LIEUT-GENERAL SAGAT SINGH, PVSM
Sagat Singh is one of India's most brilliant and audacious military leaders. Though not as well known as some of his contemporaries, his record as a combat leader is unmatched. He not only succeeded in every operation, but went beyond, and achieved more than what he was asked to do. Imbued with an aggressive spirit, and the ability to take risks, he is the epitome of the combat leader, who leads from the front. A brilliant tactician and strategist, he was known for his unconventional and creative manoeuvres, which are the key to success in battle. Tales about his wartime exploits abound, and are studied by students in military training institutions. Though he did not reach the top of the military ladder, he is better known than many who did. He was the most successful Corps Commander during the 1971 Indo-Pak War, but surprisingly, he was given neither a decoration, nor a promotion. He was a difficult subordinate, and his penchant for the unconventional, and scant regard for rules and regulations, acted as obstacles in his career. Viewed purely from the military angle, Sagat's performance as a combat leader was par excellence. His standing among Indian military leaders is the same as that of Patton in the US Army, and of Rommel in the Wehrmacht.
Sagat was born on 14 July 1919, in Bikaner. His father, Thakur Brij Pal Singh, was a Rathore Rajput, from the vassalage of Bikaner, which was one of the important Indian states ruled by the Rathores, the other being Marwar (Jodhpur). He was serving in the famous Camel Corps of Bikaner, and fought in World War I, in Mesopotamia, now called Iraq. Sagat was the eldest of three brothers, and had his early education in Walter Nobles' School, in Bikaner. After school, he joined Dungar College, in Bikaner. However, he did not finish his graduation, and after passing the Intermediate examination, joined the Bikaner State Forces.
Soon after World war II started, Sagat joined the IMA, as an Indian State Forces Cadet. After passing out in 1941, he went back to the Bikaner State Forces, after a short attachment with a British battalion, the South West Borders, which was then at Bannu, in the North West Frontier Province. He joined the Bikaner State Forces at Secunderabad, from where it moved to Chaman, on the Frontier, and later to Faizabad, in the United Provinces. Finally, in October 1941, the unit was ordered to move to Iraq, to suppress the Rashid Ali revolt. After a few months in Iraq, the unit was moved to Kut-el-Amara, and then to Syria, and Palestine, before returning to Iraq, as part of 6 Indian Division. In 1943, he was nominated to attend the junior staff course at the Staff College, at Haifa.
When Sagat reported to the Staff College, he found that the waiters serving in the mess were all Italians, and did not understand English. Sagat asked the British Major, an old re-employed officer who was in charge of the mess, to pass instructions that he should not be served beef. The Major called the Staff Sergeant, and began to pass the orders. The Sergeant nodded his head, and told Sagat not to worry, since the waiters knew about the eating habits of Indians, as they had one on the previous course. When Sagat was served his first meal, he thought the meat did not look like mutton. When he asked a colleague, he was informed that it was indeed beef. After a great deal of expostulation, it was discovered that the 'Indian' on the previous course was the son of Sir Sikander Hayat Khan. The waiters had been told that he did not pork, and they had assumed that Sagat, being an Indian, would have the same preferences. To be on the safe side, Sagat decided to stay away from meat altogether, and remained a vegetarian for the rest of his stay at Haifa.
The course at Haifa, though of seven months duration, was called the junior staff course, and not equated to the full staff course, at Camberley or Quetta. In 1945, he was nominated on the staff course, at Quetta, and thus had the chance to attend two staff courses, within three years. After the course, Sagat returned to Bikaner, to join his unit. However, after the merger of the Indian States with the Indian Union in 1947, he decided to opt for the Indian Army. His application was accepted, and on 15 January 1949, he was granted a permanent commission in the Indian Army. His service in the Bikaner State Forces was counted, and he was given the seniority from 27 October 1941, and assigned to the 3rd Gorkha Rifles. Since he was one of the few officers in the Indian Army who had done the staff course, he was posted to HQ Delhi Area, as GSO 2 (Ops). The GOC was Major General Tara Singh Bal, and the tactical HQ was in the Red Fort.
After a short tenure at Delhi, Sagat was posted as Brigade Major to 168 Infantry Brigade, which was then in Chhamb. From this appointment, he was reverted to regimental service in 1954, and posted as second-in-command, 3/3 Gorkha Rifles, then being commanded by Lieut-Colonel P.S. Thapa. The battalion was located at Bharatpur, in Rajasthan, which was Sagat's home state. In November 1954, it moved to Dharamsala, as part of a brigade which was under the command of Brigadier (later Lieut General) P.O. Dunn, who was from the same regiment, and had commanded 1/3 Gorkha Rifles earlier.
In February 1955, Sagat was promoted Lieut Colonel, and given command of 2/3 Gorkha Rifles, which was then at Ferozepore, in the Punjab. He relieved Lieut Colonel Nand Lal Kapur, who had come to the regiment from the Rajputana Rifles. Before Independence, Gorkha regiments were officered only by the British, and no Indians had been permitted. In fact, there was a general feeling among British officers that Gorkha troops would refuse to serve under Indian officers. After Independence, four of the ten Gorkha regiments were transferred to the British Army, while the rest remained in India. However, all Gorkha soldiers were given the choice, to serve in the British or the Indian Army. It came as a surprise to the British that 90 per cent opted to serve in India, under Indian officers. The 2nd, 6th, 7th and 10th Gurkhas became part of ' The Brigade of British Gurkhas'. The 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th and 9th Gurkhas remained in the Indian Army, and were renamed the 'Gorkhas', which was their correct ethnic name. Officers from other regiments of the Indian Army were posted to replace the British officers, who left for home. The majority came from the regiments which had been transferred to Pakistan, such as the Frontier Force and the Baluch Regiment.
2/3 Gorkha Rifles was then part of 167 Infantry Brigade, which was being commanded by Brigadier Badshah. In October 1955, the battalion moved to Jammu, and soon thereafter, Sagat was nominated on the Senior Officers Course, at the Infantry School, Mhow. In December 1955 he handed over command to Lieut Colonel J.P. D'Cunha, who came from his erstwhile battalion, 3/3 Gorkha Rifles. After completing the Senior Officers Course, on which he was an awarded an instructors' grading, Sagat was posted as CO 3/3 Gorkha Rifles, in which he had served as the second-in-command. The CO of 3/3 GR had been removed in February 1956, and the second-in-command, Major P.J. Heffernon was officiating, till Sagat assumed command in April 1956. It was still located at Dharamsala, and Sagat set about improving the standard of training and morale, in right earnest. As a result, the battalion performed exceedingly well, and won the divisional competitions in football, boxing, and skill-at-arms. During an exercise, while performing the role of Advance Guard, it moved at such a blistering pace that the Corps Commander, Lieut General (later General) J.N. Chaudhury, commented, " The rate of advance by the Advance Guard was so rapid that it could not be accepted as normal for planning purposes."
An interesting incident which occurred during Sagat's command was the 'khud race' (khud, loosely translated, means a valley, or steep incline; a khud race is a cross country race, across hills and valleys). 3 Sikh was located nearby, and there was great rivalry between the two battalions, in games and sports. One day, the CO of the Sikhs remarked that his boys could out pace the Gorkhas, anytime, and challenged them to a 'khud race'. He had probably said it a a joke, but Sagat took up the challenge seriously. On the day of the race, he invited the Corps Commander, in addition to the Divisional and Brigade Commanders. Also present was Justice G.D. Khosla, of the Punjab High Court. The Gorkhas won the race, and the Corps Commander said, "Well, there is no doubt as to who is superior up and down the hills." As for Justice Khosla, it was an unique experience, and he remarked, "It is the most thrilling sport I have ever seen. To see a Gorkha coming down the hill is a pleasure indeed."
