On the 25th anniversary of the re-capture of Tiger Hill, it is fitting to remember the handful of soldiers of the 8 Sikh battalion who foiled repeated counterattacks launched by Pakistani troops under Capt Karnal Sher Khan and ensured that Tiger Hill remained in Indian hands.

The name of Subedar Nirmal Singh, from Gurdaspur district in Punjab, holds special importance as he was the last JCO left alive who foiled the Pakistani counterattacks and finally died in the battle. The Sikh battalion lost 14 men in those repeated counterattacks with four Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) dead and two officers wounded.

Nestled between Tingel and Sando nala, the daunting Tiger Hill commands attention with its steep rocky slopes. Rising to a towering height of over 16,500 feet, the mountain stands as one of the region’s grandest, providing a commanding view of the Mushkoh region and partially encompassing the Matayin Bowl, along with the picturesque Drass village and the vital national highway. Its snow-covered terrain presented arduous challenges, with certain areas posing exceptional difficulties for climbers.

The Tiger Hill complex spans an impressive stretch and at its pinnacle, the width narrows to a mere five meters, while notable features such as India Gate and Helmet expand to about 30 meters in breadth.

In an earlier conversation with The Indian Express, Brig MPS Bajwa (retd), the Commander of 192 Mountain Brigade which captured Tiger Hill, had recalled how he had planned the operation.

Festive offer

“Instead of four battalions which we had initially planned, the final task came down to 18 Grenadiers and 8 Sikhs. We decided to approach the top from the most difficult side. I selected the ghatak platoon of 18 Grenadiers for the task and got the mountaineers from high-altitude warfare school to train them. The GOC was skeptical saying it was a very difficult task,” he said.

The brigade commander also selected the 8 Sikh for a tough task saying that it had to live up to the reputation of the regiment. The battalion had not fared well in an earlier engagement with the enemy with the consequence that the morale was low and senior officers in the chain of command were skeptical about the chances of its success.

Brig Bajwa said 52 soldiers with two officers and four JCOs of the 8 Sikhs were held in reserve in the battle. “These are the men who turned the whole battle. Let me tell you it was the 8 Sikhs which turned the tide of the battle. Let anyone say otherwise. I also got tremendous support from the artillery firepower of the Bofors as that was the only asset I could play with,” Brig Bajwa said.

He went on to say that full credit must be given to the 18 Grenadiers, particularly Lt (now Colonel) Balwan Singh, who led the men of the Ghatak platoon and climbed to the top. He was later given Mahavir Chakra while Yogender Yadav got Param Vir Chakra.

“These men reached the top but came under heavy fire from the Pakistanis who had made well-entrenched defenses. This was when the 8 Sikh troops were pushed in and they kept hanging on at the top. I gave them a motivational talk on the radio and told them not to give an inch in the face of repeated Pakistani counterattacks. With two officers wounded and three JCOs killed, Subedar Nirmal Singh was the only leader left and I told him that he had to ensure that the honor bestowed on Sikhs by Dashmesh Pita (Guru Gobind Singh) was not let down.

“They (8 Sikh battalion) lost 14 men in the Pakistani counter attacks and both their officers were wounded and all four JCOs killed,” Brig Bajwa said.

Subedar Nirmal Singh was born on May 6, 1957, in a village in Gurdaspur district. He was enrolled in the 8 Sikh in 1976. On July 4, 1999, he was among the badly wounded in the Pakistani counterattack but retained command of his troops and was in touch with the Brigade Commander (Brig MPS Bajwa) on the wireless who kept motivating him to beat the Pakistan attacks.

In the heavy hand-to-hand fighting, Subedar Nirmal Singh led his men despite being seriously wounded and finally died when he got shot in the head. He was awarded the Vir Chakra posthumously.

“Before getting killed due to a direct hit on his head, Subedar saab had told us to shout our Jaikara (war cry) ‘Bole So Nihal Sat Sri Akal’ with all our might and rush the attacking enemy and the officer leading them. I had suffered four bullet wounds and fired two magazines of my Light Machine Gun (LMG) into the enemy as hand-to-hand fighting broke out. I pounced upon the tall, well-built man dressed in a tracksuit and leading the Pak troops. There was chaos all around with abuses being shouted on both sides but I managed to kill him,” Havildar Satpal Singh who also earned a Vir Chakra in the same battle told The Indian Express.

Little did he know at the time that the man with whom he had engaged in hand-to-hand combat was Capt Karnal Sher Khan of the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) of the Pakistan Army and who received Pakistan’s highest gallantry award, Nishan-e -Haider, on the recommendation of the Indian brigade Commander Brig Bajwa who put a chit in the pocket of the dead Pakistani Captain’s tracksuit.