Sunday, October 28, 2012


“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”.       Quoted from: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

The Lion in winter…Is he still the king of beasts when nipped by frost? Robert Lindsay.

“Now is the winter of our discontent… Made glorious summer by this…peerless son of India”. Tweaked {for this article} from: Richard III by William Shakespeare.


Maj Gen Raj Mehta narrates the saga of Subedar Joginder Singh, PVC, 1 SIKH; a magnificent Lion of a soldier in appearance and in peerless courage. His qualities came to the fore while fighting the Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops in the winter of our discontent in the Bum La Sector, during the disastrous Indo-China War of 1962. He fought for the Idea of India with the deathless blood of the Sikhs last stand at Saragarhi, in 1897 coursing through his veins…A sacrifice that ranks, along with Thermopylae, 480 BC, amongst the most memorable  made by soldiers for a lost cause.

The well known media personality and commentator, Brig (Retd) Chitranjan Sawant, VSM, in a much quoted article written in September 2007 (India-China War 1962) recalls that he was lucky to be given a chance in 1996, to visit Tibet and stand on the Chinese side of the McMahon Line to see the 1962 battlefield in NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh). This was the area from which the PLA of China had, commencing 5 AM on 20 October, 1962, attacked the Indian forward positions and rolled down the Thag La, Bum La and, later, Tulung La areas till the foothills at Chaku, near Tezpur.  
He recalls that, “On the ground hallowed by selfless sacrifice made beyond the call of duty by many of my brothers-in-arms, I stood in silence for more than the customary two minutes. Many images flashed across my mind as I recalled the dramatis personae, both the living and the dead…”
He recalls the names and deeds of a few brave hearts that preferred death to dishonour, among them, Brig Hoshiar Singh, who died fighting at Se La. He recalls Rifleman (later Naik and in present folklore, Honorary Captain) Jaswant Singh Rawat of  4 GARHWAL RIFLES who manned a post with his Light Machine Gun (LMG) on a road bend at Nuranang near Se La. “In that bitter snowfall, when the Chinese attacked his post, he stood his ground with grit and determination. His fellow soldiers fell fighting. Outgunned and outnumbered, he still kept the enemy at bay until he finally succumbed to his injuries. His body was never found, but his memory remains fresh in folklore. Every evening, successive units at the post prepare a bed for him and food is served for his soul, and the local hill population describe him as 'Captain Sahib'…Even now, his Paltan (Battalion) refuses to suffix 'the late' to his name, he recalls. The Brig also recalls another Lion amongst men, Subedar Joginder Singh, 1 SIKH, who “Went beyond the call of duty, inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy and saving the lives of his men. The nation honoured him with the Param Vir Chakra (PVC), the country's highest gallantry award in war, posthumously. These men have died all right. They died for the Idea of India but still live in their countrymen's memory.
Subedar Joginder Singh Sahnan (26 September 1921 – 23 October 1962), was a Saini Sikh, born at Mahla Kalan, near Moga, Punjab. He was enrolled in 1 SIKH on 28 September 1936.  Saini Sikhs are a proud Rajput descent caste of India. Also known as Shoorsaini, they trace their descent from the famous warrior Yaduvanshi lineage.  It is interesting to note that another PVC winner and fellow Saini, Capt Gurbachan Singh Salaria, was from nearby Gurdaspur. He attained martyrdom on 5 December 1961 when posted with 1/3 GURKHA RIFLES at Katanga, Congo during UN Peacekeeping operations, leading a Khukri charge on a Katangese rebel road block.
During Operation Leghorn, the Indian Army codename for its disastrous war with China in 1962, Subedar Joginder Singh commanded a platoon in the Bum La area of Tawang sector in NEFA (now called Arunachal Pradesh).  His platoon deployment was on the Bum La ridge proper, right on the Mc Mahon Line, with the balance company at Tongpeng La; La in Tibetan meaning a mountain pass.
Bum La is a high altitude pass at over 16,500 feet in Indian possession on the McMahon Line. From there, in 1962, the old trade route led directly led to Tawang, the famous monastery town. This was the main axis which the Chinese developed into a motorable road immediately after they captured Bum La and the echeloned Tongpeng La. The initiating flanking infiltration attack at 5 AM on 20 October 1962 was to the West of Bum La; through the Indian 7 Infantry Brigade defences astride Thag La Ridge; then onwards to Shakti and was aimed at the encirclement of Tawang.  The third Chinese attack axis which developed later was through Tulung La-Lap-Along the Bailey Trail-Poshing La to the East. It encircled Dirrang Dzong, the location of HQ 4 Infantry Division, and later, Bomdi La and Rupa onwards to Chaku, the start point of the foothills overlooking Tezpur, the location of HQ 4 Corps in the Bramhaputra Valley.
Bum La is about 480 km or a two day drive from Tezpur, the key town in Assam in the Bramhaputra Valley. The road such as it is, passes through very rough mountain country.
It is a spectacular drive through breathtakingly beautiful mountain country, awesome views, remote hamlets, lovely villages, numerous, tranquil lakes and gompas throughout. One transits through several mountain passes, Se La Pass at 13,921 feet being the highest amongst them; the second highest motorable pass in the world. Tawang town, at about 11,000 feet, is nestled under the towering peaks and ridges of the McMahon Line and is located at about 25 km/two hour road distance but at 18 km trekking distance from Bum La.

