1962 Sino-Indian War: Memories of Assam Tea Estates

Roy Church et al



Editor's note: These stories initially appeared on www.koi-hai.com. They were collated by Roy Church. They have been edited and revised for this website.

Roy Church worked in Assam tea estates over 1959-67, after three years in the British Army. He is married and his eldest son was born at Panitola Central Hospital, Dibrugarh in 1965. For the last 20 years he has travelled extensively in the Central Himalaya leading groups of friends.


1962 War Background

Anyone who has travelled in the higher areas of the Central Himalaya will appreciate that just where the boundary is between India and China/Tibet has been a problem for many years.

Historically The Great Game revolved around moving or defending boundaries dependant on the relative strengths and subsequent threats of hostility between Britain, Russia, Tibet, China and, to some extent, Persia. For much of the boundary with India, while there were occasional border posts at well-frequented passes, only a very small length of the border was actually marked.

In such circumstances, in 1914, McMahon of the Survey of India was instructed to undertake to survey and mark where he considered the boundary should be. Despite a long history of offers and negotiations between the various parties, total agreement was not, unsurprisingly, ever reached, and, despite the huge effort, the McMahon Line was largely ignored.

All along the south side of the Himalaya the passes were utilised (and still are today) for grazing flocks owned by Gujars, who are self-sufficient nomadic herdsmen reputed to have arrived in the area with Genghis Khan. They herd their animals to graze the valleys, ascending to the higher passes in the spring and summer, and then, as the snows arrive, being forced back down to the plains in the autumn. Understandably, where the actual McMahon Line was situated was entirely academic to the Gujars. Even to today such a system endures

During the 1950's, China expanded into parts of Tibet. The Dalia Lama fled into India accompanied by thousands of Tibetan refugees but both the world and India, diverted by the cold war and Korea, took little notice.

In the remote border area of Aksai Chin the Chinese engineers built a modern road, which had great strategic value in allowing China quickly to readily move troops about in the area. The only response from India was for Jawaharlal Nehru, India's Prime Minister, to make a placatory speech to the Indian Parliament on September 4, 1959.

Despite the fact that behind the scenes India and China were on a collision course, the world's concern was not roused. It was felt to be a minor matter springing from the doubtful identification of the McMahon Line. Indeed, Nehru's speech had referred to "this little strip" of territory as if it did not seriously matter.

In fact, China had built a 300-mile military road across some of the most hostile country in the world, which enabled the Chinese to have good access to their "line of actual control". It was not long before pressure was being applied against the Indian military manning their "line of actual control." In contrast to the Chinese forces, the Indian forces had to be supplied by, at best, mules through snow filled passes. In winter, it took three weeks to get supplies to the Indian front line, whereas the Chinese could complete the same task in three hours.

In Assam, which in 1962 was not then split up into autonomous sub-states of to-day, a section of the frontier at Thag La had been the subject of continuous negotiations between India and China. Border posts had been sited and re-sited as negotiations had succeeded or failed

The post which was manned by the Indians and was most controversial was Dhola (not the Dholla near Saikhowa), which was accessed from Tezpur via Tawang above which were the two passes of Se La and Bomdi La. Depending on the weather conditions and time of year, it could take three weeks' hard trek with mules to get to Dhola from Tezpur.

The Chinese, who overlooked the Dhola post [which was itself at 18,500 feet] from the heights of Thag La to the north, could victual and supply their forces within a matter of hours. When the battle of Thag La raged, Brig. Dalvi in his book Himalayan Blunder describes whole areas of the battle for which the Indian forces had no adequate maps. Much of the battle orders were on hand drawn A4 sheets

Another area of battle was at Walong above Tezu, at the very north-eastern corner of Assam. This area, which like Tawang was a historical trading route, had been the subject on longstanding dispute. A significant battle was fought there just before the Cease Fire, when the Indian Army were routed mainly due to lack of supplies Apart from planters in Cachar and southern Assam, it began to look that any planters remaining in Assam could be caught in a pincer movement between the Chinese forces approaching from Tawang and Walong.

