Family of ‘Lion of Ladakh’ to attend bridge opening event

Aerial view of the Shyok River bridge.

New Delhi:  When Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurates a bridge across Shyok River in Ladakh on October 21, the star attraction of the event will be the family of late Colonel Chewang Rinchen, known as the ‘Lion of Ladakh for his heroic role in saving the region from falling into Pakistans hands during the war in 1948.

The family has been invited by the Defence Ministry to attend the inauguration ceremony of the bridge named after Colonel Rinchen, a highly decorated officer of the Army.

The late officer’s daughter Dr Angmo told IANS that she and her daughter will attend the event.

The bridge falls on a recently-completed all-weather road linking Darbuk in Leh to the Daulat Beg Oldi sector near Karakoram Pass along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China.

The bridge will allow ease of troop movement to Daulat Beg Oldi sector, located near the LAC along China’s Xinjiang province, where a 21-day military standoff had taken place between India and China in April 2013.

Colonel Rinchen is one of the six military personnel to have been honoured with the Maha Vir Chakra gallantry award twice during his career. He was born in November 1931 in a village called Sumur located at the confluence of Shyok and Nubra rivers in Ladakh.

Speaking from Leh, Dr Angmo said her father had left studies in 1948 to joined the Army at the level of a Naik Subedar and was fully commissioned as an officer a few years later.

“There were hardly any Indian soldiers in the region when Pakistani troops invaded Ladakh in 1948. Locals in the Nubra valley were packing up to leave. My father, barely 17 years old at that time, met an Indian Army officer Colonel Prithi Chand who was serving in the area. He requested arms and ammunition from the officer saying that he wanted to protect his motherland. The Army officer agreed. Following a week’s training with a few other volunteers, my father went and successfully held Pakistani intruders at bay for several days at a place called Skuru ahead of Partapur sector,” Dr Angmo, a retired Professor of Pathology from Jammu Medical College, told IANS.

As per an Army statement released on Saturday, the young Colonel Rinchen marched for three days over high snowdrifts along with other volunteers and put in a fierce attack on a high hill near Biagdangdo ultimately capturing it. This action was immediately followed by his capture of Tukkar Hill, the last enemy position in Leh tehsil. It involved crossing over snow clad hills 21,000 feet high.

“Half of his platoon was suffering from frostbite. But under his inspiring leadership and following his example of personal bravery, his men had accomplished a seemingly impossible feat. He displayed personal bravery, resourcefulness, leadership and dedication to duty of a high order for which he was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra,” said the statement.

The first Maha Vir Chakra was conferred upon Colonel Rinchen in the year 1952 in recognition of his military services in Ladakh during the Indo-Pak war of 1948.

“A Pakistani book, ‘Baltistan Paar Ek Nazar’ (A View Beyond Baltistan) eulogised the military heroics of my father. The Pakistani author of the book wrote eHad it not been for this young boy of 17 years, Ladakh could have been in our hands’. My father was known for his guerrilla tactics of warfare. He confronted a huge army only with a handful of volunteers,” said Dr Angmo.

During his long military career, Colonel Rinchen also served in the Sino-Indian War of 1962, where he was awarded a Sena Medal. Colonel Rinchen’s second Maha Vir Chakra award came for his heroics in the Partapur sector during the Indo-Pak war of 1971. In an operation codenamed Cactus Lily in December 1971, Colonel Rinchen freed nine enemy strong points, held by one to two platoons, in Partapur sector of Ladakh capturing the Chalunka complex of enemy defences.

“Turtuk, Thyakshi, Tung and other areas had been captured by Pakistani forces. My father led his forces to recapture these points and advanced towards the interiors of Pakistan. It was at that time that a ceasefire was called. He rued till the end of his life that had the ceasefire declaration come a little later, he would have captured a lot of Pakistani territory. Till his death in 1997, he remained a very generous person. He taught us to be honest and brave,” said Dr Angmo.

As per his family, Colonel Rinchen had taken voluntary retirement from the Army after he was denied promotion during some time in the 1970s. However, he was reinstated with full military honours and ultimately retired as a Colonel from the 14 JAK Rifles unit in the year 1984.

Last month, the Army converted Colonel Rinchen’s ancestral home in Sumur village to a heritage abode which now contains most of his belongings.

The 1,400-feet-long bridge across Shyok River, which has been named in honour of Colonel Rinchen, has been constructed by the Border Roads Organisation, in a period of just 15 months.

Officials said the road from Darbuk in Leh to Daulat Beg Oldi is 255 km long and has as many as 37 bridges across various streams and snow-fed rivers.

Colonel Chewang Rinchen bridge falls at the fag end of this motorable road that is strategically important for India vis-e-vis China. India’s military standoff with China in April 2013 had begun after troops of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) intruded almost 19 kms into Indian territory and set up tents in the Raki Nala area of Daulat Beg Oldi.

The standoff had come to an end three weeks later reportedly after India acceded to various demands by China.