The battalion moved to an operational area in the Poonch Sector, in Jammu and Kashmir, in August 1957. In November 1957, Sagat handed over command of 3/3 Gorkha Rifles to Lieut Colonel P. Raghavan, and proceeded to the Infantry School, where he had been posted as a Senior Instructor. After spending about a year as Senior Instructor, Sagat was appointed GSO 1, in the Training Team. He was now responsible for preparation of the training material, used for instruction. This involved revision of outdoor as well as indoor exercises, and updating the syllabus, to incorporate new concepts and tactical doctrine. In 1959, he was promoted Colonel, and posted to Delhi, as Deputy Director, Personnel Services, in the Adjutant General's Branch, at Army HQ. He now had to deal with a large number of subjects, such as pay, pension, ceremonials, welfare , terms and conditions of service, etc. He replaced Colonel (later Major General) D.K. 'Monty' Palit, who was promoted, and given command of a brigade.
After a short stint in Delhi, Sagat was promoted Brigadier, and given command of 50 Parachute Brigade, at Agra, in September 1961. This was unprecedented, since he was not a paratrooper, and would have to earn his 'wings', before he could become one. He was then over 40 years old, and few people had started jumping at that age. But Sagat knew that he had to get the coveted 'wings,' before he was accepted in the fraternity of paratroopers, and could wield any authority. He had to undergo the tough probation course, before he could begin his jumps. To save time, he sometimes did two jumps a day, and got his 'wings' in record time. For a person of his age, it was no mean achievement. Para troopers place a high premium on courage and physical toughness, and this improved his stock in the brigade as nothing else could have done. At that time, 50 Parachute Brigade had only two battalions, 1 Para and 2 Para, with the latter having recently joined the formation from Jammu and Kashmir. To get to know his command, and gauge the state of training, Sagat set tactical exercises for both battalion groups. This turned out to be fortuitous, since 2 Para was subsequently given an operational task of a similar kind, except for the riverine obstacles, in Goa.
It was while commanding 50 Parachute Brigade that Sagat really flowered, and his genius as a combat leader came to the fore. During the Goa operations, he displayed tactical brilliance, and the ability to seize opportunities in battle, which few commanders are gifted with. Sagat proved the adage that in war, the timorous rarely succeed, while the bold invariably triumph, even against heavy odds. The story of his exploits during the operations is now part of the Indian Army's folk lore, and is often quoted as an example to students of military science.
On 29 November 1961, Sagat received a telephone call from 'Monty' Palit, who was the DMO, at Army HQ, and asked to rush to Delhi. Sagat commandeered a Dakota of the Paratroopers' Training School, and was in Palit's office in less than an hour. It was here that he learned about the operation for the liberation of Goa, and his own role in it. He was informed that the CGS, Lieut General B.M. Kaul, would be holding a conference later in the day, to finalise the plans. Sagat spent the next few hours studying the terrain, and a brief history of Goa. During the conference, held in the evening, Sagat was informed that a battalion group from his brigade would be used in an air borne role. Since time and the riverine obstacles were the main considerations, Sagat suggested that 2 Para be dropped by night, in area Ponda, so that the water obstacles of rivers Sanquelim, Bicholim, Usgaon and Candepar could be over-passed. The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Operational Command, who was present, expressed his inability to undertake a night drop. Sagat then suggested that one company be dropped at dawn, another at first light, and the rest of the battalion subsequently, by day. This was accepted, and Sagat returned to Agra, in high spirits. When the news of the proposed drop came to be known next day, there was considerable excitement and jubilation in the brigade. 2 Para was moved to Begumpet (Hyderabad), and began training for the drop straight away.
Before discussing the operations, a brief history of Goa would be in order. Of the three Portuguese enclaves in India, Goa was the largest, with an area of 3,635 square kilometres, and a population of approximately six hundred thousand, of whom more than half were Hindus. The other two enclaves were Daman and Diu, located more than five hundred kilometers to the North of Goa. Daman, including the parganas ( a pargana is a sub division of a district) of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, had an area of 213 square kilometres, and a population of about sixty thousand. Diu was even smaller, measuring just 39 square kilometres, and a population of about twenty thousand. Freedom movements had come up in these colonies, as in the rest of India, and when the British left in 1947, the demand for independence by the people of Goa also intensified.
In July 1954, volunteers of the United Front of Goans liberated Dadra and Nagar Haveli. A year later, on 15 August 1955, about three thousand people entered Goa, to offer 'Satyagraha' (a non violent form of agitation, practised by Mahatama Gandhi). The police opened fire, killing and wounding a large number of these non violent protesters. This led to a wave of anger among the Indian people, and considerable public pressure on the Indian Government to liberate Goa. The Government of Portugal rejected all offers of the Government of India, and refused to even discuss the matter. The issue was raised in the United Nations in 1960, but Portugal refused to provide any information about its colonies. This resulted in a resolution by the UN Trusteeship Council, in November 1961, condemning Portugal's refusal, and asking all member states to 'deny any help to Portugal, which could be used for the subjugation of the people of the non autonomous territories under Portuguese administration'. In October 1961, during a seminar on Portuguese Colonialism held in New Delhi, Prime Minister Nehru indicated that India had now started thinking of using 'other methods' of liberating the colonies. The Army was accordingly warned about the possibility of a military operation, and began preparations. When the Portuguese fired on an Indian vessel, the SS Sabarmati, from Anjidiv island, on 18 November, 1961, wounding the Chief Engineer, the Indian Government decided to act, and the Army was asked to go in. Two warships of the Indian Navy - the Kirpan and the Rajput - were sent from Bombay to the Karwar coast, on 28 November. On 30 November 1961, the Government took the decision to liberate Goa, and all other areas under Portuguese control, by a combined operation, involving the three Services.
The terrain in Goa favoured the defender, and precluded the use of armour, due to the large number of rivers and inland creeks. The Portuguese had about three battalions of infantry, and one squadron of wheeled armoured cars. The naval element consisted of one frigate, the 'Albuquerque', equipped with 120 mm cannons. There was no air force worth the name, except for a two transport planes, of the Portuguese civil airline TAIP. The total number of soldiers, including Goans serving in Portuguese Forces, was about 5,000 in Goa, and 750 each in Daman and Diu.
The operation for the liberation of Goa, code named 'Vijay', was planned for 14 December, 1961. Lieut-General J.N. Chaudhuri, GOC-in-C Southern Command, was entrusted with the task. In order to prevent international intervention, and reinforcements from Portugal reaching Goa, it was essential that the operation was quick, and decisive. After a quick appreciation, Chaudhury decided to mount a two pronged attack. The main force, comprising 17 Infantry Division, was to move into Goa from the East, while 50 Parachute Brigade, under Brigadier Sagat Singh, was to mount a subsidiary thrust from the North. Major General K.P. Candeth, GOC 17 Infantry Division, was placed in overall command of the task force. Daman and Diu were to be simultaneously tackled by a battalion each, while the Navy was to capture Anjidiv island, and blockade the ports of Margao, Vasco and Daman. The Indian Air Force was assigned the task of destroying the airfield at Dambolim and the wireless station at Bambolim, in addition to close support to the ground troops. To ensure that the Indian troops were not held up on the obstacles, a large amount of bridging equipment was grouped with the main column. A para drop by a battalion group of the Parachute Brigade was also planned, near Panjim, to capture vital bridges before they could be destroyed by the Portuguese.
50 Para Brigade began its move from Agra on 2 December, reaching Belgaum on the 6th. The drop by 2 Para had by now been cancelled, due to the Air Force backing out, and this battalion, which had moved to Begumpet earlier, also joined the brigade, in the concentration area. Another battalion joined the brigade in Belgaum, and became its third battalion. This was 2 Sikh Light Infantry, which had been performing garrison duties in Madras, and had done no collective training for a considerable period. They were also not fully equipped, and even lacked boots. Another factor was that being a non para unit, the newcomers were not imbued with the characteristic espirit-de-corps and elan of the 'red berets'. However, Sagat welcomed them, and tried his best to make them feel at home. Since it was expected that they would meet some Portuguese armour, Sagat was allotted 7 Light Cavalry, less a squadron, equipped with Stuarts, and B Squadron, 8 Cavalry, which had AMX tanks. However, being designed for an air borne role, the brigade was woefully short of transport. After much cajoling, Sagat managed to get some Nissan 1 ton trucks.
