Nestled in the lap of Himalayas with icy peaks like Nanda Devi in the northeast and the foothills of Himalayas in the southwest, the state of Uttarakhand is one of India’s most pristine states. Unbeknownst to many, the ‘Land of Gods’, as it is generally referred to, the state is also the home of some of the best military regiments of the Indian Army, the Garhwal Rifles and Kumaon Regiment. The two regiments trace their origins to the two distinct regions into which the state can be divided.
The state came into existence by slicing off the northernmost portion of Uttar Pradesh in November 2000. It comprises of two regions, Garhwal in the north and Kumaon in south, with each occupying approximately one half of the state. This division is not just metaphorical. Its origins can be traced back to around thirteenth century AD when they came to be ruled under different kings. After a series of dynasties ruling over them, they were brought together briefly in 1803, when the Gurkhas annexed both the regions. However, the Gurkha rule did not last long. In the aftermath of Anglo-Gurkha War of 1814, both these regions were ceded to the British, who converted them into administrative districts.
The British did not take long to identify the military traits of the people from the region. Although recruitment of troops from the region in British forces was happening even prior to the Anglo-Gurkha War but it was only after the area came under their administrative control that it began in the right earnest. Sir Henry Russel, the British resident in the court of Nizam of Hyderabad, established a brigade in 1814 which came to be known as Russel Brigade. This brigade primarily comprised of troops from the Kumaon region. Simultaneously, the Garhwalis were recruited to serve in the Gurkha battalions. These troops initially served under the East India Company, and under the British Viceroy after 1857.
Once the British had quelled the rebellion, they realised that they did not need such a large standing army and started a process of downsizing. Resultantly, in the next few decades, the process of recruitment of troops slowed down to a trickle in the entire Royal Indian Army. The two regions were also adversely affected. As part of the reorganisation of their forces, in 1891 the British separated the Garhwali troops from their Gurkha counterparts to establish a pure Garhwali Regiment, which can be seen as recognition of their martial traits. The Kumaonis continued to be part of Hyderabad Contingent.
The situation started undergoing a change with the onset of First World War, when the British realised the need for more troops. The recruitment from the region once again gained momentum. In the very beginning of the war in 1914, two battalions of the Garhwal Brigade were sent to Locons in northern France to fight against the Germans. Both the battalions fought valiantly against a determined enemy. In this battle alone they lost 14 officers, 15 VCOs and 405 sepoys. The battalions had the distinction of being awarded two Victoria Crosses, one to Naik Darwan Singh Negi and another to Rifleman Gabar Singh Negi (posthumous) for their bravery. The two battle-hardened battalions later also saw action against the Turks in modern-day Iraq, where they again displayed their military prowess and humbled their opponents. By this time two more Garhwali battalions had been raised and sent to Afghanistan and Northwest Frontier, where they too saw heavy action. By the end of the war, the Garhwalis had earned a total of 10 battle honours. A little late in the day but eventually, the Kumaonis too were reassigned to their own regiment, which was now called Kumaon Rifles.
The end of the war again saw a downsizing of the Royal Indian Army with similar implications to the two regiments. But this did not prevent the British from sending 4 Garhwal Rifles to fight the Masuds in Kohat in present day Pakistan. In the ensuing battle of the Ghara Ridge in 1919, the unit again displayed its valour and won the third Victoria Cross, which was awarded to Lt W D Kenny (posthumous).
Before the hostilities broke out in the Second World War, the two regiments had their own dedicated regimental centres, which were responsible for the recruitment as well as training of the troops. The centre for Garhwal Rifles was established at Landsdowne while the one for Kumaon Regiment was set up at Ranikhet. The two centres were instrumental in catering to the large requirement of troops to fight the war. Both these centres continue to operate from these locations even today. Apart from these two centres, Uttarakhand also has the distinction of being home to Indian Military Academy, which trains officers for the entire Indian Army today. The institute was established in 1932 by the Birtish at Dehradun in response to the demand of the nationalists during the freedom struggle. Officers passing out from the institute played a vital role for the British in the Second World War.
