On 11 August, The Economic Times reported that the Army had conducted a court of inquiry with respect to the Galwan valley incident of 15 June in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed in action and 76 were wounded in violent “unarmed combat” with China’s People’s Liberation Army, or the PLA. The Army was quick to deny the report, raising more questions about the circumstances of the unfortunate incident.
The circumstances were unusual, and in fact, unprecedented in history of the Army. The key question being who gave the orders for the soldiers to not carry weapons? Or if the soldiers were carrying weapons as announced by the Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar, who gave the orders not to use them? More so, when nothing in the 1996 border management agreement or subsequent border management protocols bars the use of fire arms in self-defence or to safeguard our territory?
Logically, the militaries should and do inquire into lapses in battle to learn lessons and fix accountability. Any attempt not to do so implies that a cover-up is being attempted for an error of judgement by the hierarchy, or with respect to systemic lapses in leadership, training, tactics and weapons/equipment. More often than not, by default, the commander on the spot and their unit gets blamed, and in a regimented system, carries the cross forever. On the eve of the 55th anniversary of 1965 India-Pakistan War, I prove the point with an example.
From a great victory…
36 Sikh (now 4 Sikh) was raised on 23 March 1887, and within 10 years, created history in the battle of Saragarhi by an epic ‘last man last round’ stand on the Samana Ridge in North West Frontier Province on 12 September 1897. In its history of 133 years, the unit has taken part in every war fought by the Army. It was stationed in Beijing in September 1914 to guard the British Embassy and took part in the siege of Tsingtao (now Qingdao in China) in November 1914. From 1916 to 1918, it fought in Mesopotamia, Iraq and Iran. During the Second World War, it fought in Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya and Italy. In 1962, it fought a heroic action at Walong.
On 10 September 1965, the unit under the command Lt Col Anant Singh captured Barki, held by a company of 17 Punjab of Pakistan after a fierce battle. The intensity of the battle can be imagined by the fact that in close combat lasting about 70 minutes, the unit suffered 39 soldiers killed in action and 121 wounded, including two officers. The enemy was left with 15 soldiers killed in action, including the company commander Major Aziz Bhatti and 74 wounded. He was the only one to be awarded Pakistan’s highest decoration — Nishan-e-Haider — in the 1965 war. 4 Sikh was awarded the Battle Honour — Barki — and also awarded a Maha Vir Chakra, three Vir Chakras, three Sena Medals and three Chief of the Army Staff Commendation Card.
…to a catastrophic defeat in 24 hours
On the morning of 11 September, 4 Sikh was busy reorganising the defence of Barki in anticipation of a counter-attack. It was a proud day indeed because on the eve of Saragarhi Day — 12 September — the unit had achieved great victory. But fate had something else in store for this great battalion.
On the 78th anniversary of Saragarhi on 12 September 1965, the unit suffered a catastrophic defeat due to an error of judgement by the highest commander in the theatre — General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the Western Command Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh who was also the Colonel of the Sikh Regiment. The details of the incident were revealed in a book — The Monsoon War: Young Officers Reminisce – 1965 India–Pakistan War (Roli Books 2015) — by Capt. Amrinder Singh and Lt Gen. T. S. Shergill. Circumstances leading to the incident are a first person account (pages 231-236) by Capt Amrinder Singh who was then posted as the aide-de-camp (ADC) to Lt Gen. Harbaksh Singh. I was commissioned in 4 Sikh and interacted with most of the officers, Junior Commissioned Officers (JCO) and Other Ranks (OR) who took part in both the operations and I am, too, privy to first-hand accounts.
Why the 4 Sikh was called in
In the Khemkaran Sector, our 4 Infantry Division with two infantry brigades had initially gone on the offensive on 6 September 1965 towards Kasur to secure the area up to the Ichogil Canal to deny a launch pad to Pakistan’s 1 Armoured Division. After initial success, 4 Infantry Division suffered a major setback when enemy’s 11 Infantry Division counter-attacked. The division was forced to withdraw nearly 10 km to Asal Uttar-Valtoha. The enemy captured Khemkaran and launched its 1 Armoured Division to capture Beas Bridge and Jandiala Guru on the Grand Trunk Road, 80 km to the north-east. A heroic battle was fought from 8 to 10 September around Asal Uttar – Valtoha by 4 Infantry Division and 2 Independent Armoured Brigade to decimate two armoured brigades of Pakistan’s 1 Armoured Division. The third brigade, which was in reserve, was moved to Sialkot Sector after the loss of Phillora on 10 September. However, the enemy’s 11 Infantry Division with remnants of 1 Armoured Division remained firmly entrenched at Khemkaran.
