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regular-article-logo Tuesday, 28 May 2024

Creation of LAC buffer zone forces demolition of 1962 war hero Major Shaitan Singh's memorial

At the famous Battle of Rezang La, a pass in the Kailash Ranges, Major Shaitan Singh and 113 men fought to 'the last bullet, last man' against an overwhelming force of thousands of Chinese troops

Sujan Dutta New Delhi Published 28.12.23, 07:44 AM
The memorial to Singh was built at the spot where he fell. Singh’s body was found with his right hand clutching his bullet-ridden stomach.

The memorial to Singh was built at the spot where he fell. Singh’s body was found with his right hand clutching his bullet-ridden stomach. Sourced by the correspondent

The Indian Army has been forced to dismantle a memorial to one of its greatest war heroes of the 1962 war because the area where it was built has become part of the newly established buffer zone between India and China.

At the famous Battle of Rezang La, a pass in the Kailash Ranges, Major Shaitan Singh and 113 men fought to “the last bullet, last man” against an overwhelming force of thousands of Chinese troops. The memorial to Singh was built at the spot where he fell. Singh’s body was found with his right hand clutching his bullet-ridden stomach.

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“It is now in the buffer zone”, Khonchok Stanzin, member of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council told The Telegraph Online. “This was the site where Major Shaitan Singh’s body was found in 1962… Sadly it had to be dismantled” as it now falls within the buffer zone, he said.

The buffer zone was created as part of the disengagement process with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) following the deadly Galwan Valley clash in June 2020 between Indian and Chinese soldiers.

The government has denied that India has lost a “square inch” of territory to China. But the demolition of the memorial may be one of the most tell-tale signs of India’s retreat from previously held positions in eastern Ladakh since 2020.

India had scored a tactical success against the Chinese in the 2020 standoff by occupying the heights which included Rezang La and another pass, Rechin La. This manoeuvre, codenamed Operation Snow Leopard, gave Indian forces a clear view of the Chinese garrison at Moldo and its movements to and from the military command at Rudok.

But India lost its control of Rezang La in early 2022 after it was decided at talks between the Indian and Chinese military that the buffer zones agreed upon would take effect on the ground. All the permanent structures in the buffer zone have been demolished or relocated by both armies so India has been obliged to remove the memorial to Singh.

A photograph released by Stanzin shows that the memorial was in Indian hands till as late as October 2020 when the 8th Battalion of the Kumaon Regiment had refurbished it.

“This landmark at Rezang La held immense significance, honouring the courageous soldiers of “C” Coy 13 Kumaon,” Stanzin said.

The battle which took place on November 18, 1962, is pointed to in army annals as an example of unflinching valour. Out of the Charlie Company’s 124 men, 114 perished at Rezang La. But they are thought to have killed about 1,300 better-equipped Chinese soldiers. The survivors’ accounts of how many Chinese the Indian soldiers had killed – some with bayonets and their bare hands – were initially disbelieved by their commanders so great was the disparity in the size of the two forces. Singh’s company of Ahirs were Yadavs, mostly from Rewari in Haryana.

The Battle of Rezang La – the pass is key to the defence of the strategic village of Chushul which, in turn, is a gateway to Leh – inspired the 1964 film Haqeeqat starring Dharmendra that is often hailed as one of Hindi cinema’s finest black-and-white war movies. The movie contains the famous song “Ab tumharehawaale watan saathiyon”.

A new, larger memorial to the Battle of Rezang La has been built in the Chushul Valley, about 3km behind the front, well within Indian territory. It was inaugurated on November 18, 2021 by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. The complex includes a museum, a mini-theatre to screen a special documentary on the battle, a large helipad and other tourist amenities. But the destruction of the old memorial was not mentioned at the unveiling.

Says Stanzin: “The entire area from Mukhpari through Rechin La and Rezang La is now in the so-called ‘buffer zone’ and there is a moratorium on all – soldiers and civilians – visiting it. Even our nomads (graziers) were not able to go there in summer.”

In a research paper presented to the annual conference of police in New Delhi in January, Leh’s senior superintendent of police P.D. Nithya said India has lost access to 26 of 65 patroilling points in Ladakh from the Karakoram Pass to Chumar along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. This has led to a shift in the Line of Actual Control “towards the Indian side,” Nithya said

The LAC between India and China has never been demarcated. But India and China have had a perception of each other’s claim line based on decades of patrolling patterns.

Nithya’s research paper argues that Indian worries about annoying the Chinese, have resulted in India adopting a “play safe” strategy that has resulted in India pulling back from territory it previously controlled. The Chinese army is estimated to have taken over close to 1,000 sq km of India-claimed territory by some military analysts.

The Indian Army occupied the heights of the Kailash Ranges in Eastern Ladakh as a tactical manouevre. The heights were always within Indian territory but were not always occupied. They were patrolled. In September 2020, after the Galwan clash in which the Chinese killed 20 Indian soldiers, the Indian Army's 17 (Mountain Strike) Corps and Establishment 22 or the Special Frontier Force occupied the heights.

This was a tactical manouevre because it gave the Indian Army vantage positions from which they could observe the Chinese garrison of Modo and their movements to and from the military command at Rudok.

During this operation, as then Army Chief General M M Naravane writes in his forthcoming book Four Stars of Destiny, Chinese and Indian tanks came barrel-to-barrel.

But at talks between corps' commanders of India and China and in diplomatic and ministerial talks between New Delhi and Beijing, it was decided that the troops would retreat to their own sides, vacating held positions. This would create a "buffer zone", a no-man's land. Before retreating, both sides’ troops were asked to destroy all bullt-up structures. The memorial to Singh was one of them.

These buffer zones were set up according to the altered ground situation rather than on the basis of the ground situation that existed prior to April 2020 As a result, the no-patrolling areas have been created largely on territory on the Indian side.

There have been 20 rounds of talks between the Indian and Chinese corps commanders so far. The Chinese are refusing to create buffer zones in the Depsang Valley, in North Eastern Ladakh and at Demchok in South Eastern Ladakh, both of which are vital for India.

While the Indian troops retreated from the Kailash Ranges nearly two years ago, details of the moves made are emerging only now. The fact that they had to dismantle Shaitan Singh’s memorial marks a symbolic blow for the army.

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