A Heroic Tale Of Trials & Tribulations: POW 1971

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Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, VSM (Retd)

It is easy to write about success in battle but very difficult to talk about and draw lessons from a failure but it is even harder to talk about the time spent as a POW. Just the recall of those events can trigger off memories that are worse than any nightmare.

Major General Vijay Singh a fourth-generation officer who is presently serving has written one of the most remarkable books on the trials and tribulations that his father, Major (later Brigadier) Hamir Singh underwent during the famous battle of Daruchhain. He was tasked with leading a Company of 14 GRENADIERS in an almost suicidal attack to capture a Pakistani Post on the night of 13 December 1971 in the Poonch Sector of Jammu & Kashmir. The book gives a rare insight into the emotions of a soldier, the intrinsic strength of the Indian Army, the commitment of the officers and men, the honour of the Regiment and the family and the manner in which they coped against insurmountable odds.

No doubt, these are the reasons why this account took so long to write. But as is brought out in the book; failure doesn’t take away the valour of the eight officers, seven JCOs and 149 men of 14 GRENADIERS who laid down their lives for the nation, were injured or missing in this battle.

The book is written in four parts namely the battle of Daruchhian Top, the period spent in hospital at Rawalpindi, the time in POW Camp in Lyallpur and finally the emotions on returning home. Each chapter is wonderfully narrated and is interconnected with various memories from the past. Incidentally, Vijay was permitted to write this book by his father with the condition that the proceeds of this book if any, are to be utilized towards looking after the kin of the martyrs of this battle.

The battle itself is covered in the most graphic detail. Looking back most people will wonder how the battalion would have carried out this most difficult attack on the Ceasefire Line. It is undoubtedly a gripping account of a bloody engagement to capture an impregnable dominating feature. That they nearly succeeded is testimony to the spirit, motivation, courage and commitment of the troops and not the attack plan which as per the then GOC 25 Infantry Division; Major General Kundan Singh was “too complicated and providing artillery support for which would be a challenge”.

He went on to state that ‘plans must be simple and practical’. Even though, the Brigade Commander Brigadier Hari Singh advised him to keep in mind the points raised by the GOC, Lieutenant Colonel Inderjeet Singh, CO 14 GRENADIERS did not change his unconventional plan which turned into a catastrophic failure.

The words of his father; “son I can bear your loss but not your disgrace”, were the cross he bore as he stood up under intense enemy fire, adjusting his heavily bandaged hand, which could no longer be used to fire his weapon, his clothes soaked in blood and he continued extolling his men forward with the battle cry ‘Sarvada Shaktishali.’

Earlier, a representative from 7 MAHAR had to lead his Company through their minefield a delicate task, where even one misplaced step could result in casualties and alert the enemy. The Company then infiltrated through thick forests and heavy undergrowth in complete silence shrouded in darkness. The move had to be coordinated with the other two Companies advancing from different directions.

The first Company to go in for an attack led by Major Harbans Chahal attacked the feature frontally and faced the devastating fire. Unfortunately, Major Chahal a close friend and college classmate of Hamir’s mangled his foot badly by stepping on a mine leaving him seriously wounded. While on another axis Major Dogra lay critically injured due to enemy machine-gun fire and the Company was now under intense fire including artillery which killed him. In a matter of minutes, all his key personnel had been killed or grievously injured. Major Khan’s Company having traversed a steep slope were within meters of their objective when they too came under direct enemy fire resulting in his death. Hamir had therefore remained the last hope to capture the objective.

Part two deals with the time Hamir spent in a Pakistani Military Hospital recovering from his injuries. He was initially kept isolated and blindfolded as they feared he was a commando. There were however a large number of inquisitive people peering through the only window to catch a glimpse of the ‘Hindu’ soldier and felt “like a caged animal in a zoo’. A poignant moment reflecting comradeship within the profession of arms took place when a sentry guarding him told him that he would not volunteer for this duty again as “his heart aches in sadness”. It was while in Military Hospital Rawalpindi that a Pakistani Junior Commissioned Officer told him that one of their senior officers knew him.

That there are similar emotions on both sides clearly came out during his interaction with the widow of a Pakistani officer who came to meet him in hospital regarding the fate of her husband. Coincidentally, he was aware of his death and even of the last cheque he wrote, which she showed him with tears streaming down her cheeks. All she wanted to know was weather his last rights had been conducted as per Islamic traditions, which he confirmed.

His time in Lyallpur Jail has been covered in great detail. The segregation of Prisoners as per religion with an aim of indoctrination failed to break the strong secular traditions that bind the Indian Army. Incidentally, Hamir had been commanding the Khaim Khani Muslim Company and was soon joining his men during Friday prayer as per the customs of the Indian Army much to the surprise of the Pakistanis. His leadership qualities stood out as the senior-most Indian officer in the Camp and he helped the men get out of their psychological state by demanding that they be allowed to play games and organise recreational activities.

The poignancy of their return home was not lost on Hamir. He had witnessed the heroism of his men and fellow officers even when things did not go their way on the slopes of the objective. Hamir had to clear the air along with the others on what actually transpired on the slopes of Daruchchain and be prepared to face the widows and parents of those who had not returned and wanted to know their fate, some of them were still unwilling to believe the death of their loved ones. There were others like Mrs Gosain, the young widow of the artillery officer of 196 Mountain Regiment who had also been awarded a Vir Chakra, wanting to know how her husband died.

Major Hamir Singh was the son of Major General Kalyan Singh who had himself been a prisoner of war during the Second World War in May 1942 while serving as a Captain with 2 Field Regiment during the fighting at Bir Hachiem. Incidentally, the others who had been taken prisoners during that battle included Major (later) General PP Kumaramanglam and Captain ( later General )Tikka Khan both from 2 Field Regiment and also included
Captain ( later Lieutenant General) Shahibzada Yakub Khan was with 18 Cavalry.

Hamir was on deputation to the Nigerian Defence Academy and had come to India on leave to attend a wedding just before the outbreak of hostilities. As war was imminent he decided to join his battalion as his battalion required him. His father assured him that it was ‘the right thing to do’ in spite of the complications being on the strength of the Nigerian Academy. He need not have been there but he answered his calling and lived up to the values of a brave warrior inculcated in him and passed down over generations.

The mystery of the senior Pakistani officer remains in the realm of speculation; it could be General Tikka Khan who had served alongside his father and even visited the POW Camp or was it Brigadier Adeeb with whom he had interacted in Nigeria? There is no doubt that the camaraderie within the forces and particularly within a unit creates everlasting ties.

The war had a lasting impact on his wife; she was in her twenties staying with her parents a police officer posted in Alwar along with her two young boys when on 16 December 1971 she received a telephone call informing her that her husband was missing and presumed dead. It was only in early February that she learnt that he was alive. This uncertainty naturally left its mark but what is remarkable is the manner in which she shielded her boys from the trauma the family was undergoing. The fact that both of them are serving Major Generals today is testimony to her qualities.

maj gen vijay POW 1971

There is undoubtedly a great legacy that the family of Brig Hamir Singh carries, looking back he seems fortunate to have survived but his courage, leadership qualities and the gallantry of the men he commanded stood out. As the citation for his Vir Chakra states he “displayed gallantry and determination of a high order.”

Leadership and character qualities such as commitment, competence, courage, resilience, concern for his troops and a never say die attitude stand out. What stands out is the unparalleled contribution to the nation and the Indian Army by this remarkable family whose traditions are being carried forward by successive generations.