The Untold Story Of Tulung La, 1975: ‘The Chinese Had Guns, Only If I Had One…’

NEW DELHI: In the long history of the India-China boundary dispute, a few incidents remain a landmark. The 1962 war is the biggest of them all; the 1967 clash at Nathu La in Sikkim is another. But another episode of a bloody encounter between Indian and Chinese soldiers that happened in Arunachal Pradesh in 1975 is not so well known. It is recorded in public domain as the last time before 2020 when shots were fired on the disputed border. Four soldiers of the paramilitary force Assam Rifles were killed. There is no information about how many Chinese—if at all—were killed in that clash. For the first time, we bring you the real story of what happened on 20 October 1975 at a remote mountain pass called Tulung La. Col. Baliram Shah (Retd), then commanding the 3/1 Gorkha Rifles unit at Sela, was given the job of retrieving the bodies of the four soldiers. He narrates the incident in detail to StratNews Global Editor-in-Chief Nitin A. Gokhale.

Nitin A. Gokhale: Sir, I would like to start with talking about the incident that took place at Tulung La in October 1975, which has been described in contemporary history as the last time when shots were fired between Indian and Chinese forces on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). If I could take you back to that time when you were the CO of your battalion in Arunachal Pradesh at Sela, could you describe what exactly happened? What we know from public domain is that four personnel from 5 Assam Rifles were killed in action at Tulung La. But we would like to know from you as to what exactly happened.

Col. Baliram Shah (Retd): In 1975, my battalion, as a part of 11 Brigade, was occupying the Sela defence and my battalion was responsible for guarding a hill called Gaurd’s Hill. It is bang on the Sela Pass. One fine morning, there was a telephone call and the operator was talking, and I happened to overhear his conversation that the Chinese had killed four soldiers of the 5 Assam Rifles battalion. So I told him to get off the line and let me speak with whoever had calledThe telephone call wasn’t very clear because there wasn’t any such communication with the outpost at Lungar which looks after Tulung La. Tulung La is not occupied. Only a patrol goes frequently to see that there is no Chinese ingress. Finally, I was able to speak to the battalion headquarters of 5 Assam Rifles at Bhalukpong near Tezpur. They were in low lying communication, on wireless, with the outpost at Lungar. After getting details, I spoke to my brigade commander and informed him about what had happened. This was on 20th of October, 1975.

I walked down from the hilltop to Sela base, where the brigade headquarters was located. We both spent the entire night discussing further course of action. I sought permission to go there since I had a company looking after a forward post between Tulung La and Sela. So the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of 5 Division Maj. Gen. Girish Narayan Sinha cleared and approved my name. Incidentally, Gen. Menezes was 4 Corps Commander and Gen. JR Jacob was the Army Commander.

So we prepared overnight, got ourselves equipped with information and requirements. Someone was to come from Delhi for the coverage but no one could reach Sela because of foul weather. Even the Divisional Commander could not meet me because of foul weather. So the next day, on 21st of October, in the afternoon, I was cleared to move. By this time I had sent reinforcement towards Tulung La, because there are two main outposts. One is at Mago and the other at Chuna, then Lungar and then comes Tulunga La at a height. So the reinforcement started and I went and landed at Rama spur on 21st night. On 22nd morning, I started off, spent the night at ChunaI left a young officer at Chunato be sent up for communication with my place.

NG: It would’ve been a relayed communication I’m guessing sir in those days.

Col Shah (Retd): Yes, quite right. There was no proper communication back then, even the wireless didn’t work. Only in Assam Rifles the old method of communication used to work, they used to communicate with their base and from there they would have the information pushed out to all other places. It was very difficult. Having reached Chunaspent the night, the next morning I started off and reached Lungar in the afternoon. The condition at Lungar was not good.

NG: And this was an Assam Rifles post.

Col Shah (Retd): It was an Assam Rifles outpost. I could see the atmosphere. It was sad and not at all encouraging and I could read that. I then spoke to each individual of Assam Rifles, then had a ‘darbar’, a ‘sainik sammelan’. My immediate requirement was to bring life into them.

NG: There was no officer there?

