Violating the ceasefire on important national and religious days is a military tradition, which is aimed at forcing psychological domination over the enemy. One such incident took place in the early hours of 15 August 1969, and again proved the futility of Partition.
A good shot
I had joined my unit in December 1968 and we were deployed in Poonch sector, manning the posts along the cease-fire line (now known as the Line of Control or LoC). The cease-fire line (CFL) had been active and both sides had indulged in firing in the last few months.
Our no-nonsense Commanding Officer sent a discreet message to his counterpart: “The Saragarhi Battalion has taken charge, violate the ceasefire at your peril”. The reply was curt: “We are well aware of your reputation, but you clap with two hands”.
A gentleman’s agreement was reached and our sector remained quiet. So much so that I would go out with my dog and shoot Chakor (partridge) along the CFL, and soldiers on both sides of the border watched it with amusement using their binoculars, an anecdote I had written about in my article for Newslaundry in July 2016.
One day, I was shooting near Bhai-Bhai (two prominent trees between our 405 Post and the enemy’s Raja Post), when a covey of Chakor took flight. And, I got a classic ‘right and left shot’ – shooting two birds, one with each barrel – with a double-barrel shotgun.
Suddenly, I heard someone clap and say, “Nishana achha hai, Laftain Sahib! (It’s a good shot, Lieutenant Sir!)”. A not-so-young JCO stood grinning, across the CFL. Later, he told me that he had served in 4 Sikh, which had 50 per cent Punjabi Muslims before Independence. He even knew some of our JCOs. However, this bonhomie came under attack on the night of 14/15 August.
All hell breaks loose
There were intelligence reports that Pakistan might be up to some mischief on 14-15 August, when both countries celebrate their Independence Day. Both sides were on high alert to avoid being surprised by raids and ambushes. Our Commanding Officer decided that as part of the alert we must practice our operational mission, which was to capture the Raja Post, by rehearsing all the procedures up to the CFL.
Two companies were to man the posts and two were to practice the attack procedure. The plan was to launch the main attack from the right flank while the Commando Platoon would deceive the enemy by simulating an attack from the left flank. I was the Commando Platoon Commander. Umpires were accompanying the attacking troops to assess their performance to imaginary scenarios for practising various drills and procedures. Strict instructions were issued to not provoke any incident.
After last light on 14 August, we moved out of our posts to launch the ‘attack’. The ‘H Hour’ (time at which the actual attack commences) was 0100 hours. Given my hunting expeditions, I knew the terrain well and reached my position near the CFL by midnight.
Staying still and hiding, I remembered the ‘Tryst with destiny’ speech and started analysing the ‘state of the nation’ in the last 22 years. Suddenly, the calm was shattered by near-simultaneous opening of fire from the enemy side as well as from my rear. For the next 10 minutes, it was an ‘all hell breaks loose’ scenario.
My first reaction was that my platoon had walked into a trap. Enemy patrols had probably infiltrated the CFL and cut-off my route to our posts while simultaneously firing at me from their post.
I was confident that in the mountainous terrain, I could easily escape by using other routes. I had trained my boys well. We had not opened fire and waited for the enemy to close in.
There was ‘radio silence’ to ensure the attack was a surprise. But once the firing started, orders began to flow too. The exercise was called off. I was directed to pull out my platoon. I did so by stealthily moving down the valley and then climbing back to our post.
As I arrived at the battalion headquarters, a ‘post mortem’ was carried out. I gave my version of the story. After hearing everyone, the Commanding Officer was livid. Everyone except me got an earful for reacting in panic.
Apparently, the umpire accompanying one of the companies had painted the imaginary scenario of an enemy ‘spoiling attack’ – an operation launched by an alert enemy to disrupt the attack before it can be launched. The JCO commanding the leading platoon asked the umpire, another JCO, with whom he was in competition, “Asli ya nakli? (Real or imaginary)?”
The umpire, as per norms, replied, “Asli, action lo (It is real, take action)”. Instinctively, the platoon commander opened fire and attacked the imaginary enemy preparing to launch the ‘spoiling attack’. This led to panic firing by all the troops in the exercise until order was restored by the Commanding Officer.
I did tell the Commanding Officer that the firing from the enemy side was almost simultaneous. However, the why and what of it remained a mystery.
After giving concocted explanations of unprovoked firing by the enemy to the higher headquarters and the UN Military Observer Group, things returned to normal.
What really happened
After a few days, I again had a chance meeting with the same Pakistani JCO while I was out hunting Chakor. I chided him and said, “Kya hua Sahib, 15 August ko achanak fire khol diya? Dar gaye kya? (What happened, did you start firing in panic on 15 August?)”
He replied, “Kya karen Sahib, scheme chal rahi thi, ladke naye the, umpire ki baat ko asli man kar, ghabra kar fire khol diya (What to do. It was an exercise and the soldiers were new recruits. They opened fire in panic as a result of the scenario that was painted by the umpire).”
As an after-thought, he asked, “Sahib, fire to ek saath hi khula tha, aapki taraf kya hua? (Sir, both sides opened fire almost simultaneously. What happened on your side?)”
I replied, “Jo aapki taraf hua (same as what happened on your side).”
So, both sides were conducting similar exercises and had similar panic reactions to the situation at hand, almost at the same time.
We both burst out laughing.
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.