31
December

Encounter Battle at Kushtia – 9 December 1971: A Subaltern’s Story

Written By: Lt Col (Retd) Salman Beg

I have never had such an impressive escort as during the time when I was transported by train back from Agra to Delhi. This was probably sometime in September 1972 – the exact days and month are a little fuzzy, as these things happened almost 40 years ago and not having kept a diary of any sort, all I am banking on is my memory – a little after the Simla Summit between Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The escort was from the elite parachute brigade (the 114 para brigade if my recollection is right) of the Indian Army stationed at Agra. There was probably a section (ten men) of India's finest, fully armed soldiers taking me from the old Mughal era Agra jail to the rather famous Tihar Central Jail in Delhi. A barbed wire roll divided the train compartment, with the paratroop section on one side, and me on the other, in long-chained handcuffs.

This would be the second time that I would be lodged in Tihar (this is the same Tihar jail that invariably figures in almost every other Hindi movie). This time in a larger group cell with a Havildar and a Naib Subedar for company, compared to the initial experience when a Class C cell was home for me during solitary confinement for a period of around three months.

To begin from the beginning. I am writing this in the comfort of my home almost after four decades since the 1971 Indo-Pak War. The urge to share the story of this battle from the perspective of a young man, not yet out of his teens, is meant to provide an account of a battle as seen at the level of a junior officer, with which young Pakistanis of today and those who were young in 1971, and all those in between may relate to. The span of time has also put considerable distance between then and now, and although this would at times put a slightly different shade to events as they happened, because memories may invariably be faulty, hopefully the story is now more emotion free. Of course it should be abundantly clear that this is my story as I remember, with all the caveats that come with such subjectivity.

One may well ask, how come that a Second Lieutenant was accorded such importance of being escorted by Parachute Brigade troops and being lodged in maximum security jails in Delhi and Agra. To answer this, one has to go back to the battle that was fought on 9 December 1971 at Kushtia. This encounter battle was termed by Radio Pakistan the same evening as Eastern Command's counter-offensive and a great success. For the Indians it was a shock that the Pakistan Army had annihilated a company (of around 150 men) of 22 Rajputana Rifles who were leading the Indian advance on Kushtia, captured and/or destroyed a Squadron of PT-76 tanks of 45 Cavalry, captured 13 prisoners of war, forced the battalion (22 Rajputana Rifles) into flight, caused the advancing Indian Brigade to turn on its heels and led to the regrouping of the Division and reinforcement of this sector culminating in a very considerable change of Indian Eastern Command operational plans. This is not a figment of imagination or a fanciful flight – this actually happened.

A company of a renowned battalion of the Punjab Regiment (known as Desert Hawks for their amazing valour and battlefield success in all military operations since independence in 1947) that consisted of two regular platoons (about 30 men each) and a mujahid platoon (old reservists) with the support of two troops of tanks of 29 Cavalry, had achieved this. The company commander Major Zahid ul Islam was an exceptionally courageous and selfless leader who was awarded Sitara-e-Jurat for his extreme act of bravery, inspirational leadership and complete coolness under fire. The battle was fought at Kushtia, at some distance from the frontier, as our Brigade deployed in the Mehrpur-Chuadanga area following orders to defend the borders had been skillfully sidestepped by the Indian Army with support of the Mukti Bahini. With the Indians having taken position in the rear of our positions, the Brigade was left with no option but to move out and re-establish itself again and attempt to place itself between the Indians and Dacca. Desert Hawks was thus ordered to withdraw from the frontline from Darsana and Mehrpur after the Brigade Commander realized the predicament of his forces.

A day prior to the order to withdraw, our company had been in an abortive attack to clear an enemy roadblock. This had happened following information that a road convoy that was traveling from the frontline towards the brigade headquarters at Jhenidah, had been intercepted by the Indians and a few of our soldiers had managed to get back carrying this news. The assessment was that a sub-unit of the Indians with Mukti Bahini support had bypassed the front line positions held by our troops.

As our company moved into its attack positions, more credible information was received that the Indians in the roadblock were at least a company strength and had tanks in support as well. Attacking them with a company would thus be suicidal. The attack was called off at the last moment and the Brigade Commander after reviewing the situation decided on vacating the bypassed positions to regroup at Kushtia town. Kushtia was a likely objective for the Indians as it led towards Paksey and the huge rail cum road Hardinge Bridge over the Meghna, a vital communication artery. A night march along a railway line from the frontline to Kushtia was carried out with sniping by the Mukti Bahini not allowing any moment of ease. I recall sleeping while marching; I suppose when one is utterly exhausted the mind does switch off while the body continues to perform in order to survive. In Kushtia, our company 'Charlie' Company was tasked to guard one of the approaches into the town, while other units and sub-units were also tasked similarly. On one such approach a company of another battalion was given the mission to take position on the outskirts of Kushtia by 1000 hours on 9 December, which at that time would hand over responsibility to a company from our unit which shall have moved in and relieved them. For reasons that are still not clear, this did not happen on time.

