BY 1962 the euphoria of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai had died down. Consequently, tension on the Sino-Indian border started mounting. After consciously ignoring the security of the long northern border stretching over thousands of kilometres over mountainous, snowy, uninhabitable and unapproachable terrain, the Defence Ministry had suddenly become overactive as if awakening from a deep slumber. To quote Neville Maxwell: “The 1950s have been a decade of neglect for the Indian armed forces”. The general mood was that expenditure on the defence forces must be kept to the barest practicable minimum so that the resources available for development would not be spent unproductively and unnecessarily.
A suggestion that an infantry manual on Chinese battle tactics be prepared, was rejected. As late as 1958 to the utter amazement and consternation of the Indian Army, a high-ranking Chinese military mission was taken round major defence establishments and was privy to demonstration of fire support for an infantry assault.
After border skirmishes in the eastern sector during September 1962, a full-scale war broke out with the Chinese attack on Namka Chu on October 20, 1962. Consequently troops deployed in the plains in summer uniforms and under-armed were rushed to the northern border.
Unacclimatised, the troops were as exposed to the elements of the nature as to the enemy. On the other hand, the Chinese troops were fully acclimatised and comfortable in their thick, padded uniforms and were confident of their numbers and superior weapons.
On October 24, 120 officers and jawans of the Ahir Charlie Company of 13 Kumaon Regiment, almost all of them hailing from the Ahirwal region (southern Haryana), were airlifted from Hyderabad to the Chushul sector. They were deployed on the Rezang La Ridge to defend the highest air strip in the world located at 16,000 feet — just across the Chinese claim line. Nevertheless, positions of some strength had been built up by November 17.
The next day as the country was celebrating Divali, a different scenario was unfolding in the Chushul sector. Chinese infantry in strength was seen moving up. In the early hours of November 18, fighting broke out.
Maxwell has given a vivid account. “Artillery bombardment of the Indian outposts, airfield and brigade positions in the valley began in the small hours of November 18 and at first light infantry assaulted the Indians in their hill positions. Heavy mortars, recoilless guns and rockets softened the shallow Indian entrenchments, beaten off in frontal attacks. The Chinese moved to envelop the Indian positions, taking them from the flank or rear after savage hand-to-hand fighting… Of the Charlie Company, three of the wounded reached Battalion HQ in the valley, five were taken prisoner, the rest of the company were still in their positions when an Indian party climbed to Rezang La three months later (February 11, 1963) — frozen as they died with weapons in — hand. Only the Chinese dead had been removed, and evidence of the battle showed that of those there had been many”.
It was an unequal fight. “The Chinese troops, outnumbering the Indians by nearly 20 to one, regged and underarmed as the Indians might be, they were still skilled and determined soldiers who fought back fiercely against the overwhelming odds enormous Chinese advantage in fire-power and number showing unparalleled chivalry and undaunted courage. It was natural that the Chinese suffered heavy casualties.
At one stage, having run out of ammunition, several jawans came out of the pickets and charged the enemy with bare hands — Lance Naik Singh Ram killing several Chinese soldiers after lifting and hitting them against the rocks. The brave Ahirs fought to the finish — to the last bullet and the last man till the last breath. Even the enemy was so moved by their bravery that while retreating they covered the bodies of Naik Gulab Singh, Lance Naik Singh Ram and others with blankets and posted their rifles and bayonets by their bodies as a mark of respect.
The body of Major Shaitan Singh, Company Commander, was flown to Jodhpur where he was cremated with full military honours. Other bodies were laid to rest at Chushul itself where, later on, a memorial was erected.
Major Shaitan Singh was posthumously decorated with Param Vir Chakra, the highest gallantry award, whereas Jamadars Soorja Ram and Hari Ram, Naiks Hukam Chand and Ram Kanwar, Lance Naik Singh Ram and sepoy Dharam Pal were posthumously awarded the Vir Chakra. Several others were honoured with Sena Medals.
The battle of Chushul was a saga of unprecedented courage, valour and supreme sacrifice. Never before had so many officers and jawans (114 out of 120) laid down their lives in one battle.
“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”,
said Gen T.N. Raina, paying tributes to the heroes of Chushul,
“Certainly the battle of Rezang La is such a shining example”.
“I had said many years ago that the Army must have a Ahir Regiment. The supreme sacrifice of the Charlie Company has fulfilled my expectations. I hope a suitable memorial will be built in Ahirwal in their memory so that the generations to come may seek inspiration from the immense courage and valour of their forefathers,”
remarked Gen K.S. Thimayya, one of the most distinguished soldiers.
Alas! neither has a Ahir Regiment been raised in the Army, nor a suitable memorial erected in Ahirwal, the region from where the Rezang La heroes hailed. The ingratitude is also unprecedented.
By Atul Yadav