Our 8th Warrior
A little north-west of Wagah check-post from the Indian side of the border, and it would still be a little north-west if, my dear reader, you are on the Pakistan side of it, at a distance of a little less than 6 kilometers lies a small village named Pul Kanjari. Now reduced to a small outpost on India – Pakistan border, the village in its glory days had much more to offer. It is reported to be an established travel halt frequented by Maharaja’s expeditions from Lahore to Amritsar and back, and Maharaja here refers to none other than Sher-e-Lahore Ranjit Singh. A ruinous pavilion, a bathing tank, and a trio of a gurudwara, a mosque and a temple, bear testimony to the historical significance of the place. The name Pul Kanjari itself has an interesting tale to tell. Maharaja’s favorite courtesan Moran is said to have travelled from Lahore to perform for Ranjit Singh whenever he frequented the place. On one such visit as she was hurrying out to the venue, lost her sandals to the careless flow of waters while crossing a canal. It was this incident that triggered special orders from Maharaja’s Court to build a bridge over the canal. Consequent to the said incident, the Punjabi lingo equivalent for the words ‘courtesan’ and ‘bridge’ combined to give the place a name, Pul Kanjari. People of sensitive historic taste here refer to the place as Pul Moran, but Pul Kanjri still stays as the popular alternative.
The distance of Pul Kanjari from Wagah border post can be traversed on foot and it would take around an hour and a half from the Indian side. It would be a little slower if one starts from this side of the border, and that, dear reader, would be a wishful thinking. It could have been very much possible, had there been no border. That been said, dear reader, the reason Pul Kanjari gets mentioned here is due to its significance as a border outpost. During both wars of 1965 and 1971, Pul Kanjari witnessed some fierce combat, with both the sides attacking, counter attacking, losing, and reclaiming this border outpost. Our specific intention to visit this place at this time can be traced back to the heroics of December war in 1971, and more specifically the night 17 – 18 December, and the dawn of 18 December that year. On the said date(s), it was here at Pul Kanjari, that Lance Neik Muhammad Mahfooz of 15 Punjab Regiment heroically dashed onto the enemy, offering supreme sacrifice. A gallant action that would earn him the appreciation from the Commander of the opposing forces, and the award of Nishan e Haider (highest gallantry award in combat) by the Government of Pakistan. My route to the place of sahahdat of the soldier was blocked due to no access across international border, so I decided to head back and visit another place instead….
Back to the comfort of homeland and that too the very heart of its capital at Islamabad, one afternoon I headed out taking Islamabad Expressway. A little short of the Rawat Toll Plaza, on the eastern side of Islamabad Expressway, we come across Police Training Academy Sihala. A left turn on Kahuta Road puts you in the upper Potohar region, a mini triangle bordered by Nilor – Kahuta – Sihala. This area is interspersed with a criss-cross maze of roads and tracks, and one of these tracks from Kahuta road leads to Pind Malkan, our destination of the afternoon. Pind Malkan is the native village of Lance Neik Muhammad Mahfooz Shaheed, Nishan e Haider, and the last resting place of the soldier. With the limited navigational aid and the impending maze of inner routes, I had no option but to wait for someone to turn up at that deserted bus stop on Kahuta Road to seek directions. The wait was fruitful as I eventually had a travel companion. The gentleman was headed in our intended direction and gladly accepted the offer for a ride. Our conversation during the drive took its roots from the inquisitive and simple nature that is characteristic of the village folk. People are curious about a visitor to their area, as was my companion that afternoon, and the very first questions I encountered were, who I was to visit in Pind Malkan and how was I related to the one being visited. In small and remote places, and Pind Malkan is one of those, people know each other by names and have a fair idea of their kinship and the extended family, so both the questions made sense. The answer to the former was simple, whereas, the latter left me pondering over the words as I phrased my answer. I was related to Mahfooz being his brother in arms, having worn the same khakis, and having lived the same ideology that binds the very rank and file of our army. My voice carried a tinge of pride as I stated my relationship with Lance Neik Muhammad Mahfooz Shaheed, Nishan e Haider, ex 15 Punjab Regiment of Pakistan Army. There was an identical reflection of pride in my companion’s eyes. There was magic in these words, converting two strangers in the car almost instantly into best friends. A 20 minutes drive brought us to the monument and grave of our soldier in the very heart of Pind Malkan. Mahfooz is resting beside his mother in a simple tomb built on the land owned by his family. 15 Punjab Regiment maintains the monument where an official wreath laying ceremony is held every year on September 6th (Defence Day) and December 18th, death anniversary of the soldier.The flag staff with the ‘Green’ fluttering up and high has a raised tablet beside it that carries the details of battle action at Pul Kanjari, and to review these details, dear reader, we shall head back to “The December War” on the Western Front at Lahore Sector, as inscribed on the pages of history.
