Army HQ wanted me to withdraw from Wangdung in 1987 but I refused: Retired General VN Sharma

21 September, 2020

General Vishwa Nath Sharma was the first chief of army staff, or COAS, who began his career in the post-Independence Indian Army. He retired in 1990, and is currently 90 years old. As a lieutenant general, he was the general officer commanding-in-chief of the Eastern Command from June 1987 to May 1988. His tenure coincided with what is known as the Wangdung incident with China. The incident, which began in June 1986, is named after a small village in the Sumdorong Chu area of the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh, and is considered the third Sino-Indian military conflict. Wangdung lies close to the Thagla Ridge—the Indian Army’s occupation of the ridge was the precipitating factor of the first Sino-Indian conflict in 1962—and hosted a subsidiary post of the Intelligence Bureau. The People’s Liberation Army of China occupied Wangdung in the summer of 1986. 

On 16 September, Sushant Singh, a journalist and a former army officer, spoke to General Sharma at the latter’s Delhi residence. Sharma told Singh, how, as the army commander, he refused to follow the orders of the Army Headquarters and General Krishnawamy Sundarji, then the COAS, to vacate the forward positions occupied by the Indian Army opposite the PLA. 

Sushant Singh: What happened in Wangdung and the Sumdorong Chu area in the 1980s, where the standoff between Indian and Chinese troops lasted years?
General VN Sharma: In 1986, what happened is that in the area of Sumdorong Chu, there is a small village of about 4 kheti huts [temporary huts made of straw], Wangdung—it’s not much to talk of. Tibetan yaks used to come, graze over there, graziers used to build a little kheti hut and live in it in the night, when it was summer time. We had a listening post of the Intelligence Bureau there. Sometime in 1986, the IB post, comprising two to three men and a radio set, came away for the winter because it was full of snow. In June or July 1986, they tried to go up back to the Wangdung village area and the Chinese were in occupation with a company worth of troops, to say, “Get away from here, this is Chinese territory.” They [the IB] came running back from there, about thirty kilometres further south where we had a brigade, at Khinzemane. And the man commanding Khinzemane was a chap called Brigadier Bhupi Malik, 5th Gorkhas [5 Gorkha Rifles, an infantry regiment]. I knew him very well because when I was in the MO [military-operations] directorate as a major general, he was a colonel under me.

From the College of Combat [in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh], where I was commandant at the time, I called him, “Bhupi, what happened? And what have you done?” He explained and said, “According to Lieutenant General Narahari’s orders, I found that these chaps have come there, so I immediately sent a company of infantry and we occupied the Langro La Ridge [the ridge is on a pass overlooking the Sumdorong Chu Valley, and Narahari was then the commander of the IV Corps, which comes under the Eastern Command]. When the rain stopped, in about July 1986, the Chinese started coming up from the bottom slope [from Wangdung] to the Langro La ridge, the Langro La pass, to occupy, but the Gorkhas were already in position, they had dug down, they had overhead protection also. This was the situation in 1986.

There was a captain in charge, and he’d been told not to allow the Chinese to come inside there. The captains are very fine officers of the Indian Army; they don’t think very much of their superiors but they are very well trained and they act on their own. When the Chinese brigadier came up, he saw these chaps occupying the pass and he said—he had an interpreter, with a megaphone—“Get the hell out of here. This is Chinese territory.” That captain answered, “I’m sorry, you are wrong, this is Indian Territory and you don’t come forward here.” The Chinese said, “No, you go away. The maps are wrong. Whatever you’ve marked on your map is incorrect. You are in Chinese territory and we do not accept Indian troops in Chinese territory. Your government has already ordered you not to be here.” You see, there was a limit of patrolling, laid down some two–three ridgelines further south. “So, please go back. We don’t want to tussle with you but please go away from Chinese territory.”

