Guest column: When the Billi Patrol took on the Chinese at the border

A lesson in hitting back at your adversaries on the India-China border, but with a smile on your face
Some men from the patrol at Billi Post, with the author wearing a turban and snow goggles (sitting). A Chinese bunker can be seen in the background.(Courtesy: Author’s own)
Some men from the patrol at Billi Post, with the author wearing a turban and snow goggles (sitting). A Chinese bunker can be seen in the background.(Courtesy: Author’s own)
Updated on Sep 06, 2020 11:16 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Chandigarh | ByCol PS Sangha (Retd)

The year 2020 has been a year that most of us would like to erase from our memory. It started off well enough but March onwards things started going downhill, soon turning into an uncontrollable roll down the hill. The Covid-19 pandemic has virtually brought the world down to its knees both socially and economically. In India there was virtually nothing else on the local news channels. But, the month of May brought in another element -- the surprise aggression of China in Ladakh. Covid-19 was no longer the primary news. The unsettling news from Ladakh hogged the limelight.

Then, in mid June, there was a surprise clash with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops where, in medieval type of fighting, the Indian Army lost 20 personnel and the Chinese had an unknown number of casualties in the Galwan valley of Ladakh. Covid-19 was put on the back burner as the news channels vied with each other to cover these events. Memories of the 1962 Indo-Chinese war came back to haunt the people who feared a redux of that ignominious event. The fear of the powerful Chinese soldier seemed to be getting into the mindset of the people of India.

My thoughts went back to the year 1967. I was a young officer in a Gunner regiment and we were deployed in the high altitude region of Sikkim. In September that year an armed clash started in Nathu La with the Chinese Army. The word La means a pass through which old trade routes operated. The clash at Nathu La lasted just a few days but the Indian Army inflicted heavy fatal casualties on the Chinese mainly through deadly artillery fire. While this was going on, my CO sent me up as artillery observation post officer ( OP Officer) to Jelep La, which was located towards the east and adjacent to Nathu La . The post had been strengthened with a battalion level force and we were all ready for an escalation. However, the Chinese, having suffered high casualties, asked for a ceasefire at Nathu La and the guns went silent. But now we were daggers drawn all along the border expecting a riposte from the Chinese. My interesting stay at Jelep La started.

All the features consisting of hills, spurs and saddles had a name, mostly of animals. Earlier there was a Sikh unit there and they named the main position as Saragarhi. My OP was located on a hill feature called Lal Quila. Over to the West towards Nathu La, there was a dominating feature called Camel’s Back. Other than that, there were a number of other hillocks with names like Sher (tiger), Cheetah, Khargosh (rabbit) and Cub. The most interesting one was the name Billi (Cat).

Billi was the name given to a platoon level post which was just 100 metres from the border. The Chinese had made bunkers along the border which covered the complete pass of the old trade route. Clearly the Billi Post was tactically unsuitable, which had been established as a show of bravado by the Sikh battalion. Better sense prevailed and the post was abandoned by the relieving unit. But all the bunkers etc remained intact and that was the reason for the weekly Billi Patrol. Once a week a party of about 20 men and a young officer in command went on patrol to the post and after inspecting the bunkers walked to the border to offer cigarettes to the Chinese soldiers. As an artillery officer, I was not expected to go on this patrol but I did go a couple of times.

It was interesting to see that the PLA soldiers located there were big built men, very different from the average Chinese. Apparently they had been recruited from the region close to Mongolia and brought here to put fear into the Indian soldier. As we started walking from Saragarhi, the Chinese PA system, consisting of a cluster of powerful loudspeakers, would start warning us in Hindi to desist coming towards the border. This PA system used to come alive around midnight on some days telling the Indian soldiers to go back home to their families. Anyway, we used to continue our walk to Billi Post. After a cursory inspection of the post we would walk up to the border. That is when the fun started. The Chinese soldiers would point their rifles at us and threaten us in their language. All the while the PA system would carry on its diatribe in Hindi. We used to go and put up our foot on our part of the low rock wall. We had briefed our troops not to show any anger. Instead smile, abuse them in Punjabi if they felt like it and offer the cheap ration cigarettes to them. The Dogra boys could all speak Punjabi and they would smile and let go some powerful expletives concerning mothers and sisters, smiling all the while.

The political commissar, who was part and parcel of the Chinese system, could understand rudimentary Hindi and English. So, he would come up to me and ask me as to what our troops were saying to their soldiers. I told him that they were sending good wishes to them, and to their mothers and sisters. He would look a bit sceptical but that was it. Soon we would bid them goodbye with their guns still pointing towards us.

So, did we see any supermen on the Chinese side? Not at all! Instead they were just poorly clad unwilling soldiers of the PLA who had no choice but to toe the line. Not like our volunteer disciplined soldiers who would follow their officers anywhere. We had given them a bloody nose at Nathu La and have the capability to do the same now. Needless to say, the Armed Forces have to be given the wherewithal in terms of weapon systems and equipment. The nation has to back the soldier, give him due respect and protection to those he leaves behind should that happen. The nation is represented by the government of the day.

The writer is a retired Army officer and a Vir Chakra awardee

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Tuesday, December 07, 2021