Night was at its peak and the darkness seemed to be making an eerie sound of its own. Tonight this sound was interrupted by the blast sounds of occasional bombs bursting in the distance. Actually, the dark sheet of darkness was itself not too dark, not because it was lit up by a full moon, but because of burning villages, houses and a nearby Police Station building. This place was called Bajnahar, located some 30 miles south of the Indian boarder and about 8 miles North of Dinajpur along the Shibganj route of the East Pakistan Railway line. What one saw here extended for miles over a well extended area in East Pakistan Today were December 5, 1971. One could make out the smell of death and cordite in the air and vast devastation of Military and other property all over during day time. Now things were cooling as the fighting troops had moved over to deeper south. Both, the defending Pakistani troops and the pursuing Indian troops had gone away one by one. First the troops, then the big Vehicles and then the Tanks and the pieces of Artillery had followed each other southward. The sky had seen some aerial battles and huge aircraft of Indian Air Force had swept and swooped low; bellowing rockets and gunfire. One of these was hit and it careened out the sky making a miserable screech as it disappeared over the horizon. A while later, a black mushroom appeared where it may have finally crashed.
In Bajnahar and adjoining areas a troop of four tanks of the 3rd Armoured (Patton) Regiment had been deployed. As the day had hotted up to attacking Indian forces and Armour, its Commander Major Rab had the misfortune of being injured in a mine blast. By late after noon he had been evicted to the rear. Since then all the operation was being handled by the 2nd In-charge, 2 i/c; Captain Rashid. Captain Rashid had been with the Squadron only for 18 months, he had good academic record but no experience. He had tried to meet the situation as it revealed itself and had been on his feet nearly all day, now he was just too tired. In his zeal he had ordered No.2 Tank wrongly and it was target by a swooping Mig – 21. The machine was still smoking about half a mile away. There was no contact with No. 3 Tank and the other two had been captured by Indian Troops. His own position had been ordered to retreat by the mobile battle control Operation Post. For the moment he was out of the active war zone.
Lying on the Camp cot, his restlessness was growing by the minute and a train of broken thoughts passed his tensed mind. At one time he dreamed that he was a cadet and how he was made the Battalion Cadet Captain just ahead of the Passing Out Parade. He had scored the highest marks in Academics, and won the Presidents Gold Medal for Parade and Field Work. Not only the Instructors held him in high esteem even his course mates had conceded the position. The Army Chief had praised his achievement during his speech at the Passing out Ceremony. Later he was posted to $ Sind Armoured Regiment under Lt. Col. Latif. The
C O was always proud of the performance of the young subaltern and he had a drawer full of Commendations and awards. But today nothing had worked and it was his biggest fiasco …….. Suddenly his chain of thoughts was disrupted by a Blast. “Oh! Damn the Indian Army”, he said aloud and turned in his cramped cot. Suddenly his bed side ‘phone began to ring. It was the Command Post. They had a message from Capt Rahim and he listened for a while. All his remaining resources had been withdrawn and were asked by the Area Commander to await fresh orders by 0630 hrs. He began to slip into an uncontrolled revere again.
His thoughts diverted to Jameela….. what a stunningly beautiful girl! Their first meeting was in the central hall of Peshawar Club. The meeting was as grand as the Club itself with fabulous chandeliers, five piece live barrel band, and the gyrating bodies of several dancing couples. The occasion was to welcome the arrival of the first New Year soon after his commissioning. He had seen Jameela in a blue top and black jeans with a friend in the early evening and now as the event was approaching they were dancing real close. The ambiance, the high spirits of the New Year and the earsplitting music had cast a spell on the two. As the clock struck the dawn of the New Year there was frenzied activity and all members were on the floor and had joined hands to form a chain. The show went on and on………..
Later as Rashid was driving her back to her Nursing Hostel he asked her about her parents. She was quite for a while and he sensed tears in her eyes in the dimly lit interior of the car. After a long pause she volunteered that her parents were killed during the partition as they were Hindus. A neighbour took pity and had looked after her. The couple had other children of their own who had now deserted them. She was now supporting them from her salary as a nurse. The fact of her suffering had struck a delicate cord deep inside him, he was truly sorry at her miserable plight. He thought of the futility of the whole exercise of the partition and was pained at its mindlessness and the aftermath that had followed all over the sub-continent. It was not just Muslims and Hindus who had suffered, but it was the end of Families, hamlets, towns and districts all over……….. The phone was ringing again. He picked it up in near panic. It was from Command Post again. This time the news was even worse – all contact with the rear formation had been lost and they were on their own. With no idea as to how matters had progressed during the night, he broke into cold sweat. “Allah, have mercy”.
