This is a short story based on a true incident that took place in the Kashmir War of 1947-48, and it involves the Kumaon Regiment. I found this story referenced in the Indian Army’s Official History of the War, and in Lt Gen L P Sen’s memoir “Slender Was The Thread”. Lt Col Khanna was indeed the CO of the Battalion referenced here. The Battle of Badgam took place in November 1947, in which Major Somnath Sharma and his Company died to a man protecting the approaches to Srinagar Airfield. Maj Sharma was the first winner of the Param Vir Chakra (Independent India’s highest battlefield gallantry award).
I added a few embellishments to the story (mainly names of characters) to make it more readable, but the facts are all true. This is a fascinating incident and it’s a wonder it’s not more widely known.
Kalika Mata Ki Jai is the war cry of the Kumaon Regiment.
It was a cold December day in 1947. The tribal offensive (backed by Pakistani regulars) had been met by a determined Indian Army effort, hamstrung by logistics and weather. The Army was pressing ahead on the road to Muzaffarabad. Uri had just been taken, and trucks were arriving into Uri from the direction of Baramulla, grinding their way up the narrow road, throwing clouds of dust from the surface. The Jhelum river flowed swiftly on the right-hand side of the road heading west. Each of the trucks carried men from 4th Battalion Kumaon Regiment. Sentries raised the barrier to let each truck in. Platoon Commanders jumped out to marshal their men into formations. Each platoon formed up to meet trucks with equipment and supplies, to unload them as directed by the Subedar-Major. Speed was the essence. The Battalion was headed for immediate deployment to keep the pressure on the Afridis.
Lt Col Manmohan Khanna, CO 4 Kumaon, a grizzled veteran, was watching the arrivals near his jeep. His company commanders joined him as they got down. The noise of trucks arriving, the shouted orders of subedars and platoon commanders, the sound of stores being unloaded all created a clamour of activity.
The last truck stopped. Out of the back of the truck jumped down a slim lad in uniform, carrying a rifle bigger than him. He wore the lion insignia of Russell’s Brigade on his shoulders. He looked around him cautiously, and then signaled to the others in the truck to emerge. All of them were boys. Thirty of them. None of them more than four feet tall, wiry and lithe, a few of them sporting wisps of growth on their lips and chins but the rest of them beardless. Mere boys.
The noise died down for a few minutes, just long enough for Lt Col Khanna to look at the truck to see why. The sight of the boys met his eyes. He was aghast. He turned to the Subedar-Major and summoned him.
“What is this. Why are the boys here”, he asked. The SM was also surprised. He said “Sir, Regiment HQ must have sent all the troops they had including the Boys Company. It is a mistake.”.
The Boys Company consisted of young boys who received an education and military training from the Kumaon Regiment, so that they could become future NCOs and possibly officers.
Lt Col Khanna’s face darkened. The arriving troops were going straight into deployment north of Uri. He would unleash his famed temper on the Regiment tomorrow. Right now, his priority was to deploy before it got dark and he could not spare any troops or trucks to escort these boys back to Srinagar.
He nodded to the SM and asked him to accompany him, and they walked towards the truck, where the boys were falling in on their own. At the sight of the CO, the first boy who got down shouted out an order. Like real soldiers, the boys came to attention.
Lt Col Khanna walked up to the boy who issued this command. “At ease”, he said. “What is your name?”.
“Alam Singh Sir!”, said the boy, snapping a salute that any soldier would be proud of.
“What are you boys doing here?” asked Lt Col Khanna.
“Reporting for duty sir! Regiment has sent us to fight, Sir!”, replied Alam Singh.
The CO said, “Listen, son, the battalion is going to face the enemy in the next few hours. It is a tough situation. You are in the Boys Company now so that you can prepare to join the Regiment when you are eighteen. It is too dangerous for you. You will rest here for the night and tomorrow transport will take you back to Srinagar”.
Alam Singh just stood still. He was intimidated by this tough looking man who was also his CO. In the Regiment, the CO is like your father, like a God, and you never disobey him. Still, he stood there and looked steadily at the CO.
The CO sensed the boy wanted to say something. So he said “Yes Alam Singh. What do you want to say?”.
“Sir, I apologise for speaking to you. Your orders are orders, Sir. That is what my father told me. We want to stay with you and help the Battalion, Sir. So please can we stay and help, Sir”.
The CO said, “Yes you can stay tonight and help the kitchen staff. There is enough to do”. So saying the CO started to move back to his jeep.
“We wish to fight, Sir! Not work in the kitchen!” blurted Alam Singh.
