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Col. Chhewang Rinchen

The Saviour of Ladakh

It was a touch and go situation in 1947 in Ladakh. The efforts of legendary heroes-Brig. Sher Jung Thapa, Col. Prithvi Chand and Col Chhewang Rinchen made possible what looked impossible. Defence of Ladakh looked difficult because the only route i.e. Zojila was closed.

Col. C. Rinchen, then a young boy of seventeen held the fort in Nubra and was instrumental in the defence of Leh. In 1971 he captured for India the strategic Turtuk-which is the tough underbelly of Siachen Col. Rinchen went on to win for his extraordinary valour double Mahavirchakra, the highest gallantry award besides a Sena medal. From a guerrilla warrior in 1947, Col Rinchen retired as a full Colonel in 1984. His younger brother, P Namgyal who also participated in 1948 campaign represented Ladakh Parliamentary seat many times and also served in the central cabinet.

For his military skills, Col Rinchen has received rare tributes from top generals. Col Prithvi Chand says, "Rinchen turned out to be an inspiring leader. He was a fearless man and highly patriotic. He volunteered to take part in several battles and raids." Lt Gen ML Chibber (Retd.), too had great regards for Col Rinchenís military skills. He says, "...I noticed the uncanny mountain sense he displayed while moving for an attack on an enemy picket. He had God given instinct to choose the most appropriate, even the most hazardous route, to surprise the very vigilant enemy. I realised his being a man who comes into his own in battles". Col Rinchen was the youngest winner of MVC in the Indian Army or for that matter in nearly two hundred years of history of the British Indian Army.

Col Rinchen belonged to a celebrated Warrior family of Sumur in Nubra Valley. One of his forefathers in eighteenth century had distinguished himself against raiders from Turkistan.  STAKRE (in Ladakhi ĎLion) title was conferred on him by King of Ladakh for this bravery. The personality of Col.

Rinchen was true to the literal meaning of his name. In Ladakhi Chhewang means hero and Rinchen full of life. For her compassion, Col Rinchenís mother is known as the mother of Nubra valley.

Col Rinchen received his primary education from Mr Stanzin, a Ladakhi Christian missionary. His childhood hobbies were to make pistols, guns and bombs. He enjoyed playing with improvised weapons. For secondary education Col Rinchen was sent to Leh, where he stayed with the elitist Kalon family.

It was here that he heard stories about world war I and II accounts of bravery from State Force Army Officers, who often visited Mr Kalonís house.

Col. Rinchen was the first volunteer to join the National Guards. He was then a school boy of eighth class. Rinchen himself says, "I know that the safety of my land was more important than my studies". It was April 1948.

After a period of ten days training he was sent with Subedar Bhim Chand to raise a local force in the Nubra valley known as Nubra Guards. Within a period of one month a company strength was raised and trained. They were immediately deployed in La Chhurk and Chhangmar area (between present Thoise airfield and Turtuk).

Pakistani invaders had overrun Baltistan (except Skardu) and Biagdango. They were advancing along the Shyok river. Col Rinchenís task was to defend Chhangmar and the northern bank of Shyok river.

He took 28 boys with him. Over the next few days he crossed rivers and scaled different peaks to reach the enemy picket at La Chhuruk. Nubra guard party totally surprised the Pakistanis and killed all enemy soldiers holed up in the picket. Post was captured along with arms and ammunition left behind by the enemy.

Of all the achievements of 17 year old Rinchen, the most decisive was his stand on the Skuru Nullah. Pakistani invaders were only ten miles away from Leh. Had Rinchen failed, Ladakhís fate would have been different. Col Mohammad Yusuf Abadi, then Pakistani commander leading Gilgat scouts in his memoir titled Baltistan Par Ek Nazar recalls, "our intelligence revealed that our repeated attacks were foiled by the personal valour of a 17-year old boy named Chhewang Rinchen had we succeeded at Skuru, there would then have been no real obstacle to our capturing Leh." Taru front was only eight miles from Leh. Since Lt Col Prithvi Chand had no reserves and threat to Leh loomed large, all troops were ordered to rush to Leh. Subedar Bhim Chand also left Nubra along with the arms and ammunition issued to Nubra guards. In Nubra, only the irregulars under the command of Chewang Rinchen were left to guard the Valley. They had just 20 rifles and 50 rounds of ammunition per rifle.

