The incredibly courageous Khetarpal, who belonged to the Poona Horse regiment, was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra for his actions during the fiercely-fought Battle of Basantar.
Just how fierce can be gauged from the fact that Pakistan lost a staggering 48 Patton tanks in the epic battle that took place in its own territory, completely wiping out its 8 (Independent) Armoured Brigade. In fact, by the end of the war, India’s Black Arrow Brigade (comprising the Poona Horse and Hodson’s Horse regiments) had won 79 gallantry awards to become the most highly decorated formation of the Indian Army!
The year was 1971. War clouds were gathering on the horizon and the Indian military forces were in a state of high alert and readiness.
When the Pakistan Air Force launched pre-emptive strikes on Indian airfields on the eve of December 3, 1971, India immediately responded by formally declaring war in the wee hours of December 4. Hours later, IAF Canberra aircrafts struck Pakistani airfields as ground battles immediately commenced in nearly every sector.
Arun Khetarpal had just joined the Indian Army as a second lieutenant when he was called to the war front in 1971. Born on October 14, 1950, in Pune, he came from a family with a long tradition of service in the army. His grandfather served in the British Indian army during World War I and Arun’s father, Brigadier M.L. Khetarpal, served in Indian Army’s Engineering Corps till he retired from service.
Unsurprisingly, the deeply patriotic lad always aspired to become an army officer, right from his childhood. After his schooling from Sanawar’s prestigious Lawrence School (where he was popular for being an ace swimmer and saxophone player), Arun joined the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 1967 and was commissioned in the 17 Poona Horse on June 3, 1971.
Six months later, the war was declared and Arun’s regiment (under the command of 47 Infantry Brigade, also called the Black Arrow Brigade) was ordered to establish a bridgehead across the Basantar river in the Shakargarh sector — a 30 km dagger-shaped bulge of the Pakistan boundary towards Indian territory through which river Basantar gently meandered.
Close to the Pakistani base in Sialkot, this territory was of strategic importance for both sides as it comprised road and rail links to Jammu from Punjab which, if cut off by Pakistan, could have led to snapping of a key link to Jammu and Kashmir. Also, sensitive areas such as Amritsar, Pathankot and Gurdaspur lay within easy striking distance.
Recognising the importance of controlling this position, the 47th Brigade responded with alacrity, building the bridgehead by 2100 hours on December 15, 1971. For the uninitiated, a bridgehead is a strong position secured by an army inside enemy territory from which it can advance or attack.