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Lt. Gen Zorawar Chand Bakshi, the greatest wartime hero who ‘just faded away’

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Lt. Gen Bakshi was one of the country’s most decorated generals and fought in all of India’s wars except against China in 1962. Besides being a brave soldier, he was an inspiration to many.

Lt. Gen Zorawar Chand Bakshi, who has died aged 97, was among India’s most highly decorated generals. The officer, who fought in every one of the country’s wars barring the 1962 Indo-China War, passed away on 24 May. He is survived by a son and two daughters.

Affectionately nicknamed ‘Zoru’, Gen Bakshi had been decorated with the Maha Vir Chakra, Vir Chakra, Param Vishisht Seva Medal, the Vishisht Seva Medal besides the little known but highly coveted MacGregor Memorial Medal.

“Despite all his achievements, he remained a humble, down-to-earth man. Never bragging or gloating over the wars he had fought or his decorations,” says Lt. Gen Narayan Pathania, who served with him from 1970 till Gen Bakshi retired in 1979.

“He belonged to the 5th Gorkhas, who wear the chin strap of the Gorkha hat not under the chin but under the lower lip. He believed that it signalled doing your job and not talking about it, and followed that in principle,” adds Gen Pathania.

The wars

Gen Bakshi led what is today remembered as “one of the most brilliant and successful operations” of the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965. Leading a strike coded in his name — Operation Bakshi — his battalion captured the strategic Haji Pir Pass. The pass was on the road connecting Uri to Poonch, and was the main ingress route into Kashmir valley.

For this feat, Gen Bakshi and Major Ranjit Singh Dayal, who was the hero of the battle, were awarded the Maha Vir Chakra, India’s second highest medal for gallantry. Major Dayal (later Lt. Gen) went on to play a crucial role in Operation Blue Star in 1984.

Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh said he last met Gen Bakshi after the capture of Haji Pir Pass. “He was the commander of 68 Brigade and I was ADC to Army Commander Gen Harbaksh. A great soldier. His death is a great loss to the country. RIP Sir!” tweeted the CM.

During the 1971 operations against Pakistan, Gen Bakshi was GOC of the 26 Infantry Division in Jammu. “As a young captain, I was his ADC between 1970 and 1972. In 1971, he led the capturing of the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ — 170 miles of Pakistani territory jutting between the Chenab river and one of its channels. Just a few kilometres away is Akhnoor bridge, vital for the movement of troops into Rajouri, Poonch,” recounts Gen Pathania. “The territory was called the ‘dagger’ by the Pakistanis. Gen Bakshi changed it to ‘Chicken’s Neck’ that he said should be wrung and broken off. He wanted to go from being on the defensive to being on the offensive.”

“The capture of the Chicken’s Neck within 48 hours did a lot to raise the morale of the Indian troops… Zoru Bakshi had once again proved that it is not numerical superiority, but daring and audacity which bring success,” recounts retired Major general V.K. Singh in his book ‘Leadership in the Indian Army: Biographies of Twelve Soldiers’.

“The general was with his troops the morning after the attack when Pakistani prisoners of war were being rounded up,” adds Gen Pathania. For this operation, Gen Bakshi was awarded the Param Vishisht Seva Medal.

The early years

Gen Bakshi was mentioned in dispatches as early as 1945 when he fought in the Battle of Kangaw as part of the Baluch regiment in the Burma Campaign against Japan during World War II. This was barely two years after he had joined the infantry wing of the army as a 22-year-old, fresh out of college. His father, Bahadur Bakshi Lal Chand, had served in the British Indian Army and had been decorated with the Order of British India.

When British India partitioned, Bakshi was made part of the Punjab Boundary Force, a special force raised to maintain peace in Punjab. After the force was disbanded, Bakshi joined the 5th Gorkha Rifles and was awarded the Vir Chakra in July 1948 for displaying exceptional leadership and gallantry in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1947-1948. “This was remarkable because Bakshi was a staff officer at the Brigade HQ and was not commanding troops. Unlike commanders, staff officers rarely get a chance to display gallantry on the battlefield,” recalls V.K. Singh in his book.

Blogspot faujibyheart recounts his next achievement: “In 1949, Zoru was awarded his next medal – MacGregor Memorial Medal. This was instituted in memory of Major General Charles Metcalf MacGregor, and was awarded every year for the best military reconnaissance or journey of exploration or survey of remote areas of India.”

“Zoru was assigned the task of conducting a very important strategic military reconnaissance of some areas of Tibet. Zoru, disguised as a Tibetan monk, covered a distance of 400 km in 80 days, and traversed some of the highest mountain passes of the Himalayas. For successfully completing this assignment, Zoru was awarded this medal — the first one after India’s Independence.”

Excelled on battlefield and outside

In the 50s, Gen Bakshi had a short stint as an instructor, first at the Infantry School in Mhow and later after being promoted as Lt. Col of the Staff College, Wellington, before he got command of the 2/5 Gorkha Battalion. His battalion served peacekeeping missions in Congo, for which he was awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal. Being in Congo, he, however, missed the action of the Indo-China War in 1962.

In 1963, Gen Bakshi was posted to the military operations directorate in Delhi and later officiated as the director, military operations, a key war room post. But he was back at the war front in no time. In 1965, as brigadier he was given command of the newly-raised 68 infantry.

In 1967, while at the HQ of the Eastern Command in Calcutta, Gen Bakshi attended the prestigious Imperial Defence College, London, and later served briefly at the Military Training Directorate. In 1969, he was promoted as major general and posted as GOC of the 8 Mountain Division, Nagaland, where he was actively involved in counter-insurgency operations.

‘An ideal and inspiration’

“Apart from being a brave soldier and a remarkable leader of men, he was an ideal and an inspiration,” says Gen Pathania. “He would never use the two escort vehicles he was given. He had one jeep ahead of his vehicle and without a hooter. On the Jammu border, I have travelled with him in a car with the staff plates open and the flag unfurled. He was not afraid of attacks from Pakistani soldiers who might be hiding in the tall sarkanda grass all around. He said the idea was to instil confidence in his men as also send a message loud and clear to the other side that we were ready take them head on.”

“Once, one of the engineering corps under him was shifted near Kalu Chak, which was just a large piece of bare ground. J.B. Patnaik, the then deputy defence minister, was to visit our sector. When he came, General Bakshi decided to host him at that place, to show him the conditions his men were managing in. It had rained the night before and the minister moved in slush as Gen Bakshi took him around!” says Gen Pathania.

His son Rajeev says his father was a “great human being who equipped us with the ability to discern but gave us the freedom to make our choices in life, to be audacious to take a road less travelled and to treat life as a great adventure.”

“No idea or belief was too sacrosanct to be left unquestioned except honesty and integrity. These values were passed on to his grandchildren as was his love for the outdoors, the hills and nature,” Rajeev adds.

In 1975 he went to on to command the premier 2 Corps, the largest single offensive force ever mustered for war.

‘He just faded away’

Major Gen Ashok K Mehta, who served with Gen Bakshi, rued that India’s “greatest wartime hero was laid to rest unsung… He just faded away.”

“There was no ceremonial send-off, no ritual last rites at the crematorium, no last post, no rise, and only one wreath was laid,” he said. “For a government that trumpets its devotion to the men in uniform, and that too on its fourth anniversary, Zoru, as he was endearingly called, got a shabby send-off. No minister, not even a junior one, and no one from the military came for the prayer meeting or his cremation. Not even a tweet of condolence from the Prime Minister”, he pointed out in an obituary he penned.

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