Col Shah (Retd): They had no officer. The Assam Rifles officer came but he fell sick en route. Fortunately, the division had planted a liaison officer from 24 Punjab regiment. But this boy had a language barrier and thus was of no use. You see, Gorkhas are there with the Assam Rifles. There was a JCO. That JCO was also flabbergasted and confused. Because they had lost four men, and the two men who had come after surviving the fight, whatever they had described, obviously demoralised them.

NG: You mean the 2 men who had survived the ambush?

Col Shah (Retd): Yes. I spoke to each one of them and I could understand their state. I told them, “Look, we are soldiers; our first job is to guard the nation. If someone dies, it’s part of our profession. Do not think about what has happened. Be prepared now for the worst and let’s get ready. I told my GOC to give me Arty (artillery) support and I will get you Tulung La back. Now, from 20th of October till 28th of October when I reached there, over a period of time we could hear the blasting of rocks. The Chinese were making the ridgeline flat.

NG: They were trying to build defences perhaps?

Col Shah (Retd): When I reached there, they had the emplacements ready with the machine guns. Their complete PR (public relations) cover was there, TV, everything was ready. Before I left, I told my RMO (Regimental Medical Officer): “Look, I haven’t brought my camera here because I left it at the base so he pulled out a Click 3 camera from his pocket. The photographs that you have are from that camera. That was a godsend; otherwise we would have had nothing with us. Because we had failed to organise the coverage. So nothing was known of what was required to be done. I only had one option, which was to ensure that Assam Rifles pushes up its officers. Unfortunately, nobody would come. They did try but they fell sick due to high altitude, and some other problems. Anyway, I stayed there.

NG: I’m sorry to interrupt you, but for our viewers/readers’ benefit, I just want to ask you something. It took you two and a half days to travel to Lungar from Sela, and the altitude would’ve been 16,000 plus feet?

Col Shah (Retd): From Sela, which is 13,000 feet plus, it takes three days to reach Lungar (two nights and one day). And it is on foot. It is high altitude that gradually keeps increasing, should be around 13,000 or 14,000 feet and Tulung La is 17,250 feet. From Lungar to Tulung La it takes around four hours for a normal, well-built soldier.

NG: And acclimatised soldier.

Col Shah (Retd): Yes, absolutely. Now I had plans to be arranged for the final day. I did not know what will happen. But I must know what was happening at Tulung La. I got an OP (Observation Post), established near Lungar with a wireless set who would feed me the details of what was happening at Tulung La. All the blast sounds and other things I got through that Observation Post. This post was very useful to obtain the information about the progress of my party from Lungar to Tulung La. Otherwise, there was absolutely nothing. It was barren and covered in snow, no growth and not a blade of grass. Now I camped down and I got this young officer who was placed there as the liaison officer. So I told him that in case there is a requirement, you should be ready. I gave him that warning so that he was mentally prepared. I told him: “Don’t worry if we do not come back, it is part of our profession.” On 27th night, post midnight, I get a message that there was a message from the Prime Minister of India.

NG: I see, and Mrs Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister at that time.

Col Shah (Retd): Yes, that’s right. She was a great lady. Her message was that the Chinese had passed a message through a third country to us, there was somebody working between us and China. The message was I was to meet the Chinese at Tulung La at 11:30 am the next day, that’s 28th of October. So I thought that I must start before 07:00. But to be on the safe side, I thought that we must start early because we do not know what lies ahead. The next message that shocked me was that we were to go unarmed. A soldier never goes unarmed. How can a soldier go with just a stick? We weren’t even allowed that, we were only given our flag. So I said I don’t have the flag with me. The message said, no not India’s flag, you are required to carry a blue flag. So I told the higher headquarters, how do I produce a blue flag? There isn’t even a blade of grass here.

NG: Why the blue flag?

Col Shah (Retd): That was the condition given by the Chinese. There were so many lessons to be learnt from this incident. I had a huge map but it was made of green cloth. I told them I could bring a green cloth. He said no sir, you have to carry a 6 by 4 blue flag with 19 armbands, one each for all the 19 men, and one for myselfso that the Chinamen can identify us as the ones with the blue flag. I said, sweetheart I can’t produce a blue flag and then the line communication failed.

NG: And this is nearing 1 am at night?

