The Heroes Who Never Came Home…And We Never Heard Of!

25th April is celebrated as ANZAC Day. Some of you may wonder why is a blog about ANZAC Day & Indian soldiers coming up now. Well…all I can say is “Lest We Forget”.

Shirley Jacob and I connected virtually and we found a lot of things in common, including being “fauji kids”. I think that is what cemented our relationship. Shirley lives in Sydney, Australia, and in one of my conversations with her, I requested her to share her thoughts about ANZAC Day, the parades & celebrations, and how Indian Ex-Service Men participate in the same. She happily agreed and wrote a wonderful piece that I am sharing below. Thank you so much, Shirley!

ANZAC Day and the Indian connection

Whilst World War I led Europe’s youth to their early grave, dousing out the flame of a generation of talented artists, writers, sportsmen, and others whose talent bled into the trenches. It also involved soldiers from faraway lands that had little to do with Europe’s bitter traditional hatreds.

On 25th April 1915, the ANZAC legend was born. On the morning of this day, Australian GGfathertroops landed at Gallipoli to force Germany’s ally, Turkey, out of the war. Their plan to capture Constantinople quickly became a Herculean task, as they landed in the wrong position and faced baptism by fire. The order from the British general, Sir Ian Hamilton echoed across the battlefield and Australian shores, “There is nothing for it but to dig yourselves right in and stick it out”. The plan had failed, and months of further fighting resulted in no military victories and little reward. However, from this hardship, the ANZAC spirit was conceived. An ethos built on endurance, courage, mateship and one which irrevocably characterizes Australia’s nationhood today.

Over a hundred years later, the parades, services, and rituals of Anzac Day have survived and grown despite the vestige of survivors remaining. Many stories are also now emerging of the sacrifices Indians made during World War I and II.  At the time, India provided the largest volunteer army in history with approximately 1.2 million Indians volunteering to fight for British forces. Although over 70 000 Indian soldiers ultimately sacrificed their lives during the war, tales of their altruism, courage, and rigour have often been relegated to the footnotes in the Commonwealth’s commemorative diary. Many Australians are still unaware that 15 000 Indians fought alongside the ANZACs at Gallipoli and almost 1400 Indians died there. The Indian voice has remained quiet for years as many of these soldiers were semi or non-literate and did not bequeath the treasure trove of memorabilia such as poems and diary entries, which formed the cornerstone of European war memory.

Recently, the British Library released 1000 pages recounting the first-hand accounts of Indian veterans from the war, painting a picture of racial segregation, valour, and the awakening hunger for civil rights which fueled India’s impetus for independence from British rule. Despite this, the Indian war experience continues to remain a history of fragments as traces of evidence are truncated, censored, or scattered across the globe. There is no sole or panoptic Indian war experience – rather, it must be modulated to the idiosyncrasies of caste, region, theatre of battle, etc.

Being an Army brat, I understood how millions of families in India were irretrievably affected by the war and yearned closure for their loved ones. I sought to discover how I could help unify the missing fragments and illuminate the war experiences of Indian soldiers, even if it were for only one person. That is why, when a friend of mine who is a sixth-generation Armed forces personnel mentioned to me his desire of finding the grave of his Great Grandfather who had fought in WWl, I jumped at the task. After scouring through satellite images, old archives, and memoirs for 6 months, I eventually found the memorial site of his Grandfather and enabled my friend to remember and continue his forefather’s legacy.

Having been enjoined to remember this war, we sometimes struggle to know how to respond. This is because we cannot remember something we never personally experienced. If we visit Gallipoli, our eyes are often drawn to the immaculate cemeteries and war memories, not the battlefields. Perhaps, that is the reason why my heart swells with pride and vitality when I see the Indian ex-servicemen marching as part of the Sydney ANZAC day commemorative events. It is an enduring image of the ANZAC spirit, an acknowledgment of India’s comradeship, and unwavering assurance that India’s war efforts will not be forgotten.

Lest we forget.

A Soldier Never Gives Up…The Battle At Badgam

Continuing the series on A Soldier Never Gives Up, we move to the next theatre of the 1947 war.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston S. Churchill

As 1 Sikh stalled the attack of the Raiders on the Srinagar – Baramulla highway, it provided tremendous opportunity for the other units to land in Srinagar airport. The impetus to fight the enemy was increasing by the minute. One of the units that landed on 31st October 1947 was 4 Kumaon.

