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No one has cared to inform us about the '65 war celebrations

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Submitted by admin on Mon, 31/08/2015 - 05:41

No one has cared to inform us about the '65 war celebrations: Col HN Handa, the senior-most wounded officer of the 1965 Indo-Pak war - By Ajaz Ashraf


Col HN Handa, the senior-most wounded officer of the 1965 Indo-Pak war,recounts how his leg was blown off and the unrest in the military hospital before Indira Gandhi's visit.

Five months short of turning 80, Col. (Retd) HN Handa is the senior-most wounded officer of the Indo-Pak war of 1965. He now heads the Disabled War Veterans (India) association. In this interview with, he reminisces about the war, how his leg was blown off, and discloses details of incidents not really known – the unrest sparked by the wounded in a Pune hospital which warranted the deployment of a battalion to check it, and their memorable meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Excerpts:
How old were you in 1965? Where were you deployed when the war began?
In 1965, I was 29 years old and held the rank of Major. My regiment was 2/9 Gorkhas (or the second battalion of the ninth regiment of Gorkhas), which was then in Bakloh (Dalhousie). Earlier, I had been at the headquarters of the 19th Infantry Division in Baramulla, where I was the General Staff Officer (Operations), after having taken over from VN Sharma, who was to later become the Chief of Army Staff.

Since war seemed imminent, I requested I be sent to my regiment. Within three or four days of my reaching Bakloh, our unit moved to Samba via Pathankot, where we stayed for a few days. Subsequently, in August or a little before, we moved to Srinagar.
By August, the Pakistanis had infiltrated into Kashmir under the operation they codenamed Gibraltar.
Yes, our unit was deployed in the SRI sector (which took its name from SRI Force Headquarters established on August 14, 1965, and was specifically charged with dealing with the Pakistani infiltration and protecting Srinagar). I was put in charge of counter-attacking any paratroops that Pakistan might land to take over the Srinagar airfield. My company was directly under the command of Maj. Gen. Umrao Singh, who headed the divisional headquarters of SRI Force.
Once it was determined that the Srinagar airfield faced no threat, I joined my unit, which was tasked with ensuring that the road leading to Sonamarg wasn’t cut off.
Did your unit engage with the Pakistani infiltrators?
Infiltrators were sighted on mountaintops. We had to attack the posts where the infiltrators were. We reached there, but they had already fled. We stayed at that height and prevented any attack on the road to Sonamarg.

Once, while patrolling the road, our troops were attacked by a band of 30 Pakistanis. Our men were in three different trucks. They got off the vehicles, charged at them with khukuris and chopped off the heads of 29 of them. The fellow who was caught was an officer, a Captain of the Pakistan Army.
How come the Captain survived?
The Pakistani captain fell down and our chaps nabbed him. Our Commanding Officer, Col. Nand Lal Jamwal, informed Maj. Gen. Umrao Singh about the incident. Gen. Singh’s response was, ‘I do not believe you.’ So the Colonel asked me to bring the 29 bodies and the Pakistani Captain to the headquarters in Srinagar. I was ordered to dump the bodies outside the Maj. Gen’s door.
But why?
That was because the General said he didn’t believe us. He was very angry. He asked Col. Jamwal to take away the bodies, to which he replied, ‘Sorry, find someone else’… And we walked away.
Some personality, this Col. Jamwal?
O, yes. Anyway, from there we were sent to Akhnur in the Chhamb Sector. We had got quite a beating there….
This must have been in September, as Pakistan launched its Operation Grand Slam by attacking the Chhamb-Jaurian area on the first day of that month.
Yes, they attacked with their armour and moved in quickly, all the way to Jaurian but did not succeed in taking over the Akhnur bridge, which was their aim. They wanted to cut off the road to Poonch. We were pushed right to the front to stop them, and the bridge remained under our control. (As India attacked Pakistan in the Lahore and Sialkot sectors, it withdrew some troops from Chhamb, consequently easing the pressure on the Indian Army.)
Those weeks in September must have been tough on you all.
We were laying ambushes for Pakistani troops. In one such ambush, we surrounded a vehicle. Orders were given to fire, but not a single weapon fired.
Come on!
We had 303 rifles, of the 1914-1918 vintage, and they just wouldn’t bloody fire. So a day before we were to go for yet another operation, I told Col. Jamwal, ‘Sorry, my company isn’t fit for war. My weapons just don’t fire.’
Our Divisional Commander was, once again, Gen. Umrao Singh. I was taken to him. I repeated what I had told Col. Jamwal. Gen. Singh said, ‘You could be court martialled for cowardice in front of the enemy.’ I responded, ‘Sir, we will go without the extra load of guns that don’t fire. We will go with our khukuris.’
They couldn’t have permitted that.
(Laughs) The General called the person responsible for inspecting the weapons. (In Army parlance, he is called AIA, or annual inspection of arms.) He said he had personally inspected the weapons of the entire battalion and found them functioning well. The General looked at me. ‘Fine, Sir, let him come along with us, since he has classified the weapons fit,’ I said.

