Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Battle of Shalteng: The officer who demoted himself and why Indians must never forget him

It was on October 22, 1947, that tribal lashkars under the command and control of Pakistani Army attacked Jammu and Kashmir state. Over the next few days, utter confusion prevailed as they moved from one town to another, looting, raping women and indulging in an orgy of killings. Thousands of them constituting the main column moved along Murree, Domel, Kohala, Muzaffarabad, Hattiaan and other small towns devastating whatever came in their way.

The situation was precarious as they reached Baramulla, virtually the gateway of Kashmir valley on October 26, continuing their orgies. That day, Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession to join India and the first Indian troops were in Srinagar the next day, airlifted from Delhi.

The very first formation to move to Srinagar was 1 Sikh and it lost its Commanding Officer (CO) that very day. Lt Col Dewan Rai was succeeded by Major Sampuran Bachan Singh who was 2IC (Second In Command) of the unit. He commanded the formation from October 28 to December 12 when he also sustained injuries.

On December 12, 1 Sikh got a new CO who distinguished himself years later in 1965 war with Pakistan also. Col Harbaksh Singh demoted himself as a Lt Col to take over the command of 1 Sikh. Incidentally, the units were commanded by Lt Cols those days, while a full Colonel is usually the CO of most units now.

This is the only recorded case we have heard from the Indian Army where an officer has volunteered to remove a star from his shoulders. Incidentally, there are countless cases where an officer was promoted to the next higher rank to take up a responsibility.

Between October 27 and beyond, the build-up of troops meant to defend Kashmir and repulse the tribal raiders from across the border (image below) continued. Most Indian troops were airlifted to Srinagar from Delhi and very few were moved via Pathankot, Jammu and Banihal road.

Brigadier L P Sen was the Brigade Commander of 161 Brigade that had been assembled in Srinagar those days. 1 Sikh, 1 Kumaon (Para), 4 Kumaon, elements of 1 Punjab, some troops of Mahar etc formed the core of this formation. After November 4, Brigadier Sen decided to withdraw 1 Sikh from Pattan backwards towards Srinagar. It was an unusual move and some fellow officers resented this moving back.

The Brigade Commander, however, had made this tactical move to draw the marauders forward. He had mobilised his assets in such a way that the tribal raiders were virtually walking into a trap. He had deployed some of his men in such a manner that when the raiders moved ahead, they could be attacked from the flanks.

The troops defending Srinagar made an assessment that the attack of the tribal raiders will develop by November 10. They missed the mark by 2-3 days as thousands of them attacked 1 Sikh positions near flood channel early on November 7. Aerial reconnaissance showed that over 150 vehicles had been kept ready for the raiders some distance from where they had launched the attack.

Just as the attack was developing, men of 1 Sikh counter-attacked in full force. Almost simultaneously, 1 Kumaon, 4 Kumaon and troops of Punjab Regiment also attacked the raiders on flanks. Just then, Tempest aircraft of 7 Squadron started aerial bombardment of enemy positions.

Immediately then, armoured cars of 7 Cavalry started mowing down the raiders as they fired from the rear. Surrounded on all sides, and sustaining hundreds of casualties, fatal as also grievously injured, the tribal raiders took to their heels westwards. The full force of Indian troops was brought on the enemy for barely 15-20 minutes and it was all over.

The battle of Shalteng (image above) is till now recounted as one of the fiercest attacks of the Indian armed forces. According to some accounts, it took barely 20 minutes to spread mayhem among the enemy. The fighting lasted a full 12 hours all through the day, and well past dark in the evening as 1 Sikh pressed on chasing raiders to Pattan and onwards to Baramulla.

In the counter-attack by the Indian forces, 500 enemy died near Sheltang itself, more than 150 were killed between outskirts of Srinagar and Baramulla. Hundreds of them were injured and ran into the neighbouring hills trying to avoid the onslaught.

The annihilation of the raiders that had started near Srinagar continued to Baramulla and beyond. The threat to Srinagar and whole of Kashmir valley stood repulsed effectively after the Battle of Sheltang. Colonel Harbaksh played a stellar role in this battle as he was with 161 Brigade led by Brigadier Sen then.

After this decisive battle, the Kashmir valley was effectively secured from the vagaries of the tribal raids. Lt Col Pritam Singh, another officer, who earned the title of “Saviour of Poonch” later, was also involved in this battle.

“Slender Was The Thread” is an excellent book which was penned by Brigadier Sen years later. It gives details as to what perils 161 Brigade had to face and how sheer grit, determination helped it surmount all challenges.

By all means, November 8, 1947, was a day if jubilation for the Indian Army in the first war against Pakistan. Perhaps a lack of clear policy towards Pakistan, till day, falsely hoping that it would give up its policy of “bleeding by a thousand cuts”, someday, has been our main drawback. May be that’s changing now.

(Lieutenant General Harbaksh Singh, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan, VrC was a Three Star General in the Indian Army. As the Western Army Commander, Not just in 1947, he also played a stellar role during the war against Pkistan in 1965. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Vir Chakra. He died on November 14, 1999.)

Sant Kumar Sharma, a seasoned journalist, is an authority on Jammu and Kashmir. Two of his books on Article 370 and Delimitation are already out. The third one on Indus Waters Treaty is now out and could be bought here.

Sant began as a teacher but after six years, joined the Indian Express, Chandigarh in 1990, the year when terrorism was taking its first step in J & K and soon there would be exodus of lakhs of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. He subsequently worked for The Statesman, The Times of India and Star News among others. He is based in Jammu since May 2000.

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