If one was asked to describe Hanut Singh, in one word, the one that would fit the bill is `Soldier’. He epitomizes courage, both moral and physical, a high standard of morality, fair-mindedness, discipline, and professionalism. Though he did not reach the highest rank - he retired as a Lieut General - Hanut had become a legend even as a Lieut Colonel when he was commanding the most prestigious cavalry regiment in the Indian Army, 17 Horse. Also called the Poona Horse, this unit has the unique distinction of winning four VCs and two PVCs.
Hanut was himself decorated with the MVC, in 1971, when he was in command of the regiment. His subsequent tenures, in command of the Armoured Division, and the Strike Corps, only reinforced his claim, as the best armor commander which India has produced, and the only one the Pakistani Army feared and respected.
To understand Hanut, one must study his background and early life, which were instrumental in the development of his unique traits and value systems. Hanut is the scion of a proud clan of Rathore Rajputs, from Jasol, in Barmer district of Rajasthan. The Jasol Rajputs are known for their valour, patriotism, courage and highly individualistic nature, born out of centuries of independent existence. After losing Kanauj, a branch of the Rathores, under Rao Siaji, the son of Raja Jai Chand of Kanauj, established a kingdom at Khed, near Jasol. It was from here that the Rathores branched out and established the kingdoms of Jodhpur, Bikaner, Idar, and the rest. For this reason, the Rathores of Jasol consider themselves as the senior House of the Rathores. They have maintained their independent status ever since, defending it against all comers. Hanut’s father, Lieut Colonel Arjun Singh, was himself a great soldier, who served in the Jodhpur Lancers and later commanded the famous Kachawa Horse.
Hanut was born on 6 July 1933, at Jasol. He was sent to Colonel Brown’s School at Dehradun for his early education, where he was exposed to Western values, some of which conflicted with those in existence for centuries in Rajput society. He tried to synthesize them, by adopting what was best in both traditions. At school, Hanut was a brilliant student and earned a double promotion, from Class 7 to Class 9. He was a voracious reader and made an extensive study of Rajput history and tradition, in which he took immense pride. His choice of the martial profession was almost natural, as was his predilection for the Cavalry, which he later joined.
On 1 January 1949, the Joint Services Wing (JSW) of the IMA was established, at Clement Town, in Dehradun. This was later shifted to Khadakvasla, near Poona, and renamed the National Defence Academy. Hanut joined the first course at the JSW, along with S.F. Rodrigues, who later become COAS; Ram Das, who rose to be the Chief of Naval Staff, and N.C. Suri, who retired as the Chief of Air Staff. In the Academy, he was a loner, known for his strict personal discipline, moral values and strength of character. His colleagues could not fail to notice these qualities and held him in high regard. Unfortunately, this envy turned to jealousy, in later years, when some of his colleagues used his strong individualistic traits to sideline him, calling him arrogant and stubborn.
Hanut was commissioned on 28 December 1952 into 17 Horse, also known as the Poona Horse, which is one of the elite cavalry regiments of the Indian Army. This was natural, given his background, and inclination. In the early 1900s, Maharaja Sir Pratap Singh of Jodhpur, the famous Sir ‘P’, had funded the raising of two Rathore Rajput squadrons in The Poona Horse. Sir ‘P’ was appointed Honorary Colonel of the Regiment, and since then, the Maharajas of Jodhpur have continued to hold this appointment. Hanut’s father and uncle, who were in the Jodhpur Lancers, did attachments with the Poona Horse. So it was only natural that Hanut should join the Poona Horse.
The Poona Horse was one the last regiments to be Indianised. As a result, there were very few Indian officers in the regiment at the time of Independence. To make up the deficiencies, several officers from other regiments were transferred. This heterogeneous collection of officers, most of whom were of average calibre, did little to enhance the reputation of the regiment. For some reason, most of the officers who joined after Independence, from the Indian Military Academy, were from a feudal background, and the Poona Horse came to be known as “Kanwar Sahib’s Regiment”, where the accent was on high living, rather than professionalism (In Rajasthan, the name of a high born Rajput is prefixed with ‘Thakur’, that of his son with ‘Kanwar’, and grandson with ‘Bhanwar’). It was only in the fifties, after a new breed of officers started being commissioned into Poona Horse, that the tide turned, and the regiment once again began to regain its lost glory and place of honor in the Indian cavalry.
Hanut had immense pride in his regiment, which he considered to be the best, in the Indian Army. In those days, for various reasons, it did not get the recognition it deserved, and Hanut was pained to hear certain senior officers pass uncharitable remarks about the regiment. He came to the conclusion that it was not enough for him to consider his regiment to be the best - every good regimental officer would feel the same way. It was only when the Poona Horse was acknowledged as the best by others, that it could legitimately claim this distinction. This became his self imposed mission - to get the Poona Horse accepted, and universally acclaimed, as the best cavalry regiment of the Indian Army. He worked with missionary zeal towards achieving this goal, and motivated and inspired other officers of the regiment to do likewise. The success of these efforts can be gauged from the fact that the exploits of the Poona Horse during the Indo Pak Wars of 1965 and 1971 became legends. It emerged as the most highly decorated regiment, in both Wars, winning a PVC in each. In 1965, the Commandant, Lieut Colonel A.B. Tarapore was awarded the PVC; in 1971, the youngest officer in the unit, Second Lieut Arun Khetarpal got the coveted award. This is a unique distinction, unmatched by any other unit in the Indian Army. To top it all, the Pak Army acknowledged the regiment’s valour on the battlefield by conferring on it the title ‘Fakhr-e-Hind’ (Pride of India). Hanut’s pride and faith in his regiment was vindicated.
As a young officer, Hanut developed a deep admiration for the German General Staff, particularly their total dedication to the profession of arms, and their unmatched expertise in the art of war. He sought to emulate these qualities himself, and motivated other officers in the regiment to do the same. As a result, qualities like professionalism, personal rectitude and a total dedication to the regiment and the service became the distinctive hallmark of officers of the Poona Horse and continues to be so even today. In fact, a group of officers in the regiment jokingly referred to themselves as the ‘PH General Staff’, and being admitted to this group was a coveted distinction, for the others. A whole generation of Poona Horse officers was directly influenced by Hanut’s ideas and views, and it is interesting to note that almost all of them rose to become General officers - just one more of the many unique distinctions earned by the regiment. Many of them, such as Ajai Singh, Surrinder Singh, Amrik Virk, Neville Foley, and Moti Dar, who joined the regiment after Hanut, recall with nostalgia the days spent under his tutelage.
Describing his first meeting with Hanut, in July 1956, Lieut General Ajai Singh has written, in the book ‘Fakhr-e-Hind - The Story of the Poona Horse’:
"It was after two to three days of my stay in the Regiment that I met him. I was sitting in the C Squadron office after the Maintenance Parade when a tall, thin, smartly turned out officer entered the office. What struck me most about him was his prominent hooked nose and very proud and penetrating look in his eyes. He walked to me and met with such enthusiasm, warmth, and affection that I felt as though we had known each other for ages…Thereafter, without further ado, he took me to the Squadron and introduced me to all members of his troop, which I was to take over. Having done this at the garages itself, he gave me a programme for my training which I was to commence from the next day; he also gave me a large bundle of books and precis which I was to read in my own time. I went through all this business-like activity in a state of total shock because, till then, such a serious approach to professional matters had neither been seen or heard during the few days I had spent in the Regiment.