The war also gave an opportunity to the troops from the region to prove their battle worthiness once again. The seven battalions of Garhwalis saw action in all major theatres of the war, namely Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Abyssinia, Egypt, Iraq, Cyprus, Palestine and Italy. In all these theatres the Garhwalis showed exemplary courage despite suffering heavy casualties. The six battle honours and two theatre honors bear testimony to their valour and sacrifices.
The Kumaonis of the Russel Brigade and Kumaon Rifles too saw action in Malaya, Singapore and West Asia. Their specialty in jungle warfare was used extensively by the British against the marauding Japanese. In the face of heavy opposition, one of their battalions, the fourth, was used to provide cover to retreating British forces which resulted in loss of hundreds of soldiers.
After Independence, battalions from both these regiments were deployed in the defence of Kashmir in 1947-48. While 4 Kumaon fought in the Battle of Budgam, 3 Garhwal distinguished itself in the Battle of Tithwal winning one Mahavir Chakra and 18 Vir Chakras. Major Somnath Sharma of 4 Kumaon was awarded the Param Vir Chakra for preventing the fall of Srinagar airport to Pakistani tribesmen which, if the attack had succeeded, would’ve led to the loss of entire Kashmir Valley.
Both the regiments proved their mettle once again in the 1962 war with China which saw Major Shaitan Singh of 13 Kumaon put up a pitched fight in Battle of Rezangla. The officer’s company was surrounded by the assaulting Chinese. Despite being mortally wounded, the brave officer moved from post to post encouraging his soldiers. The soldiers responded to his call and fought bravely killing more than 1,300 enemy soldiers, although they were eventually overwhelmed. Of the total of 120 men in the company, 114 attained martyrdom fighting the Chinese. Major Shaitan Singh was awarded the Param Vir Chakra for his exemplary courage. Not to be left behind, 4 Garhwal Rifles too gave the Chinese a bloody nose at NEFA for which it was awarded a battle honour.
In 1965, several battalions of the two regiments faced action in Kashmir and Punjab. In the famous Battle of Chhamb northwest of Jammu, Kumaonis thrust inside the Pakistani territory and then beat an armoured assault sent to counter attack them. Garhwalis too exemplified themselves in the war at several places including the Battle of Gadra City.
Similarly, in 1971 war also many of these units fought valiantly on eastern as well as western fronts. For their role in liberation of Bangladesh, Garhwalis won one battle honour. On the western front too Garhwalis played a decisive role in our victory in Shakargarh bulge.
Apart from the full scale conventional wars, several units from both the regiments have actively participated in various operations over time. Be it the peace keeping operations in Sri Lanka or the limited war in Kargil, or even the ongoing Operation Meghdoot in Siachen, these units have proved themselves to be extremely capable sentinels from Uttarakhand. The 20 odd battalions each from both these regiments continue to serve the nation with such elan, aplomb and determination that it makes us proud to have such soldiers guarding our borders.
It was my tenure in Siachen Glacier with a Garhwal Rifles battalion which gave me an opportunity to interact with these bhullas (younger brothers in Garhwali) in the course of various operations. It also gave me an insight into the rich military history and their contribution towards the nation. The current Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, who hails from the state, symbolises the same zeal and spirit of the state of Uttarakhand and its people.
When I heard his recent comments wherein he told the Kashmiris that azadi will not happen, and that they can’t fight the Indian Army, it occurred to me that he must’ve been pushed to a wall to make such a point blank in-your-face statement. People from the mountains, including Garhwalis like General Rawat, won’t be so direct in their conversations. They’re simple people who’d go out of their way to accommodate you. It’s only when they feel cornered do they say it in such clear terms.
As with everyone, the attributes of people of any region are a result of a complex mix of belief, history and terrain. The simplicity of its people emanates from the belief that the land is the abode of the gods. The land even finds mention in the Puranas. The marshal value of being military warriors comes from centuries of warfare witnessed by its people through its history. The daily rigour of the mountainous terrain ensures a high level of physical adroitness amongst the populace. That, in a nutshell, tells us why these people are so simplistic, yet militarily skillful.
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