(Sikh) Resilience Amidst Adversities: 1962 Indo-Sino War on the Eastern Frontier
During the Indo- Sino War of 1962, the two major flash points were in Ladakh (Razang La) in the north and in the North East Frontier Area (NEFA- now Arunachal Pradesh). In the Eastern Sector, two battalions of the Sikh Regiment, namely 1 Sikh and 4 Sikh took active part in the war, and manned strategic defences along the Mac Mahon line. Within this sector, these battalions stood guard on the flanks of the defences; on the left flank was 1 Sikh in the Thag La-Tawang Sub-Sector and, on the right flank was 4 Sikh, in the Lohit Frontier region in the Walong-Bumla Sub-Sector. At both locations intense and extremely heavy fighting was witnessed, the battalions performed true to their chequered valiant history of many decades; marked by outstanding valour and rare perseverance.
Brief History of the two Battalions
Post the hard-fought battles of Mudki and Ferozeshah, the British realised the fighting potential of the Sikhs and set to foster friendship with the Sikhs and ventured to recruit them in the Bengal army. Accordingly, orders were issued for the raising of two Sikh battalions i.e., 14th Ferozepur Sikhs (later 1 Sikh, now 4 Mechanised Infantry) and 15th Ludhiana Sikhs (now 2 Sikh) on 20th July 1846. Recruitment for both was principally carried out from the Malwa and Majha areas (from the left bank of Sutlej River) of Punjab. 1 Sikh was soon launched in operations and played a very prominent role and proved their worth wherever they fought. Such was conduct, that as a special gesture, they were permitted to don the red safas (dastar/ turban). This unit has the singular honour among all other units of the Indian Army, to have its name mentioned on a monument in England. They are one of the most decorated units with numerous gallantry awards and honours pre and post 1947. Post-Independence they were privileged to be the first troops to land in Kashmir and earned the sobriquet of “Saviours of the Valley”.
36 (XXXVI) Sikhs (now 4 Sikh), was raised on 23rd Mar 1887 CE as part of the increased recruiting of Sikhs in the British Indian Army, recruits for this unit were taken from areas north of the Sutlej. The battalion did not take long to prove their battle worthiness and join the band of other battle-hardened Sikh battalions. Both the battalions were embroiled in the First (1863 CE) and Second (1878-80 CE) Afghan Wars and fought numerous actions battling the violent Pathan tribals of the area. During these wars, many honours were earned, just to mention a few; 14th Ferozepur Sikhs (1 Sikh) earned the privilege to endorse the honours of Ali Masjid, Afghanistan, Chitral etc. Similarly, 36th Sikhs (4 Sikh) earned those of Malakand, Punjab Frontier, and in Sept 1897 they created remarkable history by displaying valour and resilience of the highest order at Saragarhi. A battle is well known worldwide.
Battles during the 1962 War
Tawang- Bumla Sub-Sector
1 Sikh, had reached NEFA in May 1961 and initially were deployed in the Dirang Dzong Valley, with positions strung along the old caravan route, later they were moved forward to the Bumla Sub-sector ahead of Tawang. The terrain here had limited tree cover and comprised rocky steep heights ranging up to 11000 feet. Two companies each were deployed north and south of Tawang. Besides 1 Sikh, there was 4 Garhwal Rifles, both the units had fire support of one field Regiment artillery equipped with 25 pounder guns, which had a maximum range of 13,400 yards. There was much work at hand at all the new positions, the troops feverishly got on to preparing the defences and stocking up ammunition and rations and other essentials. Delta Company under command Lieutenant (Lt) Hari Pal Kaushik (the famed Hockey player, having already won a gold and silver medal representing India at the Olympics), now proved his gallant leadership in the battle field, His company was manning frontline positions with a platoon (normally 30 men) led by Sub Joginder Singh positioned ahead at a position known as the IB Ridge. This position was naturally strong but isolated and thus vulnerable to multi-directional attacks. Bravo Company, 1 Sikh was located on the neighbouring Pamdir Ridge, the rest of the battalion was deployed in depth positions. When the Chinese attack came in the Sikh positions were reasonably prepared, stocked with limited ammunition, with four days rations but in the freezing sub-zero temperatures, the troops were sans warm clothing or heating arrangements.
