Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Jaswant Singh

Much has been written about Tawang, the Switzerland of North East India over the years by travellers and others, but not that much has been written about Jaswant Garh, a war memorial at Nuranang in Tawang District of Arunachal Pradesh, which stands in memory of 4039009 Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat, Mahavir Chakra awardee (posthumous) of the 4th Battalion of Garhwal Rifles Infantry Regiment, who showed his valour by fighting and holding the invading Chinese back for 72 hours all alone during the 1962 aggression, and remained at his post at an altitude of about 10,000 feet (3,000 metres), before succumbing to an enemy bullet during that bloody winter war. The post that he held to repulse the Chinese troops has been renamed Jaswant Garh in recognition of his valour and sacrifice.

Ever since I heard about this memorial-cum-mandir, a wish to visit this place always filled my mind and it was fulfilled recently, when I, along with four other friends, left for Tawang via Tezpur on a chilly morning. We reached Jaswant Garh at around four in the evening. We planned to visit this shrine on the way itself, but it was such a foggy evening that even the gate of Jaswant Garh was not visible from a near distance. We immediately changed our plan to visit the memorial then, on the advice of our driver, because the weather was deteriorating and we had to reach Tawang, which was another two hours of hilly journey from there.

The weather was pleasant during our return trip. It was bright, along with a cold breeze. We reached Jaswant Garh at around 11 in the morning. Before entering the Garh, we had coffee at a roadside canteen run by the Army itself for visitors and passersby on this route. We were totally silent when we entered the Garh that still keeps the memory alive of this brave son of Mother India. It may be mentioned here that Jaswant Singh Rawat is the only soldier in the long history of the Indian army, who is known to have risen through the ranks after his death, and this rifleman has been promoted to Major General, and is still believed to command troops guarding the dizzy heights of India's eastern frontiers with China. He also gets his leave, salary – everything that a living soldier gets. During my visit, I was surprised to see a Leave Certificate hanging on the notice board issued by his commanding officer for ten days casual leave to attend a marriage ceremony of one Yoginder Yadav from November 5, 2008 to November 14, 2008. I asked the caretaker how the procedure is actually carried out. He replied that Jaswant Singh's family members apply for leave on his behalf whenever needed, and if the leave is granted, the army men carry his portrait is to his native village with full military honours and when his leave expires, again his portrait is brought back to its original place. What an honour!!!

The Garhwal Rifles are today deployed on India's western borders, but the unit makes it a point to keep at least half-a-dozen personnel here to take care of Rawat as if he were alive. He is served bed tea at 4.30am, breakfast at 9 am, and dinner at 7pm. Five Army soldiers are at his service round-the-clock. There are no chores to be done. Life couldn't be more comfortable for ‘Baba' Jaswant Singh Rawat, but for the fact that he is no more.

It was the final phase of the Sino-Indian War in November, 1962. A company of Garhwal Rifles was posted somewhere on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. They were ordered to vacate their post as soon as possible. But even as his company was asked to fall back, Jaswant Singh remained at his post at an altitude of 10,000 feet, and held back the invading Chinese for three days single-handedly. It is presumed that he shot himself when he realised that he was about to be captured. It is alleged that the Chinese cut off Jaswant Singh's head and took it back to China. However, after the ceasefire, the Chinese commander, impressed by the soldier's bravery, returned the head along with a brass bust of Jaswant Singh. The bust, created in China to honour the brave Indian soldier, is now installed at the site of the battle, a location now known as Jaswant Garh. Jaswant Singh's saga of valour and sacrifice continues to serve as an inspiration to all army personnel posted in this sector. It is a fact that he alone killed more than 300 Chinese soldiers in the war. He was assisted by two girls of the local village named Nura and Sella, and they were also given due credit, and the pass was named after Sella, and the highway named after Nura. It is still believed that the soul of this martyr still protects the whole of West Kameng from Chinese attacks.

Myths, folklore and superstitious beliefs are also strong among the soldiers. "Army personnel passing by this route, be it a General or an ordinary soldier, make it a point to pay their respects at the shrine of Jaswant Singh, or else they invoke his curse," says a soldier. A Major General once refused to pray at his shrine while crossing the area, saying this was just a superstition, but he met with a mysterious road accident a few kilometres away from here and died.

The caretaker of this historical memorial also revealed a few surprising facts. He reveals that Jaswant Singh Baba has an orderly who cooks for him daily, makes his bed, irons his clothes and polishes his boots, while guards patrol his shrine around the clock. Each morning, his bed is found crumpled, and his freshly ironed clothes lie scattered on the floor. The army men posted over there believe that Jaswant Singh is still here all the time, although no one can see him. According to locals and soldiers posted near Jaswant Garh, Rawat's spirit roams the area, and he comes in their dreams and solves their problems.

It was really a nostalgic moment for all of us as we had never encountered such a heroic saga of someone who had made the supreme sacrifice to protect the motherland. It is only because of these brave warriors in the border that we sleep peacefully. Time will pass by, but the memories of those two hours spent at Jaswant Garh will always remain fresh in my mind in the days to come.

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