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Sunday, February 20, 2011

A War Hero I Once Knew

I knew him as a friend of my maternal grandfather, at whose house he would often drop by during his evening walk, an ornate stick in hand. Every time, he would be dressed in a formal pair of trousers and an open-necked shirt, with a cravat around his neck and well-polished shoes that I could clearly see my face in, when I bent down to touch his feet (which is a customary way to show respect towards elders in India). During winters, a warm coat or jacket would become a part of the ensemble.

His beard, which had more grey hair than black, ever since I knew him, was perfectly fixed, with not a strand out of place, and his moustaches twisted to have perfectly pointed tips. His turban was always smartly done.

He never developed a paunch, unlike many Indian army officers nowadays, serving or retired, and never trimmed his beard, unlike many present-day 'mechanised Sikh' soldiers. Personal transport for him comprised a Premier Padmini and, in his later years, a Maruti 800. His house was somewhat more modest than my grandparents'.

As I would listen intently to their conversations, my grandfather and he would discuss matters all and sundry, but not any of his military experiences. Being the shy child that I was, I never picked up the courage to ask. I might have, if I had known the nature or extent of his exploits.

With the passage of time, however, the number of such meetings dwindled, and, after my grandfather passed away, stopped completely, except for one last time, when I ran into him at my school, where he had come to visit some one. He was dressed impeccably, as usual, in a crisply ironed suit and starched shirt. Despite his age, he held himself erect, although he no longer had the soldier's gait and walked a lot more slowly. I bent down to touch his feet and found that his shoes shone as brightly as ever. I have no recollection now of who broke the news of his having passed away to me, a few years later.

Afterwards, I did realise that he must have been a fine soldier and even better commander to have risen to the rank of Major General in an army where 80% officers retired by the time they became Colonels and in which, especially, there was some kind of a 'glass ceiling' for Sikh officers. However, until very recently, I did not know that he had also been a war hero and winner of India's second-highest gallantry award, i.e., the Maha Vir Chakra.

Apparently, he had commanded a unit in the 1965 Indo-Pak war that had been responsible for the  destruction of almost an entire armoured division of the Pakistani army. He and his men are said to have hidden their tanks and recoilless guns in the fields that had a standing sugar cane crop, in a horse-shoe formation, and let the enemy tanks drive into the trap. He had ordered strategic portions of the area to be watered using irrigation channels, a few hours earlier, which was unknown to the opposing army and many of its tanks got bogged down, thus becoming sitting ducks for the gunners in his unit.

I have so many questions for him now, but he is no longer around to answer those. For example, did the Lieutenant General in charge of the Western Command at that time consult him before refusing to accept the Chief of Army Staff's 'suggestion' to withdraw up to the river Beas, in the face of the opposing army's superior fire-power and greater numbers and, if so, how did the conversation go? Where did he set up his command post? When (i.e., at what stage of the battle) and how did he come up with the strategy that finally carried the day? How did he and his men ensure the element of surprise? Where, according to him, did the enemy commander go wrong and what did he think of the enemy's strategy? Assuming that he joined service before independence, did he know of any of his former batch-mates on the other side and, if so, what went through his mind when he went to war against them?

Had I known of his achievements earlier, I might have asked.