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The Unsung Heroes Of The 1971 War

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It is the time of year when inevitably one is reminded of the tragedy that befell Pakistan almost half a century ago. This account is based on excerpts from the book, The Stolen Victory by Brigadier Sultan Ahmed who commanded 31 Baluch Regiment stationed in the north of East Pakistan, along the border with Assam, during the 1971 war.

Informative and revealing in many ways, it is basically a memoir of his time with the regiment and does not deal with the political aspects of the situation as such in erstwhile East Pakistan.

“On 18 Nov, a regular Indian Army attack came onto Kamalpur. All disguises were put aside and the Indian Army men who would earlier come along with the Muktis in civilian clothes, now came in full military uniforms – in spite of almost daily attacks and near continuous shelling, there was no case of battle fatigue or shell shock and morale remained high.”

“I decided to attack the (1,000 strong) Indian battalion with three companies (300 men) on the morning of 27 Nov. My left forward company was commanded by Captain Javed Jallaluddin. a Christian officer who displayed extreme courage during this battle and although wounded severely in upper left chest by an enemy bullet, refused to be evacuated and kept on leading his company till the day was won.”

Influenced by divisive propaganda launched by our enemies, some of the religious and ethnic leaders are threatening our unity. This must not happen.

‘Captain Javed and Captain Quddus decided the day for us —– the enemy up stuck and ran. —— Captain Quddus succeeded in bringing in the bodies of his two East Pakistani subordinates.

Such was the mutual comradeship between the East and West’. Contrary to the impression that has been created, thousands of East Pakistani soldiers and civilians had joined and helped the army in the fight against India. He narrates many instances of exemplary courage during this and subsequent battles and recommended Major Ayub (shaheed), whose exploits were the stuff of legend, for award of Hilal-e-jurrat and Captain Jallaluddin for Sitara-e-jurrat.

Two days later, Gen. Niazi, along with a large number of media men, came to see proof of the attack by the Indian Army. ‘Where are the corpses of the Indian Army uniformed personnel that are supposed to have been killed during an attack onto your positions yesterday? asked Mr. Dan Southerland of the American daily The Christian Science Monitor. “Can we go to Kamalpur and see the corpses?” Kamalpur was still under Indian artillery and rocket fire. While rest of the party returned to Dacca, Southerland visited the battle site but somehow got separated from his escort.

Luckily, he survived the night under withering fire from across the border by the Indians and was found safe and sound the next day, having seen all the dead Indian soldiers he wanted to see and a few living ones too.

After this, the garrison remained under continuous Indian attack with very heavy air and artillery bombardment. On 9th December, Lt. Col. Sultan Ahmed received a letter carried by a messenger from Brig. H.S. Kler that read in part: ‘I am directed to inform you that your garrison has been cut off from all sides and you have no escape route available to you. One brigade with full complement of artillery has already been built up and another will be striking by the morning.

In addition, you have been given a foretaste of our Air Force with lot more to come. The situation as far as you are concerned is hopeless. Your higher commanders have already ditched you. I expect your reply by 1830 hours today, failing which, I will be constrained to deliver the final blow. ——–’

To this Col. Sultan Ahmed replied. “We, here in Jamalpur, are waiting for the fight to commence. It has not started yet. So, let’s not talk and start it.”

‘Forty (aircraft) sorties, I may point out, are inadequate. Please ask for many more. —— Hoping to find you with a Sten (gun) in hand next time instead of the pen ——’.

Shortly after this, 31 Baluch Regiment was told to abandon its carefully prepared position and move south for the defence of Dacca. Surrounded on all sides, it was a seemingly impossible proposition but they made it, cutting through Indian Army’s 95 Brigade and losing nearly a quarter of its strength in the process. As The Christian Science Monitor reported on 30th December 1971:

“With two-thirds of his battalion left, Col. Sultan reached Dacca two days later and took up positions to block the main Indian thrust into Dacca. His men were still prepared to fight on when the Pakistan High Command decided to surrender. ——- “

What they found in Dacca was utter chaos, confusion and disarray which can only be if there was no comprehensive plan for defence. It is incredible considering that India was known to have been making preparations for war for better part of the year.

This does not reflect on the army as a whole. As General Manekshaw told BBC, ‘The Pakistan Army in East Pakistan fought very gallantly but they had no chance; they were a thousand miles away from their base. I had 8-9 months to make my preparations. I had got a superiority of 15:1; they had no chance but the fought very gallantly.

It is open to question if the lessons that needed to be learnt have indeed been learnt. For political aspects and management, or lack thereof, of the crisis at the governmental level please see East Pakistan Separation: Myth and Reality by the writer.

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