By May 1971, the situation in East Pakistan was boiling over. Refugees had begun to pour into India and the constant refrain in the media was that war with Pakistan was imminent. At this time, I went to attend the Combined Course at Joint Air Warfare School (JAWS) in Secunderabad. When I returned to 50 Parachute Brigade, Brigadier Mathew Thomas had taken over from Brigadier TS Oberoi. In October, Brigadier Thomas summoned me and told me to meet the Chief of Staff, Headquarter Eastern Command, Major General JFR Jacob.
I met General Jacob, and he congratulated me for ‘volunteering’ for the ‘mission’. Seeing the look of utter bewilderment on my face, Gen Jacob smiled and proceeded to put me at ease in the most avuncular fashion.
“Look young man, you’re a paratrooper, a signaller, a commando, a Bengali and your Commander says that you topped the last course at JAWS. I cannot think of a better lad for this job”.
The ‘job’ was to get into enemy territory as soon as possible in the event of a war breaking out, establish a good working relationship with Mukti Bahini (MB) and locate two to three good dropping zones (DZ) for 2 Para Battalion Group as close to Pungli Bridge (just North of Tangail), as possible. When the time came, I was to ensure the assaulting unit was led to the objective area and all heavy drops were secured without loss. General Jacob then waved me off with a big reassuring smile and said orders would follow in due course.
I left Dum Dum for Guwahati by air on the 28 November 1971 along with Lt Col KS Pannu, the Commanding Officer of 2 Para. It was a bright sunny morning and I was happy to be going to Shillong in this style. How lucky can a fellow get, I thought. I also felt thrilled to be going on this ultra-secret mission. Although I did not know much about it, but from the send-off talk that my Commander gave me before I left, one thing was evident. I was in for plenty of excitement once the balloon went up.
We were met at Guwahati airport by a shady looking character who took charge of our luggage and whisked us off to Shillong in an Ambassador car. He took us to the Officer’s Mess and disappeared. Major Bammi, the GSO2 (Operations) met us after dinner and asked us to be ready to meet the General Officer Commanding (GOC) 101 Communication Zone Area (CZA) next morning at 0400 hours! When Pannu protested, Bammi told him that the ‘Old Man’ liked to get an early start. Next morning, dot at four, we were ushered into General Gurbux Gill’s bedroom. The General lay on his bed while we took up military postures. The bedroom looked more like a macho Command Post than a place for carefree slumber. Taking hold of a long pointer staff, he briefed us with the help of the “ceiling to floor maps” at foot of his bed. He also briefed me about Tiger Siddiqui whom he had met when the latter was undergoing some training in the FJ Sector under Brigadier Sant Singh and told me that it was important to contact Siddiqui at the earliest.
From the briefing, I surmised that the MB in Tiger Siddiqui’s area was roughly 15,000 strong and that Siddiqui was one of the most effective MB commanders in Bangladesh. His force operated in the Tangail and Mymensingh area and he had become a thorn in the flesh of the Pakistan army. He was something of a snob, but was completely honest, straightforward and highly motivated. Though lacking in formal military training he had lot of common sense and natural leadership and was a good organiser. General Gill also stated that the MB was in virtual control over the Eastern banks of the Padma River from Jagannathganj Ghat to Tangail. The Mymensingh-Tangail Highway and the areas immediately to the East and West of it were under Pakistani control and. He then told us to proceed forthwith to Garo Bhada in the Tura Hills District for further briefing at Headquarter 95 Mountain Brigade. When Pannu asked him for further orders, General Gill told him to collect as much information as he could, then go back to Kolkata and wait for the “balloon to go up”. As for me, I was to be launched into East Pakistan without further delay! Pannu looked at me with a ‘better you than me, boy’ smirk on his face.
We reached Headquarter 95 Mountain Brigade by ten that night and realised that heavy and serious skirmishing was even then going on in border areas with East Pakistan. Brigadier Kler had however moved forward to Kamalpur, where one of his battalions was engaged in overrunning a Pakistani garrison. So early next morning, we drove down to Mahendraganj, a few kilometres short of Kamalpur and met Brigadier Kler there. He briefed Colonel Pannu and me separately. From the Commanders briefing, it appeared that of all the planned thrusts being directed towards Dhaka, the Northern thrust under 101 CZA had a good chance of succeeding since there were no major water obstacles impeding its projected path. The role of the planned airborne assault in preventing a possible long drawn out ‘delaying battle’ at Tangail also became clear. Brigadier Kler, who knew me from my days in 19 Mountain Division at Baramulla, where he was the GSO1(Operations), then asked me how I planned to get on with my job.
