Military & Aerospace

1971 War: The Amritsar Sector
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That part of Punjab between the international border and the Beas and Sutlej has great strategic, economic and political importance. It comprises the districts of Amritsar and Gurdaspur, a very rich agricultural tract and a major granary of India. Amritsar, the holy city, has special religious significance to Sikhs the world over. Besides, it has a progressive textile industry and is a centre of internal and external trade.

The headworks at Harike, at the confluence of the Beas and Sutlej, feed the Rajasthan Canal, which irrigates the Ganganagar-Anupgarh desert tracts and thus controls the agricultural economy of those districts. Politically, Amritsar is the hub of Sikh and Jana Sangh politics in Punjab. Militarily, the region houses the Pathankot base, which provides logistic support to the entire Jammu and Kashmir theatre, including Ladakh. The Air Force base at Pathankot and the airfield at Amritsar provide an essential operational range for deep air raids into Pakistani territory.

Amritsar is a hub of communications and various rail and road routes lead to it from Pakistan.

Thus this strategic bulge has great political, economic and military significance and its defence has received the highest priority in military planning.

Amritsar is a hub of communications and various rail and road routes lead to it from Pakistan. The important highways are: the Grand Trunk Road, the Lahore-Khalra-Amritsar road and the Kasur-Khemkaran-Amr its a r road from the south; the Quila Sobha Singh-Ajnala road across the Gil ferry and the Narowal-Dera Baba Nanak road over the Ravi in the north.

There are also a number of subsidiary routes which can be used in conjunction with these main avenues of ingress. The terrain, being plain and dry most of the year, can be negotiated by tanks. Although the entire area is criss-crossed with irrigation channels, it can take limited cross-country traffic on wheels with some effort. In fact, the countryside is a tankman’s paradise, ideal for armour manoeuvres, though only in dry weather.

India and Pakistan have both attached great importance to this area in their war plans. In the conflict of 1965, Gen Chaudhuri planned to defend the territory with a three-pronged preemptive advance up to the Ichhogil (or BRB link) Canal and arrest the Pakistani offensive initiative at this formidable antitank obstacle, giving adequate depth to the strategically important areas of Amritsar and Pathankot. On the Pakistan side, Gen Ayub Khan had staked his Grand Slam operation, the only strategic Pakistani offensive, with the prestigious 1 Armoured Division in an advance from Kasur to conquer all the territory west of the Beas and Sutlej. This attempt was frustrated by 4 Mountain Division in the critical battle of Khemkaran, but nonetheless it was attempted.

India and Pakistan have both attached great importance to this area in their war plans.

In 1971, the defence of this area was the joint responsibility of 1 and XI Corps under the overall command of Lt Gen Candeth. All approaches to the Pathankot base were to be defended by 1 Corps while the remainder were to be the responsibility of XI Corps. The second of these formations had further subdivided its operational responsibility between 7 and 15 Infantry Divisions. 7 Infantry Division was to deny the Kasur-Ferozepur and Lahore- Khalra-Patti axes to the enemy while 15 Infantry Division was to do the same in respect of GT Road and the subsidiary routes north and south of it through Ranian and Raja Tal respectively, as well as the axes from across the Ravi over the Gil ferry and the Dera Baba Nanak bridge.

15 Infantry Division under Maj Gen B M Bhattacharjea was housed in peace locations in various cantonments in the Punjab, Amritsar-Jullundar-Kapurthala complex, with an additional brigade in Ambala. In 1965 the same division had been moved into the area from the Dehradun-Meerut complex, and the dingdong battles which followed between Lahore and Wagah brought home the lack of obstacles like the Ichhogil Canal to hold a preemptiveas well as to provide a firm base for our offensive in the Amritsar area.

The defensive posture visualized two brigades holding north and south of GT Road from Ranian and Rajatal, the third brigade looking after the crossings over the Ravi at the Gil ferry and Dera Baba Nanak, and the fourth brigade in reserve in the depth area somewhere about Chugawan-Kohali. By mid-October, this posture was further stengthened by moving one infantry brigade group from 14 Infantry Division to Ajnala and locating 14 Armoured Brigade in the divisional sector to meet a threat that might develop if Pakistan decided to commit its strike force against Amritsar or Pathankot across the Ravi through the Gil ferry and Dera Baba Nanak.

Lt Gen Bahadur Sher, in command of Pakistan IV Corps, was operationally responsible for the area extending from Maqbool Pura, about 23 miles northwest of Lahore city, to a point on the border southeast of Bahawalpur. The area opposite 15 Infantry Division was held by Pakistan 10 Infantry Division under Maj Gen SAZ Naqvi, broadly with 88 Infantry Brigade north of the Ravi in the general area of Gazi Kaka-Sidhan-wali-Sharif Pur, 114 Infantry Brigade from the Ravi siphon near Ranian to GT Road, and 108 Infantry Brigade from GT Road up to Hudiara, deployed in linear fashion along the forward line of obstacles recently constructed in the form of the Wagah drain, parallel to the international border and east of the Ichhogil Canal, which now became a depth obstacle.

