‘Nobody believed we had killed so many Chinese at Rezang La. Our commander called me crazy and warned that I could be court-martialled’
It's sad that any time we talk about the India-China war of 1962, horrible words like debacle, disgrace, disaster come to our minds. This is the 50th anniversary of that war. It's a war that this country ideally would love to forget but cannot because it's etched in our memories as one of the saddest chapters of our independent history. And it's sadder still that because of that overwhelming sense of failure in that war, we tend to sometimes almost deliberately ignore the one chapter that I think is without parallel in modern post Second World War military history, the battle of Rezang La on November 18, 1962. I will give you a brief history. Charlie Company of a battalion called 13 Kumaon was divided in several platoons on one ridge of two kilometres, protecting the airfield of Chushul which was vital if India was to hold Ladakh. It was attacked on the morning of November 18 by maybe 5,000-6,000 Chinese with heavy artillery support. A crest behind this ridge prevented Indian artillery from being able to support these jawans. And what did these jawans do? They fought to last man, last round. That's an expression you hear in movies and read in war comics, but that is something that actually happened in the battle of Rezang La. Of the 120 men and officers of this Company, 114 died, five were taken prisoners as wounded—they all escaped—and one was sent back to tell the story of the battle to the rest of the world. And who sent him back? This Company's most remarkable commander, Major Shaitan Singh, who got a Param Vir Chakra for leading this battle. I am today in Rewari, the area from where these jawans came... It was a Kumaon battalion but this was an Ahir Company from Rewari in Haryana. With me are two of those six survivors—in fact, only four remain with us now—Honorary captain Ramchander Yadav and Havaldar Nihal Singh. So both of you were with Major Shaitan Singh?
Yadav: I was his radio man.
Singh: And I was his personal guard with the light machine gun (LMG).
And you saw the whole war?
Singh: I cannot sleep when those scenes come to my mind. It has been 50 years, yet it seems the war has just taken place.
You were handling LMG for the company commander's protection. After you were hit by bullets, did you stop firing?
Singh: I disassembled the LMG and threw it so that the enemy could not use it. I was in terrible pain. My body was still. After some time, they pulled me out from the bunker. They asked my name in English. They asked for the names of my Commanding Officer and Brigade Commander. I said no. And then they asked me to go for first aid by communicating in sign language.
You were at 18,000 ft and there was snowfall?
Yadav and Singh: Yes, and the wind was very cold.
Singh: They took me to their post around 5 p.m. I could see their artillery on the other side of the ditch. I thought of running but waited.
How did you escape from their custody?
Singh: The soldiers who took me in custody were walking around and talking. By then it became dark and it occurred to me that I should run. I slowly sneaked out from there. When I walked almost 500 metres, they fired three shots in the air.
You went back to the headquarters?
Singh: Yes, on November 19, around 1 p.m., I reached the headquarters. On November 22, we were admitted to a hospital in Jammu where we were treated.
Yadav saab, you were specially sent back so that others may know the story of the war.
Yadav: Yes, that was the motive of Major saab.
Major Shaitan Singh was not from Rewari. He was from Rajasthan.
Yadav: He was from Rajasthan. He was a Rajput. His name was Shaitan Singh but he was god.
Please describe the scene of that day. The attack started at 3:30 a.m.?
Yadav: I was a sepoy in Charlie Company of 13 Kumaon Regiment and was with the Major at Rezang La post. At 3:30 am, firing took place at the section of Naik Gulab Singh, who later got the Vir Chakra.
This one Company had one Param Vir Chakra, five Vir Chakras, and four Sena medals, including you. Medals were rarely awarded those days, still so many were given. What happened after that?
Yadav: We got alerts. When my officer asked, I said Platoon No 8 had informed that the enemy had attacked. The enemy was trying to climb but the LMG of Hukam Chand (Vir Chakra) killed four. After 10 minutes, Platoon 7 informed me about the attack on them. I asked Surja Ram (Vir Chakra) how things were. He said they had taken their positions and that 400 people were trying to climb from 14,000 ft to 18,000 ft.
All the names of your comrades are written on the memorial here in Rewari. The list here says that 114 jawans killed 1,300 Chinese enemies that day.
Yadav: I saw that with my own eyes. Bodies were lying all around.
So when you knew that thousands of Chinese were coming, that they had artillery support while your artillery wouldn't reach you because of the huge mountain behind you, was it evident that you had to stay put?
Yadav: Yes, there was no going back then.
Did anyone think of saving their own lives, withdrawing? What did the Major tell you?
