Remembering Rezang La

Exactly half a century ago or in October 1962, Indian army suffered a most humiliating defeat at the hands of Peoples Liberation Army or PLA of China In Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. For ordinary citizens of India, smug and complacent in the belief that India's borders were well protected, it was a very severe shock and a dawn of new realization that in the terms of the Realpolitik of the world, the power of the gun matters most. Unless the country has that power all talk of peace and non alignment were just bubbles in the air.

In this series of articles, I want to share with the readers, the blunders committed by India's inexperienced leadership of those years in formulating India's China policy and how they were tricked and fooled by Mao's China. When I remember the agony of those days, a shiver still passes down my spine even today. Let me begin with the political situation, which India inherited from the British. 


A tripartite meeting of the British administration in India and representatives of Tibet and China was held in 1913 at Shimla in India. A draft treaty was agreed upon during this meeting. This agreement is known as Shimla treaty. According to the terms of this treaty, the relationships and borders between these three countries, namely India, Tibet and China, were fixed and agreed upon. However, even though the Chinese representative attending the meeting, Mr. Ivan Chen had initialed the draft treaty, he refused to put his country's official seal on the paper. Subsequently, the Government in Beijing declared that this treaty was unacceptable to China. According to representatives of India and Tibet, since the treaty was mainly about the relationships and the borders between two sovereign countries, India and Tibet, they believed that the Chinese representative had merely attended the meeting as an observer and his approval or disapproval had no bearing on the proceedings of the treaty. Eventually another meeting was held in July 1914 between representatives of India and Tibet and the draft treaty was finally approved, initialed and sealed. 


In this accord, it was agreed that a region spread over 14380 square miles and known as Aksaichin: located east of Ladakh, between Karakoram mountain range and Kun Lun mountain ranges, would be part of British India. The region of Ladakh in those days, was part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, old references show that the state administration used to have a small police outpost at Shahidulla( Located on present Tibet- Xinjiang road) in this region.

1908 map of India

After India became independent, the responsibility of defending this region was given to CRPF or Central reserve police force. Since the region became quite inaccessible during winter months, patrols were run by the CRPF during summer time to Aksaichin.

Access routes to Aksaichin from Ladakh

There were only two possible routes by which these police could reach Aksaichin. The first route was through famous Karakoram pass and reached up to Shahidulla. The second route was more important and went through Marsemik pass near Pangong lake to Kongka pass and then to Kanak pass on Aksaichin-Tibet border. 

CRPF Border posts prior to 1959

Before we proceed further, it is important to note why such an inhospitable and remote region was and is so important for China as well as India. For India, it was country's only gateway to central Asia after the partition in 1947. For China, the remote western provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang were effectively separated by Indian possession of Aksaichin and prevented it from movement of armed forces from Tibet to Xinjiang and vice-versa, regions where there was considerable unrest. Sometime in the decade of 1950's, Chinese decided to construct a road joining Tibet and Xinjiang illegally, in the Indian territory.

The route followed by Indian observation patrol of 1952 led by Capt. Nath and Capt.Puri 
When news of such Chinese activities started circulating in Ladakh, Indian army decided to send an observation patrol to the region. In the summer of 1952, two officers: Captain R. Nath of Kumaon Regiment and Captain Suri of Ladakh Militia were sent by the army to Aksaichin region with a team. This team entered Aksaichin through Kongka pass mentioned above and travelled up to Kanak pass. During observations they came to know from local shepherds about Chinese surveyors carrying out survey of this region for building a road in Aksaichin. There were no PLA army units in that area then. Both these officers were felicitated and praised for their good work but their report was just kept under wraps. Just imagine that if India had sent army units to Aksaichin then and had prevented Chinese for carrying out the road building work, the entire border dispute, which developed later would have been nipped in the bud. By 1955, Chinese had well established themselves west of Kanak pass. In 1957, they announced that Aksaichin was part of China and the road joining Tibet and Xinjiang was ready. Chief of army staff, General Thimayya wanted to start an army operation in Aksaichin but was prevented by the then defense minister Krishna Menon, who claimed that China was India's true friend.

