Way back in the 1960s Farooq Ali Khan, the second son of Nawab Akbar Nawaz Jung and a member of a prominent family of Hyderabad’s Asifia nobility, joined the Indian Army and opted for the Kumaon Regiment. I remember asking him why he chose that regiment. I was told it was because it had an old Hyderabad connection.

I only discovered what that connection was when I visited the Kumaon regimental center in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand, some decades later. It was an interesting story that began in Hyderabad in 1798.

The Kumaon Regiment is one of the most decorated infantry regiments  of the Indian Army.

It traces its origins to the 18th century and has fought in every major campaign of the British Indian Army and the Indian Army. The regiment still draws its recruits from the hill people of the Kumaon division of present-day Uttarakhand and Ahir plainsmen of the Ahirwal region of present-day Haryana. This combination is due to the long history of the Kumaon Regiment and exigencies of the military bureaucracy.

The Hyderabad connection

It began life as the Nizam’s Contingent, which was formed when Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley became governor general of India. In 1798, Wellesley ordered the disbandment of the units of the Nizam, the monarch of Hyderabad State, under the command of Monsieur Michel Joachim Marie Raymond, a French general in the Nizam’s army and led by non-British Europeans. These soldiers were formed into the British-led Nizam’s Contingent, which fought at the climactic Battle of Seringapatam in 1799 against Tipu Sultan.

The Nizam’s Contingent, by now consisting of eight battalions, became the Hyderabad Contingent in 1853. Two Kumaon battalions that were raised for World War I were merged with the Hyderabad Contingent in 1923 and it became the 19th Hyderabad Regiment. In 1945, 19th Hyderabad became the 19th Kumaon Regiment, which in turn became the Kumaon Regiment.

The Hyderabad Contingent, which was actually a British unit paid for from the Nizam’s coffers, was headquartered in the sprawling Secunderabad cantonment. It drew its troops from among the Ahirs of Haryana, the Hindus from the Muslim state of Oudh, and Kumaoni hill people. There were no local troops in the Hyderabad Contingent, which was meant both to ensure the protection of the Nizam and to keep a close watch on him.

The Hyderabad Contingent was different from the Hyderabad State Forces, which was the Nizam’s military. The Nizam’s army numbered 24,000 men, almost entirely manned by Muslims from Oudh, Sindh, Baluchistan in addition to Arab and Abyssinian mercenaries. This force was disbanded after the Hyderabad Police Action by India to annex the princely state into the Indian union in 1948.

The onetime Hyderabad Contingent and later the Kumaon Regiment found lasting greatness in the month of November 1962 at the two ends of the India-China front.

The defense of Ladakh

Until September 1962, the defense of all of Ladakh was vested with 114 Brigade commanded by Brigadier T N Raina (later general and Chief of Army Staff). It consisted of just two infantry battalions, the 1/8 Gorkha Rifles and 5 Jat. When the gravity of the Chinese threat began to be realized, 13 Kumaon, which was at Baramula in the Kashmir Valley, was sent in to reinforce 114 Brigade.

The newly arrived 13 Kumaon began deploying in the Chushul sector on October 24, in the lull that followed the first phase of the Chinese attack. C Company of 13 Kumaon was deployed at Rezang La about 30 kilometers south of Chushul. Rezang La, as the name suggests, is a pass and is on the southeastern approach to Chushul Valley. The feature was 3,000 meters long and 2,000 wide at an average height of 4,875 meters. That attack came on that cold Sunday that was November 18.

The Ahirs waited until the Chinese came into range and opened up with everything they had. The gullies were soon full of dead and wounded Chinese.

Having failed in a frontal attack, the Chinese let loose a murderous shelling. Under the cover of this intense shelling the Chinese infantry came again in swarms. C Company, now severely depleted, let them have it once again. Position after position fell, fighting until the last man. C Company had three junior commissioned officers and 124 other ranks with Major Shaitan Singh. When the smoke and din of battle had cleared, only 14 survived, nine of them severely wounded; 13 Kumaon regrouped and 114 Brigade held on to Chushul. But the battalion war diary records that they were now “less our C Company.”

At the other end of the war front in the furthest corner of North-East Frontier Agency, now Arunachal, the Indian Army embarked on its most ill-conceived operation. November 14, 1962, was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s 73rd birthday and the durbar (coterie) favorite, Lieutenant-General B M Kaul, ever conscious of the import of such events, wished to make him a befitting present. He launched an attack in the Walong sector to push the Chinese back over to the other side of the McMahon Line.

This was probably the stupidest order he was to ever give. The People’s Liberation Army had a full division lying in wait at Rima while the Indian Army’s new 2 Division just had three battalions designated 11 Brigade at Walong. On November 14, 1962, 6 Kumaon singlehandedly attacked and captured Chinese defenses in the Walong sector without any artillery or aerial support.

The Chinese retaliated with wave after wave of human bodies and artillery. The Kumaonis were vastly outnumbered by more than 10 to one, but held the ground and repulsed every attack until all their ammunition was exhausted, without any logistical support. They then engaged in hand-to-hand combat, and fought to the last man and bullet. Five times as many Chinese soldiers died in the battle. The Chinese succeeded in retaking the defenses when there was no Kumaoni left standing.

Five Vir Chakras were awarded to 6 Kumaon soldiers for the battle; the Battalion celebrates November 14 as Walong Day.

The Chinese announced a unilateral ceasefire on November 21 but little more than what the survivors had brought back was known about C Company. In January 1963 a shepherd wandered on to Rezang La. It was as if the last moment of battle had turned into a tableau. The cold had frozen the dead in their battle positions and the snow had laid a shroud over the battlefield. This tableau was recorded and told their countrymen what actually happened that Sunday morning. Every man had died a hero.

Major Shaitan Singh was conferred the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest military gallantry award. Eight more received the Vir Chakra while four others received the Sena Medal and 13 Kumaon received the battle honor “Rezang La” that it wears so proudly.

The monument that stands at Chushul asks:

How can a man die better/ than facing fearful odds/ for the ashes of his fathers/ and the temples of his gods?

There is yet another Hyderabad connection. Of the three chiefs the Kumaon Regiment gave the Indian Army, the first was General S M Shrinagesh. He was son of Dr Shrinagesh Mallanah, Nizam Osman Ali Khan’s personal physician. Shrinagesh went to Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England after graduating from Cambridge University in 1921. He joined the 19th Hyderabad Regiment in 1933 and became the commanding officer of 6/19th Hyderabad (now 6 Kumaon) in 1942 and led it in war in Burma.

In 1947 he became the general officer commanding of the 5th Corps (now the 15th Corps posted at Badami Bagh, Srinagar) and was the commander of all military operations in Jammu and Kashmir during the 1947-48 war with Pakistan. He became Chief of Army Staff in 1955.

The story that began in Secunderabad still endures now in Ranikhet nestled high in the Kumaon Hills.