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1971 Indo-Pak war: Was the ceasefire in Battle of Chhamb premature?

Author of book on war says India should have negotiated the return of its territory during Simla Agreement

books Updated: Nov 04, 2017 08:53 IST
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
1971 Indo-Pak war,Indo-Pak war,ceasefire
Major General AJS Sandhu (retd) with his book ‘Battleground Chhamb’ in Chandigarh on Friday. (Karun Sharma/HT)

Did former prime minister Indira Gandhi jump the gun by declaring unilateral ceasefire in the western sector in 1971? Shouldn’t she have allowed her troops to recapture the lost territory of Chhamb that continues to be with Pakistan even now? This is the question Maj Gen AJS Sandhu (retd) mulls as he sets about bringing to life the Battle of Chhamb in his book “Battleground Chhamb: The Indo-Pakistan War of 1971”.

Fought in western sector when the world attention was focused on the liberation of Bangladesh in the East, the battle is the story of raw courage and tactical hits and misses.

The 14 days saw a heavy loss of life with Pakistan losing 45% of its strength in the West.

For Maj Gen Sandhu, it is both a son’s tribute and a well-researched piece of military history. Sandhu was a young captain in the eastern sector during the 1971 Indo-Pak war when his father, then Maj Gen Jaswant Singh, was the general officer commanding of 10 Division in Kashmir, which fought the Battle of Chhamb. Interestingly, Jaswant’s three brothers were also fighting the war, two in the eastern theatre and one in the west.

Sandhu says his father, who kept a diary during the war, wanted to pen a book on the battle but died following a cardiac arrest while he was serving as the vice-chief in 1980. “I used his diary and many other jottings on the battle to write a detailed, balanced and definitive account of this battle,” says Sandhu, who also received a fellowship from the United Service Institution of India (USI) to research this book over two-and-half years.

Other side of the hill

Sandhu also approached Pakistani army officers who had fought this battle. A chapter titled “View from the Other Side of the Hill”, carries the uncensored first-hand accounts of the battle by four Pakistani officers. Interestingly, one of them is an officer who shot down the plane of Air Marshal Denzil Keelor. “Keelor was flying support missions in Chhamb when his plane was shot down by the Pakistani army,” says Sandhu. He managed to bail out and landed in the no-man’s land. Luckily, Indians managed to evacuate him.

Chhamb, says Sandhu, saw Pakistan’s biggest land offensive as Maj Gen Yahya Khan wanted to capture the only connecting bridge on the Chenab as that would make it possible for them to wrest Rajouri and Poonch. Sandhu says initially, the Indian Army planned to launch an offensive on Pakistan in the western sector but the plan was aborted at the last minute. “Indira Gandhi felt she could defend her attack on the East Pakistan to the world following 1 million Bangla refugees and her tours to the US and Canada seeking a solution to this problem. But she didn’t want to hazard an adverse world reaction to an attack on West Pakistan,” says Sandhu.

The 10 Division was in the process of reorienting itself when Pakistan caught it off guard with a massive offensive backed by heavy artillery support. The battle, which began on the evening of December 3 with air strikes by Pakistan, ended with Indira Gandhi announcing a unilateral ceasefire that took effect on December 17.

Heavy casualties

The 14 days saw a heavy loss of life with Pakistan losing 45% of its strength in the West. Pakistan’s Maj Gen Ifthikar Khan Janjua became the highest ranked officer to have died in combat during this offensive. The Indians also captured Col Basharat Raja, the senior-most Pakistani commanding officer in the western theatre.

Sandhu says later Indira, when being introduced to Jaswant Singh as the general who fought a “tough battle in Chhamb”, intervened to describe it as “not tough, but the toughest battle” in the western sector.

The battle, Sandhu says, holds many lessons even for the present day warfare. But clearly, what rankles him the most is the loss of Chhamb. “We had 90,000 prisoners of war with us. Shouldn’t we have negotiated the return of our territory in the Simla Agreement?” he questioned.

First Published: Nov 04, 2017 08:52 IST