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Malharis Battle of Gadra City, 1971 War

The Battle of Gadra City fought on the night of 4/5 December 1971 was one of the important battles in the Western Theatre. 15 Kumaon (Indore) won a famous victory on the back of sound leadership, detailed planning and extensive rehearsals, great comradeship and flawless execution involving surprise and personal bravery. Before the description of the battle proper it would be useful to understand the geography of the area.


Geographical Setting

Gadra City lies on the edge of Cholistan desert. The name Cholistan comes from Cholna, a Saraiki word meaning ‘moving or shifting sand’, thereby meaning ‘the desert of shifting sand’. Cholistan Desert locally called as Rohi is spread over in 26,300 square km area sprawling thirty kilometers from Bahawalpur in Pakistan’s Punjab Province adjoining the the Great Indian Desert or the Thar Desert extending over to Sind in Pakistan and Rajasthan in India. The people of Cholistan lead a semi-nomadic life, moving from one place to another in search of water and fodder for their animals. Many settlements of the Indus Civilization existed in the Hakra River Valley in the ancient times.

Barmer is the largest city in the region on Indian side known for its folk music, dance, carved wooden furniture and hand block printing industry. Uttarlai, India’s first underground airbase is situated in Barmer while the town has a small military cantonment. In Rajasthan, the India-Pakistan border runs around 1040 kilometer passing through border districts of Ganganagar, Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Barmer. The border villages of the Thar Desert are inhabited by Hindu and Muslim cattle breeders and sheep farmers who during draught migrate to distant places in search of water and fodder. The Pakistan Rangers and Mujahids often looted the border villages and kept the area hot.

Barmer has a roughly 240 km border with Pakistan. An eight kilometer sand track linked Gadra Road Railway Station with the Pakistani village Gadra City, which is situated 50 kilometer east of Munabao, the last Indian railway station while Khokhrapar is the first Pakistani station across the border and both are of strategic significance. Shifting sand is peculiar to this sector that creates peculiar logistical problems. The shifting sand dunes shaped in long ridges are covered by wave like curves formed by winds. The vegetation is sparse and climate extreme-very hot in summers but nights are pleasantly cool and equally cold in winters with scanty rain in between. Land marks exist only near water points and navigation is difficult. Communications are sparse and poor and due to no obstacles terrain is excellent for tank movement but nightmare for the movement of’ ‘B’ vehicles and the logistic support is best maintained by the camels. The fewer roads, Munabao and Khokrapar railway stations either side of the border, Gadra Road, Gadra City, Dali, Bagal, Naya Chor and Barmer are strategically significant, while all water points and desert tracks in this area are tactically important. The only way to conserve body water is to carry out operations in between the last light and the first light and not to move in the sun.


Gadra and its Famous Laddoos

Gadra village with the population of 10,000, on the Indo-Pak border is about 75 km from Barmer town. It’s a well-settled village of Pakistani Hindu migrant and like in most other villages, the divides are glaringly stark – cemented houses for the upper castes and mud houses for the lower castes – both bonded in the organised handicrafts trade for which Gadra is very famous now. The lower castes stitch, weave and embroider handicrafts and the richer traders take them across Rajasthan and even export the finished goods. The village, famous for its ‘Gadra ke Laddoo’, borrows its name from Gadra town in Sind province of Pakistan, around 5 km from the border. Chaman Bhutra says his grandfather is the man who first made the laddoos in Pakistan. Around Partition, his grandfather shifted closer to Gadra railway station, hoping that if anything went amiss, he could at least board a train and reach India.

But after Partition, the railway station area became part of India and so did the famous Gadra ke laddoos. During my first visit to Gadra in 1984, I was amazed to see the huge quantities of laddoos being made daily that perhaps were impossible to consume locally. I was told that in the late evening these were loaded on well trained camels at Gadra Road with Assam beetle nuts, paan, Sojat’s henna, limestone of Jaisalmer, stainless steel utensils of Jodhpur, bhujia, papad, rasgullas of Bikaner, handicrafts of Barmer etc and textiles, dry fruits, slippers, threads, leather items, opium etc were smuggled in from Gadra City through well-knit smugglers network in connivance of local officials, police, Para Military Forces (PMF) and customs deployed on both the sides who get their due share in the smuggling. Marriages are often solemnized across the border and jeeps laden with marriage parties fitted with balloon tyres ferry them across.

