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Monday, 19 May 2008

From Today's Papers - 19 May

“Sartaj” of the mountain artillery
by Maj-Gen Pushpendra Singh (retd)

General Williams, who had come to India from England didn’t have too great an opinion of the country. He remarked that “there are only three things worth seeing here — the Taj at Agra, General Gough leading a cavalry brigade and the Hazara Mountain Battery in action on a hillside”.

These words are recorded by Hazara Battery’s British officers in its war diaries during the Anglo-Afghan war. This world-famous Mountain Battery, the first such unit in the world, was raised in the Royal Artillery by Maj (later General) Sir James Abbot on 18th May 1848 in the Hazara district of NWFP. It was also the first time that the British had violated their dictum of “no natives in the gun-park”. The guns (cannon) were manned by gunners of the Khalsa Army, disbanded after the Sikh defeat in the Anglo-Sikh wars. Nevertheless, in 1848 the urgency of having a dominant military capability for tackling the Pashtun tribes prevailed over such “scruples”.

British faith in their “natives” however, was abundantly reciprocated and the Hazara Mountain Battery (Frontier Force), RA played significant roles in victories in Afghanistan, winning four battle honours, including that of Kabul-1879. The Anglo-Burmese wars and the two World Wars enabled the unit to add several more Battle Honours to their proud escutcheon.

The post-Independence turmoil found the Hazara Battery in Nowshera (Pakistan) but allocated to India. As soon as the battery had worked its way into India, it was pressed into the first J & K war with the force tasked to open the Jammu-Rajauri axis. One troop was airlifted into Poonch, when the town got besieged by the marauders.

The legendary Wg-Commander Mehar Singh, disregarding hostile machine-gun fire from the surrounding heights, landed his Dakota on the Poonch airstrip. The dismantled guns were deplaned in minutes and brought into action at the airstrip itself. Before nightfall, the machine-guns had been destroyed and Indian troops had secured the vital air-link for the beleaguered garrison.

However, Mehar Singh’s Dakota had been hit and still remains on the airstrip — testimony to the dare-devil flyer’s gallantry.

On 18th May 1948 Hazara Battery celebrated its centenary in splendid style by capturing the Taintrinot ridge, securing Poonch from the Northwest. Capt (later Col) Gopal Singh was awarded Vir Chakra as a saviour of Poonch.

Fifty years later, on 18th May 1998, we commemorated 150 years of glorious military service by re-enacting the relief of Poonch. At an open durbar on the airstrip, with Mehar Singh’s derelict Dakota to remind us of those grim days, several old Poonchis recalled how the blazing guns had forced the Paki raiders into headlong retreat. Soon after, with the power-house in Indian hands, light had come back into their lives.

Now, 10 years further down the line, Hazara Battery’s guns are ready to blaze once again in the icy battlefield of Siachen.

Arjun in focus
Best weapons the Army’s birthright

THE armed forces deserve the best equipment the country can get for them. No country, forever dependent on imports for complex combat platforms and technologies, can truly be a power to reckon with. On both counts, there can be no debate. Which is why it is a tragedy that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) fails to deliver on major projects like the Arjun — Main Battle Tank (MBT) — and the Tejas, Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). Reports indicate that user trials, once again, are on in the desert, and, once again, the Army is griping about the Arjun’s failures. Everything from its weight, to its main gun, to its fire control systems, to what not are constantly being debated.

Clearly, import lobbies notwithstanding, if the tank was good, the Army would be happy to accept it. The government, in an effort to support such an important indigenous initiative, has essentially committed to buying some Arjuns for the Army. It is also, evidently, going further with its T-90 MBT acquisitions from Russia. When it first became clear that the Arjun wasn’t measuring up, India went in for 310 T-90s from Russia in 2001. Another deal for 347 tanks reportedly went through in December. Comparison tests are evidently on as well.

For the Army and the government, it is not as easy as fielding both the T-90s and the Arjuns, aiming to satisfying operational requirements even as it supports indigenous efforts. Indigenous projects will not thrive unless continuously supported, and without the necessary orders to keep them going. But the DRDO, too, cannot simply play the indigenous card without pulling out all stops to produce goods that no one can argue over. The ISRO is a shining example in this regard. But the failure, ultimately, is not so much that of the DRDO’s beleaguered technologists, but of the complete lack of vision and direction in engineering a massive import substitution effort. For too long, it seems, defence managers have preferred to take the easy, and selectively profitable, option of buying stuff from outside.

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