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Ladakh: Unsung Heroes: An ode to...

May 27, 2009

Claude Arpi
Sify (India)
May 26, 2009

The 17-year-old braveheart

He was a 17-year-old who was enrolled as a
Jemadar (Junior Commissioned Officer) in the
Indian Army in 1948. And he won his first Maha
Vir Chakra (MVC) at that very age. Ever heard of this hero?

The late Chewang Rinchen, a Ladakhi from Nubra
Valley, went on to rise to the rank of a Colonel
by the time his long and glittering army career came to an end in 1984.

Born in 1931, Chewang could have spent his entire
life in the remote village of Sumur, at the
confluence of the Shyok and Nubra rivers. But the
visit of the Kalon (minister) of Leh changed the
course of his life. The official spotted the
spark in the 13-year boy and, after gaining the
approval of his parents, decided to take him to
the Ladakhi capital and educate him.

It was here in Leh four years later that Chewang
first encountered the Indian Army.

On March 13, 1948, Col (then Captain) Prithi
Chand and a few of his Lahauli companions lowered
the Union Jack and hoisted the Indian tricolour
shouting `Ki Ki So So Lha Gyalo` (`Victory to the
Gods` in Ladakhi) and `Hindustan Zindabad`.

Captain Chand`s 2 Dogra Company had reached Leh
before columns of raiders could make it to Ladakh
in one of the most daring operations of the 1947-1948 war in Jammu and Kashmir.

With 20 men, the Captain had managed to cross the Zojila pass in winter.

Everybody at the headquarters had branded the
attempt `suicidal`. But the headstrong Captain
refused to pay heed to them and on March 9, he
was in Leh. His heroism and leadership helped the
Buddhist region avoid the fate of Skardu, which
had been besieged for several months.

The good Captain soon became the mentor of the
young Rinchen, who twelve days later underwent a
ten-day military training under Subedar Bhim Chand, Chand`s second-in-command.

Rinchen then recruited 28 of his friends from the
Nubra Valley and thus the Nubra Volunteer Force
(later Nubra Guards) came into being.

No question of surrender

By now, the raiders from across the border were planning their attack on Leh.

They could reach Leh through three different
routes. The most unguarded was the one via the
Shyok river and Rinchen`s village.

The 17-year-old Jemadar immediately left Leh with
his men, and after a 10-day walk, which involved
crossing the treacherous Khardung-la, the
volunteers reached the banks of the Shyok river.

Once there, the Nunnus, (as the jawans recruited
in Nubra Valley were to be known) were put under
the command of Rinchen`s trainer Subedar Bhim
Chand. Soon after reaching their destination,
they began repelling the intruders.

The marauders, though, continued to threaten Leh
even after the Dakota of Air Commodore Mehar
Singh (a daredevil Air Force Officer) became the
first plane to land in Leh on a makeshift airfield on 24 May 1948.

General Thimayya, then a Major General commanding
the Kashmir sector, was with Mehar Singh in the
cockpit. The duo had demonstrated that it was
possible to open an air bridge and bring
reinforcements into the Buddhist kingdom.

Despite Mehar Singh`s achievement, Leh was far from secure.

By the end of June, there were only 20 regular
jawans and 150 militiamen operating under Bhim
Chand in Shyok valley. One day, all the forces
were ordered to return to Leh to protect the
Ladakhi capital. As for the Nubra Guard, they had
to be disbanded and their arms and ammunitions withdrawn.

The young Rinchen did not accept the
Headquarters` order and rushed to Leh to meet
Prithi Chand. He told the Captain with breezy
assurance: `Sir, there is no question of
surrendering myself or my weapons to the enemy.
My fighting spirit will never die.`

Chand was convinced. He gave him 28 rifles and a
sten-gun and sent Rinchen back to Nubra.

The saviour of Ladakh

For one month and 23 days, Rinchen and his Nunnus
heroically defended the Shyok and Nubra valleys
using tactics like shooting from different spots
or lighting fires on many peaks to trick the
enemy into believing that Indian troops were encircling the enemy.

It worked and the raiders believed that they were
facing a large contingent of the regular Indian Army.

Rinchen was thus able to stop their advance till
the time reinforcements in the form of a Gorkha company could be sent.

In 1984, a book published in Pakistan entitled
Baltistan Par Ek Nazar mentioned: `If Commander
Chewang Rinchen had not foiled these attacks, we
would have overrun the whole of Nubra and then,
crossing Khardung-la and occupying the airfield
of Leh, we would have been the masters of the entire region of Ladakh.`

It was after this, on August 25, 1948, that
Rinchen was enrolled in the Indian Army as a Jemadar. He was not yet 18.

In November, 1948, he began to advance along the
Shyok river toward Baltistan. Using
unconventional tactics, he repelled the marauders supported by Pakistan.

He captured peak after peak (such as Lama House,
Tebedo and Takkar Hills), village after village
(Skuru, Biagdangdo), hardly using his own ammunition.

Instead, he used hand grenades and bayonets to
attack the enemy, often collecting not only
rifles and bullets from the fleeing Pakistani
troops, but also the food necessary to sustain his Nunnus.

