Ladakh has given birth to some of India’s bravest souls in uniform. Among the first in Independent India, however, was Colonel Chewang Rinchen. Born on November 11, 1931, in the remote, and picturesque village of Sumur in Nubra Valley, he lived a remarkable life.
In 1948, when Pakistan’s tribal raiders captured Kargil and set their eyes on Leh, Ladakh was being defended by just 33 men of the Jammu and Kashmir state forces and 20 volunteers led by Lieutenant Colonel Prithi Singh. When Lt Col Prithi Singh raised the tricolour in Leh and sought volunteers to defend Ladakh against Pakistani raiders, 17-year-old Chewang Rinchen from the Nubra Valley was the first to respond to protect his motherland. As a young lad of 17 Chewang Rinchen enrolled himself in the Ladakh Guards on 25 July 1948. With hardly a week’s training, he organised and trained a local militia unit of 28 youths. In September, operating alongside Indian Army units, he fought in the Nubra Valley. His grim defence of a position on the Kharu Nullah earned him a promotion to the rank of Jemadar (Naib Subedar). In the same month, negotiating a 17,000 feet-high snow-clad pass under most trying conditions, he helped the capture of Lama House, a vital enemy stronghold. On 15 December, having marched for three days over high snowdrifts, he put in a fierce attack on a high hill feature near Biagdangdo and captured it. This action was immediately followed by his capture of Tukkar Hill, the last enemy position in Leh tehsil. This last action 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. For his bravery and leadership, he was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra in 1952. Till date, he remains the youngest recipient of the MVC.
His subsequent career saw him bagging the Sena Medal in the 1962 war against China, for his defence of the Daulat Beg Oldi Tri-junction. During the 1971 Indo-Pak war, then Maj Chewang Rinchen was commander of the force that was assigned the task of capturing the Chalunka complex of enemy defenses in the Partappur Sector. Each of these nine enemy strong points was held by one to two platoons and fortified with mines and wire obstacles. This operation was planned and executed with professional competence and great zeal. Under most adverse weather conditions, Maj Rinchen led his command, displaying aggressive spirit, fighting from bunker to bunker, exhorting, and encouraging his men to destroy the enemy thus making the operation a complete success. In this action, Maj Chewang Rinchen displayed inspiring leadership, indomitable courage, initiative and exceptional devotion to duty in the highest traditions of the Indian Army and was awarded Maha Vir Chakra, the second time.
Rinchen eventually retired as a Colonel in the Indian Army, and remains one of the institution’s defining figures, playing a critical role in the creation of the Ladakh Scouts. He passed away on July 1, 1997, at the age of 66 years.
The 1,400 feet long strategic bridge situated at the height of 14,650 feet on the Shyok river in the Ladakh region has been named after the legendary Colonel Chewang Rinchen. His ancestral home in Sumur village was converted to a heritage site. His story remains an inspiration to many young Ladakhis looking to serve their nation even today.