It was 12 December 1971 and dusk was gradually setting in. My unit, 4 GUARDS had reached the eastern bank of the Satyalakha River, which was the Eastern boundary of Dacca in those days. There were no bridges then and one had to cross the river by ferry at Demra. The battalion harboured for the night in an area between Barpa and Rupsi and next day, at first light, the CO, Lt Col Himmeth Singh gave orders to the battalion to send out patrols and observation posts (OPs) to cover the river bank from Barpa in the North to Nagar Kachpur in the South, an area about ten kilometres wide. These patrols and OPs were small groups of four to five other ranks (OR), led by an officer or a JCO. Their task was to observe enemy movement on the river and prevent him from crossing it. The rest of the battalion was concentrated at Demra, ready to react to any enemy activity on the river as observed and reported by our OPs and patrols. Keeping the battalion concentrated was a good decision as it allowed us to slice through straight to Dacca, once orders were received.
At about 7am one of the patrols reported movement on the further bank of the river. This was a group of seven to eight men getting on a boat and waving white flags. They were allowed to cross and then were sent with a guide to the battalion headquarter (HQ). They were news correspondents, all from major western agencies like, Time, Newsweek and Washington Post. A day earlier, a young Indian from the UNI, Jayant Ullal who worked for the German Stern magazine had joined us. From them we came to know of the conditions inside Dacca and the fear and panic that was visible on the faces of the Pakistani troops and their commanders. Less than a week earlier they were extremely cocky and were sure that they could halt the Indian advance at the border itself. They thus had made no plans for the defence of the Capital. Our arrival at the door steps of Dacca was totally unexpected and came as a complete surprise both to the Pakistan Army and the Western press.
During the night, two artillery guns arrived at our location, one was a 75mm mountain gun of 65 Mountain Regiment and the other was a 5.5inch medium gun of 40 Medium Regiment. With the help of local volunteers, they were manhandled into position in suitable places to fire on to likely enemy positions inside Dacca. The first shot was fired into Dacca by Lt Col Behl, CO of 65 Mountain Regiment and was recorded for posterity in a photograph by Jayant Ullal. Although the artillery build up was far from complete, General Sagat Singh insisted that shelling of the enemy in Dacca should commence forthwith. The helicopter pilots had quite a task to lift these guns, but they accomplished the task with aplomb. From the foreign correspondents, we got first hand, eye witness, totally unbiased accounts of the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army on the Bengali population, particularly the intellectuals, students and women including teenage school girls. During our advance from Agartala we had seen hundreds of mutilated bodies of men, women and even babies in the towns and villages we had liberated on the way, but now we came to know that this genocide and rape was premeditated, planned and executed at the behest of the highest ranking Pakistani officers as a matter of state policy. These western correspondents had seen all this happen in front of their own eyes but their newspapers did not publish these stories and their governments denied them altogether! They also told us that they had not been able to sleep a wink since the beginning of the war and their nerves were at a knife’s edge with the constant day and night bombardment by the IAF. According to them, all ranks of the Pakistan army including senior officers were a nervous and fearful lot. More than the real damage, the 24×7 roar of our jets and bombardment resulted in sleepless nights and consequent loss of morale.
On the home bank of the Satyalakhya River were several large villages and small townships where pockets of Pakistani troops who had been unable to cross the river and get to the West bank were trapped. Many of them surrendered to us, but some held out, fearful of being lynched by the locals who were out in large numbers and who had been joined by elements of the Mukti Bahini who were armed. Some women too had come out armed with rifles, muzzle loading guns, axes, swords, sickles and sticks! ‘C’ Company under Major Tuffy Marwah was ordered to clear these pockets of resistance at Bhiakar and Nagar Kachpur which he did in the afternoon.
It is difficult to describe the scene and the atmosphere for though we were in the middle of the war, hundreds of thousands of locals had converged on our location. Many of them had come from Dacca proper having crossed the river in small fishing boats, punts and some even having swum across. They were all in a jubilant mood, shouting singing and waving flags. The atmosphere was that of a carnival rather than that of a battlefield and rightfully so because both the locals and we knew that Dacca would soon be ours. The jubilant roar of “Joy Bangla, Joy India” from the crowd was probably being heard in the heart of Dacca by Gen. Niazi and Governor Malik!
It was now that we suffered some serious casualties, and the incident which I will recount brings out the vicissitudes of war. We were pretty thin on the ground, guarding a ten km stretch of the river, as the other two battalions of our brigade, 18 Rajput and 10 Bihar were yet to arrive. From one of our observation posts (OP) we received a report of an attempted crossing by the enemy from the far bank. This OP was led by a young officer, whom we shall simply call 2Lt X. It also had one detachment of 106 mm recoilless (RCL) anti-tank gun. On receipt of the reported attempted crossing, a platoon of D company was sent to reinforce the OP.
2Lt X, was a twenty-two year old short service officer who looked nineteen and had joined the battalion a few months earlier after being commissioned from the Officer Training School at Madras. His first appointment was as a platoon commander in my company. He was a very fine and enthusiastic young man ever willing to learn and take responsibility and I became very fond of him. During the time I was with the company, that is till 11 December when I was wounded, he had shown exemplary courage and initiative and I was going to recommend him for a gallantry award. But on 13 December, things and fate went horribly wrong for him.
