The ‘Snow Leopards’ of Ladakh

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Ladakh scouts
Ladakh Scouts of the Indian army training at Leh with HAL Dhruv helicopters (Photo: Social Media)

Though simple and peace loving, the people of Ladakh are extremely patriotic and fiercely committed when it comes to defending their homeland and this was evident in 1948, when a formidable Pak force of well-trained soldiers of Chitral and Gilgit Scouts alongwith deserters of the J&K state forces threatened Ladakh. Since there were no troops present in situ to defend this area, the situation became extremely perilous and all seemed lost.

Sensing the gravity of the situation, a small detachment of the Indian army under Capt Prithi Chand carrying a very limited stock of weapons and ammunition was despatched to create a volunteer force of locals to resist the invaders. Moving on foot, this group negotiated the foreboding snow-covered 11,575 feet high Zojila Pass in February 1948 and reached Leh on 8 March .

On arrival, Capt Chand sought volunteers for creating an armed group who, after being provided rudimentary training in basic military skills, would be prepared to defend Ladakh. The response was impressive and locals from Nubra, Shyok and Indus valleys willingly came forward in large numbers to protect their motherland.

Designated Nubra Guards, this local force underwent a short spell of intense military training before being deployed in La Chhurk and Chhangmar area [between present Thoise airfield and Turtuk].

Though pitted against a far superior, more experienced and much better equipped enemy, Nubra Guards offset these serious disadvantages through their tenacity and dogged determination to defend their motherland at all costs.

Consequently, Nubra Guards not only kept the marauders at bay for an astounding 53 days, but even undertook a series of offensive actions inflicting substantial casualties on the enemy through repeated attacks from unexpected directions. This imposed caution on the Paki attackers and this gave the Indian army the requisite time to induct troops and push back the intruders.

In September 1948, the Nubra Guards operated alongside the Indian army in the Nubra Valley and stoutly defended a critical position on the Kharu Nullah. During the same month, this group helped the capture of Lama House, a vital enemy stronghold by negotiating a 17,000 feet high snow-clad pass under most trying conditions.

On 15 December, Nubra Guards undertook a three day long forced march over high snowdrifts and captured an enemy position near Biagdangdo. Without taking time for much needed rest, the brave Ladakhis traversed snow clad mountains at an altitude of 21,000 feet. And even though half of the platoon was stricken by frostbite, they captured Tukkar Hill, which was the last enemy held position in Leh district.

In all these actions, Nubra Guards were led by a 17 year-old local school going boy named Chewang Rinchen, who was the first one to volunteer for service in Nubra Guards. He was awarded Maha Vir Chakra [MCV] in 1948, making him India’s youngest gallantry award winner. He went on to win a Sena Medal during the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict and another Maha Vir Chakra during the 1971 Indo-Pak War besides being a ‘Mention in Despatches’ and retired as a Colonel.

Having earned its spurs in the Indo-Pak War of 1947, Nubra Guards was reorganised into 7th J&K Militia. Impressed by the fighting spirit and soldierly qualities of the Ladakhis, another battalion named 14th J&K militia was raised in Srinagar on May 2, 1959.

These battalions acquitted themselves admirably during the 1962 Sino-Indian war and on June 1, 1963, both were amalgamated and thus Ladakh Scouts was born. This regiment has the singular honour of having participated in all post-independence wars and its performance in battle has been exemplary.

 During the 1965 Indo-Pak war, Ladakh Scouts successfully defended Nubra Valley. In the Indo-Pak war of 1971, it eliminated a serious threat by capturing enemy posts in the Kargil area that overlooked the Srinagar-Leh road. Located at heights ranging from 18,000 to 23,000 feet, these posts could effectively interdict the vital line of communication to Ladakh.

During the 1971 war, Ladakh Scouts once again did the incredible. Advancing 22 km into the enemy territory over rugged mountainous terrain in just 14 days, it recaptured more than 800 sq km of Indian Territory and the villages of Turtuk, Chalunkha, Thang and Takshi in the Kargil sector of J&K that Pakistan had illegally occupied in 1948. For this amazing achievement Ladakh Scouts was awarded Battle Honour ‘Turtuk’ and Theatre Honour ‘Kargil’.

This youngest infantry regiment of the Indian army, Ladakh Scouts is also one of the most decorated. It has the proud distinction of being awarded one Ashok Chakra, 10 Maha Vir Chakras, two Kirti Chakras, 26 Vir Chakras, six Shaurya Chakras and 79 Sena Medals.

In addition to its spectacular war time performance, the performance of Ladakh Scouts units during peacetime is par excellence.

All Ladakh Scouts units as well as its regimental centre are recipients of either Chief of Army Staff Unit Citation or General Officer Commanding in Chief Appreciation, which is an unparalleled achievement. Currently, a Ladakh Scouts battalion is serving as a member of United Nations Peace Keeping Force, an honour reserved for the elite units of the Indian Army. 

On May 31 and June 1, Ladakh Scouts celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of its raising in a befitting manner. The celebration of this momentous milestone was marked by a series of events highlighting the achievements of the regiment, felicitation of war heroes and the family members of those who made the supreme sacrifice as well programmes that provided an insight the cultural heritage of Ladakh and its people.

Wreath-laying at the Ladakh Scouts War Memorial was a solemn affair conduct with military precision and élan. A tree plantation ceremony at ‘spawo chas’ [Garden for the Braves] was also organised. In this touching event, the near and dear ones of those Ladakh Scouts brave-hearts who had made the supreme sacrifice in the line of duty planted saplings in memory of their departed loved ones.

The celebrations were well attended by a large number of veterans, which included two three-star Generals. Lt Gen Upendra Dwivedi, General Officer Commanding in Chief of Udhampur based Northern Command and Colonel of the Regiment of Ladakh Scouts also participated in the functions.

Hon’ble Lt Governor of UT, Ladakh Brig [Dr] BD Mishra gracing this historic occasion was indeed a befitting tribute to the humongous sacrifices made by the rank and file of Ladakh Scouts while safeguarding India’s territorial integrity.

The remarkable bonhomie and exceptionally strong Ladakh Scouts regimental bond was palpable during the informal interaction when cutting across generation barriers, veterans laughed and reminisced there ‘good old days’ with the serving rank and file.  

Serving in Ladakh Scouts entails deployment in some of the most inhospitable, hazardous and remote areas and is thus the exclusive preserve of only those possessing phenomenal physical strength, extraordinary mental robustness and above all the insatiable urge for raw adventure. 

No wonder the rank and file of Ladakh Scouts have the enviable moniker of ‘snow leopards’

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