Only 23 years of age, playful, the usual fun-loving Sikh , his boyish looks concealing the steely soldier who will never shy away from an unequal fight.
Meet Gurtej Singh of 3rd Punjab’s ‘Ghatak Platoon’ who reinforced the beleaguered , outmaneuvered fighters of 16th Bihar regiment at Galwan valley on the evening of 15 June. But first take a ticket to heaven, where rests ‘chota phai Gurtej’ , blessed by the Almighty.
He is not here with his paltan anymore and will not return to his family for his favourite ‘sarson da saag’ and ‘makkai di roti’.
Honestly , it is very difficult for an emotional Bengali like me , also a military school product, to hold back tears as I write the amazing story of ‘chotaphai Gurtej’.
As the fierce 3rd ‘Ghataks’ and the Sikh gunners of Medium Arty regiment rushed into the fight with very little time to plan and prepare on that Monday evening in the picturesque but blooded Galwan Valley , they were only carrying their customary kirpan and an assortments of sticks, rods and sharp knives.
Fellow fighters recall Gurtej being attacked by four Chinese soldiers. The strong Sikh, shouting his ‘Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal’ war cries in a thunderous roar, swung round two of them and as two others tried to pin him down, he dragged all four of them towards the cliff.
“All four Chinese were flung to death but Gurtej lost his balance and also slipped , but was stuck in a boulder , hence avoiding a free fall. Badly injured in the neck and head, Gurtej rewrapped his turban and in a inhuman effort pulled himself back into the fight,” said a military source quoting a fellow fighter.
Gurtej slashed some Chinese with his kirpan before he could snatch a sharp weapon from a Chinese soldier.
“Not only that one but seven other Chinese soldiers perished at the hands of Gurtej before one stabbed him from behind. Even as he went down , he slashed his killer with his kirpan,” said the military source.
At the end of the bloody fight, Gurtej lay dead but so were the 12 Chinese killed by them. As they say, ‘Ik Ik Akali Sikh sawa lakh de barabar” ( an Akali Sikh is as good as 1,25,000)
Gurtej’s body was dragged back by the surviving ‘Ghataks’. I have no access to his village to recount his cremation but knowing Sikhs so well from my childhood in Punjab, I am sure his proud parents will have tears in their eyes for him — but more tears of pride than tears of sorrow.
Gurtej Singh , the latest martyr or ‘Shaheed’ in an enormously crowded pantheon of Sikh heroes starting from Banda Bahadur , is a hero India is yet to know but will never forget once it did .
I remember my IAF instructor-father shedding tears for his dear ‘Sardar beta’ Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon in 1971.
Flying OfficerNirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest military decoration , in recognition of his lone defence of Srinagar Air Base against a PAF air raid during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. He is the only member of the Indian Air Force to be honoured with the PVC .
Today, I am left in tears for ‘Gurtej phai’ whom I have never met but with whom my bonds will surely be reinforced in heaven because ‘chota phai’ will be grateful to ‘Dada’ for telling the country his story.
The story has not been picked up by the ‘sanitised’ defence reporting from Delhi playing to the Pied Piper’s tune of 3Ds– defuse, de-escalate, disengage– that has so far held back a brilliant strategist like Lt Gen Harinder Singh from teaching the Chinese a lesson they learnt in Vietnam 1979. Singh finally gave them that lesson in Galwan Valley on June 15 in the second phase of the battle when he threw into the fray the Ghataks and the Sikh gunners. .
If the Chinese social media chatter is any indication, Harinder is a reverse hero for them– they were elated at Indian media reports about Harinder’s possible removal but will be dismayed now that the Army Chief M M Naravane has put his foot down.
We Bengalis have a huge connect and a ‘soft corner’ for Sikhs and other Punjabis — of the 585 freedom fighters in Andaman’s Cellular Jail during the entire stretch of our fight for freedom, 398 were from Bengal, my maternal grandfather included, and 98 were from Punjab. None from Gujarat by the way.
We suffered the worst in Partition and then from the repressive culture of ‘fake encounters ‘ — Bengal in 1970s, Punjab in 1980s.
As I recount the Gurtej saga, I insist on the highest priority the Indian and the Punjab government should give to fighting drugs in Punjab.
Much as we should give top priority to restoring good relations with Nepal to ensure the flow of the brave Gurkhas who have defended India more than Nepal.
Pushing in drugs from the ‘Golden Crescent’ is a hugely evil conspiracy by the Pakistani military establishment to finish the youth in Punjab and thus denying Indian army a huge catchment area for recruitment of soldiers like Gurtej. So as we feel proud of Gurtej Singh, his death is a reminder to the unfinished task of fighting drugs in Punjab.
Chief Minister Amrinder Singh , in and out of army but strong on rhetoric like ‘ kill ten Chinese for one of us’ , should focus more seriously on fighting drugs than on fighting Pakistanis and Chinese, because that is his job at the moment and that of leading the fight against the Chinese is better left to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.
I shudder to imagine skinny , bleary eyed , drowsy looking Punjabi youngsters hit by drug addiction as I recall my teenage days with the likes of Davinder Singh , India’s top penalty corner hitter in 1980 Moscow Olympics , champion swimmer Sushil Kohli ‘Manga’, my cricket buddy Vinod Dutt (now in Canada) or my gunner-turned-journalist friend Pushp Pal Singh, who looked after my father when I was away at Oxford or later elsewhere in India for work.
Davinder would milk 30 buffaloes in the morning and as many in the evening and his rock-like “dole” (biceps) would rain blinding shots past the best of goalkeepers . To his burly father, my ability to finish 12 aloo-parathas in breakfast was an enigma — ‘tusi Pangali hoh, bareh kamal de Bangali hoh’ (You are Bengali, really a unique Bengali) , “Chacha would say in surprise, little knowing my grandfather could finish a small goat or 100 rasgoollas after a normal meal , as Maharani Bibhu Devi of Tripura royal household, where my grandfather served as chief Chief of Royal Bodyguards. ” Tu kya katha hai Beta, tera Dadaji ek bakra khud kha jata tha”, Mata Maharani would say so often to goad me to eat more. As would my countless ‘Boins’and ‘Bhabis’ in Bangladesh ” Dada amago manush, arektu kaan”, ( Dada you are ours, please eat more)
Bengalis and Punjabis love bravehearts, ‘shaheeds’, big-eaters (Khan-pin da banda) and hate crooks, conspirators and chamchas( sycophants) .
But for now, bye bye ‘chota phai Gurtej’ — see you in heaven some day.
Meghalaya Governor Tathagata Roy’s Response
It is not for nothing that I consider myself a closet Sikh.I also consider Sikhi to be the nearest thing to the perfect religion.But why?Because Sikhs have the best work ethic in India. You’ll never see a Sikh begging.Because Sikhs are the most altruistic of people. They feed people for nothing at their langars. And, when there was a terrible drought in parts of Maharashtra, Sikh tanker owners got together and transported water for them.They’re heroic, of course. Everyone knows that.But I love them most for one reason than others and consider their religion the most perfect. And that is?They are religiously very tolerant and will not interfere with others’ religion. But If Aanyone Messes with their religion they’ll teach him such a lesson that the next fourteen generations wll remember it. I am proud to have visited their highest shrine in Hemkund Sahib and had three ‘dubki’s in the freezing Kund. Then I recited Tagore’s poem ‘Guru Gobind’ there, for which I had carried the book with me.A friend once said, “If Hinduism is Ganga-jal, sacred but polluted, Sikhism is distilled Ganga-jal”. Wah Guruji ka Khalsa, Wah Guruji ki Fateh.