So this was Hanut - stoic, business-like and upright. Being a senior subaltern he had full authority over the Young Officers (YOs) which he exercised with ruthless impartiality, whether it was in the Officers’ Mess, or on the playgrounds. Some of the senior YOs, of course, resented this attitude but Hanut would not compromise. Irrespective of what the juniors and seniors felt about this remarkable man, one thing was universally true; he was loved by the men and admired and respected by all officers. Even then, as a youngster, I could foresee that he might just be the right man to usher in a new era in the Poona Horse -an era of regenerated Regimental spirit, professionalism, and high spirits. As time passed, my anticipation proved more than correct. His influence on all the officers that were to follow was so complete that some of them went so far as to emulate him even in talk, gestures, and mannerisms. This also explains why, in the course of time, he came to be nicknamed ‘Gurudev’ (teacher, or master)."
Writing in a similar vein in the same book, Lieut General Surrinder Singh, who joined the Poona Horse in January 1958, reminisces:
Amongst this lot, the officer who was to have the most profound influence was Hanut Singh, who had joined the Regiment in January 1953. A tall, lean and ascetic figure, uncompromising in his beliefs and convictions yet gentle and considerate to his juniors and subordinates, possessed with an exuberant sense of humour and pungent, ready wit, he was an extremely dedicated and devoted professional. His forte was instruction, delivered in a modulated and compelling tone which carried conviction and understanding. A man of sterling character combined with a forceful personality, he had no time for fools - a fact which was soon apparent to those in this category.
An amusing sidelight was Hanut’s bachelorhood. He was strongly of the view that a married officer could not devote himself wholeheartedly to his profession, as his family would demand some of his time and attention. He remained a bachelor himself, and also encouraged others to follow his example. As a result, the Poona Horse had a fair number of rather senior bachelors. This added great zest to mess life but also caused considerable anxiety and consternation to the concerned parents, who naturally blamed Hanut for the continued refusal of their sons to enter into matrimony.
Hanut devoted his spare time to spiritual pursuits, and to his favourite hobby of reading. He had an abiding love for books, and read extensively on a wide variety of subjects. But what he loved to read was spiritual literature, and the biographies of great men, particularly the great Captains of War. He found socializing, and the meaningless small talk that goes with it, painfully boring. He liked nothing better than to be left alone, with a good book. In an extroverted society like the Army, this character trait of his was considered odd, and he was soon dubbed as being anti-social. Hanut did not mind this and was quite happy as long as he was left to himself, and his books.
In the mid-fifties, the Poona Horse was issued with Centurion tanks. Hanut, who was then a young Captain, was selected to attend a Centurion tank gunnery course, in the United Kingdom, in 1958. He was awarded a ‘Distinction’ on this course, and on his return, was appointed a gunnery instructor at the Armoured Corps Centre and School, Ahmednagar, in May 1959. There he rewrote the General Staff pamphlet on ‘Technique of Shooting from Armoured Fighting Vehicles’. He also introduced revised techniques of shooting, and new tank gunnery training methods, and wrote out precis for disseminating instructions on these subjects. These continued to be the bedrock of gunnery training in the Armoured Corps, as long as the Centurions were in service; and it was these techniques, and training methods, which enabled the Centurions to outshoot the Pakistani Pattons, and establish their supremacy on the battlefield, during the Indo Pak wars of 1965 and 1971.
When Hanut joined the Armoured Corps, there was no tactical doctrine available on armour, and neither were there any publications on armour tactics at the unit level. What was taught at the Armoured Corps Centre and School was basically Infantry oriented tactics, based on precis issued by the Infantry School, Mhow. Hanut felt that armour must have a tactical doctrine of its own, based on the principles of mobile warfare. So he decided to evolve such a doctrine, and based on that, develop unit-level tactics, for armoured troops, squadrons, and regiments. In this context, he was of the view that only the Germans had really understood mobile warfare and practiced it during the war. He carried out a deep study of the campaigns and battles fought by the Panzer formations and units during World War II, in order to grasp the basic principles of mobile warfare. Based on these, he began developing unit-level tactics, which he would teach, and practice in his troop and squadron during training. From the experience gained, he would modify and expand them, and disseminate them to other officers in the regiment. He kept detailed notes, which were constantly updated, over the years.
In December 1960, Hanut returned to the regiment. After attending the Junior Command Course at the Infantry School in 1961, he began preparations for the Staff College entrance examination. He qualified, and proceeded to Wellington, to attend the course in 1963. His colleagues on the course remember him as a thoroughly dedicated professional, who had little time for distractions such as the races at Ooty, or the weekly dances at the Gymkhana Club. Even as a student, his leadership qualities became abundantly clear, to his instructors, as well as his colleagues.
There is an interesting anecdote about Wellington, which brings out Hanut’s character, and style. During the telephone battle, he was given the appointment of a divisional commander. As is the custom, he was wearing the badges of rank of a Major General, though he was actually a Major. This was done to give realism, during training. After he had given out his orders, the actual ‘battle’ commenced. At about 9 p.m., after the ‘enemy’ had made his opening moves, Hanut told his staff that he was retiring for the night, and was not to be disturbed until a situation arose which required his decision, or personal intervention. This caused some surprise since it was contrary to the normally accepted, nail chewing image of a GOC, supposedly under pressure, who remained on tenterhooks and kept harassing his staff and subordinates, instead of letting them alone to get on with their jobs. The result was that by the time he was actually required to do something, he was already bleary-eyed, and his mind fogged for want of rest and sleep.
Having said so, Hanut went to his allotted office and went to bed on the camp cot, which he had placed there. He slept soundly and awoke the next morning to the twittering of birds. It seemed strangely quiet, so he went out to find out what was going on. He found all the rooms locked, and no sign of the other student officers, or directing staff. He later learnt that as the ‘enemy’ had failed to make any headway, the exercise had been prematurely called off at 1 a.m. The senior instructor told the others to go home, without disturbing Hanut, in accordance with the instructions he had given to his staff! This incident became the subject of much-amused comment, during the summing up, and even later.
Hanut performed exceptionally well on the course, and when it was over, he was posted as Brigade Major of 66 Infantry Brigade. During the 1965 War, when Poona Horse wrote its name into history books, by destroying 60 enemy tanks for the loss of only nine of its own, and Lieut Colonel Tarapore won a posthumous PVC, Hanut was not with the regiment. After a tenure of a little over two years in this appointment, he was reverted to his regiment, in October 1966. After spending two years with the regiment, Hanut was again posted to a prestigious staff appointment, as GSO 2, in the MO Directorate at Army HQ. This was the first of his many stints in MO, where he was to serve again as a Brigadier and as a Major General.
In August 1970, Hanut was promoted to Lieut Colonel and posted as Officer Commanding Tactical Wing in the Armoured Corps Centre and School. Hanut had retained his notes, made during his earlier tenures at the School, and which he had updated periodically, during his subsequent tenures in the regiment, and on staff. He used his notes to write out the basic books on armour tactics, and on the tactical handling of armoured units and subunits. These remain the basic books on armour tactics even today and are still used at the Armoured Corps Centre and School and the College of Combat. In April 1971, he was nominated on the Senior Command course at the College of Combat, which had recently been established at Mhow. In September, 1971, Hanut was posted as Commandant, 17 Horse. (The Commanding Officer, or CO, is called the Commandant, in cavalry regiments). The regiment was located at Sangrur, and was part of 16 Independent Armoured Brigade, which was then commanded by Brigadier A.S. Vaidya, MVC, who later became Chief of Army Staff.
By then, war clouds had begun gathering, and within days of his assuming command, Hanut had to move his regiment to battle locations. 17 Horse was carrying out its annual field firing at Naraingarh ranges on 8 October 1965, when it received a message asking it to return at once to its permanent location. On his way back to Sangrur, Hanut reported to HQ 16 Independent Armoured Brigade, where he was briefed by the Brigade Commander. Vaidya informed him that 17 Horse had been placed under command 323 Infantry Brigade, at Dinanagar, and he should move the regiment to its concentration area immediately. The regiment began moving by road and rail on 10 October, and within four days, had concentrated at Sujanpur, a small village near Madhopur. After reaching its new location, Hanut was called to HQ 39 Infantry Division, and briefed regarding his task.
