The year was 1962 and Nehru’s fantasy ridden myth of “Hindi Chini bhai bhai,” came crashing down, with the Chinese attack on India. Reared on the realpolitik of “power flows from the barrel of a gun,” the cynical Chinese needed no explanation to invade ruthlessly and occupy illegally.
A small village, Chushul, a pivotal frontier post near the border with China, found itself grappling with the new scourge. Chushul also had an airfield and an all-weather landing strip which had to be secure to retain Ladakh as part of India. Since Rezang-La was a crucial pass to Chushul, the Chinese had anticipated the intent of the Indian army to defend it with all they had. For the very same reason, the Chinese brazenly attempted to overwhelm and overrun Rezang-La with an element of surprise, factoring in their numerical and military superiority. But in their cold calculus of power, they had not anticipated the kinship forged by desperate men ready to defy death or their wild courage which cannot be silenced with guns or artillery.
Rezang-La set the stage for the most courageous of clashes in the military history of the subcontinent. The gripping tale of unsurpassed heroism made its way into the UNESCO’s list of eight stories of collective bravery. Military historians compare the saga of their valor to the famed battle of Thermopyle fought in 480 BC, and to the incredible battle of Saragarhi fought in North West Frontier Province where 21 men of the Sikh regiment fought 10,000 tribals on 12th September 1897.
It all began on the 18th of November, 1962, amidst the cold and barren beauty of Rezang La. There was a heavy snowfall, and a haunting silence engulfed the white landscape before it was rudely shattered by the Chinese attack.
The crisp, direct orders to India’s 13th Kumaon C Company, came reverberating through the uneasy silence of freezing Ladakh.
“Protect Chushul, slow down the hordes of advancing Chinese, and save as much ammunition as possible.”
It was a tall order even for the most well stocked army, but for the ill-equipped and ill-clothed soldiers of the 13th Kumoan C Company of the Indian army, it was nothing but a short ride to the valley of death. Poised at 18000 feet on the windy heights of Rezang La, a formidable pass to Chushul, the men knew what it meant. There were only 120 of them and there were over 5000 Chinese advancing from all sides with artillery and spectacular firepower. The order meant fighting with outdated World War 2 rifles, with frostbitten legs, little warm clothing at temperatures hovering at minus 30, and with hard-as-stone bread and vegetables for sustenance. Major Shaitan Singh, their remarkable captain, gave them a choice to leave. But not a single soldier chose to leave. Fueled by a creed of loyalty unto death, they chose to fight to the last man to defend the land of their fathers. Known for their legendary valor, the Ahirs (yadavs of the 13th Kumoan) hailing from the Ahir villages of Rewari, Haryana are famed for their lore that sparks the military creed of gallantry. Cornered from all sides, they still remained undeterred.
When the Chinese crept into Rezang-La amidst bitter swirls of wind and suffocating snow, they were promptly greeted with a hail of gunfire as soon as they came close to the Indian platoon. The gullies soon filled up with Chinese corpses. It was an unexpected setback as the Chinese had hoped to overrun the post with an element of surprise. But they had not bargained for the alert troops who had foreseen their intent to use snowfall as a cover to intrude. The enemy however did not give up. Another set of Chinese took their place and again they were repulsed. Two more attacks were also repulsed. When they failed in a frontal attack, they let loose deadly artillery under cover of which, they came in hordes like ants on white butter.
The Chinese were confident and with good reason. They had everything going for them. They had medium machine guns (MMG), self-loading rifles, light machine guns (LMG), rockets, bunker busting recoilless guns, and heavy engineering equipment. In addition they had tanks that came right up to the border near Rezang-la. The Indian jawans on the other hand had hopelessly outdated .303 Lee Enfield rifles used in World War 2, 6 LMG’s, a handful of 2 inch mortars, and old radio sets with batteries that often froze and hindered communications. Also, at such dizzying heights where the thin air has little oxygen, it was a Herculean task to dig the rocky boulder for defense without automatic digging tools. Moreover, in contrast to the battle- hardened Chinese trained for high altitude warfare, the Ahirs from the plains had no training regarding mountain warfare. There was no time, tools or manpower to lay anti-personnel mines and an intervening Geographical feature on their side prevented artillery support from reaching them.