The brigade moved to Savantvadi on 13 December, and thence to its assembly area East of Dodamarg on the 16th. Meanwhile, 17 Infantry Division had also commenced its move from Ambala on 2 December, and had concentrated in Belgaum by 12 December. A tactical headquarters was established by HQ Southern Command at Belgaum on 13 December, and the Army Commander with his staff began to function from here. D Day for the operation was initially decided as 14 December, but was later postponed, due to political reasons, in an attempt to avert the conflict, and resolve the problem by diplomatic means. It was finally decided that the operation would commence on the night of 18 December.
Three days before D Day, the COAS, General P.N. Thapar, accompanied by Lieut General P.P. Kumaramangalam, the Adjutant General, and Lieut General J.N. Chaudhury, the Army Commander, visited the brigade, and Sagat presented his plan for the operation. At the end of the presentation, the Army Commander expressed the view that Sagat's timings were too optimistic, and had reservations about them being adhered to. Sagat then gave the timings in writing, and the party left, after wishing the brigade good luck. On return to his tactical HQ, The Army Commander conveyed his doubts to his staff. However, Air Vice Marshal Pinto, and the Chief of Staff, Major General P.O. Dunn, as well as Mr. G.N. Handoo, of the IB, who knew Sagat well, supported him, and he was allowed to proceed according to his plan. As it happened, Sagat had already kept a reserve of four hours, and was able to remain well ahead of the estimated timings, when the operations took place.
50 Parachute Brigade had been given a subsidiary task, of advancing from the North, primarily to tie down the Portuguese troops in that area. However, Sagat was not the type to be shackled by rigid orders, and had already visualised a larger role for himself. He had decided to move on a wide front on two axes, with a vehicle mounted battalion group on each, supported by armour and artillery. He reasoned that if he was held up on one axis, he would continue the advance on the other, and using the reserve battalion, advance deeper into Goa, either through Bicholim-Mapuca-Panjim Creek, or via Sanquelim-Usgaon-Ponda-Velha Goa, on to Panjim. 2 Sikh Light Infantry group, supported by a squadron of 7th Cavalry and a troop ex 8 Cavalry, was tasked to advance on the Bicholim axis. 2 Para, supported by rest of 7th Cavalry and a troop ex 8th Cavalry, was assigned the Sanquelim axis. 1 Para was kept in reserve.
Though the operation was to commence on the night of 18 December, Sagat had decided to launch fighting patrols the previous night, to overcome the border outposts, in order to facilitate the entry of the main column across the border the following morning. Accordingly, Sagat had tasked 1 Para to capture two border outposts, and 2 Para to proceed along the 'smugglers route' and capture the single span 110 feet long bridge over the Sanquelim river, on the previous night. As these preliminary operations were going on, All India Radio gave the game away, by announcing shortly after midnight, that Indian troops were crossing into Goa. This alerted the Portuguese, and the element of surprise, so important in such operations, was lost. One company of 2 Para, after a swift night approach, had reached within 200 yards of the bridge, when barking dogs alerted the defending troops, who quickly fired the demolitions and fled. The Portuguese Governor General and C-in-C, Major General Vassalo De Silva, was from the Corps of Engineers, and had got demolition chambers made in all the bridges, with explosives attached, for rapid demolitions. However, the company of 2 Para found a crossing place, and secured the home bank, enabling the tanks, guns and vehicles to cross the river. The Portuguese had not been able to fire all the demolition charges, and only those at the two ends had exploded. The single span had fallen down but was undamaged. Using marine jacks, the span was lifted, and with the addition of abutments at both ends, the bridge was soon re-commissioned. 1 Para also managed to capture the villages of Ibrampur, Maulinguem and Doromaoga, by first light of 18 December, though it suffered some casualties.
The advance of 17 Infantry Division commenced from its assembly area South of Belgaum, at dawn on 18 December, with 63 Infantry Brigade in the lead. It was planned to advance up to Ponda, by way of Mollem. 48 Infantry Brigade, which was following, was to pass through at Ponda, and go for Panjim, which was the final objective. Due to the advance on foot and abnormally large bridging column which was following the leading brigade, 48 Infantry Brigade could not keep up its advance, and when it reached River Candepar in evening, it found it was already occupied by paratroopers. Two battalions of 50 Parachute Brigade, 2 Para and 2 Sikh LI, had also commenced their advance at first light, on 18 December. Moving on converging axes, they did not let the blown up bridges deter them and simply swam across. The absence of heavy equipment, and light opposition from the enemy, coupled with initiative of the leaders, made this possible. As a result, the para troopers made excellent progress, and achieved more than what was expected from them. By 8.30 a.m. 2 Sikh LI had taken Bicholim and by 10.30 a.m. 2 Para reached Sanquelim, and by 5.30 p.m., occupied Ponda. This was done in spite of two major obstacles, in the form of the rivers Usgaon and Candepar, which were crossed by means of improvised rafts and fording.
After the crossing of the wide Usgaon river, Sagat felt that there was now no need to hold 1 Para in reserve, and he ordered them to head straight for Banasterim, after crossing the ferry at Piligao. According to his initial plan, on reaching Panjim, 2 Para was to establish a firm base close to the city, and 1 Para would be tasked to clear the expected resistance in the built up area. The lack of enemy resistance, and speed of advance had altered the situation. Another development took place at tactical HQ of Southern Command, at Belgaum. A wireless intercept indicated that the Portuguese Governor General had called for a meeting next morning at 8 a.m., to consider surrender. The Army Commander, when informed of this, realised that the Portuguese had lost the battle. Seeing the slow progress of 17 Infantry Division, and the rapid advance of 50 Para Brigade, he decided to change the plan. The task of capturing Panjim, which had been earlier assigned to 17 Division, was now given to the paratroopers, who were asked resume advance during the night. Due to break down in signal communications, this order could not be passed to HQ 17 Infantry Division, which had ordered 50 Para Brigade to firm in at Ponda, and tasked 48 Brigade to capture Panjim. However, Lieut-General Chaudhury personally spoke to the Brigade Major of 50 Para Brigade, and passed these instructions, since Sagat was away from his headquarters, visiting 2 Para, at that time. Incidentally, 50 Para Brigade was able to maintain contact with Belgaum throughout the operation, thanks to a radio relay detachment, which Sagat had managed to get from Major General R.N. Batra, the Signal Officer-in-Chief, on the 'old boy' net.
The advance of 2 Sikh LI was initially slow, even though it was led by the squadron of 7 Cavalry, and a troop of AMX tanks. Sagat felt that they had a tendency to hug the ground, and this accounted for their slow progress. He had to personally push them hard, before they speeded up their advance, and reached the Betim ferry, on the Panjim Creek, by last light. By this time, 1 Para had reached the outskirts of Panjim. With two battalions around Panjim by the evening of 18 December, 50 Para Brigade was now poised to capture the town, from the East as well as the North. However, it was almost dark, and Sagat did not want to enter the built up area of Panjim by night. He ordered 1 Para and 2 Sikh LI to halt, and establish harbours, for the night.
On the morning of 19 December, using the Betim ferry, some troops of 2 Sikh LI crossed the Panjim Creek, and arrived in Panjim at 8 am. Shortly afterwards, 1 Para also reached Panjim. Except for some firing from the customs house, there was no effective resistance, and the city was in Indian hands by 9 a.m. By a remarkable coincidence, the COs of both battalions had the same name. 1 Para was being commanded by Lieut Colonel Sucha Singh, VrC, MC, while the CO of 2 Sikh LI was Lieut Colonel Sucha Singh. It was the latter who won the race by an hour, and had the honour of accepting the surrender of the Portuguese troops, who had assembled in the officers mess. Major General Vassalo De' Silva, the Governor General and C-in-C, escaped to Marmagao, and surrendered later. The Navy had already taken Anjidiv island the previous day, and also sunk the Portuguese frigate 'Albuquerque'. At 11 a.m., Lieut-General Chaudhury, accompanied by Air Vice Marshal Pinto arrived in a helicopter, and got the tri-colour hoisted on the Secretariat building. Goa had been liberated, in an operation which lasted a little over 24 hours.
Contrary to popular perception, the Portuguese did not surrender their enclaves without a fight. In Goa, the opposition was limited, but in Daman and Diu they put up stiff resistance. After the wireless station had been destroyed, communications between Goa and the other enclaves had been disrupted, and this may have accounted for the spirited defence put up by them. However, both Daman and Diu were occupied on 19 December, with the support of the Air Force, as well as the Navy, accompanied by heavy artillery shelling. This resulted in several casualties among troops as well as civilians.
