VIP for a day, at 22,000 ft

VIP for a day, at 22,000 ft

Col DS Cheema (retd)

The threatening posture and incursions by China have brought Ladakh back into focus and have revived sad memories of the humiliating defeat we suffered at the hands of the Chinese 58 years ago. Nehru had no idea of the strategic importance of Ladakh when he made the historic but infamous statement about it in 1964, ‘not even a blade of grass grows’ — about Chushul — that agitated the average Indian.

I had known about Chushul before I went for my SSB interview at Bangalore, but was fortunate to get first-hand account of the battle of Rezeng La from the then GOC, Maj Gen DD Saklani, when I commanded a battalion in Leh in 1986. He was Adjutant of 13 Kumaon during the fateful days. The spirited defence by the Ahirs to defend Chushul, in which only 14 men of the ‘C’ Company survived, out of 127 men led by the legendary Major Shaitan Singh, was perhaps the only redeeming feature of an otherwise dismal disaster. Their supreme sacrifice is one of the greatest acts of heroism, when death and defeat were inevitable. Major Shaitan Singh was awarded PVC and the company won eight VCs and four Sena Medals, the highest number of honours for any company.

The unit I was to command for the next 24 months was deployed in bits and pieces at many remote locations. There was a detachment at Chushul to support an ITBP unit. I was keen to pay obeisance at Chushul and the GOC’s outstanding leadership made my resolve to visit the place where many heroes had fallen much stronger. Since the day he saw his men making the supreme sacrifice because of lack of winter clothing, he never wore any jacket or overcoat over his half-sleeved shirt, even while visiting posts at 22,000 ft.

I got an opportunity in the first week of November 1986 — 24 years after the fateful day of November 18, 1962. My officers advised me to wait for summer, but I had made up my mind to experience the conditions only in winter. The journey by Jonga was not as uncomfortable as I had anticipated. A couple of stoppages en route to meet my men rejuvenated me. I was full of pride to be at a place where a saga of unprecedented courage had been written by a great Army, which had unfortunately been let down by poor leadership. I met the men and observed the high morale of ITBP soldiers and regular troops. It was a humbling moment.

The ITBP Havildar detailed to look after me was also in charge of accommodation. When he informed me that I was to stay in the room where former PMs Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi had spent some time during their visits, I was thrilled. On a wall was displayed their photographs interacting with troops. The Visitor’s Book had their comments and signatures. I was elated to put my comments in the same book. I wanted to take some pictures of the room, but rules forbade it. The next day it was time to head back to Leh. I was fortunate to get lift in a chopper. When I landed at the Leh airport, I felt I was no less than a VIP, though only for a day.

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