with the same mindset that the Chinese troops fired on Indian soldiers making a fence on the border. But then the Indians retaliated and China was left counting bodies. After that China kept quiet on the border for 50-odd years.

Q: We face a similar situation on the once again. How relevant is 1967 today?

It has become an inflection point for the India-China narrative. The 1967 battle is a historical, military and geographical watershed. We have to recall that except for the 1962 war, China has not won a single war till now. And that except for 1962, Indian has not lost a single war till now. Soon after the 1967 conflict, China got a drubbing from Russia in 1969 in the Sino-Soviet Ussuri River conflict when the Russians decimated a complete Chinese brigade.

Also, Russia turned its Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles from Europe to China. That was enough to scare Mao. This defeat was followed by another humiliating defeat for China by the much smaller Vietnamese army in 1979. Since then the Chinese have resorted to slicing off territories from neighbors through craft and cunning. I will say that 1967 had a big impact on the Chinese and that is why they never talk about it.

Q: How should Indians understand the Chinese psyche? We seem to be miscalculating again.

A common thread with the Chinese psyche is that all these tactics come from Mao and these continue to determine their actions even today. Whenever the Chinese leadership needs an internal validation, they project it externally. Between Mao and Xi, Chinese leaders haven’t changed their thinking. China is very territorial—it fights on land and on sea, slicing off territories, and it has got its way by threatening armed conflicts. The only country in the world that has expanded with coercion but avoids a military confrontation.

With China nothing happens instinctively. The Doklam crisis in 2017 happened because Xi Jinping had to be elected. Every time they need a nationalistic validation, they march to the border. It is happening right now because of several reasons such as the coronavirus pressure on China. It is perhaps also happening because of the issues around the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is not showing the desired benefits. Also, since Xi came to power in 2013, the threat level for India has increased. Ever since Xi, we had a series of stand-offs.

Q: Do you think India and China will go to war? And, will Pakistan be tempted to join it?

The Himalayan region is not one where you can make much progress. With modern infrastructure and such large armies, the ability to overwhelm the other in mountains is less. No one will make much headway—one side will gain ground in one area while the other can open up another sector and make gains. It depends on who enjoys advantages on ground and terrain in that area but not much progress is expected to be made. On sea, China is not ready for a war in the Indian Ocean. During the Doklam conflict, the Quad (India, Japan, USA and Australia) had threatened to assemble their navies.

I feel that a war in these times may not remain confined to India and China. We do talk about a two-front war. But if Pakistan and China open up fronts against India, then India might find it difficult to manage. China too may not be able to pull out their forces from other borders to place them against India. On the other hand, if you look at history the largest armies may not always win the wars, it is the smarter armies which have won them.

I also feel that both countries will try to avoid a war because of many reasons—they have trade ties and both are large economies. However, we have to understand that this sniping, deception, aggression, stealing territory, employing threatening tactics are ingrained in the Chinese government’s strategy. They do it with everyone—Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and India.