Before the operations had started, there had been considerable speculation about the parachute brigade, and its chances of success in a ground role. In fact, Air Vice Marshal Pinto and Mr. Handoo, the Director of IB, had started a betting book, and wagers were made on the timings that the paratroopers had set for themselves. After the surrender, when Pinto came to Panjim with Chaudhury, he told Sagat that thanks to him, he had lost five hundred rupees. The Army Commander had lost all three bets. Another interesting side light of the Goa operations was the propaganda, about Indian troops being barbaric and indisciplined, which the Portuguese authorities had been spreading, with the hope of hardening the resolve of their troops. In fact, this had exactly the opposite effect. After the surrender, when 1 Para arrived at Altinho military camp, they found a large number of Portuguese officers and soldiers in their vests and underpants, cowering with fright. When asked the reason for their strange attire, they stated that they had been told that Indian troops would kill anyone of them found in uniform. Lieut Colonel Sucha Singh, VrC, MC, and his men had a good laugh.
Though the result of the operations in Goa was along expected lines, the speed of the Indian advance surprised many observers. The credit for this goes to Sagat, and his troops, who exceeded their brief, and managed to reach Panjim, which they had not been asked to do. The fact that 17 Infantry Division, in spite of the vastly superior resources at their disposal, and almost no opposition from the enemy, could make little headway, goes to show that the going was not easy. If the paratroopers succeeded, it was because of better fighting spirit, morale and leadership. The ability to take risks, and seize fleeting opportunities is the hall mark of a successful military leader, and Sagat proved beyond doubt that he had these qualities in ample measure. The failure of Indian troops, barely a year afterwards when facing the Chinese, only underlined the point that irrespective of the fighting capabilities of the soldier, it is the quality of leadership which tilts the balance, in war.
By the middle of June 1962, 50 Para Brigade was back in Agra. One day, Sagat was in the Clarkes Shiraz Hotel, in civilian clothes. Also present was a group of American tourists, who kept looking at him intently. Finally, one of them came up to him and asked him if he was Brigadier Singh. Sagat answered in the affirmative, and then asked the American how he had recognised him. The American replied that they had recently visited Portugal, and had seen his photograph in several cafes and restaurants, with the caption that anyone capturing him and handing him over to the Portuguese Government would be given a reward of ten thousand dollars. Sagat had a hearty laugh, and offered to be captured, but the Americans declined, since they said they were not going back to Lisbon.
Though for the troops taking part, Operation Vijay had been a full fledged military operation, the Indian Government called it a police action. Several officers, including Sagat, were recommended for gallantry awards, but Krishna Menon, who was the Defence Minister, ruled that since it was a police action, no awards could be given. Of course, the rest of the World was not fooled by this terminology. Many years later, when Sagat was commanding 4 Corps, B.K. Nehru, who was the Governor of Assam, told him an interesting story. In 1961, Nehru was the Indian ambassador in Washington. After the liberation of Goa, he met President Kennedy, to explain the circumstances which had forced the Indian Government to undertake the operation. Kennedy told Nehru that he understood that India had to do what they did, for geo-political reasons. What he did not understand was the manner in which the Indian Government tried to justify a military operation as a police action, and at the same time went on preaching non violence, to all and sundry. He laughed, and said that it was like a priest being caught in a brothel.
In January 1964, Sagat handed over command of 50 Para Brigade to Brigadier A.M.M. Nambiar, and proceeded to attend the fourth course, at the National Defence College, in Delhi. After spending a year on the course, he was posted as Brigadier General Staff 11 Corps, in January 1965. He served in this appointment for just six months, and in July 1965, was promoted Major General, and posted as GOC 17 Mountain Division, replacing Major General Har Prasad. The division was then in Sikkim, and soon after he took over, there was a crisis. In order to help Pakistan during the 1965 War, the Chinese served an ultimatum, and demanded that the Indians withdraw their posts at Nathu La and Jelep La. According to the Corps HQ, the main defences of 17 Mountain Division were at Changgu, while Nathu La was only an observation post. In the adjoining sector, manned by 27 Mountain Division, Jelep La was also considered an observation post, with the main defences located at Lungthu. In case of hostilities, the divisional commanders had been given the authority to vacate the posts, and fall back on the main defences. Accordingly, orders were issued by Corps HQ to both divisions to vacate Nathu La and Jelep La.
Sagat did not agree with the views of the Corps HQ. Nathu La and Jelep La were passes, on the watershed, which was the natural boundary. The MacMahon Line, which India claimed as the International Border, followed the water shed principle, and India and China had gone to war over this issue, three years earlier. Vacating the passes on the watershed would give the Chinese the tactical advantage of observation and fire, into India, while denying the same to our own troops. Nathu La and Jelep La were also important because they were on the trade routes between India and Tibet, and provided the only means of ingress through the Chumbi Valley. Younghusband had used the same route during his expedition, sixty five years earlier, and handing it over to the enemy on a plate was not Sagat's idea of sound military strategy. Sagat also reasoned that the discretion to vacate the posts lay with the divisional commander, and he was not obliged to do so, based on instructions from Corps HQ.
As a result of orders issued by Corps HQ, 27 Mountain Division vacated Jelep La, which the Chinese promptly occupied. However, Sagat refused to vacate Nathu La, and when the Chinese became belligerent, and opened fire, he also opened up with guns and mortars, though there was a restriction imposed by Corps on the use of artillery. Lieut-General (later General) G.G. Bewoor, the Corps Commander, was extremely annoyed, and tried to speak to Sagat, to ask him to explain his actions. But Sagat was not in his HQ, and was with the forward troops. So it was his GSO 1, Lieut Colonel Lakhpat Singh, who bore the brunt of the Corps Commander's wrath.
The Chinese had installed loudspeakers at Nathu La, and warned the Indians that they would suffer as they did in 1962, if they did not withdraw. However, Sagat had carried out a detailed appreciation of the situation, and reached the conclusion that the Chinese were bluffing. They made threatening postures, such as advancing in large numbers, but on reaching the border, always stopped, turned about and withdrew. They also did not use any artillery, for covering fire, which they would have certainly done if they were serious about capturing any Indian positions. Our own defences at Nathu La were strong. Sagat had put artillery observation posts on adjoining high features called Camel's Back and Sebu La, which overlooked into the Yatung valley for several kilometres, and could bring down accurate fire on the enemy, an advantage that the Chinese did not have. It would be a tactical blunder to vacate Nathu La, and gift it to the Chinese. Ultimately, Sagat's fortitude saved the day for India, and his stand was vindicated, two years later, when there was a show down at Nathu La. Today, the strategic pass of Nathu La is still held by Indian troops, while Jelep La is in Chinese hands.
During the crisis, the Chinese had occupied Jelep La, but had gained nothing in the sector under Sagat's division. This was galling, and they continued their pressure on the Indians, and making threatening gestures. In December 1965, the Chinese fired on a patrol of 17 Assam Rifles, in North Sikkim, at a height of 16,000 feet, killing two men. The patrol was in Indian territory, but the Chinese claimed that it had crossed over to their side. They made regular broadcasts from loudspeakers at Nathu La, pointing out to Indian troops the pathetic conditions in which they lived, their low salaries and lack of amenities, comparing these to that of officers. It was a form of psychological warfare in which the Chinese were adept, and had to be countered. Sagat had similar loud speakers installed on our own side, and tape recorded messages, in Chinese language, were broadcast every day. However, he was not satisfied with this, and kept looking for a chance to avenge the death of the Indian soldiers who had fallen to Chinese bullets. Throughout 1966, and early 1967, Chinese propaganda, intimidation and attempted incursions into Indian territory continued. The border was not marked, and there were several vantage points on the crest line which both sides thought belonged to them. Patrols which walked along the border often clashed, resulting in tension, and sometimes even casualties.
In 1967, Sagat discussed the problem with the Corps Commander, Lieut General J.S. Aurora. He suggested that the border at Nathu La should be clearly marked, to prevent such incidents, and offered to walk along the crest line, to test the Chinese resolve. If they did not object, the line along which he walked could be taken to be acceptable to them. This was agreed to, and Sagat, accompanied by an escort, began walking along the crest. The Chinese commander also walked alongside, accompanied by a photographer, who kept taking pictures. However, there was no confrontation, and the 'walk' ended peacefully.
