It was September 1970, when I was a young cadet undergoing training at the National Defence Academy (NDA). We began hearing about the huge influx of refugees from East Pakistan into our Eastern States. On passing out of NDA, I was sent to the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun for advanced training and was subsequently commissioned on 14th November 1971, as a young second Lieutenant into the Jat Regiment (Infantry) of the Indian Army. The Jat Regiment is well known for its acts of valour and gallantry.
I opted for Infantry because war clouds were hovering on the horizon. As the grapevine flowed, it was very evident that only those who opted for the Infantry would be able to go directly to battle while the others would be going to their respective training centres. Representing the country at war is the dream of any soldier and I was not prepared to miss this opportunity at any cost.
I left my home town— Karnal, Haryana— on 24th November 1971. This was the first and probably the last time that my father would bid me adieu. He saluted me, saying, “Beta, please remember that you are the son of a freedom fighter and patriot. Do your best. Our prayers are with you.” I reached Fazilka town (Punjab) one day after and was taken to our Defence camps located adjacent to the DAV College, Fazilka.
On 3rd December, while I was having my evening tea in a small hut near Fazilka town, my buddy came running inside. “Sahib, bahar to dhumdhuma ho gaya hai.” (Sir, there’s unrest outside.) The artillery shelling and air raids of Pakistan Army had begun with full ferocity. Since our company defence position was a few kilometres away, I came out and dashed towards our defences. On the way, I met very stiff resistance since the mass exodus of civilian population had started from Fazilka town towards other safer havens. The stream of bullock carts, tractors and other vehicles were quite a sight. They reminded me of some of the Second World War stories we had read in NDA.
It was at this time that a bomb from an enemy aircraft exploded on a truck carrying civilians, injuring five people and killing one on the spot. After having informed the Army hospital, I reached the company area. The bunker was in a total mess; currency notes were lying strewn all over. This was because my Artillery Observation Post Officer was asked to leave in a jiffy for a border task, while he was in the process of distributing the salary of Jawans. He had to leave the entire bundle of cash in that haphazard state.
From our defences that night, we could see and hear the flashes of tanks firing and the bombardment by both Indian and Pakistani forces. It was at 7 pm when one of our officers, Lt. Philips was wounded by an enemy shell near MR College, Fazilka. The news was a dampener for us as it happened within two hours of the battle. Later, the left leg of Lt. Philips had to be amputated. The 4th of December saw plenty of air raids. Our company commander, Maj. Narain Singh was telling me the story of his life. He had just got married a year back and expressed his strong desire to live since he loved his wife very much. While he was uttering those words, an enemy aircraft went past dropping a 500-pound bomb. Luckily both of us escaped since we jumped into a nearby trench in the very nick of time.
In the evening, I got a call with instructions to attack and capture village Gurmukhera and a portion of the Bund on Sabuna distributary, which was occupied by the enemy. I, along with my company, travelled in a three-ton truck to the forming up place (FUP) for the capture of Gurmukhera. The journey was at a snail’s pace without any lights. The only light we got was from the flashes of tank fire and arty shelling. The night was pitch dark.
We got down from our vehicles. I addressed my men saying, “Dekho hum sab Jat hain aur kisi bhi tarah Gurmukhera village par kabza karna hi hai.” (We are the Jats and we have to capture Gurmukhera at any cost.) Our Commanding Officer, Col. R.K. Suri was leading us from the front, marching ahead in true Jat tradition. As we advanced, a shower of bullets rained all around us. It looked like an intense Diwali scene with tanks firing, guns blazing and tracers adding colour and glint. Human blood could be seen spilling all over. We moved ahead. A bullet went tearing into the left leg of our commanding officer. He, however, refused to be evacuated and continued moving forward. After some time, one of the Jawans— Hav. Rajbir Singh, on my right— had his head blown off by a splinter. In fact, his head along with the helmet flew in the air and got entangled on a tree top in the vicinity. Another officer, Lt. Nagal was also shot in the knee.
We approached Gurmukhera village and attacked it with two companies from two directions, North East and South West. The battle for the capture of the village was a ghastly one. We pounded the village with tank– and– gun fire. A deadly hand-to-hand fight ensued. I, along with the men— Kalam Singh and Jasmath, got involved in a very close combat, killing seven Pakistani soldiers. Later on, we handed over their dead bodies to the country when there was a lull in the battle.
The battle for Gurmukhera village lasted the whole night. At 04.00 hours on 5th December, village Gurmukhera was with us.
We still had to capture a portion of the Bund on the Sabuna distributary. We regrouped ourselves for the attack. There was a distance of 500 meters between the village and the Bund but the entire area was under intense firing. Anyone who raised his head was about to die. All of us crawled 400 meters towards our destination, crossing the wire obstacles and the mine-field in front. It was sheer luck that most of us reached safely and mounted a fierce attack on the enemy bunkers, shouting our battle cry, “Jat Balwan Jai Bhagwan”. By now, the opponents were demoralised, having suffered a heavy loss at Gurmukhera. Yet they fought back with all their might. For some time, the artillery showered very heavy pounding, forcing the enemy to keep their head down. They could not bring aimed fire on our advancing column. We attacked the objective with full vigour, shouting our battle cry once again. Most of the Pakistani soldiers ran away but two machine guns kept on firing and had to be silenced by our bunker bursting teams. They were finally forced to withdraw. The right portion of Sabuna distributary was now captured.
