Of Shah’s escape and capture

Maj Gen Ashok K Mehta

This is the story of Maj Gen Nazir Husain Shah — the cat with nine lives — GoC 16 Infantry Division (Pakistan) in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. His Division was responsible for the northeast portion of East Pakistan, bound by Ganga and Jamuna rivers. The author was privy to a candid conversation Shah had with the CO of 2/5 GR (FF), Lt Col FN Billimoria.

Establishing the road block at Pirgunj on December 7-8 and the battle that followed were pivotal in bisecting 16 Infantry Division, thereby isolating Rangpur (23 Infantry Brigade) in the north from the main force in the south at Bogra (205 Infantry Brigade).

The successful insertion of battalion-level task force (2/5 GR and Squadron PT76 tanks) into East Pakistan’s waistline across the Karatoya river was a daring special operation that unhinged 16 Infantry Division defences  and hastened the collapse and surrender of the army in East Pakistan. The Pirgunj battle, during which the Pakistani forces tried to break the road block from north and south, was a turning point of the war.

Before the surrender, Shah had escaped capture by 2/5 GR, which, in the hindsight, was a big blunder by the battalion. Here are extracts from the conversation.

Shah: “On the day you were coming for Pirgunj, I took out a jeep heading for Rangpur.”

Billimoria: “Yes, we captured your jeep and briefcase and searched for you.”

Shah: “There was no question of search. You people never crossed the road. I was lying in a bamboo grove for three hours. At last light, I walked alone towards Rangpur till I found a car and told the occupants that the enemy had come and asked if the route to Rangpur was clear. At 2 o’clock, my vehicles reached me and we drove to Rangpur.”

Billimoria: “How did you come back?”

Shah: “That was a miracle. On my way to Rangpur, I met Tejumal (Commander, 205 Infantry Brigade) coming from the Rangpur side. He had gotten away before your road block and was on his way back to break it up along with Nayeem (Commander, 23 Infantry Brigade). We were all driving with our lights off and Nayeem’s escort jeep came and hit my jeep head on (laughs). I told my ADC, who was driving this jeep which banged into me: ‘Tumhara maa-baap achha hai? I am just out of a bloody ambush and there you are, my own ADC, trying to kill me!” (Laughs again)

Billimoria: “Then from Rangpur, how did you work your way back?”

Shah: “By chopper. Tejumal came by road to Bogra. He took a platoon escort in a Dodge and his wireless vehicle and joined one of your convoys at night (laughs). Kaun poochhta hai, bhai? If you give me a vehicle, I can go anywhere — Nepal, Islampur… but I won’t do it.”

Earlier, he revealed another of his survival stories.

Shah: “A few days ago, I was going in a jeep, which I was driving myself. My driver told me: ‘Sahib, peechhe se jahaz aa raha hai’. I could see IAF jets come for me in a dive. There were two of them. I stopped the jeep. The first one dropped the bomb about 200 yards ahead. My driver shouted again: ‘Doosra aa raha hai.’ I reversed the jeep 200 yards. Promptly, the second bomb fell where the jeep had been stopped earlier. I was nonplussed. I saw the aircraft return and, once again, dip into a dive. I took no further chance. I left the jeep and went into the sugarcane field, 100 yards across the road. The aircraft came, made no mistake and took out of the jeep. So you see, it is destiny.” (Laughs)

Shah had trained at Fort Leavenworth, America. His son-in-law was the military secretary to the Governor of Balochistan, who was once Shah’s Commanding Officer.

After he abandoned his jeep near Pirgunj, Shah was prematurely declared ‘captured’ by Indian forces. “I was very much back in my headquarters when this announcement was made a week before the surrender,” he famously said, and laughed.