Grace under fire: Indian Army saved Pakistan troops from lynching

Having brought the Pakistan Army to its knees in Bangladesh in December 1971, the Indian Army went on to display utmost grace and generosity towards the enemy troops. Indian soldiers saved Pakistani prisoners of war (POWs) and non-Bengalis from the roving mobs of people and Mukti Bahini guerrillas out to lynch them and their civilian collaborators to avenge the genocide before the war.”

At Chandpur on December 10, 1971, two of our soldiers from the artillery’s 197 Mountain Regiment went to answer nature’s call armed with just plastic bottles. As they were returning to camp, a subedar major of the Pakistan Army jumped out of the bushes and requested them to take 60 of his troops prisoner. They were mortally afraid of falling into the hands of the mobs that were literally tearing apart the Pakistanis with bare hands. So, our two unarmed soldiers took them into custody, one posted at each end of the column of prisoners, and marched them to the camp,” recounted Brig Onkar Singh Goraya (retd), who saw action in the war as brigade major of the 57 Mountain Artillery Brigade.

Brig Goraya brought out varied and fascinating war incidents, presenting the human dimension of loss and victory, blood and glory, the conquered and the subjugated, mercy and murder, in his presentation on Monday organised by the Centre for Indian Military History. Some of Brig Goraya’s first-hand accounts have been published in the book, `Liberation: Bangladesh 1971′.

Enemy kept its weapons

It was a strange situation for the Indian Army. There was no danger of the POWs’ running away because there was no place to run. Only mobs and guerrillas awaited them outside the protection of the Indian Army. “After the clearance of higher headquarters, we allowed the Pakistani troops who had surrendered to retain their weapons and ammunition as a defence against the mobs until we got them locked up safely in the cantonments.The condition for retaining the weapons was that no untoward incident should occur. Restoring law and order in Dhaka after the surrender was a complex task, with armed MB guerrillas and mobs baying for Pakistani blood. There was an unfortunate incident where some of the Pakistani troops who had surrendered but retained their weapons opened fire in retaliation to the guerrillas and an officer of the Indian Army, a captain of the 95 Mountain Brigade, was killed,” Brig Goraya said.

Root of resistance

The anger of the Bangladeshis arose from the horrific acts of the Pakistani Army and the East Pakistan administration before the war during the course of Operation Search Light, a venomous crackdown to crush the Bengali rebellion. A section of the Pakistani Army even had live bayonet practice on resistance fighters and, in one horrific instance, a tortured freedom fighter, Mohammad Salahuddin, was thrown to caged leopards by Major Mahmud Beig at the Thakurgaon Pakistan Army camp.

“Non-Bengalis were perceived as collaborators of the Pakistan Army by the Bangladeshis. During the war, when my Brigade HQs landed across the Meghna river, a man rushed up to me and said: Sardarji, please kill me with your bullet but don't let me fall into the hands of the mobs. He was Rehman from Lahore. I calmed him down and offered him tea andshakharparras’. I then told him to help me find vehicles for the brigade. He used to work in a jute factory, so he took us there and got us a Russian tractor and 200 jute bags, which I requisitioned for carrying artillery shells,” Brig Goraya recounted.

He said: “I then asked Rehman to organise personal transport for the brigade commander, and he got us two ‘Babies’ (Vespa three-wheelers). We put the commander’s flag on one Baby, gave him a local driver, Bashir, and the commander had a novel staff car to move around. Rehman also got us three buses, which I sent to the brigade’s artillery regiments.”

Brave officers

An illuminating aspect of Brig Goraya’s presentation was the description of how senior officers were leading from the front as bullets and shells flew. This exemplary leadership was also on display during the Kargil War, when then 70 Infantry Brigade commander Devinder Singh and his brigade major, Inder Balan, had pressed to the Batalik LOC (Line of Control) by traversing the nullahs at night from the TAC HQs at Ganasok. Brig Devinder suffered a war injury in his movement but pressed well forward to lead troops.

“The IV Corps commander during the 1971War, Lt Gen Sagat Singh, was so well forward that, on some occasions, he was in advance of the infantry like a scout. He would meet advancing troops and tell them: “Shahbash, keep moving, I have scouted ahead, there is no enemy.” Lt Gen Sagat’s subordinate commanders were also well forward, taking decisions vetted by on-the-spot assessments and boosting the morale of frontline troops,” said Brig Goraya.