Sardar Patel wrote a letter on 7th November 1950 to Pt Nehru which has become a part of our history. Some weeks before his death, he had warned Pt. Nehru regarding the vulnerability of India from China due to the undefined state of our frontier with China and the unreliability of the Chinese. He requested the Prime Minister to deliberate upon this issue urgently but Pt Nehru was too enamoured of his friendship with China to take any worthwhile action on the advice of Patel. Pt. Nehru never thought that the Chinese would betray his friendship as he had played a crucial role to bring the ‘Pariah’ nation in the mainstream of world community. His golden principles of Panch Sheel, he thought, were sufficient to take care of things on the northern frontier. Again, Pt. Nehru did not pay heed to the warning of Dr BR Ambedkar when he advised Nehru that by allowing the Chinese to take possession of Lhasa, the PM had practically helped the Chinese to bring their influence down to the Indian border. Later on, the nation had to pay a heavy price for ignoring the timely advice of the two leaders known for their keen sense of realism.
China’s forcible occupation of Aksai Chin, India’s Tibet policy, grant of asylum to Dalai Lama in 1959, India’ Forward Policy along the undefined border with China, some untimely and inappropriate statements by our political leadership had led to the straining of relations between the two countries to such an extent that it culminated in a war in 1962.
India was one of the first countries to recognise Peoples Republic of China and was instrumental for China’s entry in UN as well as ensuring it a permanent seat in the Security Council. India was so much tilted towards China that it boycotted San Francisco conference in 1952 because China had not been invited. However after some time the dragon started becoming hostile. She constructed road through our area, Aksai Chin which was under its illegal possession. There were frequent border skirmishes and India formulated its Forward Policy. Construction of border posts at some places were disputed by China. China also started to carry out border infringements. The most conspicuous flash point became Lacha in the eastern sector. Government wanted the army to evict the Chinese out. However Gen. Thappar opined that it was difficult to carry out such an operation because of the lack of preparedness on our part and the operational difficulties due to the approaching winter. Pt. Nehru agreed to the proposal but in early October while on the way to Colombo Pt. Nehru without evaluating the consequences of his statement declared in a press conference at Chennai that he had ordered the Forces to throw out the Chinese from the border posts occupied by them.
The Chinese took it as declaration of war and suddenly attacked us in NEFA and Ladakh on 20th of October, 1962. We did not expect such a reaction from the Chinese. We were not prepared for such a situation. In fact Defence Ministry was in shambles under Krishana Menon. Political interference was the order of the day and some blue-eyed boys like Gen.BM Kaul who lacked military acumen, were the policy framers. Others like the intelligence chief, BN Mullick had failed to ascertain the intentions and preparations of Chinese. In the circumstances we were taken by surprise when we were attacked. Brig. Dalvi’s brigade bore the first brunt at Thag La in eastern sector. Later on we lost badly at Sela and Bomdilla in NEFA and at some fronts in Ladakh. Government groped in the dark to deal with the situation. Morale of the nation was at its low. Kuldip Nayyar, the noted journalist tells us that PM’s radio broadcast ‘my heart goes with the people of Assam’ further alarmed the people in Assam to believe that the Government had left them to their fate. There was despondency all over. The Chinese had pushed 80,000 strong force against usand our deployment was merely of the order of 12,000 troops. Consequently the well prepared large Chinese army overwhelmed us at many fronts. We faced debacle after debacle.
Despite these reverses, our brave soldiers exhibited some rare acts of bravery. We can single out a number of heroes, who fought whenever and wherever their commanders put them realistically and provided them the necessary leadership. Efforts of Captain NN Rawat are noteworthy in organising a fighting retreat. Similarly the strategic deployment and keeping intact his brigade by cool-headed Brig. Gurbax Singh by marshalling his formation as a cohesive unit and giving the Chinese a tough fight is remembered to this day. But the most glorious chapter was written by the indomitable Ahirs of the C Company of 13th Kumaon Regt. in the battle of Rizangla in Chushul sector.