In 1958, two Indian patrols in Aksaichin were made to surrender by PLA and then later released. Unfortunately, all these developments were completely hidden from Indian people by then Prime minister of India, Jawaharalal Nehru, who still thought that China was the greatest friend of India and would never take any steps against India. For China, Nehru's policy of keeping China border activity under wraps was a great boon, as they developed massive infrastructure along the Ladakh borders and built a well planned offensive capability there. Nehru was forced within an year to change his China perspective, as two major incidences took place. The first incidence out of these two, was the uprising in Tibet against Chinese rule and subsequent asylum asked by Tibetan head of state, Dalai Lama in India. This had major repercussions on Nehru's China policy. Many in India started criticizing Nehru for his soft attitude towards China and wanted India to take strong steps to counter Chinese menace.

The second incidence is known as “Kongka pass incident” and was essentially caused by complete lack of co-ordination in Delhi between Home ministry controlling CRPF, and defense ministry with Krishna Menon in charge as a minister. By September 1959, Chinese had encroached upon Indian areas outside Aksaichin and their army units had started even arresting the Indian border police on routine patrol. Indian Government was still not ready to take any action and on the contrary asked the home ministry to stop border patrols. India's home ministry, controlling the border police, probably were unaware of Chinese build up in Ladakh and what was happening inside Aksichin, and decided to take counter action on its own against Chinese.

DSP Karam Singh

Home ministry ordered Deputy Superintendent of Police or DSP Karam Singh to take a team of 40 policemen and establish police outposts In Kongka pass area with the first post to be established at Hot Springs. DSP Karam Singh reached Hot Springs on 20h October 2012 and then started surveying the area for further action. He was not aware at all about the fully equipped PLA soldiers entrenched in that area. DSP Karam Singh's troupe was quickly surrounded by the PLA soldiers and was asked by them to leave.

Hot Springs area; geographical situation

In an extremely defiant gesture, DSP Karam Singh bent down, picked up an handful of dust and touched it to his heart, indicating that the land belongs to India. When Indian media came to know about this, DSP Karam Singh and his team became national heroes overnight. But that was too late. At Kongka pass DSP Karm Singh's team faced complete massacre. They just could not defend themselves with their WW II .303 bolt rifles against Chinese soldiers equipped with semi automatic rifles, machine guns and mortars. Within few hour, 10 policemen from DSP Karam Singh's team were lost. Realizing that they can not defend themselves, Indians finally surrendered. They were released by the Chinese after 12 days with much torture and only handful unarmed Indian police were allowed to take back the bodies. A police constable ' Sonam Wangyal' describes this scene in these words.

Even while we were collecting the bodies, Chinese women in uniform were clicking photographs. The Chinese soldiers were wrapped in snow-white warm clothing and snow-boots while were in our woolen Angora shirts and jerseys, bearing the brunt of the biting cold at that prohibitive height of 16,300 feet.”

The CRPF policemen, who died in Chinese ambush

The shocking news about “Kongka Pass incident” reverberated throughout India like wild fire. Nehru's China policy was criticized heavily and demands were made to remove Krishna Menon from the post of defense minister.

V.K. Krishna Menon and Jawaharlal Nehru

In Delhi, the home ministry was condemned for their foolish adventure by the chief of army staff and finally a decision was taken that all CRPF personnel from Ladakh would be replaced by army units. Meanwhile Prime Minister Nehru faced heavy fire for his China policies. Finally buckling under tremendous public pressure, he announced the so called “ Forward policy” under which, Army would establish forward posts in the areas where Chinese had established control during last few years. Those who knew the current situation, realized the ineffectiveness of this announcement. However, general public in India thought that China would now be paid in its own coins. 


