|Indian POWs in front of the Potala after their release (April 1963)|
Lt. Col. Rattan Singh, Lt. Col. Balwant S. Alhuwalia, Brig. John Dalvi,
Lt. Col. Maha Singh Rikh, Lt. Col. K.K. Tewari
As told by General Tewari:
On the road to Tibet
On October 20, 1962, the Indian prisoners were marched along a narrow track across the Namkha chu (river); later we went up to the Thagla pass (about 15,000 feet). On our way, we passed huge stocks of unfired mortar shells by the sides of our mortar positions, while on the northern side of the ridge, Chinese parties were still bringing up 120 mm mortars on a man pack basis.
After 3 days walk, we reached a place called Marmang in Tibet. From there we were taken in covered vehicles at night. During the journey, the Chinese tried to demoralize us; they would make fun of our army: "You do not even have cutting tools for felling trees. You use shovels to cut down trees." It was true; they had seen our troops preparing their defensive positions near the Namkha chu. There were other remarks such as, "You people have strange tactics. You sit right at the bottom of the valley to defend your territory instead of sitting on a high ground."
We arrived at the PoW camp located at Chongye [in Central Tibet] on 26 October and were accommodated in Lama houses which were all deserted although we could see some activity in the monastery above these houses on the side of a hill.
We were to spend over five months in this camp, located south west of Tsetang, off the main highway to Lhasa. The prisoners were segregated into four companies: No. 1 Company was all officers, JCOs and NCOs. Majors and Lt Colonels were also separated from the JCOs and men. No. 2 and 3 Companies were jawans of various units. No. 4 Company, consisted only of Gorkhas and was given special privileges, for obvious political reasons. Each company had its own cookhouse where the Indian soldiers selected by the Chinese were made to cook.
In our house, we were four Lt Colonels (Maha Singh Rikh of the 2 Rajputs, Balwant Singh Ahluwalia of the Gorkhas, Rattan Singh of 5 Assam Rifles and myself), while John Dalvi was kept in confinement in Tsetang, a few km away from Chongye.
When we made representations to the Chinese that under the Geneva Convention on PoWs, officers had the right to be with their men, we were told quite bluntly that all these were nothing but imperialist conventions.
I shivered through the first couple of nights but then had a brain wave. I had noticed a pile of husk outside. We asked the Chinese if we could use it. Luckily, they accepted, and we could use the stuff as a mattress as well as a quilt.
For almost a month after our arrival, we were not let out of the room. Each of these lama houses had its own latrine in one corner with an open but very effective system of soil disposal. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, the `disposal squad' of pigs had itself been disposed off by the Chinese.
There was an English speaking Chinese officer, Lt. Tong who was with us almost throughout our stay in the POW camp. He would come daily and talk to us individually or together. The theme of his talk with the POWs was monotonously the same: the Chinese wanted to be friends and it was only the reactionary government of Nehru, who was a lackey of American imperialism that wanted to break this friendship. "Then why did you attack us on 20 October?" They would try to explain that India attacked first and the Chinese attacked only in self-defense.
On 5 December, we were given for the first time some books and magazines to read. This consisted of Mao's Red Book, some literature on the India-China boundary question and a few Red Army journals. But whatever they were, they were most welcome for me at least. There was something to do at last to occupy the mind. I took notes from the Red Book. It is a pity that our government did not read some of the Mao’s thoughts. I noted them down at that time: "Fight no battle unprepared, fight no battle you are not sure of winning" or "The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy halts, we harass, the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue."
Towards the end of December 1962, the Red Cross sent us one parcel each with two packets in it. One packet had warm clothes, a German battle dress, a pair of long johns, warm vest, muffler, cap, jersey, warm shirt, boots and a towel. The second packet contained foodstuff including a bar of Sathe chocolate, tins of milk, jam, butter, fish, packets of sugar, atta (wheat flour), dal (pulses), dried peas, salt, tea, biscuits, condiments, cigarettes and vitamin pills. It certainly was a very well thought-out list of items.