The captain said, “Sorry, we are not moving.” But the Chinese kept advancing. When they were about fifty yards below him, he winked at the LMG gunner who fired off a burst, about two feet above the Chinese brigadier’s head. Even his cap flew off and went rolling down the khud [ravine], and that shocked him because he didn’t expect Indian troops to stand their ground. He went running back and that became a diplomatic incident.

He reported to his headquarters that these chaps are standing there and they fired at us, and the Chinese foreign ministry contacted the Indian foreign ministry and the Indian foreign ministry contacted the Indian Army chief, the army chief contacted the Eastern Command and from there down back to the corps commander, Narahari and to the divisional commander: “You should tell your chaps, you are not supposed to fire at the Chinese as per our hukum [order] and cross the line of actual control. Come back.”

This argument started taking place in July–August 1986. Come October, the snow started coming down, so the thing froze at this position. Meanwhile, Narahari had already moved the divisional commander, tactical headquarters and a brigade or two to Tawang. A chap called JM Singh [a major general who was the divisional commander of the Indian Army’s 5 Mountain Division], he established his headquarters at Tawang and he had a brigade worth of troops there. And Narahari was in Tezpur [the headquarters of the IV Corps] and kept on visiting. This was the situation when I came to Eastern Command around June [1987].

SS: You were in the College of Combat in Mhow before moving to the Eastern Command in June 1987. What was the build-up before you moved to the Eastern Command?
VNS: Lieutenant General JK Puri was the commander there [in 1986]—and I was a great friend of JK Puri also—only six months senior to me, a gunner officer and a very fine officer. Before June [1987], I had sent my boys from the higher command course to reconnoitre the whole place. As the commander of the College of Combat, round about September–October [1986], I visited Narahari, whom I knew, and got a helicopter from him, and visited JM Singh in Tawang. I wanted to see the layout of Chinese positions, so he gave me a local helicopter, a Cheetah, with one of his officers to explain to me the area and I flew over the Chinese positions to see how they were laid out.

We had a battalion of Gorkhas, which Narahari and JM Singh had put forward. A chap called Lieutenant Colonel Pathania was commanding the Gorkhas. I spoke to Pathania, and he said, “Hum to yahaan aage nikle hue hai”—We have moved ahead here. We were not supposed to cross the McMahon Line [A demarcated boundary between Tibet and India defined and negotiated by the then British government, in 1914. India considers its interpretation of the line as its legal border with China but the Chinese do not accept the McMahon Line]. Pathania’s battalion was between Bum La pass, which is a high feature and the Langro La ridge line, slightly northwest of Tawang.

What was the plan? The plan was that should it come to fisticuffs, then we would be at a better position than the Chinese—they were in the valley with a company, and we had almost a whole battalion ranged on the Langro La ridge. And we had people in Tawang, right up to Bum La pass—tactically we were in a far better position. Artillery guns were not very useful because we had the Indian field gun—105 mm—and while its range is good enough but it’s a flat trajectory, so it was not really able to reach the valley. But they had sent two Bofors guns for trial in the mountains—5 Division, high-altitude trials.

So, we had moved these two guns up to Tawang and they were still out of range—their range is up to thirty kilometres but on a high angle the range is slightly less. So, they wanted the guns to go forward by five to six kilometres. The sappers were told to construct a track on which the gun would automatically move with its own engine, about five to six kilometres, and bring Wangdung in range. And JM Singh was in the process of doing that by October [1986], and he said, “By the time the winter passes, the next monsoon finishes, and we come into battle positions again, we will have done this.”

JM Singh had made a plan that the Chinese will not be allowed to withdraw. Next year, if the sanction comes to him, he would destroy that one company of the Chinese—about a 110-odd men. The idea was, the  Gorkhas, on the eastern flank, would move through the ridge-line extension east of the Nyamjang Chu, where we knew there was no Chinese position, and occupy the pass through which this company had come across the Thagla Ridge line. Occupy, so that they hold off any Chinese reinforcements coming from the north, along the Nyamjang Chu or, there’s a pass there, through which the Nyamjang Chu cuts through the mountains—occupy that and hold it. In fact, if the Bofors guns went there, we wouldn’t have to move because the Chinese didn’t have guns there; they had guns on the other side of the Thagla ridge but those were not able to reach ours. I was very happy to see that and I encouraged that.

