Where War Despatches 1971, edited by Brig Balram Singh Mehta (Retd), differs from other staple 1971 war accounts are a couple of features, which make it unique.
By Ranjit Bhushan
Name of the Book: War Despatches 1971 edited and compiled by Brig BS Mehta
Published by Occam – an imprint of BluOne Ink
Even as the country celebrates 51 years of its victory in 1971 over arch-rival Pakistan, leading to the creation of Bangladesh, there are a plethora of write ups from former soldiers, memoirs of several successful campaigns and war memorabilia, aplenty.
Where War Despatches 1971, edited by Brig Balram Singh Mehta (Retd), differs from other staple 1971 war accounts are a couple of features, which make it unique. One, it is, as the blurb on the cover says, accounts `From Young Army, Navy and Air Force officers Commissioned for Combat’. In other words, most writers in the book were junior officers, with four to five years in service or even less, or to be more specific, the 28th course of the National Defence Academy, Khadagwasla, which was subsequently enlarged to include army officers who were part of the batch commissioned in June 1966.
Two, in the excitement of one of the biggest military triumphs since World War 2, the reader can be pardoned if they overlook the northern sector, where too a war was fought in 1971 and which was a lot fiercer than the abject Pakistani surrender in the eastern sector.
The book has young Navy officers describing India’s strafing of the Karachi harbour, daring air operations without navigational aids in the then East Pakistan, and other stories of bravery and commitment by those not involved in planning the higher trajectory of the war, but those nevertheless successful in operations that ultimately shaped the course of the highly successful war.
So, you have Air Commodore KC Kurvilla recounting his days as Prisoner of War in Pakistan, Air Commodore Arun Karandikar operating a transport aircraft at night and Captain SS Sethi revisiting the naval war, which paralysed the Pakistan Navy from which that country never quite recovered.
There are others like Col KK Nanda, Major Pradeep Sharma, and Lt. Gen PPS Bhandari narrating staggering accounts of their providential escapes during the war, proving – if proof were indeed needed – that battle is a risky business, which calls for enormous amount of planning and the ability to think on your feet and big doses of luck; mere bravado is not enough for a soldier to win the day.
In the opening chapter entitled `The War in Retrospect’, well known TV commentator and author Maroof Raza puts the background of Pakistan in perspective – Islam per se wasn’t a bonding adhesive enough for the two entities of west and east Pakistan, separated by a huge land mass of India. Raza’s inside account of India and Pakistan’s military manoeuvres to get to and defend Dacca are riveting – the facts are well known, but narrated in style, including Major Gen JFR Jacob’s luncheon talk with Gen AAK Niazi, to negotiate a surrender, which was agreed to finally, but not before some hard military haggling.
Brig Balram Singh Mehta, the editor of the book, reflects on the Battles of Burinda and Garibpur, which took place in the third week of November, much before the official commencement of hostilities on December 3, 1971. “We did not count it as war since neither nation had formally declared it. Veterans of the Eastern front lost out as the recognition that came their way came decades later…’’notes Mehta.
Nonetheless, the tank battles, particularly at Garibpur, were early indications that Pakistan would be facing the music in the days ahead.
Lt Gen RSK Kapur, in his chapter `My Most Memorable Learning Experience’, pays tribute to one of the greatest Indian military commanders of all time, Lt. Gen Sagat Singh, who won laurels during the Goa Liberation, was the first Indian general to reach Dacca and “taught the Chinese Army a lesson of their life during the clashes at Nathu La and Cho La, wherein he defeated the Chinese forces in these clashes and achieved decisive tactical advantage.”
Major Gen Virendra Badhwar reflects on his close interactions with the Mukti Bahini, laying the groundwork for close cooperation between the Indian security forces and the locals in the then east Pakistan, who were hell bent on throwing the Pakistanis out of their country. It was this assistance, which came handy when the Indian forces moved into the hinterland in its race to reach Dacca.
Brig Sukhdev Singh gives an inside account of military engineering, an operation in detail, which rarely comes to notice – without infrastructure, no army can move with the ease with which Indians did in Bangladesh. It was people like him, fresh out of the College of Military Engineering, Khidki in Pune, who made all the difference when it mattered.
Brig Shimi Kanbargimath’s narrative provides an excellent personal interlude – `Letters to My Wife’, which shows the very human aspect of war; yet even they throw light on day-today movement of the military in a war, which offers good exposure for those wanting to make a career in the armed forces.
Air Commodore Arun Karandikar `The Kilo Flight’ tells us the story of a clandestine unit formed with a few Pakistani Air Force pilots – obviously Bengalis – who had defected from East Pakistan. His solo sorties in Dakotas in the stuff that legends are made of. These included airlifting troops and those wounded from none-too-well-furnished airports on either side of the border and was just in time to witness the historic surrender ceremony at Dhaka. “The war has ended! I had flown a total of 49 sorties, five as a single pilot on the Dakota in 14 days, including 15 on one day, ‘’ he points out, describing the feeling of excitement and elation of those times.
‘The Solitary Sapper’ by Major Pradeep Sharma tells us about the life of those involved in the logistics of fighting. “The main lesson that the war had taught me was that war would be a period of confusion and lack of information. Resources will be stretched, if available, he recounts.” Golden words, particularly for us living in an era where baying for the enemy’s blood is considered a sign of national honour.
This book should be considered unique in that it covers most aspects of war – in this case intelligence in the 1971 war. Lt Gen Arvind Sharma’s account `The War in the East – Through the Eyes of a Pigeon’, writes of one of the air strikes planned at a place called Maulvi Bazaar after “3 Punjab had captured Munshi Bazaar on December 6, suffering quite a few casualties.’’