War news

Most of the places in the Aksai Chin area, where the fighting initially took place, were very remote, and generally unknown to the tea planting community in Assam. Getting reliable news in Assam as to what exactly the situation was proved near impossible. All India Radio would report that the Indian forces making a brave stand at a certain point, while BBC World Service reported the same place falling to the Chinese several days earlier.

However, reports were soon coming through of Indian forces being routed by superior numbers at Walong, at the head of the Lohit Valley, and Bomdi La, within motoring distance of Tezpur. By the second week of November 1962, it seemed likely that the Chinese would soon be arriving on the plains. It was in such panicky circumstances that the tea plantation fraternity hurriedly had to decide what to do.

The Assam Branch Indian Tea Association (ABITA) assumed a pro-active role. ABITA grouped tea gardens into ‘escape teams' with a Group Leader, who was required to maintain communication, hold meetings, and organise their group to get out of Assam as soon as possible. Most people opted to exit into East Pakistan by road via Badarpur Ghat. Some opted to cross the border from Shillong. One group, having assisted the Oxford and Cambridge University overland expedition into Burma in 1961, planned to walk out down Stilwell's Ledo Road. Others planned to boat out down the Brahmaputra.

The United Kingdom Citizens Association played an active part in evacuating large numbers of Anglo Indians.

Introduction to memories

As tea planters, it is fair comment to say that we were not generally encouraged to take an interest in politics, local or otherwise. As a result, apart from those who held treasured Inner Line Passes, we planters took limited interest in what was going on in the hills as well as pronouncements from the Lok Sabha.

Until I started collecting reminiscences from various people living in Assam (or who had been in Assam in 1962) I had not realised how little most residents knew about the 1962 War with China. Communication was difficult, many estates not having a reliable phone.

Very few people appreciated that the Chinese had occupied three separate sectors of India's disputed border, as what news there was tended to be of events only on the Se La/Tezpur sector, which was directly connected to tea planting areas around Tezpur.

Incredibly, some tea planters never heard about the war till after the ceasefire.

Not all planters acted in an exemplary manner. Some fled, and left both garden and friends. When I set about setting down a similar document in 2005, several senior managers maintained that "digging up old wounds" was totally unnecessary. With the passing of time, such views have also passed into history.


© Roy Church 2012

I (Terence Morris) arrived in Assam in 1959, where my first posting was at Kharjan, near Panitola in Dibrugarh district. Three years later, I moved to Pengaree in the Digboi area. I returned to the UK in 1970, and joined the Medical Research Council’s Tuberculosis Research Unit in London. In 1992, I was part of a team that developed an innovative Imaging Centre near the National Hospital for Neurology, and became its Administrative Director when it was completed. Now retired in Ireland, at 73, I still enjoy a game of golf and bridge.

In 1962, I was based at Pengaree Tea Estate in the Digboi area.

Late 1962 was a very eventful time in northeast India. Historically, there had always been border problems with China, but in September 1962, the situation became extremely volatile when India sent many thousands of troops over the border to stop the violation of disputed land near Walong. This was met with resistance from the might of 50 divisions, each of which had about 50,000 soldiers, of Chinese infantry

I was woken one morning to the sound of distant gunfire, shouting and general mayhem. My bearer came running in, shouting "Sahib, sahib, Cheeni admi hai" (Chinese people coming). There was so much shouting and panic it was difficult to fathom out what was going on. The communication systems at that time consisted of only one landline phone, which as you can imagine was saturated.

I managed to drive through a very unhappy crowd to the main office on the plantation, where I met up with several other managers, all of whom were as equally confused as I was. We had received fragmented information through All India Radio and the BBC World Service but the main news was about the Cuban crisis.

Late that afternoon, a contingent of high-ranking Indian Army officers arrived at the club, and briefed us on our position. Apparently, the Chinese army had reached north of the Brahmaputra River, which was only 20 odd miles away. The Indian Army was in full retreat. The estimation was that the Chinese army would cross the river, and be with us within the next few days.

