The story of ‘Sher Bachha’: braveheart soldier who saved Poonch
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The story of ‘Sher Bachha’: braveheart soldier who saved Poonch

Tales of camaraderie and bravery from LoC in Jammu and Kashmir

By Lt Gen H S Panag

Published on :

Nestled between the Betar Nala to the west and Poonch river to the south, Poonch is a historical town along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. It’s a place that occupies an important place in our military history and also one that has produced some legendary characters, including two unforgettable members of the Indian Army, who were in their own way the Rajas of Poonch.

Our logistics base for 4 Sikh in Poonch was near the old palace of its former King that was designed like a European castle. Our Officers’ Mess was called Joginder Mahal and was located in the house of a former jagirdar. Outside Joginder Mahal, under a Chinar tree, were the quarters of Havaldar Raja Singh, the unit mascot of 4 Sikh – a six-foot tall (when standing), 250 kg Himalayan black bear!

Raja’s original home was in the forested Loran Valley at the base of the Pir Panjals, where one of our long-range patrols rescued him from a pack of jackals. He was just two or three months old then and apparently had been separated from his mother. Raja was brought back to the unit and enrolled as the unit mascot. As per military tradition, he was given a regimental number and also authorised rations, uniform and veterinary services. Kalu Ram, our barman, was made his keeper and instructor.

Raja was a fast learner and was soon learning a new trick every fortnight. He also grew up fast and in two and half years, he was a fully-grown, handsome animal. His rations increased to be equivalent to that of five soldiers and rules had to be bent to feed him.

And why not? After all, Raja did everything along with the soldiers at the logistics base. He was up for physical training at 6.00 am, did three to four hours of training and one hour of games in the evening. He learnt the basic military drill movements of savdhan, vishram and salute. A dummy rifle was obtained for him and apart from rifle drill movements, he could also adopt the prone firing position. He would salute us whenever we came out or went into the Mess.

Like Rani, the female panther I’d mentioned in my previous column, he was always on parade with officers and junior commissioned officers (JCOs) for introduction to VIPs during inspections and visits. Like Rani, he too, kept the visitors engaged and happy, leaving them with little time for inspection and ‘fault finding’ – a peculiar trait of senior officers.

When not chained — his chain was merely a token — Raja would frequent two places. The first place was the mud huts of the officers to look for biscuits, a habit for which officers themselves were responsible. More frequently, he would head for the Officers’ Mess bar to look for beer – a brew of which he become fond of owing to the indulgence of Kalu Ram. Raja had to be disciplined and allowed only one bottle a week. And being a bear with standards, he liked it chilled and refused warm beer. Once, as a cub, Raja raided the Mess kitchen an hour before a party and ate up all the cooked food. The party had to be turned into a virtual drinking orgy to gain time and restock the food. Raja was punished — with extra drill parades.

Pranks apart, Raja’s good training made him rise rapidly in ranks. In three years, he rose from sepoy to havaldar, which was prominently displayed on his uniform coat. However, despite all this, the career of Havaldar Raja Singh the Bear was doomed.

As Raja stepped into adulthood, his libido roared into action and he started doing what all boys do – self-gratification. In the predominantly male environment, this would have been a non-issue, but one day he indulged himself during the visit of the spouse of a government official. The lady in question  (who would later rise to prominence in national politics) probably understood it as a normal facet of animal behaviour, but our Commanding Officer was very embarrassed.

As a first step to discipline him, Raja’s Court Martial was ordered and a mock Court Martial was actually held. The Commanding Officer was in favour of demotion to the rank of naik, but after other members prevailed upon him, he let Raja off with a severe reprimand but with a rider — Raja would be neutered because the unit was moving back to a peace station.

There were no tranquilliser guns for animals those days and Raja had to be held in place during the operation by soldiers. Having been a free animal all his life, Raja panicked and experienced tremendous stress at being restrained. He died of cardiac arrest. We didn’t learn from history. Rani too had died under similar circumstances 17 years ago while being spayed by a vet. Military burial with gun salute marked the end of Raja Singh. Raja was buried near the Officer’s Mess and a commemorative marble plaque was installed to honour him.

About 1.5 kilometres to the south west of Raja’s grave, across the Betar Nala, stands the Poonch War Memorial commemorating the siege of Poonch 1947-48 and its brave defenders led by Lt Col (later Brigadier) Pritam Singh, MC – a military legend in his lifetime who faced an ignominious end to his military career.

