MY SOJOURN IN KUTCH

After over five decades some memories of Kutch operation still linger in my mind. Soon after commissioning in June 1963, I joined 11 Field Regiment in New Mal in 27 Mountain Division. The gnawing memories of Chinese threat had galvanised the Army in the Northeast and we were training day in and day out in New Mal. The Regiment had participated in Kashmir operations and worked with clockwork precision. It was full of neophytes like me who joined the army when struck by a bout of patriotism after Chinese aggression; so perhaps we needed a higher dose of regimentation than normal. But we took it in our stride, grumbling like good faujis.

There were some unique experiences. I remember taking my Battery out for an exercise near Jalpaiguri when a funnily dressed policeman stopped our convoy and asked me to turn back. I was furious. “How dare you stop me from moving in my own country,” I said in anger.

He replied in chaste Urdu, “Wohi tho problem hai, yeh Bharat nahi hai, abhi
aap Pakistan ke andhar aa gaye hain Saab!”

(That is the problem, sir. You are not in India, but have entered Pakistan) It was my turn to apologise and silently get out of the large Pakistan border enclave. That was the state of wide open borders in East Pakistan in those days! Now I cannot believe that such a bonhomie existed once upon a time between India and Pakistan.

We were moved from the steaming tea garden setting of New Mal to to the laid back cantonment of Deolali in mid 1964. The journey from New Mal in the military special provided the first lesson in civil military cooperation. I was the duty officer and the station master reported to me that the train was ready. “Then why were we waiting for eight hours”? I queried. “Power hasn’t come,” he said smiling.

I was puzzled. What power? He then explained to me that the engine was still to arrive. I learnt then, that unlike in the Army, in the civil world, thought is more important than action!

We were the training regiment for artillery school which kept us busy in field firing ranges. Our holdings of vehicles and equipment were scaled down to peace scale. I gained rich experience in firing not only our 25 pounders but also medium guns and mortars. Our gunners, including the recruits also mastered their gunnery skills under the watchful eyes of experienced JCOs and NCOs. Of course, we had our share of peace station drudgery of endless station courts of inquiry and boards as well as formal dinner nights at the end of many a hard day’s work. But every small regimental experience came in handy a few months later in Kutch when we fought the Pakistan Army. In January 1965, as the Intelligence Officer (IO) of the regiment, I went with my CO Lt Col ‘Henry’ Srinivasan to Rann of Kutch for reconnaissance of our area of operational responsibility. The CO went on target selection and survey was also carried out. We both wore the uniform of the Gujarat police and were accompanied by a Gujarat armed police patrol for border familiarisation (in those days the BSF was not there on Kutch border).We met a Pakistan Ranger patrol at apparently a prearranged point. The Pakistani patrol commander read out a pompous protest saying we were intruding in Pakistani territory and should turn back. I expected an immediate flare up, but it became a theatre of the absurd when our patrol commander read out a rejoinder in equally strong language and monotonous tone. Then both sides sat down to drink tea readily brewed by the jawans of Sikh LI (of course in police uniform). Pakistanis enjoyed the brew and chit chatted freely.

An amusing incident occurred at this time. Brigadier Pahlajani, our Brigade Commander had also accompanied us, dressed in a police constable’s uniform. He asked the Pakistani Inspector, “Ustad, yeh track kahan jata hai” (Where does this track lead to). The Pakistani Inspector got up and smartly saluted. When the Commander protested, he laughed and said, “Huzur kya baat kar rahen hai, aap tho afsar hai. Jawan thodi ‘track’ bolega”! (Come on sir, men do not say track) That made everyone laugh, though we all tried to look serious. I could spot some smart looking Pakistani men also looking equally sheepish. I am giving this instance to show the level of bonhomie that existed between the two neighbours till the shooting war started and turned the tide.

When we returned to Deolali, a team of gun detachments was sent to the training area in Little Rann, which was well away from the border, for familiarisation with the peculiar desert terrain of Rann. Though we never expected to fight a war, professionally we were ready for one. A few months later in summer, we were ordered to move within a few hours from Deolali to Rann of Kutch for operations. We carried limited ammunition as nearly one-third of our vehicles were not serviceable, being of World War 2 vintage. Our guns, due to regular firing also required barrel replacement. But we had no time to sort out these issues. To top it all, we were to move by road! As a trained regiment we had no problem to get ready and move as per orders. However, nobody briefed us on the operations, though trickle down information indicated that Pakistani troops had attacked a border police post in our operational area and killed some policemen. Two of my gun-towing vehicles broke down between Baroda and Surendranagar. As the senior battery, we were asked to get a camp ready for the regiment. I had the thankless task of selecting an open area in the outskirts of Surendranagar in total darkness. By morning our deployment orders were expected. I was dead tired and slept soundly.
In the morning I woke up to find I was at the bottom of a pit. It was still dark but Gunner Mohammed, my sahayak was peering down at me from the top with concern.

