Honour among soldiers .. a beautiful, true story of how 2Lt Arun Khetrapal (PVC*)’s father was hosted by the Pakistani officer who killed his son on the battlefield in Dec 1971.
An Emotional one….
The Last Train from Gun Hill.
by Brig ML Khetrapal:
My son goes to Sanawar, a school up in the Himalayas. It used to be a Military school (154 years old) and like any old school, Sanawar has its fair share of heroes amongst its old students. One such hero from that school that I want to write about is 2nd Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, son of Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal. He was born on 14 October 1950, in Pune, Maharashtra. He was commissioned in the 17 Poona Horse on 13 June 1971, just a few months before the Indo-Pakistan 1971 war. The story of his heroism is as follows:
During the 1971 Indo-Pak War, the 47 Infantry Brigade, with the 17 Poona Horse under command, was ordered to establish a bridge-head across the Basantar river in Shakargarh sector. The 47 Inf. Bde. completed the task by 2100 hours on December 15th.. It was now for the engineers to breach the Pakistani mine-fields and make a safe lane for the induction of the 17 Poona Horse in support of the bridge-head.
While the engineers were half way through their task, the Indian troops at the bridge-head reported alarming activity of the Pakistani armour. They requested immediate tank support. But the mine-field had been cleared only partially by that time. At this critical juncture, the 17 Poona Horse decided to push through the mine-field come what may. By first light on December 16th, the regiment established a link-up between the armour and the infantry at the bridge-head.
At 0800 hours, the Pakistanis made a counter-attack with an armoured regiment, under the cover of a smoke-screen. The target was the regimental pivot at Jarpal. As the Indians troops were heavily outnumbered, the Commander of ‘B’ Squadron requested reinforcement. At that time, 2nd Lt. Khetarpal was positioned close to the squadron with his troops in two tanks. He answered the call and moved out to face the Pakistani attack. On the way, his troops came under fire from Pakistani strong points and recoilless gun nests, in the bridge-head zone.
2nd Lt. Khetarpal fiercely attacked these strong-points, over-ran Pakistani defences and captured many Pakistani soldiers and recoilless guns at gun point. During one of these attacks, the commander of his second tank was killed on the spot leaving him alone. But he continued attack on the Pakistani strongholds single-handed, until all the Pakistani positions were overwhelmed. He then raced to the ‘B’Squadron position. By the time he reached there, the Pakistani tanks were on the retreat. He pursued and destroyed one of these tanks. The ‘B’ Squadron Commander could persuade him to fall back in line after great difficulty.
The Pakistanis soon reformed for a second attack. This time they chose the sector held by 2nd Lt. Arun Khetarpal and two other Officers, for the main attack. The Pakistani employed a complete armoured squadron against these three tanks in order to achieve a breakthrough.
A fierce tank battle followed. As many as ten Pakistani tanks were destroyed and of these 2nd Lieutenant Khetarpal alone destroyed four… In the thick of the battle, two of the three Indian tanks became casualties-one was hit and another suffered mechanical failure.
The third tank, which was 2nd Lt. Khetarpal’s tank, also received a shot and burst into flames. The Commander of the tank troops ordered 2nd Lt. Khetarpal to abandon the burning tank. But realising the useful role of his tank in preventing a breakthrough he communicated the following message to his Commander: "No Sir, I will not abandon my tank. My gun is still working and I will get these guys."
Then he set about destroying the remaining Pakistani tanks. The last Pakistani tank which he shot was barely 100 metres from his position. At this stage his tank received a second hit. The brave Officer met his death denying the Pakistani the intended breakthrough.
For his conspicuous gallantry in the face of the Pakistani, 2nd Lt. Arun Khetarpal was honoured with the highest wartime gallantry medal, the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously.
He was the youngest Indian to win this highest award. The Indo-Pakistan war of 1971, nearly 38 years ago is history for most of us.
However a strange sequel was to follow for the Khetarpal family.
Many years later, India and Pakistan established ‘people to people’ contacts between both the nations. This was also known as ‘Twin Track Diplomacy’.
Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal, father of 2nd Lt. Khetarpal started receiving messages that a certain Brigadier from the Pakistani army was keen to meet him. However since he did not know this particular Brigadier, Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal did not do anything to encourage the meeting.
In 2001, Brigadier M.L. Khetarpa, now 81 years old, felt a strong desire to visit his birthplace, at Sargodha, now in Pakistan. It was a wish that he thought that would never materialize, but when he voiced it to some friends engaged in the Twin Track Diplomacy, they arranged all his papers, visas, travel and staying arrangements in Pakistan so that he could go for the visit.
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 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, all the members of his family and his many servants.
As the countdown for the departure progressed, the bonds of friendship between the
guests and the host grew stronger and stronger. 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. However what was certain was that he would always remember the hospitality, warmth and affection of this Pakistani family who treated him as someone very very special.
Finally at 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 is only later that I got to know how young he was and who he was. We are trained to fight and kill without mercy or remorse. We do in war what we have to without thinking too much about it. However we are humans too and sometimes war takes a personal turn and makes an impact on the inner self..
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 faced with the person who killed his son, and also to be enjoying his hospitality and being his guest is a confusing feeling. However Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal immediately realized that Brigadier
Naser was genuinely wanting, in some way to compensate for something that he did only in the line of duty. The soldier must do what he has been trained to do unhesitatingly, and with full resolve and determination.
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.
Khawja Mohammad Naser,
13 Lancers (Pakistan Army)
02 March 2001
Note: *PVC – Param Veer Chakra, the highest military gallentry award of India.