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'Army lied to the nation on Laungewala'

The saga of the controversial Battle of Laungewala is getting murkier. Some veterans of the 1971 war have raised questions about this “golden moment” in India’s military history, reports Rahul Singh.
Hindustan Times | By Rahul Singh, New Delhi
UPDATED ON MAR 02, 2008 01:44 AM IST

Two days after Hindustan Times published the shocking revelation by Maj. Gen. Atma Singh (retd) that the Army faked the famous battle, an air ace who controlled the strikes that finished off the Pakistani armour has said the Army has hoodwinked the nation with false tales of valour.

Some other veterans of the 1971 war have also raised questions about this “golden moment” in India’s military history, romanticised by the 1997 Sunny Deol superhit, Border.

Air Marshal MS Bawa (retd), who was commanding the Jaisalmer base from where the IAF Hunter fighters operated in the battle, told Hindustan Times, “The services were the only organisation with some credibility. The Army has torn that apart by faking the entire operation.”

Atma Singh, who won the Vir Chakra for gallantry at Laungewala, had said no ground battle was fought, and the Army had merely rehearsed the operation on a sand model to cover up for its senior commanders’ incompetence.

The Army had, on February 24, given Defence Minister A.K. Antony a blow-by-blow account of how Major K.S Chandpuri (later Brigadier) leading just 100 men, had frustrated an attack by a Pakistani brigade backed by 45 tanks. Chandpuri got the Maha Vir Chakra, and his alpha company (23 Punjab) won six awards.

Bawa, then a wing commander, told Hindustan Times: “If the Army wants to stem this rot, it has to act against officers responsible for this propaganda. Or else, you will have a series of ketchup colonels and fake encounters.”

Shadow of doubt over Bawa’s Hunters flew some 220 strike missions, including 35 over Laungewala. They destroyed 37 tanks. He rubbished the Army’s claims of hitting two tanks and killing three Pakistani officers.

“The military leadership schemed to glorify the Army’s role. I landed at Laungewala on December 5 and saw a handful of infantry soldiers hunkered down in their trenches, scared,” Bawa said. The Army had made a mockery of gallantry awards.

When contacted for his version, Brig. Chandpuri heaped praise on the IAF. “It was virtually due to them that Laungewala was saved and threat to Jaisalmer neutralised.”

He, however, trashed criticism of the military leadership, crediting his generals for their “unstinted support.” He said his men didn’t give in despite overwhelming odds. The government had honoured him with the MVC, and he needed no other certificate, Chandpuri said.

What exactly happened in Laungewala according to the Army?

While according highest importance to its accomplishments, the Army gives full marks to the Air Force too. But sources in Army Headquarters couldn’t provide a chronological account of what happened. The history of the 1971 war, like that of previous wars, had not been de-classified, they said.

On December 3, 1971, Pakistan carried out air strikes against 24 Indian bases. Action shifted to Laungewala on the night of December 4-5, when the Army’s 12 Division was planning an offensive into Rahimyar Khan in Pakistan.

However, the Pakistanis surprised Indian forces by crossing the border at three different points, (border posts 632, 635 and 638), and surrounding the Laungewala post by 2 am on December 5. According to the popular depiction of the story (shown in the film Border), a famous ground battle followed, with a small, heroic band of Indians holding off a massive wave of Pakistani armour.

The IAF at that time didn’t have night fighting capabilities, and the first Hunters were scrambled only at 7.15 a.m., and the Pakistani armour was bombed out of existence. Ceasefire was announced on December 16.

An excerpt, accessed by this writer, dated December 5, from the war diaries of the Air Force’s 14 CMU (care and maintenance unit) reads: “Never in the history before, a more decisive battle has ever been fought between the Air Force alone versus the armour as was at Laungewala.”

Colonel P.S. Sangha (retd), an army pilot who won the Vir Chakra, said the battle was an Air Force victory. Fighter pilots won eight Vir Chakras.

Colonel D.R. Singh (retd) of 17 Rajputana Rifles, who reached the post on December 5 to provide reinforcements to Chandpuri, corroborated Bawa’s claim that barely 20 men were at the post. “The rest had run away. The role of 23 Punjab has been dramatically exaggerated,” he said.

Chandpuri said the controversy had created an avoidable misunderstanding between the Army and Air Force. “It has also demoralised soldiers and hurt their feelings.”

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