Pakistani author Mohd Yusuf Ahidi wrote, ‘But for Commander Rinchen foiling our attacks we would have been masters of Ladakh’.
Written jointly by Dr Phungsog Agmo and Colonel Ajay K. Raina, The Lion of Ladakh is the extraordinary life story of Colonel Chhewang Rinchen, who has been awarded with the Mahavir Chakra twice for his heroic feats in the 1948 and 1971 Wars with Pakistan, the Sena Medal in the 1965 conflict with Pakistan and was mentioned in despatches during the 1962 Sino-India War. Starting as a young soldier at the age of 17, he excelled as a soldier and leader of men operating in the harshest terrain and weather conditions in the world and who has inspired his following generations with his valour, moral and physical courage. He stands tall among the most highly decorated soldiers of the country and remains highly revered in Ladakh.
What makes all his achievements very special is his humble background without any higher education and minimal military training. A teenage soldier, a militia commander, a guerrilla, a son of the soil soldier, an innovator, a man of principles and a leader of men can all be used to describe his persona.
Born on 11 November 1931 in Sumur village in Nubra Valley, next to the confluence of the Shyok and Nubra rivers north of the Khardung La Pass, the region remained isolated in the winter months. He was named Chhewang Rinchen, which translates into “hero”, by the Holy Lama Padma. A devout Buddhist, he believed in the unadulterated submission to the Gods without fuss, though he never studied any religious scriptures. Being brought up in a rugged terrain, demanded an equally rugged life style.
Following operation Datta Khel, which saw the revolt by Major Brown in Gilgit, Pakistan under Major Aslam Khan (carrying the pseudo name Colonel Pasha) organised three forces, Ibex, Tiger and Eskimo to head for Skardu and Leh; Gurez and Bandipora; and Kargil and Zoji La. As there was only 6 J&K Infantry deployed between Leh and Bhunji, of which 50% were Muslim soldiers, who joined Pakistan, Major Sher Jung Thapa moved the balance troops to Skardu, while a column of 2 Dogra under Major Prithi Chand walked to Leh from Srinagar on 16 February 1948 through heavy snow and blizzards, with undaunted courage and determination. Arriving at Leh on 8 March 1948, they soon lowered the Union Jack and raised the Indian flag at Karzo Palace on 13 March, with the chanting of hymns by lamas and asked for local volunteers to join them. At 17 years Chhewang Rinchen was the first volunteer.
Soon, Chhewang Rinchen moved to Nubra, where he managed to gather 28 of his friends and relatives as volunteers and after undergoing 13 days of training, the Nubra Guards were born. After the fall of Kargil, Leh came under threat and the enemy soon reached Khalste; “and Leh could have been taken without much friction”; the book covers the heroic landing by Air Commodore Meher Singh at Leh on 24 May 1948 and the subsequent induction of 2/8 Gorkha Rifles under Lieutenant Colonel H.S. Parab and thereafter 2/4 Gorkha Rifles.
On 1 June 1948, Chhewang and his column set out on a nine-day march over treacherous terrain crossing the Karakorams; with pieces of cloth tied to their feet as their shoes had given way, and attacked an enemy position at Chumik La on 10 June, killing 20 enemy soldiers, keeping up the pressure they soon captured Dzongpolas. By 12 July, once the invaders had reached Nimu, literally at Leh’s doorstep and it was decided to pull back the troops from Nubra Valley, Chhewang realising that this area would fall, organised the defence of Nubra Valley with local volunteers and soon marched to Skuru. On 25 August 1948, he was formally recruited into 7 J&K Militia as a Jemadar, since a non-Matric could not be made an officer.
One of his major successes in September 1948 was the capture of Lama House, located at 4,500 meters, where taking advantage of bad weather and in an approach march lasting many days devoid of any path or track attacked the post through heavy snow captured the objective after killing 10 enemy soldiers. In December 1948, he was instrumental in clearing “Black Rock” with his “Nonnos”. Surprisingly, when the first list of gallantry awards was announced his name was not in it, but Colonel P.N. Kaul, the CO of the battalion. ensured he was given his due and the MVC was pinned on him by Sheikh Abdullah, the Prime Minister of J&K State in September 1952.
An equally valuable appreciation came in from the enemy, in “Baltistan Par Ek Nazar” Mohd Yusuf Ahidi wrote, “But for Commander Rinchen foiling our attacks we would have been masters of Ladakh”.
Of the 1962 conflict, the authors state that “there could be no better illustration of the kind of confusion that had set in than the fact that while vouching for everlasting peace and friendship with China, the government had been busy shaping and adopting policies that would make armed conflict with China simply inevitable.” It was naive to imagine that Beijing would allow India to decide upon the international borders singlehandedly.