The CO stopped in irritation and strode back. Alam Singh continued. “Sir, our seniors have died in Badgam Sir. We wish to fight. We will fight hard and well for the battalion sir!”
The mention of the word Badgam stopped Lt Col Khanna. In November 1947, a company of 4 Kumaon had been attacked by a much larger enemy formation near the village of Badgam. Severely outnumbered the Company stood and fought the enemy. Had the enemy gotten through, Srinagar Airport would have been in enemy hands and with that the Kashmir Valley. The Company had fought to the very last man and held the position. The Company Commander Major Sharma had died with his men.
The CO came right up to Alam Singh and said, softly. “Son, your time will come. These are Pathans. Dangerous men from the mountains. They are not professional soldiers, they are animals.”
“Kalika Mata ki Kasam, Sir. We want to fight and we will not let you down, Sir”, repeated Alam Singh, firmly. Tears had formed in his eyes and he blinked them back, furiously.
Lt Col Khanna thought for a minute and shouted out. “Sandeep!”
Captain Sandeep Khatri, a young officer in the battalion, was inspecting his riflemen’s backpacks. He looked up and jogged over to the CO.
The CO took him aside and said “Sandeep, I know you love a challenge but this is a special one for you. This is the Boys Company sent by mistake to Uri by the Regimental Centre. They are children. You need to look after them”.
Capt Khatri looked at the boys, and then looked at the CO, a little disappointed. “Look after them how, Sir?”.
“Sandeep, these boys are eager to see some action. What I want you to do is to deploy them near the Nalwar point but well away from danger. Do you understand? No fighting. Just let them feel like a part of a deployment, and then send them home tomorrow.”
Capt Khatri looked uncertain. “Sir but…”
The CO said “I know what you are going to say. But here are my orders. Deploy them near the peak. Protect them all you can from danger. Not a single child must come to any harm. You have to promise me. Is that clear?”
Capt Khatri saluted and said “Yes Sir. That is clear!”. He turned to the Subedar Major and requested him to accompany him. Capt Khatri walked over to the Boys Company. Again, Alam Singh issued a command to stand at attention.
“At ease!”, said Capt Khatri. “I am your Company Commander Capt Khatri. You will follow my orders. You will be deployed near Nalwar in defence of the 4 Kumaon position on the peak. Subedar Major Saab here will help you get rations, ammunitions, blankets and covers for the night. Alam Singh, you will take some of the boys with you and take rations from the Subedar Major and distribute.” Capt Khatri noticed the smiles on the faces of Alam Singh and the boys.
Alam Singh asked some of the boys to accompany him with the SM. An hour later, Capt Khatri was checking the personal packs and stores of the Company. His priority was to keep them alive in the cold and protected from the elements. He had asked SM to make sure the boys had just enough ammunition for their rifles – about 30 rounds each. There were extra blankets and warm wear, and extra dry ration for each boy. Every boy was ready with backpack, pickaxe, and rifle.
The terrain north of Uri was suited to the Afridis – mountainous, uneven, dotted with trees, ideal for the Pathan to take on regular armies, as they had done for decades. Accompanying them, the Pakistan Frontier Scouts in battalion strength were dug in towards the west. The Kumaonis were on a feature called Nalwar Point – the highest point north of Uri and they lay east of the Pathans. The previous day, the two companies had engaged the enemy and had to withdraw – and that too, thanks to the fortuitous arrival of a lone IAF fighter-bomber, who happened to be overhead and had been guided to strafe and drop his two bombs on the Pathan positions. They were still pinned down. The new reinforcements were tasked to reinforce them and possibly cover their withdrawal from Nalwar Point to a more defensible position.
It was snowing. There would only be a few hours of daylight. Judging that it would be better to be dug in before nightfall, Capt Khatri hustled his boys aided by Alam Singh, who ably corralled the boys behind Capt Khatri and they set off on the climb. He selected a point about 3500 metres above MSL, a few hundred metres below Nalwar and further east of Nalwar.
These boys were like mountain goats, fit and sure-footed, and the climb was easy. The boys finished the climb and sat on the uneven ground, while Capt Khatri surveyed the terrain and selected a knoll. It was well away from the known enemy position, south east of Nalwar Point, and could rely on the companies at Nalwar Point for defence. If the enemy moved forward Nalwar, the Kumaonis would engage them before they got to where the boys were. He told the boys to dig in and settle down for the night The boys went to their task with enthusiasm. If they were afraid, they did not show it. They ate their rotis and drank some water, and settled in.
