Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Lesser Known icons and Famous Indian battles-1

Since the time "Dautya" was started, I have always wanted a dedicated page for lesser known Indian icons and glorious Indian battles. So here goes....

Vanchinathan, the brave son of the soil (1886 - June 17, 1911)

Popularly known as Vanchi, was an Indian Independence activist. He is best remembered for having assassinated Ashe, the Collector of Thirunelveli. Vanchinathan was born in 1886 in Shenkottai to Raghupathy Iyer and Rukmani Ammal. His actual name was Shankaran. He did his schooling in Shenkottai and graduated in M.A. from Moolam Thirunal Maharaja College in Thiruvananthapuram. While in college, he married Ponnammal and got into a lucrative government job. On June 17, 1911, Vanchi assassinated Ashe, the district collector of Tirunelveli, who was also known as Collector Dorai. He shot Ashe at point-blank range when the latter's train stopped at the Maniyachi station, en route to Madras. He committed suicide thereafter. The railway station has since been renamed Vanchi Maniyachi. Vanchi was a close collaborator of Varahaneri Venkatesa Subrahmanya Iyer (normally shortened to V.V.S.Aiyar), another freedom fighter who sought arms to defeat the British.

Vanchinathan's letter before the assasination of Collector Ashe (translated to English)
“ I dedicate my life as a small contribution to my motherland. I am alone responsible for this. 3000 youths of this brave country have taken an oath before mother Kali to send King George to hell once he sets his foot on our motherland. I will kill Ashe, whose arrival here is to celebrate the crowning of King George in this glorious land which was once ruled by great samrats. This I do to make them understand the fate of those who cherish the thought of enslaving this sacred land. I, as the youngest of them, wish to warn George by killing Ashe who is his sole representative and has destroyed the Swadeshi shipping company and several other freedom fighters by subjecting them to severe torture.

Vande Mataram. Vande Mataram. Vande Mataram"

Kanhoji Angre, the undefeated Admiral (?? - June 4, 1729)

Khanoji Angre or Kanoji Angria was an Admiral in the Maratha Navy and the only Indian to have waged a successful sea-battle against the British. Between 1698 and 1729, he completely routed the navies of the Portuguese,Dutch and British East India Companies. As a result of this, the Portuguese and the Dutch admitted defeat and signed a peace treaty with him agreeing to pay trade and custom duties. The British dreaded him and regarded him as a "pirate", purposely forgetting that he was the appointed admiral of the Maratha Navy. His exploits have been described in detail in the book "Pirates of the Malabar".

Born in the town of Alibag, little is known about his early life except that his father was Tanoji Angre, a commander under Maratha Chhatrapati Shivaji. He spent much of his childhood in the fort at Suvarnadurg Fort, of which he would later become governor. Kanhoji initially started by attacking merchant ships of the British East India Company and slowly gained respect from the sovereign and notoriety with the colonial powers. When Maratha Chattrapati Shahu ascended the leadership of the Maratha kingdom, he appointed Balaji Viswanath Bhatt as his Senakarta ('Commander'), and negotiated an agreement with Angre around 1707. This was partly to appease Angre who supported the other ruler who claimed the Maratha throne, Tarabai. Under the agreement, Angre became head of the Maratha navy. He was born into the Agri tribes of northern Konkan, which is one of Adivasi tribes of the Deccan.

Kanhoji is credited with the foresight that a Blue Water Navy's role is to keep the enemy engaged away from the shores of the land. At one time, he was so successful that he even employed certain Europeans in his fleet, including making one Dutchman his Commodore. At the height of power, Kanhoji's commanded hundreds of warships and the British Navy could do little to combat the Maratha Navy.Kanhoji's harassment of British commercial interests and the Battle of Swally led them to establish a small naval force that eventually became the modern Indian Navy.

The Headquarters of Indian Western Naval Command is called INS Angre (Indian Naval Station Angre).

Battle of Basantar (December 4 - December 16, 1971)

The Battle of Basantar or the Battle of Barapind was one of the vital battles fought as part of the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 in the western sector of India. Despite being outnumbered, the Indian troops won a hard fought battle that secured this vital area in the Punjab/Jammu sector. The result was that more than 1000 square kilometers of Pakistani territory was occupied by Indian forces. The name Battle of Basantar actually encompasses the entire gamut of battles and skirmishes fought in the Shakargarh sector. Basantar river is a tributary of the Ravi River that flows in the states of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. This battle took place in the Shakargarh Sector or the Shakargarh Bulge. The bulge is a protrusion of Pakistan boundary into the Indian territory. It was a strategic area for both sides as it comprised road links to Jammu from Punjab, which could be cut off by Pakistan if it wished to launch an offensive. It was also economically vital for both sides as it straddled the fertile area of the Indus river belt.