This article is not intended to bring out the leadership deficits and poor planning as well as execution of war plans at the apex Indian political and military levels. However, in order to place the extreme resilience, fortitude and courage of the junior leadership as well as Jawans into perspective, it is necessary to mention the appalling state of their clothing, communications, general logistics, infrastructure, as well as availability of war material, including weapons and ammunition. The Jawans were armed with the Lee-Enfield bolt-action, manual, magazine-fed, repeating .303 rifle, a weapon which adopted by the British Army in 1895 and retired from service in 1957. It featured a ten-round box magazine which was loaded with the .303 British cartridge manually from the top, either one round at a time or by means of five-round chargers. A soldier had, on his person, 40 rounds of ammunition, with another 60 available in various logistics echelons; a total of 100@soldier at best. The Chinese soldier, on the contrary had automatic weapons with efficient, far shorter logistics supply for accessing more ammunition, rations, clothing, Medicare.
Lifted from peace time soldiering at and around Ambala in the plains of the then Punjab, where they were deployed in light summer uniform and soft fabric shoes, the soldiers were, without worthwhile acclimatization, pitched into operations at freezing alpine heights ranging from 11,000 to almost 17,000 feet wearing the same uniform and non water proof “Jungle shoes” with standard cotton socks, as opposed to today’s imported Korflach, insulated or indigenous Directly Moulded Sole (DMS) leather combat boots with alpine socks,  rubberized snow over boots. Needless to say, no gloves were issued to the soldier. Most did not have overcoats and certainly no thermal under garments. The Chinese, of course, wore thick padded uniforms and had adequate thermal body including foot protection. It is a mark of tribute to the Indian Jawan that, notwithstanding such poor logistics including indifferent rations, his courage did not flag when push came to shove…He delivered, often at the cost of life and/or limbs lost to frostbite or other high altitude diseases.  
The Build Up and Battle of Bum La and Tongpeng La
On the Bum La axis, elements of ASSAM RIFLES and ‘D’ Company of 1 SIKH were deployed. Between ‘Twin Peaks’ and the Bum La ridge, is a gap…a ridge where there was an Inspection Bungalow (IB). 11 Platoon of ‘D’ company was located in this area, in one platoon up deployment mode, a little south of which lies Tongpeng La, where the balance company was located. Subedar Joginder Singh was the platoon commander of 11 Platoon. The ASSAM RIFLES and SIKHS knew that an attack was imminent as they had seen the massive build up that the Chinese did not, contemptuously, bother to hide, having warmed themselves at open fires as they prepared to attack. At 5 AM on the freezing morning of 20 October the ASSAM RIFLES Post at Bum La was attacked, but it soon repulsed by the doughty Jawans, with heavy casualties to the over confident Chinese, who had  expected to win without worthwhile opposition. After two days of reorganization and reinforcement as well as logistics, the Indians saw more than 1,000 Chinese soldiers and Tibetan laborers with digging implements concentrate across Bum La. On 23 October, a full fledged PLA battalion of 600 Chinese attacked Bum La. The die was cast. Even though the ASSAM RIFLES Jawans put up a spirited fight, their post fell.

