The Jaswantgarh war memorial
Defence

Epic Battles: Revisiting Jaswantgarh And Rezangla Of 1962 On Their Anniversaries

Fifty-five years ago, this day, the heroic battle of Jaswantgarh was fought and here’s an account of how 4 Garhwal Rifles along with the Garhwali Bhullas stood up to the aggressor with valour.

17 and 18 November 1962 are two days enshrined boldly in India’s abundant military heritage. These two dates, so close to each other, symbolise valour and sacrifice of the highest order; they relate to the Sino-Indian Border Conflict 1962. As the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fought a largely unprepared Indian Army, thrust into battle at foreboding heights in winter, post after post and defended area after another fell in the way of its advance. Almost a month after the Chinese launched their invasion on 20 October 1962 in NEFA and Ladakh gaining large tracts of territory and forcing the Indian Army to withdraw, two brave units fought an epic battle, each to bloody the Chinese and restore the image of the Indian Army. Coincidentally, one battle was in each of the two theatres of conflict - NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) and Ladakh.

A bust of Major Shaitan Singh (Medovar/Wikimedia Commons)

On 18 November 1962, in the forward defences of Chushul in the Eastern Ladakh sector, an Ahir company of 13 Kumaon under the command of Major Shaitan Singh, Param Vir Chakra (posthumous), withstood a series of attacks on its position and imposed heavy casualties on the enemy. This company occupying defences at Rezangla, provided depth to the Chushul Bowl, which was defended by 114 Infantry Brigade. In the morning of 18 November 1962, the Chinese PLA contacted the defences of one of the forward platoons. From then onwards it was a battle of attrition between them and the Kumaonis. Outgunned and outnumbered, the Kumaonis stuck on with the age old doctrine adage - 'last man, last round'. Inspiring this obstinate stand and refusal to withdrawal was the company commander Maj Shaitan Singh who too was finally martyred. 13 Kumaon lost 114 all ranks and nine were severely wounded. This was a classic case of employment of sound sub unit tactics and it resulted in hundreds of PLA soldiers being killed. 13 Kumaon was bestowed with the battle honour Rezangla, the only honour granted for operations in Ladakh.

The second battle honour of 1962 was bestowed on 4 Garhwal Rifles (Garh Rif), for the heroic performance of the unit at Nuranang now called Jaswantgarh on 17 November 1962. It was the only battle honour won by a unit in the eastern theatre in 1962. 4 Garh Rif is my unit; raised by my father in 1959. I was its 14th Commanding Officer. This write up is not a tactical explanation of the battle of Jaswantgarh. It is simply a rendering of a layman account for public knowledge of what really happened and how the unit stood out so valiantly. It is my dedication to the three officers, four Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs), 147 other ranks and seven non combatant tradesmen who were martyred at the Battle of Jaswantgarh. I knew almost all of them having been a six year old with the unit when it was raised. The unit is celebrating and marking the 55th anniversary of the battle on 17 November 2017, located far into the mountains of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) where this year on Independence Day it was again the recipient of the largest number of honours and awards for its spectacular operation against infiltrating Pakistani terrorists. The operation was quoted to me by none other than Gen Bipin Rawat, Chief of Army Staff (COAS); he described the conduct as a copy book model for counter infiltration operations.

Before going on to provide a non tactical explanation of the battle of Jaswantgarh, it may be motivating for the reader to be aware of what Lt Gen BM Kaul wrote about the unit in his book The Untold Story. Describing the performance of units on the eastern front, he wrote "if more units of the Indian Army had fought the way 4 Garh Rif did, the history of the 1962 War may perhaps have been different"

In mid 1962 the unit was serving at Ramgarh, Bihar, and had just returned from counter insurgency operations in Nagaland. In September, it received its mobilisation orders and moved to Chardwar, near Rangia, Assam. As the Chinese threat increased progressively, the unit moved up from Tezpur and was deployed north west of the Tawang Chhu river. It did extensive patrolling and dominated the Tawang area. C company under its company commander, Maj (later Col) Hasta Bahadur Rai, patrolled the upper reaches of Tawang to prevent any infiltration.

When the Chinese attacked on 20 October 1962, the operations commenced from Thagla on the flank and then moved on to Bumla. The aim was to outflank and get to Tawang at the earliest before resting the front on the Tawang Chhu River to allow road building, move up of artillery and build up of logistics. Maj Rai's company went out of communication with the battalion HQ and fell back much later as the withdrawal to own side of Tawang Chhu commenced through the bridge of Jang. (Please refer to the not to scale sketch in which most landmarks being referred here are reflected).

Schematic sketch showing the advance of the Chinese to Sela between 20 October and 20 November 1962.

