ONE OF the iconic photographs of the 1971 war shows soldiers of the Punjab Regiment doing ‘Bhangra’ on destroyed Pakistani tanks in the Jaisalmer sector of Rajasthan. In many frames, an unassuming Sikh Major, who hours earlier had led a dogged defence of his position under heavy enemy fire, can be seen standing by, watching the soldiers dance.
That was how Brigadier Kuldip Singh Chandpuri was in real life too. A modest man who wore his laurels easy. A far cry from Sunny Deol’s firebrand portrayal of him in the movie ‘Border’ which made the Battle of Laungewala a household name.
But not many know that before Brig Chandpuri won his Mahavir Chakra, the second highest gallantry award, while leading Alpha Company of 23 Punjab in the 1971 war, he was a keen sportsman who started off as an excellent footballer. There are many former officers in the Indian Army, mostly from Government Sports College, Jalandhar, who owe their careers to the keen eye of Brig Chandpuri who spotted their talent and recruited them in the ranks before guiding them towards an officer’s commission.
He was also an athlete who had remained an International Walking Judge for the 20-km walk and officiated in the 2006 Asian Games and 2014 Asian Games. He had also remained the president of Athletics Association of Chandigarh after having taken over the reins from another legend and former Armyman, Milkha Singh. His post-retirement days also saw him do a stint as a nominated councillor in the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation.
Born in 1940 in the Mongomery district of undivided India, now renamed as Sahiwal, his family had shifted to Balachaur in Hoshiarpur district after the Partition. Brig Chandpuri joined the Indian Army as an Emergency Commissioned officer in the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
It was in the early days of the 1971 war that Brig Chandpuri took part in an action which would earn him a place in Indian military history. Defending the company position in Laungewala, ahead of Jaisalmer, the 100-odd troops led by the then Major Chandpuri stuck to their places braving an attack by a Brigade group of the Pakistan Army which included an armoured regiment equipped with T-59 tanks. The enemy attack was later decimated by the Hunter aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) who destroyed the armoured regiment and forced the Pakistani brigade to withdraw in disarray.
An unseemly controversy broke out 37 years later when some retired officers questioned the role of Chandpuri and his troops and gave more importance to the role of IAF and the air observation pilot of the Army who guided the air attack. Brig Chandpuri was constrained to file a defamation suit, claiming Re 1, as damages, saying the reputation of the men who fought under him had been sullied. For his part, Chandpuri never underplayed the importance of the IAF and other Army units in the defence of Longewala. But the allegations, which hit the front pages of newspapers in India and also Pakistan, left him embarrassed.
The courage of Brig Chandpuri on December 4-5, 1971, lay in rallying his troops to stand fast in the face of a vastly superior enemy force. They fought back using their limited means and did not allow the enemy a free run till the IAF aircraft arrived to take part in the battle at dawn. In many conversations in the following years, Brig Chandpuri would just smile and say that retreating and taking up new and, perhaps, safer positions was not an option he considered.
“Victory has 100 fathers. No one wants to recognise failure.” These words were uttered in 1942 by an Italian diplomat, Count Galezzo Ciano, and were later paraphrased by US President John F Kennedy in 1961 as “Victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan” after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. No one would have understood these words better than Brig Chandpuri.
A regular at the event held at Laungewala each year to commemorate the battle, Brig Chandpuri will not be there this December. But the gallant stand that he led will continue to inspire future generations of Indian soldiers.