It was the best of times for the Pakistani invaders in August 1948. After an orgy of looting in Kashmir, they were perched only 10 miles from Leh, the capital of Ladakh. They licked their lips with gusto as they envisioned the treasures of Buddhist monasteries and becoming masters of Ladakh comprising 70% of the land mass of Kashmir. It would be a cake walk as the Indian army was nowhere in sight, and the only supply route to Leh, the risky, snow-covered Zojila Pass at 11,575 feet was anything but passable. The Ladakhis at Skuru Nullah, the mouth of Ladakh seemed like sitting ducks ready to be slaughtered.
Suddenly, shots were heard. They came from different directions, deadly fire by expert snipers accompanied by fire and flares from several peaks. Shades of blue and red painted the serene sky and there was a deafening silence as the raiders pondered. “How many of the enemy was out there? Are they backed by the Indian army? How big is the army? How well are they armed? The only answer they got was the breathtaking stillness of a spectacular land.
The Pakistanis were clearly puzzled and ceased their hostilities for a few days. But the Ladakhis knew who was defending them. For he was none other than their own Chewang Rinchen, a 17 year old Ladakhi imbued with the youthful valor of Abhimanyu. With an irregular band of 28 friends trained by the army (Nubra guards), he held the raiders at bay for 1 month and 23 days. Between them, they had only 20 rifles, and 50 rounds of ammunition per rifle. With an uncanny mountain sense and sharp instincts, he and his friends, fired shots and set fires from several places to give an impression that there was a huge number of men and material ready to defend Ladakh. It worked. The Pakistanis did not attack for 8 days giving them valuable time to recruit more men and galvanize the youth of Skuru to take up arms. And when the raiders finally found their nerve to launch heavy mortar machine gun attack, they were more than ready. They retaliated fiercely and harshly and inflicted heavy casualties on the invaders, and kept them occupied until a regiment of Gurkhas came to their help.
Thus Leh was saved by the miraculous blend of valor and skill of the daring warrior Rinchen. For his exemplary bravery he was awarded the Mahavir chakra (MVC), the youngest winner of MVC in the Indian army and in the nearly 200-year History of British army. He also received another MVC for his adventurous foray into West Pakistan and capturing 800 sq. meters of land in the Turtuk sector during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Mohammed Yusuf Abadi, the Pakistani commander leading Gilgit scouts, stated in his memoir titled “Baltistan par ek nazar”, that “our intelligence revealed that our repeated attacks were foiled by the personal valor of a 17 year old boy Chewang Rinchen. Had we succeeded in Skuru, there would have been no obstacle to our capturing Leh.”
The war continued, and Ladakh was finally saved when the legendary General Thimayya moved tanks through the formidable Zojila Pass in what has become a much acclaimed military feat, the first in the annals of warfare. In November 1948, Rinchen marched on capturing peak after peak all the way to Baltistan recovering all the land lost to the raiders when Nehru ordered the treacherous ceasefire and took the matter to the U.N. Rinchen was distraught; a few weeks more and Baltistan would have become part of India. Today thousands of Chinese are sitting on Baltistan and Gilgit, building roads, tunnels and highways and bleeding India’s psyche through their incursions.
Rinchen was not the only daredevil hero who fought overwhelming odds and delivered death to the enemy. Major Sonam Wangchuk and his men from the Ladakh scouts captured a key ridge on the line of control (LOC) during the Kargil war. The Pakistanis were well-armed and perched comfortably on the 18,000 feet high feature. Moreover, 6 to 7 km beyond the LOC, there were about 2000 to 3000 Pakistanis about whose presence, the Government had no indication of. In addition 135 men had pitched their tents close to the LOC and were moving up the mountains to provide support and reinforcements. Sonam Wangchuk and his 25 men wasted no time. After firing shots at the Pakistanis who were climbing up, he and his men scaled the steep icy walls of the mountain, a distance of 8 km in 2 and a half hours. Braving devastating bursts of fire, keeping his cool even in horrific danger, and taking advantage of a benevolent mist, he and his men crawled to the top, opened fire and wrested the 18,000 feet high ridge from the belligerent Pakistanis. For his gallant valor, Sonam Wangchuk was awarded the MVC.