The first phase of the Chinese operations ceased with the fall of Tawang. 4 Garh Rif was not involved in any of the serious fighting till then. It had reinforced Bumla with a company for a short while before operations commenced, but it withdrew on orders well before. With the Indian Army defeated and pushed back behind the Tawang Chhu, HQ 4 Infantry Division under Maj Gen MS Pathania issued orders for the occupation of Sela, the highest pass in the area, and its preparation as the new main position. In order to do this, it was necessary to keep the Chinese reconnaissance parties at bay and prevent them from crossing the Tawang Chhu.

It was also necessary that should the Chinese decide to attack earlier there should be sufficient organised defence ahead of Sela, the new main position where the ultimate battle would be fought for the restoration of the prestige of the Indian Army and the defeat of the PLA. Such a task is performed by what is called 'covering troops' by deploying ahead, absorbing the initial weight of the attack and preventing contact with the main defences. 4 Garh Rif was given the onerous task of occupying Nuranang, between Sela and Jang, as a covering position and performed the role of covering troops.

An inscription at the war memorial

In current times you can drive from Tezpur to Tenga, break journey for the night before you start the next day, the arduous but highly picturesque drive to Sela (13,500 feet) via Roopa, Bomdila and Baisakhi. As you descend from Sela towards Jang, approximately 11 km away is a huge memorial, dedicated to the battle for the covering position at Nuranang fought valiantly by the unit. It succeeded in giving the Chinese a bloody nose. The memorial has changed shape and size many times but it has never lost the reverence of the local people, the Monpas nor that of the hordes of travellers who now halt to stretch, photograph, consume glasses of tea and pay obeisance at the virtual shrine which has emerged over a period of time. The shrine next to the memorial is that of Jaswant Baba. It's a post martyrdom personification giving him great reverence. Jaswant was a rifleman of 4 Garh Rif. He earned a Mahavir Chakra posthumously for his gallant action at Nuranang. In his memory and honour, Nuranang is now called Jaswantgarh; it's actually the location of the battlefield which is called by that name.

Here is a description of that heroic display by the unit at Jaswantgarh:

After the fall of Tawang, as the unit withdrew through Jang, almost the last unit to do so, the iron bridge over the river Tawang Chhu was finally destroyed as a reserved demolition. Alfa company under the command of 2/Lt (later colonel) S N Tandon was deployed at the current location of the memorial at the plateau which falls steeply towards the road going down to Jang. The battalion HQ, a company and the three-inch mortars were deployed approximately 1.5 km towards Sela, along the track. One company occupied the high ground to the north across the road and beyond the deep depression through which the Nuranang river flows. The fourth company was towards the south and slightly west of the memorial area covering the southern approach.

By 16 November 1962, the defences were in reasonable state although there was little overhead protection. The defences were being constantly shelled by the Chinese who had good observation from across the Tawang Chhu. Our artillery observation post officers also did likewise against PLA deployment. In the interim the CO, Lt Col (let Maj Gen) BM Bhattacharjee, decided to send some patrols to dominate the forward zone. One of these patrols led by 2/Lt Vinod Goswami volunteered to cross the Tawang Chhu by improvised means to ascertain strength and deployment of the PLA and if possible to capture a Chinese prisoner. The patrol moved by stealth, performed its task. While returning it targeted a PLA bunker and captured a sentry alive. Unfortunately, while bringing the prisoner across the Tawang Chhu it became extremely difficult to handle him as he was also wounded. He was finally abandoned believed dead. Goswami led some other daring missions during the run up to the battle at Jaswantgarh.

Finally on the night of 16/17 November, almost in sync with operations at Rezangla, the Chinese commenced phase two of their offensive. Probing actions against Alfa company were made by Chinese dressed as Monpa women but the troops (Bhullas) responded in time. Through 17 November and till the night of 17/18 November the location came under five heavy attacks and all were beaten back. After the third attempt, the Chinese managed to deploy a heavy machine gun (HMG) on the left (southern flank of Alfa company and its fire made it impossible for the Bhullas to fight effectively. This was the crucial moment. A party of three volunteers was formed. It comprised L/Nk Trilok Singh, riflemen Gopal Singh and Jaswant Singh. This party moved first by stealth and then under covering fire. In a hand to hand melee lasting several minutes the HMG was silenced and the crew was killed.

The bold action involved Trilok providing covering fire from a short distance away while Jaswant and Gopal assaulted and beheaded the PLA detachment with khukris. While recovering the weapon and dragging it back, Jaswant was killed by a burst. Trilok similarly died when the Chinese targeted him realising that it was his fire which had enabled the action. Gopal succeeded in returning with the weapon. The area around Alfa company and the slope towards Jang was strewn with a large number of bodies of PLA soldiers. The fourth and fifth PLA attacks were equally ferocious virtually following the tactics of human waves. However, Number 3 Platoon of Alfa company, under Sub Jatan Singh held on tenaciously.