Major Somnath Sharma

Major Somnath Sharma

On 3rd November, fighting patrols under A & D Company of 4 Kumaon, under the command of Major Somnath Sharma were moved to Badgam (30 odd kms away from Srinagar) to hunt down and destroy the Raiders who were hiding in and around the area. Intelligence reports had warned us that 1000 strong lashkar was in the area, with the intention of attacking Srinagar. The Battalion, however, could not find the Raiders. The enemy had used the clever strategy of mixing with the villagers, dressed in local attire. As a result, Major Sharma reports that Badgam is peaceful and quiet, with the villagers going about their routine work. He is ordered to pull his companies back.

At 1400 hours, Major Sharma sends A Company back, but, plans to keep D Company in Badgam till evening. The lashkar was arriving in Badgam in bits and pieces and was led by a Pakistani Major. They had hatched a crafty plan of getting the Pakistani soldiers to mix with the locals, wait for the Pathan Raiders to come to Badgam and then attack the Indian Army. Their plan was to then capture Srinagar, cut off Army access and take over Jammu & Kashmir. It was a well thought of plan.

Troops marching into Battle of Badgam

Troops marching into Battle of Badgam

After A Company is sent back, the “villagers” starting dispersing around the village. Major Sharma was under the impression that the locals were going home. In reality, the Pakistani soldiers and Raiders were positioning themselves around D Company. As soon as they had about 700 men, the enemy attacked us. It was 700 as opposed to 90…we were outnumbered 7:1.

Major Somnath Sharma, with a plastered hand, and total disregard to personal safety, moved from trench to trench encouraging his men to fight. The Company was under heavy fire, yet, they were beating back many attacks and held on to their position for nearly six hours. Holding back tenaciously, urging his men to fight, he radioed for more ammunition, reinforcements and supplies. Those 6 hours, while D Company was fighting valiantly, gave Indian Army the much required precious time to plug the gaps as they built up strength along with Indian Air Force.

Major Sharma’s last message, when he was asked to pull out, as they were heavily out numbered, is testimony to hiscourage and valour. He said, “The enemy is only 50 yards from us. We are heavily out numbered. We are under devastating fire. I shall not withdraw an inch but will fight to the last man and last round.” This was the brave heart who in the last few moments of being alive, rushed to help one of his men load and fire a light machine gun. While he was doing this, a bomb landed on the ammunition dump next to him, exploding and killing Major Sharma immediately.

Pathan Camp

Pathan Camp

On seeing the enemy closing in with the LMG post, Sepoy Dewan Singh of D Company, stood up with the LMG firing from his hip and killed many of the advancing attackers. His murderous fore stopped many a Raider and Pakistani soldier dead. However, he too died, with his body riddled with bullets. Seeing two of their brave hearts die like this, inspired the rest of D Company to continue fighting. Simultaneously, Indian Air Force Spitfires started chasing the Raiders from the sky, killing many and  forcing the others to flee.

The Battle of Badgam continued and on 5th November the village was captured back by the Indian Army. Bodies of 300 Raiders were conuted, which proved how ruthless the fighting had been. Retaliatory fire had been so harsh that the Pathans had not been able to pick up their dead. It was with this tenacity, fierceness and nationalistic fervour that our soldiers fought to save the Valley. As the Raiders were not trained soldiers, their resolve to continue the fight disappeared and they started withdrawing and pulling back. Srinagar was saved.

Sepoy Dewan Singh

Sepoy Dewan Singh

In this battle, Indian Army lost Major Somnath Sharma, Sepoy Dewan Singh, Subedar Prem Singh Mehta and 20 other ranks. 26 people were wounded. For his gallantry, fierce defence and exemplary leadership, Major Somanth Sharma was awarded the Param Vir Chakra (PVC) posthumously. He was the first PVC of independent India. Sepoy Dewan Singh was awarded Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) for his exceptional valour.

I am sure that when Major Sharma and D Company were fighting they had their own fears. When I think about our Army fighting wars, I always wonder what goes on in their minds, in their hearts, how scared are they, how steely is their resolution….and am reminded of Nelson Mandela’s words, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” All I can say is thank God we have an Army that conquers its fears and strikes terror in the hearts of it’s enemies.

A Soldier Never Gives Up…You Can Only Die Once, So Make Sure It’s Worth It

You can only die once, so make sure it’s worth it.

