This is the story of the first airborne operation launched by India against Pakistan post-Independence. The Bangladesh war of 1971, often called a ‘Lightning Campaign’, is well recorded in the annals of military history. The para drop on 11 December at Tangail behind the enemy lines was India’s ‘trump card’, which unhinged Pakistani forces in East Pakistan and ultimately led to the fall of Dacca – now Dhaka.
My battalion, 2 PARA, was tasked to launch an airborne assault to capture Poongli Bridge and the adjacent ferry on the Loha Jung river near Tangail, approximately 113 kilometres north east of Dhaka. The aim was to cut off the retreating enemy forces from Jamalpur and Mymensingh.
Reaching Poongli Bridge
The battalion took off from Dum Dum and Kalaikunda Airfields on 11 December at 2:23 pm, preceded by pathfinders. Using two C-119 transport aircraft, the drop was widespread, up to a distance of 4 kilometres. After a quick rendezvous, the pathfinders marked the dropping zone and were ready to receive the main drop by 4 pm. This was followed with a precision main drop and within 50 minutes, the battalion group had assembled and was ready for action. An interesting incident occurred when the pathfinders were dropped.
The dropping zone was in an area surrounded by villages. At the commencement of the drop, mistaking it to be Pakistani reinforcement, civilians ran in panic, trying to get away from the area. One of our soldiers instantly shouted ‘Joy Bangla’ and a couple of other soldiers repeated the chant. A remarkable transformation took place. The civilians ran back to the dropping zone. That one call gained for the group several helping hands, eager to carry their load, act as guides and fetch water. Their presence later became a hindrance as they would not leave, even when actual fighting commenced.
The battalion assembled and moved quickly towards the Poongli Bridge. A Pakistani brigade was retreating from Jamalpur, and to cut off its route of withdrawal, it was important for us to get control of this bridge before they reached. We captured the bridge against some opposition, hurriedly dug in and awaited the arrival of the Pakistani brigade. The brigade reached by midnight and was taken by surprise. In the ensuing battle, they suffered heavy casualties and the entire Pakistani brigade disintegrated.
The forces of 101 Area, close on the heels of the enemy brigade, joined us next evening. Thereafter, we regrouped at Tangail by 13-14 December. What shocked us was the sight of mutilated bodies of women, whom the Pakistani troops had killed just before fleeing from Poongli Bridge.
The game is up
After 13 December, the battle progressed, but the Indian Army met with stiff resistance on its way to Dhaka. On 14-15 December, we were asked to move on an alternate axis. By 15 December, the war in Bangladesh was moving towards a climax.
Pakistan’s armed forces had been led to expect that outside help was on the way to rescue them from their sorry plight. But no help came. The Pakistanis were in a hopeless situation, and their commander Lieutenant-General A.A.K. Niazi knew it.
That day, he had sent a conditional offer of surrender to India’s Chief of Army Staff General Sam Manekshaw. India was not interested in a conditional surrender. Meanwhile, for the Indian Army in Bangladesh, all roads led to Dhaka.
Advancing from Tangail on 15 December on the Mirzapur-Jaydebpur road, 2 PARA had by 6 pm, reached its milestone. It was then ordered to change direction, move South and capture the Mirpur Bridge on the outskirts of Dhaka. The bridge was strongly held. The enemy fought stubbornly, but the paratroopers were in no mood to brook opposition. Within an hour they drove the Pakistanis over to the eastern end. Three men of 2 PARA were killed, and two wounded in action. There were 41 Pakistani casualties. So, once again, we took the enemy by surprise by knocking at the doors of Dhaka at Mirpur on the midnight of 15-16 December.
Shelling and desultory firing continued till the morning of 16 December, when Major General G.S. Nagra, GOC 101 Area landed in our area. He informed us that the Pakistani Army had agreed to surrender and we were to take a message for Lt General A.A.K. Niazi. Our last encounter with the enemy had just got over, and we too had suffered casualties.