Hanut learned that his regiment had been temporarily placed under command 323 Infantry Brigade, for a defensive task. There were reports of an impending attack by Pakistan in the general area Gurdaspur-Dinanagr, and 323 Infantry Brigade was deployed to contain this thrust, with 17 Horse in a supporting role. Hanut was subsequently briefed by Brigadier G.S. Grewal, Commander 323 Infantry Brigade, who asked him to base himself at Dinanagar, and select suitable dispersal areas for his regiment. By the time Hanut reached the rest house at Dinanagar, which he had selected as his regimental HQ, it was almost 10 p.m. While Hanut was inside the rest house, he felt that some men were was following him, in the dark. He stopped, and asked the men, in loud voice, what they were upto. It transpired that it was a party, led by an officer, from 36 Infantry Division, who had been reconnoitering the area. Hearing the tanks of 17 Horse coming into the area, they had assumed that it was the spearhead of the Pak offensive. Hanut’s aquiline nose, and handlebar moustache had led them to mistake him for a Pathan. They were apologetic when they found that they had been stalking the Commandant of the Poona Horse, instead of a Pakistani officer.
Next morning, orders were received that the Scinde Horse, which had just arrived, would relieve the Poona Horse, which was to revert under command of 39 Infantry Division, and move to Malichak. After spending almost a month there, the regiment moved to a forward concentration area near Dinai, just short of Samba, on the Pathankot-Jammu road. By this time, all personnel on leave, courses and extra regimental employment had rejoined, and the regiment was upto full strength. The period spent in Malichak had been put to good use, in training, and reconnaisance.
In 1971, the Indian Army’s main task was the liberation of Bangla Desh, then called East Pakistan. On the Western Front, it was decided that a posture of offensive defence would be maintained. This was primarily because of the commitments of troops in the East, and the possibility of intervention by China. However, it was expected that Pakistan would undertake a major offensive, either in the Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, or Rajasthan. As part of his overall strategy, Lieut General K.P. Candeth, GOC-in-C, Western Command, had planned certain offensive operations, with the intention of drawing out Pakistani reserves, so that they were not in a position to undertake major offensives against India. An advance by 1 Corps into the Shakargarh bulge was part of these plans.
Lieut General K.K. Singh, GOC 1 Corps, had been the DMO at Army HQ before assuming command of 1 Corps in October 1971. He was thus familiar with the overall strategy and plans, for the operations. He had three infantry divisions (36, 39 and 54), two independent armoured brigades (2 and 16), two independent artillery brigades and two engineer brigades. He also had a locating battery and an air observation post squadron. 36 Infantry Division, under Major General B.S. Ahluwalia, was initially deployed South East of the Ravi river, in the Thakurpur-Gurdaspur-Dinanagar area; 39 Infantry Division, under Major General B.R. Prabhu, was North of the Ravi, in the Madhopur-Bamial-Dayalchak area; and 54 Infantry Division, under Major General W.A.G. Pinto, was deployed around Samba, between the Bein river and the Degh Nadi.
Lieut General K.K. Singh, known as ‘KK’, had commanded 1 Armoured Brigade during the 1965 war, and Poona Horse had been under his command at that time. In 1971, he was given the task of containing the enemy offensive, and then delivering a riposte against his lines of communication, so as to force him back. In case the enemy did not launch an offensive, ‘KK’ was to advance into the Shakargarh bulge east of the Degh Nadi, and capture Zafarwal, Dhamtal and Narowal. Subsequently, he was to secure the line Marala-Ravi link canal-Degh Nadi and later take Pasrur. ‘KK’ appreciated that the best manner of carrying out the tasks allotted to him was to go on the offensive. He planned to launch the offensive in the central sector of the Corps zone, retaining a strong defensive posture on the flanks. As part of this plan, 54 Infantry Division was to advance between the Degh Nadi and the Karir Nadi, led by 16 independent Armoured Brigade less 16 Cavalry. 39 Infantry Division was to advance beteween the Bien river and the Karir Nadi, led by 2 Independent Armoured Brigade, to guard the western flank. The eastern flank was to be guarded by two brigades (one each from 26 and 39 Infantry Divisions), supported by 16 Cavalry. 36 Infantry Division, supported by Scinde Horse, was to hold a defensive position along the Ravi river.
Based on the information available at that time, it had been appreciated that the enemy would have laid three or four tiers of minefields, starting from the internatioanl border. In 54 Infantry Division sector, the first minefield was visualized to be at the border; the second along the general line Bhoi Brahma-Thakardwara-Nagwal; the third along the general line Ghamrola-Barkhanian; and the fourth in conjunction with the Basantar Nala. The enemy was also expected to have advanced positions based on the Basantar Nala, with covering troops operating ahead of it, to delay the advance of Indian troops, and deny crossings over the minefields.
Based on the enemy’s anticipated deployment, it was planned that two infantry brigades ex 54 Infantry Division, with a squadron each of 17 Horse under command, would secure a bridgehead across the first minefield in area Dandaut-Gola-Mawa-Mukhwal and establish a firm base for the divisional advance. The third brigade of 54 Infantry Division and 4 Horse would then advance between the Basantar river and Karir Nadi, with a view to secure crossings across the second minefied at Thakurdwara. Thereafter 4 Horse with one brigade would make another bridgehead across the third minefield at Barkhanian. Once the third minefield had been breached, a combat group comprising 17 Horse and 18 Rajputana Rifles less two companies would break out and secure an encounter crossing over the Basantar Nala in general area Pinjori, for a subsequent advance for the capture of the Zafarwal-Dhamtal complex.
While the various contingencies were being worked out, Hanut was dismayed to find that in each one of these plans, his regiment was kept in reserve, and not given an operational task. When this happened the third time running, Hanut met the Brigade Commander and asked him why his regiment was not being given any task. “From this,” said Hanut, “I can only conclude that you do not have confidence in me, or in my regiment, or both.” Vaidya was initially non-plussed, at being confronted in this manner by one of his COs, but had to agree that he was right. He went on to explain that he had just taken over the brigade and did not know the units well enough. He was going by what his predecessor, Brigadier K.K. Kaul had told him about the units, and their COs. Hanut pointed out that because of a personality clash between Lieut Colonel Shiv Raj Singh, the previous Commandant of 17 Horse, and the Brigade Commander, the latter’s opinion about the regiment was biased, and requested him not to go by it. Vaidya agreed and assured Hanut that in future, he would see that his regiment got its rightful due.
After airstrikes against Indian airfields during the evening of 3 December 1971, Pakistan attacked Indian positions in Chhamb the same night, preceded by heavy artillery bombardment of border outposts. The next day, Yahya Khan formally declared war. Indian counter offensive plans were immediately put into motion, in the Eastern as well as the Western sectors. In the evening, on 4 December, 17 Horse received orders to deploy for the protection of the firm base of 54 Infantry Division. This entailed move of the regiment from East to West across the Samba T junction. Simultaneously, 7 Cavalry was asked to move from West to East across the same choke point, to its forward assembly area West of Samba. The two columns reached the choke point at the same time and got stuck in a traffic jam. Fortunately, the enemy artillery and air did not take advantage of the disaster, and the chaos was sorted out only after the two COs personally intervened. It was primarily the initiative of the junior leaders of both regiments, who worked overtime to disentangle their respective tanks, which enabled the regiments to reach their forward assembly areas by first light.
