The Battle of Basantar during the 1971 War, was one of the most intense and hardest fought battles in that conflict. One of the major tank battles post World War II, with both sides sustaining casualties. Much like the epic Battle of Asal Uttar during the 1965 War, this proved to be a heavy blow for the Pakistani Army, losing 48 Patton tanks in it’s own territory. 2 Param Vir Chakras, 4 Maha Vir Chakras, and 4 Vir Chakras were awarded of which 5 were posthmous. And the battle had many heroes, Major Hoshiar Singh Dahiya,Major Vijay Rattan Chaudhary, Lt. Col.V.P.Ghai, Capt R.N.Gupta, the 9th Engineer Regiment nicknamed the Thambi Regiment. And above all 2nd Lt Arun Khetarpal of the Poona Horse, who was awarded the Param Vir Chakra, the youngest recipient at just 21 years, who laid down his life in the course of action.
Arun Khetarpal was born on October 14, 1950 in a family that had served in the Armed forces from decades. His father Lt.Col M. L. Khetarpal was a Corps of Engineer officer, who would later retire as Brigadier. His great grandfather fought in the Sikh army against the British, while his grandfather served with the British Indian Army. Arun studied in Lawrence School, Sanawar( Himachal Pradesh), whose motto “Never Give In” would symbolize his own life. A good student at school, he later joined NDA in 1967 and was comissioned in the 17 Poona Horse in 1971.
The 17 Poona Horse was the one in command of the 47th Infantry Brigade, during the battle and it’s main objective was to establish a bridgehead across the Basantar River in the Shakargarh sector. The battle theater was more specifically the Shakargarh Bulge, which is basically a protrusion of Pakistani territory into Indian one. This particular territory was surrounded on all three sides by India, and was strategically important for both the nations. The road to Jammu from Punjab passed through this area, which meant that Pakistan could cut off access here. Straddling the more fertile Indus river belt, made this area economically important too.
At December 15, 9 PM, the bridgehead was established, however the enemy territory was heavily mined, and the engineers were still halfway into the task. The Engineering Task Force comprising the 3 units was grouped with 47 Infantry Brigade for crossing the Basantar River at Lagwal. This was the toughest part of the assignment, an operational track had to be constructed from Lohara to Lagwal, the enemy minefield had to be breached, and crossing places had to be constructed on two marshy nullahs.
Dec 16, 8 AM- The Pakistani 13th Lancers, having the state of art Patton Tanks, launched their first counter attack on the 17th Poona Horse at Jarpal. With the commander of the Poona Horse, calling for reinforcements, Arun who was with the A squadron, responded with his Centurion tanks. The first counter attack of the Pakistanis was repelled by the Centurion tank brigade, with every one right from the individual tank CO, to troop leader Arun playing their role to perfection.
The 13th Lancers launched two more attacks, and breakthrough the Indian defenses. Arun however launched right into the Pakistani attack, almost alone in charge against some very stiff resistance. He knocked out a Pakistani tank, however he was hit soon by enemy fire, and badly injured, while his tank was hit too. By this time however he stopped the Pakistani tanks from making a breakthrough, and gave the Indian Army a stronger position in the Shakargarh bulge. When his superior officer ordered him to abandon his burning tank, his last words over the radio were.
“No, Sir, I will not abandon my tank. My main gun is still working and I will get these bastards.”.
And in spite of being injured, and his tank damaged, Arun Khetarpal fought back hard, destroying around 10 Pakistani tanks, including one just 100 m away from him. However the second hit, destroyed his tank, and a badly injured Khetarpal succumbed to his wounds. His tank was named Famagusta, and the radio operator Nand Singh too was killed in the action. The driver Prayag Singh and the gunner Nathu Singh, were captured by the Pakistani troops, but released after the end of the war. Arun Khetarpal died a hero on the battlefield, denying the Pakistanis a breakthrough and giving enough time for the Indian Army to secure Shakargarh.
The Indian Army secured Shakargarh, and came pretty close to the Pakistani military base at Sialkot. And expecting another massive assault, the Pakistani army called for surrender, which led to the ceasefire. It was one of the most humiliating defeats for them after the Battle of Longewala.