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As the country gears up for Diwali, I would urge Indians to take a minute and remember that 50 years ago, in a 28-day conflict between India and China, 3,824 bravehearts gave up their lives for the nation. Reminiscences and analyses appearing in the media have focused on the political and military blunders. However, this battle should be memorialised as one about the grit and bravery of soldiers on the frontline — ill-equipped and badly betrayed by incompetent politicians — and generals sent into combat at 15,000 feet, insufficiently clad for a north Indian autumn, and equipped with outdated weapons from World War 2.
In battles all across the border, in places that have gone down in military history like Rezang La, Tongpeng La and Bum La — places that most of us today don’t know but our future generations must remember — precious lives were lost as our brave soldiers defended our territory against the Chinese PLA. Each of these battles tells scores of stories of bravery, despite overwhelming odds the Indian soldier faced while doing his duty even when everyone above him failed to fulfil their responsibilities.
The Ahirs of the C Company of 13 Kumaon at Rezang La (Ladakh), who fought virtually to the last man and last bullet; or the dogged platoon of 1 Sikh, defending a ridge at Tongpeng La (Arunachal Pradesh) till the bullets ran out and charging out with fixed bayonets in a glorious but suicidal last attempt — this is the valour we should never forget.
The men who led those troops — Major Shaitan Singh at Rezang La and Subedar Joginder Singh — won the Param Vir Chakra (PVC) posthumously. There was a third PVC winner in that war — Major Dhan Singh Thapa of 8 Gorkha Rifles, who fought like a lion in Ladakh and, fortunately, lived to tell the tale. At Bum La, the valiant soldiers of 5 Assam rifles led by Jemadar AK Roy and soldiers of 1 Sikh, repulsed numerous attacks by the Chinese till they could not hold out any longer. Countless stories like this one played out across the border from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh.
But a few years ago, there was a news report that the widow of Major Shaitan Singh, who gave up his life for India on the icy heights of Rezang La, was being paid a pension far lower than her entitlement. The Controller of Defence Accounts and the bank that disburses pension played the blame game. The rest of us shook our heads in despair. I often quote to people in the government and bureaucracy the famous line by Kautilya: “The day the soldier has to demand his dues will be a sad day for Magadha. For that day on, you will have lost all moral sanction to be King”.
The sight of our veterans returning their medals should make most people with a conscience hang their heads in shame. The memories of the 3,800 bravehearts and their stories of ultimate service to the nation should galvanise our collective conscience and make us firmly resolve to stand by our soldiers and their families.
The British Parliament has passed an Armed Forces Covenant, a contract between the people and those who fight for them, whereby an assurance is given that the members of the armed forces and their families will be cared for by the public. I have introduced a similar Bill in Parliament — The Armed Forces Covenant Bill, 2011 — which is awaiting discussion. I hope it is discussed and the government deems it appropriate to pass such a Bill, if not mine. By doing so we will pay appropriate homage to all the brave men who died in 1962 and promote a new relationship between the people of India and its armed forces.
This article appeared in the Hindustan Times on November 01st, 2012