At the border post of Galar Tanda, there was a 30 foot high observation tower, which provided the Pakistanis observation into Indian territory, and could be used to bring down artillery fire over the concentration areas of own troops. B Squadron was located at Gala, right opposite the tower, and Hanut ordered them to destroy it. An accurate shot from one of the tanks of B squadron brought down the tower, and this signalled the start of the battle, in the 54 Infantry Division sector. A troop of Pakistani tanks, hidden behind the tall grass, emerged on hearing the shot, and pulled back in panic. Hanut realised that since the enemy tanks were moving freely along the border, there could not be a minefield in that area. He conveyed this information to Commander 16 Armoured Brigade, but Vaidya did not react. The full scale attacks went ahead as planned.
91 and 74 Infantry Brigades launched their attacks for the capture of Dandout-Chamana Khurd-Chhahal and Mukhwal at 2000 hours on 5 December. The infantry did not encounter any enemy, and neither did the trawls find any mines, when they went through the anticipated minefield. Both brigades secured their bridgeheads, and two squadrons of 17 Horse were moved to protect their flanks. Shortly after midnight, 4 Horse was inducted into the bridgehead, but commenced its break out only at first light. By 0800 hours, leading elements of 4 Horse had contacted the minefield astride Thakurdwara. Surprisingly, the regiment waited till last light, before the leading squadron commenced breaching the minefield. Once again, no enemy was encountered, and a firm base was secured across the minefield. A squadron of 17 Horse was moved up, to take over the firm base, and relieve 4 Horse for further advance.
Unknown to Indian troops, Pakistani armour was present in the area. B Squadron of Pak 20 Lancers had withdrawn behind the first defensive minefield at Thakurdwara on the night of 5/6 December, and next day, when 4 Horse was advancing, this squadron was strafed by the Indian Air Force, and withdrew to the next minefield, at Barkaniyan, by last light on 6 December. It was joined by a squadron of 33 Cavalry (Pattons), and soon afterwards, the rest of 20 Lancers had also concentrated behind the second minefield. On the morning of 7 December, 17 Horse was moved from Bhoi Brahmana to guard the western flank. To the East, the operations of 39 Infantry Division, with 7 Cavalry in support, had not made much progress, and were still to cross the first minefield. The enemy had developed Dehlra and Chakra as a strong defensive position, and a squadron ex Poona Horse was sent to Dadwan Kalan to mask Chakra, and secure Bari, while 4 Horse was orderd to clear Darman and Ghamrola. After completing its task, 4 Horse moved forward to Barkaniyan, and Poona Horse less two squadrons was moved from Rayian to Gala, with the other two squadrons at Bhoi Brahmana and Sadwal/Dadwan Kalan.
On the afternoon of 8 December, information was received of a likely enemy counter attack at Mukhwal. 17 Horse less two squadrons, with a company of 18 Rajputana Rifles under command, was ordered to secure Mukhwal. As the column was moving along a high embankment, it came under air attack. Only the leading tanks could get off the road, while the rest of the two-kilometer long column continued to move in single file along the narrow road. Hanut was in the leading tank and had managed to get off the road, into the tall elephant grass. However, he saw sortie after sortie of enemy aircraft coming in to attack the column with bombs and rockets. Expecting most of his tanks to have been written off, he was very perturbed, and when the attack was over, he asked all stations to report casualties. Everyone was surprised, and relieved, when it was found that there were no casualties. Having seen their bad shooting, the Poona Horse treated the Pakistani Air Force with contempt, for the rest of the war.
After reaching Mukhwal, Hanut deployed the company of 18 Rajputana Rifles on the high ground ahead of the village, with their armoured personnel carriers (APCs) in close support. The armour was held in reserve, hidden from view in the village itself. The plan was that when the enemy launched his attack, the infantry would mount their APCs and withdraw towards Mukhwal, firing their machine guns. Once the enemy assumed that he had captured the area and began to reorganise, the tanks and APCs would mount a combined assault. Shortly after the deployment had been completed, the enemy started shelling the area, and Hanut thought that he was registering targets before the attack was launched. However, the infantry and armour waited in vain, as the enemy did not attack, causing all round disappointment.
While the operations of 54 Infantry Division had progressed well, 39 Infantry Division had not been able to capture Dehlra. Major General W.A.G. Pinto, GOC 54 Infantry Division, realised that unless the Dehlra- Chakra complex was cleared, he would not be able to progress his own operations. He therefore decided to clear it using his own troops, and gave the task to Brigadier Ujagar Singh, Commander 74 Infantry Brigade, who was given a squadron ex 4 Horse for this purpose. This was completed by first light on 11 December. Pinto now ordered Brigadier A. Handoo, Commander 91 Infantry Brigade, to establish a bridgehead across the Barkhaniyan minefield. 17 Horse was placed under command 91 Infantry Brigade for this operation, with the further tasks of breaking out from the bridgehead, contacting the enemy positions along the Basantar nullah, and if opportunity offered, to establish an encounter crossing across the Basantar. The regiment moved forward from Mukhwal and concentrated at Tarakwal by 1400 hours on 12 December. 18 Rajputana Rifles less two companies, mounted in APCs, was placed under command 17 Horse for the encounter crossing, in addition to an Engineeer task force, with trawl tanks and bridge layer tanks.
Hanut planed to carry out the encounter crossing during the hours of darkness, as soon as the bridgehead acroos the minefied had been established by 91 Infantry Brigade. However, Commander 91 Infantry Brigade did not permit this, since he was worried about his own security. Hanut knew that the Basantar would be heavily defended, and a daylight encounter crossing would not succeed. Finally, it was agreed that a squadron of 4 Horse would take over the defence of the bridgehead, allowing 17 Horse to break out the same night. The operation began on the night of 13 December, and 91 Infantry Brigade secured a bridgehead across the minefield. The Engineers began trawling, and by 2330 hours, a safe lane for tanks had been cleared. At 0230 hours, the combat group commenced the break out.
After going some distance, some tank tracks were found. It was conjectured that these belonged to enemy tanks which had withdrawn from the Barkhaniyan minefied, and would lead to a suitable crossing place over the Basantar. The regiment had made an elaborate navigation plan, with night charts, showing the route from point to point, and compass bearings. It was felt that following the tracks would result in faster movement, and save time. So the navigation plan was abandoned, and the combat group began to follow the tank tracks. This proved to be a mistake, since the enemy tanks, instead of crossing the Basantar, had veered off East, and crossed a tributary of the Basantar, instead of the main nullah. The ‘nullah’ was contacted in the early hours of 14 December. The crossing was found to be unmined and undefended, and only then did it dawn on the two COs that they had hit a tributary, rather than the main Basantar nullah. The combat group quickly swung round, to get back on the original axis, but it was soon daylight, and the area was found to be boggy. The tanks were dispersed, and it was decided to make an attempt later. As it turned out, the Basantar was heavily defended, and too formidable to have been breached by an encounter crossing, so the failure to reach the correct place was really a blessing in disguise. Though the regiment suffered a number of casualties due to air attacks during the day, these were not as large as what would have been inflicted if the encounter crossing had been attempted.
During the next two days the enemy resistance on the home side of the obstacle was systematically cleared, and on 15 December, a deliberate operation was launched, across the Basantar nullah. 47 Infantry Brigade, under Brigadier A.P. Bhardwaj, was made responsible for securing a bridge head. The brigade had three battalions: 13 Grenadiers, 6 Madras and 16 Madras, in addition to 17 Horse nad 18 Rajputana Rifles less two companies. The plan involved the capture of area 2r in the Ghazipur reserved forest, including Saraj Chak by 16 Madras in Phase 1, followed by the capture of Jarpal and Lohal by 13 Grenadiers in Phase 2. 17 Horse and 18 Rajputana Rifles less two companies was to ensure protection of the bridge head against enemy counter attack. On the subsequent day, 13 Grenadiers, supported by a squadron of 17 Horse, was to capture Barapind, while 16 Madras, supported by another squadron of the regiment, was to capture Ghazipur.
