When we think of the Kargil conflict, there are many names that come to our mind such as Capt. Vikram Batra, Capt. Manoj Pandey, Capt. Vijayant Thapar, Sub Major Yogendra Yadav, and many more. One such hero that comes to our mind is Col. Lalit Rai.
Col. Lalit Rai was the man who was given the responsibility of recapturing Khalubar in the Batalik sector during the Kargil war. Needless to say, he accomplished the mission albeit with a lot of blood, sweat, and loss of men. Despite being sure of his fatal end being just a few moments away, this man could narrate a joke to ease out the tension among his men. How could someone think of humor while being in the middle of the battlefield and facing death? How then did he come out alive and turn around the situation?
Col. Lalit Rai was born on 24th January 1956 in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, in a Nepali family. He was a third-generation soldier and his father Shri. T.B. Rai was also from 11 Gorkha Rifles. He studied in Bishop’s Cotton Boys’ School in Bangalore. He completed his graduation from Sri Sathya Sai College, Bangalore. He completed his post-graduation from Osmania University, Secunderabad, and from Naval Postgraduate School Monterey, California, USA. He represented and lead the Bangalore University Football Team. He was also a part of the Karnataka Junior National Team and was selected for the Senior National Football Camp. He also participated in the Inter-University Games.
Col. Lalit Rai began his career in the Armed Forces from 11 Gorkha Rifles. He was commissioned into the 7th Battalion. He had been posted to many places and had served in all types of terrains, be it deserts, jungles, mountains, high altitudes, and so on. He had also been through several instructional and staff appointments. Later, he took over the command of 17 Rashtriya Rifles. This was a battalion that had been newly raised in Jammu & Kashmir, mainly to combat militancy and insurgency.
Under the command of Col. Lalit Rai, the area of responsibility for 17 Rashtriya Rifles was very large. There were hundreds of villages under their vigil which meant that each day presented itself with new challenges and different types of problems. These problems only enriched their experiences. The 17 Rashtriya Rifles made it difficult for the militants to survive in their area and they created a record of sorts of eliminating the highest number of militants and initiating a large number of them to surrender.
In 1999, Operation Vijay had begun and suddenly one day Col. Lalit Rai got a call from Lt. Gen. J B S Yadava AVSM VSM VrC, stating that the earlier Commanding officer of 1/11 Gorkha Rifles had taken premature retirement. The battalion was in the midst of the battle and needed someone to command them. Lt. Gen Yadava wanted to know if Col. Rai would be willing to take up the role. Without any hesitation, Col. Rai agreed to take on the role. It seemed like it would be a tough assignment since the troops and even the terrain were new to him. The setup was very vague as the information about the enemy was also very limited. Nevertheless, after accepting the offer to command 1/11 GR, within 48 hours, Col. Lalit Rai was moved by helicopter and dropped right in the middle of the battle zone. Operations were in full swing. As soon as he landed, he was welcomed with heavy shelling by the enemy artillery and his actual reception had to run looking for cover. This was just a glimpse of what lay in store for Col. Lalit and his troops.
Within a month though, things changed for the better. Col. Lalit ensured that he got to know his men well and also consolidated the battalion’s position. His battalion was posted in the Batalik sector. The terrain here was very tough and the weather was most inhospitable.
Recapturing Khalubar Post
After a lot of thought and consideration, the common consensus was that if the enemy post at Khalubar could be seized then the enemy position could be weakened. It was not an easy task. Khalubar was situated at a height of 17500 meters above sea level. To add to it, the enemy was positioned well there, with the most sophisticated weapons. In order to capture the peak, the troops would have to bear severe resistance and attack from the enemies. When the question as to who would be the one to take on this tough job, Col Lalit Rai volunteered for this.
Despite knowing well about the hardships involved Col Rai led his battalion from the front. Notwithstanding heavy enemy fire, Col Rai and his battalion reached Khalubar after a grueling and dangerous climb of 14 hours. Apart from facing the wrath of the enemy fire, they also had to deal with the burden of the heavy loads they were carrying, which consisted of arms and ammunition, winter clothing, special equipment for their progression to Khalubar, and so on. At a numbing temperature of minus 29 degrees Celsius, they continued to make their way upwards.
When this attack was started, Col. Rai was accompanied by a few hundred men. However, within about 600 yards of the enemy position, there was intense firing from the other side. It seemed like an impossible task to be able to move further. Bullets and rockets could be seen flying towards him and his men. Proceeding further was equal to certain death on account of intense enemy fire. But the objective had to be achieved. There were heavy casualties, his men were hurt, bleeding profusely and yet he pushed ahead with around 30-40 soldiers. Some of the team were injured and the others were pinned down by the enemy. Col. Lalit Rai realized that if they had to reach their objective; they had to deal with two areas mainly. One was the Khalubar top itself and the other was the ‘Bunker Area’. He decided that he would lead his men towards the top and send Capt. Manoj Pandey to deal with the Bunker Area. Col. Lalit Rai and his men charged towards the top, chopping the heads of the enemy soldiers who came in the way. After capturing the top, there were only eight of them remaining, including Col Rai. The Gorkhas had made the impossible possible. Notwithstanding the climb of 75- and 80-degree gradients, the snow and extreme cold, the enemy fire, they had not only made it to the top but ensured that the enemy was wiped off from our area. Seeing the Gorkha boys removing their Kukhris and chopping off the heads, the enemy soldiers just fled.
