50 years of the 1971 war

The visionary warrior Sagat Singh

The visionary warrior Sagat Singh

Maj Gen Randhir Sinh (Retd)

Some people are born to lead, but even these born warrior leaders must learn professionalism in modern warfare before they can successfully lead men in battle. Sagat was one such man. He joined the Bikaner State Forces as an other rank and within a short time was promoted as an officer in Sardul Light Infantry (now 19 Rajput) just before it moved to Iraq for war. By the time the unit had returned to India, after four years, he had been nominated to attend the Staff College at Quetta. What qualities made this man, who was more comfortable speaking in the vernacular, achieve these heights?

Dhaka had been surrounded in one of the swiftest and greatest feats of arms in less than 16 days. Lt Gen Sagat’s vision, which he kept close to his chest, saw him use all resources innovatively, not giving up on his aim and relentlessly pursuing, bypassing and defeating the enemy

Sagat had this constant yearning to learn and achieve. He always volunteered for any professional course allotted to the battalion. Such was his ability that he was made to do the Staff Course at Haifa; maybe the only Indian officer to be nominated to do two staff courses. Sagat commanded two battalions of 3rd Gorkha Rifles and was serving in Army HQ as a Colonel, when the COAS picked him up in an unprecedented step to command 50 Para Brigade. A normal infantry officer never got such an appointment. Sagat did his jumps quickly and got down to training his brigade when he was asked to move to Belgaum for the liberation of Goa.

The Para Brigade was allotted the subsidiary axis in the north from Sawantwadi, while the main body, consisting of 17 Infantry Division, moved from Belgaum, across the Sahyadris, from East to West, into Goa. Sagat had no bridging equipment but had four main rivers to cross in his advance. The Army Commander (later COAS), Lt Gen JN Choudhury, had little expectation of the Para Brigade achieving anything much, but Sagat bet Brig DK Palit, the Director of Military Operation, that he would be in Panjim first. The stakes were a drink at the Mandovi Hotel bar.

On the face of it, Sagat had little chance of making it first, pitted against the resources of a division. On top of that, he had only two Para battalions and was allotted an under-equipped and under-trained 2 Sikh LI only at their concentration area in Belgaum. Sagat was a hard task master and did his best to get the battalion into shape.

The advance commenced on December 18. The Para Brigade would move directly south and link up with 17 Infantry Division at Pillem, while 2 Sikh LI, with an armoured squadron, was to move on a parallel axis to Mapuca, which was opposite Panjim and separated by the Mandovi river. It was the intention of the Division Commander to enter the Portuguese capital with his Division. Sagat had this great quality of not breathing down his subordinates’ necks and he allowed the Para battalions to use their heads while he spent time with 2 Sikh LI, encouraging them to accelerate their advance. The Paras crossed three rivers through ad hoc means and kept on advancing till nightfall, when Sagat called a halt as 17 Infantry Division had still not linked up. By then, straining at the leash, 1 Para had captured Ponda, an objective of the Division, and 2 Para was on the road to Panjim.

50 Para Brigade had ringed the capital from three directions. 17 Infantry Division was still out of communication when the Army Commander decided that night to allow 50 Para Brigade to recommence its advance. That was enough. 2 Sikh LI, emboldened as never before, crossed the Mandovi in the morning and entered Panjim, while 1 Para made a dash and captured the seat of government. Brig Palit flew down to Goa and paid for the drink with Sagat.

Sagat’s grand achievement catapulted him as a cynosure. He had this unique ability of understanding a situation more rapidly than anyone else and then acting on it decisively. For him, the fog of war dispersed more rapidly. He would remain cool and calculating despite the fluidity of the battle. He was anything but orthodox and imbued his command with his confidence, daring and courage and allowed them their initiative.

After his NDC Course, Sagat was posted as the Brigadier General Staff at HQ 11 Corps. Just before the war, he was posted as the Division Commander of 17 Mountain Division, deployed on the Sikkim Watershed.