The infantry attack went in as planned, and the bridge head was secured by 16 Madras at 2030 hous. Breaching of the minefield commenced, and the armour was waiting, for safe lanes to be cleared. The second phase of the brigade attack also went in, and at 2330 hours 13 Grenadiers reported that it had secured Jarpal. Meanwhile, there were frantic calls from Lieut Colonel V. Ghai, CO 16 Madras, reporting that he was being threatened by enemy armour, building up for the counter attack. At about 0230 hours, there was another desperate appeal from Ghai, indicating that the situation was critical, and if he did not get any armour, he would not be able hold out. Hanut realised that waiting for the safe lanes could mean destruction of the infantry, and loss of the bridge head. Crossing the mine field, still unbreached, could result in a large number of his tanks being written off.
Hanut decided to take the risk, and send at least one squadron across, to relieve the beleaguered infantry. He gave the task to ‘C’ squadron, which was led by the second-in-command, Major Ajai Singh, who had taken over after Major Moti Dar, the squadron commander, had been wounded, his tank having received a direct hit. Captain Ravi Deol was transferred to ‘C’ squadron from 'B ’ squadron, since he was familiar with the area, having seen it during daylight. The squadron began to negotiate the minefield, with Deol as the navigating officer, and Ajai in the following tank. Miraculously, the squadron crossed the minefield, without a single casualty, and successfully secured the bridgehead. The next day, a jeep and an armoured personnel carrier (APC), which tried to follow the tank tracks, blew up on the enemy mines. Hanut attributes the luck of the squadron, in crossing 600 metres of unbreached minefield, without a single casualty, to the ‘Hand of Allah’. (The Standard of the Poona Horse is surmounted by a silver hand, which was captured by the regiment from the 1st Khusgai Regiment of Fars, during the Persian War, in 1857. The hand bears the inscription, dated AD 1066, ‘Yad Ullal Fauk Idehim’, which means ‘The Hand of God is above all things’).
There was a fierce tank battle, on 16 December, followed by another one on 17th, when the full weight of Pakistan’s 8 Armoured Brigade was brought to bear on the Poona Horse. Inspired by Hanut’s leadership, the regiment fought like lions, and in a single days battle, destroyed 50 enemy tanks, losing 13 of its own. In the Battle of Basantar, one of Pakistan’s oldest and proudest cavalry regiments, 13 Lancers, was decimated, while another, 31 Cavalry, was crippled. It was during this action that Second Lieut Arun Khetarpal, a young officer with barely six months service, sacrificed his life, and was awarded a PVC. The incident is now a legend, and merits recounting.
During the battle, Major Amarjit Bal, OC B Squadron, who had only two of his troops with him, requested for reinforcements. Hanut called Major Man Singh, OC A Squadron, on the radio, but he had gone to the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) with a casualty. The Squadron second-in-command, Captain V. Malhotra, was ordered to reinforce B Squadron, with two troops. Malhotra immediately took off, with Number 3 Troop, under Avtar Ahlawat, and Number 4 Troop under Arun Khetarpal. With their guns blazing, the six tanks rushed towards the enemy, and shot up several enemy tanks, taking some prisoners, which were carried piggy back, till they were handed over to the infantry. These tanks of A Squadron in fact raced ahead of the positions occupied by B Squadron, and had to be pulled back in line, by Hanut, on the radio. They had barely got into fire positions when the main attack by the enemy was delivered, and they were smack in the middle of it. Whereas three tanks managed to find some cover, the three being commanded by Malhotra, Ahlawat and Khetarpal were out in the open.
Very soon, Malhotra’s tank became inoperative due to a mechanical defect, and that of Ahlawat was shot up. Now only Arun Khetarpal was left in the fray. Hanut had just passed a net call on the radio, ordering “all tanks will fight it out from where they are; no tank will move back even an inch”. Arun’s tank had received a hit, but it had ricocheted. Now he received a second hit, and the tank caught fire. Malhotra ordered him to abandon his tank, but Arun, realising that he was the only one left, who could stop the enemy, refused, saying " my gun is still functioning. I will get the remaining lot." When Malhotra insisted that he abandon his tank or pull back, Arun switched off his radio set. The driver, Prayag Singh, remonstrated with Arun, saying that it would take them only a few minutes to pull back, put out the fire, and rejoin the battle. Arun replied “Didn’t you hear the CO’s transmission. No tank will pull back even an inch.”
By this time most of the enemy squadron, commanded by Major Nissar, had been destroyed, but four or five tanks were still left. Arun systematically began knocking them out, and the last tank he hit was that of Major Nissar himself, at a range of barely 75 metres. At this stage, his own tank suffered a fourth hit, killing the radio operator, and severely wounding Arun and the gunner. The driver, Prayag Singh, showing great presence of mind, reversed his tank behind cover, and evacuated the gunner to another tank. Though he was himself wounded, he tried to pull Arun out of the tank, with the help of the crew of another tank. In the process, the gallant officer breathed his last.
Arun Khetarpal’s act of supreme sacrifice was more than an act of personal courage, and valour. It was a manifestation of ‘The PH Horse Spirit’, which Hanut had inculcated amongst his officers. Twenty years later, when Hanut wrote the book “Fakhr-e-Hind”, he dedicated it to “The PH Spirit”, which, according to him, is ‘an intangible compendium of many qualities that defies description, but infuses every Poona Horseman and guides and sustains him both in peace and in war.’ In simpler terms, it is a rare combination of comradeship, loyalty and total dedication to the profession of arms. Arun’s refusal to abandon his tank, at grave personal risk, on the grounds that the CO had forbidden such a course of action, is a manifestation of the fierce sense of loyalty which Hanut commanded from his subordinates. It is such a feeling of mutual trust, and loyalty, which wins battles, and the ability to inspire it is the true hall mark of a leader, which Hanut undeniably was.
Another oft repeated tale about the Battle of Basantar concerns Hanut’s habit of daily meditation. It is said that during the thick of the battle, Hanut did not answer on the radio, when the Brigade Commander, Brigadier A.S. Vaidya called him. When Vaidya questioned him about it later, Hanut is said to have replied that he was doing his ‘puja’. The story is only partly true. Hanut did switch off his radio set to HQ 16 Independent Armoured Brigade, but this was because his unit was placed under command of 47 Infantry Brigade, for the bridge head operations. Also, he did not want any distraction or interference, during the tank battle, where the rapidly changing situation required his undivided attention. According to Hanut, he was never called by Vaidya, during the battle, who only came to know about the action from the After Action Report, much later.
Even before the operations commenced, Hanut had anticipated that his regiment would be involved in a major battle with Pakistani armour, as soon as they crossed the Basantar river. Accordingly, he had rehearsed his unit, on the map and a sand model. One aspect which he repeatedly stressed was that once they had beaten back the inevitable counter attack, the enemy would be in complete disarray. This was the decisive moment which they must exploit, by sallying forth and finishing off the remnants of enemy armour. As he had foreseen, this opportunity presented itself at 1100 hours on 16 December, when the counter attack by Pak 8 Armoured Brigade was decisively repulsed. Some of the more enthusiastic officers of Poona Horse asked Hanut on the radio when he was going to launch them into action, as planned. But the enemy response had been far stronger than Hanut had anticipated, and he did not want to risk leaving the bridge head undefended. The Brigade and Divisional Commanders were listening in on the radio, but did not react. Hanut asked his Adjutant to pass a message from him to the Brigade Commander, on the Brigade net, requesting him to “build up sister unit fastest”. Since the enemy was monitoring the net, the message could not be made more explicit. But Vaidya failed to grasp the significance of the message, and did nothing. The second armoured regiment - 4 Horse - was moved to the bridge head only after last light on 16 December, on the instructions of the Corps Commander. Thus, a magnificent opportunity was lost, and the cease fire saw them still confined to the bridge head.