“Well sir”, I said, apart from the fact that there is not enough time for me to get circumcised, I do not have the foggiest notion of how to proceed in the matter”
“Do not worry”, said Brigadier Kler cheerfully. “I have had a chat with Brigadier Sant Singh, Commander of FJ Sector. His Brigade Major, Major Mookherjee, will brief you further.
That evening, all of us including Brig Kler came back to Tura for an interaction with the GOC next day. On 1 December, General Gill arrived at the helipad and went into conference with Brigadier Kler and Brigadier Sant Singh. The latter had come over from Dalu, where his headquarter was located. The General then briefed me. He told me that I was to pose as a Mukti Bahini, but if caught by the enemy my cover was that I was a Bengali from Kolkata who was fighting with Mukti Bahini as a freelance. He also gave me an odomos tube and asked me to give it to Siddiqui as a present from the GOC. This, he assured me, would put me in good with Siddiqui. He also told me to crossover on the same evening.
From the helipad, I went along with Brig Sant Singh to Dalu. He briefed me in his office where I was told that Siddiqui’s forces had adequate quantities of mortars and ammunition, some of which we had supplied and some had been captured from two steamers in August on Padma River off a village called Matighata. I was to contact Siddiqui as soon as possible, find out the location of his forces and pass back this information at once, as well as information about the enemy. I was also to operate in conjunction with military operations launched by the Indian Army, and where possible, block enemy positions to prevent withdrawal of forces or move of reinforcements. My main task off course remained to select Main and Alternate DZs not too far from Tangail and pass back coordinates to FJ Sector.
At Dalu, I met Mookherjee, who turned out to be none other than SG Mookherjee of Signals who I knew from my days at Mhow while attending a course there. He also filled me up on other details of the operation and my mission. I was given codename “Peter”, dressed up in a ‘lungi, a half torn shirt with a “jhola” and a sheet to cover myself. The codename for Headquarter FJ Sector was Babaji. That incidentally was how Siddiqui’s forces referred to Brigadier Sant Singh. I was also given Rs10,000/- in Pakistan currency and an unmarked Sten Machine Carbine with two magazines of unmarked ammunition. Captain TI Donald, the Signals Officer of FJ Sector then handed over two small radio trans-receivers, called Radio Set HX. Four such sets had also been sent across in September to the Mukti Bahini, but their fate was not known. Working on battery cells, the crystal tuned set could be used to send and receive messages using Morse code. I was told that I could expect a range of about 10 to 15 km with the former and about 30 km with the latter. In actual practice, on good days, I was able to get as much as 65 to 70 km! Of course, I took the precaution of discreetly passing it on to Donald’s boys that my Morse was a bit ‘rusty’.
Setting across the border, I do recall being a bit uneasy. I was young but not so young as not to realise that my wife was in the family way with our second child. She was due in December and it would be hard on her if something were to happen to me. I had taken the precaution of writing out about seven odd letters and sent them back to my Company with Colonel Pannu, with instructions to ‘Bags’ (late General Andy Bhagat) to post them at regular intervals to my wife. (As it turned out, this ploy failed miserably since my letters were impossibly out of ‘sync’ with her letters, not to mention the well-known ‘women’s intuition’ factor). At a professional level, I realised that my mission was important and that I ought to feel excited. I also realised that what I was doing was ‘clandestine’. General Gurbux had made it quite clear that once I crossed over, the Indian Army would disclaim all knowledge of my existence. Nonetheless, once I had spent 24 hours inside enemy territory, the urgency of ‘here and now’ completely took over my consciousness and thereafter it was more a question of thinking on my feet and getting on with the job.
From Dalu I came to Garo Bada and then moved to Manka Char on the border where we had a post each of the BSF and the MB. I had with me ‘Badshah’, a 14 year old boy who I had picked out from the batch of MB trainees in FJ Sector. He came in handy as a local guide and as an interpreter, when required. I was after all a ‘Bong’, born and brought up in Kanpur and as far as local dialects of rural East Pakistan were concerned, I may as well have been of Greek parentage.
At ten that night, Badshah and I left by foot. We walked due south for about 10 miles and then were able to arrange a small boat which we hired. This I decided would be the safest and fastest way to contact Siddiqui, who I was told was at a place called Bhuapur, about 65 miles further south. There were two places en route, which would be dangerous; Bahadurabad Ghat and another Ghat about ten miles further south, which were guarded by Pakistani soldier.
