In November 1961, amid increasing Chinese intrusion and construction in what India saw as its territory, a meeting was held at the Prime Minister’s Office.
Present at this meeting, among others, were prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, defence minister V K Krishna Menon, army chief P N Thapar, foreign secretary M J Desai, and B N Mullick, the Director of Intelligence Bureau, who details the interaction in his book The Chinese Betrayal.
After being explained the position on the frontier, Nehru decided that “Indian forces should remain in effective occupation of the whole frontier from NEFA to Ladakh... by setting up posts or by means of patrolling,” Mullick writes.
This decision, India’s official war history records, “launched the Forward Policy”. The policy was implemented without delay — instructions were issued by the Indian Army Headquarters in December 1961, and had a “major effect in determining the deployment in Ladakh”.
In Ladakh, this directive meant that the Indian Army was to secure all possible approaches of ingress from Tibet towards Leh.
China launched a full-fledged military attack against India on 20 October 1962, almost a year later. In the days that followed, India suffered significant losses along the frontier in Ladakh. On the north bank of Ladakh, where India and China were locked in the standoff last year, Indian forces under Major Dhan Singh Thapa fought to defend their positions near the Sirijap Complex at Finger 8 but the Chinese managed to overwhelm them with sheer numbers.
Just south of the Pangong Lake, Indian forces were ensuring that the Chinese could not move towards Chushul from the Spanggur Gap, a 2-kilometre-long break in the Kailash Range which India occupied in August last year at the peak of the crisis in Ladakh.
Just before the start of the war, Chushul had been linked to Leh in the north with a jeepable road over the Taska La pass and along the Indus. Around 11 km south of the Spanggur Gap is Rezeng La, one of the positions that India had taken control of during the operation at the Kailash Range in August 2020. The feature, which has an elevation of over 5,500 metres, guards the southern approaches to the Chushul Valley. Taking control of Rezang La would allow the Chinese to cut off the newly-built road linking Chushul and the areas south of it to Leh.
Taking advantage of the lull that set in after 27 October following the first round of fighting, India started reinforcing its positions in the area around Chushul. To defend the Spanggur Gap, India airlifted AMX-13 tanks of the 20 Lancers from Chandigarh. The 114 Infantry Brigade tasked the 13 Kumayoun Battalion, which arrived in Leh on 2 October 1962 and was undergoing acclimatisation, to defend the area south of the Spanggur Gap. The Charlie Company with a section of 3-inch mortars was sent to Rezang La under the command of Major Shaitan Singh Bhatti.
On 29 October, just days after the Charlie Company started arriving at Rezang La, an AN-32 of the Indian Air Force carrying arms, ammunition and 47 young Ahir recruits pulled out from their training and landed at the Chushul Airstrip close to the Spanggur Gap.
"A new draft of 47 arrived at Chushul. Travelling in an aircraft for the first time, on great heights and because of the rarity of air, most of the boys were badly affected. Lieutenant colonel H.S. Dhingra, CO, addressed them the next day [30 October] and gave instruction that they will be gradually inducted to the pickets they were to hold. It was queer scene to see their innocent faces, nose-blowing beyond their control and body swaying with dizziness," the war diary of the 13 Kumaon Battalion captured.
By sunset the next day (30 October), the 47 had arrived at Rezang La.
In a call to Lt Col Dhingra later that day, Maj Shaitan Singh told him that the new recruits had arrived but their condition was bad as they had not undergone acclimitisation required to survive at high altitude areas.
Including the 47 new Ahir recruits, Major Shaitan Singh now had 120 men under his command at Rezang La.
The Battle Of Rezang La
"Major Shaitan Singh had placed his men on the forward slopes of the hill — Number 7 platoon, under Jemadar Suraj Singh, was on the north flank; 8 platoon, under Jemadar Hari Singh, was in the pass area; and the central post was held by 9 platoon under Jemadar Ram Chander, with the company HQ next to it. The mortar section, under Naik Ram Kumar Yadav, was on the reverse slope," Rachna Bisht Rawat writes in her book The Brave: Param Vir Chakra Stories.
By 17 November, the jawans manning observation posts in the area under Charlie Company started reporting the arrival of Chinese forces and their equipment, including armoured vehicles towing artillery guns. Hundreds of Chinese vehicles had come to the area carrying soldiers and equipment.
The first wave of Chinese attack came on 18 November. Chinese soldiers, carrying 7.62 mm self-loading rifles, were heading towards the Indian positions in the area. When the Chinese soldiers were only 50 yards away, Indian soldiers started firing with two .303 rifles and one light machine gun. A red flare fired by Indian soldiers lit the area and caught the Chinese off guard. While some Chinese soldiers were killed, others ran away, and the firing stopped after around 10 minutes of fighting.