Hot springs memorial for policemen

Sensing India's mood, Chinese suddenly announced that if Indian army ventures out in Ladakh, their army units would move south of the border into Arunachal Pradesh in the north east, where the border was well demarcated and is known as McMahon line.

The stage was now set for a major clash between two Asian neighbours. It actually happened 3 years later or in 1962.

By October 1959, Chinese defenses in east Ladakh were so much fortified and strengthened that Indo-Tibet Border Police or ITBP personnel found it almost impossible to deal with the intrusions made by Chinese inside Indian border and their extremely arrogant behaviour towards the Indians. The decision taken in Delhi to withdraw ITBF units from border and bring in regular army units in their place was a welcome measure and brought some stability along the border.
Militarily speaking, the situation in east Ladakh was grave and serious. The entire region of Aksaichin belonged to India only on paper and in the maps. Chinese soldiers had fortified and blocked all approaches to Aksaichin from Ladakh. Chinese soldiers had established well fortified defenses along the nortrhern approach to Aksaichin near Chipchap river as well as near Kongka pass in the south. In addition, entire region east of Chushul town including Yu La, Spangur gap and Pangur lake were controlled by Chinese. Beacuse of this, the airstrip at Chushul was in continuous danger of being taken over. The supply route to Chushul town through Tsaka pass was in range of Chinese field guns and Chinese were in position to cut off this route at any given time. In short, all possible routes to Aksaichin were effectively cut off by the Chinese and this region was lost for India. This was primarily because the 1952 report by Capt. Nath and Capt. Suri was kept under wraps and no timely action was ever taken.
After studying the ground situation, Army's western command, made a demand of at least 1 division strength of troupes (15000 fighting men) to Army head quarters in Delhi. However western command was given only 1 Brigade strength (3000 men) only. Most of the new arrivals were earlier stationed in the south of Himalayas and were not properly acclimatized for the great heights at which they were now positioned. These men were not provided with proper warm clothing and other accessories for effectively operating in Ladakh under severely cold conditions. They were equipped with World War II, 0.303 single bolt action rifles which were no match for the semi automatic weapons that Chinese soldiers had.
Meanwhile slowly, as Indian people started becoming aware of the Chinese actions and intentions, a tremendous public pressure grew on Government of India to take some concrete steps to effectively counter the Chinese advances in Ladakh. Prime minister Nehru, who had kept reports of Chinese activities under wraps so far, finally buckled under pressure and announced, what he called as forward policy, under which Indian outposts were to be established east or north of present positions to effectively counter Chinese advances.

  Outposts set up under forward Policy of Nehru

Irrespective of what the Government or the Prime minister had said in the Parliament, the ground realities in Ladakh were militarily so depressing that only thing that was possible was to set up few advance posts in areas where there were no Chinese posts present. Within next year Indian Army established 17 such posts from Daulat Beg Oldi area near Karakoram pass in north to Demchok post on Indus in south. Strategically most of these posts were located in such disadvantageous locations that neither it was possible to have reliable supply routes to these posts nor was it possible to provide them with any artillery or tank cover in case of any major attack from the enemy. These posts were essentially set up as advanced observation posts and were in no way capable of defending themselves under serious enemy action. It is therefore no wonder that most of these posts fell in 1962 war within few hours or days.
To defend the Chushul town from any attack, advanced posts were established at Yu La pass, Sirijap La pass on the north shore of Pangong Lake , hill features like Gurung Hill, Magar hill and an important pass on east shore of Pangur lake known as Rezang La, which effectively blocked any Chinese advance towards Tsaka La pass supply route to Chushul. Establishment of these posts immediately improved the stability in the border area and brought about marked reduction in Chinese encroachments and their arrogant behaviour. Many critics say that the Forward policy was one of the major attribute for the 1962 border war. This is certainly true to some extent. But it must be appreciated that if these forward posts had not been in position, during next few years, the Chinese would have encroached much deeper inside and would have grabbed much more Indian territory. Secondly, in spite of mainly being observation posts, most of them gave such a stinging blow to PLA when the war broke out, before surrendering to the Chinese, that by end of the 1962 war, the ground realities remained more or less same as in 1959.
In early 1962, as it became apparent that war was imminent, the garrison at Chushul town, received much wanted help from Leh. More troupes joined them. In the month of May 2012, an Indian forward post manned by a Junior Commissioned officer and 14 men were confronted by about 200 Chinese soldiers at about 120 meters from the post. As per orders received, this JCO controlled himself and kept quiet. After some time Chinese left. In an another incidence on 10th July 2012, an outpost, being manned by Gurkha regiment, was confronted by 350 Chinese soldiers, who came up to 200 meters from the post and tried to convince the Gurkha soldiers, by speaking to them on loudspeakers, that they should not fight for India. The outpost commander Subhedar Jung Bahaddur, started cursing the Chinese in his native Gurkhyali language. After this Chinese left. Occurrence of such incidences on regular basis, made each and every Indian soldier in Ladakh acutely aware that war was now Imminent.

