Opinion Columnists 14 Dec 2021 Praveen Davar | In 1 ...

Praveen Davar | In 1971 War, the battles on western front were decisive

Published Dec 15, 2021, 2:47 am IST
Updated Dec 15, 2021, 2:47 am IST
The corps commanders under the Western Command were Lt. Gens Sartaj Singh, K.K. Singh and N.C. Rawlley

On Republic Day in January 1972, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi drove in an open jeep to the saluting base at Rajpath to receive the President. “A vast sea of people had gathered to offer their salutations to their victorious PM, and the earth reverberated with the crowd’s roar. It was an image of a woman who had stood alone, single-minded in defiance. She had faced and emerged victorious against Pakistan, had challenged the US President and his wily aide Henry Kissinger, kept them guessing, called their bluff and outmanoeuvred them.”

This was recorded by a biographer of Indira Gandhi almost two decades after she led the nation to its most glorious military victory ever. No war can be won without an inspiring political leadership, an outstanding military leadership and the valour and courage of officers and men who physically fight the enemy in the land, sea or air. While the iconic role of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw is well known, the names of his fellow service chiefs, Adm. S.M. Nanda and Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal, are hardly remembered.


Similarly, while the decisive win in the war for Bangladesh’s liberation is rightly hailed every year, the celebrations primarily focus on the war in the east, and the tougher battles on the western front are generally not revisited. It takes a popular film like Border to remind people of one of the many actions that took place in the west.

Four Param Vir Chakras (PVCs) were awarded in 1971 — Maj. Hoshiar Singh, Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon, 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal and L/Nk Albert Ekka. Of these, barring the last one, all were won in the western theatre.


Like Lt. Gen. J.S. Aurora, GOC-in-C Eastern Command, before whom the Pakistan Army surrendered, Lt. Gen, K.P. Candeth was GOC-in-C Western Command. At that time there was no Northern Command, and Lt. Gen. Candeth’s area of responsibility was the huge canvas stretching from Jammu and Kashmir through Punjab till northern Rajasthan. Further south, the Rajasthan border, along Jaisalmer and Barmer till the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, was the responsibility of GOC-in-C Southern Command, Lt. Gen. G.G. Bewoor. An offensive in the Punjab plains and forays into Rajasthan by the Pakistan Army were envisaged. But due to its commitments on the eastern front, the Indian government decided that a strategy of offence-defence would be the most pragmatic posture.


While the Western Command had 11 infantry divisions and one armoured division over its vast stretch, the Southern Command had only two infantry divisions, an artillery brigade and less than two regiments of armour. The corps commanders under the Western Command were Lt. Gens Sartaj Singh, K.K. Singh and N.C. Rawlley. All of them, especially Sartaj Singh, acquitted themselves well within the limits of Manekshaw’s “holding strategy”. It was because of this that none of these commanders got the opportunity that Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh got in the east to show his true mettle.


Many armoured regiments, infantry battalions and other units covered themselves with glory in the bloodiest battles that took place both under the Western and Southern Commands. To mention only a few, in the battle of Chhamb, 9 Horse destroyed 34 enemy tanks on the Manawar Tawi river; in the battle of Basantar, 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal, 20, of Poona Horse, posthumously won the PVC with his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Hanut Singh, winning the MVC for the regiment’s major contribution towards destroying 46 enemy tanks in Shakargarh sector. Maj. Hoshiar Singh of 3 Grenadiers was the second recipient of PVC in this area.


In the same sector, Brig. A.S. Vaidya (later Army Chief) of 16 Armoured Brigade, who as CO 9 Horse was recipient of an MVC in 1965, won his second MVC for his gallant action against a Pakistani armoured brigade. In the battle of Longewala, in which the IAF played a decisive role, Maj. Kuldip Singh Chandpuri, the company commander, was awarded the MVC for holding his post against enemy armour despite being heavily outnumbered and outweaponed.

Though air power was effectively used in 1965, the1971 war was the first real tri-services war in which both the AIF and Navy complemented the Army’s efforts in both sectors to devastating effect. While the number of sorties flown by the IAF was more than double of 1965 in the western sector alone, the Navy acquitted itself with aplomb in a daring attack on Karachi harbour. Though it lost INS Khukri to enemy fire, it had already sunk PNS Ghazi, a submarine, which cleared the way for aircraft-carrier INS Vikrant and other warships to operate unhindered in the Bay of Bengal. N.S. Sekhon posthumously won the only PVC for the Air Force in a dogfight, above the Srinagar skies, between his single Gnat and six PAF Sabres, of which he shot down two before being fatally hit.


After the Pakistan Army surrendered in Dhaka on December 16, Gen. Yahya Khan told Pakistanis in a broadcast that the war would go on. But Indira Gandhi had no intention of doing so. The mission of liberating Bangladesh had been accomplished and continuing the war in the west meant more casualties, destruction and suffering.

On December 17, she told Parliament that the Indian armed forces had been instructed to cease fire from 8 pm that evening. This was the highest act of statesmanship. To those who suspected that India had taken the decision to unilaterally declare a ceasefire under foreign pressure, Sam Manekshaw replied: “I can’t believe that any country can put pressure on Indira Gandhi.”