In May 1971 I trekked across the border to join the Mukti Fouj and by a curious concatenation of circumstances fetched up at a Youth Camp outside Balurghat, the district headquarters of West Dinajpur, where I found myself among a boisterous half-dozen of my cronies from Dhaka, including my Gregorian schoolmate Tanna, the present Dhaka Club president, who left not long after to devote himself to giving Bangladesh a sporting side. The camp had a couple of thousand youths going through Boy Scout-like drills as they waited for their turn to be sent up to improvised military training schools offering three-week crash courses to shape them up into guerrillas who would operate in small squads in occupied territory.
Just then a recruiting team doing the rounds of various Mukti Fouj sectors to select young men for officers’ training visited the camp, which was an adjunct to the headquarters of Sector 7. My friends and I queued up for interviews before a three-member board headed by Lt. Colonel Kazi Nuruzzaman, aided by Colonel Shafayet Jamil and (Shaheed) Major Najmul Haque, the acting sector 7 commander. Quayyum Khan, a Club member, and I were selected and in due course made our way to Murti, a military station amidst the picturesque forested hills and tea gardens close to the Bhutan border. Film buffs may be interested to know that the Forest Guest House where “Mr and Mrs Iyer” hole up for a night is in Murti. I have written about our training in “Strike a Heroic Pose” (Star Literature: a click away on Google) and will skip details. On 9 October our batch of 61 cadets were commissioned by the Bangladesh government in exile and within a week posted out. Sheikh Kamal went to Calcutta as Colonel Osmani’s ADC; and 60 of us to the 11 sectors and the units of the East Bengal regiment. In other words, the Bangladesh Liberation Forces (BLF) had 60 freshly trained company commanders. We were ready to intensify so-called conventional operations.
Five of us were sent to Sector 7, now with Colonel Zaman in charge. As we entered the Colonel’s tent we found a stocky, ebullient officer in olive green giving an exciting situation report. He was Captain Idris, one of the sub-sector commanders, whom Quayyum and I had passingly met while at Balurghat: one morning we trekked to his camp and found him briefing a rag-tag band that would go in for patrol duty inside Bangladesh. An engineer by training, he had briefly been a lieutenant in the Electrical, Mechanical and Engineering (EME) Corps of the Pakistan Army and had been court-martialled and cashiered after knocking out his Punjabi CO for having used anti-Bengali racist slurs. He was employed in the Jaypurhat Sugar Mills when the independence war broke out. He organized a band of young volunteers, collected whatever arms he could lay hands on and began guerrilla operations. He was now commanding the Hamzapur sub-sector, so named after the border village where it had its headquarters. And he had something dramatic to report.
“Sir, we will take Dinajpur town within a week if you can arrange Indian artillery backing,” he told the Colonel as he pointed out on a map where his company had taken up position.
This was electrifying. The Colonel promised to try his utmost, and assigned two of us, Amin and me, to Idris’s command. In two jeeps laden with arms, ammunition and other supplies we drove that evening to Hamzapur. To our surprise – and Captain Idris’s shock – the camp was teeming with people. The company had come under a surprise flanking attack while the Captain was on his way to Sector HQ, and an undignified sauve-qui-peut followed. One had been killed, several wounded. Captain Idris was livid with rage; expletives shot from his mouth like stengun bursts. He made one particularly pusillanimous ex-EPR NCO pick up a heavy wooden chair and do knee-bends. Amin and I were crestfallen and morosely went to our assigned tent to sleep away the shock.
The next morning Captain Idris was in a far more equable mood. He was a battle-hardened commander who had gone through many ups and downs and knew how to pick himself up after a setback: a truly indomitable spirit. He ordered the entire company to get ready for patrolling. After breakfast we trundled out, platoon by platoon, including the 3-inch mortar detachment. This much-used weapon didn’t have its sighting mechanism and had to be fired blind, like a 2-inch mortar, but such was the rapport between mortarman Rahman and this lethal tube that it was as accurate as one could wish.
We crossed over to the western bank of the Punarbhaba River and headed towards the border, just a couple of kilometres away. To our sorrow, shock and dismay we found a fresh stream of refugees pouring out of Bangladesh. The Pakistanis had driven everyone out of the villages Captain Idris had liberated and then lost. We would have to start all over again. When we reached the sports field of Kamdebpur High School we came under small arms fire and some desultory shelling. We secured a base area and spent the day patrolling and probing and skirmishing. The dead body of the shaheed who fell in the retreat was recovered under cover of darkness and taken to Hamzapur for burial.
