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.”