Tucked away in the north eastern most corner of north east India lies a natural paradise that has witnessed one of the bloodiest battles fought on the Indian soil. A battle in which the greatly outnumbered Indians refused to bow down to the Chinese. A battle of grit, tenacity, and determination. A battle whose story remains forgotten in the annals of history. As we embarked on a journey with the Army (to Walong in Arunachal Pradesh) revisiting those episodes in history, we got a glimpse into the life of the indefatigable Indian Jawan.
By the time, we reached Walong, the sun had begun to recede its long rays casting a pall over the entire town. While the rest of the town had retired into their homes causing an eerie emptiness in the place, there was a buzz of activity in the army camp. Guarding. Patrolling. Surveilling. Drills. Exercises. Sports. The Jawan goes on about his duty meticulously day and night like a well-oiled machine.
Our first visit was to a newly constructed memorial on top of a small hillock overseeing the air-strip, commemorating the martyrs who had laid down their lives in the Battle of Walong in 1962. There were helmets. Guns. Photographs. Bullets. Poignant tales. More helmets. Remainders and reminders of those who defied all odds to fight the Chinese till their last breath.
A tall statue of a soldier, aptly named the ‘Soldier in Silence’ stands overlooking the valley where the battle was fought. There were names inscribed over the walls. 6 Kumaon, 4 Sikh 4 Dogra, 3/3 Gurkha rifles, 2/8 Gurkha Rifles and 2 Assam Rifles. Martyrs reduced to mere names.
As we stood there paying our respects, the flame in the large urn kept flickering in the blustery wind, refusing to die out, just like those soldiers. On the wall, emblazoned in large white letters were the words “LEST WE FORGET” – a grim yet telling reminder of the historical amnesia that the nation suffers from.
Before the break of dawn, we made our way to another memorial, ‘The Hut of Remembrance’ in the Namti Plains, where the Indian defences withstood the Chinese onslaught for 22 days.
Ensconced on all sides by the snow-capped mountains dotted with pine trees lie the idyllic Namti plains. The auburn grassland carpeted over the undulating plains that looked straight out of Van Gogh masterpiece. As the sun peeked out of the clouds casting a glow on our faces, the army men recounted the tale of the Battle of Walong.
On the fateful 26th day of October in 1962, the Chinese had launched an offensive against the Namti defences with the aim of capturing Walong. The Indians had everything going against them- freezing weather, inhospitable terrain, limited resources, outdated weapons and a powerful enemy. The Indians were heavily outnumbered with just 3000 men as opposed to the 15000 on the opposite side. But what they lacked in numbers, they more than made up for it with courage.
The Chinese sent troops after troops but the Indians offered stiff resistance with all that they could muster. Armed with aggression, valour and obduracy, they defied all odds to stop the Chinese juggernaut. The Sikhs, Dogras and Kumaons fought and fought. Even after they had been struck down. With their very bare hands, refusing to throw in the towel. Eventually, the Chinese broke the Indian rear-guard but by then, they had lost 5 times the men India had.
Such was the tenacity with which the Indians fought that the Chinese, even today, refers it as “Tiger’s mouth”. It was fitting that the Time Magazine had remarked “At Walong, Indian troops lacked everything. The only thing they did not lack was gut.”
Today, in the Namti Plains, there lives a solitary man in a solitary house with the serene Lohit gliding along gently, a silent witness to the ravages of time.
The high point, literally and metaphorically, of our journey was the trek to Hill 90, India’s eastern most border point. Starting from Kibithu, we were accompanied by a brigadier and his young son who put us to shame as they raced along without breaking a sweat while we were drenched profusely in the cold weather.
As I huffed and puffed my way on a winding path that seemed to go upwards and upwards, I just had a single thought plaguing my mind- the difficulty that the soldier has to face while carrying weapons and supplies to the post.
As I reached the top, I knew that I would not mind trekking again and again to reach here. Several thousand metres above sea level, there were several Jawans tirelessly guarding our borders unmindful of the adverse conditions that they had to put up with.
From the vantage point, we were able to see the infamous Line of Actual Control with our naked eye. Surrounded by hills, valleys, and ridges, we saw the contested pieces of land that has led to disputes between the two neighbours.
On the other end, we could see the extensive road network that China had built right till the border and the new settlements that are being installed aggressively by relocating people. On the home front, the army men elaborated lucidly the high level of preparedness, robust infrastructure system in place and the strategy deployed in case any eventuality should arise.
As we walked our way down Hill 90, reassured that India is in safe hands, I was reminded of the solemn pledge inscribed in the memorial in Namti Plains- Walong will never fall again.