The other company after waiting, vacated the position and moved back to Kushtia. At about this time a commandeered bus with a platoon of troops was rushing towards the vacated advanced position, but were quite horrified to see Indian tanks advancing in their direction on the same road. The only sensible course for the bus was to turn around and rush back to safer positions while informing the Battalion and Brigade Headquarters of the situation.

When news of the Indian advance broke, I was with Major Zahid, visiting the Battalion and Brigade Headquarters that had been setup in a government building in Kushtia. The Brigade Commander realising that if the Indians were not stopped, the whole force in Kushtia would be destroyed, ordered Major Zahid to stop the Indians and that he could use the two troops of 29 Cavalry tanks that were also available in Kushtia. Major Zahid quickly assembled 'Charlie' Company and led us towards the road that Indians were advancing on. A few words about the terrain and situation to get a feel for the ground conditions. Roads were built much higher than the surroundings, as East Pakistan would often be submerged during the flood season, while an abundance of greenery, vegetation, trees and sugarcane impeded observation and movement as well. Canals dotted the countryside. These were formidable obstacles. Tanks could only use the road. Our support included artillery consisting of old vintage 3.7 inch guns, six tanks and two anti-tank recoilless rifle guns (RRs).

Major Zahid led us purposefully forward on both sides of the road, with our RRs accompanying us. We came to a wall stretched out at 90 degrees on the left side of the road. He ordered us to line up behind the wall, cross it and then recommence our advance. At the same time we saw Indian tanks and our RRs started engaging them. Soon 29 Cavalry tanks also got into the action. We started getting artillery fire and the sound of battle increased with small arms fire also joining in. 'Charlie' Company continued to move forward and we only came to a halt when we reached a small canal and laid on ground. At this point we received machine gun fire from a building on our right which literally grazed our feet, but mercifully the shooting did no damage. Major Zahid ordered one of our rocket launcher teams to clear the Indian post.

Major Zahid ordered two platoons to move towards the road on our right direction while one platoon was tasked to move left along the canal and cross it over the first bridge they came to. We ran towards the road along the canal bank and as we came near the main bridge, we saw Indian soldiers trying to cross the bridge. The firefight caused the Indians to withdraw with us chasing them. What had caused the Indians such great fear? The famous saying about the fog of war is true. Also true is that the one who shoots first invariably wins and most of all I believe that the Indians had assumed that since they had met with no resistance at the outskirts of Kushtia they relaxed their guard thinking that the Pakistan Army had vacated these positions as well. Suddenly to be confronted with resolutely advancing soldiers supported by RRs and tanks caused utter confusion and spread panic in their ranks. It might have appeared to them that they advanced into a well prepared ambush and that now they did not have a chance of coming out alive.

We chased the Indians for over three miles and only stopped when we almost ran out of ammunition. There were some incidents that show that overcoming the fear it is the key to success in battle. To illustrate let me share three incidents. Major Zahid overpowered an armed Indian soldier as he raced forward. The Indian soldier offered to surrender, but this would have slowed down Major Zahid, therefore he told the Indian soldier to wait at the same place and later on he would be taken prisoner. Major Zahid left the soldier and continued forward all the time wondering if the Indian soldier would shoot him in the back. Interestingly after two hours the armed Indian soldier was still waiting there and did become a prisoner of war. Then there was the valiant Indian JCO who despite of being wounded in action and completely surrounded by our troops, refused to give up arms. A brave man indeed, he accepted death over life on the battlefield and died a worthy soldier. The last incident concerns me. As I was advancing with a soldier, there was a hail of gunfire at one side of the road and the soldier in front of me, Sepoy Nazar, was hit in the forehead. And when Major Zahid asked me to cross the road to get to the other edge of the road where he was himself standing, to give me orders for the next stage of battle. But it was the fine when we faced heavy crossfire.

Belief in Allah, the honour of one's family and one's name (my father had commanded the unit twenty years earlier), did anyone really have a choice to opt out and say no that I will not cross the road. I was wearing a green beret (the Punjab Regiment colour as the unit did not have enough steel helmets, not that they were of too much use), had an AK47, the ever-reliable famous Kalashnikov and possibly a magazine of ammunition. I put my hand in my trouser pockets and touched the rosary bead for reassurance that my mother had given me on my departure from Gilgit on 24th November 1971. Naturally I crossed the road unharmed.

'Charlie' Company had two Shaheeds and two wounded while Lieutenant Khattak of 29 Cavalry embraced shahadat. Among the Indian casualties were a number of young officers. The 'word-of-mouth' was that the fathers of two of these officers were on important positions. One was a Lok Sabha member and the other a Major General in the Indian Army. They could not believe that an outnumbered Pakistan Army outfit had inflicted so much damage on the advancing Indian Army formation and caused so many casualties. They were looking for their pound of flesh. And so it came about that ‘Desert Hawks’ in general and 'Charlie' Company in particular became the focus of interrogation and special treatment that included stints in Tihar Central Jail.

So it was that I was given this very special escort from Agra to Delhi in September 1972.
The writer is retired officer who remained prisoner of war during 1971. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Follow Us On Twitter