6th Dec 1971 Afternoon, 10 Bihar had just finished a hard fought battle of Akhaura and were taking care of their wounded and silently mourning their dead brothers-in-arm. They had not slept of 2 days and had been in action continuously. In that saddened, gloomy and tired battlefield, a helicopter landed and a 6 feet towering figure stepped out.
It was the Corp Commander - Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh. Everyone stood alert and saluted. One look at their gloomy faces was enough for Sagat to understand the situation. He hugged everyone present there, officers and men alike. Though it was just afternoon, he opened few bottles of whiskey and poured in their glasses, sat on a stool and asked 10 Bihar to “drink to your dead and wounded…. not to mourn them but to glorify them. Enemy position on the other side is weak, you would not get a better opportunity to avenge your men. Go and get those bastards, such historic moments come rarely!” This small gesture and speech had an electrifying effect on everyone present. It charged up the atmosphere.
That was Sagat - one of his kind, part of a rare breed of outstanding battlefield commanders like Hari Singh Nalwa, Peshwa Bajirao, Rommel, Patton etc. He had a natural talent for war, an outstanding soldier with dynamic leadership. One who never faced defeat and came out victorious every time - be it 1961 operation Vijay to liberate Goa, Nathu La incident of 1967, Counter Insurgency operations in North East or 1971 Indo-Pak war. Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh was one of the best, rather THE best battlefield commander that modern Indian army has produced so far.
Sagat was a Rajput Rathod and was born on 14th July 1919 in Bikaner. His father Thakur Brij Pal Singh had served in famous Camel Corps of Bikaner and fought in WW1 in Iraq. Eldest amongst the three brothers, Sagat completed his early education in Walter Noble’s School, Bikaner and then joined Dungar College, Bikaner but he did not complete his graduation.
After passing the Intermediate exam, following his father’s footprints Sagat joined the Bikaner State Forces. Soon after WW2 started, Sagat joined IMA Dehradun as an Indian State Forces Cadet and passed out in 1941. After completing a mandatory stint in the British battalion – The South West Borders in Bannu (North West Frontier Province, Pakistan), Sagat went back to Bikaner State Forces.
His unit moved to Iraq in Oct 1941 to supress the Rashid Ali revolt there. After a few months, the unit moved to Kut-el-Amara, to Syria, to Palestine and finally returned to Iraq as a part of 6 Indian Division. In 1943, he was nominated to attend the Junior Staff Course at the Staff College, Haifa. Sagat completed the 7 months long Junior Staff Course. Being short in duration, it could not be equated to the full Staff Course being provided by Staff Colleges in Camberley or Quetta. But in 1945, Sagat was again nominated to attend the prestigious Staff College Quetta (now Pakistan). He distinguished himself by attending 2 Staff Courses within a short span of 3 years. Readers must note that Sagat did it while being an Indian State Forces officer and not a regular Indian Army Officer.
After independence, Sagat decided to opt for the Indian Army, his application was accepted on 15th Jan 1949 and was given a permanent commission in the Indian Army with no reduction in seniority. His service in the Bikaner State Forces since 27th Oct 1941 was considered and was assigned 3 Gurkha Rifles. He served as Second-in-Command of 3/3 GR in 1954 and in Feb 1955, he was promoted to Lt. Col and given the command of 2/3 GR.
In 1961, he was promoted Brigadier and was given the command of 50 Para Brigade. Now this was unprecedented as Sagat was no paratrooper. Para brigade was an elite unit and their approaches and operations are unconventional- a perfect match to the unconventional military talent of Sagat. But Sagat had to earn his “wings” to become one of them. But he was already 42 years old. Nonetheless, taking the challenge in the true para spirit, Sagat completed his probation in record time and completed the number of jumps required to earn his “wings”, sometimes he would jump twice in a day to save time!
