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The Gorkha soldiers don’t need a citation for their bravery. They’ve had it thrust on them by those they have fought, by armies who have heard legends about their prowess, the blood-curdling war cry ‘Aayo Gorkhali’, the flash of the khukri knife, sometimes a wicked smile which says, ‘Don’t mess with me’. To commemorate their services, recently the diminutive Gorkhas and their veteran forebears had a grand get-together in Dehradun for a reunion of the 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force).
The 4/5 was reborn on January 1, 1963, in Dehradun as part of the 35 additional battalions raised after the Himalayan debacle of 1962. In its earlier avatar, the battalion won its spurs in Burma during WWII, winning several gallantry awards and battle honours, only to be demobilised prior to the Partition. At least one of its great sons, Subedar Major Indra Bir Thapa, Sardar Bahadur, OBI MC MBE, joined the triple Victoria Cross sister battalion, 2/5 Gorkha Rifles, in 1945 as part of the British occupation force in Japan.
The 4/5 was baptised in battle against Pakistan’s Ghaznavi Force in 1965, exhibiting in conclusive fashion the fine art of small unit operations. The battalion had the honour of being the first to be selected for the army’s maiden heliborne operation, on December 7, 1971, to capture Sylhet, the largest territorial division of east Pakistan. For a single battalion to be aerially inserted into the defence fortress of Sylhet—made up of two Pakistan infantry brigades—could qualify as the modern-day variation of the Charge of the Light Brigade.
The shrill cries of ‘Allah o Akbar’ clashed with the nerve-jangling ‘Aayo Gorkhali’ but the Pakistani soldiers never pressed their counter-attacks, allowing Four Five to dictate the course of battle. The Pakistan garrison thought the battalion was the vanguard of an Indian brigade, helping it to hold on for nine days without any link-up. The BBC helped by announcing that a brigade had heli-landed in Sylhet. Some 450 dishevelled Gorkhas took the surrender of the 7,000-strong Sylhet garrison led by three brigadiers.
The reason the Pakistani soldiers gave up was because the Gorkhas’ reputation had travelled well ahead of them. Two weeks earlier, Four Five had annihilated a company of Pakistan’s Punjab battalion at Atgram through an incredible operation—infiltration and attack by stealth using only the khukri and cunning to stun the enemy. For its services in 1971, 4/5 won two MVCs, three Vir Chakras and several other awards. One other action deserves mention here: the relief of Jaffna in Sri Lanka 1987 where Indian commandos were trapped by the LTTE. For the rescue mission, the battalion won an MVC, four Vir Chakras and a YSM. What is striking in all this is the disproportionate number of officer casualties in battle, demonstrating the battalion’s follow-me credo.
The Gorkhas are, however, not always at battle stations. For this get-together, busloads of veterans travelled from Nepal with their families, many returning to Dehradun after almost half a century. One centre of attraction was rifleman Dil Bahadur Chhetri, who singlehandedly killed eight Pakistani soldiers with his khukri at Atgram and won the MVC. Fortified with tots of rum, the kanchhas (lads) heard stories like his narrated like a son et lumiere show. If anyone recorded, it should be an instant advertisement for recruitment to the Indian army.
There were others too, with rare battlefield experience but too shy to speak. Thankfully, Hercules rum as usual provided a good facilitator. The rest also provided for good entertainment. Some shoulders may have drooped and a few regimental blazers faded, but you could bet their medals were firmly pinned. Many sported Indian army welfare services-provided spectacles and dentures, proudly talking about the introduction of ECHS and numerous other facilities (except for the canteen rum services. Not to worry, 4/5 was to keep the bar open 24/7 and stock them well on return.) There were bara khana feasts, cultural shows, fusion band displays, pagal gymkhana, picnics and the mandatory sweating out in basketball. A memorial service followed by a sainik sammelan brought the reunion to a close with a light and sound show encapsulating the 50 glorious years of the Four Five. For veterans, the reunion offered more than one recital of their favourite song: “Aaaju ma to 4/5 jaanchhu (Today I will go to 4/5).”
(The writer is a retired major-general)