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120 Indian Soldiers Fought Off 5000 Chinese in 1962 at Rezang La—and None Believed It

Maj. Shaitan Singh’s body was found at the same spot where his loyal soldiers had left him. He was still resting against the boulder, his entire body except his face covered in snow, writes Kulpreet Yadav in the book.

Maj. Shaitan Singh’s body was found at the same spot where his loyal soldiers had left him. He was still resting against the boulder, his entire body except his face covered in snow, writes Kulpreet Yadav in the book.

The Army had initially refused to accept the account of the survivors, who were merely following the last order of their commander, Maj. Shaitan Singh.

In the first week of February 1963, a Ladakhi shepherd happened to visit Rezang La. The temperature was still fluctuating between minus 10 and minus 20 degrees Celsius and it was too early for the predators to start hunting for food. The entire moonscape of Rezang La was as white and as frigid as it was on the morning of the battle on 18 November 1962.

This shepherd was the first Indian to witness the closing stages of the battle turned into a frozen tableau. Right in front of his eyes were the frozen bodies of the Indian jawans still standing in their trenches with their weapons pointed towards the east.

He quickly informed the Indian Army unit at Chushul. The information reached the headquarters in Delhi in no time and a search party was organized. Several officers and jawans of the Indian Army, including Brig. T.N. Raina, and Red Cross representatives were part of this search party that trekked to Rezang La from the base of Rezang La Pass, where once the Charlie Company’s administrative base was located.

One of the members of this search party was Capt. Kishori Lal. In an essay published in The Gods of Valour, he records his first impressions on arrival at Rezang La as follows: ‘We reached Rezang La on 10 February 1963. There we saw the brave sons of mother Bharat sleeping in eternal sleep. We saw there was a heavy bombardment that the Chinese had done to wipe them out. There were deep pits all around. We picked up blind bombs and weighed them. Most of them were over 80 pounds. Each body of our valiant soldiers there had over thirty–thirty-five bullet wounds. As many as forty seven bullets had sunk into Jemadar (Naib Subedar) Hari Ram’s body. On one bunker shield, we counted 759 bullet holes.’

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The following excerpt from the official account of the Kumaon Regiment of the Indian Army provides more details: ‘No bunker in Rezang La was found intact, corrugated iron sheets were found in bits, the ballies (wooden poles/logs used for making temporary shelters) had been reduced to matchwood sticks, and the sandbags were just shreds. But there was no sign of panic or withdrawal. Every single jawan was found dead in his trench; each had several bullets or splinter wounds, still holding their weapons; broken light machine guns/rifles bore witness to the intensity of the enemy fire. Jemadar (Naib Subedar) Hari Ram was found with a bandage on his head. He had apparently tied it in a hurry while rushing from one of his sections to another and was killed there: the body, when received, was still in crouching position.’

The rescuers who visited Rezang La on 10 February 1963 were speechless.

Brig. T.N. Raina called his subordinate from the search party and said, ‘I want everything to be photographed. After that, make a list of the martyred jawans you can identify.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘We will cremate these bahadur jawans today itself.’

‘Sir, here?’

‘Yes, right here. This land belongs to us because of these brave patriots. And there should be a memorial here for every Indian to visit and pay his respects.’

‘Yes, sir.’

That evening, the bodies of ninety-six soldiers of the Charlie Company were recovered from Rezang La and they were cremated with full military honours amid the chanting of Vedic mantras. Brig. T.N. Raina lit the combined funeral pyre of the soldiers with his own hands.

Those present recall that everyone had tears in their eyes. Brig. T.N. Raina, who would later rise to become the chief of army staff, got so emotional that he had to remove his prosthetic eye for relief.

The Army had initially refused to accept the account of the survivors, who were merely following the last order of their commander, Maj. Shaitan Singh. But mother nature had preserved the last stand of the brave soldiers as it is. There were no more doubts in the mind of the senior officers now. There were no more threats about court martials. They had seen it for themselves and realized that every word that the survivors had spoken was true.

Maj. Shaitan Singh’s body was found at the same spot where his loyal soldiers had left him. He was still resting against the boulder, his entire body except his face covered in snow. It seemed as if the brave officer, outstanding tactician and admired leader, was taking a bit of rest before getting up and thundering with his command to destroy the Chinese.

***

China attacked India on 20 October 1962. Six office bearers, who were holding the top positions of decision-making in New Delhi, were not present at their offices in the final few months before the attack. Who are these and where were they? Let’s start from the top. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru left New Delhi on 8 September 1962 to attend the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference and returned on 2 October 1962, but once again departed on 12 October 1962 for Colombo from where he returned only on 16 October 1962, i.e., just four days before the war.

The defence minister, Krishna Menon, was in New York from 17 September 1962 to 30 September 1962 to attend the UN General Assembly meeting. Lt Gen. B.M. Kaul, the Chief of General Staff, was on holiday in Kashmir till 2 October 1962, and the Director of Military Operations (DMO), Brig. D.K. Palit, was away on a cruise on the naval aircraft carrier Vikrant.

This underlines the government’s apathy towards nation’s security resulting from a complete intelligence failure. Then there were interpersonal issues. Like, Jawaharlal Nehru didn’t trust Krishna Menon when it came to China due to the latter’s leftist leanings and therefore, the prime minister had ordered certain matters to be brought up directly to him.

Lt Gen. B.M. Kaul and Krishna Menon were not on talking terms as explained by Brig. D.K. Palit in his memoirs. Gen. P.N. Thapar was in awe of Lt Gen. B.M. Kaul due to the latter’s proximity to Jawaharlal Nehru, who was also related to Gen. Kaul. These interpersonal issues further compounded the organizational structure at the top. Therefore, on ground, the only thing that the army had in 1962 was the raw courage and a will to lay down their lives to protect the nation. On the flip side, however, had China not attacked India in 1962, the top political masters would have never woken up and their continued indifference and mutual mistrust would have cost us a lot more in the subsequent wars.

This excerpt from The Battle of Rezang La by Kulpreet Yadav has been published with the permission of Penguin Random House

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first published:September 13, 2021, 13:26 IST