After a week or so with Captain Idris I was recalled to Sector HQ and ordered to raise a new company with about 200 youths who had just finished the three-week guerrilla course. I was joined by Saifullah, who had escaped from PMA with his friend Bazlur Rashid. They joined our course but rather too late in the day and were asked to stay on and pass out with the next batch; but they didn’t want to miss out on the action and opted for field commissions in the Mukti Bahini.
We trained day and night and waited for our arms and equipment and marching orders. In the middle of all this the Colonel asked Saifullah and me to accompany him on a mission. We set off in the middle of the night and arrived at Hamzapur in the small hours; it turned out we’d be part of the Sector Commander’s party at a set-piece battle. The objective: Khanpur BOP, occupied by a Pakistani company. With headlights turned off we crept past camouflaged Indian artillery batteries, a squadron of tanks, and leaving the jeep walked till we met up with scouts from the Hamzapur Company. We had brought along some LMGs, which we handed over to them.
The Colonel chose the tree-lined bank of a small pond for the observation post; a section of the Hamzapur boys were positioned nearby. All was quiet. Mist lay thick over fields and copses. It was Ramadan. In towns and cities one would expect sirens to go off suddenly to announce sehri time. Instead the air was rent by artillery shells as a whole regiment opened up. The enemy responded with all the small arms at their disposal. The continuous thunderclaps of artillery, the manic whine of hundreds of automatics, tracers winging overhead…we felt our bodies tingling with excitement. Saifullah and I joined the section that had been assigned the role of ‘jitter party’, to create distracting noise with small arms. But amidst the tremendous racket going on the ‘jitter party’ was quite redundant. Presently we could hear the voices of attackers rushing through the paddy fields. My coursemate Amin was leading the assaulting troops. The shelling moved forward, the firing gradually retreated, then faded away. The darkness slowly dissipated and through the mist emerged columns of Indian soldiers of 4 Madras Regiment moving forward to take up position beside the Hamzapur Company. We joined them with the Colonel and went up to the front line command post where we found the 4 Madras CO and Captain Idris. An artillery duel with the retreating Pakistanis was in progress. Suddenly someone spotted a black uniform – used by the Armoured Corps — in the distance. Fearing there might be enemy tanks in the vicinity the Indian CO radioed for Cavalry back-up and in minutes a troop of appeared behind us. “That should act a deterrent,” the CO said. The war had entered a new phase. The time for concerted action by the Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army had arrived.
Not long after Saifullah and I were ready with our company to move to the front: Hamzapur again, and in the area I had already seen briefly, west of the Purnabhaba. The battle-front scenario now was like this: east of the Purnabhaba were Captain Idris and Amin with the original Hamzapur Company and 4 Madras under Lt. Colonel Malhotra. West of the Purnabhaba were Saifullah and I and our newly raised company, which we called Alpha Company. The main Pakistani defensive position in the area centred on Ramsagar, the famous hillock that dominates the surrounding countryside, right on the eastern bank of the river, about halfway between Dinajpur town and the border. The veterans of the sub-sector had by now given it a proud nickname, derived in true Bengali style from the king of the Sundarbans: the Hamzapur Tigers. It worked like magic. “You are now members of the Hamzapur Tigers”, we told our raw recruits, and their chests puffed up.
The tactical situation on our side, the West Bank, had changed since the last time I was there. After the retreat of Captain Idris’s company the Pakistanis put up numerous bunkers in a network of fortified villages from where they came out patrolling to maintain their control of the area. Straddling the border in southern Dinajpur is a sal forest that is home to a Santal community. The Pakistani bunkers stopped short of the horizontal line across the northern tip of the forest: I suppose they didn’t want to make themselves vulnerable to guerrillas sneaking out of the woods to take pot shots and then vanish into them again. At this point, I’m afraid I’ll have to stop short of a detailed account and sum up very briefly; the magazine has to go to press and I don’t have more than two pages to have my say for now. But my friend Amin and I plan to write a longer account with a title like “Sub-Sector Hamzapur”.