Col Shah (Retd): Yes, and there was no communication after this. The only message I got was that I have to go with a blue flag, I have to go with a 1 plus19 strength, that I have to go without arms. Now, the countdown starts. I had to firstly pick up 19 men, whom do I take was the question. I knew I couldn’t take the Assam Rifles soldiers because their mental condition I had seen on the day I arrived. So I had to pick my own soldiers from my battalion because they know me and I know them.

Now, when I started organising things, the problem arose with the quality of the uniform. We had all those aged winter clothing and they were in bad shape. Particularly for the poor soldiers, there were holes here and there. So I had to cannibalise it and got them ready. I told them to get ready now and that after 04:00 we should be prepared to move, with breakfast. I assembled all of them and gave them a talk. I told them: ‘You will not talk to any Chinamen. You will not accept anything, no tea or snacks from them, you will just nod your head. Only I will talk.’ But the pity was that I didn’t have an interpreter, so I could only speak in Hindi or English.

NG: Did they also not have an interpreter?

Col Shah (Retd): They had but it wasn’t required because their officers were talking to me in English and Hindi both. I could make out that they were the officers with beautifully manicured fingers, not rough & tough like us. Now the next thing was, how do we bring back the dead bodies of the soldiers? So we got stretchers and we had to rehearse how to open it, fold it, unfold it etc. as only the AMC people know it or the Unit people who are trained for this particular task. So that rehearsal had to be carried out. Next I told that young officer that “You will be my wireless operator”. So I made him put on a Lance Hawaldar’s uniform and I made all the soldiers call him Guruji. Otherwise they would say Sahab, and I told them no, he is your Guruji. I also made him answer to me as my runner and placed him last. I told him, ‘In case firing takes place, you be the getaway man to pass the information about what happened.’ So I gave him the camera, that Click 3 and I said “You take the photographs of whatever you think is right.” As we started off in the morning, the stretchers were being picked up, soldiers got ready and you’ll be surprised to know that we were able to produce a flag, 6 by 4.

NG: How? That’s a miracle.

Col Shah (Retd): People and the nation would laugh at me. So my orderly, who should have been given Param Vir Chakra, said, “Sahab, your memsahab has given that yellow/cream shade bed sheet, it’s very good.” So he tore it 6 by 4 and then made 20 armbands, 19 for the men and 1 for me. Then I gave him a hint. I had the duty operators from the South who operated our radio sets. I said, “Tambi, give me your ink pot. So I had Tambi’s ink pot emptied in a mugNext, I got hold of all the ink pens the soldiers had. (The Gorkha soldiers are very fond of ink pens and wrist watches). I got hold of all their pens and squeezed out the ink. So my orderly made a beautiful thing out of it. He made a small solution and converted the bed sheet into a blue flag, stitched it overnight and made 19 arm bands. So at 07:00 am we were ready to move.

NG: What innovation!

Col Shah (Retd): Yes, no one knows this. Unless you have presence of mind and your mind is clear, you cannot think straight. The soldiers must understand that mind aspect. So we started off and I was leading with the stick that I carried. Behind me was a soldier carrying the 6 by 4 flag. Behind him were the other 18 soldiers, and the last among them was my operator, the officer.

NG: The officer who at this point was the Lance Hawaldar?

Col Shah (Retd): (Laughs) Yes. I had written a letter to his CO recommending him and I understand that he was a short service commission officer and he became permanent, however I do not know his whereabouts. Anyway, we started marching. He was very careful. I was leading far ahead about 50 to 60 paces ahead, as you can see it in the photograph as well that he had taken, and the troops were following behind me. As we got to the top, I was surprised to see that they (the Chinese) had their guns ready.

NG: Oh, the Chinese had their guns ready?

Col Shah (Retd): Yes. You can find the emplacements. And there was a bunker that they had recently constructed and their chimney was working because their officers must have been sitting next to the fireplace when we reached there. They had flattened that top. So I met them first and I could not be aggressive because I was on the receiving end, without any arms. If I had a gun, I could have done something but I had nothing except for that one stick. They had everything with them. They were ready. I think that was one of the reasons because they had preempted everything and had planned well, they had anticipated that when they hand over the dead bodies to me, there could be some kind of skirmish. Frankly, if I had my gun, I would have blown them. I wouldn’t have come back alive but I couldn’t have accepted defeat. You can’t accept defeat every time, you can’t accept your soldiers being mutilated like that. You can’t accept your soldier to be tortured like that. If you see the faces of all the four soldiers, it was miserable the way they died.