Sagat then obtained the concurrence of the Corps Commander to mark the crest line, along which he had walked. He ordered a double wire fence to be erected, from Nathu La towards the North and South Shoulders. However, as soon as work began on the fence, on 20 August 1967, the Chinese became agitated, and asked the Indians to stop. One strand of wire was laid that day, and two more were added over the next two days. On 6 September, a patrol of 2 Grenadiers, the battalion which was holding defences at Nathula, was going towards the South Shoulder, when it was surrounded by about seventy Chinese, and threatened. The next day, the Chinese physically tried to interfere with the construction of the fence, and there was a scuffle. However, work continued on the next two days, and was almost completed on the 10th.
Since the Chinese appeared determined to prevent completion of the fence, it was decided to start early on 11th, and finish the job before first light. All available manpower, including a platoon of Engineers and another of Pioneers, was deployed for the task. A company of 18 Rajput was also brought in, to reinforce the position, and protect the men who were to construct the fence. As soon as work commenced, the Chinese came upto the fence, and tried to stop the work. There was a heated discussion between the Chinese commander, who was accompanied by the political commissar, and Lieut Colonel Rai Singh, CO 2 Grenadiers. Sagat had foreseen this eventuality, and told Lieut Colonel Rai Singh not to expose himself, and remain in his bunker, where the Brigade Commander, Brigadier M.M.S. Bakshi, was also present. But this was not heeded, and the CO, with an escort, came out in the open, to stand face to face with the Chinese officers. As the arguments became more heated, tempers rose, but both sides stood their ground. Suddenly, the Chinese opened fire, causing several casualties among the troops working on the wire fence. Lieut Colonel Rai Singh was hit by a Chinese bullet, and fell down.
Seeing their CO fall, the Grenadiers became mad with rage. In a fit of fury, they came out of their trenches, and attacked the Chinese post, led by Captain P.S. Dagar. The company of 18 Rajput, under Major Harbhajan Singh, and the Engineers working on the fence had been caught in the open, and suffered a few casualties from the Chinese firing. Realising that the only way to neutralise the Chinese fire was a physical assault, Harbhajan shouted to his men, and led them in a charge on the Chinese position. Several of the Indian troops were mowed down, by Chinese machine guns, but those who reached the Chinese bunkers used their bayonets, and accounted for many of the enemy. Both Harbhajan and Dagar lost their lives in the action, which developed into a full scale battle, lasting three days. Sagat had asked for some medium guns, and these were moved up to Kyangnosa La, at a height of over 10,000 ft. The artillery observation posts, which Sagat had sited earlier, proved their worth in bringing down effective fire on the Chinese. Because of lack of observation, and the steep incline West of Nathu La, most Chinese shells fell behind the forward defences, and did not harm the Indians. At one stage, soon after their CO was wounded, there was a loss of morale in 2 Grenadiers, and some troops occupying the South Shoulder started upsticking. Sagat borrowed a sten from another officer, and with the help of the Subedar Major, pushed the men back into the trenches.
The Indian casualties in the action were just over two hundred - 65 dead and 145 wounded. The Chinese are estimated to have suffered about three hundred casualties. Though the action taken by Sagat, in marking the border with a wire fence, had the approval of higher authorities, the large number of casualties suffered by both sides created a furore. Of course, the casualties to Indian troops would not have occurred if they had remained in their defences, and not exposed themselves by coming out of their trenches and rushing at the Chinese post. This happened on the spur of the moment, because seeing their CO fall, the troops lost their cool, and rushed forward under the orders of a young officer, who lost his life in the action. The Corps Commander, Lieut General J.S. Aurora, visited Nathu La, to assess the situation. Sagat was advised to prevent further escalation of hostilities, and avoid casualties to Indian troops. The Chinese had already announced that it was the Indians who started the conflict, and the large number of Indian bodies, and wounded Indian soldiers, in their possession, seemed to support their claim. However, Sagat was not perturbed. For the last two years, the Chinese had been instigating him, and had killed several Indian soldiers. The specter of Chinese attack, of 1962, still haunted the military and political leadership in India and had prevented them from taking effective action against them. This was the first time the Chinese got a bloody nose, and the myth of their invincibility was broken.
During the period when Sagat was commanding 17 Mountain Division, the author was also serving in divisional signal regiment, as a young Captain. The entire formation seemed to have imbibed the aggressive spirit of the divisional commander, and morale was very high. The author recalls an incident, when Sagat came to the signal regiment, to carry out his annual inspection. The quarter master, Captain Balakrishnayya, was an old hand, and knew what would impress Sagat. The cable held by the unit was stored in a tin shed, and had a small board outside, which read 'Line Stores'. Bala, as he was known, had the words 'OP LHASA', painted above it, in bold letters. When Sagat reached the shed, and read the board, he asked the CO, Lieut Colonel P.K. Roy Chowdhury, what it meant. This was the first time the CO had seen the board, and he looked askance at Bala, who promptly replied, "Sir, this is the cable which will be used when we advance to Lhasa." Sagat slapped Bala on the back, and exclaimed, "This is the spirit I want in every officer of my division. PK, I need not see anything else in your unit. Let's go to the mess, for a glass of beer." And that was the end of the inspection.
In December 1967, Sagat was posted as GOC 101 Communication Zone Area, in Shillong. He had been serving in a non family station for almost two and a half years, and deserved a peace posting. He had requested for a posting to Delhi, and had been told that he would be sent to Army HQ, as Director of Military Training. So he was surprised when he was posted, and asked to move post haste, to 101 Communication Zone Area, which was involved in counter insurgency operations, against Mizo hostiles. He came to know later the Army Commander, Sam Manekshaw, had specifically asked for him, to sort out the Mizo Hills problem. Sagat had no choice, and accepted the assignment, like a good soldier.
The Mizo Hills (the area was given statehood and renamed Mizoram in 1971) lay in the North East of India. It was bounded by foreign territory on three sides - Burma (now Myanamar) in the East and South, and East Pakistan (now Bangla Desh) in the West. In the North, it touched Manipur and Tripura, as well as Assam, the state of which all these territories then formed a part. The Mizos have close racial links with the Chins, of Burma. They are a hardy tribe of hill people, who love their freedom. They were being supplied with arms and ammunition by East Pakistan, which encouraged them to raise the banner of revolt against India, and ask for freedom. They had formed a parallel government, and the Mizo National Army (MNA) had invested the Southern part of the Mizo Hills. The Border Security Force and the Assam Rifles, which were operating in the area, could not control the situation, and in 1966, the Army was inducted.
Shortly before Sagat's posting to 101 Communication Zone Area, a mixed Naga Mizo gang had been formed in Manipur, with a the aim of collecting weapons and ammunition from East Pakistan. The gang attacked a platoon outpost of 16 Jat, and after inflicting heavy casualties, got away with their weapons and ammunition. The gang then advanced towards Burma, and ambushed a company column of 8 Sikh, inflicting heavy casualties, and taking away their weapons. It then overran a platoon outpost of 30 Punjab, and took their weapons also. Subsequently, the gang ambushed a column of 2/11 Gorkha Rifles, and another of 5 Para, before crossing over into Burma. It was at this juncture that Sagat was asked to take charge, and retrieve the situation.
Soon after taking over, Sagat decided to visit the battalions, to assess the situation at close quarters. He visited every battalion deployed in the Mizo Hills, spending a night with each, sleeping on the ground. After talking to everyone, and analysing the encounters that had taken place, he was able to pin point three major reasons for the reverses suffered by our troops. These were lack of intelligence, lack of attunement of the infantry battalions to insurgency situations, and ill treatment of the locals, by a few post commanders. Sagat immediately set about the task of remedying these weaknesses, and issued directions towards this end.