Yadav: The Major said if we have to withdraw, then do it. But the jawans and the JCOs said we will not leave Rezang La. We have the blessings of Lord Krishna. The Major said I am with you and I am a Yadav too, so what if my name is Bhati?
What happened next? Where were you and the Major when the fire came?
Yadav: I was at the command post with platoons on either side on the two-kilometre ridge. I was with the Major. After a while, a message came from Platoon No 8. Hari Ram (Vir Chakra) said the enemy was coming through the ridge, but we would kill them once they are in range. They repulsed that attack.
Many Chinese died. Did you see their bodies?
Yadav: Yes. They were lying scattered like berries in a market. They kept climbing up, and we were at our post. Two attacks were repulsed. Then, Platoon 7 was attacked. They didn't attack Platoon 9 even though it was at the front. Their plan was to isolate Platoon 9. But they didn't know that our commander had made arrangements so that no one could climb up.
So you had made a killing ground?
Yadav: Yes, the third and fourth attacks on Platoon 8 were also repulsed. Then they attacked with full force. That's when Surja Ram declared, Ramchander, now is the time when we will all fight out of our posts in the name of hand-to-hand combat. My communication with Platoon 7 stopped. Communication started with Platoon 8 when 14-15 yaks and around 700 Chinese took position on the ridge in between us and Platoon 8.
They came from behind?
Yadav: Yes, first we thought it was our battalion's Alpha Company that had come to help us. We thought the CO might have sent them for our help but when they started positioning their yaks and machine guns, then Havaldar Major Harphool Singh said this is the enemy. After that, the Major ordered for nine platoons to be sent from the headquarters. Since the enemy was going to attack Platoon 8, we would attack them from behind and they would be trapped between Platoon 8 and us and we would finish them.
So you saw many of your colleagues being martyred before your eyes, bayonets in hand, in hand-to-hand combat?
Yadav: Yes, I saw some like (Naik) Singh Ram (Vir Chakra) catching hold of their heads and smashing them together. What he did to the Chinese earned him their respect. Before the Chinese left, they sank a bayonet in the ground near his head, and put a helmet on top. They gave him izzat, samman, they kept a note there. We have seen that note.
Singh: If Major saab (Maj Shaitan Singh) had been around, they would have thought ye morcha kahaan chalaa gayaa...
The Chinese took out Major saab's morcha first. They were able to see everything (about the Indian position). So, Singh Ram and the others, they were fighting with bayonets?
Yadav: Yes, but sometimes the bayonets wouldn't work. The Chinese were wearing thick parkas, and the bayonets couldn't penetrate them. I saw our men, stabbing repeatedly with their bayonets, and the blade would not go through. So Singh Ram just grabbed them by their necks and smashed their heads together and against rocks.
He was a wrestler...
Yadav: Bahut tagda pehelwaan tha.He could catch people like me by the scruff of our necks and say, 'C'mon, heat the milk'. I was his boxer.
Nihal saab, you have narrated the story of how you escaped. Did anyone else manage to get away as well?
Singh: No one with me.
Yadav: Oh yes, one more, Ram Pal escaped. The next day.
Ramchanderji, tell me, what did you do?
Yadav: When we were overrun—my saab was lying motionless, and I was wounded—I remembered what (Company Havaldar Major) Harphool (Singh) had said, 'Do not let the Chinese get their hands on Major saab's body.' So I opened the sling of the rifle and tied Major saab to myself with the belt, joining our bodies together at the waist. And then, slowly, I started to roll.
The Major was still alive?
Yadav: There was very little life left in him. After about 10 yards, there was gravelly ground, and I started rolling down faster. I rolled for 400 yards, and then there was a nullah, after that boulders again. After rolling for 400 yards, I stopped near a boulder to catch my breath. I was thinking that the Company headquarters are below, so I should try to somehow get a couple of people from there to help me, so I can take saab down. But when it was 8.15 by his watch, I noticed that the Major saab was no longer alive. Because Major saab's watch ran by his pulse, and when the pulse stopped, the watch stopped as well. I took off the Major's gloves, and slid his body between boulders to hide it, so that it remained safe until someone could come to fetch it. Then I made my way down. I came down about a kilometre, to the point from where our rations were supplied. I saw that the quarter master's depot was in flames.
The few people who were there had left after setting the depot on fire...
Singh: Haan, Company to khatm ho hi gayi thi...
Yadav: Yes, the commander had called them back. I wondered what to do. And then I saw one of our jeeps, with the occupants signalling to me. I moved towards them.
You were the only one who returned alive from that battle... So, when you narrated that story, did your commanders believe you?
Yadav: Only one commander believed me. D D Shukla, who was the adjutant... He said every word of what he is saying is true. Then Dhingra saab also believed this, and the brigade commander, he too accepted the real story...