He offered to inspect the weapons again. Within an hour, the weapons were tested in the firing range and the entire lot was classified as ‘unfit’. That night we got fresh weapons – SLR rifles and ammunition and we returned our older weapons. The entire night went into this.
With such antiquated weapons, weren’t the troops demoralised?
No, they were not demoralised. When India and Pakistan are involved, whether in a cricket or hockey match, the attitude always is, un salon ko thokna hai… It is the same in war.
So when did you get injured and how?
I got injured in January-end, 1966. I stepped over a mine. My leg was blown off. It happened in the Chicken’s Neck (on the banks of Chenab river).
But the ceasefire was announced at 3.30 am on September 23.
Minor operations continued long after. (Military historians say both India and Pakistan were trying to recover territory lost to the other, in the hope of striking a favourable bargain later.) In January-end, we were asked to remove the mines in Chicken’s Neck, which is a sandy terrain. The person who had laid out the mines wasn’t around. A mined area is supposed to be charted out so that at the time of removing the mines the person knows where these are. But we were simply handed over the mined area.
You mean to say you went in totally blind.
Yes, totally blind.
Weren’t there mine sweepers?
What we were asked to remove were plastic mines, which mine sweepers can’t detect. We had our prodders, but mines in sandy terrain tend to turn. The process of checking required four persons. The first person would check a spot with the prodder and then step on it; then the second in line would prod where his predecessor had checked and put his foot there; likewise, the third and the fourth person. Basically, you check the area point by point. We were almost done. When I put the prodder and stepped on the spot, the mine blew up. That was the end.
Since the area had been charted out, there must have been a map.
The person who had charted out the area wasn’t there. There was no map around.
Sounds callously careless?
Well, I was supposed to go to Staff College (in Ooty). I ended up in hospital.
You must have got knocked out of consciousness?
No. I knew my left leg had been blown off. You don’t feel the pain immediately. No screaming. I was guiding the JCO what to do as he was very upset. The pain comes later, after four-five hours. I was taken to the military hospital in Jammu, where they operated upon me. My wife came down from Dehradun. We were sent to Pathankot.
Were military hospitals under tremendous pressure because of the war?
There was no place in the wards. There were just so many wounded around. I was made to lie in the lawns of the Pathankot military hospital. In the evening, the commandant of the hospital came, went around asking whether we were alright. My wife snapped. She told him I had been there since 9 am, and nobody had offered me a glass of water nor attended to my wound. (Chuckles) The commandant was rattled.

The next morning they operated upon me. In Jammu, they had cut off a part of my foot. In Pathankot, they now severed it from the ankle.

My brother-in-law was in the VIP squadron of the Indian Air Force. He flew in an aircraft with a medical team. He told the commandant that he had the requisite permission to take me and other wounded to Delhi. But the commandant, upset with my wife, said, ‘Nothing doing. They will all go by the train.’
This kind of petty politics existed even then?
Yes. So I came down to Delhi by train. I experienced acute pain as the train rattled. In Delhi, another operation was carried out at the Army Hospital. They severed off my left leg till five and a half inches below the knee. I was there at the hospital for a month. In March, I was shifted to Pune, to the Artificial Limb Centre, where roughly 1,800-2,000 people were awaiting their artificial limbs.
Were all wounded in the 1965 war?
Yes. With me in the ward was Satnamjit Singh. He later joined the Indian Foreign Service. Satnam’s heel had been knocked off. They refused to send him like that to Pune, saying his leg below the knee had to be amputated. He agreed, signed on the dotted line. The moment he reached the Limb Centre, the first person he saw was a man with a wound similar to his – and he was wearing a surgical boot.
It sounds like a horror story.
All of us, Satnam included, were waiting to get artificial limbs. In those days you had the wooden leg with a belt which you tied around your body. It was extremely heavy. But they were also importing about 100 Patella-tendon bearing casts (or PTB legs) from Germany.
It must have been agonising to wait.
At that time, anyone who had been in hospital for three months dropped in rank and lost 50% of his salary.
Oh, come on.
Believe me, that was the medical rule. From the time I had been admitted in the Jammu hospital till I reached Pune, I had almost completed three months. There were many there who were already on what we used to call half-pay. It didn’t happen to me, though.

