Strangely forgotten: on Rezang La

A recent visit to a school in Dehradun to participate in a military history seminar drew attention again to the tenacious Indian indifference to history in general and recent military history in particular.

My panel was on the India-China relationship and the temporal review was from the traumatic border war of October-November 1962 to the more recent face-off at Doklam. A brief conversation with the students and the teachers highlighted one of the abiding omissions in the Indian school curriculum — the near total absence of recent Indian military history. Recall, if any, is through Bollywood!

No recall

Various reasons were advanced for such omission but one major gap is the lack of an adequate body of work by way of well-researched books by professional Indian historians that could have been distilled for school children. A wry observation is that there are more books on the 1857 War for Independence (aka the Sepoy Mutiny in the British discourse) than the wars the Indian military was compelled to engage in after August 1947.

The 1962 border war with China receives episodic attention and it remains a traumatic memory for the Indian collective. This year marks the 55th anniversary of that chapter of national history, and the lack of public debate on it is depressing. The brief war has a boiler-plate Indian narrative to it that has acquired an inflexible index of certitude, wherein China is the aggressor and India the hapless victim. The Chinese narrative has its own contour, dwelling in the main on Indian perfidy and the arrogance of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Emotive nationalism has rendered the narratives on both sides more sacred and, equally, more brittle with every passing year.


The younger generation in India, that is those born after 1980, may not even recall the border war with China except in a hazy manner. However, it merits recall that those responsible for national security at the highest level in government proved to be inept, ignorant and arrogant in the defence management of the country. Nehru was broken by this episode, unable to come to terms with what had transpired. This is evidenced in the manner that the Henderson-Brooks report undertaken by the Army was not tabled in Parliament — in fact, it has still not been declassified.

The more unsavoury part of the history of the 1962 war was the role played by then Defence Minister, Krishna Menon, and his acolytes in the Army, led by Lt. General B.M. Kaul. But there is another aspect to the recall of the war and that is the forgotten heroism and gallantry of the Indian soldier in the face of extreme adversity.

Anecdotal fragments from that war refer to the grim and unpardonable reality of the Indian soldier, poorly clad in the cold and harsh terrain, marching up the icy heights of the Himalayas with ancient .303 rifles to face a much better equipped Chinese army.

Heroism at Rezang La

Despite such deficiencies, from Nathu La in 1962 to Kargil in 1999, the Indian soldier has remained stoic and steadfast in his commitment. Specific to the 1962 war, there were many acts of gallantry of the highest order, and regrettably they are little remembered today. One battle often recalled by professionals is that fought by a company of 13 Kumaon at Rezang La in the Ladakh region on November 18, 1962. Gallantry in battle cannot be meaningfully quantified, much less compared but the odds were against the 123 men led by Major Shaitan Singh and all but 14 died, rifle in hand, in battle position as the Chinese overwhelmed them. Their bodies were discovered only in January 1963 by a local shepherd, and it was then that the texture of their indomitable heroism became discernible.

Independent India has faced many challenges to national security and territorial integrity, beginning with the war for Kashmir in October 1947 and through the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008. The need to introduce an appropriate capsule in the school curriculum should need little reiteration, but it has remained elusive for more than half a century. Can this project begin now?

C. Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore, is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2020 3:03:29 PM |

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