The 13th Regiment thus fought with no artillery support, with depleting ammunition and with bayonets that could not pierce Chinese armor. It was an impossible mission for the Indians. Yet, the lion-hearted men would not think of giving up. Like the soldiers in “Charge of the Light Brigade,” they braved artillery to the front of them to the right of them, and to the left of them and still marched into the mouth of hell firing endlessly from their muskets.
By this time, the jawans were outnumbered and outgunned and moreover, they now faced giant waves of firepower. Unfazed, they continued fighting. When there were no weapons left they fought with bare hands killing as many of the enemy as they could. Their heroic commander, Major Shaitan Singh, an embodiment of the warrior ethic, “ours is but to do and die,” inspired, encouraged and led his men to give battle with everything they got. Huddled behind windswept crags amidst skies that blared with artillery, they fought back with the spirit of “give me battle or give me death.” Fueled by a patriotic zeal, the all-Ahir battalion fought savagely to the last man, to the last round and to the last bullet. Everyman on that day died a hero’s death and left the air dense with smoke and the crack of his last rifle fire.
Major Shaitan Singh’s body had several wounds as he bled to death behind a boulder. The Rajput Major bonded with the bold Ahir men and together they set up a ferocious resistance. Even when the Major was bleeding with several wounds with shots to his arm and abdomen, he did not stop. Moving from post to post, he kept up a continuous fire, as he encouraged and inspired his men. Excessive bleeding made his body weak, yet he refused assistance, moved himself behind a sheltering boulder and bled to death. Another daredevil wrestler, Naik Chandgi Ram, devoid of all weapons, charged at his enemy with a bayonet killing six to seven of them before he was brought down by bullets. Harpool Singh with three remaining survivors fought the enemy’s onslaught till death claimed him. Ram Kumar was hit by enemy fire as he was disabling the mortar section so that it would not fall into enemy hands. Severely wounded he still managed to shoot down scores of them. The incensed Chinese then attacked him with grenades and he was left bleeding for several hours before he regained consciousness and trekked his way back to headquarters with mounting pain as his silent companion. He spoke to his comrades at the battalion headquarters about the unsurpassed valor of the men who left the vivid air signed with their honor. A sorrowful buzz engulfed the solemn men, as unshed tears lined the sadness of their faces.
A survivor of the intense battle, Honorary Captain Ramchander Yadav described the last scenes in an interview to a leading newspaper. “When we were overrun — my saab was lying motionless, and I was wounded — I remembered what (Company Havaldar Major) Harphool (Singh) had said, 'Do not let the Chinese get their hands on Major saab's body.' So I opened the sling of the rifle and tied Major saab to myself with the belt, joining our bodies together at the waist. And then, slowly, I started to roll. I rolled for 400 yards, and then there was a nullah, after that boulders again. After rolling for 400 yards, I stopped near a boulder to catch my breath. I was thinking that the Company headquarters are below, so I should try to somehow get a couple of people from there to help me, so I can take saab down. But when it was 8.15 by his watch, I noticed that the Major saab was no longer alive. I took off the Major's gloves, and slid his body between boulders to hide it, so that it remained safe until someone could come to fetch it. Then I made my way down. I came down about a kilometre, to the point from where our rations were supplied. I saw that the quarter master's depot was in flames. Haan, Company to khatm ho hi gayi thi... And then I saw one of our jeeps, with the occupants signalling to me. I moved towards them. Since I was the only one who returned alive from that battle, nobody believed me at first. In Delhi, my commander said I had gone crazy, and warned me that I could be court-martialled, he said we could not have killed that many Chinese.” Yadav’s account was verified by visiting the site.
