Nobel Prize winning author and iconic realist Ernest Hemingway defines courage in his memorable Spanish Civil War novel ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ as ‘grace under pressure’. Had he added ‘untrammeled genius’ to this definition, he could well have been describing Capt JK ‘Chotu’ Sengupta. An amazing Cavalry officer-turned-entrepreneur-cum-social worker, Chotu (called ‘Jojo’ by family) became ‘profoundly blind’ in medical parlance after a Cobra missile hit his Centurion tank turret during the September 1965 Indo-Pak War. Though 100 percent blind; that blindness was a career turnaround for Jojo because he used it with grit to light up the countless lives he touched; all with Hemingway‘s understanding of courage as ‘grace under pressure’. Read this salute carried by a large-hearted, prescient magazine Editor who has unreservedly supported what the core message of the Braveheart Column is all about: Respecting courage in all forms; across uniforms and gender.
What Can You Say…?
The unforgettable opening lines of Erich Segal’s Love Story come rushing in when Chotu Sengupta is remembered…What can you say about a brave, outstanding Cavalry officer who died at 70? That at 22, he was blinded by exploding binocular glass splinters caused by a missile hit during the 1965
Indo- Pak War? That he was a topper in all he did? That he was handsome; personable, perceptive, blessed with a family that doted on him? That he made blindness seem like a weapon which could be used for societal good? That he proved that when fate closes doors, the human spirit opens windows for achieving world class excellence in any work one chooses to do. That he loved life; helped children of a lesser God cope with the travails of life with confidence; panache; that he also loved Rabindra Sangeet, reading, educating, sharing, fine dining; dressing with sartorial elegance…That the only battle he ever lost, was surrendering with a half smile to insidious lung cancer? May be there is no need to say more; instead, simply salute his memory at a time when the 50th anniversary of the war that blinded him is being commemorated.
On Honour Boards and in the Army List, Chotu/Jojo was called Jayanta Kumar Sengupta. Names do not matter really as long as we get the point: ‘Honour’ figured prominently in his life because this officer and gentleman was special.
Born on 17 October 1942, Chotu was the second son of Amar Prashad, a corporate executive, and Namita Sengupta. He left Huddard High School after making it to the Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC), Dehra Dun, where his genius began. He was adjudged ‘Best Cadet’ and also stood 1st in the All-India UPSC order of merit for NDA. He won the Gold Medal for the 22nd course at NDA and again the Gold Medal at IMA, passing out tops with the 31st course.
Commissioned into India’s oldest Cavalry Regiment, the 16th Light Cavalry, in December 1962, Chotu was awarded the Silver Centurion trophy for best Young Officer at Ahmadnagar. When the 1965
Indo-Pak War started, he was attending a Gunnery course at ‘Nagar. Soon enough, attendees were rushed off to war but his peers knew he’d have topped except that destiny had a higher form of life and living in store for him…
A Cobra Missile Hit… a Hard Knock by Destiny
US based veteran Lt Col Kartar Singh Sidhu-Brar, Chotu’s wartime CO, recalls that Chotu rejoined the Regiment past
mid-September; family recall placing his arrival as 17 September. The Colonel recalls that Chotu “had a very special place in our hearts and those who knew him”. He recalls Chotu cheerfully roughing it out in the hay-stacks of village Arjanpur (near Jandiala Guru, Amritsar) where the Regiment was deployed there during Op Ablaze after Kutch. By July 65 with Kutch cooling down, the Regiment moved to Kapurthala with Chotu despatched for the Gunnery course. A month later Pakistan launched Op Grand Slam in Chhamb and the Regiment was moved for the Sialkot Sector; a new area.