I had a discussion with Narahari about this. He said, “We have received orders to withdraw from here.” JK Puri had been given written orders from Army Headquarters to withdraw and we really didn’t know what to do. We were trying to convince the army commander not to accept that order because if we withdrew from here, then the Chinese could just walk right up to Tawang. I said, “Look, I’m only a College of Combat commander but I am still going further in life. This is a very strong position and we are not to depart from this. Whatever be the orders from the eastern army, if I find that you withdraw then I will take serious action against you people, so don’t push me on this.” They were all my friends, so they all laughed because that’s exactly what they wanted to hear. I then took a helicopter and visited Pathania and his battalion.

SS: What happened then, when you moved as the eastern army commander?
VNS: JK Puri handed over to me and I took over just before the end of May [1987] or so. I straight away informed all the corps commanders that there was to be no withdrawal. But there were written orders from Army Headquarters—they had laid down a limit of patrolling [known as the Line of Patrolling, it defines the specific extent to which patrols are allowed by either side based on mutual agreement]. This limit was along the line of Tawang, roughly.

The Army Headquarters was saying this but they had not seen this terrain—this was being said by the China Study Group and Sundarji [the COAS from 1986 to 1988]. It was comprised of various bureaucrats and ministers and they decided that they don’t want war with China, under the circumstances. They said that there’s a limit of patrolling laid down and no patrols will be allowed to go ahead of this.

So, the eastern army was being blamed that they, without permission, have crossed the limit, as per orders laid down, which they had acknowledged. “Why are you there, you come back.” They said, “You come down to the limit of patrolling, if there’s problem, then you go back.”

But that was not going to work. In the mountains, because you have to cross two to three ridge lines to reach these high areas, it takes time—two or three days to get to these positions. Whereas the Chinese, since they have the plateau behind them, they can come over very fast, in hardly a day.

JK Puri tried to explain our point [to Army Headquarters] but he’s a very decent chap, he obeys orders like a good soldier should. He told me, “You’ve got a problem on your hands. I agree with what you say but you know, there’s orders from the Army HQ and from the prime minister himself.” I said, “Theek hai, aap jaa rahe hai aaram se jao vice chief bano”—it’s okay, you are going, you go and be the vice chief.  

So, when I took over, I let it be known on telephone to BC Joshi who was the DGMO [Director General of Military Operations], and later became the southern army commander and then the chief. I told him, “We’re not coming back.” He said, “Sir, these are orders.” I said, “These are not correct orders.”

I told BC Joshi, “This is not on, try and think about it. If we don’t stay where we are, the Chinese will occupy these lines and then we can’t stop them from occupying Tawang. Once they’ve occupied these, it’s not easy, tactically, to get these back, it will be a fait accompli.” He said, “No, these are the orders and you discuss the matter with the chief.”

The chief [General Sundarji] said that you first obey the order and then we will discuss the issue. So, I got a signal [military communication] that said you have to come back from the south of the limit of patrolling. They wanted a reply.

We replied back, “You have given us the border as the McMahon Line. You are Army HQ; there’s a special branch in the Army HQ which does the mapping. The border is marked along the line of the McMahon Line and the Chinese have already crossed the McMahon Line. So make up your mind—is my order to defend India or are you now trying to tell me to withdraw from the face of an enemy advance which is already across the line just because you want a limit of patrolling? Under the circumstances we cannot do this because it’s not a viable defence position.”

I also said, “If you recollect, in 1962, you gave the orders to withdraw and the Chinese came right up to Bomdila. The only reason that they went back was that they were surprised that the Indian Army didn’t fight.”