The regular Kumaonis had also started the climb towards Nalwar Point to reinforce the position. The enemy Scouts commander must have been watching the troop movement and must have worked out what was going on. He must have obviously decided to outflank Nalwar before the position was fully reinforced. Under cover of dusk, he sent a company on a wide movement towards the south and east to attack Nalwar from the rear. They had determined that a knoll south the point was ideal to ambush the Kumaonis, and furtively made towards it.
The boys were ensconced at this very knoll.
Sounds of movement alerted Capt Khatri, and he took out his field glasses. To his shock he saw the company of Pathans moving east and south of Nalwar Point towards the knoll. They were about a 150 yards away.
He remembered his promise to the CO. He realised that their escape route back to Uri was being rapidly cut off by the advancing enemy. He used his field telephone and alerted the Nalwar point picquet, keeping his voice as low as possible and as normal as possible, and warned them of the flanking attack. His message was acknowledged.
He looked again at the Pathans, and they were now 100 yards away and closing. The Pathans were not aware that the knoll was occupied and hence did not take too many precautions and were making for the knoll at speed. They would be upon the knoll soon. This meant the time window for the Kumaoni regulars to come to their rescue had also closed. He had no choice but to engage his company of boys.
Capt Khatri made his way to Alam Singh and showed him the advancing Pathans with his field glasses. Alam Singh took a look and asked Capt Khatri, “What do we do Sir?” in a whisper.
Capt Khatri said, “We have to fight. I will tell you when to fire”.
Capt Khatri told the boys to gather round and listen up, and said in a low voice. “The enemy is approaching our position. It’s too late for the Battalion to come and help, and we cannot leave this position. You wanted to fight, so this is our chance. It is OK to be afraid. You are Kumaoni tigers. All you have to do, is aim your rifle at a man, and shoot. Do not waste your bullets. Remember your fathers and grandfathers. You are their sons. Stay calm. Kalika Mata Ki Jai”.
Alam Singh helped position every boy get in cover, rifle at the ready. He spoke to them in the hill dialect and told them to wait for Captain Sahab’s signal.
Capt Khatri was hoping the Pathans would turn away but they were now 70 yards away. He took position with his rifle and waited. No help was coming. He had not seen how these boys operated as a unit nor had he seen how they handled their rifles. The Pathans were brutal and were known to disembowel their enemy. He hoped that whatever happened, the boys would die quickly. He offered up a prayer to Kalika Mata and waited.
He waited until the Pathans were 50 yards away. There were about forty of them, walking confidently and barely bothering to conceal themselves. This was close enough for the boys to hit the Pathans if they aimed properly and held the rifle in steady hands. He counted off three seconds, then shouted “Fire!”
Almost on cue, thirty rifles fired. As the smoke cleared, Capt Khatri saw to his amazement that some of the Pathans were lying on the slopes, dead or wounded. It was the disciplined fire of experienced warriors, not of a bunch of boys with no hair on their faces.
“Fire!” yelled Capt Khatri again. The boys reloaded and fired. A few more Pathans dropped.
By now the rest of the Pathans were in defensive positions and they returned fire. The bullets pinged harmlessly against the boys’ defences. As soon as the Pathans stopped to reload, the boys fired again, this time at will, picking their targets carefully. Capt Khatri kept moving through the line, encouraging the boys, checking for injuries and making sure his wards were fine. There were none. They boys had their faces flushed and hands trembling. But every time they fired, their keen mountain eyes and steady hands meant that another Pathan dropped.
The Pathans were now yelling in confusion to each other. The Pathan is not a man who likes standard infantry war. He is happier shooting from the tops of mountains with his jezail. Their commander shouted to the men, urging them to advance. The keen fire of the boys however was telling. The boys fired again, hitting a few more of those exposed. Reloaded, and fired again.
Capt Khatri used his field glasses and found the most heartening sight a field commander can witness. The Pathans were breaking contact and fleeing west.
Capt Khatri shouted to the boys. “Firing band karo!”
The boys stopped, peering over their defences, rifles at the ready.
He looked through his glasses again. Then he beckoned Alam Singh and showed him. The Pathans were now half their number and rapidly moving away. Through the evening gloom, they could see that Pathan dead and wounded lay all over the field. Alam Singh surveyed the scene, lowered the glasses, and smiled. He looked at Capt Khatri and Capt Khatri nodded.
Alam Singh stood up, raised his rifle and yelled “Kalika Mata Ki Jai!”. And all the boys returned the war cry with all the fervour in their hearts
Boys had become men.