A Deathless Hero – 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal, PVC (Posthumous)
The Indian armed forces epitomise the ultimate symbol of national pride brought about by the valour and sacrifices of its sons. Continuing on the series of stories on bravehearts, Gen Raj Mehta brings alive the sacrifices of this brave son of India – 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal, PVC.
2/Lt Arun Khetarpal, PVC (Posthumous)
Maj Gen Raj Mehta, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
What can one say of a shy, self effacing, embodiment of the Chetwode motto who died? That he was disarmingly handsome and brave; that he was an inspirational leader and the Fakhr-e-Hind of his beloved country, India? That he was admired in death by his opposing number of the Pakistani Armoured Corps. That much and so much more can be said and written about this bravest of brave young officers, who willingly and selflessly gave up his tomorrow for the Indian Army’s priceless historical legacy of naam, namak and nishan. Go home therefore, dear reader, and tell them of him and say, with pride and with passion, that 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal, PVC, (Posthumous), by the manner of his military skills, deathless spirit and his death, brought rare honour to his distinguished cavalry regiment, The Poona Horse and to soldiering, even as his life blood left his shattered body after he had engaged and destroyed his fourth Pakistani Patton tank. He gave up his today for our tomorrow…
Born on 14 October 1950, in Pune, Arun Khetarpal came from a family with a long military tradition. His great-grandfather had served in the Sikh army and fought against the British at the close run battle of Chillianwala in 1848. His grandfather served in the British army during the First World War and Arun’s father, Brigadier ML Khetarpal, was a Sapper officer. Arun studied at the famous Lawrence School, Sanawar. He joined the National Defence Academy in 1967 (38th NDA course, ‘Foxtrot’ Squadron; he became Squadron Cadet Captain). He was commissioned into The Poona Horse on June 13, 1971. The unit was termed ‘Fakhr-e-Hind’ by Pakistan after its 1965 battle performance in the Sialkot Sector.
My association with him began in those early days in 1971, when we knew with certainty that we would go to war with Pakistan. I was then a young officer in 16 Light Cavalry, in 16 Independent Armoured Brigade. Just before we mobilized in late September for moving to the border in J&K, my Regiment played a closely contested basketball match with The Poona Horse. Playing for them was Arun. Still to do his Young Officers’ Course, he was an average player but a wonderful friend; shy, intense, very driven. Given his movie star looks, his tall, slim frame, his deportment and his pedigreed conduct, he endeared himself to all. That evening, we met at his Officers Mess bar. Arun surprised all the young officers present by suddenly announcing that, in the coming war; he would die and would be rewarded for gallantry. An awkward silence followed but something in his quiet, convincing demeanour and the intensity with which he made his remark made me believe his premonition.
During the 1971 indo- Pak War, 17 Poona Horse was placed under command 47 Infantry Brigade of 54 Infantry Division in the Shakargarh Bulge opposite Samba, J and K. It was superbly victorious in what we term as the Battle of Basantar and Pakistan terms as the Battle of Barapind. The essence of what happened was that the Brigade was tasked to establish a bridgehead on night December 15, 1971, across the Basantar River, using The Poona Horse to provide its Infantry operations and the attacking troops protection and later, spearhead its operations. The enemy’s 8 Armoured Brigade sensed the danger and chose to counterattack the bridgehead post-haste, to deny the Indian Army further ingress along this axis that was headed straight for Shakargarh town, the physical and psychological centre of gravity of the Shakargarh Bulge.
At 0800 hours on December 16, Pakistani 13 Lancers equipped with the then state of the art US made 50 ton Patton tanks launched the first of their counter-attacks under the cover of a smokescreen at ‘B’ Squadron, The Poona Horse, at Jarpal. Its squadron commander urgently called for reinforcements. Arun Khetarpal, who was in ‘A’ squadron and was stationed close by with his Centurion tank troop, responded with alacrity. , as did the rest of his regiment. The first counter attack was decimated by accurate gunnery, coolness by our tank troop and individual tank commanders from the iconic CO,Lt Col (later Lt Gen) Hanut Singh, MVC downwards to its dashing troop leader, Arun Khetarpal. 13 Lancers desperately launched two more squadron level counterattacks (see sketch below), but to no avail and at savage cost in men and material to this otherwise old and well established cavalry regiment.
Pak 13 Lancers launched piece meal counterattacks and paid the price; losing its organic cohesion as a tank regiment in the bargain
Arun destroyed three tanks, but was seriously wounded, along with the driver of his tank, ‘Famagusta’ when firing at the third tank. When engaging his fourth tank manned by then Major (later Brigadier) Khwaja Mohammad Naser, the opposing squadron commander, his tank was hit for the second time. Deployed across the Basantar River on December 16, 1971, a few kilometres away from his battle, I heard his last radio message. Mortally injured and bleeding, he radioed his squadron commander: “No Sir, I will not abandon my tank. My gun is still working and I will get these ……” He did, dying as he knocked off his fourth Patton tank. He was awarded the Param Vir Chakra posthumously. He was the embodiment of the spirit of Naam, Namak and Nishan and of the Chetwode Motto.
