Since Independence, India has witnessed three wars with Pakistan in Kashmir. The stories of gallant deeds and valour of our soldiers continue to haunt our minds. One such heroic tale is of late Brigadier Sher Jung Thapa, MVC. But for his siege of Skardu in the Ladakh region of Kashmir for over six months, Ladakh might have been wiped out from the Indian map. Brigadier Sher Jung Thapa died in Dharamsala a couple of months ago at the age of 90 years. He is remembered and revered as the Hero of Skardu. Though he is no more, his heroic deeds are today part of the glorious history of the Indian Army. Sher Jung Thapa was born in Abbottabad on 18 June 1908. His grandfather and father were distinguished soldiers. Thapa had his college education at Dharamsala. He was an excellent hockey player and frequently played with stalwarts of 1 Gorkha Rifles, Regimental Centre, Dharamsala. In the hockey field, he became a close friend of Captain Douglas Gracy, Adjutant of 1 GR RC, who encouraged Thapa to join the forces of Jammu & Kashmir state as an officer. Thapa took his advice and was commissioned on 01 September 1932. Thapa met Gracy again after a lapse of 25 years under different circumstances.
Lieutenant Colonel Thapa was a Prisoner of War (PoW) in Pakistan and General Sir Douglas Gracy was the Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Army. Lieutenant Colonel Thapa's friendship with General Gracy came to his rescue otherwise he would have met the fate of other prisoners of war who were killed by the Pakistani Army. A small and narrow valley at a height of 7500 feet above sea level, Skardu is divided into two parts by the Indus river. Before the arrival of Lieutenant Colonel Sher Jung Thapa at Skardu, the Wazir Amar Nath Mahajan saw the signs of a gathering storm. Skardu tehsil had a greater area under it than a normal tehsil. There were five jagirdars called Rajas, who exercised considerable influence over the population in their respective areas. They were Raja of Rondu; Raja of Khapalu; Raja of Shigar; Raja of Skardu and Raja of Kharmang. On 11 February 1948, Skardu was surrounded by an enemy of about 600 troops, while the strength of soldiers under Lieutenant Colonel Thapa of 6 JAK Rifles was only 130. He had to face many odds during the war against the Pakistani forces as scores of Muslims in the Skardu area had secretly joined the enemy. Not only this, many of the Muslim soldiers in Indian platoons deserted the army and joined the enemy. So much so that three Muslim wireless operators operating from the Bungalow of Lieutenant Colonel Thapa also deserted, thus jeopardising the signals. Once having worked as Brigade Signal Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Thapa himself operated the wireless set.
Lieutenant Colonel M.L. Chhiber (Retd.) in his book Pakistan's Criminal Folly in Kashmir has quoted Brigadier Thapa on the indifferent attitude of Muslim community in Skardu area towards Indian troops. He said, "Every Muslim civil officer, schoolboys, servants of local shopkeepers and all who were employed to secure information about the enemy did not do so. They knew that the enemy was coming. They took all precautions to see that we were kept in the dark and then were attacked by surprise. This attitude of the Muslims there goes to prove how determined, united and eager they were. They wanted the Pakistan flag to fly. The Pakistan agents here did a thorough job." Gradually, the ration position started worsening. The Dogra soldiers who were addicted to smoking, used tree leaves and rice husk for smoking. They even went to the extent of rolling up tea leaves in mulberry leaves to make cigarettes.
Recounting those days later, Sher Jung Thapa said: "I vividly remembered 17 June 1948. We saw Sepoy Amarnath of 5 Kashmir Infantry being captured by the enemy at Parkutta. He was sent by the enemy to persuade us to surrender. The man was tutored to demoralise our men. He carried a letter from Colonel Shahazada-Mata-Ul-Malek, commanding the enemy forces. The offer was outrightly rejected by me." The night falling between 13 and 14 August 1948, saw a fierce battle at Skardu between Pakistani and Indian troops. Thapa said, "We used our last box of ammunition. Everyone knew our plight and there was panic and chaos all over. The women started committing suicide by jumping into the Indus and poisoning themselves in order to save their honour. There was an instance where a girl jumped thrice into the Indus to kill herself but each time the waves carried her back to the shore. My troops fought under very adverse conditions and held Skardu for six months and three days. Then was left with no alternative but to surrender. The surrender was followed by mass murder. All the Sikhs were shot dead. Captain Ganga Singh, my Adjutant was tied, laid on the ground and shot. The only Sikh who escaped was Kalyan Singh, my orderly who was staying with me."
In 1949, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Srinagar soon after the ceasefire to see the troops in the frontline. General Thimayya, Commander of 19 Infantry Division, also addressed the officers. In his address, General Thimayya said: "My strategy to save Ladakh was to hold on to Skardu at all costs so that Pakistani forces may be prevented from reaching Kargil and Leh. Fortunately, I had the right man in Skardu to fulfil this mission. No words can describe the gallantry and leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Sher Jung Thapa who held on to Skardu with hardly 250 men for six long months. It is one of the longest sieges in the annals of war. While ordering him to defend Skardu to the last man and last round, I had promised to send him reinforcements and supplies. Unfortunately neither could reach Skardu. I also tried to air drop more rations and ammunition but these were merely helping the enemy. At the end of six months, when he completely ran out of ration and ammunition, I asked him to surrender. My General Staff Officer, Colonel Shri Ram Oberoi, gave this order to the gallant officer on radio in August 1948. Thapa's response is etched on my mind and I can never forget it. He said, 'I know that I cannot hold out without rations and ammunitions. General Thimayya has failed me. I know the fate my troops will meet after surrendering to the enemy. I cannot do anything now against the enemy but I will certainly take revenge in my next life.' It is officers of this stamp who make great armies and great nations." Lieutenant Colonel Thapa was conferred with Maha Vir Chakra and he retired as a Brigadier in 1960. The extracts from the citation for MVC are worth quoting, "Throughout the period of siege, Lieutenant Colonel Sher Jung Thapa showed outstanding leadership and great determination in holding out...in spite of the enemy offering him liberal surrender terms and knowing that there was no hope of ever being relieved. By his personal example and indomitable spirit he kept the morale of both his troops and civilian refugees at a high level...his conduct has been in the best traditions of the Indian Army."
The Tribune - 30 October 1999