The Regiment entered Pakistan at 0630 hours 08 September opposite Ramgarh, Samba, as the right leading Regiment of 1 Armoured Brigade with The Poona Horse on its left. First contact was established with Pakistani armour within hours with mixed results on display. The Official Record of the MoD published in 2011 shows the Regiment as having shot 14 Pakistani tanks and 4 RCL jeeps but suffering losses too along with two officers who died; one of whom, Maj MAR Sheikh, was posthumously awarded the VrC, and the other, 2/Lt Vinay Kaistha (another Silver Centurion) a M-in-D.
On arrival on 17 September, Chotu was appointed troop leader in B Squadron under Maj ‘Morris’ Ravindran. The squadron was then located near Rakh (Reserved Forest or RF) Bhure Shah located 2 km northwest of Alhar RS on the Sialkot-Chawinda BG railway line. Alhar RS is about 5 km North of Chawinda RS and the railway line runs about 2 km west of the RF. Pakistani 22 Cav (Pattons) was tasked to hold the ‘Black Line’ - the railway line from Gunna Khurd to Rakh Baba Bhureshah. It had Wajahat Task Force; an adhoc jeep-mounted Cobra Missile set up deployed alongside.
On 21 September morning, Chotu had taken a well-concealed position in a sugarcane field with his tank. He was standing on his commander seat, looking out of his cupola for enemy tanks by using his high-magnification periscope -some reports suggest he was conducting an Artillery shoot - when his tank sustained a Cobra missile hit on the turret fired from Bhure Shah RF. The metal splinters smashed the periscope’s lens, the glass shards penetrating his eyes, blinding him and ripping up his face; fracturing his jaw and left arm. Capt (later Col) ‘Wendy’ Dewan was close by (The RHQ was behind the squadron) when Chotu was hit. Blood streaming from eyes and face, Wendy remembers that Braveheart Chotu was calmness personified: “I can’t see but “I’m fine; how are the boys and the tank?” The tank being serviceable, Chotu was placed on blankets on the tank deck and brought to RHQ just as Gen Rajinder Singh ‘Sparrow’ MVC**, GOC 1 Armoured Division landed. He straightaway ordered his helicopter pilot to fly Chotu to the Udhampur MH.
All Else Failed but for Chotu’s Spirit…
Shifted to Army Base Hospital in Delhi, Chotu was visited by PM Lal Bahadur Shastri who found him cheerful and optimistic despite his bandaged eyes. He was shifted to INS Aswini and later to top-ranked Walter Reed hospital in USA but his optic nerve was severed and that meant “profound, 100 percent blindness”. The Army finally sent him to London to St Dunstan’s; a world-famous medical centre for war-wounded soldiers rehabilitation and mobility training. Chotu learnt Braille and typing there; powered by his remarkable optimism, humility, wit and sense of humour; his zest for life and living. In 1967, he was boarded out from the Army on medical grounds with 100 percent disability.
For anyone else that would have been the end but this was no ordinary man. In a rare interview - Chotu avoided speaking about himself; always about others – He smilingly recalled that ‘there was no emotional setback following the mishap. Indeed, my family and the Army were strong sources of support.’ He added that his St Dunstan’s stay where soldiers blinded in war are trained was a godsend for him…it was a new beginning and he made it count. ‘I met a lot of Britishers with a similar disability’ he would recall. ‘Seeing them go about their work inspired me a lot.’ The standards he later set are in actual fact the stuff of legend.
A Genius Reborn
Focusing on winning the ‘Battle of Life’, this unassuming, genuine real-life hero attracted people like a magnet to his persona. Nothing deterred, Chotu took up a dealership with Tata Oil Mills soon after. In 1972, he was allotted a LPG dealership in Siliguri by the Army’s Resettlement Directorate and relocated there from Calcutta with infectious positivity.
In 1977, Chotu got married to Ms Rita Biswas; a teacher driven by passion and remarkable self-starting traits. The duo was like-minded in visionary goals; compassionate and compelling and together they made magic. Jojo is on record paying his wife a handsome, heart-felt tribute for the manner in which she brought greater focus, happiness and harmony in his life. Blessed with twin daughters, Sreemoyee and Sreerupa and younger son Bibek, the careers of the trio were on song well before their beloved father, friend and role-model moved on... They lost him on August 31, 2013 but are living out his dreams – and theirs - with rare nobility, success and character.
