The Evacuation of Tezpur: A family recounts the story of its flight during the India-China war of 1962
As ties between India and China remain tense, HT revisits the history of this small town in Assam. In November 1962, during the war with China, as the Indian army retreated from the Kameng sector of what is now Arunachal Pradesh, panic spread through Tezpur, the nearest sizeable settlement , on the north bank of the Brahmaputra.
Most of us look at personal experience and the history contained in books as separate things. It is only with time and effort that one sees how the threads of individual lives go on to weave a larger picture. In November 1962, with the Indian army in retreat from the Kameng sector of what is now Arunachal Pradesh (then North East Frontier Agency, or NEFA), panic spread through the small town of Tezpur in Assam – the nearest sizeable settlement, on the north bank of the Brahmaputra. We take so much of our past for granted, and it was only recently while talking to an aunt about the evacuation of people from Tezpur across the Brahmaputra that the full scale of the event became clear to me. A few details I had picked up over the years, after I had returned to the North East in 2011. Earlier, I just knew that something called the “Chinese aggression” had happened.
It was hard to imagine the chaos that would have descended upon that small town, the thousands of people in bullock carts and vehicles crowding the steamer ghat to flee to the other side of the river. The tea planters, several British among them, and the senior administrative figures like the DC and the SP had flown out from the small airport at Salonibari on the outskirts of Tezpur, and no one was left in charge.
When The ‘Lamas’ Came
My aunt, who is now 77, and one of five surviving sisters from a total of six sisters and a brother, as usual started her story with a diversion, with an incident from 1959: “It was after my first child was born that the Tibetans had come down to Missamari. The DC asked our uncle to make temporary shelters from bamboo and straw for them. So we went from Tezpur with our uncle in his jeep to see them, me and our elder sister who was back home from medical college in Dibrugarh. People had started calling the place Lama Camp by then, because of all the Tibetans who had fled with the Dalai Lama from Tibet. I remember they would pour atta and water into a bamboo sunga or tube and churn that to have as food. That and their prayer beads; it was all the women did. We had seen the Dalai Lama in Tezpur. He still looks the same I think.”
An episode from almost 60 years ago: Missamari was an army camp with an old runway to the north-west of Tezpur; during the Second World War it was one of the air bases in Bengal and Assam from where American-built Douglas DC-3s and C-47s had flown to Kunming in China’s Yunnan province to supply Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist troops. Lama Camp was since absorbed into the growing army base. Above Missamari had been thick forests, and above them rose the forested Eastern Himalayas of the Kameng region.
Not far from Missamari at the foothills was a road camp known as Foothills (where later khachars or mules were trained for carrying supplies and equipment up in the mountains). The Dalai Lama had carried on to Tezpur, from where he addressed the press. Then he went by train to Dehradun and onwards to Mussoorie, which was where Jawaharlal Nehru met him.The occupants of Lama Camp followed him in stages to Himachal Pradesh.
“After my second child’s anno proxon (the ceremony where the child is fed solid rice for the first time) in my mother’s place in Ketekibari on 17 or 18 November in 1962,” my aunt continued, “we had gone to Sootea near Tezpur. Coming back the next evening, we saw army officers and tea garden managers leaving in cars and trucks.
“That night none of the men in the village including Baba (my aunt’s father, and my grandfather) slept at night. We could hear the explosions all the way from Missamari, where the army’s ammunition stocks were being blown up.
“The next day people were going here and there. Word had spread that the Chinese were coming. My sisters (including my mother) came back early from school, saying that everyone had left. Our mother was complaining no one had cooked. We put up some rice and dal on the kitchen fire. One of our brothers-in-law who was a ‘nazir’ in the DC office then turned up in a jeep with his parents, telling us to come along to the steamer ghat. In the confusion our mother left her money behind, but I was carrying my husband’s money with me. My younger sisters put some rice and dal in a milk jug to carry with us. We went to the steamer ghat. Just as we reached the jeep’s tyre got punctured.
“It was chaos at the ghat. One army man, a Nepali, was with his child who was crying. The mother was in hospital the man said. A British woman wearing brown trousers had a child who had fever and was crying; she brought water from the river and gave it to him. There were hundreds of people all around. A lady went into labour and gave birth there on the sand. We managed to cross over to the other side of the Brahmaputra, and then went to Samaguri in a bus arranged by our brother-in-law. I remember my son’s milk bottle fell and broke when we reached the place, a house belonging to someone we knew that had been emptied for us. My brother, and my husband who was in Dhekiajuli, arrived, and then left after a day or two. Baba stayed behind in Tezpur. Later he told us how they had provided drinking water to the jawans who were retreating on foot. We bought things from a nearby market, cooked, ate, slept on beds made on the floor in the empty house. There were our brother-in-law’s parents, our mother, my two sisters, my children and my eldest sister’s daughter, who was worried about the kitten she had left behind in Ketekibari. After a few days we went back to Tezpur.” (This would have happened after the ceasefire).
