Tales of prisoners of war: Naik Balwant Singh Bisht

Flights Of Fantasy

[ M Panging Pao ]

Many Arunachalee old-timers recall the 1962 Sino-India conflict with fear and anger. The Chinese forces entered deep into Arunachal Pradesh along many axes like Taksing-Limeking, Mechuka/Manigong-Tato, Gelling-Tuting, Kibithoo-Walong axes and the main Tawang-Bomdila-Rupa axis. Many soldiers were taken prisoners of war (PoW) by both India and China. This is the story of one such PoW, naik Balwant Singh Bisht.

Naik Balwant Bisht was with the 4th Garhwal Rifles and his company was deployed near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. During the second phase of the war, on 17 November, 1962, the Chinese army launched a massive attack on their positions guarding Sela Pass. The Garhwalis fought back resolutely, but their ammunition was exhausted and they were asked to withdraw. Thereafter, confused orders led to a collapse of the Indian positions in Sela. Bisht and four other soldiers, including Narain Singh, Madho Singh and Govind Singh, lost their way on their return journey. They kept walking for 17 days, surviving on soft leaves and berries. In the meantime, unilateral ceasefire was declared on 19 November, 1962. The group of five men, along with Bisht, were caught by the retreating Chinese forces and taken as PoWs.

Bisht and the other PoWs were taken to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and kept there in camps. As narrated by Bisht, the Chinese treated the PoWs well, as per established international protocols. They were not harassed and food was given regularly. However, many attempts were made to brainwash them with propaganda about the Dalai Lama, Jawaharlal Nehru, the McMahon Line, etc. The PoWs were told that the Dalai Lama crossed into India along with 35 mules carrying boxfuls of jewels. They were told that a major portion of those jewels were gifted to the Indian leadership.

In the meantime, not receiving any information about his whereabouts for a long period, his family prepared for his last rites, assuming him to be killed during the war. However, these plans were cancelled after the family received his letter after a few weeks. Bisht and the other PoWs were repatriated to India in June-July 1963 after spending five months in Lhasa. Bisht was given a rousing welcome when he returned to his village.

After they were repatriated back to India, their ordeal was not over. All the PoWs were taken to Barrakpore and Ranchi. They underwent rigorous debrief and interviews about their time as PoWs for many days. Naik Balwant Singh Bisht took release from the army after seven years of service and settled in his village in Uttarakhand.

During the 1962 Sino-India war, the 4 Garhwal Rifles suffered heavy casualties, losing three officers, four junior commissioned officers, and 155 other ranks killed in action. People award gallant soldiers and tell stories about their bravery. However, the prisoners of war are also heroes who sacrificed their lives and time fighting for the nation, and most of their stories remain unknown. After all, PoWs are an after-effect of war itself!   (The contributor is retired Group Captain, Indian Air Force)