Brigadier Pritam Singh was known as “Sher Bachha” (son of a tiger) because of his outstanding leadership during the siege of Poonch that continued from November 22, 1947, to November 21, 1948. Singh’s career was full of dramatic stories. As a young officer, Brig Pritam Singh was wounded in the battle of Singapore 1942 and was taken prisoner of war (PoW). He escaped from the PoW camp and after a gruelling journey of six months through the forests of Burma, landed in Manipur. He was awarded the coveted Military Cross for his great escape.

Years later, as a Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col ),on October 30, 1947, he went to Army Headquarters while on leave. When he heard of the grave situation in J&K, he volunteered to take his unit, 1 Kumaon,to Srinagar. The same evening, he was given his posting order and Lt Col Singh landed up with his unit at Srinagar the next day (on October 31, 1947).

The unit quickly joined the battle at Shallteng along with 1 Sikh. This battle was the turning point in the Valley and in the next three weeks the enemy was chased back beyond Uri. But there was no rest for 1 Kumaon — Pritam Singh was tasked to relieve Poonch, which was under siege via the Haji Pir Pass. After a gruelling march, 1 Kumaon fought its way into Poonch on November 21, 1947, with 419 men. However, soon the unit itself got besieged. Poonch was held by 1,400 men of J&K Forces who had withdrawn from Mirpur, Kotli and Jhangar. There were 40,000 refugees who had escaped the massacres in these towns. All surrounding heights around Poonch were held by the enemy. Rations for soldiers and civilians were just enough for one week and ammunition was down to few rounds per soldier.

This is when Singh proved Napoleon’s maxim that, “In war, it is not the men that count, but the ‘man’ that counts”. The man in question was Lt Col Pritam Singh. J&K State Forces garrison was preparing for withdrawal and 40,000 Hindus and Sikhs were awaiting certain death. Pritam Singh cancelled the orders for withdrawal, immediately reorganised the defences and took charge of the administration. He attacked the enemy positions in the immediate vicinity to secure the town. With the help of civilians, he constructed an airstrip on which the legendary pilot of the Indian Air Force (IAF) , Air Commodore ‘Baba’ Mehar Singh, MVC,DSO, Commander No 1 Operations Group (which was  responsible for air operations in Jammu and Kashmir ) along with Air Vice Marshal (later Chief of Air Staff) Subrato Mukerjee landed in a Harvard aircraft on December 12, 1947.

On the same day, Dakota aircrafts started landing. Mehar Singh, soon established an ‘air bridge’ to Poonch with the Dakotas carrying in supplies, guns and ammunition and taking back refugees. The IAF coined the term “Poonching” — the technique of flying in the narrow valleys with transport aircraft. Mehar Singh also modified Dakota aircraft to bomb enemy positions. Pritam Singh raised two militia battalions, 11 and 8 J&K Militia, from able-bodied men of Poonch. One more unit, 3/9 Gorkha Rifles, was air landed in January — February 1948. Singh was promoted to the rank of Brigadier.

For the next one year a fierce struggle continued at Poonch. Ground was being taken, lost, to be retaken again, where blows were being absorbed and delivered back with greater ferocity, where cries came with every dawn, the battle to push the enemy further and further away and capturing the heights surrounding Poonch was being pursued relentlessly. In one year, Singh, cut off from the rest of the country, attacked and secured all the hill features that were threatening Poonch, organised the civil administration and saved the lives of 40,000 Hindus and Sikhs. He was also very fair to the Muslim population. The civilians named this daring officer “Sher Bachha”. He was finally relieved on November 20, 1948, when the road to Poonch from Rajouri was forced open by a two brigade size force under Brig Yadunath Singh.

The siege of Poonch by all standards is one greatest sieges in which the defender was victorious. Unfortunately, in 1951, Poonch’s “Sher Bachha” was court martialled and dismissed from service for alleged moral misdemeanours. When he was dismissed, what was also buried was the story of the siege of Poonch. After his Court Martial Brig Pritam Singh said: “Sometimes serious doubts assail me whether it would have been better to have let the State Forces garrison to slip out and followed it, than to have put up a tenacious fight, but I dispel them with my conviction that I have done my duty to India and that one day the truth will come out.”

We have no such traditions, but the case of Brig Pritam Singh is a fit case for Special Presidential Pardon to restore his honour. Nations that treat their heroes shabbily do not produce them in great numbers!

Next week, Lt Gen HS Panag will recount another inspiring battle fought at Poonch.

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