On 16 December, there were six major units in the bridge head, three from 47 Infantry Brigade, and three from 16 Armoured Brigade. However, none of the brigade commanders was in the bridge head, to issue orders. Hanut was the senior CO, and on his own initiative, issued orders for readjustment and redeployment, in consultation with the others. In fact, as Hanut recounts, the first time he saw any senior officer during the Battle of Basantar was just a few hours before the cease fire on 17 December, when the Corps Commander, Lieut General K.K. Singh, came to visit and congratulate the regiment, accompanied by the Divisional Commander, Major General W.A.G. Pinto, and Brigadier A.P. Bhardwaj, Commander 47 Infantry Brigade.
In the various post mortems carried out after the War, and in the After Action Reports, commanders at all levels glossed over their lapses, and weaknesses. In the euphoria of victory, everyone indulged in mutual praise and congratulations. In discussions and debriefings, Hanut brought up these weaknesses, and also mentioned them in his After Action Report. This caused a lot of resentment among some senior officers, who felt that he was being unnecessarily critical. Hanut had very definite ideas about command in battle, and the responsibility that goes with it. In armour battles, command has to be exercised from ‘up front’, and he always made sure that his own tank was positioned at the point of contact. This enabled him to see and assess the action as it developed, and issue orders according to the exigencies of the situation. He did not like to look back over his shoulder, and strongly rebuffed attempts at back seat driving by his superiors. He found it distracting to have to answer meaningless queries from staff officers at higher HQ, and frequently switched off his rearward radio, leaving the second-in-command or Adjutant to deal with them. This allowed him to concentrate on his command, and conduct the battle without interference.
After two years as Commandant of the Poona Horse, Hanut was posted as GSO 1, HQ 31 Armoured Division, in September 1973. After two years in this important assignment, he was promoted Brigadier, and appointed Commander 14 (Independent) Armoured Brigade, which he commanded with distinction. Shortly after he assumed command, a discussion was held at the Corps HQ, to evaluate the concept of crossing of a water obstacle by an armoured division, and the subsequent break out. This concept had been worked out by the Armoured Division, and after endorsement by the Command and Corps HQ, had been forwarded to Army HQ, for approval. The Military Training Directorate had made out a draft Training Note, which was sent to the Corps HQ for their comments, and approval, before issue. At this time, Lieut General Z.C. ‘Zoru’ Bakshi was the Corps Commander, and Lieut General I.S. Gill was the Army Commander. Bakshi wanted the concept to be discussed and evaluated, before taking a decision in the matter. It was a high level discussion, in which almost all senior formation commanders of Western Command participated, or attended as observers. The Army Commander was also present.
When Hanut read through the paper, he found that the concept was totally impractical. He felt that it had been conceived by some chair borne tactician, and he was surprised that it had been accepted all the way upto Army HQ, without anyone questioning many of its basic assumptions. When he tried to raise the issue within his syndicate, he was over ruled by his syndicate leader, on the grounds that it had already been approved. When the discussion got under way, almost every one lauded the concept as brilliant. During the tea break, Hanut spoke to the Chief of Staff HQ 2 Corps, who was conducting the discussion, and told him that he wished to express a personal opinion on the issue, as his syndicate was not in agreement with his views. When the discussion was resumed, the Chief of Staff invited Hanut to give his comments. He began by saying that " Though I find myself in the position of being one man against the house, yet I have some very major and serious reservations about the proposed concept." He went on to outline his objections, and finished by saying that the concept cannot be executed even in a full scale ‘Exercise with Troops’, let alone in war.
There was a stunned silence, and everyone started looking at the Army Commander, Lieut General Gill, who intervened, to say: “Hanut, you are not one man against the house. I too do not agree with this concept.” He then asked him whether he had an alternate concept to suggest. Hanut gave out what he thought to be a workable solution. During the Summing Up that followed, both the Army and the Corps Commanders agreed with his views, and the proposed concept was scrapped.
A few months later, an Exercise With Troops was held, in which his brigade was tasked to execute a breakout. At the planning stage itself, Hanut pointed out to the commander of the infantry division which was establishing the bridge head that the site selected was incorrect, because due to the presence of lakes on two sides, the armour would have to break out through a defile, which could be easily blocked by the enemy. Hanut was over ruled, and was assured that his tanks would be given a safe passage. When the exercise began, the situation developed exactly as Hanut had feared. Hanut immediately called off the break out, and ordered his tanks to deploy. Next morning, the Army and Corps Commanders visited the site, and met Hanut. When asked why he had not carried out the manouevre, he replied: “I am not prepared to order my leading regiment to undertake a mission, which I know to be suicidal.” They left without a word. Subsequently, Hanut was given a clear passage through the defile, and the armoured brigade broke out as planned.
In January 1978, Hanut was nominated to attend the course at the National Defence College. After the course, he was posted to the MO Directorate, where he remained for an unprecedented three and a half years. In May 1982, he was promoted Major General, and given command of 17 Mountain Division, in Sikkim. Hanut’s first brush was with Talyarkhan, the Governor of the State, a man with an enormous ego. He never tired of telling anyone he met how close he was to the Nehru family, particularly Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who had specially selected him to oversee the transition of Sikkim from an independent kingdom to a State of the Indian Union. Hanut found that Talyarkhan behaved more like a colonial ruler, than a constitutional head of government. He demanded various perks and privileges, which went beyond the laid down protocol. One of these was that he expected to be received by the divisional commander, or at least one of the brigade commanders, whenever he visited any part of the State. His predecessor, Major General ‘Tich’ Sharma, had extended these courtesies to the Governor, but Hanut decided to put a stop it. Shortly after he took over, the Governor decided to visit North Sikkim, and the brigade commander requested Hanut’s permission to receive him, as was customary. Hanut told him that there was no need for this, since the Governor’s visit was at the behest of the civil administration, and the Army had nothing to do with it. However, if he visited any place where an Army unit was located, the local unit commander could be present, at the time of his arrival and departure.
When Talyarkhan landed at the helipad he was very incensed, because, as he put it, ‘only a Lieut Colonel’ was present to receive him. On his return to Gangtok, he immediately rang up Hanut, who was not available because he was at his prayers. This further enraged the Governor, who threatened to complain about this to the Chief of Army Staff. He tried to speak to the Chief over the Post and Telegraph circuit, but could not do so because the lines were down. When Hanut heard about this, he directed that the Governor’s call to the Chief be given on Army channels, which was done. Naturally, nothing came out of it. When Hanut was asked about the incident, he pointed out that there was no protocol requirement for an Army representative to receive the Governor, unless he was visiting Army units. In fact, he made it clear that this time, one of the battalion commanders had been asked to receive him because it had become an established practice, and he did not want to make abrupt changes. In future, no Army officer would be present. When Talyarkhan found that Hanut could not be brow beaten, his attitude changed, and their relations became cordial, though formal, thereafter.
Hanut’s relations with Lieut General Surjit Singh Brar, the Corps Commander, were not so cordial. They had differences of opinion on almost every thing, which included operational and administrative aspects. Hanut found the operational plans to be passive, and wanted to introduce a more aggressive form of defence. This concept called for substantial reserves at every level, and the only way they could be created was by restructuring the deployment. As was his practice, Hanut ran a sand model exercise, which he conducted personally, in order to apprise the officers of the division with the concept. The Corps Commander, who attended the discussion, did not agree with the concept, and was openly critical. In order to avoid an unseemly argument, in front of junior officers, Hanut terminated the discussion, saying that: " So long as I am the GOC, this is how I will fight the defensive battle." And that was that.
