Remembering The Veer Ahir's of Rezang La!

"The rest, including Major Shaitan Singh who was awarded Param Vir Chakra posthumously, were discovered after the winter, frozen in their trenches, holding their weapons but with no ammunition to fire and defend."

Remembering The Veer Ahir's 
of Rezang La!

After the partition of undivided India into two independent nations as India and Pakistan, our family in 1948 migrated to the small, dusty arid and obscure town of Gurgaon, which was then the southernmost district of the erstwhile State of Punjab. During my college days, I came to know that some of my hardy, thrifty and simple classmates were Yadavs.  

However, at that time, I did not know that Ahir and Yadav were synonymous and the same side of the coin. I was also the least aware how in my later years, Ahirs would be the most influencing and dominating factors in my military career and rest of the life.

As I grew up, I learnt with amazement from my brother that 25% of the strength of his paltan and 2 KUMAON (Berar) were Ahirs. Later, when they were transferred to 13 KUMAON, my late brother Prem was emotionally very upset as Ahirs in his Charlie Company, were not only rustic, good sportsmen and professionally excellent soldiers too. They always ensured that his Company was always the Champion Company and that 6 KUMAON would win all formation sports events.

Similarly there were Kumaonis in 13 KUMAON who were transferred to 2 KUMAON (Berar) and 6 KUMAON transferring equal numbers of Ahirs. Nothing thrilled me more just before our passing out parade, getting a telegram from my brother, You are being commissioned in 13 KUMAON of Late Major Shaitan Singh PVC of REZANGLA fame'. I was indeed the most fortunate to be commissioned in the first pure Ahir paltan of the Regiment of the Rezang La fame.

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History of the Ahirs

Ahirs, Yadavs or Yadavas reside throughout the country especially in Haryana. They include the Abhiras or Ahirs of the Northern India, Raos of Haryana, Gwallas of Uttar Pradesh, Mandals of Bihar, Pradhans of Orissa, Yadavs of Rajasthan, Ghoshals of Bengal, Gopas and Reddys of Andhra Pradesh and Wadeyars of Karnataka.

The Jats often look down on them but the Ahirs call themselves Somavanshi Kshatriyas. The Yadav contribution to the composite kaleidoscopic culture of India is immense. The nomadic art forms, the Abhira language that is Apabhramsa Devanagari, the Raslilas and certain ragas like Ahir-Bhairav, Abhirika, Gopiksha, Kannada Guala and perhaps most of all, the Krishna Cult is their contribution.

Although Yadavs or the Ahirs form one composite group and are an important community of Haryana, yet numerically they constitute less than 10 % of the total population. Most of them live in the region around Rewari and Narnaul which is therefore known as Ahirwal or the ‘abode of the Ahirs’. Their origin is controversial.

Some historians state that they were a powerful race of nomad cowherds from the Eastern or Central Asia who entered India from the Punjab in large hordes about the same time as the Sakas and the Yuehchis in 1st or 2nd century BC and gradually spread over large parts of the Northern, Eastern and Central India often called as the cow belt of the country.

Other views are that they came from Syria or Asia Minor about the beginning of the Christian era; were Dravidians; sprang from the Aayars of Tamil Nadu; lived in India long before the Aryan invasion; were descendants of the Yadavs of the Lunar family of Pururavas Aila; and that their original habitat was the region between the Rivers Sutlej and Yamuna from where they migrated beyond Mathura in the East and Gujarat and Maharashtra in the Southwest.

The Ahirs of Mathura region were known to be peace loving cowherds where as the Ahirs of Rewari and Mahendragarh were powerful and accomplished warriors. The offsprings of the kidnapped women or widows were known as Yaduvanshis, while the ones with Ahir fathers were called Yadavs. Out of these Yadavs, many have been categorised into backward classes whereas the rest of them are flourishing farmers in Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Incidentally, though we all know about Ahirs and Haryana but very few know that the word Haryana has been derived from its ancient inhabitants Abhirayana that got changed to Ahirayana over a period and to present day Haryana. Similarly, the name 'Abhira' stemmed from Abhira or the fearless, the honour they earned after the ‘Battle of the Mahabharata’. In the 1st century AD, invading Scythians and Kushans forced Ahirs out of their land to lower Rajasthan in the Aravalli Region.

