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A walk around National War Memorial to read 8 stories of heroism on 51st anniversary of 1971 war

ThePrint walks around the National War Memorial at India Gate in New Delhi & looks back at the stories of those who sacrificed their lives in the war and were awarded top gallantry medals.

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New Delhi: It’s the oldest truism that the history of any war is always written by the victor. India’s victory and Pakistan’s defeat 51 years ago, however, is even acknowledged by the loser. Outgoing Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa also admitted this in his farewell speech. Never mind that he blamed his political class for that debacle, not his army.

On this 51st anniversary of the day this war began, 3 December 1971, this reporter walked around the National War Memorial at India Gate in New Delhi to look at the panels listing the names of Indian soldiers who died in action in that war.

The panels take us back especially to the stories of eight incredibly brave Indian soldiers, from Army, Air Force and Navy, who laid down their lives for the nation in that war, and were awarded top gallantry medals, Param Vir Chakra (PVC) and Maha Vir Chakra (MVC). We revisit the key battles and turning points in the war through their stories.

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PVC Lance Naik Albert Ekka — destroyer of machine guns

Lance Naik Albert Ekka joined the Indian Army in 1962 at the age of 20. A tribal from Jharkhand he was recruited into the 14 Guards, a mechanized infantry regiment.

During the 1971 war, he made the supreme sacrifice on the very first day, 3 December 1971 at the Battle of Gangasagar, which was part of Operation Cactus Lily.

For his bravery, he was awarded the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest wartime military decoration, posthumously on 26 January 1972. His citation stated, “Lance Naik Albert Ekka was in the left forward company of a battalion of the Brigade of Guards during their attack on the enemy defences at Gangasagar on the Eastern front.”

“Lance Naik Albert Ekka noticed an enemy light machine gun (LMG) inflicting heavy casualties on his company. With complete disregard for his personal safety, he charged the enemy bunker, bayoneted two enemy soldiers and silenced the LMG. Though seriously wounded in this encounter, he continued to fight alongside his comrades, clearing bunker after bunker with undaunted courage,” added the PVC citation.

Another enemy medium-machine gun (MMG) was firing at the company from a fortified position. Though injured, Lance Naik Ekka crawled towards the enemy and lobbed a grenade into the fortification. However, the firing continued.

Again, showing little regard for his own safety, Ekka scaled the wall of the fortification and bayoneted the soldier who was firing the MMG, bringing an end to the onslaught. Ekka was seriously injured in this process and later succumbed to his injuries, explained the citation.

“In this action, Lance Naik Albert Ekka displayed the most conspicuous valour and determination and made the supreme sacrifice in the best traditions of the Indian Army,” added the citation.

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PVC 2nd Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal — tank destroyer  

PVC 2nd Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal — tank destroyer  | Photo: Suchet Vir Singh | ThePrint
PVC 2nd Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal — tank destroyer  | Photo: Suchet Vir Singh | ThePrint

Arun Khetarpal, pushed into the war straight from the National Defence Academy, was a 2nd Lieutenant with the 17 Poona Horse, a fancied tank regiment of the Indian Army. He took part in the Battle of Basantar in the western (Samba-Shakargarh) sector in Punjab. He was awarded the PVC posthumously for his bravery in 1971.

By 15 December, the 47th Infantry Brigade to which the 17 Poona Horse was assigned, had established a bridgehead across the River Basantar. However, they could not advance due to enemy mines left behind.

The next day, Pakistani troops launched a counterattack on the Indian positions at Jarpal — ahead of the river. Indian troops present were outnumbered. The squadron commander present requested reinforcements, 2nd Lieutenant Khetarpal answered the call and moved his squadron to assist squadron B under fire, his citation explains.

As his squadron advanced, they came under enemy fire. However, Khetarpal “threw caution to the winds” and started to attack by charging towards the Pakistanis — overrunning their defences and capturing them at gunpoint. The citation notes, he, “continued to attack relentlessly until all enemy opposition was overcome and he broke through towards the ‘B’ Squadron position”.

Through the battle, the 2nd Lieutenant destroyed three enemy tanks. However, Pakistan counterattacked, striking his tank and wounding him.

Asked to abandon his tank, Khetarpal continued to attack, as he realized that the enemy would break through if he abandoned. He then took out a fourth Pakistani tank. “At this stage, his tank received a second hit which resulted in the death of this gallant officer,” the citation noted.

“This was an act of courage and self-sacrifice far beyond the call of duty.”

PVC Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon

Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon was commissioned into the Indian Air Force in 1967, he was part of the 97th General Duty Pilots course and 36th General Duty Navigators course. In 1971, for going beyond the call of duty in the face of certain death, he was posthumously awarded the PVC. He is the only IAF member to receive this honour.

During the war, he was a pilot of No.18 Squadron, ‘The Flying Bullets’ of IAF flying the Folland Gnat fighter aircraft based in Srinagar to defend India from Pakistani air attacks. The Gnat aircraft is a compact, subsonic fighter.

From the start of the war, Sekhon and his colleagues fended off multiple Pakistani air raids. On 14 December 1971, six Sabre enemy aircraft attacked the airfield at Srinagar. Despite some delays in takeoff, Flying Officer Sekhon took on a pair of enemy aircrafts, despite the odds stacked against him.

In the fight that followed, he hit one Sabre and put another on fire. However, the remaining four Sabre’s coalesced and attacked Sekhon —  outnumbering him four to one. “At tree top height, he all but held his own, but was eventually overcome by sheer weight of numbers. His aircraft crashed and he was killed,” noted his PVC citation.