In his typical style, he devised his own intelligence gathering system, by compromising some of the important executives in the organisation of the hostiles. Instead of sending them to jail, they were kept near the base at Aizwal, where Sagat had already moved his tactical headquarters. Their families were brought there, and they began to help our troops by giving intelligence reports, identifying hostiles during cordon and search operations, and translating captured documents. He also realised that the underground hostiles must be having their own systems for getting information, and passing orders. From the few letters that had been recovered by the battalions, he was able to get the stationery, letter heads and seals used by the hostiles, and had them copied in Calcutta. Information about the organisation and routine of messengers was gathered. Thereafter, small ambushes were laid, the messenger was intercepted, his bag searched, and his papers replaced with fakes.
The next problem was to adjust the training of the infantry battalions to suit the peculiar requirements of counter insurgency operations. An ad hoc training camp was started with a few officers who had been serving in the area for long, and had experience of fighting the hostiles. This later became the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School, at Vairangte. All units which were inducted into the area, first had to undergo an orientation course at this school. This proved very useful, and resulted in considerable reduction in casualties to troops. Today, it is one of the premier training establishments of the Indian Army, which trains officers, as well as entire units, in jungle warfare, and counter insurgency techniques.
Sagat realised that ethnic and linguistic differences alone do not cause rebellion. More often than not, it is repression and neglect of minorities which result in discontent, leading to an uprising. He issued strict orders against harassment and ill treatment of the population, and exemplary punishment was meted out to erring post commanders. In order to remove the feeling of neglect by providing food, medical care and other facilities, and also to improve security, Sagat decided to group the villages, astride the only road in the region, between Aizwal and Lungleh. There were strong objections from the civil administration, on legal and administrative grounds, but Sagat was able to overcome these hurdles, and carried out the grouping, as planned. Fortunately, he had developed excellent rapport with Mr. B.P. Chalia, the Chief Minister, and Mr. B.K. Nehru, the Governor of Assam, and this enabled him to have his way.
Being a paratrooper, Sagat knew the value of helicopters, and made extensive use of them, in Special Helicopter Borne Operations (SHBOs). These were mounted at short notice, when there was a tip off by an agent, and enabled troops to reach and intercept guerrilla bands in remote areas, as soon as their presence was detected. This experience was to pay rich dividends a few years later, during the operations for the liberation of Bangla Desh. By the time Sagat left Mizo Hills, peace had returned, with all hostile gangs either being liquidated, or having taken shelter in East Pakistan. In recognition of his splendid performance in controlling the insurgency in Mizo Hills, Sagat was awarded the PVSM, the highest non gallantry award for soldiers in India.
After a long tenure of three years, Sagat was promoted Lieut General in November 1970, and given command of 4 Corps, which had its headquarters at Tezpur. This was his third tenure in the East, in succession. By this time, Sam Manekshaw had taken over as COAS, and it was again at his behest that Sagat was chosen for this assignment. It proved to be a serendipitous choice, since 4 Corps, under Sagat's command, was to play a pivotal role, a year later. The liberation of Bangla Desh in 1971 was one of the Indian Army's finest hours. The lightning campaign, lasting just fourteen days, resulted in the total annihilation of Pakistani forces, and a magnificent victory for India. There were many acts of valour, and of fortitude in the face of adversity. Units and sub units fought with courage, dash and elan, and there was not a single reported incident of loss of morale, or cohesion. More than individual or collective gallantry, the unique feature of the campaign, and the one that proved decisive, was the quality of military leadership. Among the leaders whose contribution to the success of the operation was significant, was Sagat Singh. In fact, it was in 1971 that Sagat displayed, for the last time, his skills as a tactician, and conclusively proved his worth as a combat leader par excellence.
The task of liberating Bangla Desh, then called East Pakistan, was given to Lieut General Jagjit Singh Aurora, GOC-in-C Eastern Command. Under him, he had 2 Corps, commanded by Lieut General (later General) T.N. Raina; 33 Corps, commanded by Lieut General M.L. Thapan; 4 Corps, commanded by Lieut General Sagat Singh; and 101 Communication Zone Area, commanded by Major General G.S. Gill. The terrain in Bangla Desh was riverine, which favours the defender. The rivers were interspersed with rice fields and marshes, which made cross country movement very difficult, especially after the monsoons. Major troop movements had to be confined to the roads, and ferries or bridges over the rivers, if defended, or destroyed, could hold up advancing columns for long periods. Inland water transport was also used, for transportation of goods. Pakistan had three infantry divisions, comprising about 42 battalions of regular troops, and five squadrons of armour, for the defence of the region, and more than 2000 kilometres of border. Lieut General A.A.K. Niazi, who was commanding the Eastern Command of the Pakistan Army, had appreciated that the Indian advance would have to be along the major road axes, and had deployed his troops accordingly. Strong points had been created along the likely axes, and it was visualised that unless these were cleared, the advancing enemy could make little headway. This proved to be a costly mistake.
The territory in East Pakistan is divided by major riverine obstacles into four distinct parts. The first part comprised all territory East of the Meghna river, including Sylhet, Brahman Baria, Comilla , Noakhali, Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar; the second comprised the territory between the rivers Jamuna (Brahmputra) to the East and Padma (Ganges) to the West, including Rangpur, Bogra and Rajashahi; the third comprised territory West of the Padma, including Kushtia, Jessore and Khulna; and the fourth was the Dacca Bowl, surrounded by rivers on all sides - the mighty Meghna and Lakhaya to the East, the confluence of Meghna and Padma to the South, Padma and Burhi Ganga to the West, and a branch of the Jamuna, which joins the Meghna, to the North. Due to its geostrategic importance, Dacca had always been chosen as the capital by successive kingdoms.
The task allotted to Eastern Command by Army HQ was to destroy the bulk of Pakistani forces in the theatre, and occupy the major portion of East Pakistan. The capture of Dacca was not included in these instructions. Based on this, Eastern Command evolved its operational plan, and allotted tasks to its subordinate formations. 2 Corps was given the task of advancing from the West and capturing all territory West of the river Padma; 33 Corps was to advance from the North West and capture all territory upto the confluence of the Padma and the Jamuna; and 4 Corps was to advance from the East, and capture all territory East of the river Meghna. The task of capturing the area of Mymensingh, between the Meghna and Jamuna rivers, was allotted to 101 Communication Zone Area.
Though this had not been spelt out in the instructions issued by Army HQ, Sam Manekshaw had visualised that after all three corps had achieved their tasks, re-grouping would be carried out, and forces launched for the capture of Dacca from the West, after crossing the Padma at Golundo Ghat. For this re-grouping, 4 Corps was to shed 23 Mountain Division, all its medium artillery, and two squadrons of PT-76 tanks. In the event, 2 Corps could not cross the Madhumati, and 33 Corps could only reach Bogra. As a result, the re-grouping did not take place. Dacca was captured purely by chance, by forces which had never been intended to reach there.
The operation commenced on 4 December 1971, after Pakistan launched air strikes on a number of Indian airfields, in the early hours of the morning of the previous day. According to plan, 2 Corps entered East Pakistan from the West, 33 Corps from the North, and 4 Corps from the East. Under Sagat's command in 4 Corps were three mountain divisions, with their normal complement of supporting arms and services. In addition, he had been allotted two ad hoc squadrons of light PT-76 tanks, and a medium battery of 5.5 inch guns. The divisional commanders were Major General (later General) K.V. Krishna Rao (8 Mountain Division); Major General R.D. 'Rocky' Hira (23 Mountain Division); and Major General B.F. Gonsalves (57 Mountain Division). The main task given to 4 Corps was to destroy Pakistani forces East of rivers Meghna and Bulai.
Sagat decided to send in three divisional thrusts, across the 250 kilometre stretch of border on which his Corps was deployed. In the North, 8 Mountain Division was to advance along the line Dharmanagar-Kulaura-Maulvi Bazar, and head for Sylhet; 57 Mountain Division was to advance along the axis Akhaura-Ashuganj, and capture Daudakandi; and 23 Mountain Division, in the South, was to capture Maynamati, Comilla and the major river port of Chandpur. Subsidiary tasks were allotted to 61 Mountain Brigade Group and Kilo Force, to assist the Corps operations. There was a rail bridge over the Meghna at Ashuganj, but the road alignment did not follow the railway. Though not spelt out in the Corps Operation Orders, Sagat was determined to 'bounce' the river, in case the opportunity presented itself, and race for Dacca.