Just as the raid began, the forward air controller realised his stomach was throwing up and he ran quickly behind a bush. “Soon the pilot called up and I had to respond. With the officer yelling out instructions from where he was squatting. I was giving instructions to the pilots!” Some way to fight a war!
In `A Nation is Born’, Brig Trigunesh Mukherjee, recalls his entry into Chittagong as “a momentous occasion with jubilant crowds carrying flags of India and Bangladesh, flowers, garlands, and welcoming us all through.”
Colonel Tarlochan Singh Kalra takes the 1971 battle into a different, familiar geography – Pul Kanjri located near the Attari-Wagah border in Punjab, a landscape vastly different from water-soaked Bangladesh. Located on a high ground, it was close and deadly fighting until the likes of Major Koak and L/Nk Shanghara Singh, along with the others, changed the direction of this battle. The Pakistanis waved their white flags and during a flag meeting post the battle, Lt Col Mohammad Iqbal, the CO of 43 Punjab of Pakistan, told his Indian counterpart Lt Col SC Puri: “Well Colonel, from one soldier to another, I would like to compliment you on your excellent outfit. Your men fought heroically and were distinctly superior in battle.”
Kalra gets us to the icing on the cake. While the vanquished Pakistani company commander “who could neither hold on to a well-fortified locality nor dislodge the assaulting 2 Sikh soldiers despite five counter attacks was awarded the Sitara-e-Jurat by Pakistan, Major Koak still awaits the much deserved and long delayed Param Vir Chakra.” Talk of the fog of wars.
Then there is Lt Gen PPS Bhandari’s exemplary account of the Hodson’s Horse, while Captain SS Sethi goes into detail about how the Western Fleet demonstrated its complete dominance of the Arabian Sea to ensure sea control and fulfil its three stated objectives: Seek and destroy, attack, and cripple the Karachi Port and a total blockade of tankers from the Gulf and any other ships entering Pakistani ports. The story of how it was achieved is relatively underplayed, as compared to the land victory.
Wing commander S Balasubramanian reminisces of those days when their Hunter 56A’s took off at 3 in the morning after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s declaration of war; sadly, in the remote airfield that he was posted in Punjab, the planes were not designed for night flights. “In the absence of any lights on the taxi tracks, the other pilots of the squadron and I had to taxi with the help of airmen guiding us with hand-held torches alongside all the way to the runway!” And then to do well under the circumstances, reveals the guts and acumen that Indian youngsters had.
Lt Col Ram Chandra Chhetri delves on the role of the ordnance corp, the men who do inventory management and stocking processes, without which no military can fight a war successfully.
Brig Ujjal Dasgupta describes in detail an army on the move; it can be taxing when hundreds of villagers in Punjab crowd their compartments to offer what they have – three thick rotis and steaming dal, simpletons willing to do anything to get their braves by sacrificing their precious little items.
Brig ML Jaisinghani, a hard-core artillery man, talks about the famous Battle of Shakargarh and the fact that they were 21 km inside Pakistani territory for more than a year where the troops were busy planting and farming on enemy soil.
Air Commodore KC Kuruvilla was a prisoner of war (POW). Soon after taking off from Halwara, Kurvilla and his team were surprised to see a heavily camouflaged convoy of Pakistani military vehicles southwest of Baba Dera Nanak. His 1971 war came to an end when his fateful sortie was shot and he ejected in no-man’s land, where he managed to hide, until picked out by a Pakistani search team.
While the usual interrogations were on at different places, the arrival of an International Red Cross team, in the company of senior Pakistani officers came, saved the day for Kuruvilla, who was offered warm clothes and better food. However, that was followed by an escape attempt, which was nearly aborted as three Indian `bachelor’ POWs managed to break away but were held in Peshawar, while trying to reach Afghanistan. One morning in November 1972, recalls Kurvilla, the prisoners had an unlikely visitor – Pakistan prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who told them, “Gentlemen, I want you to go home. Tell your country that we want peace with India and please return out POWs.” Thus, came about the return to homeland.
Most other chapters reminisce about the war and dare devil operations with elan and articulation; Brigadier Satish Kumar Kukreja’s Some Recollections of 1971’; Lt Gen Mohinder Puri’sA flashback’; Col KK Nanda’s The Capture of the Southern Mamdot Bulge’; Lt Col CPC Nath, who reflects on another aspect of warfare, signal intelligence or SIGINT; Col Mahendra Singh Joon’s historic Battle of Jarpal; Brig Vijay Rai’sThe Capture of Mamdot Bulge, which includes the Pakistani taking of Hussainiwala, not a particularly distinguished chapter for Indians in 1971; Maj Gen PJS Sandhu’s The War as I saw it’ and Maj Gen Subhash Bindra’s searing narrative ofTribulations of Ammunition Supply Chain in War’ – highlighting the significance of supply chains being as important in war as they are in peace.
The appendix includes three memorials to brave hearts who perished in line of duty, two of them sappers Captain RN Gupta and Captain GGK Panicker, whose son managed to locate his memorial as a navy biker during an expedition in Kargil decades later, where he had lost his father. The third on this list of casualties is Captain Daljinder Singh.
The book does well to cover `Honour, Awards and Achievements’ the various citations and mentions in dispatches.
It is a must-read book for those keen to know about the innards of the 1971 war, shorn of political rhetoric, which finally led to over 90,000 Pakistani troops surrendering. This book is about the nuts and bolts of how it all took place.
(The reviewer is a senior independent journalist. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).