“Saab, get out quickly,” he said, holding out his hand sheepishly!
I was aghast to find that he had pitched my tent on the edge of a graveyard! I had slept on top of a grave stone which sank into the pit due to my weight! My sahayak, as a god fearing Muslim ran to the town to fetch a Pir baba who blew holy smoke and mumbled some chant. Then the baba told me that we had nothing to worry; it was a talkative old woman’s grave who would have gone to ‘jannat’ long back! So much for my camping site selection!

We stayed on there for one more day and my sahayak asked me not to talk about the ‘grave’ incident because it would be construed as a bad omen before operations! Of course my tent was pitched well away from the open grave thereafter. Our vehicles which were stranded en route also fetched up and we drove into our gun position which I had reconnoitred. The terrain was flat as a billiards table and we spent the next two days digging down deep as we moved into the bunkers as and when they were completed. In the first night, I and my orderly hunted out twenty-one scorpions which probably found the shades of my tent cooler. So the nights were restless.

We sent out patrols to clear the nearby area full of low dried up shrubs. There was a ‘lone tree’ — a twisted contortion of a thorny kikar — where I sited the command post because the land mark was already surveyed. My colleagues and I, — all 2/Lts — sited the three LMGs to protect our gun position. We netted our HF sets with the battery commander located at Sardar Post and also with 1 Mahar, commanded by Lt Col Sundarji, who went on to become the Army Chief. 2 Sikh LI, commanded by Lt Col Henry Haus was the second battalion of the brigade.

In the initial attack on our positions, the Pakistanis over ran a portion of Sardar post. However, a section of them got trapped in the mine field. A few Pakistani soldiers were also killed inside the minefield, which included an artillery captain, the hapless FOO of the attack force. In fact, one well sited LMG at the police post caused the attackers to panic and some were killed. So it was no wonder they left the unlucky place.

However, 1 Mahar found one SSG officer, Major Zordar Afridi wounded but alive, trapped inside the minefield. One of the brave officers of 1 Mahar went into the mine field to bring him back alive and unscathed. This was the first Pakistani interrogation I saw. Though I had interrogated hundreds of Pakistani soldiers and officers, he was the only man who totally refused to give out any details other than his name number and rank. That is why I still remember him. There were two others who resisted interrogation but both were found to be mentally deranged.

While checking the unreliable line communication right up to 1 Mahar defences, I had a look at the rotting Pakistanis trapped inside the minefield.

They could not be moved without setting off the mines and efforts to burn them, attracted artillery and mortar fire. In the night jackals would sneak in to drag the bodies, setting off the flares and mines. As it was the desert we could see the fireworks above the forward defended localities (FDLs). In day time it was the turn of vultures to set of the mines. The depressing experience turned grim when swarms of flies and blue bottles, bred on the rotting corpses and landed on the troops. I remember when a JCO offered me a cup of tea at the FDLs and advised me to cover my cup with my hand to prevent the swarm of flies hovering over us landing in it. Only Indian army soldier can endure such ordeals in the battlefield because even his normal life is tough and he lives on bare sustenance in his village. It was these soldiers that inspired me to stay on in the army, though I never joined to make a career of it.

The artillery regiments on both sides traded fire regularly. It was predictable that Pakistanis would fire on us in the mornings when the sunlight lit up our side and in the evening it was our turn. After the first few days we would take cover depending upon where the shells were landing. Luckily we were well camouflaged and apparently the Pakistanis had to depend upon sound ranging equipment data to fire upon us. I presume we were equally good or bad; but Pakistani soldiers were guiding us by loose talk on radio which indicated where the rounds were falling. One day I decided to break the firing routine and opened fire in the morning. Apparently it irritated the Pakistani gunners who kept firing the whole day and I got a mouthful for my suggestion from everyone. There were two serious attempts to put us out of action after the Pakistanis got their Air Observation Post (OP) planes. These planes, ‘Bird Dog’ , in tandem came up frequently when we were firing. I remember a conversation between the two pilots which we picked up. They had observed a bren gun carrier, a small tracked vehicle, moving near the FDLs.

“Arre Bhai, I see a tank moving at three o’clock. Do you see it” the first
pilot said.Do you see it” the first pilot said.

“Have no fear brother, Shastriji (obviously Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri) will never have the guts to bring tanks against us,” was the arrogant response of the other pilot.

