The Chinese had developed a three-pronged attack. The force which had overwhelmed 7 Brigade, thought to be about three regiments, had turned south-east, come through Shakti, and was at Lumla, less than ten miles from Tawang, on 23 October; that force had joined up with the second prong which had come through Khinzemane and down the Nyamjang Chu; on the 23rd a third line of advance was opened through Bum La and straight down the old trade route to Tawang, which was thus threatened from north and south. Tawang had no natural defences; plainly any troops that attempted a stand there would be overcome as easily as had been those on the Namka Chu. In New Delhi, the Director of Military Operations (D.M.O.), Brigadier Palit, was strongly urging on Thapar that Tawang must be evacuated; Thapar consulted Nehru, who said that where and how they would fight must now be a matter for the military themselves to decide. In Tezpur the Brigadier General Staff (B.G.S.) of IV Corps, Brigadier K. K. Singh, was similarly urging Sen. Kaul was out of the picture again, having been persuaded to hang up his telephones and relinquish command of IV Corps on the morning that the Chinese attacked.
Consequently, on 23 October orders went out from IV Corps to the force at Tawang that they were to withdraw to Bomdi La, some sixty miles back on the road to the plains: that, in the calculations of IV Corps, was the farthest point to the north where the Indians could build up more quickly than the Chinese. All formations concerned were informed that the build-up was to be at Bomdi La.
But at Army H.Q. the D.M.O., Brigadier Palit, was urging just as strongly that the troops should be ordered to hold at Se La, a high pass only about fifteen miles behind Tawang. Palit, before Kaul picked him for D.M.O., had commanded 7 Brigade in NEFA, and formed the view that Se La was an impregnable natural position which had to be held if an invader were to be denied access to the plains. That view, urged by the forceful and articulate Palit, must have been welcome to Krishna Menon and perhaps to Thapar; for all the Prime Minister’s injunction that the decision must be taken purely on military grounds, they cannot have overlooked the fact that the more territory was yielded to the Chinese, the worse the reverse on the Namka Chu must look. At all events, later on 23 October Sen countermanded the order to pull back to Bomdi La and ordered that Se La must be held. Brigadier K. K. Singh urged that New Delhi be told that it would be logistically impossible to build up sufficient defences at Se La; but Sen replied that the Cabinet had decided that Se La should be held and the Government’s orders must be implemented.
That decision was crucial – and disastrous. Se La was tempting. The pass itself was 14,600 feet high, and it was flanked by peaks a thousand feet higher. The 5,000-foot climb from the Tawang valley was very steep, and the road was dominated from the pass and its flanks. The road to the plains ran through Se La, and only tracks by-passed it. It was a strong defensive position – but it was a trap for the Indians. Se La was too far from the plains for it to be quickly built up as the main defence position; the road at best could take only one-ton vehicles and it was a long, gruelling trip of several days from the foot-hills to Se La. There were good dropping zones near the pass; but still the terrain made air supply wasteful and precarious, while the weather made it wholly unreliable. Furthermore, Se La was too high: its defence would require troops to operate at altitudes between 14,000 and 16,000 feet, while the garrison would have to be made up of units brought straight from the plains, without acclimatization. Finally, Se La was too near Tawang; the Chinese could mount their assault against it with the minimum regrouping, and without having to move their bases forward.
The decision to hold Se La entailed the defence of Bomdi La and the road between as well. The Chinese could outflank Se La on any of several tracks, and sufficient forces would have to be kept in reserve to keep the road free of Chinese blocks. The decision to hold Se La committed the Indians to holding a very deep area, from Se La to Bomdi La, separated by some sixty miles of difficult and unreliable road through high, broken country.
