“Arun hamara beta tha. Par ab hamein kuch yaad nahin.” (Arun was our son. But I remember nothing now.)
This is what Rachna Bisht Rawat, the acclaimed author of The Brave: Param Vir Chakra Stories, got in reply when she asked the 87-year-old Mrs. Maheshwari Khetarpal about her son who made a supreme sacrifice for the nation 42 years ago in the historic Battle of Basantar during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971.
Son of Lt. Col. M.L. Khetarpal (who later went on to become Brigadier), Arun Khetarpal was enrolled into the 38th Course NDA in 1967 and subsequently joined the Indian Military Academy before being commissioned into the 17 Poona Horse.
Gearing up for an epic battle
Fond of swimming and playing saxophone, the suave Army officer with dashing ethos was ordered to march with his regiment towards Shakargarh sector in December 1971 while he was undergoing Young Officers Course in Ahmednagar.
Trained to crush the spirits of the enemy by wreaking havoc in a biblical sense, young Khetarpal didn’t forget to pack his ceremonial uniform and golf clubs in his luggage. When one of his comrades asked the reason behind bundling such things, he twinkled with a reply high on adrenaline:
Come on, you sons of bitches!
During the pitch-dark night of December 15, tanks of 17 Poona Horse sped forward to establish a link-up with troops of the 47th Infantry Brigade. The tank column proceeded stealthily through a heavily mined field and eventually reached the bridgehead in Jarpal by the early morning of December 16. Around the same time, Pakistanis launched a surprise attack on the B Squadron of 17 Poona Horse from heavily fortified strongholds which obligated its Commander to order a rapid reinforcement from the A Squadron of which Khetarpal was a member. Dashing towards the demonic vantage points of the enemy with his famous Centurion tank Famagusta, he kicked aside concerns of personal safety and literally ravaged the enemy formation before capturing a buttload of jerks at pistol point.
And a glory that shines upon our tears
In the maddening battlefield which was already drowned with blood and mutilated bodies, Pakistanis reorganized and counterattacked with Patton tanks, only to meet a hellacious death from the hands of war-crazy Khetarpal. Whatever he saw moving in the range of his Famagusta, was blown to pieces; and if it was out of reach, he made sure to reduce it to ashes by chasing like a hell’s angel. Suddenly, he was not an ordinary human anymore. Though injured and bleeding profusely, he turned himself into a wild beast and blew apart four enemy tanks one by one whilst his brothers-in-arms were attaining martyrdom.
The enemy kept advancing and he continued blowing them back. He was ordered by his Commander, Captain V. Malhotra, to abandon his nearly-destroyed tank but he switched off his radio set after replying back:
In a straight-up duel with an enemy’s tank, which was going to be his fifth in line, his Famagusta Jx 202 shivered for the last time when a shell fell inside ripping his body apart. Arun Khetarpal slumped inside his tank before ensuring that honor of his tricolor was defended.
Back in New Delhi, his family was eagerly waiting for him and even got his motorcycle serviced which he had dropped at home before moving to Basantar, when on December 26, a postman arrived with a condolence letter leaving everyone bereaved:
In memory of the fallen
For displaying the highest form of valor in the battlefield and sacrificing his life for the comfort of countrymen, Arun Khetarpal was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra.
The Indian Military Academy (IMA) has honored his combat heroism by naming a building after him.
The ground of the National Defence Academy (NDA) which witnesses the Passing Out Parade of Cadets is called Khetarpal Ground.
A father and a soldier
Major General Ian Cardozo, who fought in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 as a Major serving under the 5 Gorkha Rifles, recounts an emotionally challenging moment in his book Param Vir: Our Heroes in Battle, of Brigadier Madan Lal Khetarpal visiting his birthplace in Pakistan in 2001. He was offered a warm greeting by his hitherto unknown host Brigadier K.M. Nasir who confessed to being a part of the Pakistani Army in the Battle of Basantar. The Pakistani officer revealed further:
“We were soldiers unknown to each other, fighting for the safety and honour of our respective countries. I regret to have to tell you that your son died at my hands.”
“In battle you don’t see faces or people. You only see the tank … Arun Khetarpal was singularly responsible for our failure that day. He was a very brave boy.”
To which the 81-year-old father replied:
“I’m an old soldier, I know the feeling. It’s a will to dominate on the field.”
Mrs. Rawat, who herself is the wife of an Army officer; engrossingly narrates the wizened condition of a wheelchair-bound mother trying to muster up the melting memories of Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal. However, she nodded affirmatively when Mrs. Rawat queried whether she had given or not the exemplary piece of suggestion to her son going to his first and final war:
A childhood image of Arun Khetarpal on his memorial website reads a fitting caption:
- (With inputs from The Brave: Param Vir Chakra Stories)
- (Original images of 2nd Lt Arun Khetarpal and his family have been sourced from www.2ltarunkhetarpal.com)