At our southern flank the battle was even fiercer. Our renowned boxer, Bajrang Naik, had come across an enemy bunker which was playing merry hell into us. Bajrang crawled up to the bunker, put his hand through the loophole of the bunker and caught the red-hot blazing barrel of the heavy machine gun which was firing blatantly on our advancing column. He climbed to the top of the bunker subsequently and disempowered the three opponent soldiers inside that bunker. One of them survived and ran away. Unfortunately, Bajrang was also killed by an enemy bullet subsequently.
The Pakistani troop later narrated to us the complete story of the valour of Bajrang. He refused to leave the barrel of the machine gun even after he had been killed. They handed over his body to us once cease fire was announced, with full respect and military honours.
Our company commander, Major Narain Singh, fought a tough battle towards the SW flank. He almost assaulted and captured the famous Beriwala Bridge with his handful of men. They had to confront very severe counter attacks from the enemy, who came charging and shouting, “Allah Ho Akbar.” We did not hear the whereabouts of Maj. Narain Singh for quite a few days. It was only after declaring cease fire that there was a flag meeting with Pakistan. We were handed over the dead body of Maj. Narain Singh wrapped in the Pakistani National flag, giving complete account of his valour and heroic deeds.
The Pakistani version of the story was mentioned in a book titled Pakistan's Crisis in Leadership by Maj. Gen. Fazal Muqueen Khan: "In the ensuing hand-to-hand fight, Singh charged on their positions with his company and lobbed a grenade at Sharif, injuring him slightly. When Indian soldiers prepared to fire at Sharif, Singh stopped them and opted for a 'man-to-man' combat. He was killed by Sharif, who died a day later at the same bridge after he was shot at by an Indian T-54 tank. The charge of 4 Jat's Bravo Company led by Maj. Narain Singh is well known for its bravery and the losses the battalion suffered — over 60 soldiers were killed and several more injured.”
Incidentally both Maj. Narain and Bajrang Naik were later awarded the Vir Chakra for their act of exceptional bravery. The Pakistani Major Shabbi Sharif was also killed in the battle and awarded the highest gallantry award, Nishan-e-Haider, by Pakistan.
After this, the battle for the capture of Beriwala Bridge continued. I remember we had a harrowing time attending to the call of nature every day. The enemy would get an inkling of our movements and charge. So many times, the bullets missed our private parts by the skin of the teeth. Food was another grave problem. Right behind our position was a creek; our quarter master Zile Singh used to bring puri and sabzi from the langar located 5 kms behind, through knee deep water in the creek. By the time he reached us, the puris were half wet with the pool water. We had to dry them in the sun or eat wet puris, as the situation permitted. On a number of occasions these did not reach us and we survived on the famous shakar paras.
On 9th December, the Rajputs came for the capture of Beriwala Bridge, led by their brave commanding officer Col. Thatte. They almost recaptured Beriwala, but at the last minute, the attack was repulsed and they suffered a lot of casualties.
The war ended on 14th December 1971. All of us heaved a sigh of relief. Even though all soldiers like to close in with the enemy and fight it out on the field, after some time, it takes a heavy toll on their physical and mental well-being. So, the cease fire was welcome news for all of us. We now got busy collecting the dead and wounded, both ours and the opponent soldiers’, which could not be collected for a number of days due to intense fire. The Pakistani bodies were handed over in exchange for ours, in the best of military traditions.
Despite the ceasefire, this face-to-face contact with Pakistan continued for almost two more years. We had a number of meetings. The Pakistanis would always request us to show them the famous Hindi movie, Pakeeza. They wanted to eat our paan and rasmalai. It was so strange to see the total difference in attitudes towards each other. While in battle, we never blinked an eye while killing each other. Now that truce prevailed, we were soldiers of two Armies in uniform and shared the normal niceties of life, albeit with mixed feelings of concern and apprehension!
I guess, the biggest teaching of Army life is to live in the moment. For a soldier, “tomorrow” may not exist.
Author : Brigadier Shyam Lal
Brig Shyam Lal has served 36 years in the Infantry (Jat Regiment) of the Indian Army. He is a veteran of three wars ie the Indo-Pak war 1971, the Indian Peace keeping Force in Srilanka , insurgency in J& K and commanded a unit atop the Siachen glacier, the highest and coldest battlefield of the world. Wounded twice in action, he has been awarded gallantry medals for his participation in the 1971 war as also the IPKF operations in Srilanka. Brig Shyam Lal is a rare combination of a scholar and a soldier. He is M.Sc, MBA, B. Ed and a PhD in management. He has been a director with Indian centre of management and HRD, later named Balaji Institute of Management & HRD and also the International school of management and research, Pune. Presently he has his own training and placement consultancy and has been conducting workshops on leadership, emotional Intelligence and transactional analysis. He is an avid golfer and has traveled widely. His guiding philosophy is “Never, Never, Never Give up”.