Indian outposts in this region were attacked first.
On the night of 21/22 October 1962, Chinese made their first major attacks. In northeast Ladakh, a small river called Galwan joins the Upper Shoyok river near a summer camp known as Saser Brangsa. Indian outpost near about upper Galwan river, received the first attack of Chinese soldiers. This post fell after Chinese artillery bombarded this post for entire day and when the commander of the post, Subhedar Jung Bahaddur Thapa was killed. The Chandani outpost north of airstrip at Daulat Beg oldi manned by just 28 soldiers and commanded by Subhedar Sonam Stobadan was attacked by 500 Chinese soldiers. All soldiers manning this post except one soldier, who was wounded, perished in the attack. Subhedar Soman was later awarded a gallentry award known as “Maha Veer Chakra” posthumously. Another observation post 1t 17000 feet height and known as Parmodak was manned by only 5 Indian soldiers. They were all killed on this very day. Bishan outpost at 18645 feet was bombarded by Chinese for 45 minutes and was subjected to two infantry attacks on the same day. Both the attacks were repulsed successfully. After this the outpost was vacated on orders, which clearly stated that the troupes must vacate the posts if attacked. Chinese had succeeded in capturing almost all Indian outposts, north of Galwan river on the very first day of war.
Situation on that day, even in southeast Ladakh, was not much different.

A Shot from the 1964 film Haqeegat on epic battle of Rezang La

On 21st October itself, the Chinese also attacked Indian forward posts near Sirijap pass on the northeast shore of the Pangong lake. During previous years, China had moved its armour from Rudok in Tibet to Khurnak fort, which was well fortified. They had also built roads over the years, up to Sirijap pass area along the northeast shoreline of Pangong lake. The attack started with a bombardment of posts in Sirijap La area. After continuous bombardment of about 2 or 3 hours, Chinese armour moved in along the shoreline towards Sirijap area. Unfortunately, no anti tank weapons were made available to the Indian outposts in this area. The Sirijap posts were commanded by Major Dhan Singh Thapa., who ordered his men to attack the Chinese soldiers with Khukaris ( A Nepali dagger like weapon) and bayonets. A fierce hand to hand battle raged along the shoreline, with Gurkhas killing more than 100 Chinese soldiers before perishing themselves. Major Thapa somehow survived the fierce hand to hand battle. He was awarded later India's topmost Gallentry award “Param Veer Chakra.” After fall of Sirijap posts, it was impossible to provide support to Yu La outpost. This outpost was located in the mountains between the southwest shore line of Pangong lake and the northeast shore line of Pangur lake and was supported essentially from Sirijap posts by boats ferrying men and materials across Pangong lake. Because of this reason, it was decided to call back all the soldiers manning the Yu La outpost. With this withdrawal , all the outposts to northeast of Chushul were now in Chinese hands. There was a complete lull along the border for next few days, may be because of stiff resistance shown by Indian defenders or unexpected heavy losses on Chinese side, but we may never know.