Subedar Joginder Singh – The Brave Heart
On 23 Oct at 0600 hours as dawn broke the first wave of Chinese troops assault was directed at IB Ridge. Subedar (Sub) Joginder knew his job well, so he asked his men to hold their fire till enemy came within range of their weapons, the aim being to ensure inflicting maximum casualties. He then asked for artillery and mortar fire support, which soon came down on the enemy. The enemy was now visible at close range, they suddenly paused, the opportunity could not be missed, Sub Joginder ordered opening of fire and halted the advancing enemy. Pinned down, the Chinese could not move forward from the frontal approach, they more troops forward and shifted to the flanks to continue their attack. Sub Joginder stood firm, he continuously moved between the trenches of his two forward sections encouraging his men. It was during one such move that he was wounded in the thigh, but he still dragged himself to his command bunker to rally his men. Soon most of his men lay dead or wounded; another wave of about 200 Chinese drove home a third attack, Joginder now came out of his bunker and with the balance of his men, charged the enemy with their bayonets unsheathed. Simultaneously, he called Lt Hari Pal Kaushik, his company commander and asked for artillery fire ‘red over red’, which means, firing own artillery guns directly onto own position. While this could lead to own casualties, but it would take a heavier toll of the enemy in the open. Waves of the enemy however kept attacking; after a nearly a four-hour battle, the position was over powered, a badly wounded Joginder Singh was among those captured. Three men managed to get away to narrate the heroics of the Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO)and the steadfastness of the men. Sub Joginder Singh however succumbed to his wounds, his valour was recognised by the award of the Param Vir Chakra (PVC) posthumously. Rarely does the enemy commend their opponents, but the Chinese acknowledged the undaunted courage of Sub Joginder, and in an appreciative gesture, reverently sent his ashes home later. Today at the site of the battle a memorial has been erected for all these bravest of the brave.
Defence of Tong Peng La and Sela- 25 Oct to 18 Nov 1962
The rest of Delta Company under Lt Kaushik held on to receive the enemy, who were evidently chary of assaulting directly from IB Ridge, the location of the most commendable stand taken by the platoon under Sub Joginder Singh. The Chinese took no chance and attacked this position by an enveloping move from both the flanks, but such was the resistance that they were stalled. The enemy remustered and renewed their attack, the Sikhs continued to hold on, but then on orders pulled back to Sela to occupy a compact defence with all the surviving men. A young Lt Hari Pal displayed rare leadership to lead his men in an incomparable way, for this he was to be awarded the Vir Chakra. The Chinese continued to pour troops in large numbers supported by overwhelming artillery fire support. A stage came when the ammunition of the troops was fully exhausted, to avoid complete annihilation the troops were ordered to pull back further; 1 Sikh was the last to move out on 18 Nov under continuous and heavy enemy assaults. The battalion had stood their ground against heavy odds till the last, many brave heroic actions went unnoticed and unrewarded, the casualties were heavy, among the many killed, was the Commanding Officer, Lt Col BN Mehta.
Lohit Frontier – Walong Sub- Sector
4 Sikh, commanded by Lt Col AL Bahl, were ordered to move to the east on 16th Sept 1962, they reached Jorhat on 22nd Sept and on 26th Sep the advance elements of 4 Sikh were flown out to Walong, to reconnoitre the allotted defensive area, at heights from 5000 to 8,000 feet straddling the Lohit River. It was evident that the existing defences needed tremendous effort to make them defence worthy; on these heights the battalion would prove their gallant worth and earn much honour. Besides 4 Sikh, one battalion each of Kumaon, Gurkhas and Dogra Regiments had also occupied defences in the area. 6 Kumaon was deployed at screen positions ahead of Walong along the McMahon Line. On 27th Sep onwards companies of 4 Sikh started landing at Walong, the concentration took a long time due to the limited carrying capacity of the otter aircraft. Moving up defence stores, ammunition, plus cooked food and water involved a six hours uphill strenuous climb. Defences had to be prepared, all was time consuming and taxing, no porters or ponies were available. Through the war the status remained-troops to labour, troops to battle!
4 Sikh occupied the defences only by 23rd Oct, these were split by the Lohit River in two parts; Bravo Company under Major Harbans Singh and Alpha Company, under Major Samvatsar occupied the West Ridge and East Ridge respectively. By then, on the night of 20/21 Oct the Chinese had attacked the forward positions of 6 Kumaon. Early morning of 24th Oct the enemy attacked the extreme right position of 4 Sikh on West Ridge, called ‘Ladders’ held by a platoon. Here too the enemy was allowed to close up, then heavy fire of 3" mortars and one medium machine gun from across the River on East Ridge was poured into them. The Chinese were beaten back, they left behind about 200 dead. To retrieve their dead, the Chinese set the grass on fire, it spread rapidly over the entire Ridge, soon a revolting stench of burnt bodies filled the atmosphere. The troops now had an additional responsibility, fire fighting, especially to save their ammunition. In the midst of all this, L/Naik Gurdial Singh suddenly charged into the enemy and brought back two Chinese rifles. One each till date is displayed in the 4 Sikh officer’s mess and the Sikh Regimental Centre Museum at Ramgarh (Jharkhand). On 25th night the Chinese again came, Sepoy Kewal Singh, with just 18 months of service, was in his gallant elements, he rushed forward firing and bayonetting the enemy, took down at least eight of them, he was awarded the MVC. Numerous individual acts of bravery contributed to collective resilience; the enemy was forestalled.