Air support of this position would be limited to supply missions. The Government had decided that tactical air support with bombers or ground-attack aircraft must be ruled out for fear of Chinese retaliation against Indian cities, especially Calcutta. The memory of the huge panic that swept Calcutta during the Second World War when some random Japanese bombs fell there, with repercussions far beyond the city, was enough to make the Government resolve that it must not be risked again. Considering the terrain in NEFA and the limitations of the Indian Air Force, it is doubtful whether its intervention in a tactical role could have had much effect; but those were not the considerations that made the Government rule it out.
Tawang was evacuated on 23 October, some hundreds of civilians, including lamas from the monastery, going with the troops. The Chinese occupied Tawang, unopposed, on the 25th. The Indians took up positions on and behind the Jang River, with the more or less intact battalions from Tawang reinforced with stragglers who had got through from the Namka Chu debacle, and with non-combatant personnel. On the night of 24 October one battalion, 4 Garhwal, panicked, broke and began to trickle back; but these troops were intercepted and braced, to be put back in the line. Later this battalion cleared its record by beating off repeated Chinese assaults from its positions flanking Se La.
The Chinese paused after they occupied Tawang. After 20 October they had attacked Indian posts elsewhere along the McMahon Line, and these had fallen back under varying degrees of pressure. At the eastern end of NEFA they came down on 24-25 October to Walong and made some probing attacks; but thereafter NEFA fell into a lull.
IV Corps got a new commander on 24 October, Lieutenant-General Harbaksh Singh, who had been stationed in Simla. Sen removed General Prasad from the command of 4 Division, replacing him with Major-General A. S. Pathania – a soldier with a good combat record in the past, but who was now catapulted from heading the National Cadet Corps in New Delhi, an armchair job of the most relaxed kind, to commanding a division in action. Much of Eastern Command’s energies were occupied with command changes like these. The commanding officer of 62 Brigade was changed, the brigadier who had trained and commanded the formation being replaced by a newcomer, Brigadier Hoshiar Singh; 65 Brigade was kept kicking its heels in Bomdi La, without any orders, until the new divisional commander’s request for a replacement of its brigadier was granted; the commander of 5 Brigade, responsible for the Walong sector, was also changed. Almost keeping pace with the dropping and changing of commanders, units were posted and cross-posted until no brigade in NEFA had its original battalions under command.
It seemed that IV Corps might, on the other hand, be settling down. General Harbaksh Singh, taking over command on 24 October, began energetically to make reconnaissances and appreciations of his sector and task.
This time it was Peking who used a verbal smoke-screen to obscure the reality of what was happening on the ground. On 20 October the Chinese Defence Ministry issued a statement which said that at 07.00 hours that morning the Indian troops had launched large-scale attacks, not only on the Namka Chu but also from their posts in the Chip Chap and Galwan valleys in the western sector. ‘In self-defence, the Chinese frontier guards were compelled to strike back resolutely, and cleared away some aggressive strong points set up by the Indian troops in China’s territory’, the statement went on. There the Chinese took over the tactic of ‘turning truth on its head’ of which they had often – and not without reason – accused India. The troops on the Namka Chu put in no attack on 20 October; they were in the process of reinforcing Tsangle, which was certainly an aggressive move, but to say that ‘under cover of fierce artillery fire [they] launched massive attacks against the Chinese frontier guards all along the [Namka Chu] and in the Khinzemane area’ was simply to fabricate.122 To say that the Indian troops in the western sector ‘launched a general attack’ from their isolated and puny posts was grotesque.
In thus sacrificing truth to what was apparently considered propaganda advantage, the Chinese played into New Delhi’s hands by obscuring what had actually happened. That the Indians had intended to attack the Chinese below Thag La ridge was by then known everywhere; Nehru’s airport confirmation of 12 October had told any interested government which had not already got wind of Operation Leghorn what was afoot. If Peking had simply said that, rather than waiting for the Indians to deliver the attack they had so loudly heralded, the Chinese Army had got its blow in first, it would have been hard for New Delhi to cry ‘aggression’ with any credibility: the doctrine of the pre-emptive strike is too widely accepted nowadays for any successful practitioner to be generally condemned. As it was, however, the Chinese charge that the Indians had ‘launched massive attacks’ rebounded from the general scepticism about India having the strength to attack China; and was almost immediately belied by Peking’s own announcement that the defensive actions of the Chinese ‘frontier guards’ were carrying them over successive Indian positions.
