Remembering Rezangla – Dr Kavita Suri

Fifty four years ago, Chushul sector in Ladakh witnessed heavy action in 1962 war between India and China. The scars from the humiliating defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian war are still fresh in our memories. However, Rezang La is perhaps the only point in the 1962 war that one can remember with pride. On 18th November same year that day, Rezang La in Chushul sector witnessed heroic resistance offered by Major Shaitan Singh and his jawans of 13th Kumaon on those icy heights of eastern Ladakh. Major Shaitan Singh was conferred with Param Vir Chakra posthumously for his heroic deeds in this battle.

Even though there are no official celebrations of the battle of Rezang La, it is remembered by the grateful nation. For the past few years, I had been hearing about Rezang La from my friends in the Army, particularly those from the Kumaon Regiment. And when I visited Ladakh  a few year ago, “a must see” included in my itinerary was Rezang La.

As the temperature dipped to minus 14 degrees Celsius and chilling winds made my bones freeze, I set out for Rezang La from Chushul, a small village where I was staying. After almost a two-hour drive through a dirt track, there was Rezang La Memorial.

Standing in isolation, the Rezang La War Memorial reads: “How can a Man die Better than facing Fearful Odds, For the Ashes of His Fathers and the Temples of His Gods”. The words bring tears to the eyes of the visitors when the battle is recounted by young Army officers posted in the area.

A pass situated in the south-eastern approach to Chushul valley, Rezang La is located almost on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China in Ladakh at a height of 16,000 feet. Here only a battle was fought by the Charlie Company of a battalion which was almost wiped out defending the borders with China in Ladakh.

Fifty four years ago when China attacked Ladakh in October 1962, 13 Kumaon was deployed in the Chushul sector and its C Company, led by Major Shaitan Singh, held a crucial position at Rezang La. The company area with a total of 118 men was defended by three platoon positions and the surrounding terrain isolated it from the rest of the battalion. Although they were well entrenched, they did not have mines as well as adequate overhead protection for the command posts.

Attacked on the morning of 18 November, Rezang La reverberated with the sound of rifles, light machine guns, grenades and mortars as Chinese targeted the brave soldiers of C Company of 13 Kumaon. A strong resistance by them resulted in heavy casualties to the enemy. Unsuccessful in frontal attack, the Chinese comprising about 400 soldiers, attacked from the rear of the company position resorting to heavy artillery and mortar shelling.

Major Shaitan Singh, the Company Commander, son of a Lt.-Colonel from Rajasthan, displayed exemplary leadership and courage in the battle of Rezang La. Moving from one platoon post to another; he encouraged his men to fight. While moving among the posts he was seriously wounded. While he was being evacuated by the soldiers, the Chinese brought heavy machine-gun fire on them.

Sensing danger to his jawans, Major Shaitan Singh ordered them to leave him. They placed him behind a boulder on the slopes of a hill, where he breathed his last.

Major Shaitan Singh and jawans succeeded in blunting the Chinese attack as they did not advance towards Chushul thereafter. For the 114 soldiers killed at Rezang La, the Chinese Army lost more than 1,000 men.

A unilateral ceasefire in the Sino-Indian war of 1962 was announced on 21 November, 1962. However, even after the ceasefire, the bodies of our brave soldiers could not be retrieved from that area.

Over three months later, a recee patrol found 96 of the brave soldiers still in their trenches while others were in various battle positions. The soldiers were dead and frozen in their battle positions. The 2-inch mortar man had died with a bomb still in his hand. The medical orderly had a syringe and bandage in his hands when the Chinese bullet hit him. All of them were still there at Rezang La frozen with their ammunition, shoes, grenades littered around. Every man had died a hero that Sunday morning.

The intense cold had frozen the dead in their battle positions and the snow had laid a shroud over the battlefield. The bodies of the heroes of Rezang La were recovered after three months under International Red Cross supervision. Brig TN Raina, who later became the Army chief, led the Indian party, which recorded the scene for posterity with cine and still cameras.

Seeing the frozen warriors, he could not control himself and said: “You rarely come across such example in the annals of world military history when braving such heavy odds, the men fought till the last bullet and the last man. Certainly the Battle of Rezang La is such a shining example.”

The body of Major Shaitan Singh was also found at the same place. It was flown to Jodhpur and cremated with full military honours and later posthumously awarded Param Vir Chakra. Eight more received the Vir Chakra while four others the Sena Medal. 13 Kumaon received the battle honor “Rezang La” that it wears so proudly.

On this horrific battle, Major-General Ian Cardozo, in his book ‘Param Vir, Our Heroes In Battle’ writes: “When Rezang La was later revisited dead jawans were found in the trenches still holding on to their weapons… every single man of this company was found dead in his trench with several bullet or splinter wounds…. Of the thousand mortar bombs with the defenders all but seven had been fired and the rest were ready to be fired when the (mortar) section was overrun.”

Though the Army does not allow everybody to visit Rezang La as it is right on the LAC, yet it can clearly be seen from the Tara Post which is one of the highest posts on the LAC with China in Ladakh at a height of 15,550 feet. The post itself is named after the daughter of Major Shaitan Singh. There is another post which is named after his son Rohit. (The author who is Director and Head, Department of Lifelong Learning at University of Jammu, has worked extensively in Ladakh and can be reached at snowy132@rediffmail.com)

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