On 11 September, the Army Commander assumed that the enemy was retreating and ordered pursuit by 4 Infantry Division. The plan was to attack and recapture Khemkaran on the morning of 12 September while simultaneously establishing a road block behind Khemkaran on the road to Kasur. Since the 4 Infantry Division had suffered heavy casualties, it did not have the resources to establish the road block. The Army Commander decided to take one infantry battalion from 7 Infantry Division.
The battalion selected was 4 Sikh that was busy reorganising to defend Barki, which it had captured during the previous night. The Army Commander seemed sure of success and the anticipated victory next day — 12 September — would have coincided with the 68th anniversary of the Saragarhi Battle. And what could be better than the Saragarhi Battalion itself spearheading the victory. The facts that the unit had not slept for two days, had suffered heavy casualties the previous night — 39 killed in action and 121 wounded — and was neither familiar with the area, nor had time to carry out any reconnaissance, were disregarded. Around mid-day, the Commanding Officer, Lt Col Anant Singh, was called to HQ 7 Infantry Division and personally assigned the new mission by the Army Commander. Lt Col Anant Singh, probably overawed by the confidence reposed in his unit by the Army Commander and his Colonel of the Regiment, accepted the mission without expressing his reservations.
Lt Col Anant Singh was not even in touch with his unit. He discussed his misgivings with GOC 7 Infantry Division who advised him to discuss the matter with GOC 4 Infantry Division. Passing directions through the divisional staff for the unit to fetch up to Valtoha, he proceeded to 4 Infantry Division.
The plan was for 4 Sikh to infiltrate 15-20 km from the South of Road Valtoha – Khemkaran to establish a road block on the Khemkaran-Kasur road by 0500 hours on 12 September. Simultaneously, 2 Mahar supported by a squadron plus two troops of armour was to attack and capture Khemkaran. It was anticipated that Khemkaran was defended by only one infantry company, supported by few tanks. The operation was being controlled by 7 Mountain Brigade. Lt Col Anant Sigh requested the Commander of 7 Mountain Brigade to take up the issue for a 24-hour postponement for reconnaissance and planning. The matter was discussed with GOC 4 Mountain Division but rejected. GOC 4 Infantry Division and Commander 7 Mountain Brigade having fought in the area for six days were in all likelihood aware of the real situation, but did not display the moral courage to represent to the Army Commander.
A tired unit arrives to fight
A tired 4 Sikh arrived at Valtoha at midnight. After a short briefing, the unit commenced its infiltration at 0100 hours on 12 September. Although it was assessed that there were a few tanks in Khemkaran, it was assumed that these would be destroyed by own armour attacking the next morning. Not taking a chance, Lt Col Anant Singh decided to carry two 106 mm RCL anti-tank guns on man-pack basis because the terrain was unfit for their jeep carriers. The movement of the unit was slowed down due to the heavy anti-tank guns. One company was left behind to bring them forward and the Commanding Officer with other three companies continued to move forward. Some enemy patrols engaged the advancing columns but were quickly dealt with. However, the enemy was alerted about the infiltration column. By 0500 hours, the unit was between Machhike village and Khemkaran, about 1,000-1,500 yards from the latter.
Unknown to the unit and 7 Mountain Brigade, Khemkaran and adjoining areas to the north and south was defended with four infantry battalions and four to five squadrons of armour belonging to three different regiments. At 0500 hours, 4 Sikh had walked into the harbour — an area to which tanks in those days pulled back at night for rest and replenishment — of this armour. In fact, Lt Col Anant Singh walked straight into 3 Field Regiment (self-propelled) — armour protected artillery guns on tracks. He inquired from a young officer standing on the self-propelled gun as to whether these were the tanks of the Deccan Horse— our own attacking armour. The young officer quickly took out his revolver and took Lt Col. Singh as a POW (prisoner of war). Some soldiers close to the CO tried to make a break resulting in 1 officer and 13 OR being killed in minutes. Others entered sugarcane fields to escape. The area was surrounded by enemy armour and infantry. In the next few hours, five officers, seven JCOs and 110 OR were rounded up and taken POW. The attack on Khemkaran from the north east by one battalion and one-and-half squadron of armour failed miserably against the strong defence.
Twenty-four hours after the glorious victory at Barki, 4 Sikh had suffered a humiliating defeat on Saragarhi Day, all because of an error of judgement by the Army Commander. When Lt Col Anant Singh returned from captivity, he went to meet Lt General Harbaksh Singh who said, “Anant, I am sorry”. This catastrophic defeat was never inquired into. Very few know of the circumstances of this military disaster, but all know of the ignominy of 4 Sikh, including its commanding officer being captured and the photographs being splashed in Pakistani media.
Apart from the need to fix the accountability for those who gave orders not to carry weapons or not to use them if carried, the reputation of those killed in action on 15 June at Galwan must be upheld by holding a court of inquiry.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.