How can a man die better/
Than facing fearful odds/
For the ashes of his fathers/
And the temples of his gods.
One of the bitter ironies of life is that the greatest acts of heroism and valor mostly happen when the odds are hopeless and death and defeat are inevitable. Throughout history nations have always glorified such episodes in their ballads and poems, by honoring the heroes and commemorating the event. It is the common perception of these few and far in between episodes in a people’s history that forge a sense of nationhood. Why else would we celebrate the deaths of a Prithviraj Chauhan or a Tipu Sultan? Or a Porus or a Shivaji who battled great armies with little more than a handful of brave comrades and immense courage? Of course we rejoice in the triumphs of an Ashoka or Chandragupta or even an Akbar but that is about greatness and not heroism.
Even if it is true that the end of history is at hand, we can be sure that the annals of heroism will never cease being written. However endless these may be, the heroic stand of C Company of the 13 Kumaon at Rezang La in 18 November 1962 will always be among the more glorious chapters. The monument that stands at Chushul asks: “How can a man die better/ Than facing fearful odds/ For the ashes of his fathers/ And the temples of his gods.” C Company was fighting for neither ashes nor temples, for there were none at Chushul. The loss of Chushul would not even have had much bearing on the ultimate defence of Ladakh. But in those dark days of 1962 Chushul became a matter of national honor.
Chushul is only 15 miles from the border as the crow flies and even then had an all weather landing strip. It was the pivotal point of our frontier posts in this sector as it was astride the second route into Tibet from Leh about 120 miles further west. The road built after 1962 rises to nearly 17000 feet crossing the Ladakh range at the desolate and wind blown Chang La pass, steeply descends into Tangtse and then goes on to Chushul.
Between the Chang La and Tangtse the road takes the traveler though the most beautiful scenery with matching beautiful wildlife. Golden marmots dart in and out of their holes and in the distance you can sometimes spot a snow leopard warily keeping an eye on man as it stalks Ibex on the craggy heights..
Chushul itself is at 14230 feet and is a small village in a narrow sandy valley about 25 miles long and 4 miles wide, flanked by mountains that rise to over 19000 feet. At the northern end it touches the Pangong Tso, a deep saltwater lake nearly a hundred miles long and that makes for one of natures most glorious sights. Also near Chushul is a gap in the mountains called the Spanggur Gap that leads to another beautiful lake, the Spanggur Tso that like the Pangong extends well into Chinese territory.
The Chinese had built a road from Rudok in Tibet right up to the Spanggur Gap capable of carrying tanks. In the first phase of their assault on Ladakh in October 1962, the Chinese had overrun many of our major border posts on the line between Daulat Beg Oldi near the Karakorum Pass to Demchok astride the Indus on the border with Tibet. Chushul was the solitary Indian position east of the Ladakh range. Geography favored the Chinese and they were able to make a major concentration of men and material for an attack on Chushul.
Till September 1962, the defence of all of Ladakh was vested with 114 Brigade commanded by Brig. TN Raina (later General and COAS). It consisted of just two infantry battalions, the 1/8 Gorkha Rifles and 5 Jat. Initially, only the Gorkhas were deployed in the Chushul sector and when the gravity of the Chinese threat began to be realized 13 Kumaon, which was at Baramula in the Kashmir Valley, was sent in to reinforce 114 Brigade. In the first week of October the 3 Himalayan (later Mountain) Division was formed for the overall defence of Ladakh and the Chushul sector was entirely left to 114 Brigade. On 26 October, 114 Brigade set up its headquarters at Chushul and braced for the inevitable Chinese attack.
The newly arrived 13 Kumaon began deploying on October 24 in the lull that followed the first phase of the Chinese attack. The forward defenses of Chushul were on a series of hill features given evocative names like Gurung Hill, Gun Hill and Mugger Hill, but C Company of 13 Kumaon got Rezang La which was about 19 miles south of Chushul. Rezang La as the name suggests is a pass and is on the southeastern approach to Chushul valley. The feature was 3000 yards long and 2000 yards wide and at average height of 16000 feet.
Digging defensive positions and building shelters was hard going for the men were still not acclimatized and cold wintry winds made life even more hard. At this altitude it took hours to bring a kettle to boil for tea and whatever fruit and vegetables that came were frozen hard. Let alone potatoes even oranges acquired weapon grade hardness. More than the thin air and cold the location of Rezang La had a more serious drawback. It was “crested” to Indian artillery because of an intervening feature, which meant that defenders had fight without the protective comfort of artillery. Both sides prepared feverishly, mostly within sight of each other, for the next Chinese attack. That attack came on that cold Sunday that was 18 November.
Most Kumaon battalions are mixed formations made up of hill men from the Kumaon Hills, Ahirs from Haryana and Brahmins from the northern plains. 13 Kumaon was the Kumaon Regiment’s only all Ahir battalion. The Ahirs who are concentrated in the Gurgaon/Mewat region of Haryana are hardy cattlemen and farmers. When the order to move to Chushul came, its CO Lt.Col. HS Dhingra was in hospital but he cajoled the doctors into letting him go with his men.
Maj. Shaitan Singh, a Rajput from Jodhpur commanded C Company of 13 Kumaon. C Company’s three platoons were numbered 7,8 and 9 and had .303 rifles with about 600 rounds per head, and between them six LMG’s, and a handful of 2 inch mortars. The Chinese infantry had 7.62 mm self loading rifles; MMG’s and LMG’s; 120 mm, 81 mm and 60 mm mortars; 132 mm rockets; and 75 mm and 57 mm recoilless guns to bust bunkers. They were much more numerous and began swarming up the gullies to assault Rezang La at 4 am, even as a light snow was falling.
The Ahirs waited till the Chinese came into range and opened up with everything they had. The gullies were soon full of dead and wounded Chinese. Having failed in a frontal attack the Chinese let loose a murderous shelling. Under the cover of this intense shelling the Chinese infantry came again in swarms. C Company, now severely depleted, let them have it once again. Position after position fell fighting till the last man. C Company had 3 JCO’s and 124 other ranks with Maj. Shaitan Singh. When the smoke and din of battle cleared, only 14 survived, nine of them severely wounded. 13 Kumaon regrouped and 114 Brigade held on to Chushul. But the battalion war diary records that they were now “less our C Company.”
The Chinese announced a unilateral cease-fire on 21 November but little more than what the survivors had brought back was known about C Company. In January 1963 a shepherd wandered on to Rezang La. It was as if the very last moment of battle had turned into a tableau. The freezing cold had frozen the dead in their battle positions and the snow had laid a shroud over the battlefield.
Arrangements were then made to recover our dead under International Red Cross supervision. Brig Raina led the Indian party, which recorded the scene for posterity with cine and still cameras. This tableau told their countrymen what actually happened that Sunday morning. Every man had died a hero. Maj. Shaitan Singh was conferred the 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.
Few events in the annals of heroism can match this. C Company gave its all to defend Chushul, a small Ladakhi village, which for one brief moment in our history came to symbolize our national honor. At Thermopylae on 18 September 480 BC, 1200 Greeks led by King Leonides of Sparta died fighting the Persian King Xerxes’ mighty bodyguard called the Anusya or Companions. But Leonides was fighting for a great prize. In July 481 BC the Oracle of Delphi told him that in the next war with Persia either the King will die or Sparta would be destroyed. Leonides chose to die to save Sparta.
But C Company willingly sacrificed itself to save a little village and that makes its sacrifice all the more glorious. That is why we must never forget Rezang La.