I was the senior-most officer among the wounded. I went to the commandant of the Artificial Limb Centre, and I asked him when my prosthesis was to come. He said the waiting period was as long as six months. I told him I would write to the Army Chief saying that a senior Major and another 1,800-2,000 were waiting in the hospital for artificial limbs because its commandant, instead of producing them (the wooden ones), was busy getting furniture made for other officers.
Whom was he making the furniture for?
I don’t know who. But the moment I said this I got my artificial limb in seven days. But there was a huge unrest at the Artificial Limb Centre and a battalion of the Southern Command was sent in to check it. You can very well gauge our frustration.
What happened during the unrest?
I wouldn’t want to go over it.
So after the unrest, did things become alright?
Thereafter, Indira Gandhi, who had become prime minister, came to visit us. We were all kept in wards for her visit. In the ward next to mine, there was this young lieutenant from Rajasthan. She came and gave him sweets and cigarettes and said, ‘Sab Theek hai? Everything is okay?’ She moved over to the next bed.

The lieutenant said, ‘Ma’am, have you come to do lip service or do you really want to know what is happening?’ When he said this, everybody turned around.

The lieutenant continued, pointing to the officers one by one, ‘This Military Secretary, this Adjutant General, this Army Commander, all of them have been coming to us. All that we ask them is: What is our future? Nobody is prepared to provide us an answer.’

But he didn’t stop there.

‘Second,’ he said, ‘my hand was amputated by this general (of the Army Medical Corps) standing here, ask him when has he come to check on me last. I have been telling him that gangrene is setting in. Yet he is not bothered.’ He disclosed to Mrs. Gandhi that he had disappeared from the hospital, went to Jaipur, had his hand checked and cleaned out and returned to Pune. ‘This is the kind of medical treatment I am being given by an officer of his rank.’

Indira Gandhi stormed out. There was hungama.
Things changed thereafter?
The Military Secretary would come to ask each of us where we wanted to be posted. All of us got the posting we wanted.
Where did you go?
I went to Dehradun, to the 39 TCG (39 Training Centre of Gorkhas). I was there for a while, and after a course, I was posted to the Army HQ in Delhi. I then went on deputation to the National Industrial Development Corporation. I was in the Army as long as my treatment was going on, in Dehradun and Delhi. Those with the prosthesis require a lot of medical attention in the first few years. As soon as the treatment was over, I was invalidated out in 1970, which translates to saying, ‘medically your services are not required’.

An invalidated officer can’t join the government service. But the NIDC’s managing director re-hired me as a civilian. He took government sanction to employ me.
Were you given special benefits?
No, nothing. In fact, I didn’t even get my pension for two and a half years. I had completed 18 years of service.
Which means you were two years short of opting for premature retirement?
Yes, but in 1972, a letter was issued by the Ministry of Defence saying that anybody who had been invalidated out of the Service because of military action will be deemed to have served his full service in the rank to the maximum of the rank. Therefore, I was deemed to have served for 33 years.
When was Disabled War Veterans formed?
In 1978, and it consists of 9,000 disabled war veterans.
I guess you all must have been invited to the nearly one-month celebration of the 1965 war?
I know nothing about it.
What do you mean? It is August 21 today and the celebrations are supposed to commence on Aug 28.
Nobody has informed us.
That sounds strange. There is supposed to be a carnival, music shows, exhibition….
I can tell you a lot many of the 1965 war veterans don’t know about it. There has to be some publicity. We are the war-wounded. We don’t know. Something, a general circular, came on my cell phone yesterday.
Whom did it come from?
I didn’t even bother to check. I simply replied that I am a 1965 war-wounded. We should have been informed much earlier, we should have been asked to assemble at such and such place. Nobody has called us.
(Source - Via e-mail from Col NK Balan Vet)