Saluting our Heroes: Maj Somnath Sharma, PVC
From the Indian Army website:
The Param Vir Chakra is awarded for most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self sacrifice, in the presence of the enemy, whether on land, at sea, or in the air. The decoration may be awarded posthumously.
*** Saluting our Heores – Major Somnath Sharma, PVC ***
A tribute to Major Somnath Sharma, Indian’s first “Param Veer” who sacrificed his life on this date, 62 years ago.
August-September 1947: These are heady days. While most of the country is celebrating “independence”, the streams of refugees is a grim reminder of what was lost…and all is not well on the borders, particularly on the icy slopes and formidable heights of the land that Rishi Kashyap blessed hundreds of years ago.
Early-Mid October, 1947: There are reports that a large group of armed tribals have moved close to the border in Jammu & Kashmir , aided and abetted by Pakistan.
22nd October 1947: Armed tribals cross the border near Muzaffarabad, burn the town and overrun Uri. They also manage to capture the power station that supplies eletcricity to Srinagar, plunging the city into darkness. Reports suggest that the armed groups include regulars from the Paksitani Army “in mufti”.
Claude Arpi recalls what happened next:
In these dramatic circumstances, V P Menon, Sardar Patel’s faithful collaborator, went to Jammu and got Hari Singh’s signature on the printed Accession Form. He rushed back for the historic meeting in Delhi with India’s governor general, Lord Mountbatten in the chair.
A young army colonel named Sam Manekshaw, who attended the meeting, recalled:
As usual Nehru talked about the United Nations, Russia, Africa, God Almighty, everybody, until Sardar Patel lost his temper. He said, ‘Jawaharlal, do you want Kashmir, or do you want to give it away?’ He [Nehru] said, ‘Of course, I want Kashmir.’ Then he [Patel] said: ‘Please give your orders.
Everything then moved very fast. Early the next morning, the first troops and equipment were airlifted from Palam airport to Srinagar. A young major was sent on his first assignment to Kashmir. He was responsible for the logistic. His name was S K Sinha (today the governor of Jammu and Kashmir).
He later wrote about the first Indian jawans reaching Srinagar: ‘It was indeed inspiring to see grim determination writ large on their faces. They were all determined to do their best, no matter what handicap they had to contend with. I had never before seen such enthusiasm and fervour for duty.’
They knew that all eyes in India were focused on them. At Srinagar airfield, just before returning to Delhi, Sinha met an old friend, Major Somnath Sharma of 4 Kumaon. He had come a day earlier from Delhi with a broken arm.
Sinha found him ‘rather disgusted with life.’ With his ‘wretched hand in plaster,’ no one would give him ‘an active assignment in Delhi.’
His company had now been posted to Kashmir, but he was looking to be relieved soon from his present job and given ‘something really active.’ His company’s duty was ‘only’ to protect the airport.
…But let us spend a moment on Somnath Sharma’s life.
He was born as the eldest son of an army family. His father General A N Sharma, who retired as the first director general of the Armed Medical Services after Independence, was often in non-family postings.
Som, as his friends and family called him, used to spend time with his maternal grandfather Pandit Daulat Ram in Srinagar. His favourite pastime was listening to his grandfather’s on the Bhagavad Gita. This influence of Krishna’s teachings to Arjun were to remain with Somnath till his last breath.
At the age of 10, Som enrolled at the Prince of Wales Royal Military College in Dehra Dun and later joined the Royal Indian Military Academy. As a young lieutenant, he chose to join the 8/19 Hyderabad Infantry Regiment.
His maternal uncle Captain Krishna Dutt Vasudeva who belonged to this regiment had died defending a bridge on the River Slim in Malaya against the Japanese. His bravery had made it possible for hundreds of his jawans to cross over to safety. The example of his uncle greatly influenced him during his career.
Somnath fought in World War II under Colonel K S Thimmayya (later the army chief) in Burma with the British Army. An anecdote speaks tellingly about the character of the young officer.
One day, Sharma’s orderly Bahadur was badly wounded in action and was unable to return to the camp. Sharma lifted Bahadur on his shoulders and began walking. When Thimmayya found his officer lagging behind under the weight of his orderly, he ordered him — ‘Leave this man, Som and rush back to the camp.’
Somnath retorted, ‘Sir, it is my own orderly that I am carrying; he is badly wounded and bleeding, l will not leave him behind.’ He eventually managed to carry Bahadur back, saving his life. He was awarded a ‘Mention in Dispatch’ for this act of bravery.