The enemy force observed by 2Lt X had by now crossed the river by a steamer and was about a kilometre from his position. The JCO in the OP position now panicked and advised the young officer to withdraw. So the position was abandoned and the RCL gun too was left behind. The enemy had possibly seen this movement and they made straight for the gun position and occupied it. To make matters worse, from the abandoned OP position they could observe the platoon of ‘D’ company moving to reinforce the OP position. The Pakistanis opened mortar fire on them, catching the troops by surprise. We lost one jawan Killed in Action (KIA) and suffered 19 wounded in this incident.
The CO, Lt Col Himmeth Singh was furious when he learned of the incident. Commenting on this incident, Mukul Deva in his book, “The Garud Strikes,” writes that a rightfully furious CO assembled whatever troops that were in the vicinity, and ploughed into the officer and JCO. Before the war, Himmeth and some of us company commanders had, whilst discussing the quality of courage, all come to the conclusion that everyone in our command had to know that they had less to fear from the enemy than from their own commanders should they display any sign of weakness under fire.War is not a pleasant romantic excursion. Shorn of the glamour and marching bands it is about killing or being killed.
Both 2Lt X and the JCO were placed under arrest and the CO asked for court martial proceedings to be initiated against them for deserting their post and cowardice in the face of the enemy. The charge, if upheld, could even invite the death penalty. After the war, a General Court Martial (GCM), prior to which the customary Court of Inquiry was held and then a Summary of Evidence was recorded. It was a long and tortuous process during which time both the officer and JCO were attached to another unit as is the custom in dealing with such cases. The incident was disturbing to all in the unit, and most of all to the CO himself. Many officers including senior officers tried to get Himmeth to drop the charges but he was adamant that the law must take its own course, otherwise a bad example would be set for the future. Like me, he too was fond of 2Lt X but he could not ignore this dereliction of duty which had had such serious consequences. While he was convinced that the JCO was more to blame as the officer was inexperienced, but that alone plus his performance earlier in the war could not be an excuse to absolve him of the blame. In the final analysis, it was the officer who was in charge, and on his shoulders, must rest the responsibility.
In due course, the GCM assembled. The Court, after hearing the charges and the witnesses dismissed the charges against both the officer and JCO on the grounds that a man cannot be punished twice for the same offence. The court accepted the argument put up by the defence that as Col Himmeth had publicly rebuked them both and also had “ploughed into them” as mentioned by Mukul Deva, they had already been punished and hence could not be punished again.
On the home bank of the Satyalakhya River were several large villages and small townships where pockets of Pakistani troops who had been unable to cross the river and get to the West bank were trapped. Many of them surrendered to us, but some held out, fearful of being lynched by the locals who were out in large numbers and who had been joined by elements of the Mukti Bahini who were armed.
2Lt X was a fine young officer and I was sorry for the humiliation and shame he had to suffer. He belonged to a very famous martial community from South India and I am certain that his own shame and humiliation hurt not only him but also his family and community. I was very happy that he was discharged honourably by the court. The question then arises: was Col Himmeth right or wrong in ordering the officer to be tried by a GCM?
In my view, the CO was right. This then leads to the other question: was the GCM wrong in dismissing the charges against the officer? Here too, I believe that the GCM was right. Now this may appear contradictory as both cannot be right, but in real life, especially in war, there is no clear cut division between what is black and what is white. Real life is more like the stories in the Mahabharata which are nuanced and the difference between truth, right and wrong can be different, depending upon the point of view of the observer.
Like the Mahabharata, this story too has a twist in the tale at the end. All officers of the battalion who were wounded or received gallantry awards went home as majors, the rank they held during the War. 2Lt X however, rose to the rank of Brigadier which no other officer of the battalion except the CO who fought the war attained! This trend was visible in the senior military leadership as well! Some of the senior officers whose performance was exceptional, such as Lt Gen. Sagat Singh, whose contribution to the victory of the combined forces was second to none, were bypassed for promotion. So was Maj Gen. Ben Gonsalves. Others, like Raina, Malhotra and Krishna Rao, whose performance can at best be described as pedestrian were promoted to the highest rank. That too is a facet of life which we cannot ignore.
To those who read this account, I have tried to put as honest a view as possible of the unfortunate incident which is a part of my unit’s history. War is a dirty business and our officers have to bear a tremendous burden on their young shoulders. Today is no different from yesteryears, where out young officers continue to distinguish themselves through frontline leadership. The bottom line however remains: Lack of experience can never be an excuse for abandonment of duty. This facet of military leadership needs no further reiteration.
Commissioned in 4 Guards, Major Chandrakant Singh, VrCis a veteran of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, where he was wounded and awarded the VrC for conspicuous gallantry and courage displayed throughout the war. Popularly called ‘Paunchy’ by his friends, he took premature retirement in 1977 and is now involved in writing and speaking on environmental and defence related issues.