On 27 May 2016, one of the heroes of both the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak Wars, Maj. Gen. Hardev Singh Kler, MVC, AVSM, passed away at his residence, 21240 Sunwood Drive, Walnut, California. Born on 03 September 1924, General Kler was commissioned into the Corps of Signals. A man born to lead, General Kler took part in the Second World War aged 19 years where he served with distinction in the Burma Campaign and was Mentioned-in- Despatches. After the War, he saw action in the Jammu Division in 1948 and two years later, in 1950, he was posted to 50 Independent Parachute Brigade. In 1954 after a stint as GSO2 Northern Scouts, he was posted as BM 82 Infantry Brigade. He did another stint as BM 104 Infantry Brigade at Tangdhar and thereafter moved to Tenga as Commander Signals, 5 Infantry Division.
Posted as the GSO-1, 19 Infantry Division in 1963, he played an instrumental role in thwarting the insidious Pakistani infiltration plan in August 1965. A set of fortuitous circumstances led to his continuing to stay as the principal staff officer of the division, as he had been posted out to the Staff College and had already been dined out. When the infiltration started, he chose to stay back and continued with the Division till the end of the war. For the sterling role played by him in those tumultuous months, he was awarded Vishisht Seva Medal II, which was later renamed Ati Vishisht Seva Medal. His account of ‘Operation Gibraltar’, published in the book ‘Honour Redeemed and other stories of the 1965 War’ makes for fascinating reading, bringing out with great candour and honesty how the infiltrating force was defeated, and how 19 Infantry Division in the counter offensive, captured the famous Hajipir Pass. The account is gripping and unputdownable – and is a must read for those who want to know what really happened in the month of August 1965. What is equally remarkable about this story is that Gen. Kler, on my request, wrote it just a couple of years before he died, from the notes he had preserved from the war years. He was 90 years old then and was unwell, recovering from an amputation of his leg – yet he chose to capture that bit of history for posterity – a truly remarkable achievement.
Perhaps the crowning feature of Gen. Kler’s military career was the role played by him as Commander 95 Infantry Brigade in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. Much has been written about this war, but credit has rarely been given to the two field commanders, who played a leading role in that victory. The first of these was Lt Gen. Sagat Singh, who was then commanding IV Corps. It was Sagat’s relentless offensive spirit that pushed his Corps to the limits of human endurance. He sensed victory would be his if he could but get to the gateway of Dhaka in time. Though not part of his mandate, he conceptualised the possibilities inherent in his task and prepared for them accordingly. He was a maverick, a quality that his peers and seniors in equal measure resented, but a quality that made his officers and men achieve the impossible. At the operational level, his grasp of the overall situation was unsurpassable – and he stood alone, towering above all the rest. He was in full measure, India’s Guderian in the Liberation War. His crossing of the Meghna is legendary, a feat IV Corps accomplished under his leadership, with the full unstinted support of another legend of the Liberation War, Air Commodore (Later Air Vice Marshal) Chandan Singh and his men.
At the tactical level, Hardev Kler was a cut above the rest. His masterful handling of the battle of Jamalpur is the stuff that legends are made off. A combination of the brilliance of Sagat and the tactical acumen of Hardev Kler, helped India snatch a victory in a time frame that few would have thought possible at the commencement of the war. At that time, 95 Mountain Brigade was under 101 Communication Zone headquartered at Shillong and commanded by Maj. Gen. Gurbax Singh. It was the battle of Jamalpur that opened up yet another avenue to Dacca, at a time when the operations of XXXIII Corps under Lt Gen Thapan and II Corps under Lt Gen. Raina were stalled. Jamalpur was a tough nut to crack, being defended by 31 Baluch plus some additional elements, under the command of Lt Col Sultan Ahmad. In a show of gentlemanly spirit, Kler sent Sultan a letter, offering him generous terms to surrender. This was spurned by Sultan, who in an act of bravado returned the messenger with another note, enclosed in a bullet. ‘Hope to find you with a sten gun in your hand next time instead of the pen, you seem to have so much mastery over” was the terse reply. In the ensuing battle, Sultan’s battalion was decimated with 234 dead and 380 taken prisoner. Sultan however escaped with about 200 men and was taken prisoner later in Dacca. Thereafter, it was 95 Brigade which carried out the link up with 2 Para, which had been airdropped over Tangail on 11 December. The battalion decimated a Pakistani brigade at the Poongli Bridge which it caught by surprise. By the evening of 12 December, 95 Brigade had completed the link up with the paratroopers. Not surprisingly, the first man to reach there was Brig. Hardev Kler!
During the entire course of the operations, Kler as the Commander exercised front line leadership, being always in the midst of action. He escaped death by a whisker on more than a few occasions, but always passed off such happenings in a jocular fashion. His jeep was blown but he remained unscathed. Bullets went through his parka, but failed to find their mark. Indeed, the man was invincible in battle. Maj. Gen. K.M. Bhimaya, an erudite scholar rated him as ‘arguably the best field commander of the Indian Army’. After the war, in which he deservedly was awarded the Mahavir Chakra, Gen Kler went on promotion to command 10 Infantry Division. On leaving the Army, he settled down in Chandigarh and later moved to California.
He is survived by his wife Avtar Chakkal whom he married in 1947 and their three children, Deejay (Wg Cdr DJ Kler, VM), Madhur (Dimple) and Kiran Saluja. As a matter of interest to military historians, Wg Cdr DJ Kler also fought in the Liberation War – a rare instance where both father and son fought alongside in the same theatre. Rest in Peace Sir. May the Angels look after you in your final resting place at Valhalla. We consider you a soldier beyond compare, a man who made history in 71. Your role will always be remembered.