He fought in 1962 till “the last bullet, last men” when the Chinese soldiers came across the Line of Actual Control. He and his 126 men of 13 Kumaun held the Rezang La with great grit.
The 1962 war with China ended in a setback for India, but battles like Rezang La, fought by Major Shaitan Singh, became a sort of legend. However, six decades later, his memorial could not withstand the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) pressure.
Since 1963, a memorial has stood in the place where Major Shaitan Singh was mortally wounded. His body was found there clutching his bullet-ridden abdomen. But the end of 2023 saw his memorial dismantled as it fell in the buffer zone between the two Asian Giants fighting to dominate the treacherous Himalayan heights.
Khonchok Stanzin, the former Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council member, said on X: “This landmark at Rezang-La held immense significance, honoring the courageous soldiers of “C” Coy 13 Kumaon. Sadly, it had to be dismantled during the disengagement process as it fell in the buffer zone. Let’s remember and honor their bravery!”
The buffer zone was created after the Indian and Chinese troops came to blows in the Galwan Valley in June 2020, killing soldiers on both sides. Since then, the two armies have come face to face many times, and bilateral ties between the two countries have been spiraling down into an abyss.
The two countries have engaged in desultory rounds of talks. India claimed to have not lost an inch of the territory. However, in early 2022, the two sides decided to enforce buffer zones on the ground. All the permanent structures have to be dismantled in the buffer zone. A photograph that Stanzin shared on social media shows that the memorial was in Indian control till October 2020, when the 8th Battalion of the Kumaon Regiment refurbished it.
Sources indicate the memorial was dismantled in February 2021. Defense Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a more prominent memorial to the Battle of Rezang-La, built three kilometers behind the LAC on November 18, 2021. But, the part about dismantling the old monument was skipped over.
In a research paper presented to the annual conference of police in New Delhi in January, Leh’s senior superintendent of police PD Nithya said India had lost access to 26 of 65 patrolling points in Ladakh from the Karakoram Pass to Chumar along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This has led to a shift in the Line of Actual Control “towards the Indian side,” Nithya said.
Battle Of Rezang La
The Battle of Rezang La has entered the annals of military history as “the greatest last stands of all time.” Rezang La is the pass at the height of 16,000 feet and is crucial for the defense of Chushul in Eastern Ladakh. Its control would give an invading army a free run to Leh.
In November 1962, 13 Kumaon was tasked with the defense of Rezang La in Eastern Ladakh as part of the 114 Infantry Brigade. The soldiers of the ‘C’ company of 13 Kumaon repulsed seven attacks by the Chinese under the leadership of Major Shaitan Singh, withstanding heavy artillery shelling.
Major Singh deployed his three platoons across a two-kilometer frontage, a perfect vantage point to protect Rezang La from the Chinese attack. His men were well-entrenched and reasonably well-equipped. But they lacked mines and the overhead shelter for the command posts in mercury dipping to sub-zero temperature.
At the break of the dawn on November 18, the first Chinese onslaught came. Two of the three Indian platoons opened rifle, machine gun, and mortar fire on the advancing Chinese and repulsed them. The Chinese suffered heavy casualties, and they opened artillery firepower on Indian positions.
The Chinese made a second attempt to capture the pass with more numbers. They had numerical superiority of four-to-one. The one Indian platoon that had held its firepower came down upon the Chinese troops with all its might. After many of its soldiers fell, the 20-odd surviving Chinese soldiers charged the Indian platoon.
The Kumaoni soldiers jumped out of their trenches to engage the Chinese soldiers in hand-to-hand combat.
With their frontal attacks meeting the wall of Kumaoni soldiers, the Chinese troops undertook an alternate route while keeping up their artillery and mortar barrage. The PLA troops managed to overrun the Indian position just before the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire.
Out of the 127 men, 110 were killed in action. Five were held captive by the Chinese troops, and only 17 survived the onslaught.
The Indian headquarters had sketchy details of what transpired at Rezang-La from the details given by three survivors of the ‘C’ Company. However, only three months later, the enormity of the battle came to the fore. All the 109 soldiers were frozen as they had died with weapons in hand. Five of their comrades had been taken prisoner by the Chinese. Every one of the troops had fired all the ammunition he had. The Indian men had fought to the last man and the last bullet.
Accounts of the battle point that these hundred men killed about 1,300 better-equipped Chinese soldiers. The Indian Commanders took the initial account with a pinch of disbelief as the Indian soldiers took on a force double its size.
It was found that Major Shaitan Singh, who was moving from one platoon to another on foot, was wounded in Chinese firing. His men tried to carry him to safety, but he asked to put him behind a boulder and continue to fight the enemy. He died in the same spot. He was posthumously given the Param Vir Chakra, the highest gallantry award.
Out of the 127 men who held the pass against all odds, one was awarded the highest gallantry award, Param Vir Chakra, eight Veer Chakras, one Ati Vishisht Seva Medal, four Sena Medals, and one Mention-in-dispatches.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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