We set ourselves two tasks: to wrest control of the countryside from the Pakistanis and dislodge them from their bunkers. We laid siege to the fortified villages and intensively patrolled the countryside. It was a war of attrition. Though ill-equipped (bolt-action rifles, stenguns, LMGs, 2-inch mortars, one 81 mm mortar, grenades, but no rocket launchers; not even grenade-firing rifles: Quayyum at Mohdipur, under Captain Jahangir, had some of these, though) we had the advantage in manpower, and the Pakistanis, to their disadvantage, were dispersed in penny packets over the whole countryside. The enemy tried a couple of desperate tricks, which failed. One morning they launched a flanking attack along the riverbank and were beaten back. One night intense firing erupted away to the west, where we had a section stationed at the tip of the sal forest. We remained on stand-to all night. The next morning I took out a patrol and found out what had happened. The Pakistanis firing was so heavy that our section withdrew into the forest. Strangely enough the enemy’s aim seemed to have been simply to scare away our boys. Suddenly one of our boys shouted and pointed out a few patches of loose earth on the mud track down which the enemy had come. I removed the top layer and saw a little bit of plastic sticking out. Very, very gingerly I removed more earth and uncovered a plastic anti-personnel mine; but it had been screwed on top of a larger thing: a whopping anti-tank mine. There were four such devices that I defused. One false move and, as my boys said with grim humour, I’d have become kima (mincemeat). Mines prove to be a big problem in every war. A trip-wire mine wounded several of our boys. After the war all the mines collected from the Dinajpur area were stocked in a school building in which Mukti Bahini boys were also billeted. At least one of them hadn’t been defused. The whole building blew up and over 300 were killed. We could hear the explosion in distant Bogra, where we had by then been transferred. People came to our headquarters to ask what had happened; one of them said he had thought it was the US 7th Fleet, which had been making threatening moves.
Four Madras had a setback – a patrol was surprised by the enemy and an officer and a couple of jawans taken prisoner – and were replaced by 12 Garhwal Rifles. We now had a field telephone spanning the river, and once an artillery OP came over and went round with me taking shots at enemy bunkers. Early one morning we overran the southernmost of the network of bunkers and moved up. Another village we laid siege to was simply abandoned by the enemy without a fight. We were reinforced by another new company raised from the guerrillas, so we could go patrolling deeper up the countryside. In one village a boy came up crying and told us how both his mother and sister had been forced to become birangonas . I will never forget his tormented expression.
With two companies under us we split into two commands, so to speak. We now even had walkie-talkies for easy communication (they were particularly useful in directing mortar fire) and a couple of motorbikes on which we could go inspecting our positions. Saifullah was in one village with one company; I in the next village with the other company. Between us lay a stretch of farmland. Both companies faced an occupied village. Every morning Saifullah and I would get together to decide on the course of action for the day. One morning Saifullah decided to walk across the tip of the field to my side, counting on the mist to shelter him from the enemy’s view. Suddenly there were gunshots and a boy ran to me shouting that Saifullah had been hit. I went and saw that he had almost made it across when a sniper got him. I ran and dragged him to the shelter offered by the trunk of a felled tree. The sniper kept shooting: every couple of seconds the tree-trunk rang as a bullet hit. I shouted for an LMG to be handed to me, placed it to the right of the trunk, carefully aimed at a tree from where the bullets were coming and let loose a withering burst. The sniping stopped. We carried Saifullah to safety and packed him off to hospital; luckily the bullet had gone clean through his arm without hitting the bone.
But the hospital couldn’t keep Saifullah confined for long. Brave to a fault, he absconded and was back at the front, smiling, with his arm in a sling. By now the war was in its final, hectic phase. Ramsagar was strafed by a couple of Hunters, and with one well-coordinated artillery-backed attack by 12 Garhwaland our Sector Troops we could have taken Dinajpur, but the strategic decision, as the Indian CO told me over field telephone was to hold our horses. This didn’t prevent us from keeping up the aggressive patrolling or Captain Idris from a last desperate campaign. With two of his platoons and two of ours, plus our mortar, and with Saifullah as his Second-in-Command he decided to advance on Birol, near the district’s western border. On 14 December they ran into a trap; Idris was wounded in the hip; he was later decorated with a Bir Pratik, though he was also unceremoniously and inexplicably discharged soon after the war was over. 14 December was also when Bir Shreshta Captain Jahangir fell in Mohdipur. The next day the enemy evacuated Dinajpur.
Let me end with a salute to the unsung heroes of 1971. They are the ordinary people of the country who risked everything to do their bit for the country. Among the boys in our two companies there were no university students. There was a 15-year-old student of Class 9, a cheerful lad as brave as any man; a few college students who were made platoon commanders, along with a very brave ex-EPR JCO; the rest were simple village youths, peasants who dreamt that once it was liberated the country would be peaceful and prosperous. I tried to tell them not to nurture unrealistic dreams; I don’t think my words made any impression on them. They were eager to work to build a better land. The idea of a National Militia comprising volunteers from the freedom fighters who would work to rebuild the war-ravaged land was floated and then unceremoniously shelved. We were ordered to give fifty taka to each of our men and send them home. It left me with a lingering sense of sadness and guilt. I wanted to get back to my studies as soon as possible; I had to submit three applications before I was finally released at the end of June 1972. And yet, like all the boys in our companies I would make the same choice if I had to live all over again. I am proud to have been with the Hamzapur Tigers.
Kaiser Haq is a Bangladeshi poet, translator, essayist, critic and academic.