In Marwar, Saurashtra and Maharashtra they served the local rulers and established their own Kingdoms. Ishwar Sena, a great Ahir General, became master of the Western Deccan and became King whose descendants continued to rule the region for nine generations. For centuries the Ahirs were eclipsed as a political power in Haryana until the time of the Pratihara dynasty. In time they became independent rulers of south-western Haryana.

Rao Tula Ram was one of the most important Ahir leaders of the 1857 War of Independence. He was born on 9 December 1825 in the well-known Rao family in village Rampura in Rewari. He was educated according to the then prevalent customs and knew Persian, Urdu, Hindi and a smattering of English.

In November 1839, Rao Tula Ram ascended the throne on the death of his father. Along with Meerut, the people of Rewari under the dynamic leadership of Rao Tula Ram and his cousin Gopal Dev revolted against the Raj in a big way.

He fought many battles against British Raj along with the forces of the last Mughal King Bahadur Shah, the Marathas and the Rajput princes. The Battle of Narnaul was undoubtedly one of the most decisive battles of the Uprising of 1857 fought by Rao Tula Ram that left English jubilant over their success. On l7 May 1857, the Rao went to the tehsil headquarters at Rewari with four to five hundred followers and deposed the tahsildar and the thanedar.

They appropriated the cash from the tehsil treasury, took all the government buildings in their possession and proclaimed, under the sanction of Emperor Bahadur Shah, their rule over the Pargana of Rewari, Bhora and Shahjahanpur. Their headquarters was in Rampura, a small fortified village, one mile south-west of Rewari.

While Tula Ram became the Raja, he appointed his cousin Gopal Dev as his Commander-in-Chief. However, the British sent a 1500 strong column under Colonel Gerrard, an Officer of conspicuous merit, who on 6 Oct 1857; captured Rampura mud fort after minor skirmishes.

On 16 November while Colonel Gerrard’s forces were bogged down in the desert terrain at Nasibpur, a small village two miles Northwest of Narnaul, the rebel forces under Rao Tula Ram pounced on them. Rao Tula Ram's first charge was irresistible and the British forces scattered before them.

The Patiala Infantry and the Multani Horse of the British forces were completely disheartened, but the Guides and the Carabineers came to their rescue and saved the situation under intense artillery fire.

But soon the situation took an unexpected turn when Colonel Gerrand was mortally wounded by a musket ball demoralising the British. Rao Tula Ram took advantage of the situation and swooped down upon them forcing them to withdraw. However, though his forces fought valiantly, suffering heavy casualties they could not withstand intense artillery bombardment followed by repeated charges by the British cavalry and infantry and were forced to retreat.

The pursuit of the fleeing soldiers was quick and inexorable, and they were very soon driven out of the town. After a little fighting Rao Tula Ram lost the day and, when the sun went down, there remained none in Narnaul except heaps of corpses here and there but Rao Tula Ram managed to escape to Rajasthan and joined Tantia Tope's forces.

Since he was refused pardon after the revolt, he escaped to Iran in 1862 and then to Afghanistan in the winter of 1862, where he died of dysentery at Kabul on 23 Sep 1863 at a young age of 38. Gopal Dev had also died in oblivion in 1862 and both were dispossessed of their Jagirs.

Many raganis have been composed and sung by the Ahirs as folk lore glorifying their valour and honour. Though we all know Rewari is the 'Garh' or centre of the Ahirs, very little is known by the locals as to how it acquired its name. During the Mahabharata period a king named Rewat who had a daughter named Rewati, founded a city named 'Rewa wadi', after his daughter. Later Rewati was married to Balram, the elder brother of Lord Krishna. Much later the city Rewa wadi became known as Rewari.