The Pakistanis were unaware of the withdrawal of Indian forces from Nubra for nearly a month. Soon they came to know that only locals with matchlock guns were deployed in Nubra. To give an element of deception to the enemy, Rinchenís group would come down the hill and fire on Pakistanis from the north. This would give an impression to the enemy that Indian regulars armed with .303 rifles were in hiding nearby.

Withdrawal of Indian regular troops from Nubra created scare and panic among locals. They began fleeing to Leh. Col Rinchen was caught in a strange predicament. He himself recalls, "I was a witness to this mass exodus and it became unbearable for me to witness our land being offered to the enemy without resistance, virtually as a gift." Chewang Rinchen was too great a patriot to yield so easily. He prevailed upon the local resistance leaders in Leh to motivate Nubra youth to return for the defence of their motherland. Given the shortage of weapons and ammunition, Lt. Col. Prithvi Chand was hesistant to release these to a mere 17-year old boy. Rinchen had requested for 100 rifles and some LMGs to defend Nubra. With the intervention of Mr Kalon, Col. Prithvi Chand on the assurance that no arms and ammunition will be allowed to fall in the hands of enemy, finally released 28 rifles, one sten gun and a few boxes of ammunition.

Back in Nubra, Rinchen began organising the defence of Nubra, the gateway of Leh. He recalled all the Nubra Guards for duty and armed them to the extent possible, many with muzzle loading guns. Rinchenís guards reached the village Skampuk on the banks of  Skuru, a deep and fast flowing nullah. As Pakistan forces learnt about the Indian withdrawal from Nubra, they began preparations for crossing Shyok river in local boats, to reach Khardung La.

Learning about this plan, Chewang Rinchen decided to ambush them while they were crossing the river.

At ten Oíclock in the morning, about 12 Pakistanis boarded the boat. When the boat reached midstream, Rinchenís guerrillas opened fire. All the Pakistanis were either killed or drowned. The enemy on the opposite bank returned the fire but were totally outwitted by Nubra Guards resistance.

After a while, Pakistanis withdrew towards Hundiri village on the northern bank.

Rinchen left some men to guard the crossing point and himself headed towards Skuru nullah. He evacuated the civilian population of Skuru village to Thoise and enrolled all the young men in his Nubra Guards. Subsequently he destroyed the Skuru nullah bridge to thwart Pakistani plans for crossing the nullah. Meanwhile more reinforcements reached from Leh and Nubra Guards force swelled upto 300 men. The whole of Nubra valley was now galvanised for its defence.  The Pakistanis misjudged this force as being the Indian Army and did not attack Indian positions for few days.

It was after eight days of waiting and preparation that Pakistanis launched heavy mortar-machine gun attack. Rinchenís men inflicted heavy casualties on them. After this setback, the Pakistanis occupied a defensive position on the opposite bank of Skuru nullah. Through deception, Rinchen wanted to give the impression of inflated strength to the enemy. He carried out raids from different points and directions. After a few days, Pakistanis launched another attack at about midnight using hand grenades. Despite casualties, Nubra Guards held their position and the attack was beaten back. Pakistanis called for further reinforcements and also wanted to capture or kill Chhewang Rinchen who had become terror for them. Sniping and shooting continued between the two sides.

Soon good news reached Rinchen. It was August. Col Pritvhi Chand informed him that he had brought a platoon of newly raised 7 J&K Militia along with a company of 2/8 Gorkha Rifles under the command of Major RC Mathur. He directed Rinchen to take them to Skkuru defences and apprise them about military position. After holding the position for 23 days, Rinchen finally handed over the post to Subedar Ishar Singh of 7 J&K Militia. Gorkhas were also deployed. A few days later Pakistanis launched a major attack and captured the Skuru post. They also captured a section post of 2/8 Gorkha company. Indian troops fell back to Skampuk village.

