Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, PVC (14 October 1950 – 16 December 1971) born in Pune, Maharashtra, was an officer of the Indian Army and a posthumous recipient of the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest military decoration for valour in face of the enemy. He died in the Battle of Basantar during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 where his actions earned him his honour.
Arun Khetarpal was born in Pune, Maharashtra on 14 October 1950.His father Lt Col (later Brigadier) M. L. Khetarpal was a Corps of Engineers officer serving in the Indian Armyand his family traced a long history of military service. Attending The Lawrence School, Sanawar, he distinguished himself both as an able student and sportsman and was the school prefect.Khetarpal joined the National Defence Academy in June 1967. He belonged to Foxtrot Squadron where he was the Squadron Cadet Captain of the 38th Course. His NDA No was 7498/F/38. He subsequently went on to join the Indian Military Academy. In June 1971, Khetarpal was commissioned into the 17 Poona Horse.
Main article: Battle of Basantar
During the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, the 17 Poona Horse was assigned to the command of the 47th Infantry Brigade of the Indian Army. Through the duration of the conflict, the 47th Brigade saw action in the Shakargarh sector in the Battle of Basantar.
Among the tasks set for the 47th Brigade was to establish a bridgehead across the River Basantar. By 2100hr of 15 December, the brigade had captured its objectives. However, the place was extensively mined, which prevented the deployment of the tanks of the Poona horse, and the engineers clearing the mines were halfway through their tasks when Indian troops at the bridge-head reported alarming activity of the enemy armour, asking for immediate armour support. It was at this critical juncture that the 17 Poona Horse decided to push through the mine-field. The regiment was able to establish a link-up between the armour and the infantry at the bridge-head by first light the next day.
At 0800hr on 16 December, Pakistani armour launched the first of their counter-attacks under the cover of a smokescreen at the pivot of the 17th Poona Horse at Jarpal. At 0800 hours on 16 December, Pakistani 13th Lancers equipped with the then state-of-the-art US-made 50 ton Patton tanks launched the first of their counter-attacks under the cover of a smokescreen at ‘B’ Squadron, The Poona Horse, at Jarpal. Its squadron commander urgently called for reinforcements. Arun Khetarpal, who was in ‘A’ squadron and was stationed close by with his Centurion tank troop, responded with alacrity, as did the rest of his regiment. The first counterattack was decimated by accurate gunnery, coolness by Indian tank troop and individual tank commanders from the iconic CO, Lt Col Hanut Singh, MVC downwards to its troop leader, Arun Khetarpal. 13th Lancers desperately launched two more squadron level counterattacks and managed to achieve a breakthrough.
Khetarpal rushed to meet the Pakistani armour and launched right into the Pakistani attack. With his troop he was able to run over the enemy advance with his tanks. However, the commander of the second tank was killed in this attack. Alone in charge, Khetarpal continued his attack on the enemy strongholds, The enemy fought very bravely and did not retreat even after losses. Disappointed by his failure so far, he desperately attacked the incoming Pakistani troops and tanks gunning down a Pakistani tank in the process. However Pakistani forces regrouped and counterattacked. In the ensuing tank battle, Lt. Arun Khetarpal with his 2 remaining tanks fought off and gunned down 10 tanks before he was killed in action.
The skirmish however took its toll on the Lieutenant as he was hit by enemy fire, but instead of abandoning the tank he fought on destroying one final tank before he was finally overwhelmed. However, his actions had denied a vital breakthrough for Pakistani forces and instead put the Indians in a stronger position in the Shakargarh bulge. His final words over the radio to a superior officer who had ordered him to abandon his burning tank were, “No Sir, I will not abandon my tank. My gun is still working and I will get these bastards.”Then he set about destroying the remaining enemy tanks. The last enemy tank, which he shot, was barely 100 metres from his position At this stage his tank received a second hit and he was mortally injured. The officer met his death trying to deny the Pakistani Army the intended breakthrough. Khetarpal’s body and his tank “Famagusta” were captured and later returned to Indian army. The Tank is on display now.
For his conspicuous gallantry in the face of the enemy, Khetarpal was honoured with the highest wartime gallantry medal, the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously.
Arun Khetarpal was cremated on 17 December near Samba district and his ashes sent to his family who did not learn of his death till 26 December.
Famagusta’s crew was Sowar Prayag Singh, the driver, Sowar Nand Singh, the Radio Operator, Sowar Nathu Singh, the Gunner and 2/lt Arun Khetarpal, the commander. Nand Singh was first to die. This was just before the fatal encounter with Major Nasser. Then Arun succumbed to his injuries. Both Prayag Singh and Nathu Singh were badly wounded and captured. Later treated by Pakistanis. Both of them survived and retired from the army as Honorary Captains.