During his visits to the forward defences, Hanut found that the officers and men were living under appalling conditions. The men were in sheds, without any insulation, and had to huddle around ‘bukharies’ (stoves, used for heating), as the shed never really got heated. Once the ‘bukhari’ was put out, it became unbearably cold inside. The tin roofs of the sheds had holes, letting in rain and melted snow, causing permanent slush inside. There were no toilets and bathrooms - just a hessian cloth enclosure, flapping in the wind. There was no lighting, so the day ended as soon as the sun went down. Hanut thought it was shameful to make troops suffer in this manner, even after spending twenty years in the same locations. He berated the officers for timidly accepting this state of affairs, and told them that unless they insisted on certain minimum standards facilities for troops, no one else would do anything about it.
At the next Operational Works Conference, Hanut raised the issue about living conditions of troops. He pointed out that they already had surplus defence works in almost all defended localities, and suggested that for the next few years, the funds for operational works be used for providing decent living accommodation for troops. To his surprise, the Corps Commander replied that he had also been around the forward defences, and found the state of accommodation was quite satisfactory. Obviously, either the standards used by the Corps Commander were low, or he was deliberately trying to snub Hanut.
When Hanut realised that he would get no help from Corps HQ, in the form of funds, he requested for some engineer effort. However, even this was refused. Hanut then decided to procure the necessary material using funds and engineer resources of the division. Wood was available locally at cheap rates, and this was used for insulating the living accommodation. When the Corps HQ objected to this, on the ground that it would increase the risk of fires, Hanut said that he would take the responsibility, and the work continued. Bathrooms were made using hollow cement blocks, and each post was provided with a generator, for lighting, as well as a radio, so that their day did not end at sunset. Naturally, the troops were delighted, and when Hanut left, after a year, the ‘Water Shed Brigade’ recorded their appreciation and thanks, by inscribing the memento they presented to him with the words: “You have done more for improving our operational preparedness, administrative facilities and our living conditions in one year, than others have done in twenty.” Hanut cherished the gift, as it came from the heart.
During Hanut’s tenure in Sikkim, there was no lavish entertainment of VIPs, for which the division had acquired a dubious reputation. During summer, there was always a large stream of visitors, who expected to be looked after, along with their families and relatives. Once they found that they were expected to pay for the hospitality, the numbers began dwindling. Soon, the stream of visitors dried up, as word went around that social life in Gangtok had become dull, after the new GOC had taken over. Hanut took it as a compliment, since it was a welcome relief to his harassed staff, who had to make all the arrangements, including the accommodation, transport and sight seeing. Not surprisingly, this led to further deterioration in the relations between Hanut and the Corps Commander. After a year, General K.V. Krishna Rao, the COAS, selected him to command the prestigious Armoured Division, to which every Cavalry officer aspires. Hanut was happy to leave, not only for personal reasons, but also for professional ones. He would now have a chance to put into practice his ideas on armoured warfare.
Soon after he took over as GOC 1 Armoured Division in May 1983, Hanut found that there were several shortcomings in training, and the state of equipment was poor. He stopped all other work for the next few months, and had the entire division carrying out equipment maintenance. Then one day he announced that they were all going to the desert, for training. Before sending them out, he taught them the operational concepts and tactics that he wanted them to practice, so that they knew exactly what was required of them. First, all regiments were sent out, under their COs. Brigade commanders were forbidden to visit them, till after a month. He would visit them after exactly six weeks, and watch them for a week. If satisfied, he would order them to return. If not, they would continue to train in the desert.
When Hanut arrived in the training area, he brought along his own caravan, and a small mess detachment. He would park it near the unit or formation he was visiting, and ask for a telephone line. In all other respects, he would be independent. He never taxed the units for mess facilities, accommodation, manpower and so on, leaving them free to concentrate on training. He ensured that this procedure was followed by his brigade commanders also. Of course, there were no parties, and he would flare up if he saw sofa sets, carpets and curtains being carried to the exercise area, as was the custom in the Armoured Division.
While he was commanding the Armoured Division, an operational discussion was held, at the Corps HQ. General K. Sundarji, who was then GOC-in-C Western Command, was also attending, along with most of the senior commanders. Exercise ‘Chetak’, a large scale exercise with troops, had just given over. A large number of concepts had emerged, regarding the employment of the Armoured Division, with which Hanut was not in agreement. Though the main theme of the discussion was slightly different, Hanut decided to take advantage of the gathering to raise the issues which had been bothering him.
When Hanut expressed his strong reservations about the concept, Sundarji threw the discussion open to the house, and asked all other divisional commanders for their views. Though most of them had agreed with Hanut in private discussions, no one dared to speak out openly against the issues raised, since most of them had been advocated by Sundarji, or had his endorsement. This led to a verbal duel between the Armoured Divisional Commander and the Army Commander. Finally, Hanut ended his argument, making it clear that as long as he was in command of the Armoured Division, he would fight the battle the way he was advocating.
Having said this, Hanut sat down. There was a stunned silence. Sundarji was the Army Commander, and his promotion and appointment as the Army Chief was almost a certainty. Crossing swords with him was tantamount to sacrificing one’s career, and Hanut seemed to have done just that. Soon afterwards, some one remarked: “After this, Hanut may as well plan his retirement, and start growing roses.”
But as usual, the prophets of doom were proved wrong. Sundarji was one of the few senior officers in the Army, who not only tolerated a professional difference of opinion, but even appreciated it, provided it was backed by sound reasons. In December 1984, Hanut was posted to the MO Directorate, at Army HQ. This was his third tenure in MO, and it was expected that he would soon be promoted Lieut General, and given command of a Corps. At this time, General A.S. Vaidya was the COAS. Though he was also from the Armoured Corps, and Hanut had served under him earlier, the two did not see eye to eye on many matters. Fortunately, Sundarji had by now taken over as Vice Chief of Army Staff, and he acted as a buffer. After a year in MO, Hanut was promoted Lieut General, and side stepped as Director General of Armoured Corps, in December 1985. His promotion was not without impediment. Though he had been approved by the selection board, Vaidya was not favourably inclined, and tried to block his promotion. However, Arun Singh, the Minister of State for Defence, over ruled him, reportedly at the behest of Sundarji, who was slated to succeed Vaidya. When Sundarji took over as Chief on 1 February 1986, he called Hanut and told him that he wanted him to command the Strike Corps, for Exercise ‘Brass Tacks’, which was to be the largest and most ambitious series of exercises, undertaken by the Indian Army till then. Sundarji wanted to try out certain new concepts, including the Air Assault Division and the Reorganised Assault Plains Infantry Division (RAPID), which were his brain children.
On 29 April 1986, Hanut took over as GOC 2 Corps. Naturally, he was delighted at the chance to command the prestigious Strike Corps. Here was an opportunity to put into practice the concepts of mobile warfare that he had studied and evolved, but which had remained only theoretical, for want of an opportunity to practice them. Hanut set about his task in right earnest, to educate and inculcate the troops, and more so the formation commanders, who would have to implement them. He held a series of talks, followed by map and sand model exercises, followed by training exercises without troops (TEsWT), and finally full scale exercises with troops. By the time Exercise ‘Brass Tacks-4’, the full scale exercise with troops began, his Corps was keyed to a pitch of training which is seldom achieved.
