Tuesday, November 16, 2010

in memoriam: the last stand of 13th kumaon, nov 18th, 1962

nov 16th, 2010

13 Kumaon's Last Stand: Chushul, November 18, 1962

Most of us studied the Alfred Tennyson poem 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' in school. The Battle of Thermopylae we read of with goose bumps. We all know about Custer's Last Stand. And the battle cry 'Remember the Alamo!' resonates with us.

Yet, none of us has heard of the 13th Kumaon Battalion's Last Stand at Rezang La, Ladakh, in the Battle of Chushul, on November 18, 1962. I think this is a great pity.

For, let us remind ourselves of these examples of heroism:

  • The Battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece in 480 BCE, where 300 Spartans under Leonidas stopped a Persian army of 250,000 at a narrow mountain pass. They died to the last man, but provided enough time for the rest of the Greek army to escape to fight another day.
  • The 13th Light Brigade of the British Army at Balaclava, the Crimea, in 1854. Six hundred and seventy-three men rode at Russian artillery and were decimated.
  • At the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas, in 1836, several hundred Texans held out against the Mexican Army before they were killed to the last man.
  • Custer's Last Stand was the Battle of Little Bighorn, 1876, in Montana where the Sioux nation under Chief Sitting Bull wiped out George Custer and 265 men.

    And finally:

  • The C company of the 13th Kumaon Battalion, under Major Shaitan Singh (Param Vir Chakra, Posthumous) held off a fierce Chinese attack on November 18, 1962, at the Rezang La heights that they held. Massively outnumbered and outgunned, the defenders died almost to the last man, and expended their last round. All 114 men were killed or wounded. But they succeeded in blunting the Chinese assault, killing as many as a thousand Chinese in the process at Rezang La and at nearby Gurung Hill. Thereafter, the Chinese did not push further towards the Chushul plain. It was a critical checkpoint on a potential Chinese advance on Leh.
The story of 13th Kumaon is the kind of thing that would make the patriotic Indian stand tall with tears in his eyes. Yet, we do not stand in silence for a moment in memory of Major Shaitan Singh and his gallant men. No poet eulogizes them as Tennyson did the Light Brigade. There is only a small memorial at the site, which says:

How can a Man die Better than facing Fearful Odds,
For the Ashes of His Fathers and the Temples of His Gods,
To the sacred memory of the Heroes of Rezang La,
114 Martyrs of 13 Kumaon who fought to the Last Man,
Last Round, Against Hordes of Chinese on 18 November 1962.
Built by All Ranks 13th Battalion, The Kumaon Regiment.

I am indebted to the Bharat-Rakshak web site for this information as well as a long article on the Battle of Chushul by L N Subramanian. Yet, why is there nothing written about them along the lines of what Tennyson did, as in these excerpts from his stirring poem:

Half a league half a league
Half a league onward...
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred...

Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd;
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die...

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;...

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade...

Why have Indians so consistently ignored the great sacrifices made by our soldiers? Why isn't the story of the valiant 13th Kumaon a part of every child's textbooks? Why have we let these brave men die unwept, unmourned, and unsung? Just as we let thousands of soldiers die in Kashmir, in Kargil, everywhere, they are mere cannon fodder. India needs a draft, so people in power feel the pain of their children dying for the nation.

I think I know why there is no official celebration of the Battle of Chushul: the government can hardly bother to honour the Unknown Soldier on Kargil Day. Then how will they remember something that happened forty years ago?

There is also an element of shame. Congress governments were unwilling to talk about 1962 because it brings out the fact that 'someone had blunder'd' and that was their deity, Jawaharlal Nehru, along with his defence minister, V K Krishna Menon. Admitting this would leave them shamefaced, so they just let the soldiers 'but do and die'. Even the current government is unwilling to publish the Henderson Brooks report. Why? It will at least shed some light on what happened.

The media in India should have taken this up in the absence of governmental action. But the media, influenced by Chinese propaganda, has portrayed the 1962 war on Chinese terms. Aping the Xinhua propaganda agency, Indian media mavens have taken the stand that the war was India's fault. As though Indians, with no mountain divisions, would go over the Himalayas and attack the Chinese in Tibet and Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh!

The Marxists in India say the 1962 affair was an internal matter for the Chinese, as they have generously 'awarded' Arunachal Pradesh to China. The Chinese believe this, too. They told the CM of Arunachal Pradesh recently that he did not need a visa to go to China, as he was a Chinese citizen! Americans, Britons and Australians accept China's lies, for it suits them to support China.

But we know that all this isn't true. Individual Indians must remember the 13th Kumaon. As the Quebec motto goes, Je me souviens: I remember. And I shall always remember those brave men of C Company who died in a frozen wasteland. For me. For you.