On 27th October, Chinese attacked posts in Chang La and Jara La near village of Demchok located at southern end of Ladakh-Tibet border. The commander of Chang La post, Jamadar Ishe Thundup saved lives of all his men but was killed in the fighting. He was later awarded a gallantry award “Veer Chakra” posthumously. The soldiers defending Jara La, managed to escape in the cover of darkness. With fall of these posts, Chinese had captured villages of Demchok and Demchele on Indus river and had effectively blocked any possibility of a counter attack by an Indian column in Tibet. Now the garrison at Chushul and forward posts around it remained between China and capital of Ladakh; Leh.

Considering the seriousness of the situation, commander of Indian forces in Ladakh, Brigadier Raina decided to airlift 25 pound Howitzers and AMX-13 light tanks to augment defense of Chushul. Within next 2/3 days, the guns and tanks reached Chushul. For Indian air force, this was a big challenge as Chushul only had a make shift airstrip with surface made from perforated steel planks or PSP. Air force's 44 squadron transported six numbers of AMX-13 light tanks in their AN 12 transport air craft. The tanks were carried in two parts, the hull and gun in one flight and the chassis in second. With arrival of these, one biggest deficiency in defense of Chushul was no doubt overcome. In addition some additional troupes also joined the garrison in Chushul. The army considered the possibility that the main supply route to Chushul through Tsaka La pass was likely to be overrun by Chinese and accordingly kept an alternate route to Chushul ready for use.

AN 12 transport aircraft that brought in AMX-13 tanks at Chushul in 1962

Chinese began their assault on Chushul on 18th November 1962. Chinese artillery bagan very heavy bombardment of Indian outposts in Spangur gap, Rezang La pass, supply route through Tsaka La pass. Gurung Hill, Magar Hill and the airstrip itself. This bombardment proved quite ineffective. Chinese guns then advanced ahead of Chinese posts in Spangur gap and started bombardment. This brought them in sight of the field guns on Magar hill. When Indian guns opened up, few Chinese guns were destroyed in Spangur gap and the bombardment was silenced. After this Chinese artillery retreated and never again tried to bombard the Chushul aitstrip. This attack perhaps made Chinese realize that they must destroy all the Indian outposts around Chushul before making any attempt for Chushul. 

Indian soldiers were waiting at Rezang La post when human waves of thousands of Chinese soldiers attacked from both sides. Major Shaitan Singh and his men fought this battle to the last man and the last bullet killing more than 1000 Chinese soldiers.

The Chinese, now shifted their attention to Rezang La pass outpost. This outpost was a major Indian defense position located in the mountain on the southwest shoreline of Pangur lake. As long as Rezang la was held by Indians, no attempt was possible by China to capture the main supply route to Chushul through Tsaka la pass. Indian soldiers of the 1st company of 13th Kumaon Rifles led by Major Shaitan Singh were well dug in here with a clear view of all the area upto Pangur lake. It was well neigh impossible for Chinese to move towards Chushul as long as Rezang La was in Indian hands. The only problem for the Indians at Rezang La position was that a hill feature was coming in the way of getting any covering fire from the Indian artillery for their support. It was clear that major Shaitan Singh's men would have to fight it out on their own. Their orders were clear. Fight to the last man and the last bullet. Such was the importance of Rezang La.