On the Pakistan side, Gen Ayub Khan had staked his Grand Slam operation, the only strategic Pakistani offensive, with the prestigious 1 Armoured Division in an advance from Kasur to conquer all the territory west of the Beas and Sutlej.

The integral armoured regiments of both divisions of Pakistan IV Corps had been taken away to form 3 Independent Armoured Brigade, which, though not known to us at that time, had been transferred for employment elsewhere. 22 Infantry Brigade was deployed in depth in the general area of Harbanspura, which constituted the only reserve in the corps. From the frontage held by the available troops opposite 15 Infantry Division, and the extensive obstacle system covering both Amritsar and Lahore on either side, it was evident that neither side had any offensive potential to carry the battle to the adversary’s territory. Accordingly, as Fazal Muqeem confirms, the task assigned to Pakistan IV Corps was only to carry out limited local actions to seize tactically important positions to improve its defensive posture.

At last light on 3 December, all border posts on the divisional front were shelled and later subjected to simultaneous attacks by about a company strength each. Some BOPs were carried, but where the attack failed, as in Ranian, Pakistan repeated the attempt several times. Seven BOPs in Kassowal enclave near Dera Baba Nanak were attacked, and the BSF men holding the posts were ordered to withdraw in accordance with the operational plan.

The Behlol-Ghoga enclave in the Chugawan subsector was evacuated on attack, while the screen positions opposite Pakistan’s Fatehwal enclave were lost at Burj and Fatehpur. Similarly, the Troti enclave north of the Ravi and Chhana Malla, contiguous with Fatehpur, were withdrawn. The BOPs ahead of the ditch-cum-bund fortifications along the Atari drain were also attacked. Rattan Khurd, Mulakot and Pulkanjari were pushed back against heavy pressure, while Ranian successfully held back repeated attacks. The BOPs to the south of GT Road were not attacked and held out throughout the war.

While the war lasted, efforts continued to recapture our BOPs all along the front, mostly with company-level attacks ahead of the main defensive lines. Quite a number of posts changed hands more than once. On the divisional front India captured about 14 Pakistani posts against a loss of 16, with a marginal gain in territory of approximately 32 square kilometres. The prestigious village of Pulkanjari and the post attached to it were recaptured on the night the ceasefire came into effect. This success was the result of a courageous and skilful attack by a platoon of 2 Sikh which infiltrated along a narrow irrigation channel and so surprised the company of Pakistani troops manning it that their commander was found in his bunker still sleeping when his position had been carried.

The actions for the reduction and recapture of the border posts involved infantry actions ahead of the respective defences based on ditch-cum-bund or river line defences. It became appa- rent that holding these fortifications was cumbersome unless arrangements were made to dominate the area ahead between the border and the line of ditch-cum-bund defences. In the absence of such dominance the enemy was able to engage our fortifications with tanks, and his artillery could bombard the defenders with accurately observed fire from observation posts on the housetop of a captured village.

It became imperative to hold the forward villages as strong- points to dominate the area. Holding these points could be faci- litated by inducting tanks in the area with adequate artillery support. But armour was not allowed to operate ahead of the ditch line in these operations. If tactically feasible, the battle should have been carried to the Pakistani defence lines like the Wagah-Mari drain.

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Lt Gen NC Rawlley, the corps commander, and Maj Gen Bhattacharjea had five infantry brigades and one independent brigade between them in the area. The Dera Baba Nanak enclave had been secured by 8 December. Leaving about one infantry battalion group for the holding role in the area, the bridge having been rendered unusable in any event by deliberate demolition, the remainder of the brigade group could well have been lifted, provided offensive operations had been developed across the Gil ferry. The third battalion from the Chugawan brigade, and about a battalion’s worth from the brigade deployed south of GT Road, which was a relatively dormant sector, would have created a sizable force of two infantry brigades plus and one armoured brigade under Headquarters 15 Infantry Division.

This force could have been employed for an offensive task with telling effect against Quila Sobha Singh as originally intended. It would have definitely assisted the progress of the 1 Corps offensive and hurt Pakistan in its sensitive area behind the fortress line. Instead, these sizable resources set out the war unutilised, a criminal waste in a short war. But then the Indian generals were not attuned to fight a modern war. In fact, they displayed inflexibility of a high order and timidity in giving battle. Such was also the case in the Amritsar sector.

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