Chhewang had been promoted to a Subedar in 7 J&K Militia when he was 25 years and in 1959 was deployed north of Batalik, when a CRPF patrol was ambushed in Hot Springs. He then force-marched all the way to Leh in just four days. Tasked to set up posts over a vast and difficult terrain along the southern bank of Pangong Tso and carry out probing and patrolling, he saluted and said “Julley”. Covering over 400 km and crossing passes such as Chang La in peak winter, in almost uncharted territory, the “Nonnos” successfully carried out their mission and in June 1960 Chhewang Rizen was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant and posted to 14 J&K Militia. He would be the first officer from the region.
One of his first tasks was to assist in construction of the airstrip at Thoise, which was completed in September 1960. He then carried out long range patrols under Major Sardul Singh Randhawa, including crossing the Saser La to Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) at heights over 6,000 meters. In 1962, he was part of a patrol to Sumdo, where they established a post at 4,998 meters and reconnoitered a direct route between Sumdo and Daulat Beg Oldi. On one occasion they walked non-stop for 18 hours through an unknown snow covered stretch, as a result of which they were disoriented and all they had to eat was sattu and the water had to be extracted from ice. Unknown to them they spent the night next to a Chinese post.
Such missions aimed to check the Chinese intrusions and then establish small posts opposite them though these had negligible defence potential. There is no doubt that the Nonnos could outrun and outclimb any Chinese conscript. He was awarded a Sena medal for his brave actions during the war.
During the 1965 War with Pakistan he was deployed in DBO as a Captain, from where he marched to Partapur, covering a distance which normally takes ten days in half the time taking no halts. He was, therefore, called “the Lion of Nubra”. He conducted long-range patrols into Baltistan and though they planned to capture Turtuk and Chulunkha, the plans were not executed due to the China factor. He then raised additional Nubra Guards and crossing Saser Brangsa La at an unbelievable pace on 25 September 1965 they arrived at the Tri-Junction mainly due to his indefatigable spirit and unflagging stamina.
The Chinese soon realised the difference between the Indian Army of 1962 and 1965. Colonel Kapur summed it up in his congratulatory message: “I am proud of you and your brave Nonnos. The frontiers of our country are safe in your brave hands.” His contributions were duly recognised but because of lack of actual combat he was only “Mentioned-in-Despatches”.
In the India-Pak War of 1971, Major Rinchen was with Nubra Guards, a part of 3 Infantry Division commanded by Major General (later Lieutenant General) S.P. Malhotra. They were tasked to capture Chalukna complex, which entailed capturing Point 18402. In an extremely cold night he along with Major Thapa and Major Ahluwalia’s troops stormed this formidable feature, killing five Pakistani soldiers and capturing one by first light on 8 December 1971. At Chalukana, when pinned down by accurate and intense fire from MMGs, when two brave Nonnos crawled forward and silenced the enemy bunkers by lobbing grenades. Ultimately, they captured 44 prisoners of war and then went on to seize Turtok on 13 and Thang by 16 December 1971.
Ladakh is a tough terrain to operate in where soldiers battle not only the enemy but also the elements. After the ceasefire, the Corps Commander Lieutenant General Sartaj Singh flew in to convey his congratulations to the troops.
The 1971 War got him his second Maha Vir Chakra. Many years later, General Arun Vaidya, also a recipient of two Mahavir Chakras, set aside the rulebook by promoting Major Rinchen to a Lieutenant Colonel when he was the Chief. His promotion had been held up as he had lost seniority for failing to pass the mandatory promotion exam in time.
Extraordinary feats by an ordinary person motivated by his love for his country and his uniform. The youngest ever recipient of the Mahavir Chakra for his role in the 1948 conflict with Pakistan, he remains one of only six service personnel to have been awarded the Mahavir Chakra twice for displaying inspiring leadership, indomitable courage, initiative and exceptional devotion to duty. He retired as a Colonel in 1984 and was appointed Honorary Colonel of the Ladakh Scouts. He breathed his last in 1997 at the age of 66 years.
Incidentally, on 21 October 2019, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the Colonel Chewang Rinchen Setu, India’s highest altitude all-weather permanent bridge, in Eastern Ladakh. The 1400-ft long bridge on Shyok River at 14,650 ft is strategically located on the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO Road. It is indeed a befitting tribute to a soldier who had crisscrossed this area under challenging conditions.
Colonel Chhewang Rinchen will remain an inspiration for generations and what stood out is not only his physical courage and endurance, but also the principles he lived by. The authors, who include his daughter, need to be complimented for bringing out the biography of a man who remains a defining figure in the annals of our military history.
Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, VSM is a retired Army officer.