Assam, very fertile, rich in tea and rice, was also the home of the Burma Oil Company, with rich resources of heavy crude oil. I had to drive through these oil fields each day to reach my house. It was rapidly becoming clear to me what the likely outcome would be. The West was tied up with the Cuban crisis. India had border disputes with Pakistan and Kashmir, and so an ideal opportunity presented itself for China to take over these valuable assets with little or no resistance. Of course, this was emphatically denied by the Chinese government.

There were about 1,000 Europeans and other nationalities, including women and children, in north east India, employed either by the oil company or by the tea plantations.

Late one afternoon, I received a message from the field director to start evacuating the families in my area. They were to proceed to a local airstrip, from where they would be flown out to Calcutta by the Indian air force. My job was to explain this without panic, and to ensure all parties acted immediately. I remember driving between the various groups trying to remain calm and collected, whilst reassuring them and giving them instructions.

It was a strange feeling. Clearly, the adrenalin was flowing, and I felt a certain excitement as well as fear in what I was doing. Many hours later, having completed my mission, I arrived back at our main club, which had been designated as the operations Head Quarters (HQ), where some of my colleagues had gathered to review the current situation.

During that evening, we had the privilege of a visit from the Indian high command and Sir Paul Gore Booth, UK government representative. They were very reassuring, and told us not to worry too much about the present situation. They explained that the Royal Air Force (RAF) was in Singapore, ready to fly us out, should the situation get worse.

However, there was one slight problem. The RAF did not have any aircraft available for rescue attempts at that time, due to being on a war footing as the Cuban crisis was getting out of control. "Not to worry, the problem was being looked into by the Ministry of Defence," we were told! Later that evening, Sir Paul and his entourage flew out by helicopter. How very reassuring!

We spent the rest of that night and the next few days debating our options and possible escape routes, whilst consuming copious bottles of 20-year-old malt whisky. In those days, imported whisky was expensive - about £20 a bottle. But, what the heck! We would all be dead within a few weeks, so our mess bills would never need paying. Little did we know how profound the consequences of that evening would be!

Two days later (I do not remember much about the first 24 hours)\; I was ordered to the HQ of the Oil Company. There were quite a few associates and friends there. We were briefed by a couple of army officers about the current situation. We were informed that the plan was to blow up the oil refinery and the oil wells, if and when the Chinese crossed the Brahmaputra,

I had a dreadful feeling of what was coming next. If this event came about, they would be looking for volunteers to assist with this operation as most of the Indian armed forces were tied up in combat or retreating. Thinking back to my job description, I could not remember if sabotage was included. Surely, they could not be serious. I know I am the sort of person who relishes a challenge but blowing up refineries was stretching it a point too far.

In any case, if I were captured by the Chinese, I would be shot instantly as a foreign saboteur. That was also not in my job description. We were left to debate who did what and when. It was a farcical situation, as I remember it. A group of amateurs planning a highly complex and dangerous operation like something out of Mission Impossible, and more suitable for Indiana Jones!

It was eventually decided by the army powers that be, and with a considerable amount of reluctance on my part, that I would assist in blowing the back road leading to one of the entrances to the oil fields. In theory, this would have had a knock-on effect and destroyed a few oil wells in the process. With a bit of luck, that would have had a chain effect on the rest of the oil wells throughout the oil field. I doubt that James Bond could have planned it better. I should perhaps point out that my knowledge of explosives was not altogether non-existent. After all, I had been known to let off several batches of fireworks in my time!

On November 21, 1962, the Chinese armies started to retreat north. I have to say this came as a great relief, as I did not relish the thought of becoming a dead hero.

It was only then, that the gravity of the situation became real. We were all very sombre for the next few weeks as we reflected on what might have been. Life gradually returned to normal, although it was many months before the families returned. It was a difficult time trying to reassure the local people that the danger had passed, as they could hardly understand what had happened in the first place.

The harsh realities of the past month hit home one fine morning when I received my mess bill for those nights of planning the end of civilisation. It was approximately my one-month's pay! It was then that the real fear took hold. How was I going to pay this? Was this to be my downfall?

