Battle Honour ‘Fatehpur’: A War Veteran’s Memories Of 11 December 1971
As India marks 49 years of the 1971 war, a war veteran describes a fierce battle that was fought at the western front on the intervening night of 11-12 December.
Come December 11, our defence forces celebrate Fatehpur day - marking a key victory that saw the Indian Army capture this crucial post between Amritsar and Lahore in the 1971 India-Pakistan war.
For the 8 Sikh Light Infantry it was its first tryst with bloodshed, just five years into its raising.
The 8 Sikh LI was entrusted with capturing the diamond-shaped Fatehpur post that was fortified on four sides with mammoth Dussi Bundhs. Even at costs of many of its men, this young battalion made history winning the heroic battle that won them the Battle Honour “Fathepur”.
Among the surviving heroes of this battle is I N Rai, who was then 2nd Lieutenant.
All of 22, this young soldier trembled as he prepared to bury 42 bodies of his brothers in arms. Sorrow, anger, pain, and many other nameless emotions flooded him as he saw his fellow soldiers lying down covered in the national flag.
Just then he heard an elderly voice say ‘dukhi na ho sahabji. Badey bhagyashali hai ye. Aise goli chaathi main liye, tiranga odhkar oopar jaarahe hain. Aisa mauka sabko nahin milta’ (Do not be sad. These are fortunate - To go with bullets in their chest and wrapped in the tricolour. Not everyone gets a chance like this). It was an old Subedar Jodha Singh giving him the courage to lay to rest those who had until a few days ago been ‘waiting for war’.
Of the 46 men martyred that night, two were his closest friends - 2nd Lieutenant H P Nayyar and Captain Karam Singh - with whom he had the ‘hot meal’ before India went to war with Pakistan on the night of 11 December 1971. It turned out to be their ‘last supper’ together.
The images are all vivid in the eyes of Brigadier (Retd.) I N Rai and come alive as he takes us down memory lane in his living room in his house in Mangaluru, almost five decades later.
On the 49th anniversary of the Indo-Pak Bangladesh war, Brigadier Rai recounts for Swarajya the war that was through the people who fought it.
After completing training from OTA Chennai, I N Rai was posted to the 8th Sikh Light infantry in Jalandhar and was greeted by a host of Sardars in May 1970. Finding himself among soldiers who spoke only chaste Punjabi, this southern Indian, whose dream to join the army had finally come true, wouldn't have imagined that in 16 months time he would be part of an event that would redefine the history of the subcontinent.
With Mujibur Rehman winning the elections in the still-united Pakistan, and the atrocities in East Pakistan that had lakhs of refugees flee to India, the political situation in Islamabad and Dhaka had turned fluid by September 1971.
“Which is when they asked us to mobilise, leave the peace station in Jalandhar and move to Amritsar - next to Rabi river - we were the reserve battalion for the entire division,” explains Rai, taking us back to where it all started from.
But staying put for the next few months was like tying horses in the stable, he muses. Although, unlike other battalions that had their areas defined, the reserve battalion was required to recce the entire stretch - from Dera Baba Nanak, Ajnala, Ramdas, Fastegarh Chudiya - the whole sector.
This is when the Commanding Officer took him out of Charlie Company and made him his intelligence officer. The battalion spent the next three months there. Since their task was not to start an offensive operation in the Western Sector - although by then the Indian Army had entered Bangladesh - they were posted there to only stop any misadventure by Pakistan. “But staying put was making us desperate thinking ‘ladai nai ho rahi’” he laughs, narrating how the battalion brought in the evening of 3 December 1971.
Around six o’clock, on 3 December, as they were seated in their bunkers, the men heard the sound of fighter jets flying over their head.
“In those days we could see the night lights of Lahore where the sky meets the earth from where we were. And suddenly there were flares. The artillery had started firing. The whistling sound of shells flying over our heads meant they were not falling on us but going over. We all got ready and said ‘thank god the war has begun’. Some of us even ran out to the officers' mess in the bunkers and said let us have one scotch whiskey”.
When they asked the mess havaldar for a glass of scotch each, he quizzed ‘kyun sahab’., ‘Cause we are celebrating that the war has finally begun’ they valiantly told him.
