1971 War: A tale of pain and pride

Starting from Agartala on December 4, 1971, our unit — 19th Battalion of the Rajputana Rifles — had some 130 km to cover to reach the then East Pakistan’s capital Dacca (now Dhaka in Bangladesh). Fighting our way through Akhaura, Brahmanbaria, Bhairab Bazaar, etc, we could see the enemy resistance weaken at every successive position. The Pakistani air force having been knocked out by our valiant pilots and the Dacca runway having been put out of use, we had no worry about the enemy. Since our advance was along a linear railway line, the enemy air strafing could otherwise have been a major problem. 

The quest for a hot meal (not having a meal since December 3) was more than made up by hospitality of the locals — they lined up with bananas and corn as we passed through the liberated villages. Our energetic Quartermaster did his best to bring forward whatever dry rations he could. He had got hold of a Pakistani railway wagon and loaded it with rations. He had it pushed by our tradesmen, along the tracks. It raised our morale several notches.

It was December 13. Having advanced overnight in a wide encircling move, my company halted at a village for some rest. The enemy was no where in sight and for the first time, we felt relaxed. Some men indulged in the luxury of a bath, despite the cold weather. A Mukti Bahini detachment was accompanying us. Their commander asked me if he could impose a curfew in the village. Since no enemy threat apparently existed, I asked him the reason. “The villagers won’t let you rest sir.” He was right. Locals kept coming to shake hands and take my autographs. Seeing happiness on their faces, I disallowed the curfew.

Around midday, a gentleman, dressed in a suit (unusual in a village), approached me. He had worn it, as he explained, because he was meeting an Indian Army officer for the first time. My crumpled and soiled dress should have stood out in contrast. But given the significance of the occasion, I felt a sense of pride in what I was wearing.  

His gratitude showed in his long-drawn handshake. He held my hand for more than a minute, before he could speak.  “Sir, I know you are tired and having rest, but I have a request,” he said in a pleading tone. “My father is sick and does not have long to live. Before he dies, he has only one wish — to meet an Indian Army officer.” I could not have refused, and didn’t. 

Later, he came to take me home. As we entered, his wife welcomed me and his two teenaged children stood overawed in a corner. As I sat down near the old man’s cot, tears started rolling down  his wrinkled cheeks. I waited for him to say something, but he kept crying in silence. I knew his tears were of thankfulness and relief. I could understand and empathise with him. I did not want to spoil the sanctity of the occasion and sat silent watching him cry. Later, I said, “I understand what you are feeling. But, now is the time for rejoicing and forgetting the past.”

“Forget?” he asked in a voice that carried a mix of immense pain, anger and hate. “No sir, we can never forget what we have gone through.”  I didn’t know what to say and was at a loss for words. After a while, I repeated my message: “There is always future to look forward to. Time is a great healer. Past is best forgotten.” His voice was unusually firm in what he said next. “I have seen the carnage committed by the Pakistani army. They raped my two daughters and shot them. I can never forget that scene.”

While one was generally aware of the atrocities committed by the Pakistani army, hearing it from a father left me disturbed. Soon, the son intervened and said: “Thank you sir. You have indeed been very kind in accepting our request. I am sure my father will leave the earth feeling more at peace.” Unable to say anything, I pressed the old man’s feeble hand and left.  

As I walked back, I found myself feeling taller for wearing the Army uniform, known for its discipline, compassion and humaneness.