Soon came the testing time – Operation Vijay of 1961 to liberate Goa. It was this operation that displayed his leadership abilities, his tactical brilliance and the ability to seize any opportunity the unfolding battlefield offers. As per the plan, the main column (17 infantry Division under Maj Gen Candeth) was to move in from the east to finally capture Panjim (Goa’s capital). It was given enough support elements and bridging equipment to ensure the quick advance of the column. 50 Para Bridge (under Brig Sagat Singh) was to make a subsidiary thrust from the north, para dropping its troops near Panjim to capture the vital bridges and to tie down Portuguese troops in the area. They were not to capture Panjim, which was the objective of 17 Inf Div. But Sagat’s mind was already working three steps ahead and scanning his area of operation and beyond.
Three days before the D Day, Armt Chief Gen Thapar (father of famous TV anchor/journalist Karan Thapar), Adjutant General Lt Gen PP Kumarmangalam, and Southern Army Commander Lt. Gen. JN Chawdhary visited the 50 Para Brigade. Sagat presented his detailed plan and gave a timeline for every milestone. Army Chief showed his concern about the timings being too optimistic. So Sagat gave him the timings in writing. All three Generals went back after wishing Sagat good luck and not before asking him to be careful with the timeline.
So apprehensive was Gen Chawdhary about Sagat’s timeline that he bet Rs 500, little did he know that he would lose the money to Air Vice Marshall Pinto (Pintoo knew Sagat very well and trusted his abilities) in about 4 days.
When the operation started on 18th Dec, 17 Inf Division’s advance was painfully slow while 50 Para brigade’s advance was so fast that by the evening Lt. Gen. Chawdhary had to pass on the objective of 17 Inf Div (capturing Panjim) to 50 Para. By 9AM on 18th Dec, 50 Para had secured Panjim while 17Inf Div was still far away. Goa had been liberated in an operation that lasted just over 24 hours.
It was the dedication, esprit de corps and high morale of the troops and Sagat’s outstanding leadership that made 50 Para strike the Portuguese with lightning speed.
Portuguese government held Brig Sagat Singh as the person responsible for their quick defeat and promised a reward of $10,000 to anyone who hands over Sagat to the authorities! An American tourist, who had come from the Portuguese capital Lisbon and had seen such posters in all the cafes and restaurants, informed Sagat in Agra in Clarkes Shiraz Hotel in June 1962.
1967 Nathu-La Incident
In 1967, it was the same team. Sagat was the Division commander, Lt. Gen Aurora (Jaggi) was the Corp Commander and Lt. Gen. (later COAS and Field Marshall) Sam Manekshaw was the Eastern Army Commander.
To help Pakistan in the 1965 war, the Chinese gave an ultimatum to India and asked to vacate Jelep La and Nathu La in Sikkim area. Both Jelep La and Nathu La were Border Out Posts with their main defences in the rear. 17 Mountain Division (commanded by Maj Gen Sagat Singh) was responsible for the defence of Nathu La and 27 Mountain Division was taking care of Jelep La. Higher command issued orders to vacate the BOPs. 27 Mtn Div vacated the BOP and the Chinese occupied it instantly (it is under Chinese control till date). However Sagat refused to vacate Nathu La. He saw the tactical advantage of having control over Nathu La as an Artillery observer sitting on high features in Nathu La could observe Yatung Valley for miles and bring down accurate artillery fire. Sagat's tactical brilliance paid off 2 years later.
In Aug 1967, Sagat was done with daily nit picking by Chinese and wanted to demarcate the border. He took Jaggi Aurora's permission to mark the crest line. 2 Grenadier under Lt. Col Rai Singh was being posted to the Chinese border and en route to Nathu La, Sagat met Rai and asked him to train his troops to lay barbed wires to demarcate the border. Once in Nathu La, Rai and his troops started laying the barbed wires despite protests, shouting and jostling by Chinese troops. Rai was always with his troops doing the groundwork. Not only it helped him supervise the progress easily, but it also proved to be a morale booster for the troops who were laying the wire in open area, which was very well in the firing range of Chinese troops who could open fire any time.
On 27th August 1967, about 75 Chinese soldiers in full battle dress and weapons started advancing towards the Nathu La. Grenediers became alert and manned all the positions. The Chinese stopped at the border, their commander took out his Red Book and started reading something and the rest of them repeated what the commander was reading. This kept going for about an hour and they went back.