But that it would end up taking away many of those that raised a toast that night was not a thought that crossed their minds.
In moments though, ”we saw their jets return. They were being chased by our aircrafts as their plans had been foiled. They wanted to attack our air force on the ground itself but our aircrafts were prepared and ruined their plans of a blitzkrieg,”.
But in the days that followed, Pakistan managed to capture certain weak areas pushing back the BSF and other forces. They also managed to capture the Fatehpur post - that was giving them a vantage position given their location in the plains.
The 8 Sikh LI now had its task cut out - to capture Fatehpur back - not just the Indian post but the Pakistani one too.
This was a post the battalion had never seen. But the order was there - By 12 December 1971, Fatehpur post had to be captured and the enemy thrown beyond the Ravi.
“Intelligence kept changing because the reconnaissance that was sent out initially said there was one platoon of Pakistani soldiers and one platoon of Mujahid, then it became two platoons of regulars.”
Pakistani soldiers had attacked a post that was manned by non-Sikh battalion troops. But by the time they could capture it and settle down, there was a commando platoon of 8 Sikh LI, led by ‘dare devil young officer’ Second Lieutenant J J Singh, that was lying in there along the Dussi Bund that attacked them - leaving them shell shocked.
There was a daring counter-attack that left Rai’s good friend 2 Lt JJ Singh wounded. Recollecting some of the earliest incidents that left a strong mark on him, Rai recalls one where Naik Subedar Surjit Singh pulled a machine gun of a Pakistani soldier and gave him one kick on his head. ‘He held a barrel which was firing, he went and snatched it and kicked the Pakistani officer on his head’.
Another havaldar was hurt such that his full intestine was gutting out. ‘We reached there just then, shoved his intestine back into his stomach, removed his turban and wrapped it around his stomach and evacuated him,‘.
Meanwhile, ‘I was watching this Surjit Singh, he was walking around as if nothing had happened, busy instructing the boys to pick this and that. But I saw something was wrong with him. Then I suddenly saw that his thumb and three fingers were missing - they were burnt and singed - which means there was no bleeding - like sutures- and the last finger was hanging with the skin - but that fellow was not even aware that it had hit him - he was just going about his duties”.
And the man whose intestines they shoved inside too miraculously survived. ‘These were the first things I saw,’ he reminisces.
And then came the D Day - 11 December. The H-Hour was 2300 hours. As they prepared for the attack later that night, they had their ‘hot meal’ at the assembly area.
The truck with the hot meal arrived. ‘Nayyar being the junior-most brought the dal in the mess tin.’
Nayyar who was in Bravo, and Karam Singh who was in Alpha sat with Rai under a tree in the darkness and had the ‘hot meal’ - a mess tin full of dal and a lump of chapatis. The three had shared a room back in Jalandhar.
‘We knew we were going to attack in the next three hours but we never spoke or thought of life and death and the like,’ he muses. Post the meal, the trio shook hands and they joined their respective companies while Rai joined his commanding officer.
The battle that ensued that night was a fierce one. What started at 11 pm on 11 December went on till the wee hours of 12 December with the battalion suffering huge casualties.
‘It was a hand to hand fight, in the hour of darkness. The para illumination by the Pakistanis had the whole area illuminated, there was dust smoke, shelling screaming. This was the first stage,’ he explains, as he takes us through the hours moment by moment.
Both Bravo and Charlie teams who were leading the assault had suffered huge casualties. Rai was behind them with the CO followed by the Alpha and Delta company. If both of these would not succeed, ‘it was going to be a failure. And a failure is the biggest insult for a soldier. He will be disgraced,’ he says.
Rai then chose to lead and pull up the fallen soldiers. ”The company commander had fallen sick. I said no falling back, just follow me. I was flashing the torch on their faces, kicking them to move but we had to see it through. The para flares were giving a ghostly shadow to the ghastly scene around,” he describes.
