The death of Lieutenant General Joginder (Jogi) Singh Dhillon on November 20 at the age of 89 received no coverage in the Indian papers, although it was his inspiring generalship that helped smash the superior Pakistani armour, poised to head for the Beas bridge and then onto Delhi, in the opening days of the 1965 India-Pakistan war. Such milestones seem of lesser consequence to our press than the extensive coverage given to dubious public figures.
What Jogi Dhillon brought to his command as lieutenant general commanding XI Corps in the 1965 war, was a military service of many ‘‘firsts’’. He stood first in 1933 in the all India entrance examination to the Indian Military Academy, then won both the coveted gold medal and the Sword of Honour before joining the Bengal Sappers on February 1, 1936.
Graduating in 1939 with honours from Roorkee’s Thomson Civil Engineering College, he was soon sent overseas for the first four years of World War II. He saw active service in Iraq, Iran and Burma and, after a stint in the Staff College, Quetta, was again sent to command a field company in Malaya (1945-46), then onto Sourabaya, where he commanded 2 Field Company, before returning home.
From 1946 to 1947 he was staff officer in the E-in-C’s Office Army HQ, then went to Quetta as garrison engineer, before taking over as GSO1 in the E-in-C’s Branch from October 1947 to February 1948 in the rank of lieutenant colonel.
At this critical juncture in the life of the Bengal Sappers, Jogi Dhillon was handpicked to take charge of its regimental centre at Roorkee. The centre’s crisis arose from the fact that since the Indian Army’s Corps of Engineers had centres in Bangalore, Roorkee and Kirkee, under the terms of Parition the centres in Bangalore and Kirkee would remain in India, while the Roorkee centre’s assets would go to Pakistan.
So Bengal Sappers was one of the formations that bore the brunt of the division of the Indian Army. In the division on a two-third, one-third basis the majority assets in the Roorkee centre’s case went to Pakistan’s Engineers Centre at Sialkot, including plant and equipment, and even furniture, carpets, curtains, books, silver, crockery, cutlery and typewriters and one-third of the regimental fund.
In the two years after taking command in February 1948 of what was left of the centre, Dhillon turned the challenge of resurrecting it ‘‘into a personal triumph that left everyone breathless. Combining organisational skill with drive, determination and steel, he rehabilitated the centre, streamlined its training and administration and integrated it into an efficient and war-worthy team’’.
A change of profound importance introduced at the centre — which the newly independent nation’s army as a whole eventually adopted — was that whilst hitherto several messes for the other ranks had cooked food in each unit for a particular caste, Colonel Dhillon decisively ended this outdated practice. He decreed a single integrated mess would serve food to all men and not their caste.
Another thing, according to a retired Sappers officer, Colonel Chanan Singh Dhillon, the dynamic commandant did was demolish the wall that separated the centre’s gurudwara and Hindu temple and build a platform instead, so that gatherings of both denominations could jointly celebrate their special days.
When Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited the centre in 1949 he was so impressed by what he saw that he extended Jogi Dhillon the singular honour of selecting him to command India’s first Republic Day parade in 1950.
After command of the Bengal Sappers, Dhillon commanded two infantry brigades in succession before his appointment, in 1956, as director of technical development in Army HQ. He then served as director, weapons and equipment, before being promoted to major general in December 1957.
He was chief of staff, Western Command, at the time of his selection to attend a course at the Imperial Defence College in the United Kingdom, from where he returned to an appointment in the National Defence College, before assuming command of a division in August 1960. His next job was as deputy chief of the general staff at Army HQ, then promotion to lieutenant general and posting as GOC, XI Corps in Punjab.
The posting would be the culmination of everything that had gone into the making of this exceptional soldier. When on the morning of September 6, 1965, war with Pakistan broke out, with the XI Corps launching a massive retaliatory attack across the border in Punjab on several fronts at 4 am, the aim was to teach Pakistan a lesson for its unprovoked attack on India in the Chhamb sector a few days earlier.
It is not possible to describe this 17-day war here but the decisive tank battle of Assal Uttar, near Khem Karan, on September 10 does bear telling. Indian units hid their Sherman tanks 500 metres apart in a U-shaped formation in tall and unharvested sugarcane fields, and snared the enemy’s vastly superior Patton tanks into this ambush, annihilating them to the last tank and deciding the outcome of the war.
The destruction of Pakistan’s armoured pride and the casualties it suffered, including an artillery brigadier and many other senior officers killed or surrendered, destroyed the enemy’s morale. At Assal Uttar, 97 enemy tanks — of which 72 were Pattons and 25 Chafees and Shermans were destroyed, damaged or captured intact, of which 28 Pattons were in perfect running condition.
Facing the very modern M-48 Pattons were India’s old and inferior Centurions and Shermans — outgunned, outdistanced and far fewer in number. And yet Indian losses at Khem Karan were only 32 tanks.
There are countless other such telling statistics but the fact that stands out is when Pakistan’s chief of army general staff and air chief met their president on September 19 and requested him to negotiate a ceasefire with the Indians, Pakistan’s defeat was acknowledged at the highest levels.
A few days after the cessation of hostilities, Frank Moraes (he was then editor-in-chief of The Indian Express), spent a weekend in the Lahore sector, calling first on Lt General Dhillon at his wartime corps HQ at Raiyya, and then visiting some places that had already become household words — like the Ichhogil Canal, Dograi, Khem Karan.
Moraes described our visit in ‘‘The Soldier’s Spirit’’ in his paper of November 1, 1965, and also his meeting with Jogi Dhillon: ‘‘I was fortunate to spend some time with Lt General J.S. Dhillon, the corps commander in this sector, and to note and understand how greatly the spirit of all, from jawans to divisional commanders, depends on the calibre of the corps commander. Jogi Dhillon is an enthusiastic, intelligent soldier with a physical vigour, drive and combativeness which enable him to be extraordinarily mobile over his wide command and an inspiring presence and example to his officers and men.’’
In recognition of his role in the 1965 war, the president of India invested Dhillon with the Padma Bhushan in August 1966 and his appointed him GOC-in-C Central Command, from where he retired on August 4, 1970.
When the army bade farewell to its distinguished comrade in Delhi on November 21, 2003, six generals acted as pallbearers and the COAS, General N.C. Vij, flew in for the funeral from Hyderabad. This reaffirmed that the Indian Army stands steadfast on some of its finest traditions.
On a more personal note, Jogi Dhillon was married for 62 years to Minnie, who survives him, and to whom he was as devoted as she to him. He is also survived by his three daughters, Kiran, Komal and Kamal: an architect, airline executive and head of her own consultancy firm — each as individualistic as their indomitable parents.