What Was Left Behind
My mother was in class 7 then; they had just started wearing the mekhela sador that the older girls in the government school were allowed to wear, and she says that she folded up her school uniform and took it along just in case. My father, who was roughly the same age as my mother, was then in Dhubri in lower Assam where my grandfather, who was in the police, was posted. My grandfather’s elder brother’s family came down from Tezpur then to stay with them. He himself was busy on duty, part of the effort to stop vehicles and buses from crossing over the interstate border into Bengal; then the roads were sealed.
My aunt continued, “Later we came to know that the DC had gone to see off his wife and young son at the airport near Tezpur, and when the son cried he got into the plane as well. The SP also left. Several young men, including our brother, got together to form a defence force and collected sticks and guns, to try and do what they could if the Chinese reached Tezpur. The electricity supply office and other places were supposed to have been blown up, but in the end there was no one to carry out the orders. The State Bank’s coins were all dumped in the lake beside the bank (the manager had already burnt the paper currency), and we heard some people dove in at night to pick up the coins. The staff in the jail and the mental hospital left, so the inmates were given some money and let off, and the ones from the latter roamed around the deserted town.”
The Ones Who Got Away
I thought I had heard somewhere that the inmates of the mental hospital had wandered about shouting “China zindabad”, because they thought the Chinese had set them free. Maybe a foreign reporter was responsible for this story. When I asked my eldest aunt (who had been in medical college when she visited Lama Camp) about this though she said nothing of the sort had happened. During those events in 1962 she was in Edinburgh studying medicine, and had seen what my other aunt had described in black-and-white newspaper photos (even recognising a cousin with his parents getting onto a steamer).
“The staff at the mental hospital had all left,” my eldest aunt, now 81 and still a practising doctor in Tezpur, told me. “I remember there was this huge man who carried all 57 keys with him. So the more normal ones, those kept confined by their families following property disputes or marriage problems, were given the keys and money and told to look after the more serious inmates. The doctor who was in charge later got awarded for organising that. The jail staff had also left, and the prisoners must have been turned loose.”
The doctor who was in charge of the mental hospital later settled in Shillong, and sometimes came to meet my father. He had served in World War II in the medical corps, and had later studied at McGill University in Canada. His wife, who had been a nurse in the medical corps, was a Khasi; they had no children, and lived in a neat little Assam-type cottage with his clinic beside the house. There were plants and orchids all around, and in the spotlessly clean sitting room (a polished bamboo mat on the wooden floor) which the wife opened only on special occasions, were several dried and varnished gourds – I think it was a hobby of his. The doctor had been posted in the Garo Hills region. I remember he told my parents about going down to a river where they would catch prawns by the kilo, and he would later eat about a kilo of prawns by himself. I suppose even at that young age I had intimations of a vanishing world, of a disappearing wilderness.
Lost In Time
A few weeks after my aunt had told me about the steamer crossing, I happened to be looking up “Missamari” on the internet, and came across two old photos of the Tibetans at Lama Camp in a review of a book of photographs on the exiles. In grainy black-and-white, one showed men in traditional clothes walking down a track, a few holding on to the reins of their horses, some huts and the jungle close by; the other showed a crowd of men around a wide track, many in vests and open shirts, sitting (on what seemed like piles of firewood) and standing in orderly fashion, a line of the bamboo-and-thatch shelters visible behind them, and nearby the silhouette of the hills of Arunachal (or NEFA as it was known then).
This would have been the beginning of the Tibetan diaspora, the first people who followed the Dalai Lama out of Tibet after the Chinese took over. Two things struck me then: the first was the whimsy of history, for if the Chinese had decided to come down till Tezpur in 1962 and stay on, my mother might have ended up an exile as well, separated from her place of birth by the wide Brahmaputra, just like the Tibetans in those two photos were to be separated from their home by the high Himalayas; the second was that the larger history involving small places like Tezpur, where I was born in 1975, and Shillong, where I had gone to school, was something that had to be sought out – the material wasn’t always ‘out there’ somewhere, and could frequently disappear with the passing away of people.
Ankush Saikia is based in Shillong, and is the author of the Detective Arjun Arora series. The above piece is part of a book he’s working on, on the north bank region of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh above the Brahmaputra.