The hand to hand fight went on up to 1.30 in the night. “You are stabbing someone on a bayonet, hurling a grande. Somebody is shouting ‘ya Ali ya ali’ and cursing in Urdu. But finally, we went and captured the objective and so did Bravo followed by Alpha and Delta,” he says reliving all the moments that made that fateful night.
Red Red Red
Rai recounts the tale of yet another soldier whose sacrifice and daredevilry he says was characteristic of a Sikh soldier.
‘Alpha company had one daredevil named Major Tirath Singh. When he reached the head of the diamond after capturing it he was left with just about 15 men - others were staggering behind or lost.
Pakistanis also didn’t want to give up. It was about 3 in the morning - they launched a counter-attack - as he was the closest to the Pakistanis - he repulsed them, they fell back - after half an hour again they regrouped and attacked him - he was left with just six men.
At this point, Major Tirath Singh knew that if he were to withdraw at that point for the head of the diamond, the balance would be lost.
In those days, explains Rai, there was a thing known as ‘red red red’, which is no longer part of the Indian army operations. ‘Red red red’ meant you asking the artillery to fire on you - ‘you give your position and say here I am at the head of the diamond and say 'fire on me' - because I am having ten men but I am surrounded by 50 enemy soldiers which means if one of us die - at least five die there.’
Getting nostalgic about Singh’s family back in Jalandhar, with two sons who were then aged four and two and his newborn daughter, Rai reminisces the sacrifice that Singh made with utmost pride and honour. Even though the higher commanders asked him to reconsider his decision but he said loud and clear ‘I am asking you red red red’.
So the artillery guns fired on him. And it is during this firing that one of the artillery splinters hit him and he died.
It is because of such men who dared to die that we are sitting here to tell the tale, muses Rai remembering the action-packed night.
‘There is no greater honour for a Sardar than to die on the battlefield. It is true for every warrior but more so for our Sikh soldiers,’ he adds quoting words of Guru Gobind Singh, which, during Rai’s journey with the Sikh Regiment and to this day, fuel his urge to live and die for the nation. ‘Sura so pehchaniye jo lare din ke heth, purja purja kat mare kabhun na chhade khet,’ - the real hero is the one who fights for the weak and even if his limbs be severed bit by hit, he flees not the battlefield’.
In the Line of Duty
As casualties began to rise, the CO sent an officer to get the medical supplies. Recollecting the unfortunate incident where a nursing assistant, KC Mathew was burnt alive, Rai narrates how the entire 3-tonne truck carrying the medical supplies was blown up as it came on an anti-tank mine.
‘The doctor was thrown out of the driver's cabin - his leg was all shattered. The havaldars were all thrown out - one nursing assistant Mathews went up and fell down back in the truck - and the truck got fire - so he was burnt while being semi-conscious. So many soldiers died because medical assistance could not reach them in time,” he laments.
The next morning, he had to do the duty of paying last respects to those who had fallen in the line of duty and the first sheets he lifted revealed the bodies of his two roommates.
“Nayyar was leading the men into an MMG bunker that hit his head slicing it like a watermelon. There was no injury anywhere else on his body. But Karam Singh's body was in two pieces as he was hit directly by an anti-tank gun.”
For Rai it was the beginning of a long and action-packed career that saw him move from being a second lieutenant to a major to retiring as a brigadier. He also was an instructor at both the premier military institutes in the country, led various troops of soldiers in different parts of the country from Nagaland to Jammu, including leading the same Sikh battalion in its 25th year of raising as its Commanding officer, and was part of the peace keeping force in Sri Lanka, which is when he suffered massive injuries, being in the ICU for three months, among others.
To this day, he is involved with inspiring youth to join the armed forces, take up defence for a career, and is disappointed that the place he comes from has not many youngsters taking pride in wanting to don the olive green.
To those that cite ‘risk to life’ as a deterrent to joining the forces, he says, there were family members who had said ‘aye sayyera popey’ when he announced his decision to join the army back in 1968, implying he was going to the army to get killed.
But 52 years later, while all those who sneered have left, including his ’siblings who chose safer terrain’, he still is alive and kicking and roaring to do whatever it takes to inspire those that wish to live for the nation, to not fear dying for it. ‘For there can be no better death than that of a soldier’, he signs off.
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