Har Iqbal Singh Dhaliwal’s gallantry award is of a distinct class. He was awarded the Vir Chakra not for killing enemy soldiers but saving the life of one of his own tank crew. Undoubtedly, such qualities of leadership would motivate the men he commanded to follow him anywhere. Commanding a troop of Centurions of Bravo (Jat) Squadron of India’s premier armoured regiment, Poona Horse, he led the advance of 1st Armoured Division into the Pakistani heartland in Sialkot sector on September 8, 1965.
Short of the regimental objective of Tharoh crossroads, his troop got into a firefight with the tanks of Pakistan’s 25th Cavalry. A shot from a M47 Patton set his tank’s petrol tank on fire. While bailing out of the burning Centurion, Dhaliwal was badly burnt on the right side of his face and both arms.
His driver, gunner and he took shelter in a ditch; however, radio operator Sowar Hukam Singh, a young soldier from Rohtak, got entangled in the tank’s camouflage net and fell to the ground, hurt. Knowing the danger he was in, with a likelihood of the tank’s ammunition going off at any moment, Dhaliwal, without any hesitation, ran forward under enemy fire, picked up the injured soldier and carried him to safety.
It was a magnificent display of selfless, cool courage and quickness of thought. Though Dhaliwal moved to another tank and retained command of his troop, he was ordered to be evacuated to the rear. Moved to Pathankot, he ended up in a hospital at Jhansi. Belonging to that cradle of soldiers, Faridkot district, he had joined the army in 1964 at the ripe old age of 31 after a stint in the Territorial Army. His was the kind of leadership and devotion to the men that brought Poona Horse the highest number of battle and theatre honours in the armies of the Commonwealth.
Substance or symbol?
The annual Combined Commanders’ Conference, in which the chiefs as well as the commanders of the armed forces regional and functional commands and principal staff officers at Services HQ take part, are achievement-oriented exercises in strategic planning and operationalisation. All the key strategic, operational and logistic positions in respect of the defence services are presented to the government and are the subjects of inter-service discussion. They are supported by the huge staff posted in the Services’ headquarters.
The Prime Minister made a suggestion, accepted with alacrity, that these conferences should be moved out of Delhi and held in border areas, aboard ships or at airbases so as to get a feel of problems at the grassroots. Recently, we saw the first such edition being held on the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya in Kochi. This is tantamount to reducing this all-important conference to an exercise in imagery.
Top commanders of the Services are not politicians or bureaucrats. They come up through the system with service with the troops, at sea or on flying duties alternating with staff, instructional and administrative appointments. They are fully aware of the functioning of units and troops on active service. Symbolism in itself is a powerful tool used by the Services to generate esprit de corps and maintain cohesion. However, it must not become a device for politicians to further their own agendas at the cost of preparedness for national security.