In those days, troops deployed on the Watershed acted as a trip wire against any Chinese ingress and carried out delay and warning up to the main defences which were in depth. Sagat realised that giving up the Watershed would entail a most difficult operation to re-occupy it. It would also enable the enemy to roll down more easily towards Gangtok. He gave orders that the Watershed would not be given up and set about shoring up its defences. He was soon put to the test as the Chinese started pushing the defences in solidarity with Pakistan. Sagat’s orders were firm. Troops will hold on regardless. The neighbouring formation, as per orders, gave up Jelep La and deployed main defences in the depth. Since then the Chinese hold Jelep La and India has not been able to recover it. Despite instructions, Sagat denied the Watershed and that’s why we continue to hold Nathu La and Chola.

Bent on preventing the continuous Chinese pinpricks at Nathu La, Sagat decided to lay a fence on the Watershed. He took his superiors on board and a single strand of barbed wire was laid on August 18, 1967, despite physical interference and intimidation by the Chinese. The fence was being turned into a formidable obstacle. On September 11, as work commenced, without warning the Chinese opened devastating small arms fire. There were heavy casualties and Sagat asked for permission to open artillery fire. As it was not forthcoming, he gave the orders nevertheless. Our domination of the Watershed enabled the observation posts to look deep into Chinese territory. Heavy casualties were caused, and it took some time for them to recover.

Shortly after the situation stabilised, Sagat was posted as General Officer Commanding, 101 Area, with responsibility to counter the insurgency in Mizoram. Counter-insurgency operations multiplied with small teams to the fore. Junior officers were allowed to exercise initiative and take responsibility for operations. Sagat carried out a parallel initiative in the resettlement of villages as well as winning the hearts and minds of people. By the time he got posted out, Sagat had ensured that the back of insurgency had been broken.

Sagat was posted as General Officer Commanding, 4 Corps, in December 1970 and was awarded a Param Vashist Seva Medal (PVSM) on January 26. Meanwhile, East Pakistan was in turmoil. There was no alternative but to exercise the military option. This could only be done, on account of climate and terrain constraints, in December. Sagat got to know of the role he was to play in July 1971. Operational Instructions were issued in August. He moved to Tripura in September. He was allocated the counter-insurgency formations of 8 and 57 Mountain Division and was also allotted his reserve, 23 Mountain Division. Several ad hoc forces were created, prominent among them being K Force, which was to play a prominent role in the advance to Chittagong. To create administrative maintenance areas in a short time for such a large force under the most hostile circumstances was a major achievement.

The initial task required 4 Corps to advance up to the Meghna river line, capture Chittagong, if possible, and contain Sylhet. Sagat was not satisfied with his tasking. Dhaka was the lynchpin of the Theatre Offensive, but it was not mentioned anywhere as an objective. Sagat had little time to train his units in conventional operations, but carefully monitored their activities. Before the offensive, there were three brigade-level operations. Not satisfied with some of the performances, Sagat was brutal in telling his commanders and troops that he would not accept foot dragging.

The Corps offensive started by the end of November, which required the initial crust of the enemy defences to be pierced. The most savage fighting was opposite Agartala, where 57 Mountain Division was tasked to capture Akhaura. It was a slogging match lasting five days and Sagat set the tone by venturing ahead of the forward troops in a helicopter and then landing amongst them to encourage them on. He allowed no rest as the enemy front started crumbling.

The habit he established initially set the tone of the campaign. His formations were spread over a large geographical area. The Northern Sector was where the offensive was being carried out by 8 Mountain Division towards Sylhet. The North-Central Sector was with 57 Mountain Division as it advanced from Agartala. The South-Central Sector was under 23 Mountain Division as it advanced towards the river port of Chandpur and the Southern Sector was under the ad hoc K Force, which was tasked to head south towards Chittagong.