On 25 August 1948, Lt Col  Prithvi Chand appointed Rinchen as a Naib-Subedar in 7 J&K Militia. He became the youngest ever JCO in the Army. For the first time he wore the Army uniform now. Rinchen was assigned the task to once again raise a full company of Nubra Guards and select 50 men to operate as Guerrillas. These specially selected men were given training in the use of LMGs, 2-inch mortar and all types of grenades. On completion of their training Rinchen was asked to take over command and undertake a number of operations.

As in-charge of this group, the first task Rinchen was given was to capture the Lama House. The route to it lay through very hard terrain. Rinchenís force eliminated the major portion of the enemy platoon (25 in number) and many ran away in their under-clothes. Among the dead was their platoon commander, Sargeant Major Mota Hassan of Gilgat Scouts. Rinchen had killed him in hand to hand fighting with a bayonet and captured his sten gun. This sten gun was later presented to the Hall of Fame at Leh and lies there. When Nubra Guards reached Pak headquarters in Lama House, they found it deserted.

Meanwhile, Skuru position had fallen to Pakistanis but the troops of Indian Army ensured that Pakistanis made no further progress.

Indian Armyís next attack on Pakistan position at Tarche did not succeed.

Rinchen in view of his great military feats, was specially ordered to bring back the Pakistani medium machine gun, which was firing at Indiaís recently captured post in the Lama House. Rinchen nearly succeeded in this task.

Subsequently the Nubra Guards while advancing methodically on both banks of Shyok river, occupied Chhangmar La, Chhurk and Baigdangdo. Pakistanis had occupied Black Rock picket and Takkar Hill. While Gorkhas  wrested back Black Rock position Rinchen captured Takkar Hill with the Nubra Guard troops. His men inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy and Pakistanis fell back to Chalunka.

Pakistanis now dug in the Tebe Hill area on the South of the River Shyok.

This position dominated the whole Nubra valley and the Indian advance was held up.

On 22, December Chewang Rinchen was ordered to capture Tebe Hill position and to reach Tebe nullah. This was Rinchenís last battle and the most spectacular one in 1948 Ladakh campaign. Speaking about this, Rinchen recalls, "It had been a long, exhausting and hazardous operation lasting for six days, of which nights and days were in contact". This battle was fought in snow at the mountain top, with an altitude of 21,000 feel.

At this Pakistani Post, a section strength was on duty. Rinchen took Pakistanis by surprise. With his first LMG shot, Rinchen killed 6 or 7 Pakistanis and the remaining ran into bunkers. He then shifted to 2-inch mortar and the enemy started running. After the enemy was fully pounded, Rinchen ordered a bayonet charge and set out in pursuit of the enemy. Many Pakistanis died in the assault and some wounded soldiers were captured.

Rinchenís next destination was Tebe Nullah, the Pakistani company headquarter. At midnight, when Rinchenís force reached the company headquarters, they found it deserted. On January 1, 1949 cease-fire was declared and India lost the opportunity to recover Baltistan. At a time, when our defence of Ladakh-our northern frontier, has been threatened, it is time to pay homage to those heroes who fought for Ladakh and saved it.


"In August, 1948 the enemy had thrown all his reserves to capture the Nubra Valley. Naib Subedar Chhewang Rinchen with only 28 untrained National Guards held the enemy at Skuru nullah for 23 days.

In September, he was detailed to capture the enemy position at Lama House; this was an extremely difficult task and entailed four days of march through treacherous country, including crossing a mountain feature over 1700 feet.

He succeeded in capturing the objective with heavy casualties to the enemy and the capture of 13 rifles and one sten gun.

On 15 December, 1948, when ordered to capture a hill feature near Biagdangdo he walked through snow for three days and succeeded in forcing the enemy to withdraw.

Again on 22 December, 1948, he was detailed to attack the enemyís last position in Leh Tehsil area. It took him six days to reach his objective. He had to go over a mountain feature 21000 ft and though his platoon suffered 50 percent casualties from frost-bite, he kept his men going through his outstanding and exemplary leadership. He attacked the two enemy posts and captured them; the enemy suffered heavy casaulties.

This JCO displayed exemplary courage, inspiring leadership, initiative and the ability to plan and carry out his schemes successfully under most adverse conditions." --Citation of Maha Vir Chakra

Source: Kashmir Sentinel

Pakistan's Role

Kargil 1999



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