Lt Col Dilbag Singh Dabas (Retd)
Lahore is about 15 miles from the Attari border. With Ichhogil canal running almost parallel to the border and being a formidable water obstacle, during Operation ‘Cactus Lily’, the Indian Army chose to remain on the defensive in this sector. Accordingly, in defence of the Amritsar Sector, 54 Infantry Brigade of 15 Infantry Division was given the responsibility of not allowing enemy ingress along the border from Pulkanjri Border Out Post (BOP) to the BOP ahead of Ranian defended locality. The brigade linked up with 96 Infantry Brigade in the north and 38 Infantry Brigade in the south of the GT road.
On December 3, 1971, just before last light, the PAF simultaneously attacked forward Indian airfields. At last light, all BOPs on the divisional front were shelled and later subjected to simultaneous attacks. The BOPs ahead of the ditch-cum-bund fortifications along the Attari drain were also attacked. Many BOPs, including Rattan Khurd, Mulakot and Pulkanjri on the Indian side of the border, were run over. Only the one at Ranian could not be pushed back.
The Indian Enclave at Ranian, south-east of Ravi-International Border (IB) confluence, provided depth to Amritsar and was designated as the vital ground to be held at all costs. During the 1971 war, the Pakistan army was desperate to capture Ranian as it dominated the western and northern areas. Its capture could facilitate the advance to Amritsar. Pakistani troops could cross the Ravi river with armour and make a dash for Amritsar, unhindered. Such was the importance of holding on to Ranian. As per 54 Infantry Brigade Operation Order, 9 Punjab battalion, supported by a squadron of tanks, was tasked to deny Pakistan ingress into Ranian.
Right from December 3 to the ceasefire on the 17th, the Ranian enclave was the scene of determined attacks and counter-attacks. During the 15-day war, ‘C’ Company of 9 Punjab, under the command of Major Basdev Singh Mankotia, not only blunted repeated attacks onto Ranian but also captured a sizeable chunk of Pakistan territory before declaration of ceasefire.
Basdev Singh, a Himachali Dogra from Sidhpurgarh village in present-day Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, was commissioned into 9 Punjab, also known as the ‘Fighting Ninth’, on December 11, 1962; two months earlier, on October 10, Major Mahender Singh Chowdhary from the same battalion, with a meager strength of a Company minus protective patrol, had foiled three successive Chinese attacks in overwhelming strength north of Nam Ka Chu river in NEFA and most deservedly earned the Maha Vir Chakra, the first during the 1962 India-China war.
Nine years later, Basdev, now a Major, successfully emulated his senior.
Battle of Ranian
While occupying a screen position between Ranian and the IB, ‘C’ Company under Major Mankotia took on the might of an infantry battalion (Pakistan’s 18 Frontier Force) and foiled repeated attacks on Ranian. During one of the hard slogging battles fought and won, Major Mankotia, for his conspicuous act of gallantry, was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra. The battle account reads:
“Major Basdev Singh Mankotia of the 9th Punjab Battalion was holding a screen position with his company between Ranian and the International Border with Pakistan. Between 4th and 5th December, Pakistan’s 18 Frontier Force attacked his position seven times, all the time supported by the armour. With Major Mankotia in the forefront inspiring his men to hold firm, all the attacks were repulsed with heavy casualties on the attackers. When a portion of the screen position was over-run by the enemy, Major Mankotia hastily organised his men and led a determined counter-attack from the left flank on the cry ‘Durge Mata ki Jai’ and regained the lost ground, although at a cost.
During the successful counter-attack, he was seriously wounded in both the shoulders but seeing the importance of regaining the ground, he refused to get evacuated and continued inspiring and leading his men till the enemy was completely driven out of the screen position.”
Along with Major Mankotia, Second Lieutenant Joginder Singh Jaswal, the Company Second-in-Command, and Havildar Des Raj, the platoon Havildar, too, went beyond the call of duty in foiling the repeated attacks by the enemy. Both were awarded the Vir Chakra.