On 1st Sep, Jaggi and Sagat visited the Nathu La post and walked up to the border. Due to poor visibility, they even went a few steps on the Chinese side. Instantly, the Chinese Political Commissar came running and shouting "Chini, Chini". Both officers understood and stepped back immediately. But the Commissar kept shouting and then a Chinese soldier with a camera and clicked a photo of the foot prints of Indian officers on the Chinese side!
Well, Sagat again went to the border on 2nd Sep and then on 4th Sep to order to convert the wire fence to a Cat Wire type 1 obstacle.
On 7th Sep, Grenadiers were laying the wires and about 100 Chinese soldiers came and hand-to-hand fighting started. And the Chinese realized quickly that they were no match for the Jats of Grenadiers. They withdrew quickly and started pelting stones! Jat responded back in the same coin.
On 9th Sep 1967, while protesting the wire laying one Chinese soldier crossed the line and put his hands-on Lt. Col. Rai Singh. Grenadiers just could not take it and beat up the soldier who offended their CO. The panicked Chinese soldier fired a shot, the first ever shot on Chinese front after the 1962 war. Soon the Chinese side apologized for the shot fired.
The situation defused but for just 2 days.
On 11th Sep, at 5:15 AM the Chinese manned their defensive positions and some of them came out in open to protest the fencing activity. At 7:45AM, when some Chinese troops were still in the open protesting and jostling with Indian soldiers, a whistle blew and Chinese soldiers in open ran for cover. Instantly came a devastating automatic fire. Rai got 3 bullets and was dragged to safety. Later the Chinese started the artillery fire. In this desperate situation, Maj Harbhajan Singh of 18 Rajput and Capt PS Dagar of 2 Granediers led an audacious attack on Chinese positions and got killed. Some troops panicked and abandoned their positions. But on the road coming down from Nathu La, they found Maj. Gen. Sagat Singh, who had snatched a Sten Gun and threatened to shoot the fleeing soldiers.
That was Sagat at his best, always on the front with his troops, controlling every battle his formation fought. During any operation, he would not sit back in his headquarters but stay as close to the scene of action as possible. He had already smelt the problem on 9th Sep and had moved forward. He had also alerted the artillery OP. But Sagat had no authority to use the artillery, neither had the Corp Commander (Jaggi Aurora). Only Army Commander (Sam) could authorize the artillery fire but Sam could not be contacted as he was in New Delhi as an officiating Army Chief because the Army Chief Gen. PP Kumarmanglam was out of the country. Sagat was not the one to sit idle during such critical situation waiting for the authorization from higher ends while his troops suffer in the battlefield. Fully aware of the possible repercussions, assuming the responsibility of a field commander he ordered the Artillery guns to open up. Indian Artillery hammered the entire valley with remarkable accuracy and deadly effect, Chinese suffered Over 400 casualties (as per Chinese records).
For the first time the Chinese realized that it was not the same Indian Army that they faced 5 years ago. The Chinese had no idea who were they facing? It was not Lt. Gen. BM Kaul of 1962 ( IV Coprs was created over night in 1962 and Kaul was hand picked by Nehru to command the Corps to “throw back the Chinese”. Kaul eventually got sick in the high mountains of the North East and was evacuated. Nehru personally allowed him to run IV Corps operations from his sick bed in New Delhi because Nehru wanted to give Kaul a chance to redeem his honour. Well, the incompetent Kaul could never do so and the Indian Army and the Nation paid the price by facing a disgraceful defeat) but a brave and competent commander – Maj. Gen. Sagat Singh.
More columns by the author:
Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif and the inside story of Pakistan's Kargil blunder
Soldierathon: An initiative taking India closer to soldiers
1971 War: What happened before Pakistan's public surrender to India
Indo-US relationship: India must avoid the American trapWhy the Indian Armed Forces should not be forced into doing civilian tasksWho made North Korea a nuclear power: Dr A Q Khan or Pakistan?Capt. Bharat Verma and his 'Make in India' dream for Defence
Are F-16s a good choice for the Indian Air Force?
The economics of CPEC: What are the options for India?
BrahMos Missile: Why China is nervous