For a long time I have wanted to write about the bravery, never say die attitude of our soldiers. Two movies actually pushed me to start the process – American Sniper and Baby. Both these movies brought home the truth that there is something about a soldier that inspires, motivates and propels us along. George Patton said, “The soldier is the Army. No army is better than its soldiers. The Soldier is also a citizen. In fact, the highest obligation and privilege of citizenship is that of bearing arms for one’s country.”

I am sharing with you stories of those brave hearts who bore arms for India, fought to protect her and us, allowing us to enjoy our freedom today.

The First Braveheart – Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai

A Pakistani historian wrote, “Two tricks of fortune conspired to cheat Mohammed Ali Jinnah of Kashmir – the loss of a day and half of pillaging in Baramulla and the reckless bravery of one Indian army officer, who…made an attack on the invading forces as if he had the whole Army Division at his support.”

That Indian officer was Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai, the first Commanding Officer (CO) of 1 Sikh, who became a trail blazer in our first war with Pakistan.

Prior to the accession, Maharaja Hari Singh had realised that Pakistan had no intention of honoring the Standstill Agreement he had signed with them. October 1947 saw a revolt by deserters of J&K State Forces, aided by the Pakistani Army and the tribesmen from Northwest crossing the border into Kashmir. Pakistani raiders

Raiders killed people mercilessly.

Raiders killed people mercilessly.

captured the border town of Uri, Mahur and started pillaging Baramulla. The looting was beyond human imagination.

It is this attack on the people of Baramulla that distracted the Pakistani raiders from their objective of capturing Srinagar. That the situation was grim became an understatement. A country that had fought for independence from the British, was now fighting internally to save her citizens and territory. The acceptance of accession came with the responsibility to protecting people & property of J&K. The Instrument of Accession was signed on 26th October 1947 and the Indian Army landed in Srinagar on 27th October 1947.

Challenges that the Army faced were enormous:

1. Shortage of time and resources – mobilising & moving Army Units long distance in a short span of time was the first hurdle.

2. Difficult & unfamiliar terrain – Jammu & Kashmir was unfamiliar and difficult terrain for our troops. Unfamiliar because they had never battled there, difficult because it was winter and the severe cold climate had adverse effects on men & weapons.

3. Pressure of war – Indian Army did not have any time to prepare for a war of this kind. We had gained independence two months prior to this and were still sorting out internal political, social and economic issues. This was a firefight – either we fight now or we have nothing left to fight for was the message.

Under such circumstances, 1st Battalion Sikh Regiment (1 Sikh) was chosen to be air lifted & inducted into the burning

Troops landing in Dakotas.

Troops landing in Dakotas.

Valley. Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai was the CO who was ordered to take his Battalion from Gurgaon to Srinagar. His briefing at Army HQ prior to departure included just two points –

1. Uri was captured by the Raiders & Baramulla was being pillaged by them.

2. 1 Sikh was to protect the city of Srinagar and facilitate subsequent landing of Indian Army units at the airport.

Never in the history of warfare had such an airlift taken place…with so little notice and planning. 30 Dakota aircrafts with men, weapons and equipment landed. Reliable communication or intelligence was wishful thinking at that time and Lt Col Rai had to prioritise his tasks and devise methods of executing also.

Baramulla when pillaged by the enemy.

Baramulla when pillaged by the enemy.

Some wise man had said a long time ago, “Fortune favours the bold.” The CO took the bold decision of seeking, fighting & destroying the enemy in and around Baramulla, away from Srinagar city and airport. This tactical engagement of the Raiders was to earn more time for our troops to land. Adequate men were left behind to protect the air field and the rest of 1 Sikh moved to Baramulla on 28th Oct.  Lt Col Rai chose to occupy a delaying position between Patan & Baramulla to prevent the enemy from advancing towards Srinagar. A fierce battle ensued between 1 Sikh and the Raiders…more than a thousand Raiders against approximately 180 – 200 Indian soldiers. These bravehearts fought with disregard to their own safety and delayed the enemy movement towards Srinagar.

In this conflict, the Raiders presumably spotted the CO and a few men moving from one position to another and fired incessantly on them. The CO and those few men with him were all killed.

Indian soldiers fighting to save the Valley.

Indian soldiers fighting to save the Valley.

The courageous Lt Col Dewan Ranjit Rai inspired his men to give their best in the wake of enemy attack, even when they were out numbered. This “reckless bravery” helped us gain more time and allow more troops to land in Srinagar. As a result, we were able to protect the city also. Lt Col Rai became the first Commanding Officer to land in J&K after the accession, the first CO to achieve martyrdom and to be decorated with the Maha Vir Chakra.

