Tuesday, October 15, 2019
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Posted at: Sep 15, 2019, 7:05 AM; last updated: Sep 15, 2019, 9:00 AM (IST)

Account of the other 1971 battle

Lt Gen Harwant Singh (Retd)
MILITARY MATTERS
Lt Gen Harwant Singh (Retd)
When horizon appeared to be darkening with war clouds, I left the course at Mhow, without orders, and went to the border. Once Pakistani dust was washed off our tanks and the unit settled down to peacetime routine, I forwarded my claim for railway fare. And then...

Lt Gen Harwant Singh (Retd)

THE senior command course at the College of Combat, Mhow, had moved into the last stages. The atmosphere was one of higher learning and we were making the best of the library and other facilities the institution offered. It was a welcome change from the routine of peacetime unit life. Then, all too suddenly, in October 1971, the horizon appeared to be darkening with war clouds.

There were Intelligence reports that as a consequence of the trouble brewing on the then East Pakistan border, a pre-emptive strike by Pakistan on the western front, in a specific area, was in the offing. News reached that my unit had been moved to counter this. In order to avoid the escalation of tension on the border, India had not ordered general mobilisation but had opted for a measured response.

That day I informed the authorities at the college of my intention to leave the course and join my unit. I was told there were no orders for me to do so. I submitted that there are occasions when one has to act without orders and for me, this was one such moment.

Taking the first train out of Indore, I reached Delhi late in the evening. The train to Ambala, my immediate destination, was already at the platform, but was overflowing with passengers. Finding entry into any compartment with the luggage I had, was nearly impossible.

Since it was important for me to reach Ambala at the earliest, I suggested to the conductor that I could travel in the corridor of a first class bogie. At this he informed me that India, as yet, was not under “military rule” and moved away, leaving me to figure out the link.

Another railway employee, who had listened to this conversation, offered me a seat in the train’s engine. He was the driver and a member of the Railway Territorial Army.

I reached Ambala at midnight and on arrival at the unit officers’ mess was greeted by a solitary sentry.

Breaking open the seal of the store, I deposited my baggage, collected the camp kit and resealed the store.

Since there was only an NCO in charge of the “rear party” of the unit, the Railway Warrant Book had not been left with him and therefore, I bought a ticket for Muktsar, where the unit had been moved. At Muktsar railway station, a tractor owner agreed to take me to the area where I thought the unit would be. En route, I located our unit water truck whose driver was surprised to find me riding a tractor.

A warm welcome awaited me in the unit and I felt happy to be among comrades and to share with them whatever the future held for us. Our unit was to face the initial onslaught of the enemy armour as and when it surfaced. We were confident of checking the ingress along the specified line and in the process take a heavy toll on the enemy. We were equally conscious of the extent of casualties we would have to accept. Losing no time, I got down to my duties as the second-in command.

After the war, we returned to Ambala and once the Pakistani dust was washed off our tanks and the unit settled down to peacetime routine, I forwarded my claim for the cost of railway fare from Ambala to Muktsar to the Controller of Defence Accounts (CDA-O). The claim was summarily rejected with the observation that the rules required of me to travel on warrant. The amount of the claim was small and I almost dropped the case but was provoked by the attitude of the CDA. So the claim was resubmitted, explaining the circumstances under which the unit moved out to its battle location and that it could not spare an officer to stay back with the rear party, who alone could hold a “railway warrant book” in his custody.

These arguments, however, cut no ice with the audit. I saw the futility of continuing with the correspondence and asked for the closure of the case and apologised for drawing the CDA into what seemed to have become infructuous correspondence.

I added that I need not have left an important course at Mhow when the rules did not permit me to do so and in which case I would have also avoided putting my career in jeopardy. At Ambala, where a railway warrant could not be issued, I could have stayed on, taking shelter behind the rules and avoided possible risk to my life and limb. I would have, perhaps, acted otherwise than the way I did, had I been in some other service, or maybe in the Audit and Accounts Service! Fortunately, for my country, the ethos of the Defence Services is different.

I concluded my note by stating that if a similar situation were to arise in future and I have to travel the length of this country at my own expense to join my unit, I would do so, even in the full knowledge and belief that the audit would not understand these issues and again would not entertain my claim.

A few weeks later, the CDA (O) returned my claim duly passed.

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