I am writing about two brigadiers from our War of Liberation. One from the Indian and Bangladesh Joint Forces and the other from the invading Army of Pakistan. A bit of context is necessary before going forward.
Kazla is a quiet remote village under the Purbodhola Police Station in the district of Netrokona of the greater Mymensingh region.
It is our home!
The Mystique of Taher:
In 1971, our house at Kazla had become a popular safe haven for Freedom Fighters’. Every brother and sister from our house had joined the Liberation War. Especially known was Major Abu Taher, the Sector Commander of Sector 11.
Every day, after sunset, the villagers would gather around the courtyard of our house and tune in to the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro on the radio. The battlefield news of greater Mymensingh, Rangpur, Chilmari, Roumari and especially Kamalpur, adjacent to the border areas of Sherpur struck a chord with villagers because the battles fought were commanded by Taher – a son of this household.
The inspired youths of Kazla and neighboring villages would come for blessings from Abba and Amma and proceed to join the War of Liberation under the command of Major Taher.
From the Shyamgonj railway station, there weren’t proper roads for rickshaw or vehicles leading to Kazla. The rumour was that our house was the arsenal. During the monsoon, the Pakistani Army was reluctant and afraid to attack our village daunted by the swamps, ditches, canals and water-logged paddy fields.
Aiya Por’se’ (the military has arrived) – the cry has been heard many times but to reach Kazla, the Pakistan army never dared to cross the Mogra canal running between Silimpur and Kanduliya villages.
The invading army at the doorstep:
Our apprehensions, however, came true in the end. In mid-September, under the command of a Pakistani Captain, two Pakistani platoons and a large mob of Razakars cordoned off our house and the entire village. That day, our parents, eldest brother Arif Bhai, his wife and their infant son, Bapee were in the house. They had just returned from an Indian refugee camp in Bagmara the night before.
Cholera had broken out in the Bagmara riverside refugee camp. Dead bodies (mostly babies) were floating on the river. Bhaijan was compelled to return to Kazla with Bhabi and Bapee. The following day, the Pakistanis attacked.
Right after they arrived, the Razakars began to throw our household belongings out on the courtyard. The Pakistani soldiers and the Razakars had stolen domestic cattle, captured young women from other homes and, had assembled them on the road outside our house.
They would be taken to the Pakistani Camp. Amma could speak in Urdu. She rebuked the Pakistani captain standing beside her to stop this ransacking.
My mother told the Pakistani officer: “You have come for us, so just take us. If you take these girls then you will invite trouble for yourself. I will report everything to your superiors.”
Surprisingly, Amma’s threats worked. Eventually, with Abba-Amma and Arif Bhai’s family, the army first went to Netrakona and the following day to the Circuit House of Mymensingh Town, the regional Head Quarters of the Pakistani Army. At the time, the in-laws of Taher Bhai lived in Ishhorgonj. They were also arrested and brought here.
Brigadier Abdul Qadir Khan of the Pakistan invading army, a Pathan, was in command of the greater Mymensingh region. Major Taher, was commanding the Mukti Bahini as Commander of Sector 11 in the same region. In the Pakistani Army Brigadier Qadir Khan was Taher’s training instructor. ‘1971’ had made them ‘do or die’ enemies.
Enemy officer’s prescient comments:
Brigadier Qadir Khan talked to Abba-Amma and Arif bhai in his own office. Later we learned about the indomitable courage and firmness with which Amma conversed with the Pakistani commander.
She said: “My sons were serving in your forces. I don’t know where they are. Maybe you have killed them. You are destroying this country. Don’t think you will be spared.”
Qadir Khan replied, “Taher and the other sons of yours are at war against Pakistan. Maybe I would have done the same if I were in their place. Taher is a fearless commando. He was my favourite officer. Send him my message that he should try to stay alive. Bangladesh will be liberated and Taher will be immensely needed then.”
Brigadier Khan sent everyone back to Kazla with honour. The villagers were initially prepared with burial cloths. Instead, they watched the smiling faces of Abba-Amma-Bhaijan and the family returning home, Razakars holding umbrellas over their heads.
