Lt Gen Sagat Singh earned a badge of honour that no other Indian soldier, perhaps no other soldier in the world, can boast of – he had a price on his head, a reward of $10,000 offered by the Government of Portugal for anyone who could capture the man who ended Portuguese rule in Goa.
As a ‘wanted man’, Sagat Singh had his face on posters plastered in cafes and restaurants all over Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, in 1961. Of course, no one ever turned him in and this gutsy soldier lived the rest of his life as a free man, to tell the tale of how he and his parachute regiment stormed into Goa on the fateful day of December 19, 1961.
This was not Lt Gen Sagat Singh’s only moment of triumph. The gritty army officer, a brilliant tactician who always led from the front, also played a pivotal role in the Nathu La clashes with the Chinese (1967) and the liberation of Bangladesh (1971). Other than his dramatic capture of Panaji from the Portuguese, he is known for carrying out India’s first ‘heliborne operation’ in 1971, which transported 2,500 Indian soldiers across the Meghna River in Bangladesh to the gate of Dhaka, in helicopters!
Sagat Singh was born in Churu, in Rajasthan, in 1918. He started his career in the Bikaner state forces as a Jamedar, or a junior officer, in 1938. He served in Persia and then for the Hoor Rebellion (the rebellion by the Sufi community against the British) in the Sindh province in 1941.
By 1945, Sagat Singh was appointed Brigade Major of the state force of Bikaner. When Bikaner joined the Indian union after Independence – it was one of the first princely states to accede – the state force was absorbed into the Indian Army. Accordingly, Sagat Singh joined the Third Gorkha regiment of the Indian Army in 1950.
A decade later, he was promoted to the rank of Brigade Commander of India’s only Parachute Brigade, the 50th. Up until then, the commanding officers of the brigade had been paratroopers but Sagat Singh was an infantryman in a rifle regiment. He was not a paratrooper. He was over 40 years old, and very few officers had started jumping at that age.
Nevertheless, Sagat Singh underwent a tough probation course before he could begin his jumps and he passed with flying colours. Immediately after earning his maroon beret and para wings, Sagat Singh was summoned to the Defence Ministry Office (DMO) in Delhi, to be briefed on a special assignment, in November 1961. He was to be part of the advance of the Indian Army to liberate Goa from the Portuguese.
‘Operation Vijay’ was the code name given by the Indian armed forces to liberate Goa, in which all three wings i.e. the Army, Navy and the Air Force, were involved. The operation lasted three days. On 11th December 1961, the Indian Army advanced into Goa from two directions- the North and the East, to capture Panaji and Marmagao (present-day Madgao). General Sagat Singh and his men were assigned the task of taking Panaji.
Using improvised resources, Sagat Singh’s brigade crossed their riverine obstacles on rafts and local boats. They were airdropped into Panaji on the 19th December, the first troops to enter the city during Operation Vijay. The previous night, Indian troops had surrounded Portuguese forces on all sides and the latter offered to surrender. The people of Goa welcomed Sagat Singh and his Para Brigade as liberators, the next day. News of Sagat Singh’s fame as the ‘liberator of Goa’ went all the way to Portugal, where the government placed a reward on the soldier’s head!
Sagat Singh gave up command of the Para Brigade in 1964 and was promoted as Major General and posted in North-East India, as head of the 17th Mountain Division. It was here that he renewed his relationship with the Air Force and began to understand the application of air power and logistics in ground campaigns.
He fully appreciated the use of helicopters in the movement of ground troops and support of ground operations. He was involved in counter-insurgency operations in the Mizo Hills during this period, and for his pivotal role in quelling the insurgency in Mizoram, he was awarded the Param Vishisht Seva Medal 1970.
In May 1965, China accused India of stealing animals such as yaks, which had crossed the border from China and entered Sikkim. Over 5,000 Chinese troops had been deployed in the Nathu La and Jelep La pass areas along China’s border with India in Sikkim. By September, Chinese forces had arrived at the doorstep of Sikkim.
Sagat Singh pointed out to his superiors in the army that if India were to vacate the Nathu La pass and retreat behind the watershed line, the Chinese would occupy and control it. This would give them control over Gangtok and they would advance further into the Siliguri corridor (the 25-km wide ‘chicken neck’ region).
Sagat Singh was known to take decisions that did not always please his seniors. Although Indian troops had vacated the Jelep La area, they still controlled the higher grounds of Nathu La. It was a time when India and Pakistan were fighting the 1965 war and China was causing trouble in the Eastern region.
By September 1967, Indian soldiers were keen to fence the borderline across Nathu La in Sikkim, where there were frequent clashes between the two armies. Sagat Singh was the Division Commander posted there. On 11th September, Chinese forces opened fire while Indian soldiers were fencing the border. In response, Sagat Singh ordered his troops to return fire, to defend Nathu La.
Sagat Singh was a commander with an eagle eye to exploit opportunities in the battlefield; any delay in taking a decision that day could have resulted in a repeat of 1962, when India and China had clashed at the Himalayan border. Chinese bunkers were shelled, causing intense damage to enemy forces. Close to 340 Chinese soldiers were killed and more than 450 injured. By 14th September, the Chinese government threatened to use its air force. Clearly, the Chinese had been given a bloody nose by Indian soldiers under the stewardship of Sagat Singh in the battle of Nathu La.
In December 1970, Sagat Singh was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General and sent to Tezpur, Assam. This was the run-up to the Indo-Bangladesh war, for the liberation of Bangladesh (East Pakistan) from Pakistan.
In 1971, the area of operations earmarked for Sagat Singh was the entire East Pakistani territory west of the Meghna River. The Meghna is one of the largest rivers in Bangladesh, and the only way to cross it was by a railway bridge which was then under the Pakistani army’s control. At its narrowest point, it was 3.6 km wide! The Pakistani forces had destroyed the bridge so that Indian troops could not advance to the other side of the river where Dhaka was situated. Since it would take time for the Army engineers to repair the bridge, Lt General Sagat Singh along with Maj General BF Gonsalves made the decision to airlift the Indian troops as well as ‘Mukti Bahini’ forces- an independent Bangladesh army fighting against the Pakistani army.
Sagat Singh’s assignment was the occupation of East Pakistani territory west of the Meghna River. In the northernmost subsector of his area of command, the Sylhet Sector, the objective was to take command of the maximum amount of enemy territory as possible.
Major objectives like Chandpur and Daudkondi were captured virtually without a fight, as the enemy was in a state of confusion regarding the location of Indian troops and preferred evacuation rather than a battle. By the evening of 7th December, Chandpur was in Indian hands and Sagat Singh was credited with capturing Chandpur single-handedly. After a drop zone was identified, a force of just nine Mi-74 helicopters airdropped 584 troops in 60 sorties by 9th December, thus crossing the river Meghna. By 14th December Daudkondi was captured. He had successfully conducted the Indian Army’s first-ever air assault operation (heliborne operation) in the Battle of Sylhet. He was present in Dacca at the time of the signing of the surrender by General Niazi.
For his outstanding service to the nation, Sagat Singh was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India, the third-highest civilian award 1976. A character based on him and played by actor Jackie Shroff featured in the 2018 Bollywood film Paltan, which was based on the Nathu La and Chola La clashes of 1967. Lt Gen Sagat Singh died at the age of 82 in the army hospital in New Delhi on 26th September 2001, a fearless soldier whose victories will be hard to replicate.
Cover Image: Lt Gen Sagat Singh and Maj Gen K V Krishna Rao with Hav Dil Bahadur Chettri at Sylhet, The Darjeeling Chronicle
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