Last man, Last round

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In the heights of  Rezang La, a hundred Ahirs led by a Rajput fought and died for India.  Avalok Langer visits the Haryana villages that nurtured those bravehearts

Remembrance A memorial at the village in honour of war martyrs
Photos: Dijeshwar Singh

IN THE silence of 16,000 feet, more than half the way to Everest, a racing heartbeat is the soldier’s only companion. As your comrades die around you, as the enemy arrives in wave after wave, as the bullets run out, in the end it’s only your heart that carries you. So it did in the thin, cold air and unforgiving terrain of Rezang La pass, in the desolation of Ladakh, on 18 November 1962. The orders were blunt and clear that day for the 123 men of the C Company of the 13 Kumaon: protect the town of Chushul. Hinder and delay the Chinese assault as long as you can.

The Chinese had machine guns and logistical advantage. The Chinese had soldiers trained in mountain warfare. The Chinese outnumbered the Indians 50 to 1. The Indians had .303 Lee Enfield rifles, designed in the 19th century, having seen action till World War II but by 1962, hopelessly out of date.

The .303 is now used by NCC cadets for target practice. In the icy heights of Rezang La in 1962, it was used to defend India by men with 600 rounds per head. These 123 men fought to the last breath, literally, but each took at least five Chinese soldiers to death with him. These were men from the plains of India — the 13 Kumaon was the only all-Ahir (Yadav) battalion of the regiment — who had never seen snow in their lives and who had been sent up to the mountains straight from Ambala, equipped and dressed for late summer or perhaps autumn.

The defence of Rezang La provided the most gripping and heroic story of the War of 1962. This is the story of those brave men, sent to their death by political and military superiors who should have known better. This is the story of the Ahir villages of Haryana, and around the district of Rewari, not too far from New Delhi, where the families of these men will await and cherish them forever.

The frozen quiet of Sunday, 18 November, was broken by the first Chinese attack. One round of invaders was repulsed, then a second. Yet they kept coming. Outnumbered and outflanked, C Company fought on, lead heroically by its commander, Major Shaitan Singh, a Rajput from Jodhpur whose courage matched that of his men. Major Singh moved from post to post, urging his men on. He was shot in the arm and then in the abdomen, but he kept firing back. Eventually, he was too weak to fight. Two or three of the survivors wanted to carry him to safety. He pushed them away and urged them to leave. Then he found his way behind a boulder and bled to death.

MAJOR SHAITAN Singh was eventually awarded the Param Vir Chakra. Three months later, when his body was found and flown to Jodhpur, it received a hero’s welcome. He wasn’t alone in Valhalla. As Major General Ian Cardozo (retd) recounts in Param Vir Chakra: Our Heroes in Battle: “When Rezang La was later revisited, dead jawans were found in the trenches, still holding on to their weapons… Men holding on to the butts of their rifles with the remaining portion blown off testify to the intensity of enemy fire.

Every single man of this company was found dead in his trench with several bullet or splinter wounds. The two-inch mortar man died with a bomb still in his hand. The medical orderly had a syringe and a bandage in his hand when a Chinese bullet killed him. A dozen bodies of Ahirs were found outside their trenches indicating that they had in turn attacked the attacking Chinese when they were killed.”

The Indians had fought to the last man, last round and last bullet. Of the 1,000 mortar bombs with them, 993 had been fired. Jawans were readying to fire the other seven when they were killed. Perhaps it was after the incredible defence of Rezang La that TIME magazine, reporting the War of 1962, wrote: “The Indian Army needs almost everything except courage.” Chetan Anand made Haqeeqat (1964), India’s most authentic war film, in homage.

Heroes of the day Ex-servicemen talking with 84-year-old Urmila Yadav, sarpanch of Kosli

CHANDERPATI DEVI remembers it as if it were yesterday. Her husband, Siphai Dharam Pal, Juddi village, Rewari, had come home on leave when he was suddenly summoned back. War seemed imminent. That’s when Chandrapeti began to detect bad omens. “The bangles I was wearing broke,” she recalls, “as did the ones lying in my cupboard… I knew something bad was going to happen. We sat by the radio, hoping to hear something, that he was alright, but after 13 days we got the telegram… There are days when I think maybe I should have stopped him from leaving… But at the same time, I am very proud of him.”

It wasn’t the only telegram that came home. Over 200 telegrams found their way to Kosli, a small village in what is now Haryana (but was then part of undivided post-1947 Punjab). “As Kosli was the only village in the area that had a telegraph office,” explains Colonel (retd) SB Koshal, “all the telegrams of the 1962 war for this area, all of Ahir soldiers, found their way here.” Carrying a jute bag stuffed with the telegrams, the postmaster of Kosli village made his way to the sarpanch’s house. He refused to deliver the letters. “I can’t be the one to tell them their men are dead.” Half of those 200 telegrams related to the martyrs of Rezang La. Ramgiri was one of those who received a telegram: “What could I think, what could I do? I had lost him and was left alone with my two daughters. One was two, the other a month old.”

These immortal, evocative lines, taken from Thomas Macaulay’s poem Horatious — a tribute to a Roman soldier who showed courage similar to the 13 Kumaon — are now engraved onto the memorial at Chushul. He may not know the words and the poem, but to Rajendra Singh of Ramalawas village, Bhiwani, the sentiment is still so alive. His father, Naik Surat Singh, died at Rezang La on 18 November. “I was two years old when my father went to war,” he says, “my mother had just given birth to my younger brother and the news of my father’s death was kept from her at the time. I never knew what happened to him till I was 10 years old. I feel very proud of my father when I go for Rezang La Day. They tell us stories… of how they fought against overwhelming odds.”

And how can man die better than facing fearful odds for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his Gods

Only three men from Kosli village itself were in 13 Kumaon and only one died at Rezang La. Nevertheless, this village is the crucible as it were of the Ahir military creed. From World War I onwards, at least one resident of Kosli has fought in every war and counter-insurgency operation of the Indian Army. Today, the village has 106 serving officers and 500 soldiers (across all three services). It receives Rs 7 crore every month in military pensions.

STANDING AT the base of a marble monument dedicated to every Kosli martyr since World War I, Urmila Yadav, the 84-year-old sarpanch, says, “Every family in the village has a member in the military. That is the way we are brought up. Those who are born in Kosli do not die easily; 350 men from our village fought in Kargil. Not one of them died.”

She would know. Her husband, sons, nephews and uncles have all served in the army. One of her uncles won a Victoria Cross in World War II. It is worth noting that Urmila Yadav was elected from a general and not reserved seat in this 100 percent literate village.

Among the veterans of Kosli is Naik (retd) Mangal Singh, who fought in World War II, in Kashmir in 1948 and then in 1962. “We didn’t have any infrastructure when we went to war in 1962.” he rues. “I think we were badly let down by our political leaders. All this talk of Hindi–Chini-bhai-bhai led us into a trap. They should have known better.”

As he finishes, Captain (retd) Rohtas Singh, who fought in 1971, speaks up in anger, “The men of C Company fought bravely, killing more than 500 Chinese. Why can’t we pay tribute to them at Rezang La? The politicians say it will spoil our ‘good relations’ with China. Cowards.”

It is obvious that despite such a long legacy of warfare and heroism, memories of Rezang La run deep in this Ahir homeland of Haryana. It’s not the death of those bravehearts that rankles. It’s the hopelessness with which they were sent to their destiny. In Kosli and the other villages of Rewari, that betrayal still hurts.

Avalok Langer is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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