In May 1999, Major Sonam Wangchuk of the 4 Assam Regiment, on a posting with Indus Wing of the Ladakh Scouts, was on leave when the Indian Army started discovering the extent and scale of Pakistani intrusion into the Kargil, Drass and Batalik sectors along the Line of Control (LoC).
As troops were pushed into actions to fight what was literally an uphill battle, Major Wangchuk was asked to cut short his leave.
On 26 May, the officer was ordered to be present, along with an ad-hoc company of Ladakh Scouts, at Handen Brok, a remote post of the Border Security Force in the Batalik sector.
Two days later, he and his troops were told to capture an 18,000 feet high ridge on the Indian side of the LoC in the Chorbat La sub-sector.
The plan was to preempt Pakistan by securing the Chorbat La pass, an ancient route used by Ladakhi kings as a gateway for invasion. Major Wangchuk’s battle experience on the Siachen glacier, the world’s highest and most brutal battlefield, made him the obvious choice for the assault.
A patrol sent out by Wangchuk on 29 May did not spot the enemy in the area. But when four men scaled the heights the next day, carrying only a light machinegun, they made a startling discovery — the Pakistanis were making their way up the ridge from the reverse slope and had set up tents in a bowl just beyond the LoC housing almost a company (135-odd men).
Not just that, they had also reached the middle of the ridge and were sitting in a saddle between two peaks, overlooking the entire region.
The unit fired on the Pakistanis climbing up the ridge, killing them. But the fire revealed their presence and gave away their position. They were now under fire and needed reinforcement, and quickly.
Major Wangchuk set out with 25 men.
Using hammers and ice picks, Major Wangchuk and his troops negotiated heights with a slope gradient of 80 degrees — nearly vertical, the same as climbing an ice wall — carrying ammunition and supplies.
At this height, the thin air made breathing difficult, and taking every step was an ordeal as the temperature had dipped to minus six degree Celsius. To add to the trouble, the Pakistanis were firing from the flanks.
As Major Wangchuk recalled after the battle, he literally ran in the two-feet-deep snow, covering a distance of 8 kilometres in two-and-a-half hours. Only five men could keep pace with him, while ‘a Bihari and some south Indians’ fell behind.
When it comes to scaling heights, the Scouts, recruited mostly from Ladakh and adjoining regions, may only be second to the Himalayan Ibex, which, incidentally, is part of the Ladakh Scouts insignia. They do not need acclimatisation, even when deployed to 15,000 feet, while men from the plains would not survive the change without acclimation. In fact, to them, these heights are home, and they know the terrain like the back of their hand.
However, at one point, Pakistani firing forced them to take cover behind boulders and claimed the life of Havildar Tsewang Rigzin, bringing the advance to a halt. But Major Wangchuk and his men found a way out, reached the ridge before the break of dawn and avenged the killing of Havildar Rigzin.
Fleeing Pakistanis rolled down the slope leaving their ammunition, ration and dead behind as the mountains rang with the war cries of the Scouts — ki-ki-so-so-lhar-gyalo (victory to the gods).
Having freed it, the Scouts held Chorbat La for 14 days before handing it over to troops from 14 Sikh.
This was India’s first victory in the Kargil War. And it was not the only one the Ladakh Scouts made possible. They were in action, acting as eyes and ears, much before Bofors guns started blazing and regular battalions started driving the intruders out.
The Ladakh Scouts saved many lives, but they lost 31 of their men. The unit was decorated with the Chief of Army Staff Banner and 55 gallantry awards — highest in per capita terms by one account. And for leading his men to victory, one that could not have come at a better time, Major Wangchuk was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra (MVC).
In recognition of the valour of its men, the Ladakh Scouts unit was given the status of a regiment with its own battalions in 2000, just months after the war.
But Kargil was not the first time the Ladakhis had fought valiantly. In fact, as journalist Nitin Gokhale points out in his book The Siachen Saga, the Ladakh Scouts may be the youngest regiment in the Indian Army, but it is its oldest ally.
In 1948, when tribal raiders from Pakistan captured Kargil and set their eyes on Leh, Ladakh was being defended by just 33 men of the Jammu and Kashmir state forces and 20 volunteers led by Lieutenant Colonel Prithi Singh. When Lt Col Prithi Singh raised the tricolour in Leh and sought volunteers to defend Ladakh against Pakistani raiders, 17-year-old Chewang Rinchen from the Nubra Valley was the first to respond.
After a short training, the young Nunnu (native of the Nubra Valley) built a small force of 28 Ladakhi volunteers, called the Nubra Guards, and defended the valley — linked to Leh via the Khardung La, the highest motorable pass in the world — for nearly two months, until the Indian troops were airlifted to Leh to drive the Pakistani raiders out.
The foundation of the force that we know today as the Ladakh Scouts had been laid.
Rinchen was awarded the MVC, making him the youngest-ever recipient of the second highest military decoration in India.
Rinchen and his men fought in the 1962 war with China, and he was awarded the Sena Medal for it. Two years later, he was given a permanent commission in the Indian Army.
In 1952, the Nubra Guards formed the 7th Battalion of the Jammu and Kashmir Militia. In 1963, just months after the war with China, 7th and 14th Battalions of the Jammu and Kashmir Militia were merged to form the Ladakh Scouts.
As the border started to heat up in 1971, Rinchen trained 550 young local volunteers and organised them into four companies. When the war broke out, Rinchen told Major General S P Malhotra, the General Officer Commanding of 3 Infantry Division in charge of the defence of Ladakh, that the Ladakhi Scouts and the Nubra Guards would not need additional support to deal with the Pakistan Army.
Going into the war, Rinchen chose balaclavas over helmet and Ladakhi pabos over ammunition boots. He also limited other supplies, including ammunition. It was the survivability of the Ladakhi warrior, his knowledge of the terrain and the spirit to fight for the land and its people that Rinchen depended on.
With his men, Rinchen managed to take control of around 800 square kilometres of territory from Pakistan, including the strategically located village of Turtuk on the banks of the Shyok River. This was the largest area captured during the war on the western front, and the village of Turtuk remains under Indian control today.
For the success, Rinchen was awarded the MVC for the second time.
Nearly 20 years after it became a regular army regiment, the Ladakh Scouts have five battalions, each having around 850 soldiers. They serve in extremely high altitudes, including the Siachen Glacier, and survive against the odds.
Most of these soldiers are drawn from the close-knit society of Ladakh. But the aspiration of this society to be freed from the dominance of Kashmir was ignored, even as it continued to share the duty of defending the land from invaders. Their struggle, though, never came in the way of their duty, and never turned ugly.
Now that it has come through, let it be a tribute to these fierce warriors — men who have fought India’s wars armed with little more than the indomitable Ladakhi spirit.
Prakhar Gupta is a senior editor at Swarajya. He tweets @prakharkgupta.
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