His valour and sacrifice have inspired all ranks of the Sikh Regiment and the Regiment continues to be one of the highest decorated regiments of the Indian Army, with 72 Battle Honours, 15 Theatre Honours and 5 COAS Unit Citations besides two PVCs, 14 MVCs, 5 KCs, 67 Vir Chakras and 1596 other gallantry awards, The history of the Regiment spanning 154 years is replete with heroic deeds of bravery and courage which have few parallels if any.

 

Fallen But Not Forgotten…A Tribute To Our Unsung Heroes!

Lonely I was when I stood staring at the sky Our heroes

Had a gun in my hand, was too afraid to cry

Fought bitter battles and never lived to tell

How at the altar of freedom, my body fell

My soul searches for reasons as to why I died

Did I save my people, had I tried?

Do they remember me, my deeds, my name

Are they proud of me or did I bring them shame 

My battered body stood testimony to my fate

My heart had stopped in a battle brought about by hate

I had screamed in pain, and shivered with fright

But before I died, I did put up a fight 

Remember me, my beloved country

It was I, my men, who brought you victory

I fought to the last bullet in my gun

I was a soldier, I was your son.

fallen but not forgottenThe dead soldiers do not speak…yet they are heard in the still houses of people who care for them. They are shrouded in a silence that speaks for them, a silence that mocks us…the living. This silence talks to me…what does it tell me? It says they have done what they could but until it is finished it is not done. The silence says they have given their lives but until it is finished no one can know what their lives gave. The same silence throws at me the truth that their deaths are not theirs, they are ours and they will mean what we make them. Whether their lives and their deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing they cannot say. It is you and I who must say this. Finally, the silence says they were young, they died young, so remember them.

Remembering them was exactly what happened last weekend in Bangalore. Amidst the election fervor and Samarpanacampaigning, Samarpana,a social initiative by a group of students of PES University paid tribute and homage to the fallen soldiers of the Indian Army. Samarpana is the brainchild of students from PES College of Engineering and was started after the 26/11 bombing in Mumbai. The thought behind starting this social initiative was very noble. The founders felt very strongly about the martyred soldiers who died protecting the citizens of this country…their question was, “What happens to the families of these soldiers?”

A seed was sown in 2009/2010 with the students taking the ownership of making this a success. In the last four years more than 60 families have been identified and felicitated for the sacrifice they have made. The project works on facilitating basic documentation processes, helping them get connected to medical facilities, children’s scholarship, employment or self employment opportunities for the widows or parents of these unsung heroes.

This year I had a chance to interact with 16 families who had made the supreme sacrifice. It was an emotional two days where I got to hear from various family members the heroism of their fallen soldiers. I also saw the ugly side of what happens to the families thereafter, especially if they are in remote rural places. Samarpana works to ease the pain of neglect.

World war IIA one of it’s kind project, Samarpana is poised to grow and touch more & more lives across India. It’s a shining example of how selflessly the human heart can give if we as individuals decide to. I had the privilege of meeting an old lady whose husband had died serving the Indian Army in World War II. She had been married less than a year whenshe lost her husband. It was also very emotional to interact withanother lady who lost her husband in Kargil, the highest battleground in the world.She also was married for just two years when tragedy struck their family. What was heartening to see was that these people were given the basic support from their families & government.

What they need today is also social acceptance at multiple levels, to become part of a community that recognizes their agony, can empthasize with them.

My dream & heartfelt prayer is to see such initiatives in other colleges and institutions across our country.

I was also forced to think about how many people in our country actually
even think of our armed forces. I know the stereo typical impression
civilians have about the armed forces and the life they live. It never
ceases to amaze me about how these impressions have carried on for years.
It also shows how much awareness is created about our defence services. This needs to be a collective effort from all concerned – the government,
the defence forces themselves and people like us who are closely
associated with the armed forces.

As we continue to enjoy our freedom, our borders that are guarded by these unsung heroes remain intact. We sleep
well at night only because of the security we have. For those who find it hard to believe, you should talk to
people of war ravaged countries about freedom and value of security. After all, what is expected of us…

When you see a soldier
Be sure to shake his or her hand,
And let that soldier know you’re grateful
For the protection the military affords our land

But most of all express your thanks
For every soldier’s personal sacrifice.
In order to serve our country,
They risked their entire lives.