The enemy was deployed on the other side of the Mirpur Bridge and infrequent exchange of fire went on. I was a young Captain and Adjutant of the battalion. Colonel K.S. Pannu, my Commanding Officer, asked me to carry a message. I, along with ADC to the GOC, Captain Hitesh Mehta, got into a jeep with a handwritten message from General Nagra for General Niazi. It read: “My dear Abdullah, I am here. The game is up, I suggest you give yourself up to me and I will take care of you.”
No bad soldiers
General Nagra knew Niazi from his days as Military Attaché in Pakistan, and both were on first-name basis. As we moved, Major J.S. Sethi, the forward locality Company Commander, jumped into the jeep and so did Lieutenant Tejinder Singh, the young engineer platoon commander of 411 Para Field Company. Oblivious to the impending danger, all of us were excited at the thought of moving into Dhaka with the message of surrender and making history.
Little did we know at the time that the Pakistan Army on the other side had not received instructions to surrender. They opened fire at us as we crossed the bridge. We stopped. Collecting all my wits, I shouted to tell them to stop firing. The firing stopped, but they surrounded and disarmed us. It was a very tricky situation. I engaged the Pakistani junior commissioned officer-in-charge in a bid to gain time. I told him to call a senior officer and threatened him with dire consequences if any harm came to us because the Indian Army had surrounded Dhaka and their General had agreed to surrender.
Luckily, a Pakistani Captain arrived on the scene soon after, and we explained the entire situation to him. He then took us to the Commander of Mirpur Garrison, who took the letter from us and asked us to wait. Nearly an hour later, Major General Mohammad Jamshed, GOC of Dhaka Garrison, arrived and we took him in our Jeep. General Jamshed, dressed in khaki, was seated between Major Sethi and me. There was another Pakistani Jeep behind us. And as we were returning towards our position, we were fired upon again, neither side knowing who we were. In this firing, Major Sethi received a medium machine gun burst on his left leg. Another bullet pierced the helmet of Lieutenant Tejinder Singh right in the middle, but was fortunately deflected. It just grazed past his hair. He still preserves that helmet. The situation was restored and we reached our side of the bridge. General Nagra arrived shortly along with Colonel Pannu and was received by Pakistani General Jamshed, who surrendered and handed over his pistol to General Nagra.
Shortly thereafter, at 10:42 am, 2 PARA Group was the first of the Indian Army to enter Dacca. While the battalion made a triumphant entry, Colonel Pannu, with me and a few other officers, made a dash to General Niazi at his headquarters. Pannu asked Abdul Quader Siddiqui, or Tiger Siddiqui, to also accompany us. This 26-year-old, scruffy-looking bearded ex-student of Dhaka University was a firebrand commander of Kader Bahini and had helped us out. He was indeed a force multiplier all the way.
As we entered Pakistan’s Eastern Command Headquarters and parked our Jeeps next to General Niazi’s office, a smartly attired, tall and well-built soldier confronted us. He was the stick orderly standing guard at the door. He blocked our entry. Quite unaware of the goings-on, he did not know what to do or say. He asked us not to park our Jeeps in the space reserved exclusively for his General. We pushed him aside and barged into the General’s room. Colonel Pannu looked hard at Niazi and the latter could not meet Pannu’s gaze. Niazi was totally shaken up. He was unshaven and held his head in both hands with despair. I clearly remember his mumblings. He said, “Pindi mein baithe haramzaadon ne marva diya (Those sitting in Rawalpindi have let us down)”. He said that Rawalpindi kept fooling him till the morning of 16 December that help was on the way. General Niazi, incidentally, was the uncle of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi.
Reflecting on Pakistan’s defeat in the Bangladesh war, a few thoughts come to my mind. The soldier standing guard outside Niazi’s office was more soldier-like then the General himself, clearly reaffirming that there are no bad soldiers but only bad generals. The brutal colonial approach towards the Bangladeshi people swept the ground from under Pakistan’s feet. Pakistan Army thus lost the will to fight; otherwise, Dhaka on 16 December had enough troops and resources to defend itself for a month at least.
This is how the Bangla Nation came to be. This is how an oppressed people found liberation.
The author is the former Governor of Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. He fought the Bangladesh War as a young Captain and went on to command his battalion, 2 PARA. Views are personal.