Chusul, headquarter of Chang Thang sub-division at the time is situated few kilometres south of Pangong lake in Ladakh. Rizangla, a small plateau is situated about 30 kms. east south of Chushul. Chushul is a narrow, thinly populated 40 km. long and about 10 kms wide valley with high mountains and passes on both sides. The great Dogra General Zorawar Singh had passed through the valley on his way to Tibet and still inspires the soldiers deployed in these lofty mountains. The soil is sandy and rocky. In the sparsely grassed valley some wild horses, the kyangs, few pairs of black-necked cranes, who are on the way of extinction and some marmots, find their home there. The Ahirs were deployed here during the 1962 war and the C Company of the battalion was shouldering the responsibility on the nearby Rizangla pass. Chushul, being the important village and having an air-strip was on the radar of Chinese and one of the routes for Chinese to reach Chushul was through Rizangla. The Chinese had a lot of strategic advantages in the sector like the uninterrupted supply line and easy artillery support. The small Indian formation was left to their fate as the supply line was not regular. The Rizangla feature had a high hill at its back so no artillery shelling could be carried out to support the troops on Rizangla. Digging defences in the rocky soil was nearly impossible and the paucity of oxygen at a height of 16000 feet made movement of partially acclimatized soldiers difficult. The Ahirs were mainly armed with antiquated. 303 single shot bolt action rifles of the Second World War vintage which yielded an easy advantage to the enemy equipped with the modern weaponry.
Despite these locational and logistic disadvantages the Ahirs under the able leadership of their company commander Maj. Shaitan Singh Bhatti were in high spirits. On the night of 17-18 Nov. heavy snow storm had overtaken the battle zone and icy winds were benumbing any living being there.. In the early morning our patrols noticed massive Chinese intrusion through the gullies. Though the Chinese had brought their assaulting troops to their forward assembly under the cover of inclement weather, their intentions to give sudden surprise to the vigilant Ahirs failed miserably. The Indian soldiers were ready to face the assault of the dragons. Around 0500 hrs, the first wave of Chinese was sighted by the Ahirsmanning the defences and they were greeted with a hail of LMGs, MMGs and mortars fire. Scores of the enemy died, many were wounded but the rest duly reinforced and continued to advance. Soon the gullies leading to Rizangla were full of Chinese corpses. Constant wave after wave of the Chinese launched four more attacks which were beaten back. This dwindled the strength and ammunition of the defenders also and there was no hope of replenishments in the God’s forsaken place.
By now the Chinese realized that Rizangla was not a cake walk and they resorted to heavy artillery and concentrated fire of recoilless guns. Our Jawans had no artillery support and no bunkers on the rocky feature. Simultaneously the Chinese had a detour and attacked from the back. In the meantime Major Shaitan Singh was moving from platoon to platoon motivating the depleting command. In the process he was hit by the enemy LMG fire on his arm but undaunted he kept motivating, regrouping and reorganisinghis handful men and weapons. His Company Hay. Major kept persuading him to move to safer place but he did not want to leave his comrades. Grievously injured and bleeding profusely, he was later pulled to safer place behind a boulder where he froze to martyrdom during the night. The Ahirs had fought bravely and even came out with bayonets when need arose. Naik Chandgi Ram a wrestler of repute had killed 6-7 Chinese single handedly with bayonet till he fell to martyrdom. Silence of war had engulfed Rizangla as the last round had been fired and the last soldier had bled to martyrdom. The Ahirs had exhibited a rare saga of unprecedented courage, valour and supreme sacrifice. 114 out of 120 soldiers sacrificed their lives. It is one of the few battles in the annals of war history of the world where such a high percentage of fighters fought so doggedly and fearlessly and attained martyrdom. There is only one other instance in the subcontinent where a similar bravery was exhibited. In 1897, 21 brave Sikh soldiers had killed 600 Afghans in the battle of Saragarhi before laying down their lives.
In January, 1963 a local shepherd while wandering over Rizangla saw the awesome spectacle of the soldiers frozen to death but still clinging to their damaged weapons, mostly with empty magzines and bulged barrels due to excessive firing. A month later the first Indian party under the aegis of Red Cross retrieved the bodies. The grateful nation conferred Maj. Shaitan Singh with Param Vir Chakra- the highest gallantry award. Eight soldiers were conferred Vir Chakra and some others were also conferred with honours. This is perhaps the only action where so many honours have been conferred in a single operation. We pay our homage to these brave soldiers year after year on their memorials near Chushul and in Rewari, Haryana. It has been aptly inscribed on their memorial: “How can a man die better? Than facing fearful odds/ For the ashes of his father/ And temples of his Gods.”
The 1962 war has taught us many lessons. Nehru’s gestures of friendship were returned through treachery by China. In future we should, therefore, deal with her with due caution. Chinese manoeuvers in our neighborhood are already alarming. Her outright support of Pakistan in her nuclear programme and defence preparedness is a cause of concern. We have not raised the protests to the required level of pitch against China for her construction of Economic Corridor through our area of Gilgit-Baltistan. Pakistan’s handing over of Shaksgam tract of our state to China was also not so vociferously opposed by us. Be it the trade imbalance or be it the border incursions, our reaction remains mute .Safeguarding our national interests viz a viz China will be an appropriate tribute to the sacrifice of the martyrs of Rizangla.
(The author is a former civil servant)