As the war began on the eastern front, Pakistan decided to open up the western sector to divert Indian troops from the Eastern front in Bangladesh and prolong the war. Shakargarh buldge was a key strategic area for India as it comprised road links between Jammu and Punjab. Therefore, securing the region was crucial for India as Pakistan had a military base nearby in Sialkot and therefore could have easily launched a massive invasion of the Shakargarh region, cutting Jammu and Kashmir from the rest of India. The Indian Army maintained a base at Pathankot, couple of hundred miles away from Shakargarh and quickly mobilized forces to defend the region. In an attempt to gain advantage through the element of surprise, the Indian Army, though outnumbered, attacked Pakistani positions in Jarpal area, triggering the Battle of Basantar.

The battle plan

Both the opposing sides were led by their army's I Corps. Pakistan's I Corp included three infantry divisions, one armored division, an armored brigade backed up by an unknown number of artillery and support units. Furthermore, Pakistan had the advantage of bringing in the reserve troops stationed nearby. The Reserves totaled 5 divisions, commanded by none other than Lt. General Irshad Hassan Khan, who as DMI (Director Military Intelligence) had failed to act in the 1965 War despite intercepting Indian war plans. The Indian I Corps had three infantry divisions, 2 Armoured Brigades, two independent artillery brigades and an engineer brigade. The aim of the Indian Army was to bridge the Basantar river - the entry to which was fully land mined - and take control of the Shakargarh bulge. It was reasoned that such an offensive would also secure the Pathankot army base from any attacks from Pakistan.

The battle

The offensive in this sector was launched a few days after war broke out between the two nations. The Indian I Corps moved into the sector to capture the key areas. The 54 Infantry Division and 16 Armoured Brigade moved towards the area. As they advanced they were met by stiff Pakistani resistance. Meanwhile, the Indian division was bogged down as they had not cleared all the mines or bridged the river. However, in a daring counter attack by the 17 Poona Horse, 2nd Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal led his 3 tanks headlong into the mined area. A fierce tank battle ensued where a Pakistan tank was taken down. After suffering initial setbacks, the 8th Armoured Brigade of Pakistan was called-in to help the Pakistani resistance in the area. However, the Indian Army continued the assault and Lt. Arun Khetarpal with his 2 remaining tanks fought off and gunned down 10 tanks before he was killed in action. Following the defeat in the battle, Pakistan launched a massive counter-attack which was planned into five phases.
After days of intense fighting that saw both sides gaining and losing territory, the battle was turning into a stalemate. However, despite being at a quantitative and qualitative disadvantage, Indian troops made massive gains during the final days of the battle and also repelled the Pakistani thrust. Towards the tail end of the battle, Pakistan Army's Lieutenant Colonel Akram Raja made a frantic attempt to counter-attack the Indian stronghold near Shakargarh by jumping into an old-style cavalry charge with his tanks. Launched in broad daylight in view of the Indian defensive positions which were well secured, the campaign was a disaster. The Indians continued their military thrust deep inside Pakistan and came threateningly close to the Pakistan Army base at Sialkot. Because of being outnumbered by the advancing Indian Army, the Pakistan Army called-in the Pakistan Air Force to repel the Indian attack on the base. Expecting another massive assault by the Indian Army, this time backed by Indian Air Force-support, and in no position to launch any counter-offensive operations in the region, Pakistan offered unconditional surrender which led to ceasefire. India had gained control of more than thousand square miles before finally settling down to 350 mi² - 1000 km² of Pakistan territory that included approximately 500 villages.


Invading Shakargarh bulge was one of the most crucial components of Pakistan's war strategy in the western sector. Pakistan hoped that by occupying the bulge, the main link between Indian Army positions in Kashmir and Pathankot would be cut-off, following which, it could easily invade Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistani military forces stationed in Sialkot base would keep Pathankot at bay, thwarting any Indian attempts to recapture Shakargarh. However, Pakistan's battle plans were jeopardized because of the ingenuity of a bold attack by the Indians. The Indian Army attacked Pakistani positions in the region within four days of the declaration of the state of war, catching the Pakistanis by complete surprise. After a few days of intense fighting, the Indians had not only pushed the Pakistanis back, but had also come close to capturing Sialkot.

In this battle alone, India had destroyed close to 70 tanks losing only a few in the process. Pakistan's Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report recommended that the Commander 1 Corps, who "surrendered to the enemy without a fight" should "be tried for criminal and wilful neglect of duty" and poor conduct of operations, that "seriously jeopardized the Army offensive in the south.The Indian Army, on the other hand, was criticized for their somewhat timid handling of the attack on Sialkot. The army, however, in its defense stated that it was planning another assault on Sialkot with assistance from the Indian Air Force, when the cease-fire was declared.
This and other battles put paid to any hopes of bargaining for territory lost in East Pakistan, by capturing Indian territory; in fact Pakistan had lost sizeable portions of land on both sides of the border.


-Srinath Iyer

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