Another Day, Another time

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November 18, 1962! Another Day, another time. The winters had set in. It was icy cold and the snow covered peaks sent down breeze that penetrates to your very bone. The night temperatures dropped to low single digits. It was icy cold on the peaks around Chushul. Our adversaries from China decided to unfold a devious plan. The wanted to annex the entire Leh/ Ladakh sector. The entered from Rezang La and they encountered 13 Kumaon led by a tiger Major Shaitan Singh (MSS). The battle was fought at an altitude of 18,000 feet in Ladakh.120 soldiers of the Indian Army pitched against 5,000 soldiers of the Chinese Army. The Chinese also had artillery support. The brave 120 soldiers were bereft of artillery support.

This is the story of unparalleled valour, raw courage and victory buried in the overall defeat in 1962. Even to this day, my heart fills with immense pride regaling the saga of the battle. Rezang La (a pass in the mountain range), Gurung Hill and Spanggur Gap. Charlie Company of 13 Kumaon was at Rezang La. MSS was a Rajput commanding an Ahir company. Around 4 in the morning the scouts alerted MSS about advancing troops through the gullies not in ones or twos but in hundreds, heading for the peak.

MSS told his men to remain alert but not to open fire until he gave the command. As the Chinese troops advanced, the light machine guns opened fire with menacing accuracy. The first wave retreated. But the Chinese were numerically far superior. Before dawn the second wave advanced. This too was beaten back. By now at least 100 Chinese troops lay dead or injured but even before the Indian soldiers could replenish their stocks and reload the machine guns, at Number 3 Platoon Post Chinese soldiers kept advancing wave after wave. MSS and his boys kept firing even though they were under constant barrage of artillery fire. There was no way of replenishing ammunition.

MSS had two options: a. Fight to the last man, last bullet or b. Abandon Post.

His soldiers were tired and bleeding. But their morale was high. They chose option A. Not a single soldier abandoned post. Not a single man fled the battle. But 120 men against 5,000? Isn’t that very heavily skewed? Yes, it was and yet each man fought till the last bullet.

Individual gallantry apart, there were innumerable stories during the battle. The wrestler who crushed two chinese soldiers head with his bare hands. Another flung himself on two Chinese soldiers as they were climbing the peak – and took them down along with him. MSS did not want to be captured. He was mortally wounded. He ordered his jawans to hide his body behind boulders. One of his buddies unslung his rifle, used the sling to tie MSS’s body to his and rolled down the hill, all this while MSS breathed his last. His body was hidden. Only six of the 120 soldiers survived.  Five were taken as Prisoners of War (POWs). One slipped back and narrated the story. MSS was awarded the Param Vir Chakra (Posthumously).

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Major Shaitan Singh, PVC

As the folklore goes, the Chinese stopped at Rezang La to count their dead and tend to the injured. They lost their will to move forward and retreated. The battlefield was covered in snow. In 1963, when the snow melted and a new battalion returned to Rezang La, they found the brave soldiers of 13 Kumaon still in their trenches, frozen, fingers on their triggers.

This was bravery beyond the call of duty, in the line of fire. 114 bodies were cremated with full military honours in 1963 at those icy heights. Bravery that continues to inspire generation of soldiers. At Rezang La are etched the lines:

“How can a man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his father and the Temples of his Gods.”

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Soldier in alert at Amar Jawan Jyoti, India Gate

The Autumn Term had begun at the National Defence Academy. The rejuvenated Cadets were trickling into the Academy portals and excitedly looking forward to the new Term and to meet their Brothers-in-Arms. The almost salubrious climes of Pune were witnessing the changes of weather. The climate was changing and the summer had been giving indications of its harshness. The training Officers and their team had devised a new methodology of getting the best out of their Cadets. It was decided that the Drill Practice would be in peak afternoon followed by a practice cross –country run in the drill boots!! The idea was to strengthen the legs of the Cadets and on the final day of the Cross Country, the Cadets of the Squadron would be able to fly wearing the lighter version running shoes. It is a well-known military tactic to train harder in peace and consequently bleed lesser in war.

The new training sequence was planned well but the human bodies take their own time to adjust to the rigors of physical pressure modifications. The new term also saw the joining in of a new Drill Instructor (Drill Ustaad), Lance Naik (L/Nk) Diwan Singh Danu. The first looks of the affable Kumaoni were pleasant and he had replaced the tough task master Company Havildar Major (CHM) Girdhari Lal of the Grenadiers Regiment. CHM Girdhari Lal was an epitome of fitness and personal conduct. He would ensure that the Cadets would deliver their best and he would himself take great pride in demonstrating drill movements of great finesse and energy. Girdhari Lal had moved on posting and L/Nk Diwan Singh Danu had replaced him in our Squadron.

