A shaggy black shape appears out of the swirling mist as the car snakes around a hairpin bend.
“Yaks,” says the driver. They stand phlegmatically by the side of the road, staring into the mist, little bells tinkling every time they move their heads.
We are above the clouds now as the car climbs towards Sela Pass in western Arunachal Pradesh. It is breathtaking—the deep green of the forested mountain slopes, still largely untouched by human habitation, the shape-shifting cotton-wool white clouds, the occasional string of multicoloured Buddhist prayer flags, faded by sun and rain, a still, glassy lake at 13,700ft. The only other colour omnipresent in these mountains is the olive green of military trucks groaning up the steep slopes and soldiers in camouflage.
I had come to Arunachal Pradesh to see the mountains, drawn by stories of the “land of the lamas”. But I got a lesson in military history as well. It’s hard to separate the two any more in these parts.
“See that pointy mountain,” Sanjay, the driver, gestures at a jagged peak in front of us. “We call it Zinda Pahaar because many soldiers hid in those mountains and managed to survive when the Chinese attacked.” Along the way, he points to another structure. “That used to be a langar (community kitchen),” he says. “But the Chinese shelled it and so many soldiers died, these roads ran with blood.”
Sanjay is a young man. He was definitely not around during the India-China War in 1962. But the legends of the war have become part of the folklore of these parts. The names of those who died have become part its tourist spiel. The War Memorial in Tawang is as much a tourist attraction as the old Tawang monastery, the largest Buddhist monastery outside Lhasa, Tibet. The day I go, the sound-and-light show has been cancelled but the gift shop run by military personnel is buzzing.
The irony is that the 1962 war is one India largely chooses not to remember. It’s regarded as an ignominious chapter in India’s history that exposed India’s unpreparedness and naïveté when it came to China.
On 20 October 1962, China pushed back Indian forces, both in Ladakh in the west and Arunachal (then NEFA) in the east, across the disputed McMahon line. The war lasted a month but by then China had seized Tawang and come all the way down to Bomdila.
Being in these parts makes one realise the significance of that. We think of war as something that happens in remote, uninhabited mountainous terrain along the disputed border. But Tawang and Bomdila look like so many other hill stations —little momo and thukpa restaurants, with pictures of the Dalai Lama on the wall, stray dogs napping in the sun, apple-cheeked women selling dried mushrooms, hard yak milk churpee cheese and cherry-red Dalle chillies. It’s surreal to think that 60 years ago war came right into the heart of these towns.
Now that war is so embedded in the narrative, these mountains belong to both the soldiers and the lamas. In 1959, when China decided to annex Tibet, the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa. Disguised as a commoner, he crossed these very mountains, coming across the Bum La pass. The little museum in the Tawang monastery has a photograph of a young, bespectacled Dalai Lama walking down the road in Dirang after his escape from Tibet.
Bum La is now open to visitors on the Indian side. We are taken in groups to the border, where a soldier sits on a pile of stones, the Indian flag planted firmly beside him. Along the way, the government has put up tourism posters, faded by the elements—Hawa Mahal, Taj Mahal, Victoria Memorial, all looking rather incongruous against the backdrop of grey skies, bleak mountains and scrub at 15,200ft. Borders are usually rather underwhelming. The terrain looks the same on both sides. Nothing screams “China” or “Tibet”. But this is a border crossing that has seen real war. Someone in our group starts shouting Bharat Mata ki Jai.
Forty-three kilometres down the road is the Chinese city of Tsona Dzong. But Chinese tourists are not allowed to the border. An army officer briefs us about life on the border and recounts stories of the 1962 war, pointing to spots where the Indian soldiers resisted the Chinese. He does not mention the Dalai Lama.
But while the Dalai Lama’s story is well-known, thanks in part to the international attention he receives, the story of the warriors of 1962 is less known even to Indians. We like our war stories to end in a triumphant blaze of glory. 1962 is not such a story, but that does not mean it lacks in accounts of bravery. There are stories of extraordinary courage and the stories have names attached to them.
I read some of them in Tawang, at the war memorial to 2,420 soldiers known to have died in the war. Partap Singh, Chain Singh, B.K. Pant, R.R. Singh. Regiments like Assam Rifles, Garhwal Rifles, Army Service Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Sikh Regiment. Tellingly, most of the dead were lance havaldars and sepoys. They bore the brunt of the Chinese attack, they put up the resistance and they paid the price.
On the Bomdila-Tawang highway, there is a memorial for Jaswant Singh Rawat. He was a rifleman of 4th Garhwal Rifles, which beat back two charges by the People’s Liberation Army in November 1962. When a Chinese medium machine gun (MMG) was wreaking havoc, Jaswant Singh and two fellow soldiers, Lance Naik Trilok Singh Negi and Rifleman Gopal Singh Gusain, offered to try and take out the MMG. They managed to capture the gun but Gusain and Negi died. A wounded Rawat returned with the gun. When Rawat’s company withdrew, he stayed back, staving off the Chinese for 72 hours until the Chinese figured out it was just one man. Some say he killed himself with the final round, others say he was captured and executed.
At his memorial, soldiers come to salute his trunk, his boots and bedding and read a flowery tribute to him. This little patch of land has a new name now—Jaswantgarh. Jaswant Singh Rawat was 21.
At the war memorial in Tawang itself, built in the local Tibetan style, a soldier is guarding a statue of Joginder Singh. It’s not yet ready to be unveiled but will honour the subedar of the 1st battalion of the Sikh Regiment who was commanding a platoon at the Bum La pass. Though heavily outnumbered, he is said to have killed over 50 Chinese soldiers, bayoneting many of them, before he was wounded and captured; he died in Chinese custody.
“He didn’t even take a sip of water while in Chinese custody,” a fellow Sikh soldier tells me proudly. That detail might be apocryphal but it doesn’t matter. Joginder Singh is the stuff of legend in these parts. Both Rawat and Singh have had their stories told in film, though neither film became particularly famous.
The film that put Tawang on the tourist map for many has nothing to do with the war. It was Koyla, starring Madhuri Dixit and Shah Rukh Khan. Rawat fought the battle of Nuranang. But Shah Rukh and Madhuri made Nuranang famous by cavorting in the waters of its magnificent waterfall. The nearby Sangetsar Lake, near Tawang, created by a flash flood after an earthquake, is nicknamed Madhuri Lake.
“But village elders there say it was a local girl who actually danced in that cold water,” says a soldier. “It’s a sad story really. That lake drowned everything that was there when it was created.” Dead trunks of drowned trees stick out of the lake, the only remnants of the landscape that used to be there.
Now the little dhaba near the lake is called Madhuri Restaurant, to remember the Bollywood heroine who sang and danced in that lake.
But these mountains have many other bona-fide heroes whose names really deserve to be remembered. Sixty years after the war, the wind still whispers their names.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.