A noise behind him made him turn around quickly. What he saw was unbelievable; A Sikh soldier had stood in the doorway with his bayoneted vintage .303 rifle pointing squarely at his chest. He rubbed his eyes, but it wasn’t part of a nightmare. He began to get up wearily with his hands raised in the air. For him the War had ended and he would never know what happened to the rest of his squadron or the survivors of what was left of it.
X X X
He was roughly pushed into a waiting 3-tonner, he saw some injured and bleeding Pakistan Army personnel sprawled on the floor. Two more Sikh Jawans were standing with Carbines. They drove off and he had no idea in what direction they were headed. At day break the truck came to a halt at an Airstrip. They were once again bundled into a Mi -8 Helicopter. His understanding was that Indian Soldiers were an incompetent lot, but now he was amazed at the clinical precession of the operation. He was appalled at the fact that his sector had fallen after it had been declared as near impregnable to enemy forays. The Mi-8 hovered into a POW camp and was silent as the big rotor came to a stop. The POW’s filed out, he was given special preference, befitting the 3 stars on his shoulders. Due medical help was being rendered to the injured. He did not see any indecent handling of the prisoners…
The next day was scheduled for questioning by the local Indian Army Intelligence. He was amazed at the information they already had with them. He began to see the hollowness of the propaganda he had been subjected to. The treatment to the POWs was not lacking, messing had been proper and at no stage he saw any Pakistani soldier being harassed. The injured were treated well. He remembered the Pakistan Forces Bulletin he saw at the end of the first day war on 4 December. The Bulletin had stated that Pakistan Forces had advanced all over except the Agartala- Comilla border. The document had also mentioned air strikes on Gauhati, Tezpur and Siliguri Airbases. Suddenly revulsion began to germinate in his mind about the Pakistan Army.
He was the only East Pakistani in his squadron. He was often chided for this by his colleagues. The joke was that Bengali’s became cowardly as fish as they ate only fish. Some officers would not hesitate to say that being a Bengali he would have given up out of fear. He sensed there was discrimination against him and that perhaps he did not belong to the Pakistan Forces as much as another person from West Pakistan. He began to see many Bengali Officers were not given their due in the Army. He was aware of the suspicion on his loyalty, just because he was not from the Western parts of the country. Among Indian troops he saw that the Sikhs were mingling freely with all others and there was no dividing line anywhere. He felt ashamed of being a second grade citizen of his country.
Interrogations continued daily…………..
X X X
One day he got wind of information that his lot was due to be transferred to Agra the following day. The trains had to be changed due to track being Broad gauge beyond Barauni Junction. He thought it may give him a chance to freedom. He began to plan on an event where he had no idea of terrain, situation or repercussions.
There was head count at each place, the camp, the railway station, the platform, inside the train and so on. Once the compartment was full it would be locked from the out side. All windows were barred and the ones opening to the inside were kept open. Outside in the corridor sat an Indian Army soldier escort. The platform itself was full of Patrolling Guards and any chance of adventure was effectively sealed. A little away were hoards of curious eyes trying to see for themselves what the enemy soldiers looked like? Only some over excited persons were making unbalanced comments. One of them, he heard saying, that if Pakistan had given the Bengali’s their due then it would have been a different scene. Rashid began to think of his own childhood in Tangail, a big town of East Pakistan.
As the train pulled out, his own idle thoughts began to form. He realized that the Pakistan Government was hell bent in suppressing the Bengali’s in their own homeland and were using Bengali soldiers in this heinous act. The Pakistan forces were shedding blood of their own people only because they were asking for equal status and better living. His sisters and mothers were being raped by the soldiers in the guise of maintaining law and order. The spark of discord burst into flames in side his mind and his self-conscious began to pinch him. He suddenly began to see a lot of sense in the civilians of East Pakistan asking for self rule. He began to feel sorry for bearing allegiance towards Pakistan. The train traveled all night and all night he was absorbed in his own transformation. By morning he had decided that he was a Bengali and he had a duty towards his people and what they were referring to as Bangladesh. He identified his inner voice saying “Jay Bangla, Jai Janani”
X X X
It was still dark when the train chugged into Barauni railway station. Each compartment was opened in the presence of more soldiers and after the mandatory headcount the POWs were marched to ringed areas on the platform. Soon, it was turn of the six Officer occupants of his compartment. Their escorts were two other young officers. He led the file while the others followed and behind them were the two Indian Escorts. The platform was dark and there was a steel pillar obstructing direct vision from the other group. Rashid slipped himself between the platform and the train. The POW following him did not notice any abnormality. And the file marched on. He thought of what may happen during the next headcount.
