The Chief of the Army Staff or the Field Marshals do not conduct on-ground operations during a skirmish, a battle or a war, but local commanders do. Quite by design, India has chosen to ignore the heroics of such diehards, the most prominent among them being Lt.Gen. Sagat Singh of the 3rd Gorkha Rifles. Perhaps this omission reflects the insecurities of the civilian administration vis-à-vis the military. But this creates a vacuum of role-models and icons which is then filled by petty politicians, puny sportspersons and shallow filmstars.
Even when we are informed about military expeditions, Indian students are force-fed the exploits of Clive and Kafur, Wellesley and Ghaznavi, Abdali and Taimur, but the modern day exploits of Hari Singh Nalwa and Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh are considered too extraneous to our understanding of modern History and contemporary reality. This says a lot about the worth and appropriateness of our education system, and the skewedness of our priorities.
Padma Bhushan Lt.Gen. Sagat Singh (1919-2001) had a stellar career, full of superhero-like exploits in Goa, Sikkim, Mizoram and East Pakistan- each of which needs to be recounted. Not only was he a very hard-working and pragmatic officer, he also liked to visit/survey every nook and corner of the area under his command. He was always on the move, and hands-on with the ground situation, led by example, knew his men well, planned his moves quite ahead in time, assessed situations on real-time basis, was ready to take personal and professional risks and had the audacity to take on-the-spot decisions in the interest of his missions. This brave and brilliant general knew his work and his mind, and never shied away from exceeding his brief or refusing to obey weak/faulty/wrong orders or calling a spade a spade.Suffice is to say that they don’t and can’t make like him anymore. The Age of Sagat Singh is long past.
Among all his achievements, I consider his exhibition of decisive leadership in SIKKIM between 1964 and 1967 to be of paramount importance. Sagat was appointed the GOC (Major Gen.), 17th Mountain Division in 1964, and had become well-versed with the issues and problems of the terrain by the time the War of 1965 began. China created immense pressure by amassing troops on the Sikkim border, and by issuing ultimatums to remove bunkers in the Eastern Sector, with a view to divert India’s focus from the Western front . During this tense standoff in Sikkim as a full-fledged war raged against Pakistan, India lost nerve and a decision was made to vacate Jelep La and Nathu La, and fall back into defensive positions. The 27th Mountain Division vacated Jelep La which was promptly occupied by PLA (and is still occupied by them), but Sagat Singh-led 17th M.D. refused to follow orders on grounds that it would hand over insurmountable advantage to China, give them solid foothold in Sikkim, and place Siliguri Corridor under striking distance. Sagat Singh also maintained that Nathu La fell into Indian territory and any order to vacate or cede it was unconstitutional since the armed forced were constitutionally bound to defend Indian territory at all costs.17th M.D. held on to Nathu La, and China was denied further easy-pickings in Sikkim.
Situation remained tense at NATHU LA over the next two years. By August 1967, Sagat Singh had clearance to demarcate the border by marking the crest line using barbed wires. India was following the mutually agreed-upon Watershed Principle, but PLA objected to every move to clarify matters. After multiple standoffs and shouting matches, PLA opened machine-gun fire upon 2nd Grenadiers(now under Sagat’s command) on the morning of September 11th, and slew a large number of Indian soldiers. Some of our boys ran helter-skelter and even tried to desert, but found Sagat Singh standing in their way with a sten gun in his hand and warning on his lips. He inspired them to return, and motivated the rest to pitch in and fight back. When Sagat Singh realized that the permission to use ARTILLERY was not forthcoming from the top owing to some unavoidable reasons, he exceeded his authority and commissioned the use of artillery of his own accord. Indian artillery then breathed fire upon the PLA and knocked down 340 of their soldiers dead. The Chinese were so stunned by the Indian response that they threatened to launch air attacks. The 2nd Grenadiers , under Sagat Singh, won the Battle of Nathu La which was a sweet payback for the humiliation of 1962. Sagat wanted to launch offensive inside China, but was dissuaded by the Corps Commander Jagjit Aurora.
A few days later, India inflicted another crushing defeat upon the PLA in the Battle of Cho La in a similar manner. These twin victories served as eye-openers for the PLA and resulted in long-lasting peace. Indians had found a way to call the Chinese bluff by matching them in propaganda, noise and resolve, and China in turn realized that India had recovered lost ground after 1962.