"Unfortunately for the soldiers, the space within the trigger guards was not enough for the gloved fingers to get inside and squeeze the trigger. This meant that when the time came, they would have to remove the gloves and use their naked fingers to fire their weapons without worrying about their fingers," Kuldeep Yadav writes in his book The Battle Of Rezang La.
A patrol party sent later found that more Chinese soldiers were approaching Indian positions simultaneously. Then, at around 3.30 am, the Chinese also started shelling the Charlie Company. The heavy shelling by the Chinese continued for around 20 minutes. The shelling by the Chinese failed to cause significant damage on the Indian side. One of the 3-inch mortar guns was damaged and three jawans manning it had been killed.
The second and third wave of attack by Chinese soldiers, which came after the shelling, was also repelled by Indian forces.
"While the Indian rifles could only be fired at a rate of 25–30 rounds per minute, as after each shot they had to be cocked, the LMG’s rate of fire was more than 500 rounds per minute. The Chinese soldiers fired from their self-loading rifles as they attacked the platoon’s section positions, but it was ineffective as the Indians were not," Yadav writes.
"The enemy’s frontal assault was crushed. Most of them died and the survivors who ran back were chased by Indian fire until 100 yards when the section commanders ordered, ‘Stop firing'," he said.
Chinese shelling, however, continued, and Major Shaitan Singh decided to call for artillery support from the brigade.
For the next round of attacks, the Chinese brought out recoilless (RCL) guns to the flanks of the Charlie Company and also started attacking Indian positions incessantly with 75 mm and 57 mm bombs, and 132 mm rockets. When visibility improved with dawn, the Chinese were also seen bringing out Medium Machine Gun (MMG) and positioning it at a ridge 600 yards away from an Indian position. Soon, the Chinese forces started targeting Indian positions in the area with mortar and RCL guns.
Indian forces had not received any artillery support by this time.
"The vast area the company was tasked to defend, the lack of artillery support, the non-availability of MMGs, the unmined approach for the Chinese and less likelihood of reinforcement were hurting them badly," Yadav writes in his account of the battle.
The Chinese attack continued relentlessly, with the MMG inflicting pain on Indian defences in the area. Two Indian soldiers crawled up to the Chinese MMG position that was spewing fire on Indian troops to overpower the Chinese and take control of the MMG. This brave attempt, however, failed, with one of the two soldiers falling short by only five feet.
"Chinese were using better firepower and soon one of the Indian 2-inch mortar guns was completely destroyed. To make matters worse, another MMG that wasn’t visible to platoon 8 and was farther off opened fire. Not having an MMG with the company continued to hurt them gravely," Yadav writes, adding, "By the time the Chinese bombs stopped, considerable damage had been done to platoon 8."
At around 7.40 am, the Chinese forces launched their sixth round of attack. Indian soldiers of platoon 8 were running out of ammunition by this time. Realising that they had no other option, the soldiers jumped out of their trenches for a bayonet strike and charged at the enemy.
The surrounding echoed with the war cry of the brave Ahir soldiers, Yadav writes, adding, "The counter-attack by the Indians was so fierce that the Chinese stopped firing temporarily."
Ill-equipped and out-numbered, two platoons of Charlie Company were overrun by the Chinese forces. From his headquarter, Major Shaitan Singh could see the Chinese atop the overrun Indian position. One platoon and the mortar guns section were intact but had suffered losses.
"Platoons 7 and 8 had considerably thinned down and now all they could do was wait. The Indians had very limited ammunition left and it was not possible to waste this on any kind of daredevilry. Maj. Shaitan Singh’s orders were clear: they were to defend the Indian territory till the last man and last bullet," Yadav writes in the book.
"But he still has platoon 9 and the 3-inch mortar section intact, though the two mortar guns are now without their sights and seven crew out of ten have been martyred due to direct hits. The Chinese meanwhile launch their seventh wave as the company commander decides to retake platoon 7’s position where the last surviving jawans under Nk Sahi Ram engage the enemy and inflict large casualties before they are overpowered and martyred," Yadav says in his account of the battle.
Major Shaitan Singh now had less than 50 soldiers and very limited ammunition to fight the Chinese, who were present in a very large number and could continue to fight by sending waves of soldiers and pounding Indian positions endlessly. However, when it seemed that the battle had been lost, something miraculous happened.
"As the attention of the gathered Chinese soldiers was towards the west, a volley of LMG and rifle fire hit them from the north. This totally unexpected fire from just a few hundred yards and from a totally unexpected direction filled the Chinese troops with panic and they jumped for cover. This firing brought numerous Chinese soldiers down," Yadav writes.
The fire had come from Naib Subedar Surja Ram’s section. It had been deployed at an alternate location by the platoon commander at the beginning. Instead of withdrawing from the battlefield, the soldiers had decided to go down fighting in loyalty for their platoon. They were soon overpowered by the Chinese, who then turned attention towards the remaining platoon, the company headquarters and the mortar section.