In November, a number of preliminary operations had been carried out, with the aim of removing Pakistani elements which could interfere with the advance, once it began. A Pakistani post at Dhalai was cleared by 61 Brigade, after two attempts, and some casualties. The Belonia bulge, a tongue of Pakistani territory which jutted about 10 kilometres into Tripura, and was a constant irritant, was cleared by 23 Mountain Division. A Pakistani post at Atgram, on the North East approach to Sylhet, had to be eliminated by 59 Brigade, after heavy fighting.
Operations started on night 3/4 December 1971. In the North, 81 Mountain Brigade secured Shamshernagar, and 59 Mountain Brigade captured Ghazipur, followed by Kulaura, on 6 December. The same day, 81 Brigade captured Munshi Bazar. In this sector, Maulvi Bazar was held by a Pak brigade, which was occupying a strong defended position on a prominent high ground. From the very beginning, Sagat tasked the Hunter aircraft, operating from Kumbhigram airfield, to constantly bomb Maulvi Bazar with napalm. He appreciated that this would prove very costly to the Pak brigade, in terms of casualties, and break their morale. At this stage, Sagat was informed by intelligence sources that the Pakistanis were pulling out of Sylhet, in a bid to reinforce Ashuganj. Sagat saw in this an opportunity to seize Sylhet, and decided to do so by a heli-borne operation. On 7 December, 4/5 Gorkha Rifles were landed South East of Sylhet, by a special heli-borne operation. This so unnerved the Pakistani Command that the Maulvi Bazar brigade group was moved away to Sylhet, which already had a brigade group, of four battalions. This was reported by the Air Force, which flew a tactical reconnaissance mission over Maulvi Bazar next day. Sagat immediately ordered Krishna Rao to occupy Maulvi Bazar, which he did. In a Pakistani officers mess, they found lunch laid on the table, uneaten.
This was the first time an 'air bridge' had been employed by the Indian Army. Being a paratrooper, Sagat knew the potential of a heli-borne force, and could appreciate the immense advantages that accrued from its employment, at the opportune moment. The enemy was demoralised, and made no efforts to attack 4/5 Gorkha Rifles. As he had visualised, the noise of the helicopters misled the Pakistanis, and they over estimated the strength of the troops who had landed by helicopter. By resorting to a clever, unorthodox ploy, Sagat was able to capture Maulvi Bazar without a shot being fired.
In the Central Sector of 4 Corps, 57 Mountain Division commenced its advance with two brigades. 73 Mountain Brigade, under Brigadier M.L. Tuli, went for Gangasagar, while 311 Mountain Brigade, under Brigadier Misra attacked Akhaura. It was during the battle for Gangasagar, which was captured after a stiff fight, that the only PVC of the Bangla Desh campaign was won by Lance Naik (a naik is the Indian equivalent of a corporal) Albert Ekka, of 14 Guards. Akhaura also fell on 5 December, to 4 Guards and 18 Rajput, of 311 Mountain Brigade. At this stage, it was reported by patrols that one pair of lines of the double track railway line running to Brahmanbaria had been removed, making it usable by vehicles, and that the captured bridge over the Titas was intact. Sagat promptly changed the task of 57 Mountain Division, and ordered it to make for Ashuganj, by way of Brahmanbaria, instead of going for Daudkandi. This was a crucial decision, and led to a quickening of the operations of 4 Corps, and its crossing of the Meghna.
Brahmanbaria, in the loop formed by the river Titas, was strongly defended. However, the Pakistani troops holding it were expecting a frontal assault, from the South East, and when 73 Brigade sent columns to the West and South, they evacuated the town, and began to withdraw towards Ashuganj. 311 Brigade of 57 Division pursued the withdrawing enemy, upto the East bank of the Meghna, and the leading elements of 57 Division contacted Ashuganj on December 9. At Ashuganj, the Pakistanis were well dug in, and not prepared to give up without a fight. They let the Indian troops enter the built up area, and then opened up. The Indians were taken by surprise, and had to fall back, after suffering heavy casualties, and losing four tanks. The Pakistanis also blew up the bridge over the Meghna, leaving the Pakistani brigade commander and some troops on the East bank of the river.
At this stage, it was clear to Sagat that the enemy was in desperate straits. Having blown up the Ashuganj bridge, he intended to fall back across the river, and hold Bhairab Bazar, with whatever little he had left. Chandpur and Daudkandi had also fallen, and Pakistani resistance in the Eastern Sector had almost ceased to exist. Sagat flew over Daudkandi, Chandpur and Ashuganj in a helicopter on 9 December, and discussed the situation with the local commanders. He then decided to heli-lift his troops across the Meghna, and make for Dacca. He appreciated that the capture of Dacca would end the war, and the only way to achieve this was to contain Bhairab Bazar, and cross the Meghna further to the South, where no opposition was expected. He had twelve MI-4 helicopters, and he reckoned that the element of surprise would more than make up for the deficiency in numbers, that he would be able to get across. He had used helicopters in Mizo Hills for the last three years, and knew their worth. He had planned for such a contingency, if the opportunity presented itself, and had practised his troops and helicopter pilots for night landings, using torches. Fortunately, Gonsalves, who was commanding 57 Mountain Division, was also a pilot, and well versed in their use, in Mizo Hills, where his division had been deployed. Sagat had also commandeered several steamers from the river port at Chandpur and the Titas river, and these had been fuelled and positioned, for the crossing.
The air lift began on the afternoon of December 9, and continued for the next 36 hours. A total of 110 sorties were flown, from the Brahmanbaria stadium, and crossed the Meghna, which was 4,000 yards wide, to land at helipads which had been marked by torches, with their reflectors removed. During day, the troops were landed in paddy fields, with helicopters hovering low above the ground. The first battalion of 311 Mountain Brigade, 4 Guards, was landed in Raipura. while 9 Punjab crossed the river using country boats. Next day, the troops were landed directly at Narsingdi. Meanwhile, 73 Brigade had started to cross, using boats, which had been rounded up. The ferrying of artillery and tanks was a serious problem, and required considerable ingenuity on the part of the Engineers. By 11 December, both 311 and 73 Mountain Brigade had crossed the Meghna, and were ordered to advance to Dacca, on different axes. Using all modes of transport, including bullock carts and cycle rickshaws, both brigades advanced rapidly, and on December 14, the first artillery shell was fired on Dacca. On 15 December, 311 Mountain Brigade was poised to enter Dacca, when orders were received from HQ Eastern Command to halt further advance. Tactical HQ 101 Communication Zone Area, 95 and 167 Mountain Brigade Groups, and 2 Para were placed under command 4 Corps the same day. On night 15/16 December, Dacca was subjected to shelling by Sagat's artillery, and this hastened the surrender. On December 16, the cease fire was declared.
In the Southern sector of the Corps, 23 Mountain Division commenced its advance towards Comilla, and the Lalmai Hills. On December 4, 301 Brigade captured over two hundred prisoners of the 25 Frontier Force, including the battalion commander, near Comilla. Simultaneously, 181 Brigade cut the road and rail line between Laksham and Lalmai, enabling 301 Brigade to capture Mudfarganj, on December 5. The Pakistanis made an attempt to re-capture the town on December 7, but failed. Comilla was taken on December 8, and so were Daudkandi ferry site and the major river port of Chandpur. The brigade group garrison at Laksham, comprising four battalions, had been encircled by December 8. It disintegrated and headed for Maynamati on 9 December. Almost a thousand of these were captured, before they could reach the brigade group defences based on Maynamati, which was heavily defended, and defied capture, till the cease fire, and surrender on December 16.
As had happened in the operations for the liberation of Goa, it was not the main column, but a subsidiary thrust which claimed the final prize. In Goa, Sagat's 50 Para Brigade had a secondary role, but he managed to reach Panjim before the troops of 17 Mountain Division. In the Bangla Desh operations, 2 , 4 and 33 Corps constituted the main thrusts, while 101 Communication Zone Area had been assigned a complementary role, in the Mymensingh-Tangail area. Ultimately, it was this column which managed to reach Dacca first, and won the race. However, this was made possible only by the operations of 4 Corps, in crossing the Meghna, and the minor rivers of Balu and Satlakhya, and its imminent entry into Dacca. 120 Pak Brigade, which was facing 101 Communication Zone Area, was hurriedly withdrawn for the defence of Dacca, after the crossing of the Meghna. The Pakistanis had prepared defences around Dacca which had been christened 'Fortress Dacca'. Pak 120 Brigade disintegrated after occupation of Tungi by 73 Mountain Brigade of 57 Mountain Division. Niazi's predicament can be gauged from the fact that he had to employ 'walking wounded' from military hospitals, to occupy positions on the perimeter of 'Fortress Dacca'.