I said, “We’re not going to withdraw from here because it’ll be another 62 and if you say that the McMahon Line is incorrect, say that in writing.” See, because then the Chinese claims are correct—they claim the whole of Arunachal Pradesh after the plains of the Brahmaputra. “In which case I will withdraw to the plains, and then you guys in Army Headquarters, you guys in the China Study Group, then come and defend India if you can. I’ll go down to the plains but you first say that you agree with the Chinese viewpoint that the McMahon Line is a false line.”

We didn’t get an answer to that.

I also mentioned that I am required, as an army officer, to obey the lawful command of my superior officers. And I said, “This is not a lawful command. Therefore the legality of this command may be tested in the Supreme Court before you give me these orders because it means abandoning my country, my land.”

We didn’t get an answer for this, but Sundarji rang me up and gave me hell on the phone, which I accept. I’m a junior officer; I have to accept if the chief tells me I am a bloody ass, which probably I am.

SS: And then the prime minister visited you in Tawang?
VNS: We refused to withdraw; the Chinese foreign ministry and that diplomatic guftagoo—conversation—took place but we didn’t move back. Rajiv Gandhi then realised that the army chief didn’t have too much control over his eastern army, so he decided to visit Tawang himself. Sundarji said, “You’ve made your point, whatever it is worth but now the prime minister is coming to Tawang, so you go there and explain to him why you disagree with his and my orders.” Rajiv Gandhi arrived at Tawang by helicopter and I’d instructed JM Singh that let the prime minister meet some of the other officers in a team—get a chap from the  Gorkhas, some from the Gorkha battalions on the Langro La ridge, and have some captains hanging there for the prime minister.

The prime minister apparently asked one of the havildars, “Agar humara foreign ministry bol de ki woh paanch kilometre peeche chale jayenge, toh kya aap bhi paanch kilometer peeche chale jaoge?” [If our foreign ministry says that they will go back five kilometres, will you go back five kilometres, too?] One of JM’s officers then said, “Sir, if they go back five kilometres they can be back in these positions in four hours. If we go back five kilometres, we go back three ridgelines and it’ll take us three days to come back. The foreign ministry is looking at a flat map to say, you go five kilometres and I go five kilometres but you have to work it out in timings. And time-wise, say in one day, we go back only half a ridge line and they go back fifteen or twenty kilometres.” That one point was made.

Then one of the havildars said, “Pradhan mantri ji, aap ko kya Cheeniyon se darr lagta hai? Humen unka jaa ke Lhasa pakadna hai. Phir unse baat karenge” [Prime minister, are you scared of the Chinese? We will go hold Lhasa and then talk to them.] The prime minister was quite impressed.

Meanwhile, Sundarji rang me and told me that my time is done because I have disobeyed the orders from Delhi. I told him that was alright, I was not going to move from here. I gave instructions that nobody will withdraw and the Chinese will be threatened that coming summer that we will remove them from here unless they have full talks with the government of India as to how the withdrawal has to take place. It came to a halt there. That is the whole story.

Now, this episode took place in 1987, whereas the contact took place in 1986. Some authors, like Arjun Subramaniam, have talked about Sundarji’s Operation Chequerboard [a high-altitude military exercise to asses India’s combat capabilities in the northeast Himalayan region in the event of Sino-Indian hostilities]. They say he did this, moved brigades and concentrated troops. It is all nonsense, because Chequerboard, like the first stage of Brasstacks [Operation Brasstacks began in November 1986, in Rajasthan, and ran for five months. It was the largest peacetime war game then, focussed on conventional warfare] was only a telecom and headquarters exercise, that’s all. It was run by Eastern Command separately. There was nothing on the ground. I told Arjun, too, but he did not want to write it as it was controversial.