 It may be noted, that by this time, 7 Infantry Brigade which was also attacked at 5 AM on 20 October in the Thag La complex and echeloned defences thereto, had ceased to exist as a combat entity, with its brave but unsupported Brigade Commander, Brig John Dalvi, captured on 22 October. On 23 October, as the Bum La/Tongpeng La positions were being attacked, the Chinese, having rendered Brig John Dalvi’s Brigade hors de combat, were at Lum La, outside Tawang, and were poised to capture the undefended, hapless town.

Resuming the Bum La ridge/Tongpeng La narration, the Chinese attacked the forward platoon, Subedar Joginder Singh’s 11 Platoon of ‘D’ company, 1 SIKH, with the objective of capturing ‘Twin Peaks’. As the climb from the bed of the nullah to the platoon position at IB ridge was steep, the Chinese were slow in their climb and the SIKHS were able to inflict heavy casualties on the Chinese, compelling them to retire. Indian artillery, too, caused considerable delay and casualties to the Chinese.
In the meantime the enemy had succeeded in cutting the platoon's land communication lines and had concentrated at Tongpeng La. His company commander sent a frantic message to Subedar Joginder Singh to withdraw, but the JCO refused and assured him that the enemy would not be allowed to get through the IB ridge. The Chinese attacked the ridge frontally supported by artillery and mortar fire. The fierce resistance of the platoon, however, compelled the Chinese to fall back with heavy losses. They regrouped quickly and launched a fresh “human wave” attack (standard, unimaginative PLA tactics, requiring courage more than leadership) under the cover of an artillery barrage. In this fierce action, Subedar Joginder’s platoon lost half of its men but not the will to fight. Subedar Joginder Singh, despite a thigh wound, refused evacuation. The next wave attack was this brave hearts last. With a handful of men left the wounded Lion, “though nipped by frost” and loss of blood manned an LMG, firing till its ammunition lasted. With ammunition completely run out, Subedar Joginder Singh and his men emerged from their position with fixed bayonets, shouting the Sikh battle cry, "Wahe Guruji ka Khalsa, Wahe Guruji ki Fateh." They bayoneted several Chinese soldiers to death before better weapons and numerical superiority prevailed. Subedar Joginder Singh was captured after this epic battle, dying from his wounds and frostbite as a Prisoner of War (PW) in Chinese custody. Some of his fellow soldiers, who were also captured, later recalled with pride that when his Chinese captors wanted to amputate his frostbitten foot to save his life, Joginder roared his refusal; maintaining that it would affect his chances of promotion after release. He had that kind of love for the uniform that he actually chose death; “all or nothing” to limping around with his physical mobility impaired. As a soldier who himself faced the same option of amputation over dishonour, this author understands how Joginder felt when faced with this challenge. He deserves to be saluted for his spirit which was deathless.


