Monday 27 June 2022
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When a Pakistani soldier told Brig Khetarpal, ‘I was the one who killed your son’

When one's enemy accepts responsibility for inflicting pain, yet no fight ensues — the story of an Indian brigadier's meeting with a Pakistani counterpart

Mukesh Khetarpal, from a family of soldiers, is now 71 years old while his elder brother Arun is still 21, the age at which the latter became immortal. There is a photograph of Arun in army uniform, with a charming smile on his face, on the wall of Khetarpal’s room. There are few stories where ‘enemies’ meet not in a hostile environment, one tells the other he is responsible for the pain of the other and yet they don’t resume fighting, as was seen in the story of a meeting between an Indian and a Pakistani soldier.

Mukesh smiles, “I am old but Arun will never be.” He still has a vivid recollection of that cold Delhi night of 1971. He then studied at IIT Delhi while Arun’s ongoing officer training in Ahmednagar had stopped because of the war. Like all other officers, Arun was asked to report at the front. He took a train to Delhi, taking along his prized Jawa motorcycle, which he had received as a gift from his father.

Since Arun had to catch the Punjab Mail for in a few hours, he decided to take off his motorbike in Delhi and go home from there.

Mukesh recalls, “I was at home that day. Arun parked his bike and came inside. He was looking very handsome in army uniform.”

The Khetarpal family had an early dinner that night. What their mother told him at the dinner table later became an integral part of the folklore in the army. Just like a legend. She said, “Fight like a lion, Arun, don’t come back like a coward.”

Arun looked into his mother’s eyes and smiled.

The early days of December were tense. Mukesh recalls, “We had an imported Hitachi transistor. We used to cling to it all the time, listen to Radio Ceylon, which was reporting the war in detail. Sometimes the signal was good and sometimes it was so bad that hardly anything could be heard. But we all used to cling to it.”

In the evening, 16 December, Radio Ceylon reported that a very fierce tank battle had broken out in Shakargarh. Mukesh says, “We knew that Arun’s regiment was stationed in the same area. Hearing the news, our hearts sank.”

The very next morning, there was an announcement that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared a ceasefire. The war was over. Mukesh remembers, “It was a big relief. My mother got involved in cleaning Arun’s room and we waited for his day to come.”

Then on 19 December, someone knocked on the door. When their mother opened the door, there was a postman waiting. Mukesh says, “The telegram shattered our lives forever. A pall of gloom descended on us. My mother confined herself in the house thereafter. My father kept quiet and spent most of his time in his room.”

“Every moment passed as if an era was passing. Just like that, 30 years passed. The family slowly accepted that truth,” Khetarpal recalls.

Meanwhile, Mukesh completed his course in engineering from IIT, got a job, got married and had a lovely daughter.

Then one day, Mukesh and his wife were astonished when they saw their father, Brig ML Khetarpal, smiling again. Mukesh says, “He said that he was going to Sargodha, his native place that is in Pakistan where the family used to live before partition.” Mukesh and his wife made every effort to persuade Brig Khetarpal. He says, “We both told him; you are 81 years old. Where will you go at this age? But he did not listen to us.”

Brig Khetarpal said, “I will stay with a college batchmate who is an officer in the Pakistan Army and lives in Lahore.”

Mukesh recalls, “That gave us some consolation. Finally, the day came when we went to drop him off at the airport where he was supposed to catch an Air India flight. He was thrilled like a school kid.”

After three days Mukesh reached the airport to receive his father. He remembers well, “Papa seemed very calm and lost. Even at home, he did not talk to us about his tour, which surprised us.”

A week later, Mukesh was reading the India Today magazine when he saw an article that talked of his father’s visit to Pakistan. he was said to have met the officer of the Pakistan Army who had killed his son. Mukesh, stunned by the article, anxiously reached out to his father. He asked, “What I have just read, is it true?” Brig Khetarpal replied, “Yes, it is true.”

Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, Param Vir Chakra

Mukesh said, “When my mother and I asked him why he did not tell these things to us, he said he was not sure what to say.” That was not a good thing. When Brig Khetarpal narrated what happened in Lahore, the family was shocked.

On 1 March 2001 in Lahore, Brig Khetarpal was resting on a chair after dinner. His host was retired Brig Khwaja Mohammad Naseer, a former officer of the Pakistani Army.

Brig Naseer’s facial expressions seemed to change continuously. He wanted to say something but was hesitant. Naseer finally broke his silence to say, “The weather is good, brigadier sir, masha’Allah, let’s sit outside in the garden.”

Both reached the garden. There, the Pakistani officer said, murmuring, “I want to confess something, brigadier sir.” Brig Khetarpal, looking lovingly into the eyes of his host, said, “Say son, I am listening.” In fact, Brig Naseer would be some 30 years younger than him.