Along with the smuggling and corruption, intelligence also gets compromised. Prior to Indo-Pak war in 1965, goods trains used to ply between Jodhpur and Karachi. There were strong business relations between Sind and Marwar. After the war, the rail tracks were uprooted between Munabao and Khokhrapar on both sides and rail route were closed. After signing of the agreement by both the countries, once a week, the Thar Express has started plying on this route again.

Once a week, every Friday, the train starts from Jodhpur around mid-night to Munabao and at zero point, passengers dismount to board train for Sind and vice versa. Bilateral talks are going on between the two countries to start goods train and establish road link via Munabao to improve trade, travel and tourism bilaterally. The Indian government has fenced the J&K-Punjab-Rajasthan border with Pakistan to check ingress of militants, arms, explosives and smugglers from that country.


A Word about 15 Kumaon (Indore)

14 and 15 Kumaon were the two front line great old Infantry Battalions of the princely state forces of Gwalior and Indore with incredible record of service in both the World Wars that joined the Kumaon Regiment in 1953. They both had successfully eliminated the Pindaris in Central India. In 1730 the Maratha ruler of the Indore, Malhar Rao Holkar raised an Infantry Battalion named after him as Malhar Paltan that was renamed in 1886 as the 1st Battalion the Maharaja Holkar’s Army that changed to 1st Battalion the Maharaja’s Guard. It saw active service in both the World Wars as part of the Imperial Services Force in Baluchistan, Persia, and Iraq. After independence, it saw active service in J&K and in 1953; it became integral part of the Kumaon Regiment and got its present designation.


Prelude to Operations in the Barmer Sector

15 Kumaon (Indore) also called ’Malharis’ had moved to Bhuj in August 1971 from Nagaland for its well-earned peace tenure that the war clouds with Pakistan started gathering momentum over liberation of the Bangladesh. The Battalion having spent 3 years in insurgency area in the Northeast had hardly any training to combat effectively in the desert terrain. Lt Col SR Bahuguna, the Commanding Officer (CO) started desert training in Bhuj and the Battalion moved to its firm base in Gadra where it trained hard in battle drills for the impending operations in the third week of October 1971.


15 Kumaon Operations Gadra to Chachro, Dec 1971      

15 Kumaon (Indore)’s Offensive from Gadra to Chachro

As the Code word ‘Padlock’ for move to Assembly Area was received at about 2000 hrs on 03 December 1971, the Battalion was heavily strafed by the enemy for an hour. The move was on foot with complete secrecy and enemy unaware of it. Though enemy information was sketchy, plan to capture Gadra was as under:

  • Phase 1. Capture areas Point 658 and Whale Back by D Company (Maj Sunhara Singh) 2100 hrs on 04 Dec 1971.
  • Phase 11. Capture areas 157 r and Dune by B Company (Maj HS Yadav) and C Company (Maj IS Budhwar) respectively by 0200 hrs on 05 Dec 1971.
  • Phase 111. Capture Areas High Ground and Ridge by A Company (Maj AS Khatri, VrC) and D Company (Maj Sunhara Singh) respectively by 0800 hrs on 05 Dec 1971.


Execution of the Operational Plan

The International Border (IB) was crossed at 1800 hrs in darkness as moon rose two hours later. By 2200 hours, Point 658 and Whale Back that were held by the enemy patrol were captured by D Company (Maj Sunhara Singh) and Phase 1 of the Operation completed and the enemy in its main defences was totally overwhelmed and shocked. To maintain complete surprise over the enemy, no success signal was fired knowingly well that it would affect commencement of Phase 11 and fetching up of F echelon and mortar vehicles.

As planned two objectives 157r and Dune further west to be captured by B and C Companies simultaneously in Phase II. Their forming up place (FUP) had been secured by a platoon of D Company. In the FUP, B Company was fired upon by the enemy medium machine gun (MMG). Later it was learnt from Capt Attar Khan taken as Pakistani prisoner of war (POW) that the enemy thought assaulting force for a patrol and did not open with more weapons so as not to disclose own defences and strength.