It is now well known that during Exercise ‘Brass Tacks’, India and Pakistan almost went to war. Due to various reasons, the crisis was averted, and the troops withdrawn from the border. By Hanut’s own reckoning, if he had been given the task, his Corps would have executed the offensive operations which would be rated among the classics of mobile warfare. His officers and men were itching for a fight, and a chance to put into practice all that they had been learning and practising for the last few months. When the whole thing fizzled out, most of them were bitterly disappointed. If Hanut had been given the ‘go ahead’, there is little doubt that he would have changed the map, given his past record of bold and brilliant handling of armour.
Hanut feels that second only to the rare privilege of commanding his regiment in battle, the command of 2 Corps provided him the greatest professional satisfaction. He had the unique opportunity of being able to personally train and handle the Corps in a full scale exercise with troops, with the opposing defending forces also being full scale. This was the first time that a full scale exercise with troops of such a magnitude was held, and this was also likely to be the last time. For not only is the cost of holding such exercises prohibitive, it is rare to find another Chief like Sundarji, who would have the vision and perception to conceive such an exercise.
Hanut remained in command of 2 Corps for over two years. The fact that he had been selected for this appointment by Sundarji, with whom he had crossed swords a few years earlier, had surprised many of his contemporaries. In fact, Hanut’s career is a case study, to disprove the theories often put forward, of the Indian Army being a `one mistake’ Army, with the ‘zero error syndrome’. Hanut fell out with his immediate superior officer, in almost every rank and appointment. Yet, he was never denied a promotion. In spite of personal differences, not one of his superiors could fault his professional competence, dedication, and loyalty to the organisation. It was sheer brilliance which brought him to the rank of Lieut General.
While in service, Hanut’s life style was spartan. He shunned parties, and if forced to attend one, left after a short while. He was deeply religious, and never missed his daily meditation. Because of his reserved temperament, he gave the appearance of being distant and aloof, and was a strict disciplinarian. Yet, his concern for the welfare of men was legendary. He had forbidden the prevalent custom of employing working parties of men, to carry out area cleaning, or gardening, on Sundays and holidays, and in the evenings. His attitude towards the men, and their problems, was always sympathetic, and he spared no effort to better their living conditions. He expected high standards, but forgave errors of judgement. Whenever he saw a mistake being committed, he corrected it, without losing his temper. In fact, he would personally teach not only officers, but even JCOs and ‘jawans’. The only time he was angry was when he found someone sleeping during a professional lecture or discussion.
Hanut had many facets to his personality, some of which were seen only by his closest associates. He was a very humane and level headed person, who went out of his way to help people in distress. With ladies, he was extremely charming, but his behaviour was always respectful and correct. Contrary to popular belief, he had many admirers among the fairer sex. His sense of humour, both in conversation and in writing, was unmatched. He could bring laughter, in company, from the most innocent incident.
However, in many respects, his behaviour and style were not in consonance with the generally accepted norms of the Indian Army. He found the widely prevalent practice prefacing every sentence with ‘Sir’, when talking to a superior, disconcerting. He gave up the habit, and also encouraged his subordinates to do so. He was upright, truthful, knowledgeable and had a mind of his own. He never hesitated to express his views, even when he knew they would not be accepted. However, he never became argumentative, or forced down his ideas on his subordinates. This approach to personality development was later used by his detractors, to let him down, by branding him as anti establishment.
A lot is spoken about Hanut’s religious beliefs. Religion and the military profession appear to be a contradiction in terms, but Hanut did not see it that way. Religion had always formed an integral part of Rajput culture and ethos. Hanut believed that religion gave the inner strength to a soldier, to rise above the mundane and achieve self actualisation, when the mission became supreme, rather than the individual. In fact, Hanut found religion a great motivating factor. He did not practice religion in the traditional manner of rituals and fasts but as an intellectual, who explored and found a new dimension to it. His wide reading enabled him to grasp the true meaning of religion, and he abided by the tenet of the Bhagwad Gita, which equates Dharma, or religion, with Karma, or righteous living. Hanut realised that for a soldier, the two are synonymous, and this became the basic philosophy of his life.
Hanut’s attitude towards his profession was a subject of intense debate. His dedication to the profession of arms was so complete that he never married, as he felt it would compromise it. He made it a subject of deep study, research, and experiment, in order to become perfect. In the process he developed professional acumen of unmatched brilliance, on all military matters. When he spoke, it was with authority, born out of years of experience, and study. His inner strength and conviction were transparent, and had a hypnotic effect on his subordinates, who were ever ready to follow him, regardless of the consequences. He had an intense desire to teach whatever he knew to anybody who cared to learn. In the process, he got so involved that he would not spare himself or the student, till he was satisfied that the learning process was complete.
Many of Hanut’s contemporaries felt that he was eccentric, and on a perpetual collision course with his superiors. Hanut knew this, but felt that since he always acted in the interest of the Service, and the men under his command, he was justified. Some of his superiors understood this, and tolerated his idiosyncracies, and a few even appreciated it. However, the larger majority could not stomach it, and reacted adversely. Hanut was rarely perturbed by this reaction, since he knew the reason from which it stemmed, and did not hold it against the concerned officers.
Hanut’s last assignment was the Commandant of the Armoured Corps Centre and School, at Ahmednagar, where he moved in July 1988. It was expected that he would be made an Army Commander, but this was not to be. By now, General Sundarji had retired, and General V.N. Sharma, who was also from the Armoured Corps, had taken over as COAS. Having a faultless service record, there was no reason for Hanut not being considered suitable for command of a field army. Yet he was not. The reasons given out were two. One, he was a bachelor, and shunned social life. While this was valid, the second, concerning his religious beliefs, was not. He was branded a ‘religious bigot’, a charge which was blatantly untrue, and unfair. Though he was a deeply religious man, Hanut could by no stretch of imagination be called a bigot. He was extremely broad minded and never interfered with those practising other religions. The fact that troops, of all religious denominations, literally worshipped him, should have been enough to give the lie to this insinuation, made by one of his own ilk.
When Hanut was informed of his having been passed over by a subordinate, who expressed his sorrow, his reply was typical. “Why should you be sorry. It is the Army which should be sorry. If they don’t want me, the loss is theirs”. Not many officers, in uniform, would take their supersession so philosophically. Hanut knew it was not a reflection on his professional competence, and felt no need to represent against it. He continued to do his job, with the same dedication and loyalty, till his retirement, on 31 July 1991.
In the final analysis, Hanut would like to be remembered as a ‘Soldier’s General’. He always felt, and told other officers: “We as officers do not deserve the men we command. We do so little for them, and they give us so much more in return.” Wherever he went, he tried to ameliorate and improve the working and living conditions of the common soldier. Often, a JCO, NCO or Jawan would walk upto him, and introduce himself, saying: “You will not remember me, but I was serving in so and so unit under your command. I heard that you were around, and came to pay my respects.” (The word they usually used was ‘darshan’, which really has no equivalent in the English language). In fact, one of Hanut’s most treasured memories is of the soldier, who walked upto his driver, and asked him: " Yeh wohi general sahib hain jo ki jawanon ka itna khayal rakha karte the? Maine darshan to nahin kiye hain, par nam bada suna hai." ( Is this the same General, who was known for his concern for the welfare of troops. I have never had the chance to see him, but have heard a lot about him).
Today, Hanut lives in Dehradun(This was written when Gen Hanut was alive). Having lived like a hermit even while in uniform, he has been able to make the transition to retired life smoothly, unlike several others who found the change traumatic, due to the perks of office suddenly vanishing. He spends most of his time in meditation, and reading. Having followed a rigid and spartan regime all his life, he is still in good health, and has several years of active life before him. Though comparatively unknown outside Army circles, Hanut will be remembered as one of the finest armour commanders of the Indian Army. His simplicity, courage, boldness, high sense of moral values, and professionalism will always be a source of inspiration to generations of officers of the Indian Army.
Written by Maj Gen V K Singh of Corps of Signals