The twin battles of 1967 saved India a lot of potential trouble in 1971 since the Chinese understood that wringing the Chicken’s Neck and tying up with the East Pakistan forces was an impossible task. After 1967, China stopped giving active support to Mizo, Naga and Naxal rebels. During the 1971 War, China did not issue any ultimatum like they did in 1965, and made only token noises against India despite active encouragement by the US to intervene actively on the desperate Pakistani appeals for help. It is a different matter that these famous victories have been largely forgotten by public coming as they did between 1965 and 1971, and also because the success of 1967 contrasts sharply with the loss of 1962 and reflects badly on the then civilian leadership(Nehru and Menon)which had largely ignored local military leadership and interfered with the army top brass.
Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh’s antics were not quite well received in Delhi, and he was shunted out to MIZORAM after the twin Battles of the Passes.He played a key role in quelling insurgency and was awarded PVSM for his role in Mizoram (1964, 1967-70).
During the 1971 War, Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh held the command of IV Corps, and was stationed at Agartala. His original brief was to capture the area between Chittagong and river Meghna, and to reach its eastern side. But Sagat Singh’s men marched swiftly, thrashed and bypassed Pakistani troops astutely, and under the leadership of the Omnipresent general, found themselves on the banks of Meghna a lot earlier than they were expected. J.S.Aurora and Sagat had major differences over IV Corps’ next course of action, but the irrepressible Singh was not to be denied his place under the Sun. He miraculously constructed an Airbridge over Meghna in what was the first ever heli-borne operation of the Indian Army, with awestruck Pakistanis watching from both sides of the river. Using just 10 Mi-4 Helicopters, he transported firstly a battalion ,and then a whole division across Meghna. From thereon, it was just a matter of time before he reached Dacca, and took hold of the capital. Of course, Sagat Singh had the support of IAF which had completely destroyed the PAF capabilities and the backing of locals, but it was this heaven-born general’s indefatigable energy and Himalayan self-belief which just projected him and the IV Corps as bigger, faster and taller than anyone else. Sagat Singh , the actual liberator of Dacca, was present at the time of Niyazi’s surrender, and stood just behind J.S.Aurora.
Exceeding his brief, defying simplistic and defeatist orders and forcing the pace of Operations came naturally to this Warrior-General from Rajasthan. His role in the Liberation of Goa was equally instrumental. Sagat led the 50th Para Brigade in 1961, and was briefed to assist the main charge from the east by 17th Infantry Division. The Paras were to provide support from north, drop by the Mandavi river, and hold certain crucial bridges to keep the Portuguese at bay. But by the evening of December 18th, the day on which Operation Vijay was launched, the Para Brigade operated very swiftly while the 17th Infantry found the going tough on ground. The next morning, Paras ended up securing Panjim (in less than 24 hours since Op.Vijay was launched). Sagat Singh became a national villain in Portugal, so much so that posters carrying his picture and promising a reward of USD 10000 for his head adorned the walls of Lisbon even a year after the liberation.
Amid all this hectic action (1961-71), it is sometimes forgotten that Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh was quite a charmer who enjoyed close friendship with the royal couple of Sikkim- Hope Cooke, the American-born queen and Palden Thondup, the Chogyal. While the royals of the Indian Protectorate (between 1950-74) had a frosty relationship with the civilian administration and Indian leadership, Sagat was a personal joy in the life of Hope and the King. While he was posted in Gangtok in the 1960s, Sagat played a key role in keeping the royal couple beholden to Indian interests, despite their own instincts for increased autonomy as instigated by the West in face of sinister Chinese designs and Indian dillydallying and heavy-handedness. After the events of 1965-71, the writing on the wall was quite clear for the Chogyal , China and the West, as Sikkim became a full state of the Indian Union in 1975.
For his contributions towards keeping India safe and furthering her interests in Goa, East Pakistan and Sikkim, Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh’s life and exploits should be celebrated by common Indians. Alas, India remains so fixated with politics, cricket and Bollywood that the real architects of the country have been lost to obscurity.
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#GoaLiberation #watershed1967 #1965War #1971War