NG: They didn’t die of injury but by torture is what you’re saying?

Col Shah (Retd): They had bullet injuries. After all they must have been shot when they reached there. But they were tortured, their bodies were punctured, they had fresh injuries. They had cigarette butt marks all over their bodies. They were tortured to death, which I as a soldier, I feel sad that every time we are at the receiving end. Why can’t we hit them back? I must compliment our Prime Minister and Gen. Rawat, who organised and gave them a bloody nose at Galwan Valley. I am getting emotionally charged as I think about this. If I had a gun I would’ve blown them up. In fact I still tell my battalion that they if they need me, I am still here. I just can’t accept a soldier being tortured to death like this (almost breaks down, tears welling up in his eyes).

NG: I can imagine your anguish and anger sir. And the fact that you can feel the anger even after so many years, I have nothing but admiration for your courage. So when you accepted the bodies, what was the conversation you had with those people?

Col Shah (Retd): This was the most critical part. When I saw them (our dead soldiers), I asked the Assam Rifles boy to identify them because we had no knowledge about them. This young soldier got emotionally charged. He would have created a problem for us, unarmed soldiers, because he was ready to attack the Chinese. So I asked the next boy to remove him from here, take charge of the bodies, wrap them up quickly, put them on the stretcher and start. As they started off, the stretcher was of such poor quality that it gave way en route. I told them not to stop and to keep moving on. I was staying behind. I had a lot of questions to ask this Chinaman. But a scene had been created by that soldier of Assam Rifles, so my first action was to get out of that place. In fact when we had reached, before all this happened, I got up to their flag and said, “This is our land, how have you planted your flag?” I took the Liaison Officer (my LO), and I asked him to take a photograph. I was standing with the stick and you can see the Chinese behind me. I said, “This is Bharat.” They were not on our side, they were on the other side. That shows, indirectly, that this land is mineUnfortunately, in my heart, I was sad that I didn’t have my gun. I know I couldn’t have come back alive, but I would’ve blown them up. I can’t accept the loss of my soldiers.

NG: It was the soldier in you talking…

Col Shah (Retd): They were officers, the Chinese, and they could understand both English as well as Hindi. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a single person who could understand Chinese. They were talking among themselves in their own language. They had complete TV coverage, they had long-lens cameras and I don’t know what all images they must have taken of mine. All this happened, and since I could not carry on the conversation with the Chinese because of this situation we walked back. Then, the next day I was picked up by a helicopter to be questioned by the Corps Commander. The Divisional Commander wanted to speak to me first but the helicopter landed at a place where the Corps Commander wanted to speak to me. So I had a long chat with him. He asked me how I produced the flag. When he heard the story, he couldn’t believe it.

Out of all of this, what really comes out is right from the beginning the activity of the Chinamen should have been monitored day and night. You can’t relax after what happened in 1962. Now that is the mental attitude at the highest level. If the political will is there, the Army is ready for it. So I felt bad because you can’t always get the bloody nose, my profession is to give it back to them, that’s how I’ve been trained. I am not going to accept defeat, even at this old age of 85 if a Chinaman hits me, I will give him two kicks. Why didn’t it happen? Ask yourself. Number two, why was this ambush laid by the Chinese? The fault lies on our end. Obviously the troops were not vigilant, the mountain monitoring or the patrolling and all the other surveillance activities should have been done in a much wiser manner. It’s not like you become wise only after defeat. God has given us the brains to plan way ahead, and that’s what our profession is. And that, according to me, was absent. The third thing is: if it has happened, you mean to say that from 20th to 28th, you go on accepting it? We should’ve done something to hit back.

