On this 75th Indian Independence Day, I could not find a better way to express my gratitude and pay tribute to all the freedom fighters who brought us this day and to the valiant soldiers of India who risk their lives defending our nation to keep our flag unfurled. Breaking the sequence of the series of my blog posts on Ladakh, today I share my emotional experience of visiting the Rezang La war memorial in Chushul. This is where the 120 heroes of the Charlie Company of the 13 Kumaon led by Major Shaitan Singh fought a fierce high-altitude battle against the marauding PLA troops to save the Chushul garrison in 1962 Sino-India war.
The war memorial was newly revamped and inaugurated by the Union defence minister Rajnath Singh on 18th November 2021 to commemorate the 59th anniversary of the Rezang La battle. We were here on our way to Hanle from Pangong lake. I had little to no idea that this route to Hanle would bring us to the place. A place that gave me goosebumps, not because of the prevailing cold but from discovering the heroic deed of the brave soldiers of the 13 Kumaon Battalion. It was not just the past story of the 1962 war that was depicted in various ways in the museum but also the recent story of the 2020-2021 Indo-China encounter, narrated by the soldiers on duty.
“How can a man die better,
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And temples of his gods.
To the sacred memory of
the heroes of Rezang-La
114 martyrs of 13 Kumaon
to the last man last round
against hordes of Chinese
18 November 1962.
Built by all ranks
13th Battalion the Kumaon Regiment.” – This was the inscription on the Ahir Dham.
The Indian flag was fluttering in the chilly winds when our hearts became heavy watching the Ahir Dham, where the sacred ashes of the martyrs were laid. Paying our tribute to the flag and the soldiers we entered the museum cum gallery on the left. The gallery had displays of the basic weapons that were used by the Indian side in the war against the powerful ones used by the Chinese. There were a few representations of hand dwell between the soldiers of the two nations. There was a topography map which showed the areas (marked in red) that the Chinese have captured during the 1962 war. There were pictures of the brave soldiers along with the story of their acts of bravery in the war.
As we moved through the gallery we spoke to the soldier who was our guide to the place from the beginning. He was from Uttrakhand and belonged to the Punjab battalion posted here for two years. His battalion’s posting is supposed to end in the next three months and their next posting would be in Shimla. With all these chit-chats we reached the last part of the gallery. The soldier who was accompanying us through the displays switched on the screen for us to watch a video. This soul-stirring video had the magical narration in the voice of Amitabh Bacchan. The video illustrated the extreme act of courage and bravery with which the 120 men of the 13 Kumaon fought against the mighty Chinese force to bring down more than 1000 enemy soldiers. They fought till their last bullet and the last breath.
It was a petrifying story that froze our souls and our bodies. The pain and the pride stirred us from within we were high on our patriotic emotions. It was tough to hold my tears. I read about the 1962 war before but never in such detail. I learned about the disparity in the number of soldiers, the arms and ammunition between the two sides and also the disregard of the existing treaty by the enemy side. India, the then newly formed nation was not prepared to get into a war at that time but to protect its territory. It was the sheer willpower and the bravery of the soldiers here and in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh that forced the Chinese to declare a ceasefire. (Read my story on Tawang.)
Rezang La also known as Rechin La is a mountain pass in the Chushul region of Ladakh. This strategic location is on the eastern watershed ridge of Chusul valley which is now the actual line of control between India and Aksai China. On the other side is the Spanggur Lake basin which is administered by the Chinese. Around 3km from this location in Rezang Lungpa pass, the fierce battle of 1962 was held where the 13 Kumaon fought till the last man standing.
The battle was held at the harrowing height of 18000 ft where temperatures go down way below zero. The 13 Kumaon regiment was in charge of the defence of Chushul. The Ahir C Company of 120 men headed by Major Shaitan Singh deployed his three platoons across the two-kilometre range keeping eye on the enemy attack. Early on 18th November 1962, the attack began from the enemy side with an intention to block the road link between Leh and Chushul via Dungti and isolate the garrison in Chushul starving them out of supplies and finally surrendering the post.
The C Company fought bravely with three-inch mortars, rifles, bayonets and bare hands without any artillery or air support even after being hit by bullets, splinters and shrapnel. Fatally injured, our soldiers retaliated by firing back and efficiently bringing down huge numbers of enemy soldiers. In this mele, Major Shaitan Singh was gravely injured while many of his men laid their lives fighting and saving their position, holding their weapons in their hands.
Quoting a paragraph from the book ‘Param Vir, Our Heroes in Battle’ by Major-General Ian Cardozo that aptly described the post-war scenario. “When Rezang La was later revisited dead jawans were found in the trenches still holding on to their weapons… every single man of this company was found dead in his trench with several bullets or splinter wounds. The 2-inch mortar man died with a bomb still in his hand. The medical orderly had a syringe and bandage in his hands when the Chinese bullet hit him… Of the thousand mortar bombs with the defenders, all but seven had been fired and the rest were ready to be fired when the (mortar) section was overrun.”
It was difficult to hold back the tears after watching the video. We were then escorted to the other gallery on the right where there were graphical illustrations of every hero of the 13 Kumaon with their name, designation and their native place written below. The central stage was taken by Major Shaitan Singh who was awarded the posthumous Paramvir Chakra for his act of bravery. I spoke to the soldier regarding the recent 2020-2021 standoff between the two nations and their assignment at that time. He told showing us the surrounding mountains, they were all holding alert positions on those hills (pointing his fingers to the nearby hills.) The land beyond the hill is under Chinese control.
“On the night of 29th August 2020, the Indian Army carried out the occupation of Kailash Range on the LAC in response to the large-scale mobilisation by the PLA. This marked the beginning of ‘Op Snow Leopard’.
Rezang La was reoccupied for the first time since November 1962. Remnants of the fierce battle of Rezang La were still found scattered around bearing witness to the unparalleled saga of valour, bravery and sacrifice of the Indian soldiers who fought the Chinese on 18 November 1962.
This memorial was built by the soldiers of the 8 Kumaon at the site where Major Shaitan Singh, PVC is believed to have been mortally wounded while leading the gallant Ahirs of the ‘C’ Company 13 Kumaon in the Epic Battle of Rezang La.”
It sounded tantalizing to us but he narrated it so casually like it was just another normal day of work. Our respect for our soldiers increased in multifold. We could not be more grateful to them and we had no word to express our gratitude. At the end of this gallery, there was a souvenir store and cafeteria for the visitors. To lighten our heavy mood we purchased a few souvenirs and coffee. Sipping our coffee we spoke to the soldier there. He also belonged to the Punjab regiment. (Meanwhile, we were in a no-network zone.) I asked him about the mode of communication with their respective families, and he said each of them travels to the nearby village that is a few kilometres away from here to get the connection (only BSNL postpaid service works) and talk to their family once every day.
Their families must be waiting throughout the day for the call time to share the nitty-gritty of daily life. It was tough for me to place myself in their position. These Bravehearts sacrifice every aspect of regular life for their duty – the duty to protect the nation and its citizens, the duty to protect the sovereignty and integrity of the nation, and the duty to protect the freedom that we enjoy. On this Independence Day, as a civilian, I proudly take an oath to do my part to be an honest and a good citizen. Let our countrymen grow beyond hatred, let our country unite, let our country prosper in every field and let there be happiness among all. Happy Independence Day to all Indians. Jai Hind!