The Lal Masjid near the old courts is said to have been built during the regime of Mughal emperor Akbar in the year 1570. Similarly, Mahendergarh town was previously known as Kanaud which took its name from the Kanaudia Brahmans. During the 17th century a fort at Mahendergarh was built by the Maratha Ruler Tantia Tope. This fort was named as Mahendergarh in 1861 by Narinder Singh, the ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Patiala, in honour of his son Mohinder Singh and consequently the town came to be known as Mahendergarh.

Basically being farmers, the first passion of any young Ahir lad is to don military uniform. 13 Kumaon, not only created history on 18 Nov 1962 in Rezang La Battle but added laurels to Ahir sacrifices on 26 Sep 1994 when 10 Brave Hearts of 13 Kumaon were martyred neutralising Pak sponsored terrorists under the able leadership of Subedar Sajjan Singh awarded Ashok Chakra posthumously.

With a Param Vir Chakra & an Ashok Chakra, 13 Kumaon ever since became one of the few 'The Bravest of Brave Battalions' of the Indian Army. Many Ahirs excelled in both the World Wars, all Indo- Pak wars, and insurgencies in Punjab, J&K and the North East.  

Havildar Umrao Singh of Palra village in Jhajjar (Rohtak) was the only Ahir and gunner awarded Victoria Cross in Arakans during the Burma Campaign in the Second World War. Smart, erect, slim and handsome when he went for the Victoria Cross Reunion in UK some years back, Queen Elizabeth II was so impressed by him that she went up to him and shook hand with Umrao Singh.

This brave son of Haryana died at the age of 85 years on 21 November 2005 and was cremated with full military honours in his native village Palra. Yadavs are good sportsmen too and in the recently held Asian Games in China, Virender Singh Yadav won the Gold Medal in 81 Kg wrestling. Beside 13 KUMAON, many brave Ahir soldiers from Haryana and other parts of the country have made their mark in the various wars fought by the Indian Army and won gallantry medals.

Among them are Brigadier RS Yadav, MVC, Commodore BB Yadav, MVC, and Leading Seaman CS Yadav, MVC. Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav born in Aurangabad village in Bulandshahr (Uttar Pradesh) of 18 Grenadiers was the first Ahir and the youngest recipient of the PVC in the Kargil War. Incidentally, his father served in the Kumaon Regiment and took part in1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak Wars.

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‘Battle of Rezang La’

In the Indo-China War of 1962, almost all the Ahirs hailing from the Ahirwal region of Southern Haryana serving in 13 KUMAON set an unparalleled example in the military history of India by defending their motherland at Rezang La in Ladakh located in high altitude swept by icy winds.

The Battle of Rezang La fought against the Chinese hordes on 18 Nov 1962 on a ridge 17,000 feet above the sea level, overlooking the strategic Chushul plains in Ladakh, is one of the most glorious chapters in the history of the Indian Army, the Kumaon Regiment and the Ahirs.

This battle   has been compared by many military historians with the famed battles of Thermopylae and Saragarhi. The ill clad and ill equipped Ahirs of the Charlie Company of the 13 KUMAON  led by the undaunted leadership of Major Shaitan Singh ferociously fought  till 'the last man and the last round' in temperatures of minus 30 degree. Of the 120 defenders, only three survived, and these three were severely wounded.

The rest, including Major Shaitan Singh who was awarded Param Vir Chakra posthumously, were discovered after the winter, frozen in their trenches, holding their weapons but with no ammunition to fire and defend.

Of the deployed strength 120 soldiers, 114 martyred, were mostly Ahirs from the Ahirwal heartland of Rewari - Mahendergarh belt in Haryana. Even Bollywood was inspired to make a film Haqeeqat on this classic battle.

Major-General Ian Cardozo, in his book 'Param Vir, Our Heroes In Battle' writes, ‘When Rezang La was later revisited, dead jawans were found in the trenches still holding on to their weapons...every single man of this Company was found dead in his trench with several bullet or splinter wounds.

The 2-inch mortar man died with a bomb still in his hand. The medical orderly Lance Naik Dhaiya had a syringe and bandage in his hands when the Chinese bullet hit him...Of the thousand mortar bombs with the defenders all but seven had been fired and the rest were ready to be fired when the mortar section was overrun.’ Naik Sing Ram, a wrestler of repute, almost killed a dozen Chinese single handedly after his ammunition was exhausted meeting the bravest end.