We rested for the night and resumed the journey next day at five in the morning, reaching Bahadurabad Ghat just before midnight. It was pitch dark and the boatman was paddling furiously to bypass the point as quickly as possible. The sentry at the ghat somehow got suspicious and suddenly a powerful beam of light came on and started scanning the river in a wide arc. Luckily, we were near the far bank and we jumped out of the boat. The river at this point was about 400 yards wide. When the beam caught our boat, machine gun fire opened on us, but by this time we were safely hidden in the broken ground across the river. The firing continued for about five minutes but the Pakistanis did not cross over to investigate the boat as it had tilted and was at a rakish angle. The search beam however continued for another 15 minutes. We then got back in the boat, crossed the ghat and moved to the West bank of the Padma River and resumed the journey on foot.
We reached Bhuapur on 3 December and contacted the Mukti Bahini company there, but there was no sign of Tiger Siddiqui. However, I did locate one of the four radio sets given to Siddiqui. Early next morning, I opened my set at 5 AM, and keeping my fingers crossed, put the magnetic earphone into my ear. After about 5 minutes, I had a strong Morse station and concentrated. I got the word ‘BABA’… and immediately transmitted back asking the other end to send very slowly. This time I received “FROM BABAJI TO PETER”. I had established contact.
I passed back what information I had gathered and was told to “GO TO MOHAMEDS’s HOUSE”. This was the signal to put pressure on Madhupur. From this, I determined that war had been declared. This was confirmed shortly thereafter when I saw Indian MiG fighter aircraft overhead, moving towards the general direction of Dhaka.
I now found myself in a tricky position as the Mukti Bahini company at Bhuapur had to be moved near Madhupur but in the absence of Siddiqui the local company commander was rather reluctant to take orders directly from me. Ultimately, however, he was persuaded to do so. This company, along with two more companies to the North, then occupied defensive positions Southwest of Madhupur and West of Gopalpur. The enemy was not to be allowed access to the Padma and escape down South.
From Bhuapur I collected nine young and enthusiastic boys and headed South towards Tangail in search of Siddiqui. By the evening, we reached a village called Doghalkandi just North of Tangail. From the Mukti Bahini company there, I came to know that Siddiqui was in village Nagarpur, ten miles South of Tangail. To save time, I decided to move through Tangail town, but as the town was held by the Pakistani forces, it was important to find out their deployment. To facilitate our move, the Mukti Bahini opened fire on the enemy positions at 11 that night. We then crossed the town and set off for Nagarpur, which we reached by about 0330 hours. There was much firing in progress, and scouting ahead, I made contact with the Mukti Bahini men, who were attacking a Razakar outpost of five mud bunkers. There were about 20 Razakars there with weapons, holding on stubbornly to their position. I came to know that Siddiqui had earlier left for Basail, a thana headquarter about eight miles South East of Tangail. We finally contacted Siddiqui there at eight in the morning and handed over Brigadier Sant Singh’s letter to him.
Siddiqui told me that Tangail garrison was apparently being reinforced. We decided to blow up as many bridges as we could on the main road. Between 5 and 8 December, we destroyed 17 bridges between Mirzapur and Tangail. Most of these bridges were guarded by Razakars of whom we must have killed about 100 in these 4 days. In the meantime, I kept FJ apprised of our actions. We also reconnoitred suitable areas for the para drop and I passed on the coordinates of these locations. Operating mainly at night, we regularly ambushed Pakistani military convoys moving up and down the Kamalpur/Mymensingh – Madhupur – Tangail Axis creating as much confusion and insecurity in the rear areas, as we could. I have to say that the MB boys were in high spirits and fairly charged up.
On 9 December, FJ sector asked me if I was ready for my colleagues. I replied in the affirmative but was not informed when and where they were coming. I could not get through on the 10th and got rather desperate because I felt that the drop was imminent. My only consolation was that my location was not too far from the projected drop locations. My anxiety was finally resolved on the 11th evening. It was around 1500 hours that we heard the drone of an aircraft. This was obviously the Pathfinder. It was already getting a little dark since by IST the sun sets early in the East. I rushed towards the DZ area with about 50 young lads who were every bit as excited as I was. By the time we reached at around 1700 hours, the drop had commenced. We had practised this at Agra many times, but this was the actual stuff! I am proud to say that 2 Para and all other components under command went about their landing and rendezvous drills in a professional manner. In less than 90 minutes, the guns, mortars and machine guns were deployed and by 1830 hours, the battalion had taken up position astride Road Madhupur-Tangail on either side of the Pungli Bridge. They were in the nick of time, because just then, the Pakistani troops, falling back from Jamalpur and Mymensingh were upon us trying desperately to break through to Tangail. The enemy, taken by surprise, suffered heavy losses. I remember that Major VK Sarda along with Captain Surjit Singh were deployed in the forward companies and did a tremendous job in keeping the enemy at bay and standing firm with their boys. Both were awarded the Vir Chakra for gallantry.
