Harry Kler, the man who raced to Dacca (1924 - 2016)


HS KlerWith profound sadness I convey my heartfelt condolence on the passing away of Maj Gen Hardev Singh Kler, MVC, AVSM.

Some men are born to battle, I believe Hardev was one of them. They do not seek wars, but wars seek them out, perhaps daily. Hardev was such a man, who made significant contributions to achieve victory in every battle in his lifetime, there were several. His exploits in 65 war, as GSO-I of 19 Inf Div in Kashmir is inspirationally legendary. I believe Hardev’s finest hour was in 71 war, as Cdr 95 Bde. So in eulogy of this soldier extraordinaire, an ‘Antim Ardas’, let me sing this story of his finest hour, with pride.

If there is a man, to whom we should give credit for the 71 victory, of liberating Bangladesh by war, with utter disregard to the ineptitude of his peer group and seemingly better fighting ability of the enemy, the man is Lt Gen Sagat Singh, then GOC IV Corps. He of course did not fight the war alone. He did it with the collective ability a of a few subordinates and the valour of the simple Indian soldiers, who shared his vision, prepared to die to execute his maverick war plan of extreme manoeuvre, no less brilliant than that of Guderian, not with tanks, but with simple boots on ground infantry. Few tanks and complete air superiority helped Sagat. Amongst those who served Sagat with distinction, right from the front with exceptional fortitude and tenacity, to help Sagat snatch that victory, was then Brig (later Maj Gen) Hardev, Cdr 95 Bde.

What is less publicised, is that none in India (except Sagat) in Apr /May 1971 had the audacity to imagine total victory, of a blitzkrieg of East Pak to reach Dacca in 11 days and force a complete unconditional surrender, liberation of complete East Pak, to form a new country, Bangladesh. Only he and his field commanders prepared for it, the rest towed the less arduous and unimaginative half-hearted battle lines. What was perceived as a pragmatic and practical politico-military aim, sanctioned by Indira Gandhi and militarily conceptualised and approved by Sam Manekshaw, was the capture of a small triangular parcel of land with Jalpaiguri on the northern apex with a horizontal line 100 km in the south passing through Bogra, to be captured by XXXIII Corps (Lt Gen M L Thapan). This was to be made a symbolic non militarised zone under the protection of India, primarily to resettle the 10-12 million Bengali refugees who had flocked to India. To assist with this aim, II Corps (Lt Gen Raina) was to do a diversionary hook at Jessore in the south to offer a symbolic threat to Dacca. IV Corps (Lt Gen Sagat Singh) was told to simply hold ground in the east, prevent the Pakis from overrunning Manipur to create their own diversionary hooks to deflate XXXIII / II Corps attacks to the north and west. The alternate plan, if Thapan couldn’t capture the Bogra traingle, Sagat was to go help BSF (Rustamjee) and 22 force (Uban) with Plan B, liberate the narrow Chittagong tract, south of Lalmai hills to resettle the refugees there.

Because the Pakistanis think almost like us, a war gaming done in Dacca (Niazi) as well as Rawalpindi (Tikka Khan), now well documented, they also came to the same conclusions of Sam’s very likely plan of action. While Indian armed forces prepared for war, between Apr to Dec 71, the Pakistanis too used the timeframe well, to make impregnable fortresses with Portland Cement and RCC to check mate XXXIII, II & IV Corps. They even very effectively created number-plated phantom formations, like the Brits before Normandy, to confuse Indians to think that the force level (orbat) available in East Pak was double that of the actual figure. The wild cards that neither Niazi, Tikka, nor Sam anticipated and took into account, that contributed to the victory in that war, were effective blockade by Indian Navy, complete air superiority by IAF, and Guderian like manoeuvre by Sagat’s IV Corps using helicopters to cross the unfordable Meghna eco system. Last but not the least, is the wild card of 95 Mtn Bde (then under 101 Com Zone of Maj Gen Gurbax Singh at Shillong, whose primary job was peace keeping in the NE States). Hardev Kler, then Cdr 95 Bde under 101 Com Zone, was perhaps the first to incredibly cross north to south to reach the outskirts of Dacca with his brigade, in an incredibly bloody push that lasted just ten days to deliver the wholesome ‘Bangladesh’.

71 war was not a cake walk for Hardev, though his bee line path perhaps had fewer obstacles compared to the others, a point completely overlooked by Sam, Tikka and Niazi during their individual war gaming. While XXXIII Corps (Thapan) and II Corps (Raina)’s progress were stalled by the ferocity of Paki counter attacks and obstacles created by them, 95 Bde under illustrious Hardev, shoulder to shoulder with rest of Sagat’s IV Corps, blitzkrieged directly southwards through Kamalpur, Jamalpur, Mymensingh, Tangail, to Poongli Bridge on the outskirts of Dacca within ten days, pitting himself in the ‘Dacca Bowl’ in a deadly mind game with Maj Gen Jamshed Khan, a hard core soldier decorated by the British with a Military Cross during WW-II for exceptional performance as a soldier. Despite his Military Cross, Jamshed was no match for Hardev, an unstoppable juggernaut.

Hardev’s finest hour was perhaps the battle for Jamalpur pitted against Lt Col Sultan Ahmed, CO 31 Baloch, then Garrison Cdr of Jamalpur. Entrenched in what he thought was an impregnable fortress, Sultan stood in the way of Hardev’s destiny at Dacca. In the old world dictum that wars can be fought even in a gentlemanly benign fashion, without unnecessary bloodshed, Hardev sent the now famous letter to Sultan through a Mukti Bahini volunteer, to surrender or face decimation. Though he was to run away the next day with half the garrison when Hardev began his onslaught, Sultan did send a most befitting written reply, with a symbolic bullet from his pistol, perhaps megalomania of a Paki, to kill his men but not go down in history as a man who surrendered, unlike the more matured wisdom of Niazi !

Kler Nagra Pannu
Brigadier Kler (Left), with Major General Nagra (Gorkha hat), Lt Col K S Pannu (Beret) during the 1971 war. Possibly on the day the Pakistanis surrendered.

Hardev did not get a chance to march into Dacca at the head of 95 Bde, like De Gaule in Paris after the Germans surrendered. Hardev’s thunder was stolen by his new boss of few days, Maj Gen Gandhav Nagra till then GOC 2 Mtn Div (Gurbax was hospitalised after his jeep went over a land mine at Kamalpur on 5th Dec 71). Nagra was found cracking dirty jokes in Punjabi with Niazi in his office when Jacob went to Dacca on 16 Dec 71 to negotiate the surrender terms. Perhaps Nagra too helped, with his dirty jokes overwhelming Niazi’s sensibilities. Perhaps the reason why he accepted the formidable inviolate Shylock like ‘total unconditional surrender terms and conditions’ laid before him by Jacob, and get him to accept it within half an hour. Nagra’s dirty jokes may have acted like nerve gas, who knows ? The rest is history.

Hardev Sir, go to Valhalla and RIP. We consider you a soldier beyond compare, a man who made history in 71. Your life is a legend that the Indian Army, Navy and AF shall remember and repeatedly narrate, every day, so that you shall never be forgotten.

Originally shared via e-mail


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