Written by Major Gen Ashok K Mehta
India’s greatest wartime hero was laid to rest unsung at the ripe old age of 97 on May 24. It marked the end of an era. There was no ceremonial send-off, no ritual last rites at the crematorium, no last post, no rise, and only one wreath was laid. The omissions were not made good at the prayer ceremony on May 25. India’s true military icon, Lt Gen Zorawar Chand Bakshi, unarguably India’s greatest soldier, did not die. He simply faded away. He deserved a farewell befitting the Bakshis of all times. Without naming them, lesser soldiers were made much of, because they were politically connected. Zoru was not. He was a true professional and was completely apolitical.
For a government that trumpets its devotion to the men in uniform, and that too on its fourth anniversary, Zoru, as he was endearingly called, got a shabby send-off. No minister, not even a junior one, and no one from the military came for the prayer meeting or his cremation. Not even a tweet of condolence from the Prime Minister.
Could India’s military history have been written without Zoru Bakshi’s incomparable feats on the battlefield? He was the only officer to have fought India’s wars — all of them — in every rank, from Lieutenant to Major General. In World War II, as a subaltern in the Baloch Regiment, he was a pain in the neck for the Japanese advancing in Burma. He was awarded a Mention in Despatches for his skilful and successful ambushes.
After Partition, he joined the 2/5th Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) and, as a Brigade Major in the Kashmir war in 1947, was awarded the Vir Chakra. As a Major disguised as a fellow traveller, he trekked 400 miles across Tibet to win the first McGregor Medal for obtaining vital strategic intelligence. Time magazine wrote after his secret Tibet reconnaissance: “Bakshi is a short man with a tall ego”. It should have added: “and massive initiative”.
He commanded 2/5 Gorkha Rifles, the three Victoria Cross battalion, in Congo, sent on a peacekeeping mission, whose mandate changed to peace enforcement, i.e. from Chapter 6 to Chapter 7. Leading the battalion with his cane and cunning, he defeated the mercenary-led Katangese gendarmerie in battle after battle, ending up winning a Vishisht Seva Medal. But his most historic military feat was as a Brigade Commander: he captured the legendary Hajipir Pass and straightened the Uri-Poonch bulge in the 1965 war. The Maha Vir Chakra was added to the gongs on his chest. In 1971, as a Divisional Commander, he severed the Chicken’s Neck in the Jammu sector. After a distinguished record fighting war, he commanded the counter insurgency division in Nagaland where Zoru was feared by the insurgent commanders.
Zoru’s relentless battlefield heroics and strategic guidance ensured a period of no war. The soldiers’ General was promoted to Lieutenant General to command the premier 2 Corps, the largest single offensive force ever mustered for war. For someone with outstanding valour, he was a very shy man with an impish smile and infectious laughter. When not in uniform, he wore his trademark makhmali (velvet) Nepali cap designed by the battalion’s tailor, famously called Charlie. When the Siachen skirmishes were being fought after he had hung up his boots, strategic experts would seek his advice on the utility of holding Siachen Ridge. He would say: “India should give up Siachen altogether: but only on the condition that Pakistan deploys a brigade there”. So infructuous, he thought, was its strategic value.
Zoru has gone, and with him the art of battle and skills of soldiering of that vintage. The establishment should make up for its neglect of the grand old soldier by bestowing on him the rank of an honorary General for valour.