There have been a few incidents along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China that had potential of escalation and spiraling out of control. However, these were successfully diffused by a combination of skillful diplomacy, ‘show of force’ and political statesmanship. Noteworthy among these was the Somdurong Chu incident, sometimes called the Wangdung incident, in 1986-87 in West Kameng District of Arunachal Pradesh. Post that, politically, a new State of Arunachal Pradesh was created in December 1986 through an act of Parliament to succeed North East Frontier Agency. Diplomatically, a number of deft moves were made to engage China eventually leading to a summit meeting between PM Rajiv Gandhi and Chairman Deng. Militarily, India shifted focus on infrastructure development, logistic management, redeployment of additional resources and construction of defences, helipads as well as activation of Advanced Landing Grounds.
Deployment of forces and construction of defences in an under-developed area devoid of surface communications was a formidable challenge. High altitude, adverse weather conditions for most part of the year, sparse population, total lack of local resources were some of the realities that had to be confronted. The deployments and development of defences had to meet exacting deadlines simultaneous with creating logistics infrastructure with dependence on a single road from foothills to the LAC.
An Infantry Battalion was tasked to occupy defense at Mago some forty kilometers away from the road-head at Jung. Jung was a mufassil small town and its claim to fame was the only bridge that crossed fast flowing River Tawang Chu along the road coming from foothills to Tawang was located just below the town. Jang, thus was the natural and only choice for administrative base to support the unit that was to deploy some two days of walking distance away.
Sparse local population used local ponies and yaks to ferry necessities. There number just sufficed their own needs with very little to spare. Army decided to facilitate the process for locals to get some more ponies by way of tying up with government breeding farm and getting subsidies from the State. But, result of that was to fructify at sometime in future. A company of Army’s mules were deployed to assist the Battalion.
It soon became obvious that the track running along Tawang Chu from Jang to Mago was unfit for Army Mules. Army mules were bulkier and sturdier than local ones and found narrow track difficult to negotiate. A few slipped and fell deep into the gorges along the track and attrition was unacceptably high! Hence, an Engineer company assisted by two platoons of Infantry Pioneers were deployed to improve the track. All these efforts were welcome but were of no use to the Battalion which had to work through the monsoon rains when no ponies or mules could tread and be ready to face the severe winters which would set in soon after the rains tapered off.
The Commanding Officer made a simple no-nonsense plan. “Battalion will carry the loads on person.” That implied carriage of defence stores, rations not only to sustain but to cater for disruptions due to climatic and environmental conditions. Imagine a burly soldier carrying a ten feet long CGI Sheet on his person along a treacherous route that had cliff on one side and fast flowing river on the other for a distance of over forty kilometers! Cement, other construction material and rations made into small bundles all had to be man-carried till the track became fit for movement of mules.
The track construction parties worked over time and got the track ready. When the mules started ferrying stores another challenge came to fore. Army mules can move approximately 16 Kms (turn around distance) in a day. By that parameter, a staging area had to be set up eight Kms from the road-head. There the second lot would do the next eight Kms. It was realised that the fodder and other requirements of the mules beyond the first staging were so huge that the animal column could only cater for itself and carry no other useful load beyond that. After many permutations and combinations all came to conclusion that a combination of Army and civil mules could help carry some load. Though the quantity was small but, it was welcome all the same. For mule loads there were caveats. Only those loads that could be packed in sacks and hung perfectly balanced on either side of the mule could be carried. It was most important to ensure that the loads were so packed that under any circumstances during the carry could cause any injury to the animal. All other loads, called ‘awkward loads’ in Army parlance had to be man carried.
Where everything failed Indian Infantryman succeeded! Boys carried everything on their backs and walked those dangerous tracks criss-crossing Tawang Chu every now and then with possibility of near fatal accident lurking for most of the way! Regardless, they did it day after day, month after month without complaining, fear or favour! They not only carried their rations and building material, assisted locals whenever required and were always ready for any operational or environmental emergencies! Following Commanding Officers’ orders, they collectively made a choice to survive on as little rations as was practical and use that spare human capacity to carry loads for habitat and defences.
It was decided to construct a helipad on a hilltop some 14,000 feet high for a large helicopter to land. The task involved, climbing some four odd thousand feet along a mountain trail, blasting rocks on top of a virgin mountain, clearing debris and constructing a helipad aligned to the most suitable approach for the helicopter considering the wind and environment conditions! All this with hand held implements and explosives. As the Sun rises and sets early in the East the hours of work had to be adjusted to get maximum productive time onsite. Rocks were hard and difficult to remove without use of explosives. The challenge while using explosive was that all working hands had to withdraw a couple hundred feet below the site to remain safe from flying debris. This implied the parties doing this movement many times during the course of the day in high altitude area. After blast, the debris had to be cleared manually. Limited space available for the helipad was another constraint. While using explosives, the demolition experts had to ensure that the hillside was not weakened in any way. The job was not of a few days it required months of hard work without respite.