NG: Some retaliation somewhere should’ve happened

Col Shah (Retd): I thought probably the policy at the highest level must be different and that’s why there was no movement. But I told my General, “You give me Arty support, and I may not come back but I will get you back Tulung La. I will knock the Chinese out.” That is the kind of will I had. The other thing is, if the Chinese want to do something over a period of seven days (20th October to 28th October), we should have applied our minds in Delhi at the political level, at the Army level, at the Command level, at the Corps level. I thought what can happen now? They can’t keep the dead bodies. They will do something. What would that be? So I felt that aspect was missing. Otherwise the green flag, blue flag, TV coverage should’ve all been planned well before 27th of October. You can’t bank upon the weather because the weather there changes frequently. So everything should have been moved from day one. The other thing is, after all of this, I would recommend a study needs to be carried out immediately after this. Unless you do that, you won’t learn the lesson. Nobody has asked me all this before. You are the first wise man, a godsend messenger who has asked me this. The Corps Commander wanted me to come to the Corps Headquarters and talk about this, but then something happened and I wasn’t required to go anymore, the reason I am not aware of.

NG: Do you think there was an attempt hush up this incident at all levels of the Army as well as the diplomatic level from Indian side?

Col Shah (Retd): I am not really in a position to answer that but you and I can think inwards and find an answer because it is there. It will not be appropriate for me to comment on my superiors.

NG: I agree. But I also want to know, these four men who sacrificed themselves and then were killed in action were captured first and then tortured and killed. Is this something you can confirm?

Col Shah (Retd): They were not shot dead immediately. They were wounded and one or two were caught alive. So the seven-day gap gives you an indication that they tried to extract whatever they could from these four soldiers, whether they were dead or alive. According to me, they were not dead. Otherwise, they would have not have been tortured with cigarette butts. These are all indications. At least you and I can apply our minds and get deductions from the incident.

NG: And the two men who survived and ran back to give the news, what was their input? Did you meet them before going up to Tulung La?

Col Shah (Retd): They were shaken. They were not in a position to talk to me properly. As a matter of fact, they had found themselves to have got a new life. So the mistake lies at this end. Had they been careful to approach Tulung La, the whole lot of them wouldn’t have been ambushed. When you do patrolling, there is a professional method to approach a point. But over a period of time, with the lethargic attitude, negligence becomes a part of life. And I understand that must be the reason. You and I can draw our own conclusions from there.

NG: Right. I had one more question sir. You have spent time on the China border and at that time whatever reporting happened in the public domain, it only says that the patrol was lost in fog and four men were killed in an exchange of fire with the Chinese, and that’s all. For the first time, because of you, we are hearing what exactly would have happened. How the Chinese treated them and how they took that much time to hand over the bodies. The nation is grateful that you have preserved that memory and you have those photographs. Because this is something that everyone in this country must know, as to how the Chinese behave on the border. And this is something we have been seeing repeatedly, not only in 1962 but post 1975 too.

Col Shah (Retd): I will submit to you that my Generals were interested because Girish Narayan Sinha, the Major General of 5 Mountain Division, had even spoken to his Col of the Regiment, who was from Kumaon and Gen. Raina was the chief. When the dead bodies were flown out to Tezpur, having seen by the Corps Commander, obviously they must have been on the same frequency, the bodies were flown to Delhi and the Chief had seen them. The Chief would have obviously also spoken to the Prime Minister and that is the information I have. Number two, when you talk about these things, in one’s life, there are certain important events that take place.

NG: We are grateful to you for bringing this incident, especially the Tulung La incident to the fore, in light of what’s happened at the Line of Actual Control currently. And when people speak about the 1975 incident, very few details were available so far. But you have unveiled the entire incident for everyone’s benefit. And I believe everyone will be grateful for the details that you have shared with us. And after so many years, 45 years in fact, you have been able to give us a very clear picture of what exactly had happened at that time. We are grateful to you for your time, your memory and your very vivid description of what happened in Tulung La. If you’d like to add something more to this, we are eager to listen.

Col Shah (Retd): I have a submission to make. Let these things be spoken to the young blood. The young officers as well as the young cadets of NDA, IMA & OTA. Give me a chance and I will infuse new blood, a new energy in them and let them see me—if I can be alive at 85, they can be alive up to 105. Each individual, young boys and girls, I will baptise them in just seven days. They must feel proud of our nation. The children must know, at school level, what Bharat is and what all has happened where. No school teaches its children about the incidents that have happened or what Bharat really is. They all must be proud of our Bharat. Faith in yourself and faith in God is the secret to happiness.

NG: Thank you once again for your patience, time and your memories