Battle of Asal Uttar, Indo-Pak War ’65: How Jesus Fought for India
“I heard the Pakistanis yelling on their radio sets – ‘Their artillery fire is playing hell into us! The man in command is called Christ!’ – we picked the tanks off like cherries”.
My Grand-dad always had a chuckle when he would narrate this story. Christ!? Fighting for India?!
The man from Warangal, Andhra Pradesh, was the elder son of a Brahmin educationist who was deeply pissed off with everyone obsessed with ‘identity’ 100 years ago. So, in a rebellion of his own, when his elder son was born on June 5, 1920, he named him Jesus. The younger son who came soon after, was called Shah Jahan. And that’s how my grand-dad came to be known as Jesus Prakash Rao.
Around 1940, Jesus gave up on Zoology, and joined the Indian Army. Maybe a British clerk was unable to wrap himself around his Telugu name (father’s name Gadepalli Prakash Rao, etc), but in the Army he enrolled by the name PR Jesus. Catchy! And true.
Jesus saw a lot of action – he fought in Burma in World War II. He even had vivid memories of the intense fighting around Imphal and Kohima. He was part of the NATO peace-keeping force during the Korean War (I have antique Japanese crockery at home to prove that).
He was Sarojini Naidu’s aide-de-camp when she became the first Governor of UP. We have pics of Nehru with Edwina Mountbatten and Sarojini Naidu, with my dapper grand-dad lurking right behind. He says he saw action at Zoji-La in Kashmir in 1948, when mules were used to haul artillery guns to the top of the mountain pass. He was also among the first Indian soldiers to enter Goa at Sawantwadi in 1961.
In 1963, by then Lieutenant Colonel PR Jesus, my grand-dad raised the 91st Medium Artillery Regiment.
As luck would have it, barely 2 years later, the 91st Arty was slap in the middle of the world’s biggest tank-battle since World War 2 – the Battle of Khemkaran.
As Pakistani and Indian tank formations squared off against each other, the Pakistanis hoping to break through and threaten Amritsar and Jallandhar, the job of the 91st regiment was to target Pakistani tanks, and make life ‘hell’ for them. And between 7 and 10 September,1965, that’s what they did – picking off the Pakistan Army’s US made Patton and Chaffee tanks ‘like cherries’, blunting several waves of attack.
My grand-dad told me he moved way ahead to ’spot’ Pakistani tanks and direct his artillery fire at them more accurately. Looking for a vantage point he got onto a tree, but a Pakistani sniper ’spotted’ him and started firing, causing Jesus to scamper down ‘double quick’. Regiment records say they fired 2000 shells on 10th September alone. The Indian Army’s own tanks and infantry did the rest. Khemkaran was littered with over a 100 enemy tanks, which were later distributed to cantonments all over the country, to display as ‘trophy tanks’.
Many would imagine ‘Asal Uttar’ to be a rhetorical phrase coined to describe the win. But Asal Uttar strangely, and perhaps fittingly, was the name of the village where the 91st Arty had its guns positioned. For its role in Khemkaran, my Grand-dad’s unit won battle honours and even today is known as 91 Medium ‘Asal Uttar’ Regiment. Col PR Jesus, their first CO, was awarded a Sena Medal and has gone down in regimental folklore as the man who led them in their finest hour.
By the time I met Nana, some years later, he had retired. He was back to his original name, the less conspicuous JP Rao. Only his canteen card (and later his ECHS or ‘army mediclaim’ card) still had him down as Col Jesus. There were a few more ‘Jesus’ anecdotes over the years – for instance, when Nana was recovering at Delhi’s military hospital after a minor surgery, two nuns visiting another patient took offence to a person calling himself Jesus. Their colour drained totally when they ran into my Nani, Mrs Jesus!
For the 91 Arty, he’s a war action hero, quite like a Brad Pitt from Fury. For my Nani, he was the perfect husband, he gave her the first bite at the start of every meal. I remember him as the guy who took me and my friends to watch cartoon films every Sunday morning in his big, black, spacious Ambassador. He supplied me dinky cars, comics, and in later years, rum. Always a ladies’ man, the last to be smitten by him was my wife.
Jesus was modest, he never wore his war stories on his sleeve. He would re-tell them only if you insisted. He passed away peacefully in 2013, he’s back together with my Nani now. He lived to be a great grand-dad, partly thanks to the Pak sniper who missed.
It’s been 50 years since his heroics. The 1965 war was a stalemate, but the Indian Army did win at Khemkaran. In a footnote of history it also says that in the Battle of Asal Uttar, Jesus fought for India.
(This story was originally published on 15 September 2015 and has been republished to mark the day that the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 began, as Pakistani soldiers crossed the Line of Control dressed as locals.)