SS: There was no pushback from the government after Rajiv Gandhi came to Tawang? The political leadership did not hold it against you?
VNS: The next man from me was BC Nanda, who is a relative of General Cariappa [Field Marshal KM Cariappa was the first commander-in-chief of the Indian Army]. And I have high regard for BC Nanda. He was a northern army commander. Sundarji wanted him to be next chief because, and he told me this, he said, “The government doesn’t like you because you talk too much. And they are thinking of BC Nanda.” And I said, “He’s a fine officer we have to give to the army.” I was ready to retire as a lieutenant colonel, but they made me a general, I did not expect it.  

SS: What was the impact of what you did in Arunachal Pradesh when there were negotiations going on with China, especially when you became the Army chief?
VNS: When I became the chief, I went to see the prime minister within a day. He said, “I’ve got two problems. One is, Sundarji and staff say that we should withdraw from the Siachen Glacier, they say that the troops are fed up.” And apparently the DGMO had visited them—troops are fed up, life is very difficult, and so on. “So, I want you to give me your view. If you have the feeling that the army can’t bear with it, we’ll withdraw.” I said, “But it’s our country, if we withdraw, the Pakistanis will take it over.” 

He said, “That’s true but what am I supposed to do if the army is fed up?” I asked him, “Who told you the army is fed up?” He said, “Your DGMO said so to the chief and he said it to me.” I said, “I don’t think that’s true. First, we have to see where all did the DGMO visit. I’ll go and visit. In the next two days. And I’ll check up with the people. And let you know.” 

Second point, he said: “An invitation to go to China, by Deng Xiaoping [then the Chinese premier] and my foreign ministry says you must never go there, you will be insulted. Because of this thing that happened in the east.” So, Rajiv Gandhi said, “Chief, what’s your view?” I said, “You must go, I don’t know about the foreign ministry. Very wise people, much wiser than me. But the fact that you held our borders, the compliment is yours. Whether you liked it or not, since we succeeded in not withdrawing from there without going to battle, credit is yours. Deng has invited you to do baatcheet”—talks—“we must do baatcheet. It’s much better to do baatcheet than to do bang-bang. So, you must go.” 

Rajiv Gandhi said, “Are you sure I won’t be insulted?” I said, “Even if you are insulted, we Indians have a thick skin. Be insulted, so what? At least you’ll know where you stand. But I do not think you will be insulted, you have been invited by Deng. Therefore he has to treat you as a guest. And the Chinese are very good with their guests. Whether they like them or not. So I think you should go.” And so he went. And that is when they agreed to do the demarcation of the international border. It’s better to talk and talk than to shoot and shoot. 

SS: You were the first officer to join the Army after 1947 and then you saw your school friends go a different way in Pakistan. Why did Indian Army remain democratic when Pakistan’s didn’t?
VNS: I retired in 1990 and there was a British newspaper reporter who came to me about five years after I retired. He came here, he said, to understand why the Pakistan Army is not a democratic army. “Just like you, they were taught democracy by the British. You are following it, they are not. Why is it the Indian Army didn’t take over this country, when you have bumpkins as politicians?” 

I said, “No, that’s not true. We had great regard and respect for those who fought for the freedom of India. Whether it was a Gandhi or a Nehru or a Sardar Patel. They ran this country far better than any officer would have done.” And so, Cariappa, he made very clear rules—that you will obey the constitutional head of the government; you will only fight for the Constitution of India, which came in 1950. You will only defend the Constitution. You don’t try and run the government. You have to accept legal orders by the elected heads of government, as elected by the people of India. That was inculcated in us when we were cadets in the academy, because I joined the Indian Military Academy in 1948. This is the story, there is nothing much to it. 

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Correction: In an earlier version of this interview, General VN Sharma incorrectly stated that one of the havildars apparently asked the prime minister, “Agar humara foreign ministry bol de ki woh paanch kilometre peeche chale jayenge, toh kya aap bhi paanch kilometer peeche chale jaoge?” 

In fact, it was the prime minister Rajiv Gandhi who asked the question.

The Caravan regrets the error.