But when you came to Delhi, and your debriefing took place, did people believe you?
Yadav: The atmosphere in Delhi was such that I did not even feel like having food. Because, if I give a statement, and that statement is contradicted immediately by my commander...
Why did your commander contradict your statement?
Yadav: He said I had gone crazy, he warned me I could be court-martialled, he said we could not have killed so many Chinese.
So they were saying you were so few people, you could not have killed so many Chinese?
Yadav: Right. So I said, saab, ek baat hai, aap haalaat ko dekhiye (Sir, please see the circumstances). You come there and I will tell you how we killed so many. I said, you note down these three points: Major saab's body, his gloves with his blood; in the Company, you will find every jawan with bullet wounds on his chest, you will not get wounds on their backs; nursing assistant Dharam Pal, he put bandages on 32 wounded soldiers, and he died while bandaging his comrades.
So, tell me more.
Yadav: The jawan, he is holding the light machine gun, and he has bullets in his chest, and is dead...But the machine gun hasn't fallen from his hands even when he is dead, he is clasping the machine gun. And the jawan throwing the grenade, dead, with the grenade still in his hands, the Chinese couldn't take the grenade off his hand.
And many were found with their bayonets too?
Yadav: Yes, with their bayonets in their hands, in a crouching position, bullets in their chest, dead, holding the naked bayonet in a fighting stance.
Their bodies had frozen.
Yadav: Yes, the bodies were all frozen. Our commander saab (Brigadier Raina, who later became the Army Chief) became so emotional that his artificial eye moved from its position. He burst into tears. He was told, 'Sir, have courage, calm down, this is war, the jawans have done their very best...' Those who came from Delhi were told, 'Come with us to the quarter master's.' They said, 'No, this is enough. We have seen what we had to see. Whatever you had said was actually an understatement. Each one of you killed 10 Chinese, and then you died.' So, this was the battle of Rezang La.
That is what Lata Mangeshkar sang, didn't she, dus dus ko ek ne maara... And even the Chinese accepted it. When you hear repeatedly that in 1962, the Indian Army lost, the Indian Army did not fight, does it hurt you?
Yadav, Singh: It happened. In Bomdila, in NEFA.
Why did it happen?
Yadav: That was the fault of our commanders. When the general himself goes away to Delhi, then who will fight the war? We gave our everything.
So what would you like to tell today's jawans and officers? What lesson should they learn from the battle of Rezang La?
Yadav: You see, my battalion got another chance after Rezang La, near Jaisalmer....
Singh: In 1971.
Yadav: Everyone has to die one day, but let us do something before we die. My son is also in 13 Kumaon. In the 1999 war, he was hit by a shell on his chest, and the doctor called me to the hospital. He said, 'We suggest that you let the splinter be, trying to take it out might create problems...' So my son is there, living with it.
Have the two of you seen the film Haqeeqat, because it has been made on the battle of Rezang La? Kar chale hum fida jaanon tan saathiyon, ab tumhare hawale watan saathiyon...
Yadav: But we have not been acknowledged in the film. I left the hall midway and walked out.
Why? Because it said Punjab?
Yadav: Yes. We fought the war, it should have been Kumaon. There are so many battalions—Kumaon, Rajput, Jat, Sikh—so why is there no battalion for us? Why don't they give us an Ahir battalion as well?
The battle that was shown (in Haqeeqat), was that okay?
Yadav: It was okay, but I left midway when I saw what was written on the shoulder.
And what lovely lyrics. Zinda rehne ke mausam bahut hain magar... jaan dene ki rut roz aati nahin...
Yadav: This is what I tell my child, arey baawla, khali haath aaya hai, khaali haath jaana hai (you have come into this world with nothing, and you will leave with nothing). Do something while you are alive. Your father fought a war and you are in the same unit.
The battle that you fought changed the course of the war of 1962. Because, if you had not fought off the Chinese, they would have captured Chushul that very day. But because you fought so bravely, the others got some time, and could withdraw, and some others were able to fortify defences. And the Chinese also suffered so much.
Yadav: Yes, they could not sustain it after Rezang La. They had to declare a ceasefire. It is here that they got the big blow, not in Bomdila, not in NEFA... This is where we held on, and fought them back.
Just to explain the significance of this battle. This wasn't just the charge of the light brigade, a brave but foolhardy charge. It actually brought about a strategic turnaround in the war of 1962, because it broke the Chinese advance, the Chinese momentum. It is our good fortune that people like these survived, just a handful of them, to tell us the story.
Transcribed by Sonam Chauhan