Brigadier Basant K Ponwar AVSM, VSM was commissioned in the 1st Maratha Light Infantry in December 1969 as a freshly minted Second Lieutenant. He spent the first two years of his service in the Battalion specialising in anti-terror operations in India’s North-East and in the Jammu and Kashmir valley. The 1st Maratha Light Infantry was a part of the 95 Mountain Brigade and by 1971, he was serving in Nagaland, in the thick of hardcore counter-terror operations.
Eventually orders were passed to place the entire 95 Mountain Brigade under the 101 Communication Zone and move to the Eastern theatre of the 1971 Indo-Pak war and liberate Bangladesh. Alongside the rest of the Brigade, the 1st Maratha LI moved to Joshepur, south of Tura in Meghalaya and from the end of November 1971, the 1st Maratha LI was involved in the small cross border skirmishes against the Pakistan Army inside Bangladesh.
Being a Battalion highly specialised in counter-insurgency operations, the Battalion needed a baptism by fire to start fighting as a regular Infantry Battalion, and 2/Lt Ponwar was one of the first men from the regiment to see action upon being thrust into the conflict in the end of November. Early in his deployment into the conflict, he led an ambush party with comprised of boys from the Battalion along with some local Mukti Bahini guerillas and crossed over through the International Border, entering what is now Bangladesh.
“I was with the right forward C Company. The Pakistani’s attacked our position on the nights of 10-11 December 1971 and got hell from us. Over 230 Pakistani troops were killed in action, while 300 had surrendered to us. Jamalpur was captured by our forces.”
2/Lt Ponwar and his team ambushed a Pakistani mail vehicle on the Jadavpur-Mymensingh road and started gathering critical intelligence on enemy presence in the area. He located the positions of the enemy Battalions operating within the area, locating the presence of the Pakistani 93 Infantry Brigade, and had brought back news about their strengths and positions as a direct result of operations dominating the ‘No Mans Land’ across the International Border. He also took part in the second raid conducted by two Battalions on the Kamalpur Border outpost.
As the 13 Guards attacked the Kamalpur outpost—which was held by Captain Ahsan Malik of the Pakistan Army, 1st Maratha LI went to cut-off the heavy mortar support brought in for the defense of the Kamalpur outpost. Unfortunately, the Kamalpur outpost held their ground, forcing the 13 Guards to pull out. “Major Vatsa from the Corps of Engineers destroyed the enemy mortars by placing diamond charge of plastic explosives” while 2/Lt Ponwar and the 1st Maratha LI managed to decimate the enemy soldiers in the mortar positions in a deadly ambush laid by 1 Maratha LI.
As the war officially broke out with Pakistan on the 3rd of December 1971, the entire 95 Mountain Brigade was pulled into action in Bangladesh. The 1st Maratha LI was the first to capture the town of Bakshiganj with the loss of only one sepoy, killed in action. 2/Lt Ponwar served alongside his Battalion, later moving on to the thick of the fighting in the battle of Jamalpur; which was a roadblock action in which the entire battalion had blocked the Jamalpur-Dacca road.
Jamalpur was the garrison of the 31 Baluch Regiment of the Pakistan Army and after Brigadier Hardev Singh Kler’s requests for the 31 Baluch to surrender being denied by Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Ahmed, the 1st Maratha LI moved in and had outflanked the enemy in Jamalpur. The fighting became more intense as the boys of the 1st Maratha LI and 2/Lt Ponwar closed in on the 31 Baluch’s garrison—only 1,000 yards away from them till the 31 Baluch had brought in artillery support, pushing back Lt Ponwar and his boys.
Later, the entire 1st Maratha LI had literally decimated the 31 Baluch by a heavy ambush assault, with the young daredevil officer also in the ambush team, mowing down Pakistani soldiers. “I was with the right forward C Company. The Pakistani’s attacked our position on the nights of 10-11 December 1971 and got hell from us. Over 230 Pakistani troops were killed in action, with 300 having surrendered to us. Jamalpur was captured by Indian Forces.” Recounted Brig. Ponwar.
"Pakistani Battalions at Jamalpur and Mymensingh were asked to fallback to Dacca as regular troops were not available for its defence. So, when they tried to break through our roadblocks, they suffered very heavy casualties and only a few managed to bypass and get away to Dacca.”
After the liberation of Jamalpur from Pakistani occupation, he was also present in the liberation of Tangail; on the leading columns of Indian army vehicles linking up with the 2 Parachute Battalion at the Poongli bridge outside Tangail, being the link up officer. Upon entering Tangail and after meeting the legendary Mukti Bahini leader—Kader Siddiqi, this is what he had asked— “Dushman kidhar hai?” (“Where is the enemy?”), Kader Siddiqi had replied — “Dushman bhaag raha hai!” (“The enemy is running!”)
Narrating the events following the pitched battle of Jamalpur, the war veteran said, “The next day I was asked to lead the advance to Tangail. Where I met Tiger Siddiqui short of Tangail. Following which I linked up with the 2 Para on Poongli Bridge at about 1600h on 12 December. This Bridge was over the Turag River, so we did not wade through but drove on and entered Tangail by 1800h. Pakistani Forces had all withdrawn to Dacca for the last stand.”
“2 Para had action against the withdrawing Pakistani 93 Brigade Headquarters and one Battalion from Mymensingh on the night of 11/12 December and the day of 12 December. Pakistani Battalions at Jamalpur and Mymensingh were asked to fallback to Dacca as there were no regular troops available for its defence. So, when they tried to break through our roadblocks, they suffered very heavy casualties and only a few managed to bypass and get away to Dacca.” Added Brig. Ponwar.
He was there in Dacca during the liberation of the city and was also tasked with guarding and managing the Pakistani Prisoners of War inside the city after the Surrender ceremony. At the time of attaining this glory, he was only 22-years-old. Even after 48 years of the liberation of Bangladesh, he is welcomed in Bangladesh as a hero and he talks about the gratefulness of the Bengali people and the Mukti Bahini in supporting his Battalion in the operations. He still remembers the slogans by the Bengalis on 16 December 1971, screaming— “Indian Army Zindabaad!”
“I am in my 51st year in uniform. Having served 36 Years in the Army and 15 Years in the police force on a special assignment with the Government of Chhattisgarh to train the police in guerrilla warfare to combat the Naxalites."
After his tenure in Bangladesh, he served as an Instructor in the Commando Wing of an Infantry School from 1978-1981 where he specialised in Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare training and served as a Commandant in the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare school. He has been instrumental in dealing with Naxalites in Chhattisgarh and after his retirement from the army as a Brigadier in 2005, he has been the Director of Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare College, raising specialised commandos in breaking the backs of the Naxalites.
Presently, he is serving as the Inspector General of Police in Chhattisgarh and has imparted Guerilla Warfare training to the Indian Police, Indo Tibetan Border Police,Sashastra Seema Bal, Border Security Force and the Central Reserve Police Force personnel serving in the Naxalite prone areas and has established Counter Insurgency and Jungle warfare schools in Kanker and North Bastar.
He has been also invited to talk about Counter-Insurgency and Counter-Terrorism in London, Germany, Australia and the Army War College, Mhow. Even after his long service in the army from 1969 to 2005, he is still serving with pride and honor! “I am in my 51st year in uniform. Having served 36 Years in the Indian Army and 15 Years in the police force on a special assignment with the Government of Chhattisgarh to train the police in guerrilla warfare to combat the Naxalites. They are now on the Run!” Said the decorated veteran with pride!