The heroes who were awarded the Vir Chakra in 1962 defending Rezang La were Jemadars Hari Singh, Jemadar Surja, Naik Hukam Ram, Naik Gulab Singh Yadav, Lance/Naik Singh Ram, Sepoy Nursing Assistant Dharam Pal Dhaiya (all posthumous), Jemadar Ram Chander and Naik Ram Kumar, while Sena Medals were awarded Company Havildar Major Harphool Singh (posthumously), Havildars Jai Narain, Phul Singh and Sepoy Nihal Singh while Havildar Jai Narain was Mentioned in Despatches.

DK Publications in their book 'The Gods of Valour' unfold the story of the chivalry and sacrifices of the Charlie Company of the 13 KUMAON in the Battle of Rezang La. All these brave Ahir sons hail from Rewari where in Gudiani village a replica of Chushul Rezang La Memorial has been built in the memory of the fallen heroes.

In all functions in all the Ahir units in the Indian Army and specially in Ahirwal heartland and 13 KUMAON, raganis like 'Attarah November Basath Ko Ik Hua Ghore Sangram Suno Jawanon', 'Sun Basath Ki Chutti Par Tha, Chir Gayi Udhar Ladai, Gaya Taar Wapas Ayan Ka To Rovan Lagi Lugayi’, ‘Rewari Motor Adde Par Unth Par Sawar Tha…' are sung in unison with full josh and missionary zeal. In 1994, late Sub Sujjan Singh of 13 KUMAON from Kanina had the unique distinction of being awarded Ashok Chakra - the highest peacetime award while fighting militants in Kupwara in the Kashmir valley.

The Ahirs are not only good soldiers but equally good sportsmen, farmers, businessmen, educationists, artists, administrators and politicians (Some personalities are Mulayam Singh Yadav, Rabri Devi, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Rao Barinder Singh, and late Col Rao Ram Singh etc). Swami Ram Dev, the modern Yoga Guru now a top Ayurvedic medicines businessman of the international fame is another notable Ahir from the Ahirwal region.  

Their first love after farming is soldiering. In a big Kosli like Ahir village, it is not unusual to find a recruit and a general in the Army from the same family. They have simple frugal vegetarian food habits and love their community hookah, kaddi, buttermilk or lassi, pure ghee and churma - a delicacy made from crushed chapattis mashed with liberal amount of pure ghee, nuts and jaggery though younger, modern, urban present day Ahirs are being attracted towards McDonalds, non-vegetarian dishes, booze and fast food. In 13 KUMAON, Ahir Jawans accepted officers only if they could run, play and sing raganis as good as they could. Maintenance of discipline in the Ahir unit is perhaps the easiest in the Indian Army.

C:\Users\admin\OneDrive\Desktop\Rezangla Walong photos\RezangLa photos\ALL OPS PHOTOS\1962\1962 mtrl\11- Col HS Dhingra,AVSM offering tributes.jpg
1st anniversary of Rezang La Day 18 Nov 1963 attended by me & photo clicked by me (Lt Col HS Dhingra, AVSM & Sub Maj Chandgi Ram

The proud military traditions of the bravery, sacrifices, discipline, leadership and valour of the Ahirs in The KUMAON Regiment and other arms and services of the Indian Army is exemplary. It is a matter of great pride that both the Kumaonis from the Hills and Ahirs from the plains blend so well in our great Regiment adding to their camaraderie and combat effectiveness.

The first Rezang La Memorial function was held on 18 Nov 1963 at High Ground in Chushul where a simple Memorial to fallen heroes was constructed by the Paltan. I had the unique privilege to attend the function as the Paltan’s young 2/Lieutenant. At the regimental level it was learnt last year that the Memorial was under major renovation and on the coming 18 Nov 2021, large numbers of 13 Kumaon veterans would be invited to attend the solemn function.