Even though his forces were outnumbered and low on ammunition, Major Shaitan Singh decided to attack the Chinese. After reassessing the situation, he decided that the forces will take back the position of one of the platoons overrun by the Chinese.
Although the plan appeared to be working initially, Major Shaitan Singh and his soldiers were hit by a burst of MMG fire from the Chinese. Major Shaitan Singh was hit in his abdomen during the attack.
"Out of the twenty men from the platoon and eight from the company headquarters, only five survived the targeted attack of the enemy’s MMG. Simultaneously, section three of platoon 9 also came under heavy fire. By now, jawans of section three had exhausted their LMG and rifle ammunition," Yadav writes in the book.
The Chinese soldiers then started moving towards the company headquarters and the 3-inch mortar section. When they were at a distance of 150 yards, the 3-inch mortar had to be fired at an elevation of almost 80 degrees. The Chinese were soon closer than the weapons minimum range of 125 yards and the mortar’s usability had run out.
While Major Shaitan Singh was carried to a lower location through a gully, the remaining soldiers continued to fight. Realising that he would not survive, Major Shaitan Singh ordered the soldiers carrying him to leave him there and go to the battalion headquarters.
"I want you to leave me here and go to the battalion headquarters. Report to the CO how bravely our company fought. Go fast, save yourselves. The enemy can come here any time," he said, according to Yadav.
"Finally, after helping their company commander to rest against a boulder, the jawans reluctantly left. By now, Maj. Shaitan Singh had given his personal pistol to Sep. Mamchand of platoon 9 who was with them, to deposit it with the battalion quartermaster so that it would not fall into the enemy’s hands," Yadav writes in his account.
The Indian Army found him at the same spot three months later.
The frozen bodies of Indian soldiers were first discovered by a Ladakhi shephered, who arrived at Rezang La in February 1963, nearly three months after the end of the fighting. He was the first Indian to witness the closing stages of the battle of Rezang La preserved by the snow.
"This shepherd was the first Indian to witness the closing stages of the battle turned into a frozen tableau. Right in front of his eyes were the frozen bodies of the Indian jawans still standing in their trenches with their weapons pointed towards the east," Yadav writes.
The shepherd informed the Indian Army unit in Chushul. Soon, a search party was dispatched to Rezang La.
Major Shaitan Singh's body was found resting against a boulder where his soldiers had left him. Many of the soldiers had died with their weapons in hand. No bunker in the area under Charlie Company was found intact. On the shield of one of the bunkers, the party found 759 bullet holes. One of the soldiers had been shot as many as 47 times.
"When Rezang La was later revisited, dead jawans were found in the trenches still holding on to their weapons... every single man of this company was found dead in his trench with several bullets or splinter wounds. The 2-inch mortar man died with a bomb still in his hand. The medical orderly had a syringe and bandage in his hands when the Chinese bullet hit him... Of the thousand mortar bombs with the defenders, all but seven had been fired and the rest were ready to be fired when the (mortar) section was overrun," Major-General Ian Cardozo writes in his book Param Vir, Our Heroes in Battle.
The Indian Army recovered the bodies of 96 soldiers of the Charlie Company from Rezang La.
"They were cremated with full military honours amid the chanting of Vedic mantras. Brig. T.N. Raina lit the combined funeral pyre of the soldiers with his own hand," writes Yadav in his book.
Major Shaitan Singh's body was sent to Jodhpur a day after it was found at Rezang La. He was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra, the country's highest wartime gallantry award.
One Param Vir Chakra, eight Vir Chakras, four Sena Medals and one Mentioned-in-Dispatches were awarded to the soldiers. The Charlie Company, which was an all-Ahir company, remains one of the highest decorated companies of the Indian Army to this day.
Today, a memorial stands in honour of the soldiers of the Charlie Company company who died in the battle.
"And how can man die better, than facing fearful odds, from the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of the gods," the words inscribed on the memorial, taken from Lord Macaulay’s book Lays of Ancient Rome and selected by the battalion commander of 13 Kumaon, read.
According to Yadav's account, a total of 1,300 soldiers of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) were killed trying to capture Rezang La. 114 Indian soldiers out of a total of 120 were killed.
In August 2020, at the peak of the standoff with China in eastern Ladakh, the Indian Army took control of Rezang La and other features on the Kailash Range to preempt the PLA, and forced it to come to the negotiating table. Fifty-nine years after the Battle of Rezang La, Indian soldiers are again deployed along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh. They may be better equipped and prepared than those who fought the Chinese here in 1962, but they draw their inspiration from the immense courage and valour of Major Shaitan Singh and his men, who were equipped for the fight with little more than their indomitable spirit.
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