“So dad you were telling me about a certain demon” I chuckled. My father turned to me with a piercing gaze and growled “A little respect would be appreciated”. Dad (a paratrooper) had fought in five wars/insurgencies and it seemed like he was about to add to the list . “Sorry dad, you know I meant no harm, its just …… who is named Shaitan, what were his parents thinking!!” “Young lady I seemed to have faltered in teaching you manners” Reprimanded my father. “I’m sorry dad, didn’t mean any of that, please go on” “It was a cold day on November 18th 1962, Major Shaitan Singh was in charge of about 123 men at the Rezang La, a ridge overlooking the strategic Chushul plains in Ladakh……….” While dad divulged the details of the ‘battalion that committed suicide‘ my mind started wandering towards events earlier in the day.It just seemed like a few minutes minutes ago.
At the breakfast table in Leh, we had been pondering over a possible journey to Lake Pagong Tso and Kargil. Of course the idea was to do it sometime this week. But the day was just too beautiful. And once the idea had germinated, there was nothing much to do but pack up and bundle ourselves in 2 Jonagas. One for us and another for our clothes and snacks! We went to Pagong Tso, had a ride in the army patrolling boat and also tried searching for garnets on Garnet hill!! Then as we crammed ourselves into the vehicles again ,we were told to ‘positively stop by the Shaitan Memorial’. I was wondering if this was another one of those local myths. ‘One must stop to feed the stone in a temple else something real bad will happen’. Humanity as we know might perish!
“Major Shaitan Singh fought one of the bravest battles in recorded history”! That got my immediate attention. I am a sucker for such stories, can’t seem to get enough of them! “The Chinese Army attacked in 1962 at about 05:00 hrs in the morning. They were a few thousand strong. The ridge from where they planned to attack was quite strategically located above the Indian posts. The Chinese had better guns and ammunition.” “Wow, so dad the Indians were outnumbered by both men and machine?” I couldn’t help thinking that with these statistics the Chinese would have had a clean and quick victory. The name of the memorial could well be a pun, indicating the evil Chinese! I did not share this thought with my dad, lest he make me run alongside the Jonga! “Did the Chinese have any casualties at all?” I asked. Dad smirked and then continued with the story like I hadn’t interrupted at all, “Maj Shaitan Singh was aware that the chances of survival were bleak. Yet he refused to let the morale of his men go down” “But dad, if you know that you are going to die a very painful death in a matter of minutes, how can you be calm? It just doesn’t make sense!” Dad paused for a moment “Let me give you a personal example. When I was facing the enemy, thoughts of death and pain did not cross my mind. I just wanted to tell those SOB’s to go back where they came from. This was just as far as they would march….. not an inch more!” My father was clearly very emotional at the moment to have used the ‘foul‘ abbreviation! We weren’t even allowed to call each other ‘stupid‘ in sibling fights, although my sister did deserve a whole lot more!! I started to recollect the various fights that we’d have over the years. She was just so annoying!
I sensed that there were no words being spoken at the moment and hoped that it wasn’t because I had been asked a question! Dad didn’t particularly look angry, he had a faraway look in his eyes! So it wasn’t me (phew). I gave dad another few minutes as it seemed appropriate and then requested for the story again. “They had divided themselves into 3 different posts to ward off attack from three directions. Moving between posts was almost suicidal. The area was quite barren and it was impossible to take shelter from enemy fire. A full fledged gun battle broke out. It wasn’t long before the enemy realized that they had underestimated the Indians.
With every attempt they were decimated and it seemed that the dry bed was in the wake of becoming a bloody river! Meanwhile Major Shaitan Singh bravely ran from post to post urging his men to fight without fear. He soon got a message from the higher authorities that the Chinese had surrounded almost the entire camp. It was being done to block any reinforcement or supply to the Indian posts. He was told to fall back with his men immediately. Major Shaitan Singh spoke to his men and unanimously agreed to stay and fight. They had vowed never to desert their county and this was the acid test. Everyone in the Indian camp fought like someone possessed. Major Shaitan Singh got seriously injured going from post to post. He refused help to safety and instead ordered the men to go fight! When the ammunition got depleted some soldiers jumped out of the trenches for a hand to hand combat. A falling comrade always evokes a stronger feeling of hate for the enemy. More Indian soldiers jumped out of trenches when they saw friends and colleagues being shot.
Many who lay injured on the ground hurled stones. The stone hurling continued till a shower of bullets made them take their very last breadth. 109 brave men died that day and they managed to cause about a thousand Chinese casualties. That’s one Indian soldier for about 10 Chinese men. A cease fire was called on November 21st 1962. Quite a few lifeless hands still clutched stones in tight grips when their bodies were being taken away for cremation.”
Other than the sound of small stones being crunched under the tyres of the Jonga, there was silence. No one spoke a word, we all needed some time to digest this story. It was quite disturbing. I wondered if I would ever really understand what drives such men. We were safe in our beds because of people like these. I was feeling very patriotic at the moment! The Jonga’s stopped as it was time for another break. We got out still quite lost in the voices of our heads. There were gentle sloping mountains in the near horizon and we were in a valley, it was very peaceful and unimaginably beautiful. We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. There wasn’t another soul in sight for as far as eye could see. This gorgeous land is mine I thought! Nowhere in the world would I see beauty like this.
Everything seemed perfect other than a lone boulder in the middle of the valley floor. On following my dad to the boulder I saw some stones with burn marks on them. I leaned forward to examine them and discovered that there were bullet marks and they seemed to be all around . My heart started beating faster. Could this be the place! “Dad is this where Major Shaitan and his men…” My voice trailed off as I looked up. Dad and the drivers were standing in front of a dilapidated monument (the boulder!) with their hands raised in a salute. We stood there for a while in admiration and pride. I couldn’t help the feeling of warmth rush through my body and a tear rolled down my cheek!