Back in New Delhi, as news of developments in Jammu & Kashmir trickled in, Major Sharma’s regiment was asked to move to Srinagar. Although technically ‘unfit for active duty in war’ (with a broken arm and a plaster from wrist to the elbow), Major Sharma insisted that he had to lead his company. He took charge of his new assignment at Srinagar airport on 1st Nov.
Claude Arpi writes what happened next:
Two days later on November 3, the ‘raiders’ reached Badgam a few miles away from the Srinagar airfield. Brigadier ‘Bogey’ Sen, the commander in Srinagar, immediately dispatched Sharma and his company to Badgam.
At 2:30 pm, supported by 3-inch and 2-inch mortars, a 700-strong tribal force attacked the Indian jawans. Being outnumbered by 7 to 1, Sharma immediately sent a request to Brigadier Sen for reinforcements.
He knew that if the enemy advanced any further, the airport would be lost and Kashmir would become a province of Pakistan; the airfield was the only lifeline between the Valley and the rest of India.
His last wireless message to the headquarters stated: ‘The enemy are only 50 yards from us. We are heavily outnumbered. We are under devastating fire. I shall not withdraw an inch but will fight to the last man and the last round.’
Major Sharma did not live to see another day. 4 Kumaon lost over half of their brave men…although they managed to inflict heavy losses on the attackers who lost about 200 men.
From “The Soldier who won India’s first Param Vir Chakra” by Claude Arpi:
Three days later, Major Sharma’s body was recovered. Though mutilated beyond recognition, a few pages of the Gita that he always kept in his breast pocket and the empty leather holster of Tewari’s pistol helped to identify the body. The pistol was gone.
During the last chat with his friend before flying to Kashmir, Somnath had joked that either he would die and win the Victoria Cross or become the army chief. It is his younger brother V N Sharma who in 1988 became chief of army staff.
Major Sharma’s sacrifice was not in vain. From the Indian Army’s website:
In the battle of Bagdam, Major Sharma, one JCO and 20 other ranks were killed. But their sacrifices did not go in vain. He and his men stemmed the tide of the enemy advance on Srinagar and the airfield for some very crucial hours. He has set an example of courage and qualities, seldom equaled in the history of the Indian Army. Major General Amarnath Sharma received India ‘s first and highest wartime gallantry medal, Param Vir Chakra, on behalf of his brave son.
Maj Somnath Sharma , 4 KUMAON (IC-521)
On 3 November 1947, Major Somnath Sharma’s company was ordered on a fighting patrol to Badgam in the Kashmir Valley . He reached his objective at first light on 3 November and took up a position south of Badgam at 1100hours. The enemy, estimated at about 500 attacked his company position from three sides; the company began to sustain heavy casualties.
Fully realizing the gravity of the situation and the direct threat that would result to both the aerodrome and Srinagar via Hum Hom, Major Somnath Sharma urged his company to fight the enemy tenaciously. With extreme bravery he kept rushing across the open ground to his sections exposing himself to heavy and accurate fire to urge them to hold on.
Keeping his nerve, he skillfully directed the fire of his sections into the ever-advancing enemy. He repeatedly exposed himself to the full fury of enemy fire and laid out cloth strips to guide our aircraft onto their targets in full view of the enemy.
Realising that casualties had affected the effectiveness of his light automatics, this officer whose left hand was in plaster, personally commenced filling magazines and issuing them to the light machine gunners. A mortar shell landed right in the middle of the ammunition resulting in an explosion that killed him.
Major Sharma’s company held on to list position and the remnants withdrew only when almost completely surrounded. His inspiring example resulted in the enemy being delayed for six hours, thus gaining time for our reinforcements to get into position at Hum Hom to stem the tide of the enemy advance.
His leadership, gallantry and tenacious defence were such that his men were inspired to fight the enemy by seven to one, six hours after this gallant officer had been killed.
He has set an example of courage and qualities seldom equalled in the history of the Indian Army. His last message to the Brigade Headquarters a few moments before he was killed was, ‘the enemy are only 50 yards from us. We are heavily outnumbered. We are under devastating fire. I shall not withdraw an inch but will fight to the last man and the last round.’
As I read this, I had tears in my eyes…As you go about your day today, please spare a moment to remember these heroes.
In what can only be called as a tragic irony, the Param Vir Chakra was designed by Major Somnath Sharma’s mother-in-law, Smt Savitri Khanwilkar