The Student And The Hero

Jagtar Singh is a soldier whom few remember, but for those who were in his Company, he remains an ideal of loyalty.

ByLt Gen H S Panag
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The Student And The Hero
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In 1969, a fresh lot of soldiers after doing their basic training joined the unit. As per tradition all were interviewed and assessed for their potential in specialised tasks and sports. Pampered army sportsmen may not be the best trained in fighting skills, but were never found wanting in spirit and courage. During the interview, one of the relatively weaker new soldiers – Sepoy Jagtar Singh – volunteered to take up wrestling. Seeing his physique, I suggested that he take up some other game. Jagtar insisted and explained that his grandfather was a renowned wrestler who laments the fact that his son (Jagtar’s father) did not pursue wrestling and became a clerk. Not wanting to dampen his enthusiasm, I called Balkar Singh of Bravo Company, 4 Sikh, and told him to take Jagtar under his wing for training.

Balkar was a renowned wrestler. He had a number of podium finishes in the inter-services wrestling championship. Over the years, he had become an arrogant bully – traits which militate against the esprit de corps of Indian Army units. But he was tolerated much to the chagrin of other soldiers as he had won laurels for the unit. Good performance in wrestling meant accelerated promotions and within 12 years of service, he had become a Naik.

Balkar gave Jagtar a contemptuous look and said that with his physique, this boy could never become a wrestler. Jagtar said, “Ustad ji, please give me a chance, I will do you proud.” Reluctantly, Balkar agreed to coach him.

The next year was hard work for Jagtar. Apart from his continuous training as a soldier, he dedicated himself to building his physique and learning the “dao pech” (techniques) of wrestling. Balkar was initially a reluctant coach, but soon set up a strict training regime for his student. Jagtar spend his entire salary of Rs 150 on his additional diet of milk, eggs, almonds and desi ghee (in addition to the standard army food). In six months, there was a discernible change in his physique. He became very strong and muscular. In the wresting pit, he was agile and had mastered the holds taught by Balkar. His forte was his strength, which was much higher than that of wrestlers of his weight category.

But there was a down side. Due to his improved physique, his weight had also increased. Much to Jagtar’s dismay, he now had to wrestle in the same weight category as Balkar.

For each weight class, only one wrestler could represent the unit in the brigade wrestling championship. Balkar and Jagtar had to compete for a place during the trials. Their bout was a treat to watch. Balkar was a wily old warhorse who knew all the tricks. Jagtar had youth on his side and as the committed shagird (disciple) had imbibed his lessons well. Initially, Balkar toyed with Jagtar, but as the junior matched his every hold, Balkar started to worry.

At one stage, Jagtar almost pinned Balkar down and was about to ‘floor’ him. There was a look of surprise and surrender on Balkar’s face and just then, Jagtar slackened his hold deliberately, allowing Balkar to get away. Balkar came back with vengeance and won the bout on points.

Having noticed that moment, I realised Jagtar had deliberately thrown the bout away. I called him aside and asked for an explanation. Jagtar said, “Sir, I did not want my ustad to lose face.” I suggested that he drop to a lower weight category. This meant a loss of strength, but Jagtar gladly agreed. Balkar knew what had happened, but his arrogance did not allow him to accept that his pupil had become better than him. He also felt slighted and bullied Jagtar no end for one reason or the other. However, Jagtar never complained.

Balkar and Jagtar would go on to win in their own categories and represent the Army – a commendable achievement for the ustad and shagird duo.

The unit deployed war in 1971 and by November 10, we were in the thick of it. Early December found us on the Western approach to Jessore where a formidable enemy company position at the village of Burinda had to be cleared. The defences were built around a series of large fish ponds that covered the most likely approach. All other approaches were bereft of cover and not suitable. Alpha and Delta Companies had attacked on two successive nights and closed the main defences around a big fish pond. On December 5, Bravo Company was tasked to capture the position.