The Ladakhis have a natural gift. Like the mountain goat they can climb mountains with ease. Their fast pace is unmatched as they are acclimatized to the harsh winds and freezing cold. Since they are skilled mountain warriors, they survive in the cold, march longer on less food, and possess an all-round fitness, unsurpassed in high altitude operations. The Indian Army’s Ladakh scouts are famed fighters nicknamed “Snow Tigers” and is one of the Army’s most decorated units with more than 300 gallantry awards to its credit including one Ashok Chakra, ten MVCs and two Kirti chakras. They are considered the “eyes and ears” of the Indian Army, and have served the nation under the most inhospitable high altitude and arctic weather conditions with a heroic zeal and steely determination.
“Mission Impossible” is a stance that never crosses the Ladakhi mind. Even ordinary Ladakhis display exemplary grit. A porter named Stanza Padma rescued two army soldiers trapped under an avalanche of snow. Also on December 6, 2012, Padma saved his colleague and porter Nima Norboo who had fallen into a 200 feet deep crevasse while operating a trolley for the army. It took 20 hours of nerve racking effort for Padma to rescue Nima Norboo, who was barely surviving in the artic like weather. Nima came out alive but was racked with traumatic head surgery, suffered amputation of both legs and the left hand due to frostbite. After months of treatment at the army hospital, he was left to fend for himself, a broken man without even an artificial limb. He had 2 small children, no means of survival and remained despondent. Walking through the minefield of his life, he was given a ray of hope when Lt. Gen Rakesh Sharma recognized his sacrifices, provided justice and honored him for his exceptional contributions to the national security. And there are many such civilian heroes, who provide the army with logistics often under risky and frigid conditions. Fortunately, the army has started the process of recognizing and awarding them. The first of its kind, a civilian hero, Rizgin Tangay from Demchok, widely known for his welfare and development activities and for dealing with Chinese intrusions, was awarded by the army.
The Ladakhi heart beats for India. Yet, except for the army, such bravery goes unnoticed. In spite of their unsurpassed skill as mountain warriors and tremendous contribution to almost every war fought in Indian soil, they are forced to pander to the separatist-fueled goons of the Abdullah dynasty. While the Kashmir valley bats for Pakistan and agitates for a separate flag for the state, the Ladakhis salute the Indian flag with reverence. They are especially proud of the Ashoka chakra, an emblem of the Buddhist king Ashoka. Frustrated by the center’s apathy and neglect in considering their interests, they were forced to agitate for Union territory status. They sought autonomy from the valley not from India. Many of the patriotic Ladakhis lament that 1947 did not confer freedom for Ladakh, but enslavement to the dynastic rulers of Kashmir valley. In 1952, when Sheikh Abdullah presented the state’s budget to the constituent assembly, Ladakh was not even mentioned.
Ladakh is the most strategic region of India facing two enemies, Pakistan and China. Since, the crucial heights of Siachen are also located here, there can be no alternative but to address Ladakhi aspirations. A start can be made by opening all-weather roads to the capital Leh, and opening the ancient pilgrimage route to Kailash in Tibet which will help boost tourism and the economy. Connectivity is a gigantic problem as the two main highways are closed for more than seven months of the year due to heavy snow.
After several years of peaceful agitation, the Ladakhis were allowed to form an Autonomous Hill Development Council (AHDC) in 1995. However under the boot of Srinagar, the valley has the numbers to block any changes favorable to Ladakhis. Therefore, it is imperative for Ladakh to form a separate state or become autonomous from Kashmir valley. The creation of a Ladakhi party with a shrill voice that can be heard in Delhi and all over India will also go a long way in addressing their concerns. Removing Article 370 will hasten the process of integration of Ladakh with the rest of India.
Somebody in Delhi should wake up and scrap the destructive motto coined by the delusional Nehru, “we cannot afford to antagonize Srinagar.” The separatists of Kashmir valley ready and willing to join Pakistan is pampered and appeased to no end, while the patriotic Ladakhis who want to integrate with India is given the third degree treatment, their voices lost in the din of political correctness and international pressures. They feel betrayed and rightfully ask, “What have the Kashmiris done to deserve so much attention and advantages.”
For the Ladakhi, the turning wheel of justice has been forced to rest. The army’s efforts, though laudable, are just a band aid for a deepening fracture between Ladakh and the Kashmir valley. The formidable tangle of mountains and the freezing heights of Siachen along with its inhospitable borders cannot be sustained without the brave and patriotic Ladakhis. Delhi cannot afford to fiddle while Ladakh burns in frustration. Neither can the nation’s media look the other way.
Rizgin Tangay summed it all up, “the next generation will not live along the border due to the apathy of the Government.” And if that doesn’t jolt the politicians of Delhi from their flights of fancy, then it’s a matter of time before the nation mourns with the saddest lyrics in History, “I wish we had the nerve to be grateful.”