‘Our families refused to believe we were lucky’

On November 17, 1962, Major Shaitan Singh read and re-read a letter from his home in Jodhpur and could not stop smiling. That snowy November night atop Rezang La in Chushul, he was amused to read about the rumours of his martyrdom. At 7 pm when Lieutenant General (retd) D D Saklani, who was then adjutant posted at the battalion headquarters, spoke to him, Singh shared his joke.

"Though he found it funny, I could sense some concern in his voice. Three hours later, I called him back to ask if he wanted to send a message back home but by then the call operator said he had retired for the day. I did not want to disturb him. That was my last call to the Charlie Company on November 17. We lost communication with them thereafter," recalled Lt Gen Saklani (77) as he sat watching a function to mark the golden jubilee of the India-China war, an event he would rather wipe out of memory.

Not just Major Shaitan Singh, several of the jawans and officers posted at Chushul to fight the Chinese, so that India could hold Ladakh, wished they could send one last word home. In fact, when many of the survivors came back to a safe military base after the ceasefire, their families refused to believe they got lucky. Subedar Dalip Singh (69) recalls how he had to write home naming the several fields of his village and a secret that only he and his father knew. "My father had written in a letter that he did not believe I was alive and asked me to testify by telling him what I had once stolen from a nearby village. I wrote back saying it was a pup."

Captain Ramchander Yadav, the radio operator of Charlie Company who survived the war, said, "The bodies were recovered three months later by a team of the International Red Cross and a mass cremation was held for the martyrs. It was traumatic for me."

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