Operation Falcon: When General Sundarji took the Chinese by surprise

PLA’s response in relation to India-China standoff, that India should not forget lesson of history, suggests that the PLA itself may have forgotten some.

 Sundarji, Chinese, Manoj Joshi, Falcon, Doklam, Sino-India

The PLA spokesman’s response in relation to the current India-China standoff, that India should not forget the lesson of history, suggests that the PLA itself may have forgotten some.

True, in 1962, the PLA roundly defeated the Indian Army. But in border skirmishes in 1967 in this very region, and in 1986-87, the Indian Army’s power play so rattled the PLA that it sacked its Tibet Military District Commander and its Military Region chief in Chengdu.

In its own way, the present Chinese action in the India-Bhutan-China trijunction could well be an outcome of the event that many have forgotten. This is the conflict that developed in the Sumdorong Chu region, north of Tawang in 1986, and led to a major military push, Operation Falcon, led by the then Indian Army chief Gen Krishnaswamy Sundarji.

India’s policy on China after 1962 war

The roots of the problem went back to the late 1970s, when India finished licking their wounds following the 1962 war. That had begun when Indian forces were ordered to cross the Namka Chu rivulet and evict Chinese troops from the Thag La ridge, also north of Tawang, which India believed was the true border defined by the McMahon Line. The Chinese reacted strongly and launched a major attack across the Sino-Indian border. The outcome was a defeat for the Indian Army, with some of the worst catastrophes occurring in this region.

So, there was a certain sensitivity when New Delhi decided in 1983 that it should once again adopt a credible posture in this area to defend the major monastery town of Tawang. Indian forces stayed south of Namka Chu, but an IB team began visiting Sumdorong Chu, a few kilometres east of the site of the first clash of 1962 on the far side of the Nyamjang Chu.

Both Sumdorong Chu and Namka Chu flowed into this north-south flowing river, the former from the east and the latter from the west. The team camped there through summer and went back in winter. They did so in 1984 and 1985, but when they went back in 1986, they found the Chinese there in force. The Indians protested in June 1986, but the Chinese insisted that the area was north of the “so-called McMahon Line.”

All this happened in the wake of the Chinese decision to do one of those foreign policy somersaults they periodically do.

China’s demands

Till the early 1980s, the Chinese expressed their willingness to resolve the Sino-Indian border dispute by swapping claims, that is that India surrender its claims to Aksai Chin, in exchange for them giving up claims to North East Frontier Agency (NEFA, later Arunachal Pradesh).

New Delhi had rejected the offers when they had been originally made in 1960 by Zhou Enlai and then again by Deng Xiaoping in 1988 to External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1979.

Soon it became clear that the Chinese were upping the ante in the east.

The decision was taken, therefore, to shore up Indian defences in the region. As part of this, the Army devised Operation Falcon to enable it to move up to the border in quick time from their peacetime positions.

Operation Falcon

Since there was no road beyond Tawang, Gen Sundarji decided to use the IAF’s new Russian-made heavy lift MI-26 helicopters to air land a brigade at a place called Zemithang, south of the Sino-Indian border but 90 kms by road from Tawang.

The airlift took place between 18 and 20 October 1986, the dates fraught in Indian history as they marked the beginning of the Sino-Indian war 24 years earlier in this very sector. They took up positions on Hathung La ridge overlooking Sumdorong Chu along with three other key mountain features. In 1962, the Chinese held the high ground; this time, the Indians.

With China scrambling to rush forces to the region, both sides began a general mobilisation along the entire border. Here again, Sundarji had a few surprises.

The Chinese fumbled for a response and subsequently, a 15 November flag meeting calmed things down a bit. But now, India decided to take the opportunity to convert Arunachal, which was a centrally administered territory till then, into a full-fledged state.

South block had its doubts

Now came the kind of bluster we are hearing again in June 2017, reminding India of the lessons of 1962. The supreme leader Deng Xiaoping himself issued the threat to teach India “another lesson.” But the Army held firm, though the civilian side got a bit shaky. On 4 December, Rajiv Gandhi learnt of the developments at the border at the Navy Day reception traditionally held at the house of the Navy chief. Alarmed, he asked Sundarji and civilian defence officials to convene in the South Block Ops room after the reception.

Sundarji told him that they were a result of a Cabinet Committee on Security decision in 1983 ordering the Army to take up positions that would enable the defence of Tawang. While the Army had gone about the process methodically over the past years, the politicians and babus had simply not paid attention.

There was a heated argument at this point, with some officials wondering whether the Army had exceeded its brief and whether it was really necessary to occupy Hathung La and the surrounding features. Sundarji riposted that in the Army’s professional judgment, it was.

And, offering them the pointer he was using, he said that if they wanted other advice, they were welcome to seek it. It didn’t take much to remind the officials that civilian interference in operational matters was what had led to the disaster of 1962 – they backed off.

Sundarji’s chequerboard exercise

Through the early months of 1987, the two armies faced off against each other across the border. In the Hathung La area, they were practically eyeball to eyeball. Sundarji now launched an Exercise Chequerboard to further strengthen the Indian posture all across the Himalayan region, including pushing the authorities to undertake a crash road-building scheme to complete the projects that had been in a limbo since the 1970s. It is another matter that many of them are still not complete.

The crisis played on till May 1987, when the External Affairs Minister Narain Dutt Tiwari stopped over in Beijing on his way to Pyongang. After his talks with his Chinese counterparts, the temperature in the forward areas began subside.

India’s decision to firmly deal with the issue had beneficent consequences. It opened the way for Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in December 1988 and gave India the confidence to detach the issue of the border settlement from the need to cultivate better relations with China. Further, it got the Chinese to agree to an equitable regime of CBMs (confidence-building measures), which were eventually written up in an agreement to maintain peace and tranquillity on the border in 1993.

There was another interesting fallout of the visit – the Chinese were so impressed by Sundarji that they invited him to visit China. They were curious to meet the person who had in the space of one year, shaken up both the Pakistan Army through Exercise Brasstacks and the PLA through Op Falcon, and led India into a military venture in Sri Lanka.

However, the government felt that the visit would be premature. Eventually it was General Bipin Joshi who became the first chief to visit China in 1994. After he retired, Sundarji too visited China.

This commentary originally appeared in The Quint.

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