When I was in school, my brother and I, along with our parents, used to travel to Kosli, our ancestral village in Haryana, for summer vacations. It was a carefree period of my life and I have fond memories of those days, munching dhaani-bhugda (roasted barley and chickpeas), licking ice cream candy bars, eating rotis soaked in desi ghee, picking bers (Indian jujube fruit) from the wooded area that bordered our village, walking our buffalo to the pond, picking peacock feathers from the Arya Samaj ashram, playing hide and seek in the numerous havelis that belonged to our relatives and flying kites. Gulgalas, laadu (ladoos with whole peppercorns in them, can you believe it?), choorma and gheeboora were the occasional treats. I know, many of you wouldn’t have heard of these food items and I can’t blame you for this of course, because I’m talking about the time when our respective sub-cultures were still intact.
One thing that was constant during these vacations was the mention of the battle of Rezang La, where, led by Maj. Shaitan Singh, the soldiers belonging to the Charlie Company of the 13 Kumaon Battalion had fought a valiant battle against the Chinese. Almost everyone I knew, including my own family, had at least one close or distant relative, if not more, who had defended India and laid down his life in this battle. In those days, women used to sing raginis (folk songs) of valour—they still do—and everyone was proud of the war heroes of Rezang La. And yet, after returning from my vacation, year after year, as I mentioned this battle to my classmates in Kendriya Vidyalaya, Sec. 31, Chandigarh, where I studied, no one had heard of it.
Things didn’t change after I joined Nowrosjee Wadia College in Pune. The students too had never heard of the battle of Rezang La. At that time, I thought this was okay. After all, India is a large country.
In 1991, I got into the naval officers academy and started to train to become an officer. I was looking forward to reading about famous Indian and world battles. But, here too, whenever I spoke to my instructors about Rezang La, no one had heard of this brave last-man-last-bullet stand of our soldiers. Subsequently, in all the units I served, on land or at sea, I didn’t meet a single officer or jawan who had at least some idea about this battle. This disappointed me. But, by now, I understood the reasons for this lack of information. The debacle of 1962, where a Nehru-led India lost humiliatingly to China, was not allowed to be discussed in public discourses: books, debates, seminars or school lessons never talked about it. And, therefore, not surprisingly, the story of the men who died fighting against all odds was simply brushed aside. After all, there were army generals to be protected, ministers to be kept away from public loathing and the image of a political establishment kept intact to the extent possible.
Finally, after serving for twenty-three years, I took voluntary retirement in 2014 from the Indian Coast Guard in the rank of Commandant. Since then, I have written more than a dozen books on diverse genres that include espionage, romance and true crime. In 2018, when the thought occurred to me about writing a book on the Rezang La battle, it came to me as an epiphany, one that convinced me that all the preceding events of my life were a mere build-up for this moment.
I got down to writing a detailed proposal, which was approved by Penguin Random House India in just a few weeks. I was finally getting an opportunity to bring to life the truth about this battle. While I was aware that getting facts about this battle would be a struggle, the thought that was foremost in my mind at the time was that I would be burdening the survivors and the family members of those who had laid down their lives with the emotional pain of reliving their losses all over again. But, as I went about researching and writing this book, over the course of the next two years, more than the struggle, it led to a sense of fulfilment. It was as if an invisible power was egging me on and wherever I went, people, including relatives of the martyrs, met me with warm smiles, open arms and a sense of pride that filled my heart with a difficult-to-describe emotion.
Since not much has been written about this battle in the existing books and memoirs related to the 1962 war, my effort of reading dozens of books on this period bore little fruit. That’s when I started searching for the survivors and I found two officers and four Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) who were directly related to this battle.
Brig. Raghunath V. Jatar (Retd) was in command of the Bravo and Delta Companies as a major at that time and was deployed on the hill adjacent to Rezang La called Maggar Hill. He had sent a patrol of four jawans during the battle to find out more details and lost two of them. Brig. Prem Kumar (Retd) was a captain at that time and had led a platoon to Rezang La during end-October 1962 before he fell sick due to high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPO) and had to be hospitalized in Srinagar, paving the way for Maj. Shaitan Singh to arrive at Rezang La with the remaining jawans of the Charlie Company.
Capt. (Honorary) Ram Chander (Retd) was holding the rank of Jemadar (this British-era rank was changed by the government to Naib Subedar after 1965) at that time and was the platoon commander of platoon 9 in the battlefield. Capt. (Honorary) Ram Chander (Retd) was a sepoy at that time and deployed right next to Maj. Shaitan Singh in the battleground as a radio operator. Havildar Nihal Singh (Retd) was a sepoy too and deployed in Company headquarters with an LMG (light machine gun) for the personal protection of Maj. Shaitan Singh. Havildar Gaje Singh (Retd) was also a sepoy and positioned with platoon 9. While I could speak to Brig. Raghunath V. Jatar (Retd) and Brig. Prem Kumar (Retd) over the phone, I drove down to meet the others at their villages in Haryana.
Talking to these officers and meeting these JCOs gave me a first-hand impression about the battle. Further, I was fortunate to meet many other officers, researchers and historians who had collated considerable information on the battle of Rezang La over the years. These include Maj. (Dr) T.C. Rao (Retd), Dr Ishwar Singh Yadav, Prof. K.C. Yadav, Rao Ajit Singh and Mr Naresh Chauhan.
Maj. T.C. Rao, an officer of the Kumaon Regiment and a successful businessman since his retirement, shared important information as he has been actively involved with the recognition of the Ahir valour. Dr Ishwar Singh Yadav shared four voluminous files with data and information related to the heroes of this battle that he had been collecting for decades. Prof. K.C. Yadav, a historian and an accomplished author, was kind enough to share a diary, which he had compiled in 2012, where many of the family members of the war heroes had provided personal details like letters and photographs. He also presented a book to me, which was a compilation of various write-ups on the Rezang La battle. The most noteworthy among them was the detailed account written by Capt. Amarinder Singh (Retd), the present chief minister of Punjab, titled ‘The Battle of Rezang La: A Blow-by-Blow Account of the Bloodiest Battle in the Indian Military History’, reproduced from his book, Lest We Forget. And finally, Mr Naresh Chauhan, who heads the Rezang La Samiti that has done a lot of work for the widows and family members of the war heroes, shared information related to the martyred soldiers. In addition, I also travelled to various villages in Haryana and visited the family members of as many war heroes as I could.
One of the most authentic resources of this battle was the ‘War Diary’ of the 13 Kumaon Battalion and I was fortunate that, based on my request, the battalion formed a team and were able to unearth this hand-written, leather-bound book from the period 1960–70 in fairly good condition.
Writing this book has been an emotionally exhausting experience for me. This is the story of one officer and 120 jawans who fought a fierce battle to protect our nation on a very cold winter morning on 18 November 1962. Their weapons were outdated, they were short on ammunition, their clothing was ineffective against the cold and they had little food to eat. All they had was each other, an outstanding leader in Maj. Shaitan Singh, experienced tacticians in Naib Subedars Surja Ram, Ram Chander and Hari Ram, and a love for their motherland. And on that morning, it was enough.
Having written this narrative non-fiction account as objectively as I could, I finally feel relieved that the story of these unsung heroes is in the hands of the readers.
Excerpted with permission from The Battle of Rezang La written by Kulpreet Yadav and Penguin Random House