The Pakistani soldier cleared his throat and said, “Sir, I want to tell you something… I also took part in the 1971 war. I was a young major then, the squadron commander of the 13th Lancers (a regiment) of the Pakistani Army.”

Brig Khetarpal was shocked. The 13th Lancers was the regiment that had swapped its Sikh squadron with a Muslim squadron of the Poona Horse (his son’s regiment) at the time of partition in 1947.

On 16 December 1971, the soldiers of India and Pakistan fought against their own old regiments. Naseer said, “We fought the battle of Basantar against the Poona Horse. Sir, I am the person who took your son’s life.” Brig Khetarpal remained silent. Keep listening silently.

Among the tasks set for the 47th Brigade of the Indian Army was to establish a bridgehead across the River Basantar. By 21:00 h of 15 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 bridgehead reported alarming enemy armour activity, asking for immediate armour support. It was at this critical juncture that the 17 Poona Horse decided to push through the minefield. The regiment was able to link up with the infantry at the bridgehead by first light the next day.

At 08:00 hours on 9 December, Pakistani armour launched the first of their counter-attacks under the cover of a smokescreen at the pivot of the 17th Poona Horse at Jarpal. At 08:00 hours, the Pakistani 13th Lancers, equipped with the then state-of-the-art US-made 50 ton Patton tanks, launched the first of their counter-attacks under the cover of a smokescreen at ‘B’ Squadron, The Poona Horse, at Jarpal. Its squadron commander urgently called for reinforcements. Arun Khetarpal, who was in ‘A’ squadron and was stationed close by with his Centurion tank troop, responded with alacrity, as did the rest of his regiment. The first counter-attack was decimated by accurate gunnery, coolness by Indian tank troops and individual tank commanders from the CO, Lt Col Hanut Singh down to its troop leader, Arun Khetarpal. The 13th Lancers desperately launched two more squadron-level counter-attacks and managed to achieve a breakthrough.

Khetarpal rushed 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. However, the commander of the second tank was killed in this attack. Alone in charge, Khetarpal continued his attack on the enemy strongholds. The enemy fought very bravely and did not retreat even after taking losses. Disappointed by his failure so far, he desperately attacked the incoming Pakistani troops and tanks, knocking out a Pakistani tank in the process. However Pakistani forces regrouped and counter-attacked. In the ensuing tank battle, Lt. Arun Khetarpal with his 2 remaining tanks fought off and destroyed 10 tanks before he was killed in action.

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 main gun is still working and I will get these bastards.”[5]

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 seriously injured. The officer met his death trying to deny the Pakistani Army its desired breakthrough.

Khetarpal’s body and his tank, named “Famagusta”, were later captured by Pakistan and eventually returned to the Indian military. This tank is on display back in India now.

For his conspicuous bravery and extreme gallantry in the face of fierce and unrelenting attacks and assaults by the enemy (the Pakistani military), Khetarpal was honoured with India’s most prestigious and highest-standard military medal for courage and gallantry, the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously.

Brig Naseer recalled, “In the morning of 16 December, I was leading a counterattack against the Indian regiment at Basantar. On the other side were your son, who stood like a rock. They destroyed many of our tanks. In the end, only two of us survived. We were face to face, a mere 200 m separated our tanks. We both opened fire together and targeted each other’s tank. I was lucky that I survived but Arun had to make the supreme sacrifice.”

The Pakistani soldier said further, “Your son was very brave, sir. He single-handedly defeated us. He was responsible for our defeat.”

Brig Khetarpal was kind of numb. He asked, “How did you know that the tank belonged to Arun?”

The Pakistani soldier said that when the ceasefire was announced the next morning (17 December), he went to collect the dead body of one of his companions. He wanted to know who the wonderful warrior was, who had single-handedly destroyed his tanks.

Another story of the 1971 India-Pakistan war

Brig Naseer approached the Indian soldiers and asked them who was in the tank. He was told that was Arun Khetarpal, second lieutenant of Poona Horse. Naseer told the Indian soldiers, “Your sir fought very bravely. Didn’t he get hurt?” The answer was, “Sahib was martyred.”

The Pakistani soldier told Brig Khetarpal that he came to know about Arun’s age much later. When he posthumously received the Param Vir Chakra and became a national hero in India, it was revealed how young he was.

Naseer said, “I did not know, sir, that he was only 21 years old. We were both soldiers and both were doing our for our respective countries.”

In the moonlit night, the officers of mutually inimical forces sat silently for a long time. Then Brig Khetarpal got up from his chair. The Pakistani soldier grabbed the Indian’s leg as if to seek forgiveness. Brig Khetarpal looked into Brig Naseer’s moist eyes and took the man who had killed his son in his arms and then went to retire for the day.

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