The Sadbhavna of the surgical strikers : The Himalayan Jonga Rally 1986

The Sadbhavna of the surgical strikers : The Himalayan Jonga Rally 1986


The Sadbhavna of the surgical strikers : The Himalayan Jonga Rally 1986


Colonel Ranjit Singh

Certain happenings in a unit are celebrated, the big ones live on and the minor ones last awhile. Some unsavoury and embarrassing ones are brushed under the carpet and left there to be forgotten.

A few small events are innocuous and remain just as a pleasant memory or otherwise, this is one of them, the real story of which we kept to ourselves and to which only then Captain Balbir Sambyal and I then a Major were privy to.

The then Army Cdr Northern Command had a reputation of being a hard task master and perfectionist. He detested sloth and inefficiency and did not tolerate non performers. He was extremely fond of his drinks and had a very hot temper.

All in all, a feared and well known figure in army circles. He was also a flashy, stylish man, slim, tall, good looking with long white hair.

He was a speed freak and many a time drove to the golf course in impeccable whites in his open jeep, no driver, alone and at a screaming speed.

Ages ago when he was the Brigadier General Staff of a Corps, our unit did an exercise under him. In the exercise we lost a NCO who was washed away in a tributary of Chenab River and drowned rather than becoming an exercise Prisoner of War.

This incident and the unit’s performance during the War had so impressed him that it was embossed on his mind. He remembered 9 Special Forces as he rose on to higher echelons in the army.

Years later, The Exercise Group Commander of that particular exercise was now the Commanding Officer of 9 and the BGS was now the Army Commander or the GOC in C. NINE was directly under the HQ Northern Command.

On his first visit to the unit, the CO received him near the car park and while walking to the office, hoping to catch the CO by surprise he asked him about the drowning incident years ago and snapped, ‘Do you know the soldiers name’? The CO promptly shot back in the same tone, ‘ Havildar Lal Chand Dhillon, Sir I was the Group Commander during that exercise. A mutual understanding between the two was set.

Now, we all have our idiosyncrasies and the Army Commander’s was speed and motor rallying. He introduced the Northern Command Himalayan Jonga Rally and since it was his brainchild and the amount of interest he was taking in the project, it translated into everyone participating in it and vying to win for obvious reasons.

In its inaugural run our 9 SF came first, the next year 1986, the CO called me and said that it was imperative we win. With this as the back ground the story unfolded thus.

On rally day team 9 (Sambyal, Self, L Naik KS Pathania and Veh Mech Naik Jagat Ram) was flagged off somewhere in the middle of the rallying order. By the time we reached Dalhousie we had managed to climb up to no 3 position when misfortune struck.

While going down to Khajjiar our brakes failed on a U turn and I barely managed keeping the vehicle on the road, we lost two hours repairing the vehicle, understandably, road side repairs being ad hoc jobs, we couldn’t speed up and were forced to hobble along dangerously, managing to reach Manali in the dark, 4hours plus behind the leader.

In Manali, Pathania and Jagat worked the whole night and set the brakes in order. There was no looking back after that. Over the next two days we made up all the lost time and were at No 1. While climbing down the last pass short of Upshi we had to stop the vehicle for a few minutes due to technical reasons, and the no 2 vehicle overtook us when we reached Leh he was a just a few minutes ahead.

The rest of the rally was way behind. Come next day, Leh to Dras, we started second and short of Drass we saw some tell tale signs on the road which were very heartening, the trail of a petrol leakage, the only vehicle ahead of us now leading the pack, had a ruptured tank, it was bound to happen as on the couple of occasions we overtook each other the previous day he drove over boulders in the rough like a man possessed. We reached Drass and were now just 2 mins behind the leader.

Disregarding the rough had cost him heavy. We slept easy that night as the whiskey we had in the transit camp Officer Commanding’s room was a fool proof sleeping aid. Alcohol was strictly banned during the rally and all camps on ‘Terra firma’ had strict instructions on alcohol not being served but this particular Officer Commanding in Drass from the Armoured Corps had his own interpretation of rules and was rather humane. This instruction didn’t matter to Sambyal, he being a teetotaller, but after a hard day’s drive and no sundowners, it definitely used to put me on the edge.

