The battle of Longewala is a part of army folklore. This is a fairy tale of 100 odd soldiers and their steely resolve, which forced an entire Pakistani brigade, backed by an armoured regiment of 45 tanks, to retreat in the 1971 war. This fascinating story was also captured on celluloid in the film ‘Border’, directed by JP Dutta. The battle of Longewala has been told and retold in military journals and is held out as a shining example to students graduating from the military academies. The sheer valour displayed by Major Kuldeep Singh Chandpuri and his alpha team is just an unmatched feat.
But some war veterans have challenged this story after 37 years. Major General (retd), Atma Singh Hansara, told The Hindustan Times in an interview, “I dispute the ground battle completely. It is mockery of army ethos. No ground battle was fought and the army had merely rehearsed it on a sand model after the ceasefire to cover up the incompetence of senior military commanders.”
Air marshal, MS Bawa, who was directly involved in the war, also agrees with Hansara. He says, “This is a challenge. There was no contact between the enemy and the army.” He further said that the Pakistani thrust was blunted entirely by air action alone.
This controversy made me go through some facts related to the battle. It is very hard for me to believe, as the story of Longewala has motivated several youngsters to join the forces. I tried to read the available journals, articles, magazines and accounts of war heroes to know the truth.
The Air Force War diary says that this turned out to be a clean battle, one of its kind. Even Major General, RF Khambatta, GOC, 12 Infantry Division, lends credence to the Air Force’s claim. Pakistan General, Muqeem, in his book ‘Crisis of Leadership in Pakistan’, mentions that large number of vehicles, tanks and guns got bogged in the sand. The enemy was the master of skies and destroyed 18 tanks and other vehicles at his leisure. The army documents related to war seems to nail the controversy. It only gives credit to Chanpuri’s men for ‘holding out’ a lonely post. The document says, “At Longewala that day, IAF added a glorious new chapter. This was the straight battle between the Pakistan armour and IAF hunters. The bulk of Pak armoured regiment was destroyed by air action alone.”
Truth, it is said, is often the first casualty in war. The controversy has raised several questions that need to be answered. If this is the truth, then why is the army keeping the lie still alive? Is the army taking more credit than it deserves? What incompetence are the military commanders trying to hide? If former officers are correct, then what has propelled them to speak now? They should have protested before or even when the film Border was released.
The Indian army has been in news for wrong reasons, and it is time more facts were made public to put an end to this (de)famed battle. But let’s not make any conclusions unless we hear from both the forces. It is better not to conclude with half knowledge. This is something related to the dignified and respected Indian armed forces, and thus, it is in the interest of services that the truth about the Longewala battle be told to all citizens.
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