Since no intimation was received and on 9 Nov 2021 an article ‘Revamped War Memorial at LAC Soon to Honour 114 Indian Soldiers Who Died in 1962 Battle of Rezang La’ written by Amrita Nayak Datta (New 18. Com) categorically stated that the memorial which stands right at the LAC, will also commemorate 20 Indian soldiers who died in the Galwan Valley clashes last year, expansion of two gazebos, a Shaitan Singh Auditorium and Rezang La gallery, 3D terrain model, 114 stone plaques carrying the names of the fallen heroes along with other infrastructural work, that came as a bigger shock than that the function would be at low key and there would be no invitees other than the select 3 from our Regiment due to the prevailing security scenario and administrative constraints in the remote high altitude area woefully lacking infrastructural support, notwithstanding the fact, that a battalion located in Chushul has invited a civilian young man writing biography of late Maj Shaitan Singh!

A memorial has been built for the 20 Indian soldiers who lost their lives in action against the Chinese Army in  Galwan Valley (ANI)
16 Bihar Memorial for 20 Galwan Valley Heroes

I have equal respect for all the fallen heroes irrespective of their units and regiments and SALUTE them as a military veteran with my utmost regards and humility. I would like to reiterate the importance of the Rezang La Memorial which was constructed by 13 Kumaon at the site where 96 Ahirs martyred in Rezang La Battle were mass-cremated to honour those who gave their lives to defend the Indian territory.

It is a solemn and sacred place for the Paltan. Adding names of Galwan martyrs of the last year of 16 Bihar and other units with Rezang La heroes would dilute the valour and motivation of all the fallen warriors so very essential in our regiments to maintain high morale, esprit-de-corps, so very important for combat effectiveness.

For that reason only, to honour the 20 Indian soldiers who fell fighting valiantly in Galwan Valley clashes with the Chinese Army, a memorial has already been constructed at Km 20 on the strategic Darbuk- Shyok- Daulat Beg Oldi Road in Ladakh.

Under the ORBAT of 114 Infantry Brigade, there were 1 Jat (LI), 5 Jat and 1/8 GR besides other minor units and War Memorials of 1/8 GR and both the Jat battalions were constructed nearer to their battle locations, which quite rightly are NOT forming part of the revamped Rezang La Memorial! One of the 13 Kumaon Commanding Officers (COs), to honour 96 Ahir Brave Hearts of 13 Kumaon had erected a significant ‘Ahir Dham’ stone plaque adjacent to Rezang La Memorial.

We should, therefore, not mix up the importance of the regimental memorials so very essential for maintaining morale, motivation and military traditions. All veteran officers (including the former CORs), JCOs and jawans, especially of the 13 Kumaon and other infantry battalions, subscribe to the views reiterated in this article.

We must understand that these memorials in the battlefield areas have their own significance vis-à-vis the national memorials constructed in the big cities and towns away from the battlefield areas like in Delhi, Noida, and Bengaluru etc where names of fallen heroes of the three services are inscribed.

For me now as an 80 years old veteran, the first anniversary of the Rezang La battle on 18 Nov 1963 as 2/Lieutenant of the Paltan, standing close to the Rezang La Memorial in Chushul, with moist eyes and pride in my heart for our heroes, overlooking the massive Rezang La feature, amid the biting chilly winds, will always remain nostalgic memory, privilege and honour to pay my homage to our Brave Hearts, humming in my head Macaulay’s soul stirring inscription on the Rezang La Memorial:–

‘And how can a man die better,
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And temples of his gods.’

So this is how the story of Ahirs in 13 KUMAON and the Rezang La Memorial goes on and on, motivating generations to come and we must endeavour to preserve these in all their manifestations....!!

About the Author

Col NN Bhatia was commissioned into the 13 Kumaon in 1963. He commanded 2 Kumaon (Berar), which is one of the oldest Indian Army Battalions. Upon his retirement from the army, he went on to work in intelligence, specializing in industrial security, goin on to conduct security audits of vital installations.

Presently he is a freelance Industrial Security Consultant and a prolific writer on military and industrial security. He is deeply involved in the release of 54 Indian POWs languishing in Pakistani jails since the 1971 War. He can be contacted at Email: [email protected]

(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Mission Victory India)

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