4th May, 1999 marked the beginning of the infamous Kargil War where India and Pakistan faced off in the Batalik sector of the Kashmir province of India. The war resulted in hundreds of casualties on both the sides and resulted with India recapturing its posts in the sector from Pakistan. The stories are all that are left of the martyrs who gave their lives for the country. While many perished, others lived on to tell their tales of the war. One such story comes from the serene cold desert of Ladakh where Colonel Sonam Wangchuk’s name is synonymous with patriotism. His legend rises as high as the mountains he served in and is rightly referred to as The Lion of Ladakh.
Born in 1964 in Ladakh, Col. Sonam joined the army in 1987 after graduating from Swami Venkateshwara College, University of Delhi in History. He attended the Officer’s Training Academy in Chennai and was commissioned in the 4th Battalion of the Assam Rifles as a Second Lieutenant. Although Col. Sonam had already been in service for 12 years when the war began, he first came to the nation’s imagination during the Kargil War. He was posted in the Ladakh Scouts in September, 1997.
During the war, the Ladakh Scouts were sent to Handangbrok, a region within Chorbat La. Their job was to scout the region and spot any enemy activity and movements. The Ladakh Scouts were men from the region who specialized in snow warfare, also locally known as the Snow Tigers. Col. Sonam along with his men detected enemy activity in the area and was able to capture the Chorbat La back from the enemy despite losing all radio communications during the crossfire. During the mission, Col. Sonam lost one of his men which ultimately fueled the fire to avenge their comrade’s sacrifice. The courage showed by Col. Sonam actually inspired his men to fight and earn India one of their first victories in the war. This victory was also important as it for the first time provided for the confirmation of the presence of Pakistan Army in the forward areas beyond their region of the LoC.
The Lion of Ladakh and his men not only won back the Chorbat La but also prevented all attempts to infilterate the pass for the next 14 days too. Col. Sonam then a Major was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra, the second highest gallantry award given by the Indian Army for his valor and presence of mind during such adverse conditions.
His medal’s citation reads:
Mahavir Chakra (MVC) Awardee: Lt Col Sonam Wangchuk, MVC
Gazette Notification: 17 Pres/2000,15.8.99 Operation: Vijay – Kargil Date of Award: 1999
“On 30 May 1999, Major Sonam Wangchuk was leading a column of The Indus Wing, Ladakh Scouts as a part of ongoing operations in Op VIJAY in the Batalik Sector. The column was tasked to occupy Ridge Line on the Line of Control in a glaciated area at a height of about 5,500 metres. This was essential so as to pre-empt its occupation by the enemy and any subsequent infiltration.
While moving towards the Line of Control, the enemy ambushed the column by firing from a vantage position. In the process, one NCO of The Ladakh Scouts was killed. Major Sonam Wangchuk held his column together and in a daring counter ambush, led a raid on the enemy position from a flank, killing two enemy soldiers. The officer also recovered one heavy machine gun and one Universal machine gun, ammunition, controlled stores and three dead bodies of the enemy personnel.
Thereafter, the officer took stock of all forces along the Chorbatla axis in the Batalik Sector and cleared the axis up to the Line of Control of all enemy intrusions at great risk to his life.
Major Sonam Wangchuk displayed exceptional bravery and gallantry of the highest order in the presence of enemy fire and in extreme climatic conditions in the glaciated area.”
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Ladakh Scouts, an occasion for which President Ram Nath Kovind released a documentary by the same name “The Lion of Ladakh.” The documentary gives a detailed account of their mission and the conditions under which they fought. Their war cry “Ki Ki So So Lhargyalo’ (Victory to God)is what echoes through the mighty Himalayas making them the heroes our country deserves and is proud of.