Few events in the annals of valour match the battle fought by 13 Kumaon’s C Company to safeguard a Ladakhi village during the 1962 India-China war

The greatest acts of heroism and valour often happen when the odds are hopeless and death and defeat are inevitable. Throughout history, nations have always glorified such episodes in ballads and poems, by honouring heroes and commemorating such events. It is the common perception of such episodes in a people’s history that forge a sense of nationhood. Why else would we celebrate the deaths of a Prithviraj Chauhan or a Tipu Sultan? Or a Porus or a Shivaji who battled great armies with little more than a handful of brave comrades and immense courage? Of course we rejoice in the triumphs of an Ashoka or Chandragupta or even an Akbar, but that is about greatness and not heroism.

Even if it is true that the end of history is at hand, we can be sure that the annals of heroism will never cease being written. However endless these may be, the heroic stand of C Company of the 13 Kumaon at Rezang La on November 18, 1962 will always remain a more glorious chapter. The monument that stands at Chushul asks: “How can a man die better/Than facing fearful odds/For the ashes of his fathers/And the temples of his gods.” C Company was fighting for neither ashes nor temples, for there were none at Chushul. The loss of Chushul would not even have had much bearing on the ultimate defence of Ladakh. But in those dark days of 1962, Chushul became a matter of national honour.

Pivotal frontier point

Chushul is only 15 miles from the border as the crow flies and had an all-weather landing strip. It was the pivotal point of our frontier posts in this sector as it was astride the second route into Tibet from Leh about 120 miles further west. The road built after 1962 rises to nearly 17,000 feet, crossing the Ladakh range at the desolate and windblown Chang La pass, steeply descends into Tangtse and then goes on to Chushul. Between the Chang La and Tangtse, the road traverses beautiful scenery with dramatic sightings of wildlife. Golden marmots dart in and out of their holes and in the distance you can sometimes spot a snow leopard warily keeping an eye on man as it stalks ibex on the craggy heights

Chushul is at 14,230 feet and a village in a narrow sandy valley about 25 miles long and four miles wide, flanked by mountains that rise to over 19,000 feet. At the northern end it touches the Pangong Tso, a deep saltwater lake nearly a hundred miles long and which makes for a glorious sight. Also near Chushul is a gap in the mountains called the Spanggur Gap that leads to a beautiful lake, the Spanggur Tso that, like the Pangong, extends well into Chinese territory. China had built a road from Rudok in Tibet right up to the Spanggur Gap capable of carrying tanks. In the first phase of their assault on Ladakh in October 1962, the Chinese had overrun Indian border posts on the line between Daulat Beg Oldi near the Karakoram Pass to Damchok astride the Indus on the border with Tibet. Chushul was the solitary Indian position east of the Ladakh range. Geography favoured the Chinese and they were able to make a major concentration of men and material for an attack on Chushul.

Till September 1962, the defence of all of Ladakh was vested with 114 Infantry Brigade commanded by Brig. T.N. Raina (later General and Chief of Army Staff). It consisted of just two infantry battalions, the 1/8 Gorkha Rifles and 5 Jat. Initially, only the Gorkhas were deployed in the Chushul sector and when the gravity of the Chinese threat was realised, 13 Kumaon, which was at Baramulla in the Kashmir Valley, was sent in to reinforce 114 Brigade. In the first week of October, the 3 Himalayan (later Mountain) Division was formed for the overall defence of Ladakh and the Chushul sector was entirely left to 114 Brigade. On October 26, 114 Brigade set up its headquarters at Chushul and braced for the attack.