Although the enemy soldiers fled away initially, they didn’t give up easily. Khalubar post was as critical to the enemies as it was to us too. They needed this post for replenishments of rations and arms and ammunition. Hence, they continued their counterattack repeatedly. To fight this counterattack, there were just eight men on our side. How long would they be able to hold on? The enemy was moving a platoon (about 30-40 troops) towards them. Despite the handful of men that Col Lalit Rai had, he was able to face every counterattack. This was because there was a Company commander on the other mountain spur who was watching the desperate situation of Col Lalit Rai and his men through his own binoculars. He would constantly feed information to Col. Rai about the enemy position and the number of men there. Subsequently, Col Rai and his men would shoot those soldiers down and that is how they stayed in charge of the situation and the post.
This was not all. The other hurdle now was that Col Rai had run out of bullets. He was down to just two bullets. Death was almost certain now for Col Rai and his men. While these men were getting prepared mentally for their final moment, they got a message on the radio set from the other commander informing them about another counterattack by 35 men. Col Rai thought that the time to say goodbye was here.
At this revelation of a counterattack, his men were waiting for a reaction from Col. Rai. Death was certain now. But instead of adding tension to the atmosphere or giving commands to attack, Col Rai hurled a few fits of abuse in the limited Punjabi that he knew, at the attacking Pakistanis as a reply to their choicest of abuses. Not only this, he egged his men saying that the enemy soldiers are abusing their CO saab and how come they were just silently listening? Now, the Gorkha soldiers wouldn’t know how to hurl abuses and at the same time, it is impossible that they disobey their Commanding officer. They looked at each other, one nudging the other to do the needful. Whether they know or not, if the Commanding officer has ordered, the abuses have to be hurled. Finally, one of them took it upon him and shouted at a Pakistani that if you come here, we will cut your heads.
Col. Rai didn’t leave it there. He retorted that the Pakistanis were sure to die laughing because Gyan Bahadur couldn’t even hurl abuses properly. And suddenly the tension was gone and all of them started laughing. The enemies were closing in, they could see death in front of their eyes and yet they didn’t lose this opportunity of humor and laughter. Such was the CO and such were his men. The Indian soldiers were now totally pepped up and said that they would now take out their Khukhris and deal with the enemy. They would fight.
If one thought that using a bit of humor to pep up his soldiers was awe-inspiring, there is more. Soon after the above incident, Col Rai radioed an Artillery Officer who was stationed on another mountain spur called ‘Kukarthang’ and checked whether the officer knew where Col Rai was. He said yes. To this, Col Rai requested many rounds of rapid-fire support. He was unclear if Col Rai wanted the fire to be directed towards Col Rai. Here Artillery fire would mean firing from the Bofors Gun. Imagine firing an Artillery round from another mountain range, directed towards you. It was pure chance. This was like inviting death. But Col Rai preferred dying by own gunfire than being taken a prisoner by the enemy.
By this time, the enemy had detected that the Indian soldiers were running out of ammunition. As time ticked and the enemy closed on, Col Rai yelled at the Artillery officer, and soon after he heard the sound of the shells directed at them, from the Gun position, that lay many kilometers behind them. Since Col Rai was aware of the attack towards them, he and his men took shelter near the boulders. The rounds crashed with a blast of shrapnel and flame. The enemy soldiers were blown into pieces right in front of the eyes of Col Rai and his men. With accurate artillery firing, the enemy soldiers were sent back crashing.
The Gorkhas led by Col Rai held on to their position for 36 hours without even a drop of water to drink or a wink of sleep. They had been starving for over 48 hours. Lack of food, water, and sleep plus the cold had left them weak. Finally, after 36 hours, Col Rai’s second in command was able to move in with reinforcements. Thus, Khalubar was finally taken.
After this capture, the enemy fled from all the adjoining areas, and eventually, they were pushed across the LoC. Our territory was ours all over again.
For his inspirational leadership and bravery of the highest order, Col Lalit Rai was awarded the Vir Chakra by The President of India on 15th Aug 1999.
Col. Lalit Rai joined the corporate world and has donned positions related to Human Resources in a few private companies. He is also a motivational speaker who consistently delivers inspirational speeches at various corporate meets and also to youngsters.
Col Lalit Rai is the epitome of bravery and courage. The acts of courage displayed by him and his men remind us of a quote by Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw ‘If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying or he is a Gorkha’. That day in Khalubar, Col. Lalit Rai and his men lived up to the legacy of the Gorkhas. Our Salute to these brave men.