During the Indo Pak war of 1971, the most desperate batlle was fought on the 15th-17th December which came to be known as The Battle of Basantar (Basantar is a tributary of Ravi river). Here both the Indian and Pakistani troops fought for every inch of land. It was in this battle which was the last battle of the war, that the enemy, heavily superior in numbers, made an all out, do or die attack. But a last ditch stand by three Indian tanks who fought to the teeth of their skin saved the day. One of the three tanks was commanded by 2nd Lt. Arun Khetarpal who showed valour almost beyond words and became a legend.

 

On the 15th December, the 47 Inf. Bde. with the 17 Poona Horse under command, was ordered to establish a bridge-head across the Basantar river in Shakargarh sector. The 47 Inf. Bde. completed the task by 2100 hours. It was now for the engineers to breach the enemy mine-fields and make a safe lane for the induction of the 17 Poona Horse in support of the bridge-head. While the engineers were half way through their task, the Indian troops at the bridge-head reported alarming activity of the enemy tanks. They requested immediate tank support. But the mine-field had been cleared only partially by that time. At this critical juncture, the 17 Poona Horse decided to push through the mine-field come what may. By first light on December 16th, the regiment reached the bridge-head without any casualty after crossing 600m of unbreached minefield. The bridge-head was secured.

The Pakistani HQ was very alarmed as this bridgehead threatened the entire sector. Soon after the enemy made an attack with an entire Armour Regiment (about 40 Tanks) at Jarpal not far from the bridge-head. As the Indians troops were heavily outnumbered, they requested for reinforcements. At that time, 2nd Lt. Khetarpal and 7 other tanks of his squadron were positioned close and answered the call and moved out to face the enemy attack. On the way, his troops came under fire from enemy strong points and recoilless gun nests, in the bridge-head zone. 2nd Lt. Khetarpal fiercely attacked these strong-points, over-ran enemy defences and captured many enemy soldiers and recoilless guns at gun point. During one of these attacks, the commander of his second tank ( Risaldar Sagat Singh) was killed. But he continued his attack on the enemy strongholds until all the enemy positions were overwhelmed. By the time he reached there, the enemy tanks were on the retreat. He pursued and destroyed one of these tanks before Maj. Amarjeet Singh Bal (later Brigadier)ordered him to pull back.

The enemy soon reformed for a masssive counter attack. This time they chose the sector held by 2nd Lt. Arun Khetarpal and two other Officers( Capt. V. Malhotra and Lt. Avtaar Singh Ahlawat). The enemy employed about 15 tanks against these three tanks in order to achieve a breakthrough.

 
 
 
 

A fierce tank battle followed. As many as ten enemy tanks were destroyed. In the thick of the battle, two of the three Indian tanks became casualties - one was hit (Lt. Ahlawat, he survived and later became ADC to the President) and another suffered mechanical failure (Capt. Malhotra). The third tank, which was 2nd Lt. Khetarpal's tank, also received a shot and burst into flames wounding him severely. Capt. Malhotra ordered 2nd Lt. Khetarpal to abandon the burning tank. But he realised that he was the only one left and that the enemy though badly decimated would manage to break through.

What followed is a story of extreme valour and courage unparalled in the history of warfare. He communicated the following message to his Commander, "No Sir, I will not abandon my tank. My gun is still working and I will get these bastards." His tank driver Sowar Prayag Singh (he survived) asked him to at least extinguish the fire but 2nd Lt. Khetarpal did not heed and switched off his radio. Then he set about destroying the remaining five enemy tanks all alone from his burning tank.

At one point it looked that the shear numbers of the enemy tank will overwhelm him. But this Brave Lion, one by one, destroyed 4 enemy tanks. The fifth and the last enemy tank was barely 100 metres from his position when 2nd Lt. Khetarpal took a shot halting it immdiately. At this stage his tank received an another hit. He was already badly wounded and this time it was fatal. The brave officer met his death denying the enemy the intended breakthrough.

Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal was dead but he had, by his intrepid valour saved the day; the enemy was denied the breakthrough he was so desperately seeking. Not one enemy tank got through.

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