MVC Captain M.N. Mulla 

MVC Captain M.N. Mulla  | Photo: Suchet Vir Singh | ThePrint
MVC Captain M.N. Mulla  | Photo: Suchet Vir Singh | ThePrint

M.N. Mulla joined the Royal Indian Navy as a cadet in 1946, at the age of 20. By 1971, he was the Captain of the INS Khukri, a British-made Blackwood-class frigate of the Navy.

When the war broke out Captain Mulla was commanding a task force of two ships —including INS Khukri—in the Western fleet. The fleet was responsible for locating and taking out any enemy submarines in the Arabian Sea.

On the night of 9 December 1971, INS Khukri was hit by torpedoes from the Pakistani submarine PNS Hangor. This caused the Indian frigate mortal damage.

“Having decided to abandon ship, Captain Mulla, without regard for his personal safety, supervised the rescue of his ship’s crew. Later, whilst the ship was sinking, Captain Mulla showed presence of mind and continued to direct rescue operations and refused to save himself by giving his own life-saving gear to a sailor,” notes his Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) citation.

After ensuring the evacuation of maximum personnel onboard, Captain Mulla returned to the bridge to see if further evacuations could be performed, however, he was consequently seen going down with the INS Khukri.

“His action and behaviour and the example he set have been in keeping with the highest traditions of the Service. He displayed conspicuous gallantry and dedication,” added the citation.

4 Maha Vir Chakra awardees

Major Daljit Singh Narag was commanding a Cavalry (tank) squadron and an infantry battalion on the eastern front at the village of Garibpur, located in today’s Bangladesh. India had moved troops to capture this village as it lay on an important junction. Control over Garibpur would give access to the highway from Jessore to India.

While the attack was meant to be a surprise, due to skirmishes in the region, Pakistan had gotten a sense of the imminent attack. Consequently, Major Narag and his troops were “attacked by two enemy battalions, supported by a squadron of Chaffee tanks. He skillfully and boldly manoeuvred his squadron despite heavy enemy fire and engaged and destroyed the enemy tanks,” his MVC citation notes.

“With utter disregard for his personal safety and undeterred by heavy enemy fire, he directed the fire of his squadron standing on the turret of his tank. His courage and fearlessness so inspired his troops that they successfully decimated the enemy squadron of Chaffee tanks and stemmed the enemy advance. Major Narag was killed atop his tank by machine gun fire while leading his squadron,” added the citation.

Sepoy Pandurang Salunke’s unit 15 Maratha Light Infantry had taken defensive positions in an area northeast of Amritsar in 1971. By 6 December, they had also strengthened the Border Security Force (BSF) outposts at Burj, located near Amritsar.

On the morning of 6 December, a company of 43 Baluch of the Pakistan Army attacked the Burj Post. Consequently, during an assault by the Maratha Light Infantry, a Pakistani rocket launcher posed a threat to the Indian tanks assaulting along with the infantry.

“Realizing the danger to our tanks, Sepoy Pandurang Salunkhe, at great risk to his life, charged towards the rocket launcher, jumped on the enemy and physically snatched away the rocket launcher even though he received a burst of Sten gun fire at point-blank range. He silenced the rocket launcher and made the supreme sacrifice,” noted his posthumous MVC citation.

Lt. Colonel Ved Prakash Ghai was commissioned into 16 Madras Regiment in 1954. During the 1971 war, he commanded the regiment and played an essential role in the western front at the Battle of Basantar.

Lt. Colonel Ved Prakash Ghai | Photo: Suchet Vir Singh | ThePrint
Lt. Colonel Ved Prakash Ghai | Photo: Suchet Vir Singh | ThePrint

By 15 December, his battalion had, crossed the Basantar river, occupied the bridgehead, and evaded the minefields left behind by the enemy. Consequently, Pakistanis launched ferocious counter-attacks.

Lt Col. Ghai rallied his men and was able to deter the enemy at night. However, the next morning, the Pakistanis attacked with tanks. He then moved to the company positions, switching between the various field positions, directing and guiding his unit. Inspired, they were able to thwart the Pakistani onslaught.

After stabilising the situation, while moving back to the Headquarters, Lt Col Ghai was seriously wounded by enemy shell. “He continued to direct the battle, neither caring for his personal safety nor for medical attention. He died of his wounds on the battlefield, thus making the supreme sacrifice of his life,” noted his MVC citation.

Captain Shankar Shankhapan Walkar was commissioned into the Madras Regiment in 1969. During the 1971 war, he was the Mortar Officer of 18 Madras posted on the western front.

Captain Walkar’s posthumous MVC citation explains, “On the 16 December 1971, when the battalion reached Hingore Tar after advancing 42 miles it came under very heavy shelling from enemy positions. With utter disregard for his personal safety, Captain Walkar went to each rifle company position to tie up defensive fire tasks. In doing so, he was hit twice by splinters and sustained injuries, but he refused to evacuate and carried on displaying outstanding courage and devotion to duty.”

With the battle continuing to 17 December, Pakistan assaulted two company positions. Despite being severely wounded, Captain Walkar inspired his men and shot at least four enemy soldiers, and made them fall back.

“He was, however, fatally wounded in this action. After firing the last round, he succumbed to the injuries. He fought bravely to the last,” noted the citation.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

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