It may be significant that Chou En-lai did not at first subscribe his name to the false statement that Indians had attacked on 20 October. Writing to Nehru on 4 November, he said only that the Indian troops on the Namka Chu had ‘made active dispositions for a massive military attack’,123 and that was precisely true: a brigade attack with four battalions could certainly be described as massive in the scale of skirmishing along the borders up to that time. In a letter to the Afro-Asian governments ten days later, however, Chou also wrote that India had ‘launched massive attacks all along the line’.124
The conjunction of military and diplomatic measures was at the heart of the operation on which China was now embarked, and her next diplomatic move was adroit in both timing and content. A statement released in Peking on 24 October concisely recapitulated the course of the dispute with India, concluding with a reminder that three times in the past three months India had rejected China’s proposals for talks without pre-conditions, and that Nehru had then publicly ordered the Indian Army to ‘free Indian territory’. The statement then pointed to the impossibility of settling the boundary question by force, and the need to reopen peaceful negotiations; and set forth three proposals to that end:
That both sides affirm that the dispute must be settled peacefully; agree to respect the line of actual control [as of November 1959]; and withdraw their armed forces twenty kilometres from that line.
If India agreed to that, Chinese forces would be withdrawn to the north of the McMahon Line.
The Prime Ministers should meet again, in Peking or New Delhi, to seek a friendly settlement.126
Chou En-lai included these proposals in a letter to Nehru the same day, the first communication between the Prime Ministers since they parted in New Delhi in April 1960. He urged that ‘we should look ahead [and] take measures to turn the tide’ rather than argue over the origin of the conflict, and appealed to Nehru to respond positively.125
The Chinese proposal was not new in any detail; it was the same as Chou put forward originally in his letter to Nehru of 7 November 1959, altered somewhat to take account of the fact that Chinese troops were now south of the McMahon Line. (On 21 October Peking had announced that Chinese troops had been told they could disregard the McMahon Line in their operations on the eastern sector – and that day the troops moved south of Hathung La, the boundary feature according to China.) In effect, the Chinese proposals would have created a ceasefire line along the ‘line of actual control’, the term which Peking had from the first used to describe the situation when the dispute came to a head in 1959. The Chinese would have pulled back over the McMahon Line, and Indian troops in the remaining forward posts in the western sector would have withdrawn to the line that the Indian Army had held before the forward policy was put into effect in 1961. Then, to create a demilitarized zone along that line, the armed forces of each side would each pull back another twenty kilometres – civil personnel would not be involved in those withdrawals. There was no ambiguity in these proposals, although they were not stated in precise locational detail. Thag La ridge was not mentioned, for example, nor for that matter was the McMahon Line; but the phrase ‘the line of actual control’ had throughout been used by Peking to describe the situation in November 1959, when the Chinese were nowhere south of the McMahon Line, or even south of Thag La ridge – though when the Indians were established at Khinzemane. The only territorial change that acceptance of the proposals would have entailed for India was that the posts set up in the western sector, over the Chinese claim line, in pursuance of the forward policy, would be withdrawn – where they had not already been wiped out – and that Dhola Post could not have been re-established.
The Chinese described their proposals as equal, mutually accommodatory and based on mutual respect – ‘not arbitrary and arrogant’127 – and, seen objectively, they merit the description; but, of course, India could not see them objectively. To the Indians, the Chinese had simply added a new and more violent aggression to the long-standing aggression involved in the Chinese presence in territory India claimed in the western sector; and they were now seeking to confirm their criminal gains through diplomacy.
New Delhi rejected the Chinese proposals instantly – indeed without waiting to receive them officially, but going by the news agencies’ account of their contents. […]