The task was assigned to Major Tej Singh and Company. I was on area familiarisation visit to Mago and had a chance conversation Major Tej Singh. He told me, “I and my men leave every morning at 4.15 AM, reach on to by 5.30 AM and commence work. Our first break is around 7.30 AM for breakfast. Lunch is around 11.30-12.00 and we start back around 2.30 PM to be back by 3.15 or so. This is every day, seven days a week. Boys take a day off to wash clothes and rest in turn.” “What about you?” one asked. He smiled and said, “I go up every day. You know these boys look after me so well on top that can’t afford to miss being there!” What he left unsaid was, that he could not let his men experience difficulties while he rested. He wanted to personally supervise the demolitions to ensure safety of his command and the environment. Left unsaid, but knowing how Infantry Leaders think and understate, the unsaid was obvious to me! I pressed on with my questions, “What kind of breakfast and lunch you all carry and how do you get it heated considering the very high wind conditions up there?” He replied in a matter of fact manner, “We carry some rice and dal. You remember we decided to cut on food varieties so that additional defence stores can be carried. We have that every day. The boys are very resourceful, they light up stove shielded by raincoats to warm food and brew some tea.” “You do that every day? For how long has this been on? Your troops mix of Sikhs and Dogras boys they like rotis. Haven’t they complained?” “No, they never complain. They understand. In fact, the suggestion came from them. They said it will reduce weight and allow more time to work. However, I ensure they get a hot bath and a hearty meal on return…. a small compensation” he chuckled!
Then the D Day arrived. Helipad was ready for trial landing. Everyone enthusiastically awaited the approval of helipad as an acknowledgement of their hard work of days! The helicopter with inspection team arrived and despite strong winds the pilots got down work to measure the surface area, inspect the landing and take-off avenues and the like. All done. There was big rock at one end of the helipad which was not removed. Blasting it ran the risk of entire hillside collapsing. Demolition experts from Engineers who were specially sent to suggest a way out concurred that rock had to be left as it is. It was reduced to the extent it could, but still remained jetting out and technically reduced the surface area. Helipad was couple of feet short. Couldn’t be approved! Helicopter crew were professionals who had a job entrusted to them their indiscretion could cause grave risk for men and machine flying in most trying conditions. They were absolutely justified not to approve the helipad as it existed. The infantrymen were crestfallen! All those days and all that hard work had come to a naught! Major Tej Singh spoke to me on radio and told me what had transpired. I could hear his emotion choked voice saying, “Buddy its all in vain!” I instinctively responded, “Sir, let me see if something can be done.” He said, “Do something boys worked really hard!”
I dialed the Colonel General Staff at the Division Headquarters and told him about the outcome of trail landing. Colonel Mohinder Singh (later Lt Gen, retired as Adjutant General of IA) was a first rate professional and belonged to the same Regiment as the boys at Mago. I couldn’t stop sharing how much hard the boys had worked to get this job done and explained why the helipad was a couple of feet short at 14000 feet. He was quite aware of space constraints on top of the hill feature. He listened patiently and spoke using a mix of English and Punjabi, “Kaka you are a BM and should take an objective view of things. These things happen. Don’t worry. Let me see what can be done about it.” A couple of days later Colonel was on line again, “There will be a trial landing on the helipad day after tomorrow. Air Officer Commanding himself will on board the helicopter. He has agreed to pick you up as a passenger from your Headquarters. It’s up to you to get the helipad approved. This is the all one could do. All the best!”
We landed at the helipad. All parameters were looked at de-novo. All good but dimension were what they were. As the Air Officer sipped piping hot tea from a steel glass at 14000 feet in gushing winds with rotors running, I shouted to be audible. Quickly narrated the story how the helipad was created a little victory mother nature had granted the valiant soldiers and he could not allow all that go in vain! AOC smiled patted on my back, shook hands with Major Tej Singh and told him, ‘I admire you and your team’s dedication! I have to ensure safety of aircraft and also the accomplishment of task for which this has been created. Trust me. I will do what has to be done!” We took off. I got off at our Headquarters but helicopter had to fly off in a hurry as weather was packing up and couldn’t have any further conversation with Air Officer. An hour or so later phone rang. It was A senior Staff Officer from the Division HQ. He informed that helipad stood approved to be used in emergency and during operations for MI 8/17 class and approved for smaller helicopters. One knew it was but a partial accomplishment but it meant a lot still! Instinctively thanked God and gallant men of Pachees PUNJAB led by redoubtable Major Tej Singh! The message was passed around to convey the news.
A few days later one got a chance to speak to Major Tej Singh. He was aware of the conditional approval. He spoke, ‘Thank you! Tomorrow onward we are busy constructing defences at…..” It was another task, another challenge……that’s how these unsung heroes are- seek no glory, wait for no ‘thank-yous’, act selflessly, mission accomplishment above everything else! One task completed but many more to be tackled…… never give up……….they are special! They are ‘The Infantry!’