The Param Vir Chakra is India’s highest military decoration for acts of conspicuous gallantry in the presence of the enemy.
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This section is adapted mainly from the official Indian Army account and the Better Indian (with permission). It also uses a limited amount of information, on a fair-use basis, from Claude Arpi’s blog (no response from him)
Major Somnath Sharma was born on 31 January 1923 at Dadh in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh. His father, Amar Nath Sharma, was a Major General in the Indian Army who later became the first director general of India’s Armed Medical Services.
As a young boy, he spent 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 him forever.
Major Sharma’s family has a long tradition of military service. His uncle, Captain K D Vasudeva, died defending a bridge on the River Slim against the Japanese during the Malayan Campaign in World War II. Vasudeva’s gallantry had made it possible for hundreds of his jawans to cross over to safety, an incident that greatly influenced Major Sharma throughout his career.
Deeply inspired by his father and uncle, Major Sharma had already decided when he was a child that he would join the Indian Army. After completing his schooling from Sherwood College in Nainital, he enrolled at the Prince of Wales Royal Military College in Dehradun before joining the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.
He was commissioned in the Kumaon Regiment on 22 February 1942.
Major Sharma fought in World War II under Colonel K S Thimmayya (later the Army Chief) in Burma with the British Army. 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.’
Major Sharma replied, ‘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
On 22 October 1947, Pakistan launched the tribal invasion of Jammu & Kashmir. The intention was to grab the Kashmir Valley by force. As the State became a part of the Union (of India) on October 26th, her protection became the responsibility of India. To save the State from a tribal invasion, which was approaching the valley at a very fast pace, India dispatched troops to Srinagar.
Somnath Sharma was serving as a Major in the Delta Company of 4th Kumaon Regiment when the Pakistani invasion of Jammu and Kashmir began on October 22, 1947. By the next morning, the first troops and equipment had begun being airlifted from Delhi’s Palam airport to Srinagar. Major Sharma’s company too was airlifted to Srinagar on October 31, 1947. Before leaving for Srinagar, he spent his last night in Delhi with Major K Tewari, his best friend and Burma companion, at the Queen Victoria Road bachelor Officers’ Mess in Delhi.
When his company was asked to move to Srinagar, Major Sharma’s arm was in plaster. He had suffered a fracture on the hockey ground and was advised rest till the plaster was removed. But he insisted on being with his company at this crucial hour, and was allowed to go.
Meanwhile, the 1 Sikh at Patan had blunted the main thrust of the tribal invasion of Srinagar. The enemy now resorted to guerrilla tactics to sneak into the valley. But the induction of more troops into Srinagar enabled the Army to take care of the surrounding areas better.
Two days later, on November 3, the enemy had reached Badgam, a small town just a few miles away from the Srinagar airfield. On learning this, Brigadier L.P. ‘Bogey’ Sen, commander of the 161 Infantry Brigade in Srinagar, immediately dispatched Major Sharma and his company to Badgam.
Major Somnath Sharma reached Badgam at first light on November 3 and ensured that his troops took up a fighting position immediately. Enemy movement had been spotted near the Badgam village but Major Sharma surmised that the movement in Badgam village was meant to divert attention while the real attack would come from the west. He was right.
As no enemy was seen during patrolling, two companies moved back to Srinagar by 1400 hours. However, D Company led by Major Sharma, which had taken up position south of Badgam, was asked to stay on in the area till 1500 hours. At 1435 hours, D Company was subjected to firing from some houses of Badgam village. The Company did not return fire for fear of killing innocent people of the village.
While Major Sharma was discussing this threat with the Brigade Commander, a large force of the enemy, about 700 strong, appeared from a depression to the west of his position. It attacked the Company with small arms, mortars and heavy automatics. The accurate and devastating fire of the enemy inflicted heavy casualties on D Company.
Major Somnath Sharma understood the gravity of the situation The imminent threat to both Srinagar town and the airfield was looming large before his eyes. He rushed across the open ground to his sections, exposing himself to enemy fire. He also laid out panels to guide IAF aircraft to their targets in the face of enemy fire. The company held on for six hours against heavy odds.
When heavy casualties adversely affected the firing power of the company, Major Sharma, with his right hand in plaster, took upon himself the task of filling the magazines and issuing them to men, operating light machine guns.
While he was busy fighting the enemy, a mortar shell exploded on the ammunition near him. His last message to Brigade HQ, received 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 our last man and our last round.”
