The 1971 War showcased the highest standards of India’s military and the unparalleled courage of the men that dawned the olive green. Pakistan opened up the western front to divert Indian troops from the eastern front of East Pakistan, which eventually went on to become Bangladesh. The battles in the western sector saw great challenges being posed to India’s security and territorial integrity. The Battle of Basantar is widely considered to be one of the fiercest tank battles to take place between the two countries.
Pakistan wanted to capture the Shakargarh area in hopes to cut off the link roads between the Indian Army and its bases in Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. Gaining control over the area would allow Pakistan to easily launch an offensive into J&K, prolong the war on the eastern front and eventually use it as a bargaining chip with India. Pakistan had deployed I Corps of the Pakistani Army, including three infantry divisions, one armed division, armed brigade artillery and support units along with five reserve divisions for the offensive. This resulted in a near parity with the formations of the Indian Army’s Western Command, as a number of formations had been allocated to the eastern theatre.
Map of the Western Sector, 1971
The Indian Army had deployed its I Corps, which included three infantry divisions, two Armored brigades, two independent artillery brigades and the engineer brigade. Their objective was to bridge the Basantar river and secure the Shakargarh sector. The initial push was made by the 54th infantry and the 16 Armored Brigade, led by Lieutenant General Walter Anthony Gustavo ‘WAG’ Pinto, when they encountered mine fields and resistance from the Pakistani side.
That was when the 9 Engineer Regiment, also known as the “Thambi Regiment”, came into the picture and played a pivotal role in the battle. They were given the task of clearing minefields and laying an operational track to allow the troops to advance forward. The soldiers that undertake tasks of building bridges, repairing roads and laying and clearing minefields, like the Thambis of 9 Engineer Regiment, are referred to as sappers. The sappers endured heavy artillery shelling, forging paths in areas including Barkhania, Chakra, Thakurdwara and Lohra and were given the Battle Honour “Basantar” and Theatre Honour “Punjab” for their heroic exploits in the battle.
One of the heroes of the tank battle in Basantar was 2nd Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal of 17 Poona Horse. The regiment was in command during the battle and its primary objective was to establish a bridgehead across the Basantar River. A bridgehead is a position taken by an army on enemy land, from where it can launch more effective attacks. The unit had established the bridgehead on the evening of December 15 but the engineers were still halfway into the task, with enemy territory being heavily mined. The next morning, Patton tanks from Pakistan’s 13th Lancers launched their first counterattack on 17 Poona Horse at Jarpal. While the commander of the unit called for reinforcements, Khetarpal responded to the attack with his Centurion tanks from A squadron. The first attack was repelled by the Centurions but the Pakistanis were able to break through Indian defenses after launching two more attacks.
2nd Lt Arun Khetarpal PVC
Khetarpal launched right into the Pakistani attacks and was able to destroy 3-4 of the 13th Lancers’ Pattons before being hit by some enemy fire that resulted in injuries to him and damage to his tank. However, despite being ordered by a superior to abandon his burning tank the 21-year-old officer refused to do so. Khetarpal gave his famous last words on the radio and told his superior, “No sir, I will not abandon my tank. My main gun is still working and I will get these b*stards”. Khetarpal kept on fighting and shot the last tank that was merely 75 yards from him before taking a hit from Pakistani Major Khwaja Naser’s tank, which killed him. 2nd Lt Khetarpal was awarded the Param Vir Chakra posthumously for his valor and courage displayed during this tank battle which helped the Indian Army win the Battle of Basantar.
Another tale of courage seen on the battlefield in Basantar was that of Major (later Colonel) Hoshiar Singh. The officer from the Grenadiers Regiment was also tasked to establish a bridgehead across the Basantar river and capture Jarpal on December 15th. Major Singh with his C Company faced intense shelling from the fortified positions of the Pakistanis and engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat. The enemy launched three counterattacks, two of which were supported by armour, the following day. Despite facing heavy enemy fire, Major Singh motivated his troops, went from trench-to-trench and led his company to fend off the attacks while inflicting casualties on the enemy.
Major (Later Colonel) Hoshiar Singh PVC
On December 17, Major Singh led another attack with his battalion and was injured but kept on motivating his troops to fight. After an enemy shell landed near a Medium Machine Gun pit and injured the crew, Major Singh himself manned the weapon and inflicted casualties to the Pakistani side even though he himself was seriously injured. The battle ended in the Pakistanis retreating, leaving behind 85 dead including their commanding officer and three other officers. Major Singh was awarded the Param Vir Chakra for displaying personal bravery and dauntless courage with complete disregard for his safety. He is one of the few soldiers in the Indian military to be a living recipient of the medal.
The Battle of Basantar was an integral victory for India in the 1971 War and remains as an everlasting example of the courage, resilience and excellence of the Indian Army. The liberation of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh through the well-planned and properly executed military action will forever be a reason of pride for Indians for generations.
India's Wars: A Military History, 1947-1971 - Arjun Subramaniam
The Brave: Param Vir Chakra Stories - Rachna Bisht Rawat