On the face of it, Kirpa Ram would have seemed like an ordinary man. In actuality, he was anything but that. He was an Equipment and Boot Repairer (EBR) in 4 Sikh and could handcraft shoes that would cost a fortune today. More importantly, he was the unit hockey team goalkeeper and had represented the Indian Army. Kirpa Ram was also the one who had tamed and looked after the unit mascot, Rani, a female panther. She followed him like a lamb and, if Kirpa Ram was to be believed, she was the reason 4 Sikh got the good grades it did in inspections.
As the unit mascot, Rani was always on parade along with the Officers and Junior Commissioned Officers for introduction to the visiting officer. She even had a military number, wore a coat with unit insignia, was given promotions like the soldiers and was even authorised rations. She used to shake hands with the VIPs and Kirpa Ram then made her do numerous other tricks. By the time, the VIP finished with Rani, there was little time left for the inspection. In the early 1970s, we repeated Kirpa’s stratagem, using Raja, a six-feet plus Himalayan Black Bear!
I met Havaldar Kirpa Ram as a seven year old and interacted with him for one year and a half, while my father was posted in 4 Sikh. The biggest gain of being an army brat is that one’s emotional quotient, or EQ, is shaped by one of the finest organisations of the nation, one that is manned by men of substance – men like Kirpa Ram. The leadership qualities of Kirpa Ram and his subsequent heroism remained permanently etched in my mind, and many a time, I’d recall them while exercising leadership over the largest military command in the world, the Northern Command.
All tradesmen like Kirpa Ram were enrolled under the category of Non Combatants Enrolled. Their task was restricted to their trade and they were not authorised weapons. However, Kirpa Ram voluntarily took part in all training. He was an ace shooter and master of basic infantry tactics. Extremely competitive and active, he was a man blessed with exceptional leadership qualities and these were particularly evident on the hockey field. The goal posts could not confine him. He would rush out to the top of the circle and even beyond to urge, coax and ‘order’ the other 10 to attack and, when chips were down, to counterattack. Under the posts, he was an acrobat who rarely conceded a goal. Once, when the team was looking down and out, he rushed forward, discarded his pads and scored a last minute winning goal!
Kirpa gave me lessons in leadership as experienced by him in life and on the hockey field. He said that in life, in battle, and on the playing field, the most important thing is “pehal-kadami“, or to seize and maintain the initiative through action and forcing the adversary to react. Do it as fast as you can and do it continuously, always faster than the enemy’s reaction, thus, rendering him psychologically helpless. “Inaction,” he said, “is the most serious crime against the spirit of 4 Sikh.” Then, he told me something in chaste Punjabi that has been said by many famous leadership gurus: “You can’t leave your footprints on the sands of time by sitting on your butt! ”As he hammered the nails in the combat boots of the soldiers, (a combat boot had to have 13 nails), he would keep saying “hamla, hamla” (attack, attack). When a blow was mistimed, he would strike again and say “jawabi hamla” (counter attack). “When in doubt, attack; and when faced with a setback, counter attack.”
I last met Kirpa at Meerut in early 1962 when he came to play the intercommand hockey tournament. Largely due to his heroics, his team won the tournament and he was selected as the deputy goalkeeper to the great Shankar Lakshman (a three-time Olympian) as part of the Army Team. In our last meeting, he advised me to join the army because of ‘saaf’ (clean) life, sports and adventure”. He also urged me to join 4 Sikh.
