In 1960, immediately after being granted independence from Belgium, the Republic of Congo witnessed an extremely volatile political crisis, which resulted in extensive violence and large-scale casualties.
With the death of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s prime minister, the situation became so precarious that the government had to request the United Nations for help.
The UN initiated a peacekeeping mission, and in support, India deployed 3,000 of its defence personnel under the command of Brigadier KAS Raja to Congo.
Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria from the Indian Army, was a part of this unit. While his daring exploits gave the UN headquarters in Congo the upper hand in a rapidly deteriorating situation, he was unfortunately killed in the line of duty.
Recognising Captain Salaria’s bravery and commitment, the Indian government posthumously awarded him the Param Vir Chakra, making him the only UN peacekeeper to receive India’s highest wartime military decoration to this date.
This is his story.
Born on this date in 1935, Gurbachan was the second of five children born to Munshi Ram and Dhan Devi, from the Salaria Rajput family. Munshi had served in the Armoured Corps of the British Indian Army, so Gurbachan grew up listening to his tales, and the passion for the military way of life was instilled in him at a very young age.
A resident of Janwal, a village in the Punjab province of present-day Pakistan, Gurbachan and his family relocated to Jangal village, which fell under Indian part of Punjab and was educated at a local school here. However, his military aspirations led him to the distinguished King George Royal Indian Military College (KGRIMC) in 1946.
Shortly after, the doors of National Defence Academy (NDA) and Indian Military Academy (IMA) opened up for the young officer—one after the other. In 1954, he was commissioned into the 2nd battalion of the 3 Gorkha Rifles, where he was given the nickname of ‘Khan Saheb’ from his commanding officer, for his cropped haircut and upturned moustache!
In 1960, he was, however, transferred to the 3rd battalion of 1 Gorkha Rifles, the same regiment that would get deployed as India’s aid to the UN Peacekeeping Force in Congo.
Assigned to Katanga, which was among the high-tension areas, Gurbachan’s regiment fought against the Katangese troops (gendarmes) under Operation Unokat, after multiple attempts of reconciliation failed between the state and local rebels.
Things turned intense on December 5, 1961, when the Gorkha regiment was given the task of clearing the roadblock caused by the gendarmes between the Katanga command headquarters and the Elisabethville airfield.
While one platoon was designated for direct attack, Captain Salaria and his men were deployed nearby to block the gendarmes’ retreat and attack only if required, with the plan to be executed by midday.
However, the offensive on the armoured cars of gendarmes left the rebels in utter confusion, as this was a move unanticipated by them. This was when Captain Salaria came up with the brainwave of launching an attack before the gendarmes could reorganise.
His last words over the radio to another officer were, “I am going in for attack. I am certain I will win.”
Despite his troops being heavily outnumbered by the gendarmes (the ratio was 4:25), Salaria and his men charged towards them while shouting the Gorkha war cry, ‘Ayo Gorkhali’ (meaning, the Gorkhas have arrived).
Armed with khukris in a hand-to-hand assault, they managed to kill 40 men, but Salaria ended up getting shot twice in the neck by the automatic gunfire.
Due to extensive blood loss, he collapsed at the last line of trenches, but his second-in-command was able to evacuate him in an armoured personnel carrier to the airport hospital quickly. Sadly, the damage was too extensive, and Salaria succumbed to his injuries. He was only 26.
Salaria’s timely action and utter disregard for his own life played a significant role in helping the main battalion to not only easily overrun the Katangese force and clear the roadblock, but also prevented the gendarmes from encircling the UN Headquarters in Elisabethville.
His sacrifice didn’t go in vain, and he was conferred with the Param Vir Chakra posthumously, making him the only defence personnel from both the NDA and UN Peacekeeping Force to earn such an honour.
On his 83rd birth anniversary, we pay tribute to Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria and remember the brave young soldier, whose commitment to duty was of a greater priority than his own life.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)