Vijay Diwas: The battles that won the war
- The 1971 war, which ended with the liberation of Bangladesh, gave India a new generation of heroes
Just around the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the country in paying homage to the heroes of the 1971 India-Pakistan war at the National War Memorial at India Gate, 70-year-old Mukesh Khetarpal stood in front of his brother’s bust and paid tribute with folded hands to one of India’s best known military heroes in a solemn ceremony at a cantonment 500km away in Punjab.
The celebration at Mamun in Pathankot to mark the golden jubilee of the 1971 victory over Pakistan and honour Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, one of India’s youngest soldiers to be awarded the hallowed Param Vir Chakra, blended pain and glory, and was a moving throwback to their childhood days for Mukesh, the younger brother.
Khetarpal is among the only 21 Indian soldiers decorated with the PVC, India’s highest wartime military honour, for their heroism in independent India’s history. Arun was only 21, and commissioned in Poona Horse only six months before the war began, when he destroyed seven Pakistani Patton tanks in the Battle of Basantar fought exactly 50 years ago on December 16, 1971, making it a glorious and unforgettable chapter in India’s military history.
“Arun’s glorious past is what we remember. The loss still hurts but there’s tremendous pride too. It’s humbling to see that even after 50 years, and that’s a long stretch of time, that Arun is still remembered for what he did. He was my parents’ favourite son,” said Mukesh.
Pakistan suffered huge losses in the battle fought on the banks of Basantar river in enemy territory -- 50 Patton tanks were decimated and its eight (Independent) Armoured Brigade was wiped out. Arun, commanding a Centurion tank named Fama Gusta JX202, single-handedly inflicted maximum damage on the enemy. “I feel lucky to be alive. The tank is a part of my destiny. But whenever I see the Fama Gusta, I remember Arun saheb, my commander, who fought like a tiger,” Khetarpal’s gunner Nathu Singh told this correspondent in an earlier interview.
Khetarpal breathed his last in Singh’s arms.
The Black Arrow Brigade, which included Poona Horse, spearheaded the Indian Army’s assault. It won 79 gallantry awards including one PVC, five Maha Vir Chakras and 12 Vir Chakras. The brigade commander, Brigadier AS Vaidya, was decorated with MVC, and rose to become the army chief.
...the tough get going
The 1971 war, which ended with the liberation of Bangladesh, gave India a new generation of heroes including Major Hoshiar Singh, Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, Captain MNR Samant and Lance Naik Albert Ekka, their heroism and accomplishments still inspiring not only the country’s soldiers but millions of Indians who grew up reading their unbelievable stories of courage and sacrifice.
Sekhon, then 26 and decorated posthumously with PVC, is the Indian Air Force’s only winner of the top military honour.
His moment of wartime glory came on December 14, 1971, when the Srinagar airfield faced a furious attack by at least six Sabre aircraft of the Pakistan Air Force. In the midst of the strafing of the airfield by the enemy aircraft that presented grave danger to his own safety, Sekhon took off in his Gnat, heroically engaged a pair of Sabres, shot them down and forced the PAF package to retreat before his own aircraft was hit and exploded into a fireball.
He was commissioned in IAF as a fighter pilot four years before the war.
In the eastern sector, the Indian Navy pulled off the unimaginable.
The naval component of the Mukti Bahini -- armed, trained and launched by the Indian Navy’s Directorate of Naval Intelligence (DNI), carried out some of India’s largest special forces attacks. They were part of a covert maritime warfare unit called Naval Commando Operations (X) which existed in the run-up to the 1971 war.
On the night of August 15, 1971, more than 170 combat swimmers of the naval wing carried out near simultaneous attacks on the ports of Mongla, Narayangunj, Chittagong and Chandpur destroying or disabling 25 vessels --- the largest such attacks since the Second World war.
The core of this irregular force comprised eight Bengali sailors who had deserted the Pakistani submarine PNS Mangro in France in March 1971. They were attached to DNI that began to raise a force of limpeteers (naval saboteurs) trained on the battlefield of Plassey in West Bengal’s Nadia district.
The eight Pakistani sailors formed the core of what would be called Naval Commando Operations (X). A total of 457 combat swimmers/limpeteers were trained under the operation run by DNI but supervised by the Eastern Army Command.
Between August and November 1971, they sank and disabled 100,000 tonnes of shipping in East Pakistan.
Major General JFR Jacob, then Chief of Staff, Eastern Army Command, called these the most effective operations of the Mukti Bahini.
The role of this tiny unit has never been officially acknowledged by the Indian Navy. It was documented for the first time in the book Operation X written by Captain MNR Samant, MVC, and journalist Sandeep Unnithan.
Setting the stage
Another key operation that took place in the eastern sector involved the Indian Army’s elite paratroopers. India last week marked 50 years of the historic battalion-sized Tangail airdrop north of Dhaka during the 1971 war. The critical operation set the stage for surrender by the rival.
The Tangail airdrop is the biggest airborne operation ever mounted by Indian paratroopers.
The aim of the operation was to capture the Poongli bridge on Jamalpur-Tangail-Dhaka road and the ferry site on Louhajang river to intercept Pakistan army’s 93 Brigade that was retreating from the north to defend Dhaka.
Around 750 men of the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment were involved in the successful mission. The paratroopers defeated a force that was three times numerically superior and shattered the will of the Pakistani army to defend Dhaka.
On December 11, Central Army commander Lieutenant General Yogendra Dimri led a mass jump at a premier base in Agra to mark the golden jubilee of the Tangail airdrop. The mass jump involved 120 paratroopers and four veterans who took part in the 1971 war. The army and the air force dedicated the jump at Agra to India’s first chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat and the others killed in the December 8 Mi-17V5 crash near Coonoor.
Last month, India quietly marked the 50th anniversary of a key battle in erstwhile East Pakistan -- fought 11 days before India and Pakistan officially went to war in 1971 -- in which the Indian Army completely wiped out a Pakistani tank squadron, IAF shot down three enemy fighter jets, and an estimated 300 Pakistani soldiers were killed or injured.
The Battle of Garibpur, which included a fierce confrontation between rival tanks on November 21, 1971, and an air battle a day later, ended with the Indian Army creating an important launch pad for the upcoming offensive into enemy territory and set the stage for the creation of military history 24 days later with the liberation of Bangladesh.
Paying tributes to the soldiers who took part in the 1971 war, defence minister Rajnath Singh on December 12 said the “glorious victory” 50 years ago changed the history and geography of South Asia and the country would forever remain indebted to the sacrifices made by its warriors. He said the memories of 1971 were still fresh in the heart of every Indian.