Lt Colonel (Retired) Jasbir Sarai
A sixty five year old army veteran has a lot of time to reflect and contemplate, and this applies to me also. My grandchildren have this constant need to hear stories and yarns that I have learnt to concoct. Somehow, I never got down to telling them a true story of guts and glory of which I was a part. I hesitate since I feel that they will not be interested!
The story pertains to the liberation of Bangladesh forty three years ago. Bangladesh today is a proud, independent nation well on the path to development. Its rapidly improving economy and enduring democracy are its biggest assets. Its relationship with India is on the rise with positive vibes on the Land Boundary Agreement and water sharing. This freedom was won with great sacrifice; not may now remember that glorious era.
With a little over one year service with the Indian army I fought for the Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Such was the intensity of the war that I remember the events vividly even today. Was I scared or apprehensive? After all I had never been to war before. The soldiers of my unit came from the brave, martial Dogra stock of Jammu and Kashmir. Among them were many veterans of previous wars and conflicts, they spoke to me of operations but never mentioned the risk involved. The young think less, I thought even lesser, so the moment of fear simply passed by me!
The Mukti Bahini, the liberation militia of then East Pakistan was fighting alongside us for the cause of their nation. What they lacked in military training they made up with their motivation. Their leaders belonged to a very eminent families; I remember someone telling me that one of the leaders in the group associated with us was a relation (son or grandson) of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Since identities were kept hidden I did not pursue the matter. These persons, on their part, were obedient, courteous and dedicated to the cause. They behaved like true revolutionaries.
While talking of the war I would like to start from the end. When the war came to end I was with my unit at Khulna and the Pakistanis were preparing for the surrender ceremony of their 107 Brigade under Brigadier Malik Hyat Khan. Pakistani soldiers comprising of Punjab and Baluch units formed a part of this contingent. As they were passing by, one of the Pakistani soldiers said to me loud and clear in front of his officers “Oye shera, agar tere varge afsar saadi fauj vich hon tan assi dunia di kisse vee fauj nu kacha kha jaiye.” (Hey Tiger, if officers like you were in our army we would eat up any army in this world). I often wonder if he was praising us or castigating his own leadership on their faces.
There is one soldier whose memory cannot leave my mind ever! The General Officer Commanding (GOC) of my division, Major General Dalbir Singh, stood a notch above my six feet one inch and was all of 130 kilograms. His heart was as big as his girth. He drew a lot of pleasure in mixing with the troops; in our unit he was particularly fond of Havildar (Sergeant) Sukhdev Singh with whom he exchanged Punjabi jokes and sonnets. Sukhdev Singh was finding it difficult to pass his promotion examination. The GOC used his special powers to get him promoted to the rank of Naib Subedar (Junior Commissioned Officer). Naib Subedar Sukhdev Singh died in the Battle of Burinda ten days later. Major General Dalbir Singh continued to visit the unit but there was something missing in his booming laughter.
During the war the GOC used to move in the front line with his red tabs in display which is a great security risk. Security procedures lay down that even ranks will not be worn during operations. He maintained that a bunch of nincompoops in the enemy ranks could not be allowed to make him remove the red tab that had been given to him by the President of India. With such mettle in the leadership the Indian army was bound to be victorious.
My immediate junior was an officer a called DD; being good friends we requested the commanding officer for permission to go for the first attack side by side. We had this romantic notion of going down fighting together should the need arise. Quite amazingly, our commanding officer acceded to our request. Before our battalion attack in the Battle of Jessore, DD and self decided to gorge on Allo-Puris (Potato and bread). We did not want to die hungry! DD went looking for a tree to sit under and eat in peace. Before he found a tree an enemy air burst found him and he was evacuated with lead in his stomach that still troubles him when he plays golf; so much for our juvenile sentiments.
Thus I went in for the first attack of my life, there were many more later on. As the enemy fire started, instead of crouching I remained erect because our instructor in the training academy had taught us that an erect soldier gives the most difficult target to the enemy and a crouching soldier the easiest. Secondly, I felt that it would look rather awkward for a turbaned Khalsa (Sikh) six foot tall to be lying down on the ground – what would the Pakistanis think!! To keep myself occupied I hurled the choicest of expletives towards the enemy in my vibrant mother tongue – Punjabi. Since standing in one place was difficult, I started walking towards the objective and my soldiers followed me. One thing led to the other and soon we were in occupation of the enemy locality.
I was lucky that I came back alive, many of my comrades were not as lucky. War has its few moments of excitement and many moments of pain, a kind of pain that does not leave a person for a lifetime. I may talk of the of the times with felicity but the fact remains that I cannot forget Naib Subedar Sukhdev Singh and many others, such is war.