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Forgotten and controversial: Pritam Singh, the saviour of Poonch

This is the true story of a great Indian soldier who saved the inhabitants and refugees of Poonch from the dirty hands of heartless marauders against overwhelming odds. Read the story of the unequal gallantry of Pritam Singh, nicknamed 'sher-bachha', and know how he saved Poonch in 1947-48.

India is a non-martial nation. The people of the country remember the soldiers of the armed forces at the time of emergency. When normalcy is restored, the Indians never bother to think about the real heroes. Same thing happened with Brigadier Pritam Singh, the maverick officer who saved Poonch from the hands of the Pakistani marauders in 1947-48. The grateful residents of the town and the refugees who came to this town after fleeing the occupied areas of Jammu & Kashmir used to call him 'sher-baccha' (son of a tiger). Let us know about this great soldier of the country, who was mired into controversy due to his popularity.

He was born in a noble Sikh family

Pritam Singh was born in a noble Sikh family of Dina village near Ferozepur. It is stated that Guru Gobind Singh stayed with his forefathers after the battles of Chamkaur Sahib and Muktsar. It is also stated that the Great Guru wrote Zafar Nama during his stay with the family.

Early military career

Pritam Singh joined British Indian Army at a very early age. He fought against the Japanese on the eastern front. He got wounded in the Battle of Singapore (1942) and was captured by the Japanese forces. He escaped from the PoW camp and reached Manipur after six months completing an unbelievable journey through the very dense forest of Myanmar. He was awarded coveted Military Cross by the British for this fete.

Pritam Singh joined the fight at J&K

Immediately after partition and independence, Pakistani tribesmen led by Pakistani military officers (Major General Akbar Khan was the chief planner and overall incharge) attacked Jammu & Kashmir. Pritam was on leave at that time. He visited the Army HQ on 30th October, 1947 and volunteered to command 1 Kumaon (Para) in J&K. He was given the posting order the same evening and he reached Srinagar with his unit on 31st October, 1948 night.

1 Kumaon link-up with 1 Sikh

I Kumaon quickly linked up with 1 Sikh under another legendary officer Lt. Col. (later Lt. General and Western Area Commander) Harbaux Singh. The Battle of Shelateng began. During the next three weeks, 1 Sikh ably supported by 1 Kumaon drove out the barbarous enemy beyond Uri.

But the task of Pritam Singh only started. He was ordered to move to Poonch to save the besieged town.

Pritam Singh: The saviour of Poonch

After a grueling march through the Haji Pir Pass, 1 Kumaon under Pritam Singh reached Poonch on 21st November, 1947. They fought an ambush during their journey and reached the destination with the depleted strength of 419 men. They found the condition of the town horrible.

The hills in front of the town were completely dominated by the raiders. They had modern weapons and mountain guns. The retreat was risky and there were chances of ambush. The inhabitants of the town were low with morals. The Maharaja's force of around 1400 men was ill-equipped. Moreover, the town was flooded with refugees from other cities occupied by the raiders (Muzaffarabad, Mirpur, etc.). Horrible tales of torture, loot, rape and murder were floating in the air. The storage of food was abysmally low and at the best could sustain the entire population for seven days only.

Pritam took charge and immediately attacked the hill which was just in front of the town. The brave Kumaonis beat back the enemy. One after another hills were freed from the marauders. At night, Pritam and his soldiers raided the villages occupied by the enemy in search of food. He boosted the morals of the inhabitants and refugees and with their help, developed an airstrip. On this airstrip Air Vice-Marshal (later Air-Chief) Subroto Mukherjee and legendary Air Commodore Baba Mehar Singh landed on 12th December, 1947. Baba Mehar Singh later established an 'air bridge' and food, medicine and soldiers started landing on this airstrip.

Pritam Singh also built up J&K Militia with the former Maharaja's soldiers and able-bodied men of inhabitants of the town and the refugees. By February, 1948, 3/9 Gorkha Rifles was air landed at Poonch.
This unequal fight continued till November, 1948 and despite all odds, Brigadier Pritam Singh saved Poonch from the marauders. He handed over the command on 21st November, 1948 after securing the town.

Jealousy and conspiracy

Unfortunately the immense popularity and larger-than-life personality of Pritam Singh caused jealousy among his colleagues and seniors. He was court-martialled on various counts and was ultimately dismissed from service for misappropriating 'a carpet and Rs. 10,000/-' when he has unlimited funds at his disposal as commander of Poonch garrison. Let us not go into the painful episode and the very controversial decision of dismissal of Pritam Singh from service.

Final few words

It is popularly said that nations which treat their heroes shabbily do not produce them in great numbers. We must remember this adage and pay our respectful homage to the saviour of Poonch, 'sher-bachha' Pritam Singh.

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