Jojo kept the Honour Board ticking. He did his BA from North Bengal University obtaining the expected ‘first-class-first’ rating; by now his much admired DNA. He also routinely won the ‘Best Dealer’ Award from the Tata Oil Mills for a number of years. As an LPG dealer at Siliguri, his consumers remember with awe how he had memorized about 8000 subscriber names, consumer numbers and addresses, compelling people to call up ‘Joy Da’ to verify their details instantaneously when seeking gas refills or terminations/transfers of LPG connections.
Reaching Out to Help Disadvantaged Society
Having stabilized his family’s future, Chotu went through a transformation in 1990, taking up social work on a big scale. By 1998, he, Rita and friends had founded the Prerana Educational Centre in 1998. Flourishing today, it has 145 physically challenged students on its rolls. Earlier in 1990, Jojo had also founded the North Bengal Council for the Disabled (NBCD) to run the centre. Apart from Prerana, he also reached towards the rural handicapped under the Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) program. Since 1998, about 700 villages around Siliguri have been covered to help rural disabled cope. Jojo ensured that the CBR became a WHO certified initiative which today benefits 3000 people.
The Children Follow Dad’s Lead
In 2003, Capt Sengupta’s daughter, Sreerupa, got married to Maj Gopal Mitra, SM (Retd). By itself, this news should not be a reason for specific mention in a Braveheart tribute but for one compelling fact – Maj Mitra having been totally blinded in a terrorist encounter in Kupwara, Kashmir, in 2000.
Commissioned into 15 Mahar, this St Xavier’s Calcutta Honours graduate suffered total visual impairment. He thereafter underwent extensive reconstructive surgery but his military career was over. Nothing daunted, this young gallantry award winner underwent several reorientation courses, ending up with his being the first blind student to top a Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai post graduate course. Mitra then did M.Sc. in Development Management at the London School of Economics (LSE) with outstanding grades. After several career advancements, he is now with the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund as Programme Specialist for Disability. Sreerupa completed her Masters from LSE, London and now works at the United Nations along with husband Gopal. Her twin, Sreemoyee completed her Masters in Early Years Education from the famous Institute of Education, London and now teaches at Neev School, Bangalore.
Jojo’s son, Bibek, is a top-notch financial expert and Chotu’s sister-in-law, Nalini Sengupta, runs the famous Vidya Valley School at Pune, where Chotu was on the Founding Governing Board. Ms Rita carries on her shared legacy with Jojo and has ensured that the Institutions they started together are vibrant and blooming.
Suffering for almost a year from lung cancer, Capt Sengupta passed away at Command Hospital Pune at 0945 hours on 31 August 2013. Chotu realised a week or so before his death that he would lose this battle. A brave and courageous man, he requested the astonished doctors for a shift to an ordinary Officers Ward room from the quarantined ICU where he was not accessible except for brief “family only” access. He faced death with the same calm that he faced total blindness when hit by the Cobra missile.
Regrettably arriving 15 minutes after he had moved on; a lingering, wry smile on his face, the author found the attending nurses and doctors; other officers in tears but Jojo’s whole family stood bowed in respectful silence. Jojo did not countenance tears; only abiding respect.
This was their tribute for a Braveheart who, though small in size, had set sky-high standards of bravery in adversity and in conduct becoming an officer and a gentleman of impeccable class of the rarest kind.
What can you say for such a man who lived and died in a manner that one hopes future generations will take inspiration from? Nothing more than joining the author and the Editor in respectful salutes for a man who though ‘profoundly blind’ taught us to see life in all its vibrant colours; live a professional and socially responsible, cheerful, fulfilling, selfless life…