I had earlier indicated to Headquarter Eastern Command via FJ Sector that, given the local situation, paucity of Pakistani troops in Tangail and roadblocks that I had planned to establish, a morning drop would be feasible and advisable. Had that taken place, we would have been able to cut off a major portion of the Pakistani forces falling back from Mymensingh and Kamalpur and caused even greater damage to the enemy. I however, look back with satisfaction on a job well done. I had about 200 excited MB boys under my control on the DZ, and we contributed our bit to the success of the operation in terms of getting the battalion to Poongli Bridge, North of Tangail, without delay and recovering all the heavy drop including artillery guns, ammunition, light vehicles and other stores to respective earmarked areas, with dispatch.
By mid-day on 12 December, 1 Maratha commanded by Colonel ‘Bulbul’ Brar linked up with 2 Para. By the evening of 12 December, we had occupied Tangail. Brigadier Kler, speaking to all officers on 13th morning made it clear that given the progress of XXXIII, IV and II Corps he was convinced that 101 CZA with 95 Mountain Brigade leading, had the best chance of being the first to enter Dhaka and he expected nothing less from us. The race to Dhaka was on.
The first problem was transportation. Since I had been inside the enemy territory the longest and had good rapport going with Tiger Siddiqui, I was given the task to muster up as many vehicles as possible. I got going with my Bahini lads and by last light had grabbed about 15 cars and 10 odd buses, given under duress, of course. The men were quite resourceful too. They got hold of cycles and rickshaws in large numbers! Advance was resumed on 14th morning but to our regret we did not have cameras to capture the scene. Soldiers marching, soldiers on cycles and rickshaws and heavy stuff on brightly painted buses and trucks! There was but sporadic opposition. Pakistani troops were constantly bombarded by radio messages from General Sam Manekshaw to surrender, and most seemed to have seen the writing on the wall. On 15th, early morning we picked up on radio, what appeared to be an order from General Niazi to all troops to surrender. Advance was speeded up since we were nearing Mirpur Cantonment on the Southern edge of Dhaka and were keen to be the first to enter the capital. In the event we succeeded. On 16th morning, the Red Berets of 2 Para were the first to enter Dhaka to a tumultuous welcome by the populace.
This story would have turned out even better had it not been for a slight miscalculation on my part. It was the evening of 16 December, the stage was set for the Surrender Ceremony at the Ramna Race Course. A contingent each of Indian and Pakistan Army had been constituted. The Indian Contingent was taken entirely from 2 Para of which I was a part. After General Niazi handed over his pistol to General Aurora and the latter reviewed the contingents, both Generals repaired to the table set up for the actual signing. The contingents broke off and surged forward to get a ringside view of the historic event. It was difficult to say who was the more excited, our boys for having trumped the enemy, or the Pakistani, relieved that the whole sordid affair was over and they could now go back home!
Seeing that the crowd was too dense to penetrate, Major Nirbhay Sharma, The Adjutant of 2 Para and I stepped aside and stood next to Niazi’s staff car. I casually stole a glance to my left to admire the shiny black Mercedes with Niazi’s Flag still hoisted atop the bonnet. Suddenly, it dawned on me that the Flag was no longer ‘authorised’ and it was now a ‘finders–keepers–losers–weepers’ situation. This was my big chance! I saw a vision of this Flag adorning the Headquarter Mess at Mhow (with my name in the small caption below!). As I was mustering courage and looking for a chance to swipe the thing, there was a sudden swelling of the crowd with much shoving and elbowing. I soon regained proximity to the staff car again, just in time to see a Naval officer disappearing with the Flag. Whenever I reminisce over the Dhaka days, this incident still rankles. Who says life is fair?
After the Surrender Ceremony was over, most of us repaired to the Dhaka Intercontinental Hotel to celebrate. The members of the international press and journalists from all major international magazines were lying in wait to get all the scoops. While they plied us with some good whisky, we on our part held forth on how ‘we had won the war’, not neglecting to mention the stellar role played by our own selves!
We were happy, but at a personal level, there was a tinge of sadness. Right from the morning of 16 Dec, there was much sniping going on by the Mukti Bahini, who were armed and wanted to extract revenge on the Pakistan Army personnel and their families as they rushed back to Dhaka to seek shelter with the Indian Army in makeshift prisoner of war camps. Captain Ajit Singh, the education office of 95 Mountain Brigade was hit by a stray bullet while outside the Intercontinental Hotel and died on the spot. Truly, conflicts bring about their own share of tragedies. This was most unfortunate as it occurred just before the surrender ceremony. We left Dhaka soon after. My stay behind enemy lines was over.