1 SIKH (JC 1547)
Subedar Joginder Singh was the commander of a platoon of 1 SIKH holding a defensive position at a ridge near Tongpeng La in NEFA. At 0530 hours on 23 October 1962, the Chinese opened a very heavy attack on the Bum La axis with the intention of breaking through to Tawang. The leading battalion of the enemy attacked the ridge in three waves, each about 200 strong. Subedar Joginder Singh and his men mowed down the first wave, and the enemy was temporarily halted by the heavy losses it suffered. Within a few minutes, a second wave came over and was dealt with similarly. But the platoon had, by then, lost half its men. Subedar Joginder Singh was wounded in the thigh but refused to be evacuated. Under his inspiring leadership the platoon stubbornly held its ground and would not withdraw. Meanwhile the position was attacked for the third time. Subedar Joginder Singh himself manned a light machine-gun and shot down a number of the enemy. The Chinese however continued to advance despite heavy losses. When the situation became untenable Subedar Joginder Singh and the few men that were left in the position fixed bayonets and charged the advancing Chinese, bayoneting a number of them before he and his comrades were overpowered. Throughout this action, Subedar Joginder Singh displayed devotion to duty, inspiring leadership and bravery of the highest order.
After Word
Subedar Joginder Singh Sahnan (PVC) received the highest civilian commemoration for his bravery and sacrifice in his native town of Moga in 2006, when his statue adorned in battle fatigues was installed outside the DC’s office. The Shipping Corporation of India has honoured this great man by naming one of their Crude Oil Tankers in his memory as MT Sub Joginder Singh, PVC.
The Battle of Saragarhi was fought during the Tirrah Campaign on 12 September, 1897, by 21 Sikhs and one safai wala (conservancy worker) of 36th SIKH Battalion of the SIKH Regiment of the British Indian Army (now 15 SIKH). The battle was fought in the North West Frontier Province, now a part of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, on a ridge called Samana Ridge. This platoon contingent of Sikhs was led by Havaldar Ishar Singh. Faced by 10,000 Afridi Tribesmen who attacked their small block house (Fort), in waves, Ishar and his men chose death over dishonour, not just dying last man, last round, but finally, as in Joginder’s case, using the bayonet. There were no survivors.

This battle has frequently and favourably been compared to the heroic stand of a small Greek force against the mighty Persian Army of Xerxes at Thermopylae in 480 BC.

When the gallantry of Saragarhi was recounted on 12 September, 1997, to the British Parliament, the recitation drew a standing ovation from the members. There were quite a few wet eyes from amongst the distinguished members, that day…Later; each brave heart was allotted 50 acres of prime land around Ferozepur, where most of them came from, besides an award of Rs 500 each. In the words of Field Marshal William “Bill” Slim: “You are never disappointed when you are with the Sikhs. Those 21 soldiers (and one safai wala) all fought to the death. That bravery should be within all of us…”

The spirit of the Indian Army, for those who study history and are nation proud, has never changed; has only been reinforced in each age. The killing fields of Kurukshetra, during the cataclysmic Mahabharata days; those of the battle on the Hydaspes River (Jhelum) between Alexander the Great and Porus in 326 BC; and through the ages have underscored the bravery, perseverance and peerless courage against the odds in each war fought by our Jawans, including the disastrous Indo-Chinese war of 1962. We lost the war at apex levels of gross incompetence. At the functional level, the Indian soldier was invariably better than his Chinese counterpart notwithstanding his appalling privation and denial of moral and material support.

Those who considered the Chinese as ten feet tall; invincible and daunting were certainly not the soldiers but people in higher echelons of leadership where rhetoric and tunnel vision replaces raw courage and determination to win. For the soldier whether in 1962, 1967, 1987 or now, the Chinese are soldiers whom we can cope with and win when ordered to go to war. This faith of the simple soldier must permeate nation wide, starting with the top leadership….1962 will not ever be repeated again. This is the assurance our Armed Forces have and cheerfully generate. To aid substance to this faith and assurance, it is, of course, hoped that our glaring shortcomings in terms of infrastructure, weaponry and leadership clarity and synergy are made up soonest. The soldiers whose lives you hold on trust should also be honoured and looked after.


  1. AUM.

  2. Narration true to what one has heard and read while serving in 1 Sikh, much after Sub Joginder Singh PVC has passed away. He truly was a brave man, who asked for 'Red over red" sos arty fire on his own defence when under the third attach.
    However, Please note 36 Sikh on reorganisation in 1922 was designated as 4/11 Sikh Regiment and presently 4 Th Battalion The Sikh regiment and not 15 Sikh which today is 2ND Battalion the Sikh regiment.