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When Chai Came to the Land of the Morning Calm

Monday, September 17th, 2012

The English soldier regained consciousness while flat on his back on a cot in a battlefield medical unit. Still groggy from the shell that had landed close by, he expected to see a white face unfolding bandages. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised to observe a man in a turban holding out a cup of tea. That special drink was and is still called chai, the word that Indians give to the khaki colored, sweet and strong libation with a real kick.

These days, affluent South Koreans sip chai in one of the many Starbucks cafes that dot the country, which has since risen to be the world’s 11th largest economy. This tea first entered Korea during the war, when Indian medical personnel offered it to wounded UN/Commonwealth soldiers to help revive them from battlefield trauma. Chai then disappeared from South Korea for decades until the Seattle-based Starbucks chain added it to its menu to appeal to South Koreans with -- literally -- a taste for the exotic.

As we commemorate fifty years of relations between India and South Korea, it is necessary to recall the important -- and colorful -- contribution of the former to the latter’s success. India is most famous among Western soldiers for dispatching the Indian Army’s 60th Parachute Field Ambulance Platoon that used chai as medicine. But among scholars, the Indian name that stands out is that of diplomat K.M. Panikkar. First lets set some context. On June 27, 1950, two days after North Korea invaded South Korea, American President Harry Truman ordered the US 7th Fleet to steam into the Taiwan Strait to defend the Guo Min Dang regime, an ally, from the risk of China attacking. By then, communist China was raptly watching events. On September 30, Zhou warned the Washington that “the Chinese people will not tolerate foreign aggression....” In fact, the ex-Soviet archives have since proven that the north started the war.

Enter the Indian diplomat Sardar Kavalam Madhava Panikkar, more commonly known as K.M. Panikkar. He was born in 1895 and enjoyed an illustrious career as a journalist, scholar, historian, administrator, playwright, novelist and diplomat. Panikkar had sharpened his mind at Oxford and read for the bar at the Middle Temple in London before he returned to India. He taught at the University of Calcutta, a nerve center for India’s robust intellectual class that centered on the state of Bengal. The influential newspaper the Hindustan Times took him on as an editor in 1925.

In 1947, the Indian people regained their independence from England and India appeared as a free country and republic on the world stage. No longer would London, a distant and foreign city, make foreign and defense policy decisions for 350 million Indians.

Now Panikkar’s talents were more fully recognized and he became the Indian ambassador to China during the years 1948 -1952. After that, he also served in Egypt, which was a leader of the non-aligned movement that opposed backing either superpower America or Russia. He also later presented his credentials in France. In his book called Two Chinas, which appeared in 1955, Panikkar exposed his leanings for the new China of Mao Zedong. In those years, India and China were close friends and even hailed each other as “brothers.” To be sure, it was half a decade before the war that revealed and deepened the difference between the two ancient Asian countries. But it was in Beijing that he played a role in the Korean conflict.

That transpired when Zhou warned through friendly countries such as India that mainland China would act to safeguard China’s security on the peninsula. However, Truman regarded the message that Panikkar passed along as “a bald attempt to blackmail the UN” -- and dismissed it. China and the US-led UN army went on to fight for close to two and half years for control of the peninsula. In fact, the combined UN army defeated North Korean regime in the fall of 1950, liberating Pyongyang, and unifying some 90 percent of the peninsula. But then China’s counter intervention that Panikkar had warned about drove the Western forces as far south as Daejon. It was the single longest military retreat in US army history. As for the medical unit, what are the essential facts about it? Its efforts went far beyond what the term “platoon” suggests. It was closer to a mobile army surgical hospital known in the West as a MASH unit.

The commander was Lieutenant Colonel A.G. Rangaraj. He and his brave men swung into action on December 4, 1950 in Pyongyang. At that time, the US 8th Army was retreating from the north after China’s entry. The Indian unit officially played the role of the medical evacuation unit for the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade and it aided this unit throughout the war. The Indians nobly put aside the centuries of imperialism they had suffered under the English to save lives.

Very soon, Rangaraj’s actions won the respect and even affection of the troops from the English Commonwealth countries because they provided excellent medical care and its men showed courage, even under fire. Just about all the Commonwealth soldiers evacuated from the Korean War battlefield passed through the Indian unit’s hands before being sent to better facilities. In an important note, some members of the 60th Indian Field Ambulance Platoon actually parachuted the U.S. 187th Regimental Combat Team at Munsan-ni on March 22, 1951.

South Koreans are nowadays recalling these Indian contributions to the war effort. For instance, in November 2011, Seoul sent the so-called Little Angels children’s entertainment troupe to India as a way of lionizing the Indian medical units. As for Panikkar, he remains one of India’s most famous diplomats. Although his aforementioned warning to Washington was correct, the latter was too intent on a complete victory, meaning the destruction of the North Korean regime and unification of Korea, to heed it.

So the next time you find yourself sipping a steaming cup of spicy chai in a Seoul cafe, face southwest toward India and raise the cup in a salute to the Indian medics who nobly assisted the UN soldiers.

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