Unsung Heroes | History Corner | Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, Ministry of Culture, Government of India

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Paying tribute to India’s freedom fighters

Major Somnath Sharma

Kangra, Himachal Pradesh

January 09, 2023 to January 09, 2024

Major Somnath Sharma sacrificed his life for the country when he was only 24 years of age. Born on 31 January 1923, he was the son of an illustrious Major General Amaranth Sharma. He became the first recipient of India’s highest gallantry award, the Param Vir chakra. He was commissioned into the 8th Battalion, 19th Hyderabad Regiment (later 4th Battalion, Kumaon Regiment) on February 22, 1942.

He attained recognition due to his determined effort in protecting the crucial Srinagar airport during the time of the Pakistan-led tribal revolt in 1948. The gallant actions of Major Sharma and his men from 4 battalions Kumaon successfully thwarted the attack by the Pakistani raiders and provided the much-needed time for the Indian army to fortify defenses around Srinagar, thus, enabling India to prevent Kashmir from falling into the hands of the enemy.

Major Sharma as a dedicated belt force hallmarked his professionalism during his active participation in World War IInd in the Burma campaign against the Japanese. One memorable event during that campaign defined his entire personality as a leader which was associated with his orderly, who was badly wounded while in action and was unable to walk. Maj Sharma carried his orderly on his shoulders and despite repeated instructions from the higher authorities to leave him, Somnath retorted, “I will not leave him behind” and eventually managed to carry Bahadur thereby saving his life. The same spirit distinctly highlights the ethos of the army even today as the army never leaves any of its brethren behind on the battlefield.

On October 22, 1947, Pakistan launched the tribal invasion of Jammu and Kashmir named Operation Gulmarg. The intention was to grab the Kashmir valley by force. Before the partition of India, the land route to Srinagar was from Muzaffarabad, Uri, and Baramulla. The road from Pathankot was a difficult stretch, with a host of challenges. Until the road from Pathankot was improved, the only viable route to Srinagar was by air. Therefore, the airfield at Srinagar had great strategic importance. Realizing the importance of the airfield, the raiders attempted to capture it as a final step before capturing Srinagar and the entire valley. As the state became a part of the Union of India on October 26, 1947, its protection at any cost became the responsibility of the Indian Government. In order to arrest the advance of the raiders in the state, Indian authorities dispatched troops of the Indian army to Srinagar. The first batch of the Indian troops reached just in time on October 27 morning to stop the enemy on the outskirts of Srinagar. D Company of 4 KUMAON, led by Major Somnath Sharma, was airlifted to Srinagar on 31 October. He insisted on being dispatched to Srinagar with his troops despite having a fractured arm and being technically “unfit for active duty in war”. He argued that “he knew his men better than anyone else, and if they were going into action, they were not going in without him”. A mere 5 km away from Srinagar airfield, Badgam village has the high ground around it which guards the prominent approaches towards the airfield. Thus, it was important for the Indian forces to retain control of the area in order to safeguard the supplies landing at the airfield. There had been persistent rumours of tribal movement towards Badgam and an enemy force there could easily threaten it. The Lashkar had been arriving in Badgam in small groups to conceal their movement. They had planned to attack Badgam when they reached a count of around 1,000 men, and then advance towards Srinagar airfield. A force consisting of two companies, Alfa and Delta of 4 KUMAON, under Captain Ronnie wood was sent to Badgam in the early hours of 3 November. Captain Ronnie Wood was ordered to take his company over the area between Badgam and Magam and then get back to the airfield. Major Sharma was also told to begin thinning out. But at 02:00 pm when he had already sent back Alfa Company, he was told to hold on for another hour. After Alfa Company left Badgam, the villagers grouped in the nullah began to disperse. While Sharma and his men thought that they were returning to their homes, they were quietly positioning themselves around the Delta company. The Pakistani Major had decided not to wait beyond afternoon and as soon as he had about 700 men, he launched his attack. Sharma and his Company, consisting of about 90 men, were the only ones left to fight the raiders. They were outnumbered seven to one. The attack began with sudden mortar and light machine guns firing from close ranges. Just as the Company began to respond, a large enemy launched an attack on their position from another flank. Major Somnath Sharma understood the gravity of the situation and the imminent threat to both Srinagar town and the airfield was looming large before his eyes. Despite successfully repulsing the first attack, the enemy's numerical superiority threatened the Company’s defenses. He lost his forward platoon localities but held on with his third platoon. With reinforcements taking a while to arrive, Major Sharma ordered air strikes on the enemy positions which were at close quarters. The brave officer himself took the initiative and laid out the ground panels to guide the aircraft to their target. The aerial attack was successful but failed to disturb the tempo of the tribesmen’s attack. Eventually, the Indian army men started running out of ammunition. When Major Sharma informed Brigade headquarters about this, he was asked to pull back which he refused outright. Just a few minutes later, when he was crouched in a trench next to the Bren gunner, helping him load the gun, a mortar shell landed on the open ammunition box next to them. An eardrum-shattering blast rents the air, instantly killing Major Sharma, his sahayak, the machine gunner, and a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) standing nearby. Despite the enemy’s overwhelming numerical superiority, Major Sharma’s heroics motivated his men to an extent that they held onto their position for over six hours till the remnants withdrew after being surrounded on almost all four sides. This provided the much-needed time to flow in reinforcements to get into position to stem the tide of the enemies’ advance. By the time the reinforcements came in, the unit location had been overrun, and Major Somnath Sharma, died, fighting to the last. However, he ensured that the raiders suffered heavy casualties - over 300 of them were killed - which significantly slowed down their pace, thus, giving the much-needed time for the Indian Army to fly into Srinagar, and ensure its protection against Pakistan. His sacrifice was not in vain- he had saved Srinagar for India. For this act of conspicuous bravery, he was awarded the first Param Vir Chakra and the 4 KUMAON battalion was later awarded the Battle Honour, Srinagar. He laid down his life for the nation at the young age of 25. His citation reflected his heroism, patriotism, and courage. He was the first recipient of The Param Vir Chakra (PVC), awarded posthumously for his gallantry and sacrifice.