Pul Kanjari was the Indian BSF (Border Security Force) post that was taken by Pakistani troops on the night 3 – 4 December and the enemy was pushed back to the rear. The post stayed with 43 Punjab for the remaining duration of the battle till a ceasefire was reached on December 17 as the Supreme Commander of Pakistani Forces in the Eastern Wing had signed the humiliating “Instrument of Surrender” a day earlier. The short lived ceasefire on Lahore front was violated on the same night (17 – 18 December) as the Indian forces attacked to reclaim Pul Kanjari. A fierce battle ensued and the Indian attack came out victorious. The counter-attack plan was put in motion on the wee hours of 18 December as two companies of 15 Punjab Regiment launched the dawn attack on the objective. One of those two companies was commanded by Captain Mueed, in which the left forward platoon was led by Havildar Ali Asghar. Lance Neik Muhammad Mahfooz was on a Machine Gun in Havildar Asghar’s platoon. The attack progressed into the daylight as the company was delayed owing to the steep slopes of the far bank of a distributary that had to be negotiated during assault onto objective. The attack was very much on a frontal approach on to an outpost which was heavily defended by incorporating the built up area. The concrete bunkers on the flanks had machine guns with deadly and accurate firepower. Amidst the artillery shelling and heavy fire of automatics, the assault momentum of the company came to a halt with casualties aplenty. The enemy on two occasions tried to outmanoeuvre the company from the left flank but was effectively checked from the sweeping gun fire from left forward platoon, and a major contribution had come from the machine gun of Lance Neik Mahfooz, a fact later recalled by Captain Mueed himself. As the platoon neared the enemy, Mahfooz was hit by a burst of enemy machine gun fire, injuring his leg and damaging his machine gun. Mahfooz, determined to push forward, reached out to the other machine gun of his section whose firer already laid dead. The second machine gun with Mahfooz also fell victim to enemy fire, and by now our brave soldier was very much homed on to the enemy bunker from where this effective fire was halting the progress of attack. Mahfooz, badly injured in one leg, got hold of a rifle and kept crawling determined to reach out to the Machine Gun Bunker he had laid sight on. The dust and a blanket of smoke partly obscured the enemy positions for a while and Mahfooz seizing the opportunity managed to drag himself up on his feet, and it was then he was shot in chest from close range and fell down losing his hold on the rifle. Gathering his strengths, he miraculously got back up on his feet, dragging his injured leg along, advancing towards the machine gun bunker, and crossed the smoke screen. That was the last of Mahfooz, company ex 15 Punjab saw that morning. The remaining of the tale of an unmatched valour was to be told by the enemy itself later that day.
It was after the companies of 15 Punjab had retreated and battle locations restored that the battalion’s Second in Command along with Company Commander Captain Mueed and select troops reached out to receive dead bodies from the enemy. Despite the fact that a call for retreat was announced by the Company Commander in the face of held up assault, there were 16 dead bodies recovered from behind the enemy lines, in the built up area of Pul Kanjri. Out of these sixteen valiant souls who had penetrated well within enemy, against all odds, three of the dead bodies were recovered from within enemy bunkers, one of which was that of Lance Neik Mahfooz. While receiving his body, Company Commander mentioned that Mahfooz was one of the best boxers in the company, to which Commanding Officer of 2 Sikh Regiment replied “He indeed fought like a boxer”. Colonel Puri mentioned how his troops saw this mortally wounded soldier, who was without any weapon, dashing onto one of the Machine Gun Bunkers, pushing the firer away from the weapon, grabbing his neck and holding firm to his grip. The other soldier in the bunker bayoneted Mahfooz to death but was unable to free his mate, the Machine Gun Firer, from the iron grip of Mahfooz. The body of Mahfooz was recovered in style as he was holding firm onto the neck of the enemy soldier who had died under his iron fists. Colonel Puri was all praise for the soldier and had recommended Mahfooz for the highest gallantry award. A befitting and authentic testimony of gallantry from none other than the enemy commander himself. Lance Neik Mahfooz was awarded Nishan-e-Haider, the highest award for gallantry in Pakistan Army. He was the eighth recipient of the prestigious award that has been awarded to only 11 soldiers in all. Pul Kanjri did not just witnessed the valiant Mahfooz, but there were others as well.
Inspired by a mortally wounded and unarmed Mahfooz’s daring charge onto enemy, Sepoys Sanaullah and Muhammad Shafi of the same platoon could not hold themselves back and dashed right onto enemy. Their bayoneted bodies were recovered from within enemy bunkers. Sepoy Sanaullah son of Muhammad Hussain was from a village Manchar Chattha near Gujranwala. He was 21 years old with an active service of 2 years. Sepoy Muhammad Shafi, son of Barkhurdar hailed from village Thatthi Mazalim near Sargodha. He was 25 years old with a coloured service of 6 years. And then there were two soldiers who, while their force was retreating preferred to stay on and fight. Enemy reported that Sepoy Manzoor Hussain and Sepoy Bashir Ahmed kept on fighting till their ammo lasted. Towards the end they hurled their grenades and were killed in bayonet fights. Sepoy Manzoor Hussain was the battalion athlete and had a service of little over a year. Sepoy Bashir Ahmed, was still a recruit, enrolled a mere three months ago, who fought relentlessly till the last of his ammo and blood, and was awarded Tamgha-e-Jurrat. He was son of Ghulam Muhammad, from village Qutub Shahana near Sahiwal, and was 23 years of age at the time of his Shahadat. A platoon commander of the company ex 15 Punjab, Naib Subedar Muhammad Riaz fought with determination, and was martyred while covering the escort of the dead and injured of his platoon during the retreat. He was awarded Sitara-e-Jurrat. Company Commander Captain Mueed was awarded Sitara-e-Jurrat for putting up a determined fight with enemy against heavy odds.
The stories of valour at Pul Kanjari do not end here. There was this legendary Lance Neik Shingara Singh from the enemy rank and file who was part of the assaulting 2 Sikh Regiment on the night of 17-18 December on to Pul Kanjari. The attack on the location then held by a company ex 43 Punjab Regiment was successful and 2 Sikh Regiment came out victorious in the combat. During the assault, Lance Neik Shingara Singh is said to have displayed exemplary courage in physically assaulting and clearing two bunkers of 43 Punjab. He became a mythical figure who is reported to have snatched the machine gun from the firer by reaching out to the bunker loophole and throwing it away leaving the bunker literally ineffective. He was killed by gunfire to his chest from close range. Lance Neik Shingara Singh was awarded Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) the second highest award for gallantry in Indian Armed Forces. A monument erected in Pul Kanjari commemorates the valiant attack by 2 Sikh Regiment and the sacrifices of Indian Soldiers.