The first day of the new term began on a somber note as the Squadron began its training activities. Post lunch, the Cadets mustered in the Squadron Parade Ground and the training team took its positions. L/Nk Diwan Singh Danu had a sun burnt face and crow lines were sketching across his eyes. His veins stood out in his hands and his creased Uniform matched each angle of the Indian Army’s decorum. Fit as a fiddle, L/Nk Diwan Singh Danu came across as an ideal replacement of CHM Girdhari Lal. 150+ Cadets stood on the compact Squadron Parade Ground and L/Nk Diwan Singh Danu commenced the drill training. The heat of the atmosphere and the heat of closely maneuvering human bodies started building up to its crescendo. Soon, the starched Khakis were wet with sweat and the metabolism inside the human bodies was burning the lunch at double the pace to meet the energy level demands.

The sharp eyes of L/Nk Diwan Singh picked out various categories of Cadets and he gauged their efficiency levels. Quiet in his demeanor and efficient in his moves, he himself moved with the Squadron adding his tips to strugglers and appreciating the swift movers. Military drill is an art and when done with precision, it is a treat to watch. The mind coordinates the movements of the body in an effortless fashion and the erect postures bring out the best performance from the military folks. It is also a form of rigorous exercise and if done with passion, it can rejuvenate the human body and soul. Diwan Singh turned out to be a participative trainer. He would complete the drill class and then be available on his bicycle to join the Cadets for the run in the drill boots.

The first week of run in the drill boots immediately after drill class post lunch started taking its toll on the Cadets. The strong ones completed the routine like a clockwork, the middle ones completed the chore with some strain and the weaker ones/the fresh Cadets struggled to cope up with the grind. The long term idea was to strengthen by training hard in the beginning and then to reap the fruit on the day of the competition. The pain in human bodies had started visiting and each day, a couple of Cadets went down with various types of body aches and stress pains. Sloan’s Balm started spreading its aroma in the Squadron corridors and the crepe bandages started showing on shins and other parts of legs. The fighters had started struggling with the new concept.

The ever watchful Diwan Singh had by now got well versed with the Squadron and knew each Cadet’s strengths and weaknesses. He too sweated with the Squadron and was never found slow in his moves or sluggish in his approach. The tiring out Cadets were now making the tail of the Squadron a bit longer each day during the run. The training Officers were looking a bit worried as the strategy was boomeranging on their plans. The final day was a couple of weeks away and the Squadron was struggling to keep bare minimum competition strength on to the circuit. The bench strength was rising. Diwan Singh Danu was now a worried man too.

On that day, the Cadets went about with the drill and many had reached their tipping point. Maybe, many of us had peaked earlier than expected and many were struggling to cope with their shin pains et. al. The drill practice was sluggish and not like the requisite clockwork. L/Nk Diwan Singh Danu was still performing at his peak and stamped harder in each move. The class came to an end and it was time for the Drill Ustaad‘s pep talk. Diwan Singh spoke passionately about his drill training, his achievement of the famed Drill Instructor’s qualification and subsequent posting to the Academy. He spoke with passion, zeal and tried to motivate everyone to overcome their pains. A hapless Cadet just let his emotions out and shared the vows of his now pulpy shins. The pain was all in the mind, said L/Nk Diwan Singh and exhorted Cadets to stamp the feet harder to train the body to a tougher level. The argument built up as the new experiment theory was being challenged. This was the time that Diwan Singh took off his shoes and showed his feet to the Squadron. The sun burnt face never did reveal what Diwan Singh had undergone. Both his toes were sans 3 fingers as the frost bite in the Glacier (The Highest Battlefield) had eaten his feet. The posting to the Academy was due and he was not being given a Squadron due to his physical inability. The affable L/Nk Diwan Singh wanted to perform his job as a Drill Ustaad and not on a desk. His fighter’s attitude got him one chance to perform with the Squadron and he was stamping his feet harder than anyone around.

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The mere sight of those feet, the sun burnt face, the crow lines and Diwan Singh’s pep talk pushed the fight into the Cadet’s minds. The Fighter’s spirit was rekindled and the Squadron got invigorated. Each cadet came out the next day with a rekindled challenge and the human machines started operating again in tandem. The strategy was tested at its peak and the results came out 2 weeks later. The Cadets fought well and the Squadron rose up in position from the last term’s performance. The upward climb had begun and the results from here on were put on the rising graph mode.

In all human endeavors, the energy levels vary from one grid point to the other. Some humans have the capability to keep their energies focused and keep achieving their aims. Some are not so fortunate, lose out steam and go down into the annals of their life as ‘also participated’ variants. On the final day, each one of us gets an equal opportunity to showcase our strengths. On the practice days, all of us have almost equal opportunity to hone and sharpen our skills. All humans are not made equals and our brains are wired differently. However, when the challenge is common, then the practice has to be challenge specific. The legs and shins may pain, but when the drill is common, the feet have to rise up together and come down together in a synchronous motion. In a clubbed movement, the prize is common. In an individual movement, the stakes are personal prizes and gains.

There is no gain without pain and gains earned by sweat and toil bring everlasting happiness. The spirit of the competition rises as well trained humans participate to win. The winner does take it all but all others must stamp their feet harder to keep the competition alive. Do not worry about the pain as the smell of the victory wipes off the harsh training. Just stamp your feet harder and do not give up till the target is met. So, go on, stand up, put on your shoes and just stamp your feet harder. Will you?

(Authored by Commander Arun Jyoti, IN)