This episode became a household story in our village, providing amusement for a long time. However, Arif Bhai and family had to return to his workplace at Rawalpindi as instructed by Qadir Khan. About a year after the liberation of Bangladesh; Arif Bhai returned to Bangladesh crossing the Afghan borders into India.
Our Liberation War is filled with amazing stories. I’d like to narrate another incident involving Qadir Khan.
The fight form Kamalpur:
The Kamalpur enemy outpost was located at the Southeast peripheries of Bangladesh. The legendary Indian Brigadier, Hardev Singh Kler is also an integral part of this story.
The fall of Kamalpur would ensure entry of the Mukti Bahini into Dhaka in the shortest possible time. Realising this, Major Taher, a guerrilla expert, set his Sector 11 Head Quarters at Mahendragonj, merely 800 yards from the enemy stronghold.
Taher Bhai gave me the rank of a staff officer at the Head Quarter, which allowed me to be privy to all the plans.
The Freedom Fighters fought bravely to take hold of the Kamalpur garrisons. Many stories aired through the Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro were on the Kamalpur battles.
The engagements of Kamalpur generated international military discussions too. In 1971, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist, Jack Anderson described Kamalpur as the gateway to Dhaka.
Taher Bhai’s birthday is on Nov 14. On that day in 1971, Taher Bhai lost his left leg from above the knee. Our parents sent all of their sons and daughters to war, but they never left their home. In the last week of November, from Kazla, they journeyed to a faraway Guwahati Military Hospital to see their battle wounded son Taher.
I was sent to Guwahati accompanying Taher Bhai. We heard the incredible story from Abba-Amma how they escaped from certain death due to Brigadier Qadir Khan’s considerations.
Abba-Amma conveyed Qadir Khan’s message of good wishes for Taher. The fall of Kamalpur garrison was delayed because of Major Taher’s unfortunate injury. The Freedom Fighters of Sector 11 and the 95 Mountain Brigade of the Indian allied forces jointly and incessantly assaulted the Kamalpur garrisons.
On Dec 4, Captain Ahsan Malik surrendered along with 70 soldiers of the 31 Baluch Regiment and another 70 members of the paramilitary forces. We witnessed the fall of Kamalpur stronghold.
In place of Taher was our elder brother Abu Yusuf. During the War of Liberation, Flight Sargent Abu Yusuf was serving the Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force on deputation from the Pakistan Air Force. He defected from the Saudi Air Force, travelled via London and joined the War of Liberation under the command of his younger brother Major Taher in Sector 11.
Enter Brigadier Kler:
As Taher had planned, after the fall of Kamalpur, the joint Forces marched towards Dhaka moving through Sherpur-Jamalpur-Tangail. Major General Gurbaksh Singh Gill and Brigadier Kler were wounded by a Pakistani road mine on their way to Jamalpur. They were together in the same Jeep. General Gill was brought to the Guwahati Military Hospital for treatment.
Major Taher was under treatment in the VIP cabin of the same hospital. I remember; on arrival of General Gill, Taher was not moved from the VIP Cabin. General Gill occupied a smaller cabin adjacent to Taher’s.
The injured Brigadier Kler did not return to India for treatment, rather he kept his battle on. On Dec 9, he sent a letter to the Pakistani Lt Colonel Sultan of 31 Baluch Regiment to surrender. The letter bearer was the valiant Freedom Fighter Munshi Johurul Haque.
In reply, Colonel Sultan sent back a letter of rejection along with a bullet in Munshi’s hands. Barely two days had passed. The Pakistan Army’s vanity was shattered. Jamalpur fell on the Dec 11. India and Bangladesh Joint Forces progressed towards Dhaka through Tangail.
A dramatic event happened on the way. On page 86 of his book ‘12 Days to Dacca’ under the caption ‘Brig. Qadir – first High-Rank Army POW’, Brigadier Kler wrote, “The advance from Tangail was resumed by Sikh LI next morning. While moving up to join the advancing troops, my Brig. Intelligence Officer informed me that they had captured Brig. Qadir, Comd. 93 Inf. Brig, Pak army along with his complete staff”.