On December 4, I went to meet Bravo Company as I knew that the impending battle on December 5 was going to be a bloody one and I may not meet some of my comrades again. Balkar and Jagtar were in the same trench. Suddenly, the enemy machine guns opened up and our position came under intense fire. Everyone dived for cover. The firing continued for five to six minutes. When there was a lull in firing we took stock of the situation. There was only one casualty in the company- Balkar Singh. He had received a bullet injury on his left hand index finger and an inch from the tip was blown off. Such injuries are always suspect – some soldiers, to avoid battle, raise their hand out of the trenches or simply inflict the same upon themselves.

There was only one witness to Balkar receiving the bullet injury and that was Jagtar, who in addition to his sportsmanship, had a reputation of speaking the truth. As Balkar’s injury was being dressed before his evacuation, the Company Commander called Jagtar and asked him about the circumstances of the injury sustained. Jagtar was visibly disturbed, but said that it was an enemy bullet that caused the injury. Due to the impending battle, Jagtar’s word and Balkar’s reputation as a sportsman, the matter was allowed to rest there. I was very certain that Balkar had inflicted the injury upon himself, but there were other important matters to attend to and my attention got diverted to them.

Next day as part of my duties as the Adjutant, I coordinated the preparations for the attack by Bravo Company. The battle was going to be tough and we all knew that the casualties will be heavy. The unit granthi (religious teacher) did the ardas followed by a resounding jaikara – “Jo bole so nihal, sat siri akal“- and Bravo Company plus supporting elements, 130 strong, started moving towards the forming-up place for the attack. I saw Jagtar carrying a pole charge (a wooden pole with plastic explosive meant for blowing up bunkers). He stopped and took me aside. He said that he may not survive the attack and has to tell me something that is weighing heavily on his conscience. “Yesterday I told you a lie,” Jagtar told me. “Ustad had deliberated inflicted the bullet injury upon himself, but I did not want him to lose face and be punished. Please do not mention this ever to my Ustad and do not take any action against him.” Without waiting for my reply, he shook my hand and hurried to join the column.

The battle was the most intense my unit had ever fought, a fact confirmed by the veterans who had seen action in World War II, 1962 and 1965. No quarter was given and none was asked. The enemy was well-entrenched in the bunds of the large fish pond and protected by mines and booby traps. The fight was from bunker to bunker, and the casualties were heavy. The grim struggle continued for four hours.

At one point, Jagtar had crawled to a bunker holding up the attack and after lighting the fuse, he thrust the pole charge through the loop hole to blow up the bunker. Simultaneously, a long burst of machine gun fire from within virtually cut him in half and he died on the spot. The attack moved forward and the entire position was cleared. Simultaneously Charlie Company with half a squadron of tanks broke through from a flank and got behind the enemy. The next day, we were in Jessore.

The unit casualties were 27 killed and 86 wounded. Bravo Company alone suffered 22 killed and 60 wounded. I was present for the field cremation of the 22 soldiers killed in action. Three pyres were made with whatever wood we could find and petrol was poured liberally to do the rest. The last body to be placed on the pyre was that of Jagtar. The face of this unsung and noble soldier remains etched in my memory.

After the war Balkar returned to the unit. True to my promise to Jagtar, no action was taken against him. As per the rules he was awarded the wound medal and also became entitled to war injury pension. One day, he came to see me and requested a premature discharge. I agreed to take up his case, but asked him to explain the reason. He confessed his shameful act to avoid the battle in which we’d lost so many soldiers. I told him I knew and also told him the reason no action had been taken against him: his shagird’s request. Balkar was reduced to tears. “Oye Jagtar, main tainu bahut sataya si. Mainu maaf kar de (Oh Jagtar, I tortured you a lot. Please forgive me),” he wailed, right there in my office. I calmed him down and told him perhaps there was something he could do something in Jagtar’s memory.

Balkar proceeded on discharge. He gave up his wound medal and also declined his war injury pension. He gave me a one line explanation: “Jagtar would not have approved.”

Rest in peace, Jagtar! Your comrades still remember you after 45 years.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @rwac48.

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