Meanwhile there was a goods train crawling on the nearby line in the opposite direction. He lunged and got a foothold on the Goods train. The train picked up speed and he settled himself on the bumper. The train kept moving and would not stop at many stations. His destination was still a mystery. Finally, it stopped at a yard and he spent the day under a tree while the train shunted, detaching and attaching some rolling stock. At night he walked to the railway station in his vest. A passenger train was ready to move towards Barauni, he decided to take the risk. He found himself in an empty first class compartment. No one else boarded till the train began to move again. Then, just as the train was about to leave the platform a young man burst into the moving compartment. The new comer was around 30 year old. He did not take nicely to the man in rags on the opposite bunk and stared hard at him. Rashid introduced himself in chaste English; I am a member of Mukti-Bahini and will travel to the border”. The new comer mellowed down and said,” I am Gogoi and a Manager at Miryani Tea Estate. There was no further conversation as both settled down for the night. When he got up, Rashid found the train had halted at a station. He got down and saw the board declaring it was Kishanganj. He was aware of Mukti-Bahini camps in that area
He found one across the border inside Pakistan. He was interrogated by some Bahini big-wigs and in a matter of days he was an officer of the liberation forces.
X X X
As luck would have it, Rashid was sent to an area in Tangail, close to his own and now liberated Pakistan; soon to be proclaimed as Bangladesh. History was in the making. The battle for Dhaka was in full swing, the rest of the country was at comparative peace. Indian Military and civil presence was already being welcomed with relief, food and medicines all around.
Indian soldiers had already assembled at the Jaidebpur tri-junction and were facing some difficulties in advancing further. Rashid was given the task of attacking a bunker in which Pakistani soldiers were holed up. Earlier Air strikes had not been successful. Rashid had a contingent of five other soldiers and normal weaponary for bunker targets. His task was simply to stop return fire from the bunker by night. It was a sabotage mission.
In the dead of the night six sets of stealthy feet moved silently towards their target. They were some 30 feet from a raised bund when firing resumed from the bunker. There was no retaliation from the Indian side. In the back ground spurts of machine-gun fire, sound of tank tracks and isolated bursting Artillery shells broke the silence of the night. Rashid saw a rising mortar shell and felt helpless as he mentally decided its trajectory. The shell fell yards from the crawling figures near the embankment. Two of Rashid’s followers lay dead in the aftermath of the loud burst and the blinding flash of the mortar shell. Others were all injured. They moved on regardless.
They all rose one after the other and in a moment were sprawled in the sands close to the bunker. They remained unseen in the dust and debris raised by the blast. They were now barely 12 yards from the bunker when they were spotted by an occupant of the bunker and rifle fire spewed from the Pill-box. A small hump in the land saved the figures lying, clutching Mother Earth. Doubts crept into Rashid’s mind. Retreat was impossible and advance was stalled by the steady rifle fire. Both sides lay death – one side cowardly end and at the other end the glorious achievement. The one fool-proof solution was to reach the safety of the bunker wall where they would be in the blind spot and hurl in Grenades. Then, to Rashid’s surprise a grenade was lobbed from the pill box. It fell amongst the braves and there were two more casualties and more injuries to both Rashid and his mate. There was no time to loose. His surviving mate had badly injured feet and could not move. Rashid gave him his sten gun and asked him to open random fire. This foxed the Pakistani attacker for a while. In this second, Rashid made a dash for the pill-box, he crashed into the cement wall with a thud. He steadied himself and removed a grenade from his belt, pulled its pin with his teeth and lobbed it into the open space. There was a loud bang and the machine gun from within was silent.
His first job now was to stop the Indian fire. He pulled out a vary cartridge shell and fired the prearranged sequence into the air. Almost as if by magic, all Indian fire went silent. Now he could move forward unrestricted. He walked easily to the section which had housed the Artillery Guns. He dropped two more grenades into the opening. The grenades found there targets and the stored ammunition of the Pakistani Bunker exploded. There was debris flying all over the place and more secondary explosions occurred. Rashid’s body too went up in the air with the force of the blast. His body came down in several shreds.
A traitor had died the death of a patriot.
As the bunker fell, the Indian forces flooded in the gaping hole in the impregnable defenses of Dhaka. They were only hours from the Hotel where the Commander of Pakistani Forces, General Niazi had holed himself.
Rashid was not there to feel the excitement of his Nation gaining freedom, its second after 1947 when the British had been forced to retreat.