After heavy bombardment of the post, Chinese attacked Rezang La from two sides, Major Shaitan Singh and his men were ready for them. The battle that developed later at Rezang La, can truly be described as the mother of all battles. Chinese had sent thousands of their men just to attack one outpost. The Indians experienced the Chinese technique of human wave assault here for the first time. As Indian machine guns virtually mowed the waves of Chinese soldiers, more and more waves of soldiers kept coming. The fight that Major Shaitan Singh and his men gave at Rezang la, showing extreme valour and bravery, has very few parallels in the history of battles anywhere in the world. When this battle was over, with last Indian soldier fallen and last bullet expanded, the slopes to Rezang la were stacked with dead Chinese soldiers. Out of Major Shaitan Singh's 118 soldiers, 105 had died at their battle stations, 5 were picked up by Chinese in wounded conditions as they overran the outpost and 4 managed to escape to safety of Garrison at Chushul. Major Shaitan Singh was awarded highest gallantry award “Param Veer Chakra” and 5 others were awarded “ Veer Chakra” all posthumously. The battle was so fierce that more than 1000 Chinese soldiers had perished in this attack.

After the fall of Rezang La, in a most surprising move, Chinese attackers simply went back and never occupied the post again. In the summer of 1963, a shepherd moving with his herd, accidentally reached Rezang La. He had a shock of his life, when he saw dead Indian soldiers still at battle stations with their rifles and guns in their hands. A dead medico was found with an injection syringe in his hand. All bodies were then brought down with help of International Red Cross to Indian side and last rites were performed. A memorial has been now erected for the brave soldiers of Rezang La.

Major Shaitan Singh (PVC) Posthumous                Memorial for battle of Chushul

An excellent movie named Haqeeqat, was produced on the epic battle of Rezang La in 1964. It may be worthwhile for anyone interested in this history to watch this movie.

  The battle of Gurung Hill

Meanhile, Chinese had launched an attack on Indian positions at Black top on Gurung hill with the same human wave technique. Fortunately, the soldiers here, could get the help of the Howitzers and AMX tanks of the Chushul garrison. The posts here repulsed two such human wave attacks before falling. Chinese had now cleared all obstacles in the way towards Chushul. The Indian losses in the battle of Chushul were 140 men as against Chinese, who had lost more than 1000 men. Chushul airstrip was still safe and usable because of the effective use of the Tanks and the field guns. Realizing that the next battle would be for Chushul, it was decided to call back all the soldiers still positioned in the forward posts to regroup and take defensive positions for Chushul and wait.

However in a biggest anti-climax, within 3 days of the heroic battle of Rezang La, China suddenly declared an unilateral cease fire and withdrew all soldiers 20 Km behind the positions held by them on November 21st. The attack on Chushsul never came. It was clear that the greatest battle of Rezang La had broken the Chinese momentum. Rezang La was the turning point of 1962 war in Ladakh.

Many theories have been propounded about Chinese unilateral withdrawal. Out of these couple of reasons appear logical to me. In the first place, Chinese had perhaps never expected with their earlier experience with CRPF, to loose so many men in the war. Secondly, they were fighting a limited border war to safeguard the safety of Tibet-Xinjiang road, which they considered as the most crucial and vital artery for moving men and materials between Tibet and Xinjiang. Since their aim was fulfilled and Indians were pushed back to 1959 positions, they saw no point in continuing this war. Whatever may be true reason for this Chinese action, The Battle of Rezang La must have been one of the key factors at arriving this decision.

There is no doubt in my mind that Indian soldiers in Ladakh did their duty exceedingly well. They faced a numerically much superior enemy with vastly inferior weapons and inflicted heavy losses. Even if India had lost the 1962 war, there have been substantial gains made by India as a nation. In the first place, India gave up all dreamy notions like Non Alignment and Panchshil. Secondly the Government of India realized the great blunder that it had perpetuated for last 14 years in neglecting the Indian armed forces. In the later years, armed forces were again provided with requisite strength, funds and the forces re gained their importance.

I always think that the fight that Major Shaitan Singh and his men gave at Rezang La, would always be remembered by every Indian not only as an epic battle, but as an ultimate proof of what could be achieved by few resolute men, acting against all odds.


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