Jatin said...

My salute to all the martyrs from the 13th Kumaon.

Shiva Subramanian said...

rajeev: Every year you never fail to mention the significance of today. I learnt about the heroic stand many years ago from your writing. Lamestream Engligh language media does not yet have a clue about this battle, but i suppose the ELM doesnt count for much anyways, So no big deal. Jai Hind.

Sameer said...

My Salute to all the Martyrs and heroes of 13 Kumaon of the battle of Rezong La.

Joy said...

Did not know about this..thanks to my English Indian education. They died for us and we don't even know. Shame on us. dhanyavaadah Rajeev.

Sujeev said...

Hey,hey,hey. Not so fast! I believe the famous Lata Mangeshkar song "Aye Mere Watan ke Logon" was composed specifically to remind Indians about the sacrifices of the Indian soldier during the 1962 conflict. Maybe this song should be considered our very own "Charge of the Light Brigade". You can read about it here


or hear it here


nizhal yoddha said...

sujeev, you may be right. but a cursory look at the lyrics on wikipedia shows it never mentions 1962 or ladakh or anything, so it has to be annotated -- rather unlike the charge of the light brigade, where you know exactly what the poet is talking about. why did the poet feel the need to be so circumspect, i wonder? can't criticize bhai-bhai china?

side note on the song: not being a hindi song fan, i had never heard of this song. and when i heard of it, i was intrigued by the word 'watan' which i couldn't decipher: the nearest i could think of was "vadan(am)" which means face in sanskrit, but it is not relevant in this context. then i found out it was a pure arabic word. there is an arab newspaper called 'watan'.

nizhal yoddha said...

shiva, joy, i too had never heard of the battle of rezang-la until may be a dozen years ago. a column by someone -- i don't remember who -- alerted me to it.

isn't it pathetic that one of the greatest acts of heroism by indian soldiers has been almost completely erased from the history all of us study? the 'eminent historians' must have worked overtime on this.

Shiva Subramanian said...

Yes, people should be analyzing this battle deeply. The unbelievable resistance encountered by the Chinese in this battle must have discouraged their ambitions very, very quickly and changed the time-table as well as the end-result of the ‘62 war. To put this in perspective, if the Indians had chosen to surrender, lets say, after 75% casualties, they would have still been truly great heroes with their regiment’s honor intact, and this would have still be an incredible effort. But for every one of them to have such single-minded unity of purpose in fighting the invaders off must have had a *serious* impact on the minds of the Chinese in 1962.

Also important to note that this single-mindedness did not come because their families would be shot otherwise (stalin-grad or mao models), for some personal pleasure after life (jihadists), nor because they were self-righteous mercenaries (old and current western colonial powers).

This unbelievable unity of purpose came from what the western world talks a lot about since WW2 but haven't really matched in deed - the good fight, done selflessly for a noble cause, freedom of a pluralistic, democracy.

nagesh said...

Dear Rajeev,
I liked your article very much and the facts that you brought out. There are lot of people who have either forgotten the 1962 war or do not even know about it. Some say that was a shameful history as we lost to Chinese while others especially government does not want to accept it because of simple 'EGO' issue.

I also would like to bring it out that in the last line you said our soldiers died for Frozen WASTELAND. I would request you that please don't demean here any of the parts of Bharat, be it Rann of Kutch or be it Barren lands of Ladakh. In my opinion all of them are of same significance as that of Delhi or Chennai and the same to our soldiers too and thats the very reason they fought with Chinese, inorder to save the honor of Bharat Maata.
I would urge you to change the same to a more appropriate word.

Nagesh Mula

nizhal yoddha said...

nagesh, good point about not demeaning any part of the country. it was not my intent to, it was a juxtaposition of their sacrifice with the circumstances of their death -- they were freezing, not provided with sufficient high-altitude clothing, no support from the air etc. there was total failure on the part of the government to ensure support.

anyway, i wrote this in 2002 and it has been out there ever since, so there is no point in trying to change a word.

Sujeev said...


Didn't know "watan" was an arabic word. Not being that familiar with Hindi myself, just assumed that it was a Hindi synonym for "desh". As for the song itself, allowing for poetic licence, I think there are enough clues in the lyrics "when the Himalayas shook","one soldier killed 10 enemies" to consider it as one dedicated to the heroes at Rezang La.

Ranajeet said...

Let us also not forget the Battle of Saragarhi!!
the pinnacle of Indian soldiery!
with odds greater than the Greeks at Thermopylae and valor unparalleled in history.
It is the reason the Durand line stands where it is.. and the border of a future India :)