How can a man die better than facing fearful odds,
for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods'
These words from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ are inscribed on a war memorial in Chushul in Ladakh. This war memorial, that was built to honour the sacrifice of the soldiers of 13 Kumaon in the Battle of Rezang La, is a testament to the grit, courage and willpower of the Indian Army.
While the nation celebrates the 70th Army Day on Monday, it is important to remember the supreme sacrifices made by the Indian Army and its soldiers in safeguarding the nation against the enemy, even in the face of ‘fearful odds’. The Indian Army has fought many battles since its independence from the British Army, many of which have been made immortal in the minds of the general public, through popular culture. Movies have been made on the Battle of Longewala (Border), Operation Vijay, better known as the Kargil War (LOC Kargil, Lakshya), the 1971 Indo-Pak war (Vijeta), to name a few. But, there are some other truly noteworthy battles that have been fought by the Army, but aren’t so well known, and haven’t found a place in popular culture yet.
Two of these remarkable feats were achieved during the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
While the war itself was a huge debacle, with the Indian Army facing defeat at the hands of the Chinese Army at all sides, these two instances shine out, giving us something to be proud of, even in a lost battle. These were the Battle of Rezang La and the legend of Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat at the Battle of Nuranang.
Rezang La is a mountain pass in Ladakh, overlooking the Chushul Valley, at a height of 16,000 ft. 13 Kumaon was in charge of that area, and the battalion’s Charlie company was tasked with defending the pass. Because of the geographical feature of that pass, the Company was cut-off from the rest of the battalion. The feature also prevented the Company from getting an artillery support. These are the conditions in which 120 men of the Company had to fight an attack by the Chinese on November 18, 1962. Against all odds, and with no other support, these 120 brave men fended off an attack from almost thousands of Chinese soldiers, beating back wave after wave of attack. The company was led by Major Shaitan Singh, the company commander, who was awarded the Param Vir Chakra posthumously. He crawled from trench to trench, motivating his men, in spite of being injured himself.
The company held off against the Chinese attack and fought to the last man, fought till they ran out of ammunition. Out of 120 soldiers, 114 were killed in the battle, while 6 were taken prisoner by the Chinese, who later escaped. In their desperate fight, the Major Shaitan Singh and his 120 men killed 500 Chinese soldiers. This kind of grit and bravery is not only astounding but unreal.
It was in February 1963, when the Chinese permitted the Indian army to recover the bodies of the soldiers, that the rest of the country learnt of what had transpired up there. Soldiers’ bodies were found frozen in the snow, still clutching their weapons, fingers on the trigger. Maj Gen Ian Cardozo (Retd), in his book ‘Param Vir: Our heroes in battle’ wrote, “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 bullets or splinter wounds. The 2-inch mortar man 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... 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.”
This, right here, is a shining example of Indian Army’s glorious tradition of git and valour, that the men of the Charlie company of 13 Kumaon displayed that day. The company was officially given the name Rezang La company and uses it to this day.
The second superhuman feat that came during this war was from Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat during the Battle of Nuranang. Rfn Jaswant Singh was from the 4th Battalion of the Garhwal Rifles, which was deployed at a place called Sela, near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh during the 62 war, after the withdrawal of Indian troops from the area.
The battalion had already fended off three attacks from the Chinese and it was the fourth attack that changed the course of the battle. In their fourth attempt, the Chinese managed to move a Medium Machine Gun (MMG) close to the position of the battalion, raining heavy fire on them, and preventing them from using their Light Machine Guns (LMG). This is when three brave Garhwalis - Rifleman Jaswant Singh, Lance Naik Trilok Singh and Rifleman Gopal Singh volunteered to neutralise the MMG physically. Armed only with grenades, they crawled to the MMG under heavy fire and hurled their grenades at its position.
On going closer, they found two dead Chinese soldiers and a third wounded, still holding on to his weapon. Jaswant Singh snatched the MMG away and began crawling back to his position when he was shot in the head by enemy fire. Trilok Singh too was spotted by the Chinese and killed. An injured Gopal Singh dragged the MMG back to their position.
These 15 minutes changed the course of the battle, as the Indian troops could now fire their weapons, preventing the Chinese from taking over Tawang and preventing India from losing Arunachal.
Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat was awarded a Mahavir Chakra posthumously, while 4 Garhwal was awarded the Battle Honour of ‘Nuranang’, the only battle honour awarded to any unit in the Sino-Indian war.
Jaswant Singh continues to be a legend, and a memorial was erected in his honour in Tawang, called Jaswantgarh. He became famous as Baba Jaswant Singh, and it is believed that he still guards the Arunachal border against enemies. A room is dedicated to him at Jaswantgarh, where his bed is made daily, his uniform is set, even food is brought to him daily. Every army official that passes through or visits the area stops by to pay his respects.
While we celebrate the freedom and safety we enjoy today, let us not forget the exemplary courage displayed by our soldiers, and let us make sure that these sacrifices do not fade away from the memories of this nation. The heroes of these battles deserve as much recognition as the heroes of Kargil or the 1971 Indo-Pak war.