We all have heard of courage and heroic of Second Lt Arun Khetarpal who was awarded Param Veer Chakra during the battle of Basantar in 1971 war. The war started six months after he was commissioned into the 17th Poona horse regiment. He was on the frontlines facing the enemy.
On 16th December 1971, 17 Poona Horse was attacked by Pakistan at Jarpal, Indian forces were heavily outnumbered, Indian commander of B squadron asked for reinforcements. He was responded by Second Lt. Arun Khetarpal with his detachment were very close. They were 4 tanks in the detachment.
They saved the day for the Indian army, with Second Lt. Arun Khetarpal and other Indian tanks attacking the enemy and had the enemy on the run. One tank commander laid his life. Later, the enemy regrouped and attacked on the sector which was under Second Lt. Arun Khetarpal, three tanks facing 15 enemy tanks. From there it was a furious gun battle, 10 Pakistani tanks were destroyed and India’s two tanks were casualties. Second Lt Arun Khetarpal’s tank was hit and he was asked to abandon the tank. His response was, “No Sir, I will not abandon my tank. My gun is still working and I will get these bastards.”
He then proceeded to destroy other four tanks, the last tank was 100 metres away and Arun Khetarpal’s tank halted at this stage and his tank was shot and he attained mayrtyrdom. He was awarded with the highest military award for wartime gallantry, Param Vir Chakra.
However a strange sequel was to follow for the Khetarpal family. Many years later, India and Pakistan established ‘people to people’ contacts between both the nations. This was also known as ‘Twin Track Diplomacy’.
Brigadier M..L. Khetarpal, father of 2nd Lt. Khetarpal started receiving messages that a certain Brigadier from the Pakistani army was keen to meet him. However since he did not know this particular Brigadier, Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal did not do anything to encourage the meeting.
In 2001, Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal now 81 years old felt a strong desire to visit his birthplace, at Sargodha, now in Pakistan. It was a wish that he thought that would never materialize, but when he voiced it to some friends engaged in the Twin Track Diplomacy, they arranged all his papers, visas, travel and staying arrangements in Pakistan so that he could go for the visit.
At Lahore airport, Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal was met by Brigadier Khawja Mohammad Naser, who took it upon himself to be Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal host and guide. Brigadier Naser really went out of way to ensure that Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal had a satisfying and nostalgic visit to his old house in Sargodha. Upon his return to Lahore he was once again the guest of Brigadier Naser for three days.
Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal was overwhelmed by the extreme kindness deference, courtesy and respect bestowed upon him by Brigadier Naser, all the members of his family and his many servants. As the countdown for the departure progressed, the bonds of friendship between the guests and the host grew stronger and stronger. However Brigadier Khetarpal felt that something was amiss but could not make out what it was. Was it the long silences that punctuated their animated conversation or was it the look of compassion in the eyes of the women in the family. He could not make out.
However what was certain was that he would always remember the hospitality, warmth and affection of this Pakistani family who treated
him as someone very very special.
Finally at the last night before Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal’s departure, Brigadier Naser said ‘Sir there is something that I wanted to tell you for many years but I did not know how to get through to you. Finally fate has intervened and sent you to me as an honoured guest. The last few days we have become close to one another and that has made my task even more difficult. It is regarding your son who is of course a national hero in India. However on that fateful day, your son and I were soldiers, unknown to one another, fighting for the respect and safety of our respective countries. I regret to tell you that your son died in my hands. Arun Khetarpal’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.
It is only later that I got to know how young he was and who he was. We are trained to fight and kill without mercy or remorse. We do in war what we have to without thinking too much about it. However we are humans too and sometimes war takes a personal turn and makes an impact on the inner self..
I had all along thought that I would ask your forgiveness, but in telling the story I realize that there is nothing to forgive. Instead I salute your son for what he did at such a young age and I salute you too, because I know how he grew into such a young man. In the end it is character and values that matter.”
Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal was silent as he did not know how to react.To be faced with the person who killed his son, and also to be enjoying his hospitality and being his guest is a confusing feeling.
However, Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal immediately realized that Brigadier Naser was genuinely wanting, in some way to compensate for something that he did only in the line of duty. The soldier must do what he has been trained to do unhesitatingly, and with full resolve and determination.
Both the Brigadiers retired for the night deep in thought. There are never any victors in war, both sides lose and it is the families that have to pay the price and suffer the most. As someone once said ‘ Wars are created by politicians, compounded by bureaucrats and fought by soldiers.
The next day photographs were taken and Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal returned back to Delhi.
Later the photos reached Delhi along with a note from Brigadier Naser that said:
With Warmest regards and utmost sincerity, To: Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal, father of Shaheed Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal Khetarpal, PVC, who stood like an unsurmountable rock, between the victory and failure, of the counter attack by the ‘SPEARHEADS’ 13 LANCERS on 16 December 1971 in the battle of “Bara Pind’ as we call it and battle of “Basantar’ as 17 Poona Horse remembers.
Khawja Mohammad Naser, 13 Lancers
02 March 2001
The citation for the Param Vir Chakra awarded to him reads:
On 16 December 1971, the squadron Commander of ‘B’ Squadron, the Poona Horse asked for reinforcements as the Pakistani armour that was superior in strength, counterattacked at Jarpal, in the Shakargarh Sector. On hearing this transmission, 2nd Lt Khetarpal who was in ‘A’ Squadron, voluntarily moved along with his troop, to assist the other squadron. Enroute, while crossing the Basantar River, Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal and his troops came under fire from enemy strong points and RCL gun nests that were still holding out. Time was at a premium and as a critical situation was developing in the ‘B’ Squadron sector, Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, threw caution to the winds and started attacking the impending enemy strong points by literally charging them, Overrunning the defence works with his tanks and capturing the enemy infantry and weapon crews at pistol point. In the course of one such daring attack one tank commander of his troop was killed.
Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal continued to attack relentlessly until all enemy opposition was overcome and he broke through towards the ‘B’ Squadron position, the Pakistanis fought very bravely and did not retreat even after losses, instead they kept moving forward after their initial probing attack on this squadron. He was so carried away by the wild enthusiasm of battle and the impetus of his own headlong dash that he started firing at the tanks that came so close to him and even managed to shoot and destroy one. Soon thereafter, the enemy reformed with a squadron of armour for a second attack and this time they selected the sector held by Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal and two other tanks as the point for their main effort. A fierce tank fight ensued: ten own tanks and 3 enemy tanks were hit and destroyed of which Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal personally destroyed 2, just then Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal was severely wounded. He was asked to abandon his tank but he realized that the enemy though badly decimated was continuing to advance in his sector of responsibility and if he abandoned his tank the enemy would break through, he gallantly fought on and destroyed another enemy tank. At this stage his tank received a second hit which resulted in the death of this gallant officer. Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal was dead but he had, by his intrepid valour saved the day; the enemy was denied the breakthrough he was so desperately seeking. Not one enemy tank got through. Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal had shown the best qualities of leadership, tenacity of purpose and the will to close in with the enemy. This was an act of courage and self-sacrifice far beyond the call of duty.