The legendary village on a high ground close to the GT road and the International Border was held by the BSF Company Headquarters before the start of the war. On December 3, when Pakistan launched surprise attacks all along the western border, the BSF elements from Pulkanjri BOP were withdrawn overnight since the feature was not considered defensible by the BSF. Absence of Indian troops made Pulkanjri a low-hanging fruit. Militarily, Pakistan needed it and on the night of December 4, Pakistan’s 15th Punjab battalion simply plucked it, sat on and slowly developed it into a formidable, all-defying, defended locality.
Pulkanjri was located within the territorial jurisdiction of 2 Sikh and the battalion decided to recapture it at the earliest. 2 Sikh was defending a frontage of almost 9 km and without denuding a portion of it, could not muster enough men to attack and recapture Pulkanjri. Also, on December 9, Pakistan had unsuccessfully attempted the capture of Dhanoya Kalan high ground held by 2 Sikh and such a threat in future could not be overlooked. However, the recapture buzzword kept doing the rounds among all ranks, along with planning and bold execution.
Finally, a lightning commando raid was planned by a platoon strength of the fittest men to be led by Captain PS Toor. The Commando Platoon thoroughly rehearsed approach to the objective, crossing of mine fields and obstacles and bunker-bursting drills and waited for the word ‘go’. But despite repeated assurances by the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel SC Puri, about the success of the operation, the clearance did not come from the controlling headquarters. Although it took some days but the word spread among the jawans that defending Pulkanjri was 2 Sikh’s responsibility; however, when the war began, ‘dushman’ captured it and is sitting on it. No Khalsa of 2 Sikh could digest this humiliation. A silent anger was simmering.
Sensing that the war may not drag for long, and after getting frustrated having waited for long, Subedar Major (SM) Kartar Singh, a veteran of 1947-48, 1962 and 1965 wars, walked up to the CO’s bunker and spoke his heart out: “Sahab bahadar, Pulkanjri painda tan 2 Sikh de ilaqe wich hai par kabza karin baitha dushman. Beshak uthhon BSF daud gayi si par aun wali naslan eh zaroor kehan geean ki 2 Sikh de sardar ki kar rahe si?” The CO’s reply, having not received orders for the recapture, further agitated the SM, who continued, “Sahab ji, aadar mangvao, sarian companian hamla bolan layi valanteer hain. Paltan di izzat da sawal hai. Ceasefire de baad kuchh nahion hona.”
The much-awaited order to recapture Pulkanjri came at 5.45 pm on December 17 with just 2 hours and 15 minutes remaining for the unilateral ceasefire to be effective. With time at utmost premium, a quick counter-attack plan was made and artillery fire plan coordinated. ‘C’ Company, under the command of Major Narain Singh Koak, was given the task (recapture of Pulkanjari) to be completed before first light the next day.
After half-an-hour bombardment by the divisional artillery, the attack by the ‘C’ Company began at 1900 hours on the jaikara (battle cry) “Bole So Nihal — Sat Sri Akal”. But the jaikara was answered by the enemy by opening up all the automatic weapons on the attacking troops.
Due to a preponderance of artillery fire from both sides and the enemy also firing star shells, the battleground was fully illuminated, enabling the defenders to engage the attackers with aimed fire. The attackers out in open, despite all possible odds, kept charging under covering fire by the guns of 175 Field Regiment and battalion’s 3-inch mortars under Capt Toor. Just when the men were 200 yards short of the objective, and guns and mortars had stopped firing to cater to the safety of attacking troops, two medium machine guns of the enemy opened up with devastating fire, causing unimaginable dead and wounded.
At that critical juncture, to stop any more casualties and also to help maintain the momentum of the attack, Lance Naik Shangara Singh, in a rare display of courage, albeit at the highest cost, silenced both the machine guns, paving the way for his platoon to charge and drag the enemy out from the bunkers.
Shangara Singh belonged to Chola Sahib in Amritsar district, a village that still has at least one, some even two, faujis, mostly in Sikh Regiment, in most of the houses. Shangara was enrolled in 2 Sikh in January 1964.