Every day Sagat would range over his entire frontage in an Allouette helicopter of the Air Force (subsequently, he started using an Air OP flight helicopter piloted by Maj, later Lt Gen, GS Sihota). He would take flight at the crack of dawn, mostly as per an itinerary chalked out late the previous night. He would visit the formations, sometimes flying ahead of the forward troops, and land amongst them, constantly encouraging them while giving them critical information of the enemy. There were times when he would change focus seeing the progress of the offensive. He would land back at the Corps HQ, sometimes after last light, and then after a quick wash, would head for the Operations Room. Thereafter, he and the senior staff would go to the A Mess, where he would issue orders for the next day, setting his staff in a tizzy. At times, the complete plan would change. For Sagat, written instructions were only pieces of paper.

The first major change occurred when he allowed 23 Mountain Division to infiltrate between the enemy defences rather than hit them head-on. The second was when the first heliborne operation of the Indian Army was carried out on a shoestring. After reconnaissance by Group Captain Chandan Singh, on the night of December 7, 4/5 GR with a company of 9 Guards was landed near the Surma bridges at Sylhet. The Mi4 was an old war horse and had seen its best days, but it and the pilots performed marvellously. Instead of contesting the landing, the Pakistani units hemmed themselves in, waiting to be overwhelmed.

December 6 was also the day when Sagat carried out drastic changes to his plan. 57 Mountain Division, which had been tasked to head for the Meghna on an axis north of Maynamati, was ordered to continue its advance ahead of Akhaura towards Brahmanbaria. Taking 61 Brigade under his command, Sagat ordered it to head for Daudkhandi on the Meghna, while shedding two battalions to contain and attack the enemy defences on Lalmai Heights. 8 Mountain Division was asked to get a brigade ready for a heliborne operation on Dhaka. Sagat was a battle opportunist par excellence.

Suspecting what Sagat had in mind, the Army Commander rang him on December 7 and told him firmly not to attempt a crossing of the Meghna. This led to an acrimonious argument, resulting in Aurora visiting him on December 8, where Sagat managed to convince him to go ahead with his plans.

December 9 was an extraordinary day even for Sagat. He flew to Daudkhandi on the Meghna and found it to be vacated. Then he flew south along the river to Chandpur, where he found no enemy, so he flew rear wards, landed in front of the leading battalion and the armoured squadron, picked up their commanding officers, showed them Chandpur from the air, dropped them back and told them to go hell for leather. He flew to Daudkhandi and landed in front of the leading company commander and told him to rush for the river and commandeer all boats. Thereafter, he flew to Agartala, picked up the Air Force squadron commanders to fly along the Meghna to do a recce of likely landing sites. While returning, he saw explosions near the only bridge at Ashuganj and flew over it. A machine gun opened fire, injuring the pilot and grazing the General. He returned to Agartala, had the pilot evacuated, commandeered another helicopter, flew to Brahmanbaria where he saw the preparations for the famous ‘Meghna Air Bridge’ going on. He met Lt Col (later Lt Gen) Himmeth Singh, CO of 4 Guards, and others involved in the heliborne operation being planned over the Meghna and returned to the Corps HQ late in the evening, where he allowed his injury to be treated.

4 Guards with other troops was flown over the Meghna at night. Other units took river crafts across. The squadron of 63 Cavalry, under Maj Shamsher Mehta, which was right in the forefront of the advance, swam across. By the time Dhaka surrendered, it had been encircled from three sides. From the East, across Daudkhandi and from the NE and north. Brigades had successfully crossed the Meghna and carried on advancing, while the Pakistan brigade in opposition, with the GOC of their 14 Division, was successfully contained at Bhairab Bazaar.

Dhaka had been surrounded in one of the swiftest and greatest feats of arms in less than 16 days. Sagat’s vision, which he kept close to his chest, saw him use all resources innovatively, not giving up on his aim and relentlessly pursuing, bypassing and defeating the enemy. He was ruthless in the pursuit of this vision but ensured his troops and commanders were imbued with it. His personal courage, stamina and far-sightedness have never been matched in the annals of the Indian Army, which covered itself in glory.

— The writer was then ADC

to Lt Gen Sagat Singh

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