Artillery fire was called at this stage by Maj Yadav on the enemy dispositions and surprise was lost. The enemy opened up with small arms and eight medium machine guns (MMGs) fire but the resolute and relentless charge with war cries of ‘Kalika Mata ki Jai’ thundered the desert and unnerved the enemy to withdraw to depth defensive positions on the high ground and Ridge in Gadara City, leaving behind their equipment and dead soldiers in the pill boxes. The attack from the rear offered gentle climb but totally surprised and outwitted the enemy who resorted to artillery and mortar fire on positions vacated by him but that did not impede Malharis offensive as reorganization was done ahead of the positions captured by them. However, it did affect move of the Phase 111 as the enemy fire had to be skirted to avoid own casualties.

In the final phase, the enemy’s main defences consisting of pill boxes on top of the dunes south of Gadra city were to be tackled. A Company (Maj AS Khatri, VrC) and D Company (Maj Sunhara Singh) moved behind the enemy positions on Gadra-Dali Road to launch their assault. Enemy resorted to heavy artillery and MMG fire that mercifully was plunging. While in the FUP, own troops were fired heavily yet they assaulted relentlessly in quick dash to minimize own casualties blunting almost ten MMGs and 40-50 LMGs fire. The reserve platoon of the A Company was unfortunately caught in the maze of this murderous fire and suffered very heavy casualties and ceased to exist. Over the dunes, Kumaonis offensive progressed well destroying pill boxes in their path and hand to hand fighting ensued for well over two hours as their ammunition was exhausted.

During the final stage of the battle, the CO had some anxious moments as there was a lull in the firing and no signal communication could be established with his assaulting companies. But then the sky was brightened with success signal of three green lights around first light that brought cheers to brave hearts on capture of the Gadra City as the first rays of the sun hit the feet of this great Malhari Paltan, decisive victory was once again theirs forever. While the success signal brought cheers, the rising morning son spread its canopy over the battlefield steadily and its warmth cut the sharp chill amongst the Malhari victors.

Lance Naik Durga Datt was the ‘Bravest of the Brave’ Malharis. During assault, he crawled forward to tackle an enemy bunker that had MMG inflicting heavy casualties and impeding the offensive. He lobbed a hand grenade that destroyed the gun and its crew. He moved to another bunker and was hit in the head by the burst of enemy fire from another automatic weapon. He continued moving forward and silenced the second bunker and succumbed to his injuries. Maj Sunhara Singh showed highest quality of leadership and courage when under heavy enemy fire despite the fact that he had lost his reserve platoon and yet able to capture his objective.

Both were awarded well deserved VrCs for their acts of gallantry. Sepoy Chander Singh whose platoon suffered many casualties, took LMG from the gunner who was struck due to enemy fire and charged the enemy MMG and silenced it. He was awarded Sena Medal for his devotion to duty and bravery, though he very well deserved a much higher gallantry award but as said by me in my numerous articles, soldiers do not fight for medals.

They only fight for their ‘Naam’, ‘Namak’ and ‘Nishaan’. The CO was very effective and his calculated risks, out flanking maneuvers and striking the enemy from the rear outwitted and surprised the enemy. The junior leadership was exemplary and officers and JCOs led their men from the front.

Malharis lost one JCO and one other rank (OR) as killed while 22 ORs were injured. Enemy losses were around 40 killed. Besides 3 PoWs, the Battalion captured one jeep, four 3 inch mortars, one 2 inch mortar, two 6 pounder guns, one Vickers MMG, one LMG, 23 rifles, one radio set, 13 camels and large quantities of ammunition.


Dali, Bagal and Beyond

The Battalion was tasked to exploit towards Dali and moved early morning on 6 Dec 1971 after much needed night rest and replenishments. Attack on Dali, believed to be held with two companies duly supported by tanks and artillery, was launched at 0100 hrs on 7 Dec 1971. Since the enemy had no will to fight, it withdrew after losing 15 men, one POW and some arms and ammunition. Enemy air craft attacked the Kumaonis but there were mercifully no casualties. Bagal the next objective was also vacated by the enemy and it seemed he was de-motivated, disorganized and withdrawing to Naya Chor.