Perhaps to demoralize us, the Chinese would often play Indian music on the public address system in the camp. One of the songs which was played repeatedly was Lata Mangeshkar's "Aa Ja Re-Main to kab se Khari Is par...." [Come, I have been waiting for so long] This would make us feel homesick.
With my habit of writing a diary, I kept notes as a POW also. In the first week or so, the only available paper to write on, were some sheets of toilet paper in my para jacket pocket. The question was how to keep these papers from being discovered by the Chinese. What I had done was to open the stitching on the ‘belt’ part of the trousers and then slide the folded papers inside. This was how my diary notes on toilet paper could be brought out to India.
One other episode of our stay in the camp is worth recording. One day, towards the end of our stay, at our request we were taken to see the palace and the monastery. It was a shock to see the palace with all the beautiful Buddha statues of all sizes and fabulous scrolls (tankhas) lying broken, defiled and torn and trampled on the ground.
On 25 December, we, the seven field officers were taken in one of the captured Indian Nissan trucks to spend the Christmas morning with Brig. John Dalvi at Tsetang. He was kept all alone and was comfortably accommodated. We had breakfast and lunch with him and were shown a movie. Dalvi had suffered a great deal mentally — being all by himself. He was now better.
The first letters we received from home came only in the third week of February 1963. Some of us, including myself, received parcels of sweets too.
On March 26, we were informed that we would soon be released and taken for a conducted tour of the mainland China. Suddenly we became VIPs, though still held as prisoners. We were given various comforts and given new clothes and shoes.
Before leaving the PoW camp, we asked the Chinese to take us to the graves of our soldiers who had died in our camp. There were seven of them including Subedar Joginder Singh, who had been awarded a PVC. We were told by the Chinese that he had refused to have his toes, which were affected by frost-bite, amputated. According to the Chinese, he had told them that his chances of promotion to Subedar Major would be adversely effected if his toes were amputated. We were told that he died of gangrene.
On 28 March, we left the camp, ironically in an Indian captured vehicle and were driven to Tsetang to pick up Brig John Dalvi and three other Lt. Colonels and five Majors. On 29th March, we were all driven in a bus to Lhasa. On 5 April, we were flown in two IL 14 aircrafts to Xining [Qinghai Province]. After a long tour of China, during which we were shown China’s ‘progress’ after the Communist revolution, we were informed on 27 April that we shall be handed over to India at Kunming on 4 May.
At the handing over ceremony, we witnessed a last surprise performance by the Chinese. Throughout our tour of China, an immaculately dressed Chinese had accompanied us. He was not dressed in cotton padded clothes like all the others. He commanded a lot of respect from the other Chinese. We used to refer to him as the ‘General’. He had a chap trailing around behind him always, helping him with things, offering a chair, a cup of tea, etc. We used to refer to that fellow as the orderly to the General. At the handing over ceremony, however, the person who sat down and signed on behalf of China was the ‘orderly’ and the one who stood behind to pass him the pen to sign was the ‘general’! Such are the Chinese ways!
On May 5, we took off at 9.10 a.m. from Kunming and were scheduled to land at Calcutta at 1.20 p.m. Before reaching Calcutta, the pilot announced that there was some problem with the under carriage not opening and that we might have to crash land, finally we landed ultimately at 2.30 p.m. at Dum Dum with all the fire tenders lined up. It would have been such an irony of fate if we had been killed in a crash landing in India!
In my opinion, the Chinese had prepared their attack for at least 2 or 3 years. I can give you few examples: one day a Chinese woman came and recited some of Bahadur Shah Zafar's poems, much to our delight. The Chinese had certainly prepared for this war most diligently because they had interpreters for every Indian language right in the front line. This Urdu-speaking woman must have lived in Lucknow for a long time. Same thing for one of our guards, though he had not said a single word for 5 months (we used to call him Poker Face), we discovered that he could speak perfect Punjabi when he left us in Kunming.
Their constant brainwashing was to make us accept that we had attacked them.