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Revisiting 1962's incredible saga of valour

November 18, 2008
Boosted by the prime minister's steady favouritism, Kaul rocketed through the Army structure to emerge in 1961 at the very summit of the Army HQ. Not only did he hold the key appointment of chief of general staff but the army commander, Thapar, was, in effect, his client. Kaul had, of course, by then acquired a significant following, disparaged by the other side as 'Kaul boys' ('call-girls' had just entered usage), and his appointment as CGS opened a putsch in HQ, an eviction of the old guard, with his rivals, until then his superiors, being not only pushed out but often hounded thereafter with charges of disloyalty. '

Those who didn't know their men, their land and the risks involved called the shots, yet our bravehearts stood firm for the honour of their motherland. The Rezang La battle saga is among the most inspiring stories of soldiers dying in the line of duty, yet our schools, which proudly prescribe the age-old narration of Romulus and Remus, find it unworthy to insert a lesson on how India was defended at Rezang La by Indian soldiers of the 13th Kumaon.

They fought till the last man, last bullet

They were ill-equipped, ill-prepared and heavily outnumbered by the Chinese. All the 114 jawans died in action, not a single soul retreated and neither did they let the Chinese intrude. For three months the government didn't know about them, about their extraordinary sacrifice, till in January-end in 1963, shepherds from Chushul found bodies of jawans scattered on the Rezang La, after the snow had melted. The dead bodies of the Chinese were far more in number, about eight hundred on our side, and it was estimated that more than a thousand might have fallen to the bullets of Indian soldiers. It was an unbelievable feat and the government decorated Major Shaitan Singh with a Param Vir Chakra, posthumously.

The PVC citation awarded to him reads: 'Major Shaitan Singh was commanding a company of an infantry battalion deployed at Rezang La in the Chushul sector at a height of about 17,000 feet. The locality was isolated from the main defended sector and consisted of five platoon-defended position. On 18 November 1962, the Chinese forces subjected the company position to heavy artillery, mortar and small arms fire and attacked it in overwhelming strength in several successive waves. Against heavy odds, our troops beat back successive waves of enemy attack. During the action, Major Shaitan Singh dominated the scene of operations and moved at great personal risk from one platoon post to another sustaining the morale of his hard-pressed platoon posts. While doing so he was seriously wounded but continued to encourage and lead his men, who, following his brave example fought gallantly and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. For every man lost to us, the enemy lost four or five. When Major Shaitan Singh fell disabled by wounds in his arms and abdomen, his men tried to evacuate him but they came under heavy machine-gun fire. Major Shaitan Singh then ordered his men to leave him to his fate in order to save their lives. Major Shaitan Singh's supreme courage, leadership and exemplary devotion to duty inspired his company to fight almost to the last man.'

The battle fired the imagination of young soldiers and Bollywood alike. A successful movie, Haqeeqat, based on the Chushul saga was made by Chetan Anand starring Dharmendra and Balraj Sahni. I was on my way to visit the same area, the village called Chushul and the Rezang La memorial, in the month November, 46 years after the battle had taken place.

Text, images, audio: Tarun Vijay

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