The newly arrived 13 Kumaon began deploying on October 24 in the lull that followed the first phase of the attack. The forward defences of Chushul were on a series of hill features that were given evocative names such as Gurung Hill, Gun Hill and Mugger Hill. But C Company of 13 Kumaon got Rezang La which was about 19 miles south of Chushul. Rezang La, as the name suggests, is a pass on the southeastern approach to Chushul valley. The feature was 3,000 yards long and 2,000 yards wide and at an average height of 16,000 feet. Digging defensive positions and building shelters was hard going, for the men were still not acclimatised. Wintry winds made life even harder. At this altitude it took hours to bring a kettle to boil for tea. Whatever fruit and vegetables that came were frozen hard. Potatoes, even oranges, acquired weapon-grade hardness. More than the thin air and cold, the location of Rezang La had a more serious drawback. It was “crested” to Indian artillery because of an intervening feature. This meant defenders had to fight without the protective comfort of artillery. Both sides prepared feverishly, mostly within sight of each other, for the next attack, which came on that cold Sunday — November 18.

Most Kumaon battalions are mixed formations made up of hill men from the Kumaon Hills, Ahirs from Haryana and Brahmins from the northern plains. 13 Kumaon was the Kumaon Regiment’s only all Ahir battalion. The Ahirs, concentrated in the Gurgaon/Mewat region of Haryana, are hardy cattlemen and farmers. When the order to move to Chushul came, its commanding officer Lt. Col. H.S. Dhingra was in hospital. But he cajoled the doctors into letting him go with his men. Maj. Shaitan Singh, a Rajput from Jodhpur commanded C Company of 13 Kumaon. C Company’s three platoons were numbered 7,8 and 9 and had .303 rifles with about 600 rounds per head, and between them six light machine guns (LMG), and a handful of 2 inch mortars. The Chinese infantry had 7.62 mm self-loading rifles; medium machine guns and LMG’s; 120 mm, 81 mm and 60 mm mortars; 132 mm rockets; and 75 mm and 57 mm recoilless guns to bust bunkers. They were much more numerous and began swarming up the gullies to assault Rezang La at 4 a.m., even as light snow was falling.

The Ahirs waited till the Chinese came into range and opened up with everything they had. The gullies were soon full of dead and wounded Chinese. Having failed in a frontal attack the Chinese let loose deadly shelling. Under the cover of this intense shelling the Chinese infantry came again in swarms. C Company, now severely depleted, let them have it once again. Position after position fell fighting till the last man. C Company had three junior commissioned officers and 124 other ranks with Maj. Shaitan Singh. When the smoke and din cleared, only 14 survived, nine of them severely wounded. 13 Kumaon regrouped and 114 Brigade held on to Chushul. But the battalion war diary records that they were now “less our C Company.”

Ceasefire and after

The Chinese announced a unilateral ceasefire on November 21, but little more than what the survivors had brought back was known about C Company. In January 1963 a shepherd wandered on to Rezang La. It was as if the very last moment of battle had turned into a tableau. The freezing cold had frozen the dead in their battle positions and the snow had laid a shroud over the battlefield. Arrangements were then made to recover the dead under International Red Cross supervision. Brig. Raina led the Indian party, which recorded the scene for posterity with movie and still cameras. This tableau showed what had happened that Sunday morning. Every man had died a hero. Maj. Shaitan Singh was conferred the Param Vir Chakra. Eight more received the Vir Chakra while four others the Sena Medal. 13 Kumaon received “The battle honour Rezang La,” that it wears so proudly.

Few events in the annals of heroism can match this. C Company gave its all to defend Chushul, a small Ladakhi village, which for one brief moment in our history came to symbolise India’s national honour. At Thermopylae on September 18, 480 BC, 1,200 Greeks led by King Leonidas of Sparta died fighting the Persian King Xerxes’ mighty bodyguard called the Anusya or Companions. But Leonidas was fighting for a great prize. In July 481 BC, the Oracle of Delphi told him that in the next war with Persia either the King would die or Sparta be destroyed. Leonidas chose to die to save Sparta.

But C Company willingly sacrificed itself to save a little village and that makes its sacrifice all the more glorious. That is why we must never forget Rezang La.

mohanguru@gmail.com

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