After lengthy discussions, it was finally agreed by the honourable committee, that although the bar committee were very unhappy at seeing so much of their precious stock of fine imported whisky consumed, they were sympathetic to the situation. After all, the circumstances had been somewhat unusual. It was agreed that the sum in question was to be written off as long as we did not repeat the exercise in the name of any other national emergency.


© Terrence Morris 2012

Shona Patel grew up in a tea plantation in Assam, India. After completing her graduate studies in English literature, she embarked upon a 30-year career in award-winning Advertising and Graphic Design. \\She is now a full time writer and lives with her husband in Phoenix, Arizona. Her debut novel, Teatime for the firefly, a love story set in 1940's Assam, India, will be published by Harlequin/Mira Books in October 2013. For more information go to www.shonapatel.com.

We were in Duklingia Tea Estate in the Mariani district in 1962. My father, Paresh Nag, had taken over as the General Manager of the tea garden in 1959.

In November 1962, my sister was nine, and away at boarding school in Shillong, and  I was three years old. For weeks, tensions ran high in our bungalow. Orders came from the head office of Jardine Henderson, my father's company, for all women and children to evacuate the gardens. My father was staying back.

I remember hushed conversations in the evenings. My mother crying. She did not want to leave my father in the gardens alone. Rumour had reached that the Chinese were close to Tinsukia.

There was an airstrip in Duklingia, just outside our malibari (kitchen garden) gate. Jardine's yellow Cessna used to land there, carrying the Visiting Agent back and forth to Calcutta. The pilot would stay in our bungalow. He would give us children rides\; we would fly low over Kaziranga, and chase the water buffaloes. One time the water buffaloes got chased into a nearby tea garden and there were complaints. The Manager reported seeing the Jardine plane. My dad was not pleased. That stopped the joy rides for me.

I seem to recall a cold foggy November morning. A big hulk of a cargo aircraft - a Dakota C-47 - had made a bumpy landing on the Jorhat airstrip, which was about 20 kms away. This was going to be the last flight out of the gardens. Our bungalow was full of planters, and their wives and children, who were traveling on that plane to Calcutta. They had come from gardens from all over the district and gathered at our bungalow.

I was crying, and clinging on to my dad. Many of the ladies and children were crying as well. Things were very uncertain. Nobody knew what was going to happen if Assam fell to the Chinese. Planters were expected to stake it out alone. All they had were their shotguns and sporting rifles. There was no army or police help forthcoming. Many of the wives were worried they would never see their husbands again.

The Dakota plane was rudimentary, to say the least. Aluminium folding chairs were tied down to the floor. When the plane took off, the chairs went skidding all over the place. You had to grab onto to one another and slide en masse as there was nothing else to hold on to. A young man on the plane served us orange squash, and it was quite a dilemma holding on to the cup to avoid spills.

The aircraft was not pressurized, and cold blasts of air seemed to shoot up from holes everywhere. The plane had no windows. It was dark - like traveling inside a box. And the groans and rattles from the engines! We were given cotton wool to plug our ears. Nobody could hear a word so there was no conversation.

We landed at Calcutta airport after what can only be described as a long, harrowing flight. Most folks were airsick in the plane, including me. As soon as we landed, we got the news that the Chinese had retreated. Mom and I stayed a few days in the city, and flew right back. This time I think we flew back in the Jardine Cessna, not the Dakota, thank god.


© Shona Patel 2012


Brings back memories. I remember that mom buried all her silver and English crockery in the flower beds and replanted the roses on top! Years later Dad would joke that Mom cared more about the crockery than him! Moths

I remember that so well. We waited days for the RAF to pick us up. Had a wonderful trip over the Himalayas with us all sitting on the floor of the aircraft. We arrived Calcutta and a week later sent back to the Uk experiencing the worse winter of 1963. I returned with my children to the Jaipur T.E. February 1963. This time in the dear old Dakota.

I was born in Digboi in 1960, my father having lived on and worked on the tea estates for many years beforehand, including Pengaree. My parents were David and Betty Bell from Scotland, and they left to return home not long after my birth. They have both passed away now, but our family albums contain many photographs and memories of their experiences.

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