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The Soldier Who Was A Chinese PoW For 7 Months

November 22, 2022 16:24 IST

'I was exhausted, hungry, unshaven and despondent.'
'My mouth was full of sores due to dehydration.'
'My clothes were in tatters due to walking through bushes and sliding down thorny slopes,' Brigadier John Parshuram Dalvi wrote of his capture during the 1962 War.

IMAGE: Brigadier John Dalvi as a prisoner of war in Tibet after the 1962 War. Photograph: Kind courtesy Michael Dalvi

Brigadier John Parshuram Dalvi stepped into a clearing in the jungle and came face to face with Chinese soldiers, their weapons aimed at him.

He glanced at his watch.

9.22 am. October 22, 1962.

He had been taken prisoner of war by the Chinese People's Liberation Army.

By this time, he and his men had been without food for 66 hours; had climbed from 10,500 to 18,500 feet and then descended down a water-course to 10,500 feet.

'I was exhausted, hungry, unshaven and despondent. My mouth was full of sores due to dehydration. My clothes were in tatters due to walking through bushes and sliding down thorny slopes.

'The ignominy of captivity is, for the soldier, a fate worse than death,' Brigadier Dalvi wrote in his book The Himalayan Blunder which is an honest analysis of the reasons for India's debacle in the 1962 Indo-China war.

Brigadier Dalvi was held in solitary confinement for seven months in a barrack outside Lhasa.

The The Himalayan Blunder was born during his incarceration.

'The Chinese are not English speaking. They had no library of English books. After weeks they got him a pen and some reams of paper. He would write down the names of all the books he'd read. All the movies he'd seen. All the actors and actresses he could think of. Each week the commissar would come, take the notes from the guards and tear them up.

The whole process would start again!' wrote his son Michael Dalvi in an obituary (external link).

The commissar (an official of the Chinese Communist party) would visit once a week and taunt the brigadier about Nehru's folly.

"They would take off his shirt and dunk him in freezing water. His guards fed him on a diet of potatoes, he got eggs twice in those months and chicken for Christmas which he shared," recalls Michael Dalvi, a student at Doon School at that time.

IMAGE: Brigadier John Dalvi, one of Indian Army's brilliant field officers. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Himalayan Blunder

The news of his father's imprisonment was delivered at the headmaster's residence by two uniformed officers.

The deputy housemaster and tutor R L Holdsworth, a World War I veteran with a triple blue from Oxford (for excellence in cricket, football and boxing), was a pillar of support during those difficult months. He along with even Headmaster J A K Martyn drove Michael to Meerut cantonment in an old Fiat to comfort Mrs Dalvi, Michael's mother.

Holdsworth was also an ace mountaineer who was among the men who discovered the famous Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand. So profound was his influence on Michael Dalvi that he visited the headmaster's grave in Somerset many years after leaving school. He left a note outside the home where his tutor once lived.

The headmaster's framed photograph hangs in a section dedicated to Michael Dalvi's alma mater, The Doon School. A bar is named after the headmaster's nickname 'Holdy'.

IMAGE: The Holdys pub named after Doon School tutor R L Holdsworth at Mike's Forest Retreat near Dehradun. Photograph: Seema Pant/

Among the pictures that adorn every wall of Mike's Forest Retreat which is a museum of India's military greats are faint pictures of the PoW camp in Lhasa.

Brigadier Dalvi is known to have sent letters to his son that were censored by the Chinese. Some of those letters had advice about cricket.

"He had a photographic memory and had made a note of Chinese formations. I remember him siting and writing by hand. He had several sittings with Henderson-Brooks (to study the reasons of India's defeat in 1962), they had long lengthy meetings but the report never came out," says Michael Dalvi who played in the Ranji Trophy for Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Bengal, and for South Zone in the Duleep Trophy.

"We were given accommodation in Delhi and had a maid and cook sent from the Intelligence Bureau to keep a watch on us," says Michael Dalvi.

The insult to Brigadier Dalvi had begun as soon as he landed in Calcutta from Kunming in a Red Cross plane after his release in May 1963.

"He was sent to Ranchi and debriefed by a second lieutenant from Military Intelligence. That officer was so embarrassed because he was debriefing probably the most senior brigadier of the Indian Army."

The soldier's soldier that he was, Brigadier Dalvi was once again given the command of a brigade in the 1965 war with Pakistan.

His brigade major was Major Kuldeep Singh Brar who went on to command Operation Blue Star and retired as lieutenant general.

Lieutenant General Brar is an alumnus of Doon School like Michael Dalvi. The general's photo also finds a place among the military heroes at the resort.

There is also a picture of then Major General Sam Manekshaw sitting on the arm of then Colonel Dalvi's chair in the 4th Guards Regiment mess in Ferozepur, 1952-1953.

Both had served in Burma in World War II though the future field marshal was much senior to Brigadier Dalvi.

IMAGE: Photographs celebrating soldiers of the Gorkha Regiment. Photograph: Seema Pant/

"There were two enemies in Burma. The Japanese were the lesser of the two," says Michael Dalvi.

"The worst enemy were leeches that would suck your blood. Fighting a war in a tropical forest was tough. You did not know if you would live to see another day."

"My father went as a 21 year old and came out a tough guy. He was fearless."

"Indian troops played a great role in the defeat of the Germans and the Japanese. They're not extolled the way they should have been because somebody else wrote the history," says Michael Dalvi.

Three companies in the Indian Military Academy are named after battles won by Indian troops in World War II -- Kohima, Imphal and Meikteila (in present Myanmar).

IMAGE: Officers commissioned in 1941 into the Indian Army.

The Dalvis are Konkanis from Bamnoli near Ratnagiri, Maharashtra. Brigadier Dalvi's father worked with the British administration in Basra, IraqM where John Parshuram Dalvi was born in 1920.

He studied in Bombay and discontinued his studies at St Xavier's College to join the army at the outbreak of World War II. He competed for the Indian Military Academy and was commissioned in 1941.

A black and white picture of his batch is among the pictures at his son's resort.

He commanded the 4th battalion of the Guards Regiment.

Brigadier Dalvi served the Indian Army till 1967. He spent his later years writing his book which was banned by the government for the truths it told of the 1962 debacle.

He died a disillusioned man, aged just 54, at the naval hospital in Mumbai.

Yet, he remains undoubtedly, one of the Indian Army's most brilliant officers. If not for him, much of 1962 would have been shrouded in the miasma of falsehood and erroneous suppositions.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/