Apparently, they had zeroed in on our location accurately because the very next day, heavy bombardment of medium guns was brought down upon us. Over a hundred shells landed in our gun position and rear area and we could hear the splinters smashing on to the top of our bunkers. It was quite nerve racking to find some of the air burst shells, exploding just over us. The sound is very much like two rail engines colliding overhead. After that experience, for a few years, I used to hear that noise suddenly in my dreams and wake up. Luckily we escaped with little damage, though two of our trucks in the rear area were put out of action and a shell which landed in the gun position, damaged a part of the gun. There was no loss of life or injury. I admired our troops who kept their discipline and did not move or open fire. But tension was palpable among all of us as we had no water to bathe and I cut my hair very short as lice were making our life miserable. Our RMO dutifully came to inspect our sanitation. On his advice we got some water for bathing which became twice a week.

A second experience was the night a SSG patrol tried to break into our gun position. Our night patrols reported seeing a jeep with a machine gun mounted on top in the silhouette. I also saw it backlit in the night light of the desert. I warned all the gun positions and asked them to lay the gun for direct fire. But the Pakistani patrol stumbled in our low wire entanglement and our excited gunner at the gun position opened fire! Then all hell broke loose with all the LMG’s and rifles opening fire wildly. I totally lost control of them. The Pakistani patrol beat a hasty retreat and vanished in the desert. I alerted the Battery Commander about the incident and got a mouthful for my inability to instil discipline on my troops. But thanks to him, Co 1 Mahar, Lt Col Sundarji visited my gun position, inspected our siting of LMGs, made some minor adjustments and asked me not to be unnerved by the enemy. He told me it was merely a SSG patrol trying to attack the gun position. Probably on his recommendation, we got a MMG detachment from the Rajputana Rifles battalion for our protection.

I remember the day a local ceasefire was worked out; our Air OP , Major Loganathan was up and was directing our fire on Pakistani SP guns which were moving. We were right on target scattering them when the call came from my CO on the radio to ceasefire immediately. I was irritated and immature and wanted to punish the Pakistanis, ceasefire or no ceasefire; I pressed the presser switch and cut the conversation without acknowledging, and on my own ordered three rounds gun fire. The CO came on telephone and I pretended I could not hear him. He called for another officer to take charge and placed me under open arrest. A local ceasefire came into effect and I was asked to report to the Brigade Headquarters to be marched up before the Commander for disobedience of orders during operations.

The Regiments Subedar Major Kalaiah was with me in the jeep. He was a wily old war horse. He told me, “Sir, you have committed a serious offence by not obeying the CO’s order to ceasefire. You pretend you have gone deaf due to all the firing we have been doing and the shelling. This is common among artillerymen. So you say you could not make out what the CO was saying.” I thought it was a good idea.

A grim CO marched me up before Brigadier Pahlajani.

“Well young fellow what is this? Disobedience of orders during operations. Do you know the punishment for this under Army Act?” The Commander’s countenance was rather serious.

I pretended my deaf act. “Sir,” I said, I am hard of hearing due to all the
artillery firing”

Then a brain wave struck me. The CO had used the word “cease firing,” which was really not the proper order as per the Artillery drill book.I explained this to the Brigadier.

“You idiot,” retorted the Commander, “you thought you were being clever pretending to be deaf; now you say the order was not a lawful command. So stop pretending and hear me. You are starting your career so I don’t want to ruin your life in army. You are admonished. Let me not have you before me once again,”

He dismissed me with a smirk. The CO went out but the Commander held me back. “Why did you do such a stupid thing,” he asked?

“The enemy had fired 18 rounds on us that morning,” I said. “When we had the enemy guns in our sight, I had fired only two rounds when the order to ceasefire came. My blood was boiling, so I let them have it”.

I let them have it”. The good old soldier smiled and said “probably I would have done the same. Don’t tell the others though”.

I came out and apologised to my CO who was in no mood to accept my words. After that the ceasefire came and it was drudgery to await our orders to go back to Deolali. Meanwhile, I got my posting orders to move forthwith to Headquarters 4 Corps in Tezpur as GSO3 (Int). I went there, making the longest journey I ever made on Indian Railways from Bhuj to Tezpur, traversing the whole of India from West to East. I reached Tezpur as a veteran in the first two years of service, who had had a brush with curtain raiser of the war that flared up in real earnest a few months later.

A veteran of the 1965 and 1971 Indo Pak wars, Col R. Hariharan, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), from 1987 to 90.He frequently writes in his areas of specialisation – South Asian neighbourhood and terrorism and insurgency. He can be contacted at colhari@gmail.com, blog: col.hariharan.info

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