2 Sikh, one of the oldest Indian battalions, was originally raised as 15 Loodiana Sikhs in 1846 and was commended for the role it played during the First World War. It was given the name 2 Sikh in 1922 when the Indian regiments were numbered. During the Second World War, 2 Sikh fought in North Africa, Greece and Italy and won battle honours Mersa Matruh, Coriano, SAN Mariano, Poggio SAN Giovanni and Greece; a very rare for a battalion to have earned so many honours.
Shangara Singh, however, was destined to serve the battle-hardened battalion only for seven years; nonetheless, his short innings ended gloriously for he earned the Maha Vir Chakra for the battalion. He was most ably joined by Havildar Gurdev Singh, the platoon Havildar who earned the Vir Chakra for his bravery of a high order.
“On December 17, 1971, Lance Naik Shangara Singh of 2nd Sikh Battalion was Second-in-Command of a section in the forward platoon during the attack on Pulkanjri village. While closing onto the objective, the platoon in which he was serving came under heavy enemy fire, particularly from two machine guns on the east flank. Many jawans fell and the attack could not proceed further.
To save the life of his comrades as also to maintain the momentum of the attack, Shangara, with utter disregard for personal safety, made a dash through the minefield to the first machine gun post and hurled a grenade inside the bunker, successfully silencing the machine gun. Then he charged toward the second machine gun post, leapt over the loophole and succeeded in physically snatching the gun. In doing so, he received a burst of fire in his abdomen, but undeterred, he continued to hold the machine gun. The enemy was completely unnerved and the firing crew fled from the bunker, leaving the machine gun barrel in Shangara’s hands.
Elimination of these two machine guns enabled the platoon to dash forward and take on the enemy in fierce hand-to-hand combat. The hard slogging match continued for over an hour after which the enemy withdrew leaving behind its dead and wounded. Immediately, Shangara was pulled back for evacuation; however, due to excessive loss of blood he succumbed to his injuries.”
The battle to recapture Pulkanjri was among the fiercest fought and decisively won on the western front. The success cost 2 Sikh dearly but the grit and determination of its officers and men was suitably acknowledged; the battalion was awarded one MVC, one Vir Chakra and four Sena Medals (gallantry), including the one to Major Narain Singh Koak.
Along with Lance Naik Shangara Singh and Havildar Gurdev Singh, many diehard Khalsas of 2 Sikh went beyond the call of duty, some even offering the supreme sacrifice and unknowingly replaying the part the battalion played six years earlier; in the 1965 war, it captured the most formidable, all-defying, ‘Raja Post’ in Poonch sector. The Commanding Officer, Lt Col NN Khanna, was killed in action while leading the assault. And the iconic phrase coined by 2 Sikh, ‘Raja (CO) ditta par Raja (objective) litta,’ speaks volumes. In 1971, 2 Sikh repeated the feat by recapturing yet again the all-defying Pulkanjri against all possible odds, and at the shortest possible notice. This time the fallen Raja was a Lance Naik, Second-in-Command of a section of 10 men.
And the brave men of XV Ludhiana Sikhs, the Raja Battalion, lived up to the prayer of their 10th Guru and the regimental motto ‘Nischaya kar apni jeet karoon’.
Although not during the battle of Pulkanjri, but five months later, when Operation ‘Cactus Lily’ was still on, Naib Subedar Gian Singh of 2 Sikh posthumously earned the Vir Chakra when in May 1972 he led a fighting patrol and thwarted another attempt by the Pakistan army to wrest Pulkanjri from the Indian Army’s firm grip.
Pulkanjri, with the Unesco heritage tag, does have a readable history behind it although the tales and legends woven around do not match the exalted status of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
It would be worthwhile for Capt Amarinder Singh, an ex-officer from 2 Sikh and also having served with the battalion during the 1965 war, to consider changing the name to Pul Shangara to honour the Sardar who sacrificed his life to ensure that the heritage site remains with India.
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