New Pakistan army chief's brother died in 1971 Battle of Majors in Fazilka

Raheel sharif
In Pakistani war folklore, it is one of the most talked about battles of the 1971 war, one of the few operations glorified in an otherwise despondent time for the nation. It was the battle of the Majors — one from each side, both hot-blooded and fierce — who wrestled for the control of a key bridge which finally ended in hand-to-hand combat while soldiers looked on, instructed not to intervene in the duel.

Pakistan Army's Major Shabbir Sharif died in the battle for Beriwala bridge in Punjab's Fazilka sector. His heroics won him the Nishan-e-Haider, the nation's highest gallantry award. Major Narain Singh, who led the Indian counter-attack on the bridge which had been captured by Sharif and his men, too died in the battle. He was awarded the Vir Chakra.

So this week, when Pakistan named Raheel Sharif as its new Army chief, bells rang on either side of the border. Because Raheel is the younger brother of Major Shabbir Sharif.

From Jammu, Major Narain Singh's wife Urmila, who was a 22-year-old during the war, recalled not just "painful memories" but also the "love and respect" her family has got from Fazilka ever since the battle.

The attack on Beriwala bridge was a crucial Pakistani move on the western front in early December to divert Indian resources from the east where General Niazi's men were facing a rout.

Major Shabbir, a company commander of the 6 Frontier Force who had already been decorated in the 1965 war, was tasked to capture a bridge on the ditch-cum-bund (DCB) near the Indian town of Fazilka which he managed to do on December 3-4 by overrunning BSF positions on the border.

Major Singh, a company commander of 4 Jat, was chosen to launch a counter-attack a day later and recapture the bridge — the bridge was key since it could have been used by the Pakistanis for a strong armour attack.

These facts are well established but there are two versions of what actually happened in the battle.

The Pakistani version spread by word of mouth and was mentioned in a book Pakistan's Crisis in Leadership by Maj Gen Fazal Muqueen Khan: "In the ensuing hand-to-hand fight, this brave Indian Major was killed by another extremely brave Company Commander Major Shabbir Sharif."

According to another Pakistani version, Singh charged on their positions with his company and lobbed a grenade at Sharif, injuring him slightly. When Indian soldiers prepared to fire at Sharif, Singh stopped them and opted for a 'man-to-man' combat. He was killed by Sharif who died a day later at the same bridge after he was shot at by an Indian T-54 tank.

But the Indian version, as recounted by officers of the 4 Jat who were present at the battle as well as the official citation of the Vir Chakra, is different.

There are no records or eyewitness accounts to confirm the 'man-to-man' combat but the charge of 4 Jat's Bravo Company led by Singh is well known for its bravery and the losses the battalion suffered — over 60 soldiers were killed and several more injured.

While a hand-to-hand fight did occur when Singh's soldiers attacked the Pakistani positions under Sharif, Singh did not die on the battlefield in direct combat with his Pakistani counterpart, his fellow soldiers recall.

"It was a very brave and courageous battle between the two but he did not die on the spot. He died while being taken by the Pakistani side to their medical room. Major Singh managed to reach the Pakistani positions after going through a hail of fire but was badly injured by the time they invaded the stronghold," Col (retd) Vijay Singh, who was then adjutant of 4 Jat, told The Sunday Express from Dehradun.

He said the Pakistani side treated Singh with respect. They picked up the unconscious Major and were taking him for treatment when he died.

Singh's official citation for the Vir Chakra also reflects this: "Major Narain Singh led his men and charged the objective. In the process, he was hit by a burst from a machine gun but he continued to direct the operation during which he was mortally wounded."

The versions differ, but both sides agree that the battle of Beriwala was one of exceptional bravery during the 1971 war. Though attacks and counter-attacks continued in the sector, it could never be used by Pakistan for a full armour attack.

When news of the appointment of Gen Sharif as the Pakistan Army chief reached Singh's wife Urmila, it brought back memories of the December day in 1971 when she was first informed that her husband was missing in action.

"I was so devastated then that no one even came to me with tales of his bravery. It was only later that we got to know what he had done for the nation. Earlier this year, my son showed me what the Pakistani side had described about the battle," she said over phone from Jammu.

After the war, she went to Fazilka. "The residents have given us so much love. They wanted me to come and settle there with my young son. They called him the saviour of Fazilka. Even now when we go there, everyone remembers the battle and his sacrifice," she said.

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