On January 1, 1949, a ceasefire was ordered by
the Indian Government. `It came like a bombshell.
Given a few days, the raiders could have been
thrown out of the entire Baltistan,` it was noted.

Rinchen had, however, earned his first MVC, which
he received in September 1952 from Sheikh
Abdullah, the then Prime Minister of Kashmir.

The Gateway to Hell

Twelve years later, in the summer of 1961,
Rinchen was given another `impossible` task: to
set up a post in Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), near the Karakoram pass.

The need arose after another terrible blunder by
Nehru`s government - the closure of the Indian
Consulate in Kashgar that had facilitated the
trade between the sub-continent and Central Asia.
The severing of the thousand-year-old cultural
and trade link provided the People`s Liberation
Army (Chinese Army) with an opportunity to build
a road on Indian territory with impunity.

Realising its mistake, Delhi decided to set up a
permanent presence near the base of the Karakoram
Pass. This was the job Chewang Rinchen had been entrusted with.

It entailed a trek through 120 km of the most
dangerous tracks on the planet beginning from the Nubra valley.

There were two routes. The winter path was the
easiest, crossing the Shyok river frozen for
several months of the year, while the other went
through the Saser pass (5326 m). Both routes
converged at Murgo, not far from DBO.

The area between Murgo and DBO, which Rinchen and
his men had to cover from there on, was what you
could term a plain at an altitude of 5000 m. It
was called the `The Gateway to Hell` for its
notoriously deceitful weather, its freezing
temperature and deadly snow blizzards. Lucky were
the caravans that went through unscathed.

In August 1961, Rinchen and his Nunnus set off on their trek towards DBO.

Rinchen`s biographer recalls: `As the winter had
set in, the march proved to be extremely
difficult. When the party reached Saser La
[pass], it took rest at the base for two days
before crossing the Saser La. However, Rinchen,
along with [two of his men] climbed a virgin peak
close by, at a height of approx 6,000 metres,
without any equipment and oxygen cylinders. They
reached the peak by noon and planted a Buddhist
flag, `Tarchok` with the prayer `Om mane padme
hum`.` This was typical of the Nunnus,
simultaneously Buddhist to the core, and fearless and daring.

After crossing the pass, they proceeded towards
DBO. Along the way, they came across skeletons of
human beings and animals lying scattered all
along the track. This was a normal sight on this route.

On September 3, 1961, the party reached the Chip
Chap river, not far from DBO. The next morning,
when he woke up, Rinchen noticed the hoof marks
of camels and horses as well as tyre marks left by a three-ton vehicle.

He began to suspect that the Chinese were already
occupying the Indian territory and decided to locate the Chinese post.

After crawling through difficult terrain and a
high pass, he reached a water point. The enemy wasn`t far away.

He climbed a small plateau, and with the help of
his binoculars saw that hardly 500 metres away
`the Chinese had established their headquarters
in a double-storied fort, having two doors and
many loop holes. About 300 Chinese were busy
making bricks and loading and unloading three three-tonners.`

He immediately informed the Army Headquarters who
relayed his discovery to Delhi. As usual, the
bosses in Delhi could not believe that the
Chinese could have penetrated this deep into the area.

Fortunately, the presence of the fort was
confirmed by two surveillance planes which took
pictures. Delhi had to accept the hard facts and
accept the importance of having the permanent post in DBO.

A hero again

In September 1965, at the height of the
India-Pakistan war, Rinchen, often compared to an
ibex, was given another impossible task.

The Chinese were threatening to attack DBO to
support their Pakistani friends. He was ordered
to travel from the Nubra Valley to DBO through another unusual route.

Instead of taking the normal 15 days, Rinchen,
leading his troops (including his commanding
officer), made it in four days. His commanding
officer remembers: `On the fourth day, the 25th
September 1965, we were in our battle positions at the tri-junction.`

The Army Headquarters was astonished when they
received the information that the force had
already reached DBO. That was Chewang Rinchen!

Six years later, in the 1971 India-Pakistan war,
Rinchen and the Nunnus covered themselves in glory once again.

They continued the unfinished task of 1948,
reoccupying the large village of Turtok and
advancing further towards Baltistan using `ibex`
tactics: climbing through the most difficult path
in order to take the enemy by surprise and from a
higher position. It helped that Rinchen used hand
grenades and bayonets to attack the enemy, sparing the ammunition.

Unfortunately, once again a ceasefire was
declared on September 17, 1971 and Rinchen and
his men could not reach Kapalu, the Siachen base
camp on the Pakistan side. If only he had been
able to continue his operations for a few more
days, he would have regained Kapalu and one would
have never heard of the Siachen glacier conflict.

The devout Buddhist nevertheless earned a second
MVC during the 10-day operation.

* Claude Arpi, the writer of this ode, is an
expert on the history of Tibet, China and the
subcontinent. He was born in Angouleme, France.
After graduating from Bordeaux University in
1974, he decided to live in India and settled in
the South where he is still staying with his
Indian wife and young daughter. He is the author
of numerous English and French books including
`The Fate of Tibet,` `La Politique Francaise de
Nehru: 1947-1954, `Born in Sin: the Panchsheel
Agreement' and `India and Her Neighbourhood.` He
writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations.
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