Amidst the Republic Day celebrations across the country, there was one which stood out for its special significance for the people of Himachal Pradesh in general and Lahaul-Spiti in particular. The 9 Dogras regiment currently stationed in Gwalior celebrated the platinum jubilee of its existence and marked it by unveiling the bust of Colonel Khushal Chand, a decorated war soldier also known as the 'Savior of Ladakh'.
Already celebrated as one of India’s bravest ever, as his grandson, I grew up on stories about his exceptional valour. His bust was unveiled in far away Gwalior a good 76 years after his historic act of bravery, in a markedly different setting of Khalste in Ladakh. It was here that he had done the ‘Mission Impossible’ act for which, at the age of 28, he had been awarded the Mahavir Chakra. A memorial stands at the site of his act of bravery today. He not only crossed the dreaded Zojila pass in the dead of winter in Jan 1948 but also raised and trained the local militia which later became the Ladakh Scouts.
However, it was at Khalste that his legend was made. A river separated him and his lone Sepoy from hundreds of enemy soldiers and foreign intruders on the other side. Severely outnumbered, he took the daring call of running across the wooden bridge under intense enemy fire, throwing kerosene oil on it and finally burning the bridge down. This delayed the enemy advance by weeks, allowed reinforcements to come in and finally pushed the enemy back. As his grandchildren, that historic run across the bridge became the fountainhead of inspiration when we were growing up. There was a family legacy to be lived up to and we all knew it.
Colonel Khushal Chand was born in Khangsar Village of present day Lahaul Spiti to Thakur Mangal Chand and Kamla Devi. Elder of two brothers, he was the first graduate of Lahaul Spiti Valley having got his degree from Punjab university, Lahore. He was a keen sportsperson which reflected in the various trophies which adorned the shelves of our ancestral home. The biggest of them was the first prize he had won in a cross-country marathon, sometime in the early 1940s. He was a man of immense physical capacity which came across in the story of his appendicitis operation, which he underwent without anaesthesia, which is incredulous in today’s world. For us, he was no ordinary man. He was an exceptional man used to doing insurmountable things. With each of his things, there came a tale of inspiration. Gallantry award medals for saving Ladakh or his double barrel gun which he kept as a souvenir after overcoming a Pathan mercenary in a hand-to-hand combat, we did not need to look for heroes in comics and television series. We already had one at home.
He joined the East Punjab Militia in 1941 and served in Rawalpindi before partition. Upon independence he became a part of the 2 Dogras. With the formation of 9 Dogras in 1949, he commanded the unit in Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh and Babina in Madhya Pradesh. A quality of him which re-surfaced everytime was his strong sense of what was right and wrong and a recurring theme of not only calling out but also confronting unfairness. As a young teenager, he once famously handed out a sound Robin Hoodesque thrashing to venal tax collector who would bully the villagers.
It is told that a few days before he died, he was stubbornly insistent on returning the few dollars he owed to his colleagues. On being told that nothing would happen if he returned the money later, my grandfather’s insistence became stronger. He said anything could happen in life anytime and he would want his debt to be cleared immediately. Did he have a premonition about his death? We would never know except that in this story too he passed down a lesson. Don’t take undue favours from anybody and if you do, repay them with the bigger one. In the grand scale of life, a marginal credit balance is always preferable. Grandfather had a strong sense of what was morally right and wrong. There may have even been an eccentric streak – a streak which is often needed to insert a bit of moral mortar in the human spine.
He was handpicked to serve in the United Nations Peacekeeping force in erstwhile French Indo-China (Modern day Laos) in the mid-1950s where he breathed his last in an air-crash in 1957. He left behind my grandmother as a young widow with three small children. The youngest of them was my father, Mr Ashok Thakur who was then two years old. He went on to become an IAS officer and serve the nation in a different role till his retirement as Secretary in Government of India in 2014.
The unveiling of Colonel Khushal Chand’s bust on Republic Day in Gwalior once again reminded us of the qualities and values he lived by in his short, super impactful life but also a reminder of the high responsibility which comes by being associated with his towering legacy.
Views expressed are personal.
The writer is a serving officer of the Indian Administrative Service.