1971 – The Human Side of the War

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Soldiers fight wars because it is their calling, though the wars themselves are not of their making. A professional soldier doesn’t hold any personal grudge against his enemy; for him war is a contest where the adversary has to be soundly beaten. Combativeness need not necessarily mean cruelty. Indeed that was the dictum that by and large prevailed during the three wars fought between the armed forces of India and Pakistan during the half-century plus from 1947 to 1999. Unfortunately two heinous acts committed by the Pakistani forces during the Kargil War in 1999, Captain Saurab Kalia and his men being tortured to death while in captivity and downed Indian pilot, Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, being murdered in cold blood, changed that equation. While these incidents, compounded by reports in international media of some Indian POWs from 1971 still languishing in Pakistani prisons, have rendered Pakistan guilty of violating the civilized norms laid down by Geneva Conventions, India’s record in 1971, of handling over ten million Pak POWs without giving occasion for a single complaint of ill-treatment, speaks volumes on our exemplary record in this regard. Having said that, it wouldn’t be out of place to say that the sub-continental trait of humanness has always held good on both sides, often beyond the precincts of any laid down norms.

While we approach yet another anniversary of the 1971 War and the two countries remain locked in perpetual hostility with no reprieve in sight, there are some tales of the 1971 War that are worth being told, of some good men from both sides, which go beyond the realm of valour and warfare and affirm the essential goodness of human nature. In the lexicon of Indian military heroes Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal of the celebrated armoured regiment, 17 Poona Horse, who laid down his life in the Battle of Basantar on 16 December 1971, finds a very special place for being the youngest soldier till now to be honoured with the nation’s highest gallantry award, the Param Vir Chakra. The young officer, barely two months past his twenty-first birthday and commissioned only a few months prior to the war, had held his own against a formidable enemy onslaught refusing to abandon his burning tank when ordered to, with his legendary radio transmission, ‘My gun is still working Sir.’ He was the elder of the two children of Brigadier ML Khetarpal. When the tale of his heroism was making headlines in India, there was a Pakistani officer who felt particularly agonized by the poignancy of a life lost so young. Major Kwaja Mohammad Naser of Pakistan’s 13 Lancers had a special reason for feeling so. It was his tank which had fired the fatal round that killed Arun. Indeed, even as the battle raged, Major Naser, a chivalrous fighter to boot, couldn’t but admire the tenacity of the lone enemy tank which refused to give up against overwhelming odds.

Post war, Major Naser, as he continued with his life and career to become a brigadier, always nursed remorse to have been the person responsible for snuffing out a life so young, albeit in his line of duty. He was earnest to meet Arun’s parents to seek forgiveness, but it never came about. Long afterwards however, he got word of Brigadier Khetarpal visiting his birth place in Pakistan, and promptly found his way to host the visitor. He made sure that his ageing guest was looked after as someone very special and the night before the latter was due to leave, found a private moment with him to reveal his (Naser’s) role in the death of his son. The old soldier took it in his stride and counselled that what was done in the line of duty was no sin. After his return to India, Brigadier Khetarpal received a packet from Pakistan with photographs of his visit sent by his host. Its forwarding note read: “To Brigadier ML Khetarpal, father of Shaheed Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, PVC, who stood like an insurmountable rock between victory and failure of the counter-attack by the ‘SPEARHEADS’ 13 Lancers on 16 December 1971 in the battle of ‘Bara Pind’ as we call it, and battle of ‘Basantar’ as 17 Poona Horse remembers. Brigadier Kwaja Mohammad Naser, 13 Lancers; 02 March 2001, Lahore, Pakistan.” No accolade could have honoured the young hero better.

Nearly a fortnight prior to the Battle of Basantar, another fierce battle opened across the subcontinent at Akhaura near Agarthala in the east, marking the commencement of hostilities. Spearheading the attacking Indian forces was the 5th Independent Armoured Squadron of 63 Cavalry, a regiment which was to play a pivotal role in the liberation of Bangladesh. A troop leader of the 5th Independent Squadron, Lieutenant Rajinder Mohan, another young officer in his early twenties, had a rather traumatic experience on his very first day in combat. Among the enemy casualties he found a fatally wounded young officer, who died in his arms before he could offer any kind of succour. The Pakistani officer looked into the Indian’s eyes and uttered Ammi… and then Allah… before he breathed his last. Under fire, Rajinder had no option but to keep moving, merely managing to collect the dead officer’s wallet for identification; and was soon caught up in the frenzy of war. Then five days later, on 9 December, Rajinder became a casualty himself when his tank was hit in a battle at the Meghna River Delta. He was evacuated to hospital with 60% burns and a bullet on his leg. After long months of recuperation and few subsequent years in service he left the army as a war wounded and was absorbed by a leading oil company, to rise and become an additional director before retiring a few years ago.

All those years, the spectre of the Pakistani officer’s tragic end kept haunting him. From the contents of the wallet he had identified the officer as Captain Imtiaz Ali Shah of 12 Frontier Force, but there was no address. The wallet also contained the photographs of his mother and wife. Rajinder always nursed a hope to find the family some day and hand over the wallet as well the officer’s regimental epaulettes he was in possession of, so as to share their grief in some manner. All his attempts to trace the family bore no fruit, until he ran into a Pakistani journalist in New Delhi in 2005, who promised to have the story published in his newspaper. Finally in December that year Rajinder received an email. The family wanted to talk to him. It was an emotional moment for them when, after thirty-four years, they could learn first-hand of how Imtiaz’s life had ended; what his last words were. His mother wanted to know whether he had been buried or cremated; whether the last rites had been performed. Imtiaz’s widow had been married to him only for three months. Imtiaz, when he died, was just about the same age as Rajinder then, and the latter could easily identify with him and comprehend the depth of the family’s bereavement. His talking to them, he felt had brought some kind of closure to Imtiaz’s death. He hopes to meet them in person sooner or later, which he feels, if nothing else, will give peace to Imtiaz’s soul.

Neville Chamberlain’s famous quote, ‘In war there are no winners, only losers’ remains as pertinent now as it was in the 1940s. No matter which side wins or loses in a war people on both sides, humanity at large, end up losers; because for every soldier who falls in battle there is a family that bears the loss. No one knows it better than the soldier himself.

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