The enemy failed to capture this area through which as an important track passed, wireless intercepts called these positions impregnable, also ‘Tiger Mouth’ as reported by repatriated prisoners. To keep the enemy under observation and meet emergent situations, aggressive patrolling led to many casualties. Some troops were moved forward to occupy positions further westwards called Patrol Base and Maha Plateau. The enemy once again shifted their attention to attack from the flanks, this was soon confirmed by Delta Company under Lt Yograj ‘Joe’ Palta who was now on the East Ridge, at High Plateau. He reported large build up Chinese troops backed with mule columns, and crossings over the Lohit on boats. On 15th Nov after intense shelling by day, waves of the enemy struck Bravo Company at Maha Plateau from the West, simultaneously they infiltrated through the gaps (troops were inadequate to cover the large gaps) to cut off the defences, this decisive battle continued up to 16thNov. Meanwhile on the East Ridge, the same night, at about 2330 hours the enemy attacked the High Plateau, a young Joe Palta took them on, constantly boosting his men, they beat back two attacks in about four hours. The third assault came early morning at 0445 hours, own dead had piled up, reinforcements were not available, Joe Palta was also among the fallen, his last words were, ‘Dushman nu Kachha kha jao, pichha na chhado- Eat the enemy raw, just keep at them!’ His leadership and tenacity were of the highest order, he was awarded the Vir Chakra. The survivors led by Lt Bhandari, the artillery observation post officer, lived to recount the gallantry of Joe Palta and his men.
To hold Maha Plateau was critical, so Alpha Company was pulled back from the Patrol Base to the plateau. The enemy then moved up direct firing heavier weapons to destroy the bunkers before attacking from literally all directions, stiff hand-to-hand combat followed. Major Samvatsar, some JCO platoon commanders were among the killed and wounded. Gradually, the position became untenable, to avoid a rout, an organised pullback took place. An outstanding act was that of three young soldiers, Tehal, Mewa and Santokh who volunteered to cover the withdrawal. They clearly performed most creditably as after the war their bodies were found riddled with bullets, with hands and legs tied with wire and turbans. Later, a rescue party under Captain IJ Kumar tried to retrieve Major Samvatsar, but the major was further wounded and succumbed;Captain Kumar was taken prisoner.The situation turned critical in all spheres; manpower, ammunition, and weapons, by 1330 hours on 16th Nov the remnants fell back. Survivors, mostly wounded, never gave up, they avoided getting captured and kept joining the unit, the last was L/Naik Gurdip Singh who totally famished reported after 37 days! Such was the spirit generated that as the combatants battled, Havildar Kirpa Ram, the Equipment and Boot Repairer, encouraged the unit non- combatants to accept the challenge to move ammunition forward. Undeterred of the consequences held these men repeatedly; Kirpa Ram finally lay dead. His is possibly a singular example of a tradesman who went well beyond his duty, displayed courage and loyalty of a high order, it was duly recognised by the award of the Vir Chakra!
The Battle of Walong lasted for 25 days, 85 lay dead in the true spirit of “Saragarhi” in their trenches and 97 were wounded. Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh, who visited the battle ground later wrote, ‘It has come to light now that the dead of 4 Sikh at Walong were lying in their bunkers where they fought till the last in keeping with the highest traditions of the Sikh regiment.’ On 8th Oct 1963, Kewal Singh’s gallantry, true to the words of Guru Gobind Singh, ‘And when the last moment of my life should come, May I die fighting in the thick of Battle’ was recognised, as his proud widow with a one-year baby in her lap, ‘with her chin up’ received the Maha Vir Chakra from the President of India.
The debacle that the troops of the Indian Army suffered was not due to lack of any perseverance or will to fight on their part, they stood their ground resiliently, till their last bullet. This war was a monumental political, intelligence and military failure, there was no sign of real politic in the country’s top leadership, the IB and Raw responsible for external intelligence were totally at bay, the higher military leadership was politically selected and proved their incompetence. The army was ill equipped in every way; personal weapons, artillery, ammunition often ran dry, shortage of all types of equipment, worse, the troops fought in summer dresses sans any warm clothing in extremes of weather conditions in high altitude but yet they stood stoically. The Indian Air Force which could have been a game changer remained onlookers, a clear example of lack of perception of the nation’s political hierarchy. It is just hoped that the never again must the armed forces battle with one hand tied and ill equipped. To conclude, the battle of Razang La brings out the inbuilt resilience and the Sikh attribute of demonstrating highest morale, chardi Kalan, even under the worst trying circumstances. The Time Magazine rightly summed these battles,
‘Troops lacked Everything Except Guts!’