The Rediff Special/P Bhattacharjee
In November 1962, P Bhattacharjee was a young man of 22 working in the tea industry when the Chinese army came to within 50 kilometers of Tezpur, in northern Assam, before unilaterally declaring a ceasefire. Bhattacharjee, who retired as a top tea executive three years ago, recalls the situation in Tezpur and its surrounding areas during those days when the town's fall to the Chinese appeared imminent and everyone, including the Indian government and the British plantation owners, simply fled. He narrated the chain of events to G Vinayak:
For nearly a month, starting mid-October 1962, sporadic news reports had been filtering in that the Indian Army was taking a beating from the Chinese in the NEFA (North-East Frontier Agency, now Arunachal Pradesh state) sector. But unwillingness on the part of the authorities to part with any authentic information added to the confusion. Finally, around November 15, the news filtered in that the Chinese had overrun Bomdila and were fast advancing towards Tezpur, spreading utter panic among the common people.
Most of the families packed whatever they thought vital into small trunks and suitcases and headed towards Bhomaraguri, the ferry ghat (dock) on the north bank of the Brahmaputra to try and cross the huge river (into southern Assam). Since there was not much transport available, people were walking to the ferry ghat. Some families in fact spent even the nights out in the open in the harsh winter in an effort to catch the ferry early the next morning.
Most tea planters in those days were either English or Scot. In the wake of the uncertain situation, all of them asked to be repatriated. Most European planters on the north bank of the Brahmaputra handed over the properties to their Indian assistants or the clerical staff, gave away or shot dead their pets, stuffed their belongings into one or two suitcases and left the gardens with their families aboard chartered flights for Calcutta.
There was widespread panic among staff and workers. It was during those days that the legendary trade union leader of Assam, Mahendra Nath Sarma, along with a handful of his companions moved from tea garden to tea garden on the north bank providing moral support to the staff and workers.
On the south bank also, in the Nowgong circle gardens just across the river from Tezpur, a panic situation prevailed. Every evening the planters would assemble in the Misa Planters' Club and would discuss their likely course of action. Their only source of information was the news over the radio. Everyday someone would go to Nowgong while another would go to Silghat to gather information from people crossing over from Tezpur by ferry. Lack of adequate information made the panic situation even worse.
Then a small squadron of Indian Air Force moved into Misa and took over the Planters' Club building and there was no meeting place left for the planters. It was the last straw. All the planters decided to leave the gardens and move to Calcutta. There were contingency plans to blow up tea factories in the event of the Chinese invading Assam. Fortunately, the eventuality did not arise.
In the town itself, very few people were left and the administration was getting ready to abandon the place. One of the first things that they did was to burn all the currency notes in the State Bank of India. Heaps of notes were piled up in the main branch compound and burnt. The coins were dumped into the nearby pond. Nobody knew what was happening.
I remember distinctly an announcement by the administration that the Chinese have overrun Bomdila and therefore people should dig trenches for self-defense. But within an hour, the administration panicked and said, 'No, everyone should vacate the town.' That added greatly to the
panic. And people left everything they had behind and just made as beeline to the ferry ghat.
Fortunately, the Chinese stopped about 50 km short of Tezpur town and retreated immediately. But the scars of the government abandoning the people of Assam and Jawaharlal Nehru's infamous address to the nation, in which he almost bade goodbye to Assam, saying 'My heart goes out to the people of Assam' still rankles the Assamese people.