The rapid advance of 101 Communication Zone Area, under the command of Major General G.S. Nagra, who had replaced Major General G.S. Gill, after the latter was wounded, was also facilitated by the para drop at Tangail, on 11 December. On that day, 4 Corps was in Narsingdi, 35 Km from Dacca, while the leading elements of 95 Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier H.S. Kler, were in Jamalpur, 160 Km from Dacca. Two days later, on 13 December, 95 Infantry Brigade and 2 Para were still at Tangail, almost 100 Km from Dacca, while Sagat's troops had reached the Satlakhya river, and were just 10 Km from Dacca. Nagra was lucky to find a tarmac road running South, a few miles West of Safipur, which led to Dacca via Sabhar, without having to cross the water obstacles of Turag and Dhaleshwari. Even at midnight on 14 December, when 95 Infantry Brigade was still on the Turag river, elements of 57 Infantry Division of 4 Corps had crossed the Satlakhya, and had started shelling Dacca. Sagat would have reached Dacca first, but this honour went to Nagra, though the latter had been placed under Sagat's command on 15 December, and hence technically was part of 4 Corps when he entered Dacca. Though Nagra was the first across the finish line, in the race for Dacca, the real winner was undoubtedly Sagat. If the Pakistanis had not surrendered, there is no way 101 Communication Zone could have taken Dacca earlier, since it would have required a major assault. Since Sagat had firmed in at Narsingdi, and already planned the attack for December 16, in all likelihood the honour of taking the city would have gone to him. That he lost the chance does not in any way detract from his brilliant performance. Sagat was also anxious to avoid entering the built up area of the city, where the Pakistanis would have an advantage.
Sagat's decision to cross the Meghna proved to be crucial to the entire operation. This was also the first instance in military history of an 'air bridge' being used for crossing a major water obstacle, by a brigade group. In his book, 'Victory in Bangla Desh', Major General Lachhman Singh, who commanded 20 Mountain Division, which was part of 33 Corps during the campaign, writes, "It was here that Sagat Singh exhibited the genius and initiative of a field commander. It was this decision which finally and decisively tilted the scale in our favour and led to the early surrender of the Pakistani forces at Dacca." It was a bold decision, fraught with risk, and if he had failed, the responsibility would have been entirely his. However, battles are not won by those with weak hearts, as military history as proved, time and again. Every military operation is a gamble, and stakes are invariably high. Sagat was one of those who played for the jackpot, and won.
After the war, B.B. Lal, who was the Defence Secretary, told Sagat an interesting story. On 10 December 1971, at 1300 hours, there was a meeting being held in South Block, chaired by Sardar Swaran Singh, the Minister of External Affairs. Attending the meeting were the Defence, Home and Foreign Secretaries, the Director of the IB, and the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. The meeting had just commenced when the message arrived that Sagat had crossed the Meghna. The Defence Minister, Babu Jagjiwan Ram, rushed in soon afterwards, while the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary ran to her office to inform her. According to Lal, very soon afterwards, Indira Gandhi was seen running down the corridor, her hair and saree flying. They were all surprised, to see the Prime Minister, bubbling with joy, and for him, this was the most unforgettable moment of the 1971 war. This was also the one day that Sam Manekshaw could not take credit for having ordered the operation, quipped Lal.
Sagat's contribution in the liberation of Bangla Desh was recognised by the award of a Padma Bhushan, a non gallantry award which is normally given to civilians. (The three awards in the Padma series are Padma Vibhushan, which ranks just below the Bharat Ratna, the highest in the land; the Padma Bhushan; and the Padma Shri). The majority of awardees are artists, writers, scientists, bureaucrats and politicians. Soldiers are rarely given the award, and that too for contributions in non-military fields. Thimayya was awarded the Padma Bhushan, and Thorat the Padma Shri, for their performance in United Nations assignments in Korea. Sagat's sterling performance in 1971 was in military operations, against the enemy, and a gallantry award would have been more appropriate. Perhaps the military hierarchy did not recommend him for a gallantry award, and as a compromise, the political leadership decided to compensate him by giving him a civilian award, since he had already been awarded the PVSM, just two years earlier. It was ironical that the most successful Corps Commander in the 1971 War had to be content with a civilian award, while several others, whose performance was much below par were decorated for gallantry, and became war heroes.
In November 1973, after commanding 4 Corps for exactly three years, Sagat was transferred, and given command of 1 Corps. He had been serving in the East for more than eight years, and wanted to go to some place nearer home, from where he could look after his family. His request was acceded to, and he was posted to 1 Corps, which was in Mathura. He retired in November 1974, and moved to Jaipur, where he had decided to live after his retirement. He built a farm house, on the out skirts of the city, aptly named 'Meghna Farm', and settled down. Shortly after his retirement, he became a Director of the State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur, as well as several other companies.
Sagat had four sons, two of whom joined the Army. His eldest son, Ran Vijay, was born in February 1949. He was commissioned into 1 Garhwal, which was later mechanised, and redesignated as 6 MECH. He is now a Colonel and after commanding the unit, is doing a staff tenure. The historical association between the Garhwal Rifles and 2/3 Gorkha Rifles lies in the fact that the original 2/3 Gorkha Rifles, raised in 1887, started with a nucleus of Garhwalis, and in 1890 was renamed 39th Garhwali Regiment, the forbears of the present Garhwal Rifles. The Colonel of the Garhwal Rifles claimed Sagat's eldest son, when he was to get his commission, based on this historical association. His second son, Dig Vijay, was born in October 1950, and was commissioned into 2/3 Gorkha Rifles, the battalion his father had commanded. Unfortunately, he died an untimely death while serving with the battalion in Poonch as a Captain on 4 March 1976, when the jeep in which he was travelling met with an accident. His third son Vir Vijay was born in August 1954. A ill-fated scooter accident in Delhi claimed his life just eight months before that of his elder brother. The loss of two sons in the prime of their lives within a short span of eight months was a terrible loss to Sagat and his wife. Their youngest son Chandra Vijay was born in April 1956. He did not join the Army and became a business executive.
In November 1998, Sagat lost his wife and became a widower. He lived alone in Jaipur and his children and grand children visited him whenever they could. About two and a half years after the death of his wife, he was operated on for cancer of the prostate in Delhi. He returned to Jaipur in July 2001 and seemed to have recovered. But he was taking a heavy dose of medicines and these soon had side effects that proved fatal. He was afflicted by Hepatitis A and had to be moved to Delhi. He breathed his last in the Army hospital on 26 September 2001.
Sagat was a soldier, but he was also a human being, and had the foibles of that species, like everyone else. One of these was his proclivity for affaires de coeur. A husky six foot two, he was a handsome man in his prime and women found him not only attractive, but irresistible. There are many stories about his peccadilloes, not all of which are true. Even if they were, they did not ever affect his performance as a combat leader. In any case, he is in honourable company; Caesar, Napoleon, Nelson, and Wellington, all had similar weaknesses. In his book, 'On The Psychology of Military Incompetence', Norman Dixon writes; "he (Wellington) shared with Nelson a predilection for the fairer sex, which could on occasion invite some fairly adverse comments from his contemporaries". The views of Sam Manekshaw, India's most popular military leader, on this subject are well known.
Sagat was a commander, who led from the front. He epitomises the traditional image of the military leader, who fights, and leads, by example. If he had been born a few centuries earlier, or in America or Europe, and had the chance of operating on a larger canvas, he would perhaps have been one of the Great Captains of War. Unfortunately, the Nation did not recognise his talents, or value his contribution, and lesser mortals were given the rewards that he deserved. However, for those who know him intimately, or have had the fortune to serve under him, Sagat Singh was the type of military leader whom soldiers follow willingly, and give their lives for.