When Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal died on the battlefield of Basantar in the 1971 Indo-Pak war, he had passed into legend.
On 16 December that year, he had rushed to the aid of his fellow soldiers, decimating several Patton tanks of the Pakistan Army in his lone Centurion Mk 7 tank before he was grievously wounded. He was ordered to abandon his tank, but, realising that the enemy was still pressing forward, he stuck to his position – firing till the very end.
Army in His Blood
Arun Khetarpal was born in Pune on 14 October 1950. His father, at the time, was posted as an instructor at the College of Military Engineering there. He grew up with his family, moving from place to place, studying in local schools.
He finished his schooling from The Lawrence School, Sanawar in Himachal Pradesh – a school which produced several notable alumni including former Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat and Air Marshal KC Cariappa.
Army blood ran in his veins; his great grandfather had served in General Sher Singh’s army, contributing to its victory against the British at the Battle of Chillianwala during the Second Anglo-Sikh War in 1848. His grandfather had served in the British Indian Army during the First World War and his father, Brigadier ML Khetarpal, AVSM, was a distinguished officer in the Indian Army Corps of Engineers.
Fresh out of school, in June 1967, a 16-year-old Arun Khetarpal was accepted into the National Defence Academy (NDA), the Joint Services academy where cadets of the three armed forces, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force, train together before they head to their respective specialised academies.
Four years later on 13 June 1971, he graduated from the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun and was commissioned into the Poona Horse (17 Horse) armoured regiment, which was once led by another recipient of the Param Vir Chakra, Lieutenant Colonel Ardeshir Burzorji Tarapore, a martyr of the 1965 war.
Khetarpal was with the regiment’s ‘A’ squadron, and his job was to operate a battle-tank.
A brief account of his life describes him as “a tall handsome young officer” with a very pleasant personality and “a delightful sense of humour” who was singularly devoted to his tank and its maintenance.
The Martyr of Basantar
Political tensions between West Pakistan and the erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) flared after Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s party won 160 out of 300 seats in the 1970 elections.
For the very first time, Pakistan was set to have a Bengali Prime Minister – a proposition which was unacceptable to West Pakistani leadership, who initiated a brutal military crackdown.
The Indian Army, under the leadership of Chief of Army Staff Sam Manekshaw and Indira Gandhi was assisting the Bangladeshi resistance. Indian involvement meant that Indo-Pak tensions were escalating rapidly at the western border.
On 3 December 1971, Pakistan Air Force launched pre-emptive strikes on eleven airfields across north-western India, officially triggering the war.
Arun Khetarpal, with the rest of the 17 Horse, was engaging the Pakistani Army in the Shakargarh Sector on the western border. The warfare was concentrated around the river Basantar, a tributary that met the Ravi further south.
On 16 December, Khetarpal led a fierce charge to the aid of an overwhelmed ‘B’ squadron, crushing enemy forces “till all opposition was overcome.”
The official citation for the Param Vir Chakra, written by an officer of the ‘B’ squadron, best describes his gallantry:
On the 16th December 1971, when our position at Jarpal in the Shakargarh Sector was subjected to an attack by a Pakistani armoured regiment and our troops were heavily outnumbered by enemy forces, the squadron commander asked for reinforcements. 2/Lt Khetarpal on hearing this transmission over the radio answered the call and moved with his troops to meet the enemy attack. On the way, his troops came under fire from enemy strong points and Recoilless Gun nests that were still holding out in the bridgehead established across the Basantar river by out troops.
Realising that a critical situation was developing and prompt action was to be taken, 2/Lt Khetarpal assaulted the enemy strong points, physically overrunning them and capturing the enemy’s infantry and weapon crews at pistol point. In the course of this action, the Commander of one of the tanks in his troop was killed, but 2/Lt Khetarpal continued to attack relentlessly till all opposition was overcome and he broke through towards the location of our Squadron.
When the enemy tanks started pulling back after their initial probing attacks, he chased them and destroyed one of them. When the enemy launched another attack, with an armoured squadron, against the sector held by three of our tanks, one of which was manned by 2/Lt Khetarpal, a fierce battle ensued and 10 enemy tanks were destroyed of which Khetarpal personally destroyed four.
In the fight 2/Lt Khetarpal’s tank was hit and it burst into flames and he was severely wounded. 2/Lt Khetarpal was ordered to abandon his tank but realising that the enemy was still pressing their attack in this Sector, and if he abandoned his tank the enemy would break through. In spite of grievous wounds and his own tank burning, he continued engaging the enemy tanks and destroyed one more. At this stage, his tank was hit a second time as a result of which he died but the enemy was denied the break through he was seeking so desperately.
On the same day that the 2nd Lieutenant breathed his last, 16 December 1971, the Pakistan Army signed the Instrument of Surrender and the war, which had lasted just 13 days, was won. Bangladesh had become an independent nation.
Khetarpal was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest military decoration for his “most conspicuous gallantry in the face of the enemy, indomitable fighting spirit and tenacity of purpose.”
After the war, the legendary Centurion Mk 7 tank “Fama Gusta” that Arun Khetarpal so meticulously maintained and eventually rode into battle, was restored and put on display at the Armoured Corps Centre and School in Ahmednagar.
At the Lawrence School, Sanawar – his alma mater – a life-sized statue of Arun Khetarpal was erected. A stadium at the school was also named after him.
The parade ground at the National Defence Academy was rechristened “Khetarpal Ground” in honour, and his name adorns the auditorium at the Indian Military Academy, the place that moulded him into a full-fledged officer.
Most recently, Andhadhun director Sriram Raghavan is reuniting with actor Varun Dhawan after Badlapur for a biopic on Arun Khetarpal. The film will be produced by Dinesh Vijan.
But perhaps the most poignant legacy of Arun Khetarpal life is an incident which occurred several years after his death.
In 2001, Brigadier ML Khetarpal travelled to Sargodha in Pakistan to visit the place where he was born “one last time.” In Lahore, he was hosted by Brigadier KM Nasir, a friend of a friend.
The three-day visit was without incident until Brigadier Nasir, on the very last day, told his guest that he was the one who had fired the final shot that had killed Arun Khetarpal.
"“We were soldiers unknown to each other, fighting for the safety and honour of our respective countries. I regret to have to tell you that your son died at my hands.”" - Brigadier KM Nasir, as quoted by India Today.
Brigadier Khetharpal returned to India the next day. Asked about it later, he said he harboured no resentment towards his host in Pakistan. "I'm an old soldier, I know the feeling. It's a will to dominate on the field,” he told the publication.
(With inputs from India Today and Honourpoint)
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