Kirpa’s unit – 4 Sikh – was inducted into Walong Sector in the Lohit Division, North-East Frontier Agency (present-day Arunachal Pradesh) in end-September and early-October of 1962. They flew in Otter aircraft, a section (10 men) at a time, from Tezu. The unit occupied a defensive position on either side of the Lohit river. At Walong, 4 Sikh, 6 Kumaon, 3/3 Gorkha Rifles and 4 Dogra under 11 Infantry Brigade fought the most heroic brigade level action of the 1962 War. The battle was waged continuously from October 18, 1962 to November 16, 1962. Initially, 6 Kumaon engaged the Chinese from October 18 to October 26, in the area of Kibithoo, 30 kilometres ahead of Walong and close to the McMahon Line. After delaying the Chinese, the unit fell back to Walong. Patrol clashes continued from October 27 to November 26, and the Chinese were given a bloody nose. The main battle was fought at Walong from November 13 to November 16. On either side of the Lohit river, 4 Sikh and 3/3 Gorkha Rifles were manning the defences. After the forward battle, 6 Kumaon was in depth (rear) defences while 4 Dogra was just fetching up from Tezu. The Chinese launched a threepronged attack. They attacked both sides of the river from the North and, as their main effort, also attacked from the Western flank by securing two higher tactical features, Green Pimple and Yellow Pimple, making our defences very vulnerable from the West. On November 14, 6 Kumaon launched the most valiant counter attack to capture Yellow Pimple from the direction of TriJunction, a higher feature further to the west. This was done with the aim to foil the Chinese main attack from that direction. An intense battle took place and 6 Kumaon suffered heavy casualties. It fell back upon Tri Junction. One company of 4 Dogra led by Major (later Colonel) K.J. Singh, who was my uncle, was rushed to reinforce 6 Kumaon. Only 33 men out of 100, including Major K J Singh, could break through the Chinese cordon. They reinforced 6 Kumaon at Tri Junction. However, the Chinese repeatedly counter attacked Tri Junction and forced a withdrawal of our troops due to heavy casualties.
The Chinese now focussed their full attention on to the main defences held by 4 Sikh and 3/3 Gorkha Rifles. The defences of 4 Sikh were attacked from higher ground to the west and south west, using Green Pimple and Yellow Pimple as firm bases, and also from the North. The forward companies were soon running out of ammunition, which had to be ferried from the logistics base. Earlier, anticipating this task, Havaldar Kirpa Ram had got weapons issued for the non combatants and had also organised training capsules for them.He led these non combatants-turned-intosoldiers to continuously supply ammunition to the forward companies.
The battle was reaching its culmination and on the night of November 15, Kirpa Ram led another ammunition-ferrying column to one of the forward companies. This time they were ambushed by a Chinese patrol. Following his hockey field tactics, Kirpa Ram shouted “hamla” and with his team broke through the ambush, but in so doing was wounded. Being a man of action, Kirpa, disregarding his wounds, pressed on and delivered the ammunition to the forward company where heavy fighting was taking place. Instead of falling back to the logistic base, he stayed back to fight the battle. Like on the hockey field, he took charge and fought like a man possessed. The company suffered heavy casualties and a decision was taken to withdraw. Kirpa volunteered and stayed back with the rear party, mostly consisting of unit sportsmen, which was tasked to cover the withdrawal. As the rear party came under pressure and was running short of ammunition, Kirpa did what he believed in – “jawabi hamla!” (counter attack). Led by him, the rear party came out of the trenches and engaged the Chinese with bayonets. But the odds were against them. The entire rear party including Kirpa was killed in action. This heroic action, enabled the rest of the survivors of the company to get away. In the battle of Walong, apart from Kirpa Ram, 4 Sikh sadly lost the crème of its sportsmen, which included five who had podium finishes at the national level.
Kirpa lived life on his own terms and died in action, again on his own terms, leading from the front. He was awarded the coveted Vir Chakra, a rare award for a non combatant. I passed out of Indian Military Academy, third in the order of merit and had the choice to join any unit or regiment. Unhesitatingly, I chose 4 Sikh. Apart from its illustrious history, to a great extent, my choice was influenced by the most unforgettable soldier I ever met: the great Havaldar Kirpa Ram!
Commissioned in December 1969 into the SIKH Regiment, Lt Gen. H.S. Panag has served as the GOC-in-C of both the Northern Command and the Central Command. Post his retirement in December 2008, he was appointed as an Administrative Member of the Armed Forces Tribunal. He has authored several publications concerning Indian defence forces and national security. A version of this article was first published in News Laundry on 21 June 2016.