Friday, 10 June 2022

Book Review

Vijay Singh, POW 1971: A Soldier’s account of the Heroic Battle of Daruchhian, New Delhi: Speaking Tiger Books, 2021, Page 236, Rs. 699/-, ISBN 978-93-5447-011-0

There are three special things about this book, the last two of which are interconnected. To begin with the first: its description of a battle for Daruchhian between its well-entrenched Pakistani defenders and an Indian infantry battalion of the Grenadier Regiment. Daruchhian is a hill feature across from Poonch on the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir side of the Ceasefire Line – as the Line of Control (LC) was termed then. Since Daruchhian, by virtue of its location posed a threat for the defences at Poonch, the Indian army decided to take it over to secure Poonch better. The Pakistanis, equally convinced of the importance of Daruchhian to their plans, were determined to put up a fight for the hill. This led to one of the fierce battles of the 1971 War.

Whereas the 1971 War is known more for what happened on the eastern front, arguably the more fierce encounters between the two sides were fought on the western front. The Pakistanis, defending their mainland as against their colony, East Pakistan, gave a better account of themselves on the western front. They had also promised the East Pakistan defenders that the defence of East Pakistan lay in West Pakistan and therefore were more prepared on the western front. For its part, the Indian army had been directed to merely force the Pakistanis on the back foot on the western front, lest Pakistanis send in troop reinforcements to help their beleaguered uniformed brethren in East Pakistan. Therefore, in a way, the Pakistanis had the upper hand psychologically to begin with, with the Indians fighting with a limited purpose and the Pakistani putting up what to them may have appeared an existential fight. This partially accounts for the stalemate on the western front, which - of course - in no way detracts, from the blood and moral treasure that the frontline troops expended in gaining their objectives.

The battle of Daruchhian was one such battle in which fully motivated Pakistani soldiers expectantly awaited an Indian attack and when it did materialize, gave a fearsome reply. The Indian tactical level attack ended up a relative failure, though the Grenadiers compensated with gumption for the lapses in tactical planning and leadership that were revealed as the plan for capture of Daruchhian went awry. The book excels in its first part, dissecting what fell apart, with an unvarnished search for the truth. The details are of interest to men in uniform, especially the younger lot. No doubt, though 50 years since it was fought, lesson are being learnt from this particular battle since the author – son of the war hero Major Hamir Singh - currently heads the senior command faculty at the Army War College, Mhow, that trains the army’s prospective battalion commanders.

To the credit of the battalion commander who thought up the unconventional Indian attack plan, it seems the plan was ahead of its times. It was a precursor to the tactical innovation that dates to about the Kargil War some 20 years on: the multidirectional assault. It was therefore trifle premature, with the levels of training and resilience of junior leadership not being of the order as to operationalise it back then. But more so, as the book brings out, because the battalion commander was unable to step up to the leadership role compelled by his somewhat convoluted plan and the shameful ad-hocism by which the battalion was launched for an objective it had not previously practiced taking down. Conversely, the Pakistani commanding officer had either fortuitously or by design staged forward to the company position on Daruchhian, making at even more formidable nut to crack. As a result, the Pakistanis beat back the attack at severe cost to the Grenadiers, who nevertheless had raw courage to show for themselves in the casualties they suffered.

The book follows the hero of the battle, Hamir Singh, through his travails on that hill feature and beyond into Pakistani captivity. Hamir’s experience of captivity is evident from the extract from his son’e postscript, reproduced below:

It is also a fact that my father is alive today due to the honourable actions of some of the Pakistani officers and men and women who my father was fortunate to have encountered. Of special mention is the Pakistani major who prevented his colleagues from killing my grievously wounded father as well as Colonel Mehmood Hassan and other medical staff who treated him in various Pakistani medical establishments. Warfare is a nasty business but to show humanity during testing times is in accordance with the highest code of conduct of a soldier. On behalf of my family I convey our gratitude to those unknown soldiers.

Evidently, the best of Indian and Pakistani youth faced-off one dreary night on a remote hill side. Both were challenged by the other side to dig deep down and draw out the best within themselves. It’s to the credit of the two armies – from the same womb as it were – that gladiators of both sides emerged with their honour intact, each contributing another chapter to the glorious martial traditions of our shared subcontinent. Interestingly, the Grenadiers are known to number a proportion of Muslims in their ranks. Hamir Singh testifies to their wholesome contribution, singling out Major IH Khan, who received a Vir Chakra posthumously, and Subedar Taj Mohammad. 

Hamir Singh goes on from being wounded on the frontline to convalescing in Pakistani military facilities where he is treated with due courtesy to his rank and in line with the Geneva Conventions. This was perhaps in reciprocation to Indians meticulously observing the Geneva Conventions in treating their large-haul of some 90000 prisoners taken on the eastern front. It is another matter that the gentlemanly conduct in war and its aftermath did not end the antipathy. Hamir Singh, while being treated in Pakistani military hospitals, encounters common Pakistanis. He forges an affectionate bond with a female military nurse, who helps him lurch back to recovery. Later, being the senior prisoner of war (PoW), the book shows him leading the prisoners through their trials with their captors, a delicate role made familiar by World War II PoW movies, notably Bridge on the River Kwai.

This brings one to the third aspect: the ability to behave true to expectations in trying circumstances. It is product of upbringing in a household professing and practicing values, not all martial but sound family values. Hamir Singh’s two sons – their family’s fourth generation in the military - are both generals. The last three generations attained flag rank, while a fifth generation is under training at a military academy. Incidentally both brothers are at neighbouring faculties of the Army War College, Mhow, who amidst tactical training fare for the army’s tactical level commanders are conditioning them on human values and military leadership mores. This is in line with what a military eminence once rightly said: ‘the moral is to the material three is to one.’ (As an aside, given this example of how military men are honed, I wonder what it implies for the new fangled Tour of Duty or Agnipath concept – in which youth will be taken into the military for short duration stints. Has the military ethic ceased to matter in the post modern age or are we to believe that a dose of religious nationalism is all it takes to make a soldier?)

The book is a non-fiction page-turner. It has enough material for a Bollywood hit, including a pleasant interlude between a convalescent, dashing Hamir and an elegant Pakistani nurse; and the travails of his beautiful wife back home, getting to learn only after the war that he was alive and a prisoner. How the Major’s wife copes with bringing up two children while her husband’s fate is, first, unknown and, later, when he remains away till repatriation, is as much a story of fortitude as Hamir’s. Hamir was awarded the Vir Chakra after the interrogation formalities on return of PoWs were done with, another fraught period when all returnees are looked at with suspicion of having been turned by their captors.

Hopefully, when ties with Pakistan improve Hamir Singh will be able to meet up with the Pakistanis who people the book: his infantry opponents on Daruchhian; the medical staff at Rawalpindi and the Lyallpur PoW cage guard commanders. It will help him solve the mystery as to who was the ‘bade saab’ up the Pakistani hierarchy who took an interest in his well being when injured: was it General Tikka Khan, a colleague of his father, General Kalyan Singh; or was it the Pakistani brigadier, who Hamir had fortuitously encountered in his last posting before the war in Nigeria?