As the battle was enjoined and the Garhwalis were creating history, the Chinese probed the flanks from a wide arc infiltrating self contained troops into the depth areas north and south of Sela. The pass was well stocked for battle and nearing completion of its defences, which were spread on both shoulders. Unfortunately there remained a perception in the mind of senior commanders about the invincibility of the Chinese soldier and an image of them being 10 feet tall, persisted. The masterful resistance by the Garhwalis at Jaswantgarh could not alter that perception.

As reports of Chinese infiltration came into HQ 4 Infantry Division there was panic, and orders to withdraw from Jaswantgarh were issued even as 4 Garh Rif was ready for more. It had sustained very few casualties, in fact, just three killed and a few wounded. Its three remaining companies were largely untouched except for shelling. However, through 18-19 November the unit withdrew on orders and reached Sela. There, the Commander 62 Infantry Brigade, the famous Brig Hoshiar Singh, briefed Lt Col Bhattacharjee. Two columns for the withdrawal to Bomdila were formed one each under the Commander and the CO. Two companies each of 4 Garh Rif formed the protection of each columns, which had many HQ personnel and stragglers withdrawing in panic.

The two columns ran into a series of Chinese ambushes as they tried cross country movements. In one of the ambushes, Brig Hoshiar Singh is reputed to have been wounded and captured. His refusal to submit to his captors is reputed to have enraged them leading to him being killed in cold blood. The Chinese strength of infiltrators far outnumbered the strength of the withdrawing columns. The attrition on the ambushes was intense and the troops dispersed in small groups many crossing into Bhutan on the west and made their way towards the rear, suffering intense cold with many cases of frost bite. Many were taken prisoner, including Lt Col BM Bhattacharjee and the Adjutant Capt Dharam Pal. Major HB Rai, 2/Lt SN Tandon and 2/Lt RP Singh were among the prisoners. 2/Lt VInod Goswami, Lt Hari Kishen Dev and Capt BK Nath(RMO) were killed at unknown places and time during the withdrawal.

The Garhwalis proved heroic in the custody of the Chinese too. They were singled out for maltreatment because of their stiff resistance at Jaswantgarh. Capt Dharampal was tortured and placed in isolated confinement due to his numerous attempts at escape. He was my first CO when I was commissioned in 1974. The strength of martyrs of the unit amounted to three officers, four JCOs, 147 ORs and seven non combatised tradesmen. A very large number became winter casualties. When the unit assembled at Ramgarh, the new CO Lt Col IS Rawat, KC had to virtually carry out re-raising. All citations were sent under his pen after meticulously charting out events from interviews with the men. The unit had lost its war diary and all its property. The citations led to award of two Maha Vir Chakra (MVC), 7 Vir Chakra (VrCs), 6 SMS and a host of other awards. Lt Col BM Bhattacharjee and Rifleman Jaswant received the MVC; among the VrC winners were L/Nk Trilok Singh, Rifleman Gopal Singh, 2/Lt SN Tandon, 2/Lt VINOD Goswami and Subedar Jatan Singh Gusain. The unit was finally awarded the battle honour Nuranang which is colloquially called Jaswantgarh.

Unfortunately the local people have created a myth around the battle of Jaswantgarh, crediting the resistance and heroic action only to Jaswant Singh and two young girls, Nura and Sela, who allegedly helped him resist the Chinese. Local folklore has it that the Chinese finally captured Jaswant Singh and beheaded him, taking his head away as trophy. These tales have their own place and have been written about and romanticised by media; even a film is being made about the myth of Jaswant Singh.

The only truth lies in the historical record of The Garhwal Rifles and the great spoken reputation that the Garhwali Bhullas acquired after the heroic battle of Jaswantgarh. Today, on 17 November, on the 55th anniversary of the battle, we, the members of the community of the Jaswantgarh Battalion bow our heads in reverence to our ancestors and resolve never to let down the reputation and name of the Nation and the Regiment.

This has to end with the war cries of the Garhwalis and Kumaonis.

Kalika Mata Ki Jai! (war cry of the Kumaonis).

Bol Badri Vishal Lal Ki Jai! (victory to the followers of Badri Vishal). Badri Vishal is the personification of Lord Vishnu, the presiding deity of the Garhwalis.

Jai Hind!

The author is a second generation officer of 4 Garhwal Rifles, the unit which fought at Jaswantgarh. He was its 14th Commanding Officer.