Arun Khetarpal (2nd Lt., 17 Poona Horse, awarded Param Vir Chakra posthumously)
Officer’s Mess at the IMA with his name.
A destroyed Pakistani Patton tank
How many of us have heard of this name, Arun Khetarpal? You may have seen the surname ‘Khetarpal’ etched on a nice looking building in the Indian Military Academy, which forms the background of most of the pics taken during the pass-out parade at IMA. Earlier, I used to think that ‘Khetarpal’ may be some sanskrit word for someone who protects, but recently I learned what it meant. Now a days, when I hear the word ‘youth icon’ thrown around liberally and assigned to some really undeserving candidates…I thought of putting this out to provide a perspective on what youth icon should be like.
Arun Khetarpal was commissioned in 17 Poona Horse (Tank Regiment) in June 1971, less than six months before the Bangaldesh war started. On the last morning of the war, 16 Dec, Poona Horse and 13th Lancers of the Pakistan Army were fighting to gain control of the Jammu-Pathankot road. Poona Horse was supporting an infantry battalion which had taken control over a bridge over river Basantar. That’s why this battle is known in the annals of Army History as the Battle of Basantar.
At 0800, Pakistani tanks first made a probing attack in an area which was under the control of Squadron B of the Poona Horse. Each tank squadron has about 14-18 tanks. Pakistanis were driving one of best tanks available in the world at that time…US made Patton tanks….while Poona Horse had fielded a generation old Centurian tanks….but as they say…its not the machine…but the man inside the machine that matters.
Squadron B felt the pressure from the Pakistanis and called for help. Khetarpal was leading a three tank formation in Squadron A, and promptly responded. Some cool headed shooting by the Indians meant heavy losses for the Pakistanis, who fell back. It is said that in a maverick moment, Khetarpal decided to follow them through heavily mined area. His tank group destroyed ten out of fourteen tanks and broke the back of 13th Lancers attacking formations. Apart from tanks, Khetarpal took out multiple Pakistani defensive positions by charging them and literally driving his 51 ton beast over them.
But the Pakistanis re-grouped and attacked. This was one battle where both sides fought very gallantly. Khetarpal lost both his partner tanks. He was alone, but didn’t leave his position. He was aware of the battle situation and knew that if he didn’t stand his ground, Pakistanis may be able to break through and retake the Basantar bridgehead.
His tank was pounded by four Pakistani tanks. Arun Khetarpal got an order to leave his battered tank and save himself, but he responded by saying that his gun was still working. True to his last words, he used the gun to blow apart another of the prized Patton tanks. At this point, his own Centurian received a fatal blow and both the tank and its fearless commander breathed their last. He was just 21 years old. Let’s recall what were we doing when we were 21 years old. Let’s try to imagine once, what might be going through his mind when he saw four Pakistani tanks attacking him simultaneously. He was wise enough to know that he was not coming out of this alive. He may have thought about his parents…his friends…he might even have got scared…he was just 21…but he knew his responsibility and he played his part till his body gave-up.
Pakistani tank commander Major Nasser, whose tank had shot and killed Arun Khetarpal went up to the blown up Centurian and was shocked to see a young , radiant but now lifeless face of the tank commander, whom he expected to be some veteran tank warrior.
Armored and infantry battles are a game of numbers and ratios. You must have a certain ratio of advantage over your enemy (be it tanks or men) to be able to secure and hold onto your objective. Else, it is wiser to fall back and form a defensive line. Pakistan Army’s 13th Lancer Tank regiment realised that the brave tank-men of the Poona Horse had eroded their number to an extent which was pointing towards aborting their strike mission and falling back. That’s what they eventually did and the Basantar river bridgehead remained in Indian hands.
Arun Khetarpal should be a Youth icon. Capt. Vikram Batra should be a youth icon. Its a shame that many of us don’t know these names who were epitome of leadership, initiative, courage and integrity. Wish I could use the same words to describe the fab youth icons of today.