The hunter is trapped:
Brigadier Qadir was now a prisoner face to face with Abu Yusuf a Freedom Fighter from Sector 11. We have already learned about Qadir Khan from Abba and Amma. Yusuf Bhai appraised the Indian Commander Brigadier Kler of past events. He introduced himself to Brigadier Qadir Khan as the elder brother of Major Taher. Yusuf expressed his gratitude to Brigadier Qadir Khan for releasing our brother and parents with honour from his custody during the war.
The Pathan Commander who had once arrived from a faraway Pakistan, now a prisoner of war in a remote war field in Bangladesh, held Yusuf Bhai in his arms and broke down in tears. He was pleased and thankful to learn that Taher was alive. It was under the Tripartite Agreement of 1974 between Bangladesh-India-Pakistan that Brigadier Kadir Khan was repatriated to Pakistan from India as one of the 195 Pakistani prisoners of war.
Later, many times I had thought of getting in touch with this Pakistani Army commander for an interview but it never materialised.
I do not know if Qadir Khan is alive or not.
But maybe, the officer of the invading army could foresee an inevitable defeat in 1971.
He told Amma that Bangladesh would emerge as a liberated nation.
Probably he also contemplated about the days after defeat, being a thousand miles away from West Pakistan.
Qadir Khan may have anticipated the likelihood of facing trial as a war criminal in a liberated Bangladesh.
He probably thought that if such a situation occurred then the empathy of enemy Commander Taher might give him a reprieve from ultimate punishment. One can’t count out the possibility that this was why Qadir released the family of Taher unharmed.
Meeting a lucid Brigadier Kler is USA:
However, after 44 years, by virtue of emails, I communicated with Brigadier Kler who retired as a Major General from the Indian Army.
General Kler was either sitting in his wheelchair or lying on his bed during the interview. After these long years, his memory was sharp and clear about the war. He remembered the morning of Dec 16 when the pre-surrender discussions of the Pakistani Army were in progress;
Yusuf Bhai plucked the flag from Niazi’s staff car (Impala) parked at Dhaka Army Headquarters. Subsequently, Yusuf Bhai suggested and led Kler and his staff to Dhanmondi to release Bangabandhu’s wife and family from captivity and disarm the Pakistani guards stationed there.
In the interview, General Kler mentioned having tea with Bangabandhu’s wife and daughters. The nonagenarian Kler also mentioned chatting with ‘Husina’ (Sheikh Hasina) and Rehana on Dec 16. He recalled the brutal slaying of Bangabandhu in 1975 and expressed his utter despair and anguish.
Major Taher and Abu Yusuf are no more. On the morning of Dec 16, it was not just only the commanders of the Joint Forces, but a Freedom Fighter named Abu Yusuf who, in the absence of his wounded Commander, Taher, entered the Eastern Command Headquarters on the eve of the enemy’s formal surrender.
Afterwards, Abu Yusuf showed Brigadier Kler the way to Dhanmondi to release Bangabandhu’s family from captivity.
A self-effacing war veteran:
To publicise chivalry and feats from our Liberation War was never in the minds of many valiant freedom fighters – the genuine war heroes. This is probably why the Bangladesh government failed to honour Brigadier Kler.
Several times, I pursued an interview with the Honourable Prime Minister, to bring to her knowledge about this Indian commander, a war hero, so he would have the honour and pleasure of receiving Bangladesh’s national honour before dying.
By virtue of Sheikh Hasina’s sense of gratitude and prudence, forty years after independence, Bangladesh has honoured our foreign friends who stood by us, fought for our freedom and sacrificed much for our nation. However, some remain unheralded.
In the end, I did not succeed in getting an interview with our Prime Minister.
I do not know whether or not the Prime Minister even knows that I was seeking an interview with her.
It is a matter of anguish that far away from his motherland in California, a pure friend of Bangladesh, recipient of the Maha Vir Chakra, General Hardev Singh Kler departed this world.
For those who are unaware, the Maha Vir Chakra is the second highest military decoration for gallantry in India.