Anti-China sentiments in India have reopened a 54-year-old wound for the chief of an Arunachal Pradesh village close to the Tibet border in the eastern Himalayas.
Tapir Samchung was a porter with the Indian Army when China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) attacked Nesanggang in mid-October 1962. Almost all Indian soldiers at Nesanggang, about 20km northeast of Mechukha, were killed.
Samchung, a Bokar tribal adhering to the indigenous Donyi-Polo faith, caught a bullet in his left thigh. His friend and fellow porter Cheda Naksang, a Buddhist Memba tribal, died after being shot in the chest.
“I fell unconscious after getting hit. I woke up to find myself on a makeshift hospital bed. Some Chinese soldiers came and apologised for shooting me and killing my friend,” Samchung, now the government-nominated gaonbura (GB, village chief) of Dorjeeling village, told Hindustan Times.
Dorjeeling is 7km from Mechukha, a sub-divisional headquarters 492km northeast of Arunachal Pradesh capital Itanagar and 29km from the nearest point of the McMahon Line separating India and China-occupied Tibet.
Samchung remembers Naksang whenever winter arrives; the PLA had in 1962 entered Arunachal Pradesh on October 10 and withdrew by November 20. He also recalls the generosity and friendliness of the Chinese soldiers whose “enmity is only with Indian soldiers”.
The advent of this winter, for Samchung, happens to coincide with calls to ban Chinese goods in a bid to hit Beijing economically for backing “terrorist-breeding” Pakistan.
“Some soldiers in the Chinese Army were our ethnic cousins and we could easily communicate with them. They said we were their own people and they had taken care not to kill or injure locals. They repented killing Naksang and shooting me, and let me go with gifts — after taking out the bullet lodged in my thigh — only after I was properly healed,” Samchung said.
The language the tribes of Mechukha subdivision, particularly the Membas, speak is similar to the Tibetan language.
Sangey Khandu Sona, GB of Sanggang village near the 1080-km long border between Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet, said the Chinese Army took over the rations depot of the Indian Army at Mechukha and advanced more than 100km inland.
“But they never misbehaved with the local people, and were courteous. They kept reminding us the locals were not their enemy. They remained in this area for some 45 days before packing up and leaving suddenly,” Sona, an uncle of local MLA Pasang Dorjee Sona, said during an assembly of GBs during an adventure tourism festival at Mechukha from November 7-9.
Lack of communication, locals said, was the primary reason why the PLA overran the Indian Army in 1962. “The Chinese built roads right up to the border years ago, but the first road to Mechukha from Aalo (West Siang district headquarters 190km south) was built only in 2005,” Norbu Naksang, a social activist, said.
The condition of the Aalo-Mechukha road — lifeline for 13,310 people in the Mechukha subdivision — has deteriorated since. It takes locals Rs 500 per person in a Tata Sumo, the only means of public transport, and 12 hours to reach Aalo for healthcare and other basic necessities.
“The advanced landing ground here was rebuilt and modernised last year but it is more for use by army and air force. The occasional private helicopter service is too expensive. Earlier, locals could fly in and out on the army’s AN-32 aircraft at a nominal cost but the service has been discontinued,” Mechukha Bazaar Committee secretary KL Mosing said.
New Delhi, he added, should give a thought to reintroducing such flight services to one of the most landlocked parts of the country.