2nd Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal

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2nd Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal

By Khawja Mohammad Naser, 13 Lancers, 02 March 2001, Lahore, Pakistan.

During the 1971 Indo-Pak war, 17 Poona Horse was assigned to the command of 47 Infantry Brigade of the Indian Army. Through the duration of the conflict, 47 Brigade saw action in the Shakargarh sector in the Battle of Basantar. Among the tasks set for 47 Brigade was to establish a bridgehead across the River Basantar. By 2100 hr of 15th December, the brigade had captured its objectives. However, the place was extensively mined, which prevented the deployment of the tanks of the Poona horse, and the engineers clearing the mines were halfway through their tasks when Indian troops at the bridge-head reported alarming activity of the enemy armour, asking for immediate armour support. It was at this critical juncture that 17 Poona Horse decided to push through the mine-field. The regiment was able to establish a link-up between the armour and the infantry at the bridge-head by first light the next day.

At 0800hr on 16 December, Pakistani armour launched the first of their counter-attacks under the cover of a smokescreen at the pivot of 17 Poona Horse at Jarpal. Heavily outnumbered against Pakistani armour and infantry, the commander of "B" Squadron called for urgent reinforcements. This call was taken up by 2nd Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, stationed close to the squadron, with his detachment of two tanks and troops. Khetarpal wheeled to meet the Pakistani armour and launched right into the Pakistani attack. With his troop he was able to run over the enemy advance with his tanks and even captured some of the enemy infantry and weapon crews at pistol-point! However, the commander of the second tank was killed in this attack. Alone in charge, Khetarpal continued his attack on the enemy strongholds until he had overwhelmed the Pakistani positions Emboldened by the success he pursued the retreating Pakistani troops and artillery gunning down a Pakistani tank in the process. However Pakistani forces regrouped and counterattacked. In the ensuing tank battle ten enemy tanks were hit and destroyed of which Khetarpal accounted for four.

The skirmish however took its toll on the Lieutenant as he was hit by enemy fire, but instead of abandoning the tank he fought on destroying one final tank before he was finally overwhelmed. However, his actions had denied a vital breakthrough for Pakistani forces and instead put the Indians in a stronger position in the Shakargarh bulge. His final words over the radio to a superior officer who had ordered him to abandon his burning tank were, "No Sir, I will not abandon my tank. My gun is still working and I will get these bastards." Then he set about destroying the remaining enemy tanks. The last enemy tank, which he shot, was barely 100 metres from his position. At this stage his tank received a second hit and he was mortally injured. The officer met his death denying the enemy the intended breakthrough. Khetarpal's tank "Famagusta" was restored and is on display at the Indian Army's Armoured Corps School in Ahmed Nagar. For his conspicuous gallantry in the face of the enemy, Khetarpal was honoured with the highest wartime gallantry medal, the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously.

TRIBUTES:

1. Indian Army has produced many brave officers who have laid down their lives in the line of duty. But the bravery of Khetarpal has indeed been the highest point in the history of the Army. His bravery is deeply embedded in the ethos of the Army and is evident from the numerous buildings named after him at IMA and NDA, higher than any other officer of the Indian Army.

2. The IMA has its auditorium named Khetarpal and the all passing out officers take oath in front of this building.

3. The IMA also has one of the main entrance gate named Khetarpal.

4. The main ground at NDA is named Khetarpal Ground.

5. The tank of Arun Khetarpal was called Famagusta JX 202. It was restored after the war and is kept in the Armoured Corps School, Ahmed Nagar.

6. Famagusta's crew was Sowar Prayag Singh, the driver. Sowar Nand Singh, the Radio Operator. Sowar Nathu Singh, the Gunner and 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal, the commander.

7. Nand Singh was first to die. This was just before the fatal encounter with Major Nasser. Then Arun succumbed to his injuries. Both Prayag Singh and Nathu Singh were badly wounded but survived and retired from the army as Honorary Captains.

8. Arun Khetarpal's mother did not get the news of his death till the 26th of December. She had got his motorcycle serviced and his room decked up after hearing that the war was over on the 17th December.

9. He was cremated on the 17th of December near Samba district. All his family got was his ashes in small handkerchief.

10. Mrs Indira Gandhi met Mrs Khetarpal, Arun's mother, after the war and told her 'Aap Dhanya Hai' with moisture in her eyes.

THE ENEMY REMEMBERS:

1. "The only occasion when a breakthrough could have occurred was when two squadrons of 13 Lancers attacked together in the afternoon, but a gallant last ditch lone stand by 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal of Poona Horse averted the danger." Maj (Retd) A.H. Amin (Pakistan Armoured Corps - Columnist and Historian) .

2. The Commander of the Pakistan tank battalion is said to have met the Indian battalion commander after the battle and made inquiries about 2nd Lieutenant Khetarpal's tank since he was very impressed with the gallantry of this particular tank's commander.

3. In 2001, Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal - now 81 years old - felt a strong desire to visit his birthplace at Sargodha, now in Pakistan. At Lahore airport, Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal was met by Brigadier Khawja Mohammad Naser, who took it upon himself to be Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal’s host and guide. Brigadier Naser really went out of way to ensure that Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal had a satisfying and nostalgic visit to his old house in Sargodha. Upon his return to Lahore he was once again the guest of Brigadier Naser for three days. Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal was overwhelmed by the extreme kindness, deference, courtesy and respect bestowed upon him by Brigadier Naser and by all the members of his family and his many servants. However Brigadier Khetarpal felt that something was amiss but could not make out what it was. Was it the long silences that punctuated their animated conversation or was it the look of compassion in the eyes of the women in the family? He could not make out but was sure he was being treated as someone very special. Finally, on the last night before Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal's departure, Brigadier Naser said 'Sir, there is something that I wanted to tell you for many years but I did not know how to get through to you. Finally, fate has intervened and sent you to me as an honoured guest. The last few days we have become close to one another and that has made my task even more difficult.


It is regarding your son who is, of course, a national hero in India. However on that fateful day, your son and I were soldiers, unknown to one another, fighting for the respect and safety of our respective countries. I regret to tell you that your son died in my hands. Arun's courage was exemplary and he moved his tank with fearless courage and daring, totally unconcerned about his safety. Tank casualties were very high till finally there were just two of us left facing one another. We both fired simultaneously. It was destined that I was to live and he was to die. "It was only later that I got to know how young he was and who he was. I had all along thought that I would ask your forgiveness, but in telling the story I realize that there is nothing to forgive.

Instead I salute your son for what he did at such a young age and I salute you too, because I know how he grew into such a young man. In the end it is character and values that matter." Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal was silent as he did not know how to react. To be enjoying the hospitality of the person who had killed his son was a confusing feeling. However being a soldier himself he genuinely admired the chivalry of an officer whose complete squadron was decimated by his son. Both the Brigadiers retired for the night deep in thought. There are never any victors in war; both sides lose and it is the families that have to pay the price and suffer the most. As someone once said 'Wars are created by politicians, compounded by bureaucrats and fought by soldiers.'

The next day photographs were taken and Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal returned back to Delhi. Later the photos reached Delhi along with a note from Brigadier Naser that said:

With Warmest regards and utmost sincerity, To: Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal, Father of Shaheed Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, PVC, (who stood like an unsurmountable rock, between the victory and failure, of the counter attack by the 'SPEARHEADS' 13 LANCERS on 16 December 1971 in the battle of "Bara Pind' as we call it and battle of "Basantar' as 17 Poona Horse remembers) From:

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