That India lost the 1962 war against China is known to all. Yes, it was a defeat but it was the defeat for the then political top brass headed by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and not the military which fought like lions despite being outnumbered and outgunned.

Two years later, Nehru died, but the loss to China was not forgotten. A more aggressive Indian military was born and just three years later, in 1965, we defeated Pakistan.

Yet China believed that since they had defeated us in 1962, we would not be a match to their military might ever.

So in 1965, the belligerent Chinese demanded India hand over Nathu La, which is today a scenic tourist spot along the Indo-Tibet border in Sikkim. To their shock, India showed them the middle finger.

Why Nathu La

Nathu La is a strategically important pass 14,200 feet above sea level. It was then all the more important because Sikkim was not part of India at the time. It was a protectorate state, meaning that the Indian Army was responsible to defend it from enemy aggression.

China wanted India to vacate Sikkim and take control. Imagine what would have happened if India had done that. The Chinese border would have been at West Bengal and, perhaps, the seven states of the northeast would not have been India’s part.

At the time Maj Gen (later Lt Gen) Sagat Singh was the GOC of the Mountain Division in Sikkim; Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora was the Corps Commander and Lt Gen (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw was the Eastern Army Commander. The same three men would later go on to script history in the 1971 war with Pakistan.

The Indian Army commanded two strategically higher positions Sebu La and Camel’s Back overlooking the entire Nathu La region giving them a tactical advantage over the Chinese. Since the ‘big brother’ myth propagated by Nehru had been shattered in 1962, the Indian Army installed two artillery positions on the two heights just in case the Chinese made a move. This decision would later prove to be a game changer.

Since the Chinese and the Indians patrolled very close to each other along the pass, scuffles were common. To prevent that, the Indian side decided to demarcate the border by laying a wire. The task was commenced early in the morning of September 11, 1967.

The Morning Of September 11, 1967

The Indian Army’s engineers were being guarded by a company of 18 Rajput. The 2 Grenadiers and artillery deployed on strategic posts at Sebu La and Camel’s Back were on alert.

According to the personal account of Maj Gen Sheru Thapiyal, who was then a young officer deployed in the area, a Chinese army unit came at the centre of the pass and demanded that the Indian Army stop laying the wire. Our boys did not flinch and continued on regardless.

Sulking, the Chinese went back to their bunkers. It was presumed that they had got the answer and their political leadership would only be able to take the matter up in political circles. But here is where the Chinese showed their true colour again. (In case you don’t know, the 1962 war happened because of China’s betrayal of India.)

A sign warning tourists at the Nathu La border.