After commanding an artillery brigade in Ladakh, I was selected to take over an infantry brigade, quite a feat in those prejudice-ridden days of early 1969. My General asked me: “Where do you think you will go now?” He knew I had exhausted my quota of service in the inhospitable field areas of the time. I replied promptly: “It could be the desert, sir.” But this was not to be for some months. I was posted to Amritsar, my home town, to command another artillery brigade.
When I questioned the wisdom of this move, I was assured that it made sense. After a couple of months I would be fitted into an infantry brigade in Amritsar itself in a post falling vacant about that time. I moved there, and exactly after 12 days somebody with much pull eased me out of that job. I was posted to the desert instead. My brigade was part of 11 Infantry Division located in Gujarat, but it was operationally responsible for part of the Rajasthan desert border. The brigade was stationed at Jamnagar, once a major princely state of Saurashtra.
The Pakistani Air Force was served by the forward airfields of Badin, Rahim Yar Khan and Jacobabad, while we had fields at Barmer and Jaisalmer.
As the aircraft in which I was travelling with my wife and children was descending to land, my wife, who knew my knack of landing myself in trouble spots, said with a sigh of relief: “What can go wrong here?” On landing, I was however told that Ahmedabad was in the grip of unprecedented communal riots and the brigade was already on the move to the city to aid the civil authorities. I drove through burning streets littered with dead and the debris of loot the next day, and soon thereafter I was in command.
Maj Gen MG Hazari, General Officer Commanding 11 Infantry Division, had been recalled from Bombay, where he was on his way to attend a war game at Pune. I met him in Ahmedabad for the first time, our first handshake immediately brought us immensely close to each other: “Ideal situation for two soldiers to meet—a crisis.” He was an ideal boss to have in a crisis, one who left you alone to tackle your job and stood by you when you needed him. A podgy figure is uniform, he had one of the most profusely medalled chests. Behind that plump exterior he carried a stout heart and a sharp intellect, backed by vast war experience.
He was not to be hustled and took his own time to decide, but his decisions were always sound. He took the worst news calmly, and in his inimitable cool manner took practical steps to meet changing situations. It is a pity that our systems bypassed him for higher command for decrepit and insignificant personalities, but such are our systems. He had been in command for about three years by then and knew the desert and his operational tasks backwards. He told me what I was required to do.
One look at a map of the region should have convinced a military mind that the Rajasthan sector ran along the underbelly of the Pakistani province of Sind and had many strategic objectives.
The riots over, I took the road to the desert. Militarily, the Rajasthan sector comprises the districts of Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Barmer in Rajasthan State and most of the Little Rann and Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. The total distance covered lengthwise was about 1,400 kilometres, partly along the desert tracts of Rajasthan and partly in the watery flats of the Rann. Topographically, the area can be broadly divided into Rajasthan and Kutch.
In Rajasthan, the international boundary runs through a desert tract separating the Indian districts of Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Barmer from the West Pakistan districts of Bahawalpur, Rahim Yar Khan, Khanpur and Mirpur Khas. The whole region is a vast expanse of shifting sands with occasional rock exposures. These rocky outcrops suddenly jut out of the sands and break the monotony of the drab desert stretching for miles. The area slopes towards the Indus Valley and the Rann of Kutch. Short, intermittent streams interlace the area. The dry beds of lakes are occasionally visible.
The shifting sands pile up in dunes of various shapes, which run northeast to southwest, parallel to the prevailing winds, and are mostly swordshaped. They are extensive on either side of the border. Vegetation is scarce, with only a few small trees here and there. Large areas are covered with thorny and stunted scrub. Grass grows in places after the monsoon and provides fodder for cattle and sheep.
Despite our superior overall strength in the region, Pakistan got the better of us.
The climate is characterized by extreme temperatures and low seasonal rainfall. The winter is quite cold, the temperature at places falling below freezing point. Frost occurs, while in summer the heat is intense and scorching. The hot weather starts by the middle of March and prevails till June. Dust storms are common and bring down the temperature, and an occasional shower of rain provides relief from the unbearable heat.
The distribution of population and the way of life of the people in this region is largely governed by the availability of water. Some agriculture is possible around perennial wells. But a large section of population which cannot derive its sustenance from the land concentrates on rearing cattle on the desert vegetation. Agriculture is poor and precarious, and the region is always in the grip of famine or in dread of it.
While our army fought copybook, set-piece battles, Pakistan used paramilitary forces and local militia to overrun the vacant desert, thereby securing the advantage of territorial gains for political bargaining in subsequent negotiations.
The area is poorly served by rail. A metre-gauge track runs from Luni Junction to Munabao through Gadra Road in the southern part of the region, another from Merta Road to Suratgarh in the north, and a third from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. The only line which, but for a break of about six kilometres, connects with the Pakistan system is that to Munabao. The others terminate well within Indian territory.
