Saturday, March 13, 2010



8 September: The Day the Balloon went up

It was 8th of September, a Saturday, a weekend, a legacy left by the British. In bracing cold, Towang at 10,000 feet plus, was basking in bright sunshine. A clear day with the greens of the meadows, the deep blues of the sky, the silver of the river Towang Chu, flows deep in the valley, the browns and reds of houses of the Towang village. The majesty of the Towang Monastery, visible not far away, was over powering. Not too cold not too hot, it was just pleasant, a tourist’s delight. However, there were no tourists in Towang those days except VIP brass who choppered occasionally to stay for lunch, give sermons, talk in platitudes and fly back again to civilisation in plains of Tezpur, Lucknow or Delhi. In any case it was too quiet and peaceful to resemble a noisy and bustling tourists resort. The Brigade HQ equally quiet. There was no officer present in the HQ except Lt Sharma, the Brigade Ordnance Officer, the duty-officer of the day; all others had gone off to attend a Barakhana in one of the battalions.

I had managed to stay back. I hated these events, although these were the only entertainment providers at that far-away outpost. We had no TV, no cinema and a total of two radios in the Brigade HQ, one small table model in the mess and a National Transistor with the Commander in his hut. I was a vegetarian, and a teetotaller on top of it. I had no interest in the sex starved jokes flying around, or looking at the young soldiers dressed as girls singing folk songs and dancing to popular tunes.

To top it all, we were passing through a bit of anti-climax phase after the hectic activity of the previous few days. The Brigade Operational Order, which was based on the premise that the Chinese could not mount a major offensive till the railway line from Peking to Lhasa was operational, had to be finalised before the Commander could proceed on annual leave. I do wonder if Lhasa has its railway line from to Peking even now. Brig Dalvi had duly left for Tezpur en-route to his leave station at Meerut on 1st September.

The Hindustan Times Delhi 8 September 1962

Post Lunch-8th September

It was my practice to go for an evening walk in the afternoon. I was reluctant to go out on this day, as there was no one in the Bde HQ (Brigade Headquarter). However, Lieutenant Sharma insisted, even though he was the duty officer. We had been lulled to the extent that even the duty officer was willing to leave his post, with firm faith that nothing could happen especially in our Brigade Sector. We left via the Signal Centre, as was my practice. It was all quiet-there, nothing on the air or line. I had no inkling at that time that it was the proverbial lull before the storm. We may have been away from the HQ at the most for an hour. However, as we approached the HQ, I could feel a tension in the air, resulting in quickening of our pace. The scene had completely changed. It was getting dark, and gloomy and there was unease in the atmosphere. Some thing was wrong, very wrong.

Wondering as to what had happened to bring about the sudden change, both of us gingerly trooped in to the BM’s (Brigade Major) room, apprehensive and expecting a rocket for our absence from the HQ, where in every one seemed to have gathered. No one took notice of our entry. Kharbanda, a bit worse for wear due to some extra beer, incoherent with his eyes- bleary, red and watering, but a soldier to core - he was all decked up in full battle gear, with his large-pack ready for move. It transpired that Bingo, the Assam Rifles post, had been surrounded by more than 600 Chinese earlier in the day. This was according to a message received in a round about manner late in the evening; that is how the communication system was functioning those days. Kharbanda as we could see was all set to relieve the Assam Rifles post single-handed. All of us were more worried about him, desperately trying to hold him back, than the Chinese or Bingo. The scene would have definitely appeared a bit comical to an outsider, ideal for a sequence in the war movies being produced in Bombay.

It so happened that Bingo was established, though in disputed territory, near the tri-junction of India, Bhutan and Tibet, some times back under ‘Op Onkar’, the move forward policy of the Indian Government. The post, under the Brigade’s operational responsibility, did not have direct communication link to the Bde HQ all due to ego problems and petty inter-service rivalries. We of the Signals, me in particular, were blamed for any delay in passage of information, even when we had no role in its passage.

Kharbanda’s small room, the telephone ringing continuously, with incoming and out going calls to Tezpur, where all of us of the Bde HQ had gathered, resembled an ad hoc Operational Room. With so many of us crowding around, the air had become charged with combined energy of diverse emotions; excitement, apprehension, uncertainty and even fear of the unknown, all adding to the whole in various proportions depending on the attitude of the particular individual. With The BM being out of action, only TK Gupta, the IO with access to the Top Secret Operation files, Pereira, the DQ, the only possible link with the Commander at Tezpur, and possibly
me the Signals officer had a role to play, others, apart from the mess staff providing unending supply of mugs of coffee and tea, were just hanging around trying to look involved and useful, not unlike friends and relations holding vigil outside the Operating Theatre, with some near and dear one on the surgeon’s table inside.

Willy-nilly, the Brigade HQ swung into action, Maj Pereira took charge of the situation. Commander was located in the guest room of the Mahar Regiment at the Tezpur airfield, next door to the air strip from which his IAC plane was to take off early next morning, carrying him thousands of miles away to Meerut in North India. The plane did take off the next morning. However, his seat was empty. He took another seat but in a helicopter back to Towang.

The night had been hectic, I do not think any one slept, including the mess staff, kept busy passing around mugs of tea and coffee. The loving care we had bestowed on the 499 transmitter/ receiver station paid off. We had telephone quality speech with Tezpur and the Commander on remote, couple of miles away from Divisional HQ. He kept asking for Kharbanda the BM whom we had put to sleep to recover from the after-effects of beer. Pereira, who was fully in picture and better equipped to hold his drinks, kept taking and passing on instructions. Op Leghorn had commenced as far as we were concerned. I feel it could have been more appropriately christened Op Lameduck.



At March 13, 2010 at 12:30 PM , Blogger L. Singh said...

Extract from my book

"Letters From The Border and Other less told stori"


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