Millennium Post

Not giving an inch

At a time when Chinese aggression at the border is once again flaring up, it is relevant to remember the fearless exploits of Lt General Sagat Singh in the face of such misadventures

Violent-standoffs like Galwan are not about 'balance sheet' comparisons of numerical strength, technological advancements or even nuclear arsenals between the two powers. It is usually a contest of man-to-man equals as bilateral understanding necessitates non-usage of weapons, except if a power cheats the other by carrying crude contraptions that reneges on the bilateral understanding, as done by the Chinese. Even with the patented Chinese chicanery and the resultant advantage, the Indian soldiers held their own and the indefatigable spirit of the Indian Army is personified by the martyrdom of the 'Commanding Officer' who led from the front, a uniquely Indian phenomenon. Persevering in the face of unimaginable adversity has been the hallmark of the Indian soldier, as borne by the reconquering of the Kargil heights from a position of absolute disadvantage, which international military historians acknowledge as unparalleled in modern-day infantry action. The ethos of steel has been burnished in the ranks akin to the stirring warrior's impulse, 'The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy, but where they are'.

Deep in the unforgiving Thar deserts seeps the saga of fabled 'Ran Banka Rathore' warriors who have held their own, since antiquity. One such fierce clansmen was Sagat (perhaps an English distortion of 'Sakat' or unflinching) Singh, for whom joining the profession of arms was a natural choice. From the State Forces of 'Bikaner Ganga Risala' to joining the 'Third Gorkha Rifles' on the amalgamation of State Forces was a seamless transition, as the combatant had seen already seen action in Sindh and Iran-Iraq. The legend of Sagat Singh could be summed up by saying that Sagat never lost a battle, he ever partook — and he remains, arguably, the most combat intense Commander of the Indian Army. Sagat was the Brigade Commander of the only Para-Brigade that literally jumped into Panjim in the liberation of Goa in 1962. He played an invaluable role in quelling the Mizo insurgency. As the corps commander, his exploits of dare and dash that resulted in Bangladesh, are simply unmatched. Many claimants to the 'liberator' of Bangladesh abound, but it was Sagat who led the forces on the ground, whilst heliborne over his leading troops, and even had his helicopter shot at. Sagat was India's Patton, unstoppable. His warrior instinct and cavalier attitude often posited him at odds with his seniors but Sagat was too formidable to be tinkered with as he pressed ahead regardless, with his eyes fixated on Dacca, even though Dacca was not the objective for his corps. Of the three corps involved in the attack, Sagat's relentless, bold and audacious leadership saw him take his division across the mighty Meghna river, as the Pakistanis watched, thunderstruck in its temerity. Not one to pontificate, procrastinate or suffer fools — Sagat went for the kill as warriors do, a lightening overshot of objectives ensured Dacca, and a nation was borne. Not bothering about limelight or credit, Sagat's heroics were played down subsequently — but he was already a legend much earlier. Sagat hit hard, always.

While Bangladesh established Sagat as the most formidable 'Combat Commander' ever, it was in 1967 that the Military realised that Sagat was cut from a different cloth. For five years the festering wounds of 1962 Indo-Sino war had irked Sagat's conscience, and the man of destiny like his forefathers sought to avenge the slightest dishonour — opportunity came knocking, and the man who had a talent for war, latched on to with it both hands, and how! In 1965 as a Major General and GOC of 17 mountain divisions, the Chinese made provocative bids in two areas, Nathu La and Jelep La. Fatally for the Chinese, Nathu La was under Sagat's command. Given the overall situation, the HQs had given the permission to vacate and fallback — while Jelep La was vacated by the other division, Sagat famously disagreed and reasoned furiously by fortifying even further and refused to be cowed down. This brazen defiance was to proved to be useful in 1967 when Nathu La erupted in a violent clash, where serendipitously similar to Galwan, the CO of a battalion was killed by the Chinese and the Indian side 'opened up' with heavy retaliation. The dispute was on the development of military infrastructure on the Indian side — but Sagat refused to buckle and commenced relentless artillery fire along with infantry attacks. The Chinese were struck like never before, and the final tally was over 300 Chinese fatalities to 65 on the Indian side. The Chinese had picked a fight with the wrong man, Sagat was raring to have a go for over two years and when the border did erupt, Sagat redeemed his memories of 1962 and bloodied the Chinese nose that ensured no such attempt was made, till 2020.

The blood that runs through the veins of the Indian Army is of the DNA given by the likes of Sagat, who fight fair and straight. The fearless devil-may-care persona of a Sagat was perhaps unpalatable to many careerists, who ensured Sagat retired without becoming at least an Army Commander — but the warrior had kept his word to his conscience and his forefathers in all battles and had always triumphed. Sagat was unconventional in his approach, but never unprofessional — his instincts for war always saw openings which none saw, and before anyone realised, Sagat hit hard, very hard. He is the sort of leader the enemy feared and the soldiers under him revered for they knew that when the chips were down, Sagat would never back down. At 6 feet 2 inches, the giant of a man sent shivers down the Chinese by looking them in the eye and going at them, all guns blazing — such legends sometimes get overlooked by their own, as irony died a thousand deaths when Sagat was probably the only General in 71' operations who didn't get a gallantry award, but then again, the likes of Sagat neither seek nor retreat.

The writer is the former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. Views expressed are personal

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