The Hero and His Humiliation
Karanvir Singh Sibia
Poonch is a historical town along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. Almost 320 kilometres from Pathankot, a district headquarter now, it used to be a princely state. Buried in the sands of time here is the heroic saga of Brigadier Pritam Singh, the 'Hero of Poonch'. He earned the sobriquet when the town was under siege by the Pakistani army, beefed up by 'Razakars' (raiders), for one year from November 22, 1947 to November 21, 1948.
Trouble began with the influx of almost 40,000 refugees from across the newly-demarcated border, swelling up the town's population to around 50,000. Due to the scarcity of food and warm clothing and the enemy knocking on the doors, people suffered endlessly. At this juncture, the Brigadier emerged as the saviour of Poonch, and was called 'Sher Bachcha' (Son of a tiger) by the elders of the town for his outstanding leadership during the siege. His heroic exploits and courage are part of the folklore, especially the tales about how he rescued local women from the marauders and how fairly he treated the Muslim population.
Living on the Edge
Born on October 5, 1911, at village Dina in Ferozepur, Pritam Singh flirted with danger all his life. He served in the North West Frontier Province and Italy during World War II. In Singapore, in 1942, he was seriously wounded in an air raid and was taken a prisoner of war by the Japanese. Pritam Singh, then a Captain, made a daring escape along with Captain GS Parab and Captain Balbir Singh from the PoW camp in Singapore on May 4, 1942. Traversing through dense forests and inhospitable terrain, travelling by a train and through the sea, covering around 3,000 miles via Siam (Thailand) and Burma (Myanmar), the trio reached Burma, malnourished and stricken with ailments, after six gruelling months on October 6, 1942. All three of them were awarded the Military Cross by Field Marshal AP Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief.
From 1942 to 1945, Pritam Singh served in the Middle East and graduated from the Staff College in 1945. In October 1947, he took over the command of 1 Kumaon (now 3 Para) from Lieutenant Colonel GB Beer. Reaching Srinagar on October 29, he participated in the battle of Shellatang on the outskirts of Srinagar along with 1 Sikh. The raiders were pushed back and Srinagar was secured. Thereafter, 1 Kumaon, under Pritam Singh, was tasked to take care of Poonch. After a gruelling march, 1 Kumaon reached Poonch on November 21, 1947 with 419 men, but they were besieged. For the record, the town was earlier held by 1,400 men of the J&K State Forces.
The then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, wanted to save Poonch at all costs, much against the wishes of Lt Gen Sir Dudley Russel. However, the besieged J&K State Forces garrison was preparing for withdrawal. Pritam Singh, now a Lieutenant Colonel, cancelled the withdrawal orders, reorganised the defences and took charge of the administration. He attacked the enemy positions in the vicinity to secure the town. Isolated and cut off from the rest of the country, Pritam Singh miraculously withstood the siege for one year at a stretch. By employing 7,000 local Poonch residents, Pritam Singh created an airstrip within a record time of seven days, enabling Air Commodore (Baba) Mehar Singh to land the first Dakota, a military transport aircraft, on December 12, 1947, bringing in the much-needed medical aid and foodgrains. On its way back, the aircraft evacuated refugees, mainly the elderly, women and children.
Pritam Singh raised two new battalions — 8 and 11 Militia (now JAK Light Infantry) — from amongst the able-bodied refugees and the locals. For one year, a fierce struggle continued at Poonch. Ground was taken, lost to the enemy, and then retaken. Finally, on November 20, 1948, the isolated Poonch was connected to Rajouri, with a two-brigade sized force opening up the road. For his exemplary leadership and heroic efforts in the face of unimaginable adversity, Pritam Singh was promoted to the rank of a Brigadier. The ultimate appreciation of his leadership and bravery came, surprisingly, from the enemy. Brigadier Sher Khan, his counterpart during the Poonch siege, is said to have told Maj Gen KS Thimayya: "If I admired anyone on the Indian side, it was Pritam Singh, who fought very gallantly against an overwhelming force around Poonch."
Unfortunately, the story of the saviour of Poonch took a bizarre turn soon after. The gallant officer was court-martialed on very flimsy grounds, and the story of the siege of Poonch was buried with his dismissal. After his court martial, Brig Pritam Singh had said: "Sometimes serious doubts assail me whether it would have been better to have let the State Forces garrison slip out and follow it than to put up a tenacious fight, but I dispel them with my conviction that I have done my duty to India and that one day the truth will come out."
His case needs to be revisited so that he's exonerated of these charges and his honour is restored. A grateful nation owes it to him. A hero has been treated shabbily. This fact needs to be acknowledged, otherwise it will keep hurting the morale and sentiments of our soldiers and the people of Poonch, who continue to treat him as their hero.
The life and travails of this great soldier will soon be brought alive through a documentary, aptly titled The Saviour.
ęCopyright Institute of Sikh Studies, 2019, All