Another survivor, Havaldar Nihal Singh reminisces about that fateful day. “I cannot sleep when those scenes come to my mind. It has been over 50 years, yet it seems the war has just taken place.” He was handling LMG for the company commander’s protection and as the bullets rained on him, the soldier in him would not give up. “I disassembled the LMG and threw it so that the enemy could not use it. I was in terrible pain. My body was still. After some time, they pulled me out from the bunker. They asked my name in English. They asked for the names of my Commanding Officer and Brigade Commander. I refused to reply. And then they asked me to go for first aid by communicating in sign language. They took me to their post around 5 p.m. I could see their artillery on the other side of the ditch. I thought of running but waited. The soldiers who took me in custody were walking around and talking. By then it became dark and it occurred to me that I should run. I slowly sneaked out from there. When I walked almost 500 metres, they fired three shots in the air. On November 19, around 1 p.m., I reached the headquarters. On November 22, we were admitted to a hospital in Jammu where we were treated.”
The freezing snow and bleak winds froze the last action of the soldiers, just before their deaths. And time and nature formed a snowy mural. A shepherd wandering into the area a couple of months later witnessed the last fierce actions of the jawans. The dead men covered with snow told their tale. Many of them had died fighting impossible odds with several bullet and splinter wounds. There were jawans with their bayonets in their hands, in a crouching position, with bullets in their chest, dead, but still holding the naked bayonet in a fighting stance. A bomb was still in the hands of the jawan manning the 2 inch mortars. The medicine man had a syringe and bandage when he was brought down by a bullet. In the trenches there were several soldiers still holding on to their weapons. Some of them were found attacking their enemies, who were lying dead next to them. The intense enemy fire blew away most of the weapons, leaving only the butt of the rifles in the jawan’s hands. Bullet wounds were found on the chest of every soldier but none on their backs.
When Yadav tried hard to convince his political masters in Delhi that he and his comrades had killed over 1200 Chinese, they remained skeptical and even threatened him with a court martial. However the painful iconic tableau depicting the last hour of the famous battle in sculptured white, shook the tottering regime in Delhi to skip the court martial idiocy and honor the dead. For even they could see and acknowledge that it was an incredible battle fought by incredible men.
When the battle ended, 114 were martyred, five became prisoners of war, four of them escaped, one died in captivity and one was sent by the bold captain to tell the story to the world. Out of 1000 mortar bombs, 993 had been fired, as there were no soldiers left to fire the last seven. The mournful sky and earth, witness to their immense courage in an unequal battle, echoed the words of a TIME magazine article, “The Indian army needs almost everything except courage.”
Such was the battle of Rezang La where every soldier fought against overwhelming odds and halted the momentum of the enemy assault. One by one they died at their posts firing away till the last shot was fired and the last soldier bled to death in the icy heights. Before their heroic deaths, the 13th Kumaon C Company killed around 1200 Chinese, with each soldier bringing down at least 10 of their enemy. The ferocious battle changed the course of the war by halting the advance of the Chinese hordes, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy, and allowing time for others to fortify their defences. Because of the overwhelming resistance, the Chinese could not capture Chushul that day. Within 3 days, on November 21, the Chinese declared a unilateral cease fire.
Shaitan Singh was honored with a Param Vir Chakra and his body was flown to his hometown in Jodhpur where he received a hero’s welcome. Eight more jawans were given the Vir Chakra while four others received the Sena medal. And 13 Kumoan proudly wore their award, “The battle honor Rezang La.” The dead soldiers were cremated with full honors in Chushul.
A Roman soldier who fought with the same grit as 13 Kumoan, was eulogized in an immortal poem “Horatious” by Thomas McCaulay. The most striking lines from the poem are engraved at the memorial at Chushul capturing the moving spirit of the battle.
And how can a man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his father
And the temples of his Gods.