Many years later, India and Pakistan established ‘people to people’ contact also known as ‘Twin Track Diplomacy’. In 2001, Brigadier Khetarpal felt a strong desire to visit his birthplace at Sargodha, now in Pakistan. Twin Track Diplomacy and contacts thereof ensured that the visit took place. At Lahore airport, Brigadier Khetarpal was met by Brigadier Khwaja Mohammad Naser, who took it upon himself to be his host and guide. Brigadier Naser really went out of way to ensure that Brigadier Khetarpal had a satisfying and nostalgic visit to his old house. The hospitality of Pakistanis is legendary, but Arun’s father sensed that behind the exceptional treatment he got from Brigadier Naser and his family, there was some unusual motivation, but could not pinpoint it. Finally the stunning disclosure was made. On the eve of his departure, Brigadier Naser told him that “I regret to tell you that your son died in my hands. Arun’s courage was exemplary and he moved his tank with fearless courage and daring, totally unconcerned about his safety. Tank casualties were very high till finally there were just two of us left facing one another. We both fired simultaneously. It was destined that I was to live and he was to die”… The brave father realised that the Pakistani officer had, in confessing, paid a great tribute to Arun and, in so doing, put his own soldier’s conscience at causing Arun’s death at rest. Later, Brig Khetarpal received a letter from Brigadier Naser that said that Arun had “stood like an insurmountable rock, between the victory and failure of the counter attack by the ‘SPEARHEADS’ – 13 LANCERS – on December 16, 1971 in the battle of “Bara Pind’ as we call it and battle of ‘Basantar’ as The 17 Poona Horse remembers it…
In 1981, I was shocked to receive my posting to the NDA as an Instructor. By an unwritten convention, only ex NDA officers are posted there. I was amongst the privileged few from the OTS who broke this convention as I was an “outsider”. I remember standing in front of Arun Khetarpal’s portrait in Sudan Block, where the bravest of the brave are eternally sequestered within frames of gold-rimmed portraits; testimony to the Academy’s motto of Service Before Self and a source of deathless inspiration. I took an oath then, that I would honour the NDA spirit in all I did in my military career. In subsequent command of my Regiment, a Rashtriya Rifles Sector in Kashmir, an Armoured Brigade, a Division on the Line of Control in Kashmir, I never forgot this pledge.
When I lay seriously wounded on the snow after an encounter with Pakistani terrorists in South Kashmir in January 1998 (I was then a Brigadier in command of a Rashtriya Rifles Sector in South Kashmir), I remembered Arun’s gutsy ‘spirit and slogged on, refusing pain killing morphine. Hours after I was wounded, we had shot three of the terrorists (we lost two soldiers) and it was only then that I allowed myself to be carried on a stretcher for evacuation by helicopter toSrinagar’sArmyBaseHospital.
West Point, the United States Military Academy after which NDA is modeled, has a poignant unofficial motto: “Much of the history we teach was made by soldier’s we taught.” One realises how true the motto is for the NDA and, indeed, for soldiers and soldiering worldwide.
Much of modern India’s military history has been written by brave hearts like Arun Khetarpal who departed NDA’s portals carrying the torch held by Tanaji Malusare, the General who left his son’s marriage on Shivaji’s command to capture the strategic fortress of Sinhgarh that today overlooks the NDA campus and for whom Shivaji, in February 1670, paid the ultimate eulogy: ‘Garh Ala pan Sinh Gela’ (I have got the Fort but have lost my Lion). Indeed, the Sinhgad Fort today oversees the NDA spirit both physically and metaphorically. The 26/29 November terror strike at Mumbai yet again saw the NDA spirit on display in the ultimate sacrifice paid by young Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, an ex NDA whose heroic death paved the way to the NSG’s success in a hugely complex and difficult operation that held the world’s attention riveted during its tenancy.
The Indian armed forces and certainly the Indian Mechanised Forces carry the flag once carried by 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal high, very high indeed. Whether NDA, Direct Entry or from the OTA; whether they are men or women officers or simple tank men; Arun’s tank ‘Famagusta’ now restored, is displayed at the Armoured Corps Centre and School at Ahmednagar. It is here that future Arun Khetarpal’s whether tank men or of mechanized infantry learn their profession of arms. Arun’s memorial remains a powerful, irresistible beacon encouraging new generations of soldiers and officers across gender to walk the extra mile; to embody the Army’s motto of ‘Service Before Self’ always and every time the need arises.
- Captain Courageous – Captain MN Mulla, IN, MVC (Posthumous) (southasianidea.com)
- A Forgotten Soldier – Brig Pritam Singh, Military Cross (MC) (southasianidea.com)
- Of lions, deer and military leadership (indianmilitarynews.wordpress.com)
- Bravery Personified: Lt Navdeep Singh, Ashoka Chakra (southasianidea.com)
- Siachen – Bravery Beyond Compare (southasianidea.com)
- Beyond The Last Blue Mountain (southasianidea.com)