An extensive network of strategic roads now cover the area on our side of the boundary, the main one connecting Ahmedabad with Barmer, Barmer with Jaisalmer, Jodhpur with Bikaner, and Jodhpur with Barmer and Jaisalmer. Roads emanate from these laterals all along the border. But on the Pakistani side of the desert belt, varying from 48 to 64 kilometres in width, had been left underdeveloped except for a few sandy tracks which could not take sustained traffic. The Pakistani Air Force was served by the forward airfields of Badin, Rahim Yar Khan and Jacobabad, while we had fields at Barmer and Jaisalmer.
One of my battalions was located at Bhuj, in Kutch, and on my first visit there I got to know the Rann of Kutch. It is a vast marshy, salt plain scarcely above sea level, stretching about 320 kilometres east to west and at places 160 kilometres north to south. It lies between Sind, in West Pakistan, and the Kutch mainland. The western limit of the Rann is the Arabian Sea, through Kori Creek and other mouths of the Indus. These salt flats are punctuated by occasional islands called bets. The Rann gets flooded in the monsoon rains as well as by the numerous streams draining into it. Seawater also enters it, particularly at high tide. In this period, the Rann becomes impassable. But a hard layer of salt forms on the surface in the dry season and movement by light vehicles is then possible almost anywhere, and by heavier vehicles and tanks with some reconnaissance.
Bhuj, the district headquarters, is also a railhead. From here all-weather roads lead to the Great Rann, especially towards Khavda and Luna. Important locations on the margin of the Little Rann are accessible from Viramgram all the year round. A number of tracks traverse both Ranns in the dry season. After the monsoon, about the beginning of October, the Rann drains into the sea, leaving lakes of salt water in depressions. The Rann generally dries up by December, and stays so till the rains come again in July. The desert phenomenon known as mirage is encountered in the Rann and navigational aids are required for travel. The problem of water supply is acute.
The Indian planners realised the existing constraints of mobility and the difficulty of sustaining troops without water and set about overcoming them earnestly.
One look at a map of the region should have convinced a military mind that the Rajasthan sector ran along the underbelly of the Pakistani province of Sind and had many strategic objectives. First, the rail and road communications connecting Karachi, then the only seaport in the western wing, with West Punjab, ran parallel, though at considerable depth, to the border from west to east and were prone to disruption all along the route. The Sukkur Dam at Rohri irrigated the entire green belt north of the desert, and any damage to it could cripple the entire agricultural economy of the region. Besides, the naval and air force installations at Karachi, Badin and Malir presented attractive military targets. But the inhospitable desert belt acted as a cover for these strategic objectives.
It is perhaps for these reasons that the Indian military planners had always rated the Rajasthan sector a low-priority area. Up to 1965, the sector had been divided into two areas of operational responsibility. Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Barmer districts were placed under Headquarters Delhi Area, with one infantry brigade group located in the Jaipur-Jodhpur-Nasirabad complex. Kutch was directly under Headquarters Southern Command located at Pune, with one infantry brigade group in the Ahmedabad-Jamnagar-Dhrangadhra-Bhuj complex. This was an altogether unsatisfactory arrangement, but the general attitude was that so long as military decisions were to be sought through local actions in Kashmir any arrangements would suffice in the desert.
This dormant sector suddenly became active with the probing Pakistani attack on Sardar Post at Kanjar Kot, then manned by the police, on 9 April 1965 followed by a thrust towards Bier Bet and Point 84. Maj Gen PO Dunn was then recalled from retirement leave, promoted Lieutenant General overnight and put in charge of the Kutch operations directly under Army Headquarters. By the time he could muster his force of about two brig ades, a ceasefire had been effected and he was moved north in command of a newly formed corps, and affairs in the sector reverted to the former state.
This was an altogether unsatisfactory arrangement, but the general attitude was that so long as military decisions were to be sought through local actions in Kashmir any arrangements would suffice in the desert.
The incident brought to light the existing gap in our military posture. As a remedy, the newly raised 11 Infantry Division, under Maj Gen (later Lt Gen) N C Rawlley, was rushed to Barmer district and was also to cover the Rann, which was now completely inundated. Thus, before the start of the 1965 war, the Rajasthan sector became the responsibility of two different commands.
Despite our superior overall strength in the region, Pakistan got the better of us. While our army fought copybook, set-piece battles, Pakistan used paramilitary forces and local militia to overrun the vacant desert, thereby securing the advantage of territorial gains for political bargaining in subsequent negotiations. Our weaknesses revealed shortcomings of command and control of operational responsibility, and this was remedied by placing the entire Rajasthan sector, including the Rann, under Headquarters Southern Command. Headquarters 12 Infantry Division was raised at Jodhpur to take over the operational responsibility of the Delhi and Rajasthan Area, which was renamed Delhi Area.