His answer is now part of the Army lore. In the battle of Badgam, 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 equalled in the history of the Indian Army.
Sharma’s body was recovered on November 6, 1947, three days after his death. Though, mutilated beyond recognition, a few pages of the Gita that he always kept in his breast pocket were recovered.
During the last chat with Major Tewari before flying to Kashmir, Major Sharma had joked that either he would die and win the Victoria Cross, or become the Army Chief. It is his youngest brother V.N. Sharma who went on to became Chief of Army Staff in 1988.
In 1947, the Param Vir Chakra had not yet been instituted (happened in 1950). Hence, the original recommendation does not mention Param Vir Chakra.
Later, when the award had been created, Major General Amarnath Sharma received India’s first Param Vir Chakra on behalf of his son.
OFFICIAL CITATION FOR PARAM VIR CHAKRA
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 skilfully 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.’
This section is based on Brothers in arms (used with permission)
Family of soldiers: The Sharmas have given the nation three generations of soldiers, from Independent India’s first war hero to an army chief.
November 3, 1997. Misty memories hung in the air for the Sharma family. It was the golden jubilee year, day and hour of his brother’s death. Yet there was no grief in the voice of Gen. Vishwanath Sharma, former chief of army staff. Only an unmistakable pride. His brother, Major Somnath Sharma, Independent India’s first war hero, had earned the Param Vir Chakra, laying down his life in Kashmir on November 3, 1947.
The other brave soldiers in the family live to tell the story. The hero of the battle of Badgam was the eldest of the three Sharma brothers. Younger to Maj. Somnath Sharma by just a year is Lieutenant General Surindranath Sharma who retired as engineer-in-chief of army staff. And the youngest served the nation as the army chief. That’s not all. Of the two sisters, the younger Kamala Tewary, a doctor, retired from the army as a Major. The other sister, Manorama Sharma, is the widow of a Brigadier.
The major influence in their family was their father, Amarnath Sharma. As a young doctor he could have had a roaring practice in Lahore but he opted for the British army. He rose to become a Major General. He retired as deputy director of medical services. The children were to rise higher still.
“More than my father’s bravado it was perhaps our valiant uncle’s death in the Burmese forests fighting the Japanese in 1942 that urged Som further,” says Surindranath. Somnath’s uncle K.D. Vasudev had fallen in the battle field as a young lieutenant in the British army.
“He was a hardened soldier, fighting shoulder to shoulder with greats like Gen. Thimayya (then a lieutenant colonel) in the Arakan jungles of Burma. The Burmese campaign had earned him a mention in despatches. So, when he went to Kashmir to save the Valley from the invading Pathan tribes, it was but natural that he defended the Srinagar airstrip with his life,” says Surindranath.
“They [Major Sharma and his men] flew down to Kashmir expecting something similar to what was happening in Delhi and Punjab. So the troops had only small quantities of arms and ammunition which could be carried in person. Brigadier L.P. Sen was among the first ones to reach Kashmir. He reported that it was not insurgency but war that was ravaging the Valley. Som reached Kashmir with his company on October 31,” recounts Surindranath.
Major Sharma’s memorabilia are now with his regiment. Lt. Gen. Surindranath has instituted a scholarship in his brother’s name for the soldiers’ children.
Gen. V.N. Sharma views the battle in this way: “Doubts about the British Indian army’s performance after independence were once and for all dispelled with the war for Kashmir, Badgam being one of its significant battles. The Indian army’s efficiency and expertise were on display in Kashmir.”
According to him, the army’s youth at the hour of independence was a significant factor. “There wasn’t a proper army headquarters, nor well laid war plans for the Kashmir operation. The men were mostly led by junior officers of the rank of Major and Captain. Yet they made it with sheer initiative. Serving without orders is not an easy task and the junior officers of the day did it well. And that is how I rate Som as one of my Majors, though much senior to me. His was only a patrol, yet held ground and defended Badgam. He was just 25 and a bachelor,” says Vishwanath Sharma.
The former army chief was only 17 when he had to break the news of his brother’s death. “It was 7 p.m. on November 3. We were in Ranchi as my father was posted with the eastern army. My father was not at home when I received the telephone call from a senior officer. He asked me how old I was and whether I could take some bad news. My sister heard the news somehow, she cried out loud and mother came to know and the whole situation was out of control.”
In the 1980s, Doordarshan commissioned Chetan Anand, a well-known film director, to produce TV episodes (in Hindi) on Param Vir Chakra awardees. The episode on Major Somnath Sharma is available here.