The next morning we started two minutes behind the leader, Sambyal was driving, we overtook a 1 Ton vehicle and a little ahead, sure enough, we found the leaders Jonga stranded without fuel, he had topped up in Drass terra firma but within 10 km it had all leaked out. With Srinagar a long way off the rally was ours. Taking a loop and climbing up the hill I could see below that the 1 Ton had stopped near the Jonga and some hectic activity was going on, they were loading some Jerry Cans in the Jonga. The competitive leg was till about 15 Km short of Srinagar. With the other Jonga being immobile and the rest nowhere in sight we drove in a more assured manner.

A little before the check point in a built up area we were surprised by the stranded team who emerged from a by lane ahead of us, and reported first, technically they had beaten us by a few seconds. Something was seriously amiss here, they were behind us, how did they pop up in front? They sensed that we knew the truth as we had seen the help extended to them. Now this was strictly against the rules and if we protested they would be disqualified. I lodged a verbal protest and was asked to give it in writing by the AN, mean while For the dry run prize giving, our team was asked to stand at the winners position on the ramp.

Our competitor, an ASC Havildar, seemed a broken man, he had driven the Jonga all through and the officer in his team, a Lt, was just present to comply with the rules. The Havildar was desperately trying to catch my eye and finally mustered enough courage to approach me, with absolute frankness and from the heart he put forth his case. He had been promised a promotion to Junior Commissioned Officer rank of Naib Subedar by his CO if he won, it would immensely benefit him and his family for life. He explained that he had worked hard all his life, was never involved in any disciplinary case and if he became a JCO it would be a honour back in his village. If we complained he would be ruined. He would be forever grateful to us if we heard him favourably. His plea sounded like the desperate cry of a drowning man seeking help.

I walked up to the his Jonga with him and saw the three Jerry cans hidden under a tarpaulin and a rubber pipe to siphon it directly to the carburettor. I told him to let me know the complete truth, he must have sensed hope in my words and stated that the ruptured tank was beyond local repair so they had called their unit at night and en route help from a local detachment was organized by their unit on the quiet. On further inquiring, that nowhere from Drass had they overtaken us so how did they come up in front? He avoided my looks, nervously and with a shiver in his words he replied that they had carried out a recce of the route before the rally. and knew of the dirt track short of the last check point which would save them about 10 minutes of time.

Now I had to decide if the protest was to be submitted, if I did, the implications of his unit’s action on him for telling me all this needn’t be elaborated. He was a worthy rallyist and in my mind his pleadings outweighed our claim for the top slot. For us it would just mean a feather in the cap but for him it was a life and future, not only his but his family’s also.

We did not lodge a protest and accepted the No 2 position.

The implications of what we were doing were understood by us and we knew that we would always have to keep the reasoning for this decision to ourselves. I felt that a units standing and positioning has, sometimes, to be overlooked for a good humanitarian cause. We let him have his JCO’ship. At the podium we were shifted from No 1 to No2, the Army Cdr asked me ‘Why no 2 why not first’, it did embarrass a little and I replied, ‘ He was a better driver.’

On return to the Unit the CO said, ‘I was keeping a track of our timing, from Manali to Dras our team climbed up to No 2, you were just two minutes behind, what happened “? My answer was the same, ‘The ASC Havildar who came first was an excellent driver’.

The rally slowly faded from our minds and a year after the event there were no recollections, life had moved on to other things. I left the army prematurely in 1994. About six years ago in 2017 I walked into a Honda Showroom enquiring about an Accord, the manager introduced himself, on finding out that I was from the Army we got into a conversation.

He said that his father had also been in the Army, in the ASC. Seeing my interest in a powerful top end Honda vehicle he asked if I enjoyed driving, I told him I did and even now I drove myself over long distances, that is why I was looking for a powerful comfortable vehicle. ‘Which regiment was yours’, he asked, I said Paras.

He carried on the conversation that when he was young his father’s driver had told him many stories about a rally, the driver had come first in the Himalayan Jonga rally and had told him that a Para team had come second and they were a wonderful lot. I looked at him intently, my mind going back 30 years and I smiled and replied, ‘Yes, they are’. Somehow the memory of that youthful ASC Havildar had come full circle.

We kept this to our selves all these years till I finally rung up Brigadier Sambyal, retired in 2021 and told him that this red light, flickering in my brain had to be switched off and we should let the real story be known. Sambyal has always shown maturity and understanding far beyond his years, he agreed and I mailed Gen Tej Pathak, the then CO9, the facts briefly so that the memories are corrected. 9 had won the rally but agreed to let a worthy opponent to have the top spot.