In 1971, 9 Sikh was manning the Cease Fire Line (CFL) — as the Line of Control (LOC) was known then — along the Shamshabari Range, extending from Tutmari Gali to Nastachun Pass in Jammu and Kashmir. Both these passes are more than 11,000 feet high. It was tasked to attack across the CFL and capture the Kayian Bowl – ‘bowl’ in military jargon implies a small valley surrounded by steep mountain ridges – which was 3,000 feet below to the south west of Tutmari Gali. Kayian Bowl was defended by a company of Tochi Scouts which held five tactical features dominating the bowl.
Winter had set in and night temperatures were below zero degree when 9 Sikh launched its operations on the night of December 5-6, 1971. Due to paucity of resources and no road communications to Tutmari Gali, 9 Sikh had no artillery support. The unit was raised in 1963. It had some of the most dynamic young officers of the Sikh Regiment led by their equally dynamic Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sam Chengappa. To make up for lack of fire support, 9 Sikh adopted German tactics of infiltration attacks, which were based on the concepts of ‘reconnaissance pull’ and ‘surfaces and gaps’ — an attacking force is led by the reconnaissance patrols that locate the gaps between the defences. The ‘surfaces’, i.e. the defences, are avoided and the weaker defences in the rear are attacked first, cutting off the routes of logistic maintenance and withdrawal. The stronger main defences are then attacked from the rear.
Through a series of spectacular attacks, the enemy was routed and an area of 46 square kilometres was captured. Then, 9 Sikh launched raids and set up road blocks in the Lipa Valley to assist the operations of other units attacking Lipa Valley West from the direction of Tangdhar. On the night of December 14-15, 48 hours before the ceasefire was declared, the Commando Platoon of 9 Sikh led by Captain Karam Singh Virk, was going for one such raid to establish a road block at Brithwari Gali. The platoon was ambushed on the way, at 1900 hours on December 15. The ambush was successfully broken, but one soldier was killed in action and Sepoy Baldev Singh – the youngest commando – was seriously wounded in both his legs and both arms by a light machine gun burst. This is his story, which was narrated to me by the Commando Platoon Commander Colonel (then Captain) Karam Singh Virk.
Since it was practically impossible to carry him, the Platoon Commander decided to leave Baldev behind with the promise that he would be picked up on their way back. Captain Karam gave his own water bottle to Baldev whose water bottle was empty as well as half a bar of chocolate and two small oranges. In addition he had some emergency rations in the form of shakar paras. Since Sepoy Baldev was incapacitated to handle his rifle, it was replaced with a carbine and the injured Baldev was made to rest against a boulder behind a bush. Initially, he was alert and attentive, ears cocked and weapon ready. With the passage of time, due to intense pain, loss of blood and severe cold, his senses blurred. His food supply and water ran out, so did his strength, but not his will power.
Meanwhile, the Commando Platoon, due to enemy pressure, was forced to take a different route on the night of December 16-17, for exfiltration. As a result, they couldn’t pick up Baldev Singh. A pack of stray dogs, sensing that the soldier’s end was near, closed in on him and awaited his death. Initially,Baldev fired with his carbine to keep the dogs at bay. Later, not even able to raise his weapon to fire, he took out his commando knife. But the fear of the knife staved off the dogs only for a day. Soon, it was difficult for him to even raise his hands. Baldev then kept the index finger of his right hand on his nose and whenever the dogs came near to confirm his death, he would, with herculean effort, lift the finger straight up. He was acting on what he’d learnt in his childhood— dogs do not eat a living man. Every time he’d raise his finger, the dogs would withdraw and wait for Baldev’s finger to go down.
Ceasefire was declared on December 17 and flag meetings between the opposing forces commenced. The Pakistani army was given the map reference of the place where Baldev had been left behind and a request was made to try and find him. The first search was done in a routine manner and a negative report was given. In the next flag meeting, a request was made by Capt Karam Singh to Lieutenant Colonel Haq Nawaz Kayani, a brave and chivalrous officer who had been awarded the Sitara e Jurrat in 1965 and was now the Commanding Officer of 9 Azad Kashmir Battalion. Lt Col Kayani ordered a thorough search and on December 22, a Pakistani patrol succeeded in locating SepoyBaldev Singh. By then, he was barely conscious, but with a finger still on his nose and surrounded by a pack of stray dogs. On seeing the patrol, the dogs slowly moved away.
Baldev had been lying badly wounded in sub zero temperatures for six and a half days. He was soon evacuated to Muzaffarabad and then to the military hospital in Rawalpindi. He remained under the care of Pakistani medical authorities for the next six months. Prolonged exposure to severe cold and loss of blood had done tremendous damage to his toes and fingers. All his toes and the fingers of his right hand had to be amputated in order to save him.
When Baldev returned to India after the exchange of prisoners, he underwent another round of hospitalisation. Due to further complications, both his legs were amputated from mid calf, as was his right hand below the elbow. In 1973, he was at the artificial limb centre at Pune when Captain Karam Singh went to meet him and learnt first-hand about this great saga of survival against all odds.
Baldev credited his life to the Pakistani stray dogs and explained, “For the first few days, I had the strength, alertness and also ammunition. I kept the dogs at bay by firing at them. Soon my ammunition finished and so did my food. I had to struggle against the chilling cold and excruciating pain even to raise my commando knife. In another couple of days, I started getting fainting spells, but my courage and determination did not flag. “Main nahin si chahunda kih Pakistan de awara kutte meri lash nu khajan! (I did not want the Pakistani stray dogs to eat my dead body!) I could barely raise my finger, that too with great effort, to tell the dogs that I’m still alive. These dogs had been the angels who kept me alive for six and half days. I thank these dogs for their patience as they would not eat a living human being.”
Of course, his story would not be complete if I do not acknowledge the chivalry of Lt Col Haq Nawaz Kayani who ordered a thorough search to locate Baldev Singh. Lt Col Kayani was killed in action in the same area on 5 May, 1972 while leading his unit in a counter attack to recover a position lost in the war. He was deservedly awarded a bar to the Sitar e Jurrat.
Sepoy Baldev Singh now lives in his village near Ropar. The story of this brave soldier’s survival is indeed a saga of the triumph of human spirit!