The Param Vir Chakra citation on the Official Indian Army Website reads as follows:
SECOND LIEUTENANT ARUN KHETARPAL POONAHORSE (IC-25067)
On 16 December 1971, the squadron Commander of ‘B’ Squadron, the Poona Horse asked for reinforcements as the Pakistani armour that was superior in strength, counter attacked at Jarpal, in the Shakargarh Sector. On hearing this transmission, 2nd Lt Khetarpal who was in ‘A’ Squadron, voluntarily moved along with his troop, to assist the other squadron. Enroute, while crossing the Basantar River, Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal and his troops came under fire from enemy strong points and RCL gun nests that were still holding out. Time was at a premium and as a critical situation was developing in the ‘B’ Squadron sector, Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, threw caution to the winds and started attacking the impending enemy strong points by literally charging them, Overrunning the defence works with his tanks and capturing the enemy infantry and weapon crews at pistol point. In the course of one such daring attack one tank commander of his troop was killed. Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal continued to attack relentlessly until all enemy opposition was overcome and he broke through towards the ‘B’ Squadron position, the Pakistanis fought very bravely and did not retreat even after losses, instead they kept moving forward after their initial probing attack on this squadron. He was so carried away by the wild enthusiasm of battle and the impetus of his own headlong dash that he started firing at the tanks that came so close to him and even managed to shoot and destroy one. Soon thereafter, the enemy reformed with a squadron of armour for a second attack and this time they selected the sector held by Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal and two other tanks as the point for their main effort. A fierce tank fight ensued: ten own tanks and 3 enemy tanks were hit and destroyed of which Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal personally destroyed 2, just then Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal was severely wounded. He was asked to abandon his tank but he realized that the enemy though badly decimated was continuing to advance in his sector of responsibility and if he abandoned his tank the enemy would break through, he gallantly fought on and destroyed another enemy tank. At this stage his tank received a second hit which resulted in the death of this gallant officer.
Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal was dead trying to save the day; the enemy achieved the breakthrough he was so desperately trying to deny.
Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal had shown the best qualities of leadership, tenacity of purpose and the will to close in with the enemy. This was an act of courage and self-sacrifice far beyond the call of duty.
Khetrapal is an iconic figure in the ethos of the Indian Army with prominent constructions being named after him. The parade ground at NDA is named Khetarpal Ground while the auditorium and one of the main gates bear his name at the IMA.
Arun Khetarpal’s Centurion was called Famagusta Jx 202. It was restored after the war and is presently preserved in the Armoured Corps Centre and School in Ahmednagar.
“The only occasion when a breakthrough could have occurred was when two squadrons of 13 Lancers attacked together in the afternoon, but a gallant last ditch lone stand by 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal of Poona Horse averted the danger.” Maj.(Rtd) A. H. Amin ( Pakistan Armour Corps – Columnist and Historian) . The Commander of the Pakistan tank battalion is said to have met the Indian battalion commander after the battle and made enquiries about 2nd Lieutenant Khetarpal’s tank since he was very impressed with the gallantry of this particular tank’s commander.
In 2001, Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal – now 81 years old – felt a strong desire to visit his birthplace at Sargodha, now in Pakistan. At Lahore airport, Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal was met by Brigadier Khawja Mohammad Naser, who took it upon himself to be Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal host and guide. Brigadier Naser really went out of way to ensure that Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal had a satisfying and nostalgic visit to his old house in Sargodha. Upon his return to Lahore he was once again the guest of Brigadier Naser for three days.
Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal was overwhelmed by the extreme kindness, deference, courtesy and respect bestowed upon him by Brigadier Naser and by all the members of his family and his many servants. However Brigadier Khetarpal felt that something was amiss but could not make out what it was. Was it the long silences that punctuated their animated conversation or was it the look of compassion in the eyes of the women in the family? He could not make out but was sure he was being treated as someone very special.
Finally, on the last night before Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal’s departure, Brigadier Naser said ‘Sir, there is something that I wanted to tell you for many years but I did not know how to get through to you. Finally, fate has intervened and sent you to me as an honoured guest. The last few days we have become close to one another and that has made my task even more difficult. It is regarding your son who is, of course, a national hero in India. However, on that fateful day, your son and I were soldiers, unknown to one another, fighting for the respect and safety of our respective countries. I regret to tell you that your son died in my hands. Arun’s courage was exemplary and he moved his tank with fearless courage and daring, totally unconcerned about his safety. Tank casualties were very high till finally there were just two of us left facing one another. We both fired simultaneously. It was destined that I was to live and he was to die.
It was only later that I got to know how young he was and who he was.I had all along thought that I would ask your forgiveness, but in telling the story I realize that there is nothing to forgive. Instead I salute your son for what he did at such a young age and I salute you too, because I know how he grew into such a young man. In the end it is character and values that matter.”
Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal was silent as he did not know how to react.To be enjoying the hospitality of the person who had killed his son was a confusing feeling. However being a soldier himself he genuinely admired the chivalry of an officer whose complete squadron was decimated by his son.
Both the Brigadiers retired for the night deep in thought. There are never any victors in war; both sides lose and it is the families that have to pay the price and suffer the most. As someone once said ‘Wars are created by politicians, compounded by bureaucrats and fought by soldiers.’
The next day photographs were taken and Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal returned to Delhi. Later the photos reached Delhi along with a note from Brigadier Naser that said:
“With Warmest regards and utmost sincerity, To: Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal, father of Shaheed Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal, PVC, who stood like an unsurmountable rock, between the victory and failure, of the counterattack by the ‘SPEARHEADS’ 13 LANCERS on 16 December 1971 in the battle of “Bara Pind’ as we call it and battle of “Basantar” as 17 Poona Horse remembers. –Khawja Mohammad Naser, 13 Lancers, 2 March 2001, Lahore, Pakistan.