Large quantities of arms and ammunition were captured at Bagal too by the Malharis. The Battalion was over stretched over a long distance and replenishment of water and rations were precarious. After replenishment, one company of the Battalion was sent on 8 December 1971 to occupy Chachro. By 16 December, 11 Infantry Division had reached within a mile of Naya Chor capturing nearly 3,000 square miles of Pakistani territory as against 50 square miles held by the enemy in Chhamb and Hussainiwala. Large credit for this outstanding feat goes to the Malhar Paltan.


Roll of Honour

  1. Maj (Later Lt Col) Sunhara Singh          VrC
  2. Lance Naik Durga Datt  VrC (posthumous)
  3. 2/Lt (later Maj) NB Singh  SM
  4. L/ Hav (later Hony Capt) Diwan Singh   SM
  5. Sep (later Hav) Chander Singh   SM
  6. Lt Col ( later Maj Gen ) SR Bahuguna     M in D
  7. Maj (later Lt Col) AS Khatri, VrC     M in D
  8. Nb Sub Ranjit Singh        M in D

A few things have struck my psyche while reading and writing about our past wars whether at Rezang La, Walong, Kargil, J&K or the desert. Firstly, the Battle of Longewala got undue publicity as if nothing happened in the desert theatre in 1971. 13 Kumaon at BP 638 in Jaisalmer sector and 15 Kumaon (Indore) at Gadra in the Barmer sector fought ferocious battles that created history of unknown sorts. My sincere effort has been to highlight this fact. Secondly, we have always been saddled with the defensive attitude and no patrolling or crossing the LoC/IB even when war was imminent allowed.

Since our adversaries only understand tough language and stand, we have to cultivate aggressive spirit but our commander are only taught offensive spirit in courses and exercises but when war is thrust upon our Armed Forces, our political leadership and bureaucratic controls kill this instinct so very essential in any war.

If our field commanders are encouraged to cultivate aggressive spirit, they will certainly be able to teach lessons to our adversaries in conventional and non-conventional war. Too much obsession with remaining with in our side of the LoC/IB is our biggest bane. No war can ever be by being obsessed with defensive mind set. The third aspect is that of honours and awards. In one action, a brave heart silences enemy MMG gets killed and awarded nothing or at best given a Mentioned-in-Dispatches. Elsewhere, in a lesser action, the other individual gets away with very higher award. Getting an award one does not deserve is worse than not getting the deserving award and our soldiers though rustic are first to now it.

Longewala, BP 638, Walong, Gadra are some of the examples. While there cannot be any mathematical yard stick for giving gallantry awards, surely committees vetting citations should be totally impartial with no regimental bias. Citations sent by signals fetch awards immediately and the ones with many pages of the flowery English typing gather dust in the South Block.


Gadra Day

Malharis have rich martial traditions and their indefatigable spirit spearheaded enemy in Gadra City Battle. To commemorate and honour the martyrs and saga of their bravery on 4 December every year it celebrates Gadra Day with great gusto and pride. It is a pity that both in BP 638 in Jaisalmer Sector and Gadra in Barmer Sector, two Kumaoni Battalions (13 and 15) fought splendidly but most of the credit, gallantry awards and publicity went to ‘The Battle of Longewala’. Except for our Regimental history ‘Valour Triumphs’ the bravery of these two actions lie buried in obscurity. Hence an effort has been made in this article to revive the undying saga of these two Battalions to inspire the posterity.

Col NN Bhatia was commissioned into the 13 Kumaon in 1963. He commanded 2 Kumaon (Berar), which is one of the oldest Indian Army Battalions. After retiring from the Army, he served in the Intelligence Bureau, specializing in the industrial security and conducted security audits of a large number of vital installations. He is a freelance Industrial Security Consultant and a prolific writer on military and industrial security matters. He is deeply involved in the release of 54 Indian POWs languishing in Pakistani jails since the 1971 War.


He can be contacted at Email: narindrabhatia@hotmail.com