I indulged in an ‘unsoldierly’ act and broke my promise, but I don’t have any regrets as so many lives were saved
Brig Harwant Singh (Retd)
Dhaka fell on December 16, 1971, ending the Bangladesh Liberation War. The main “Surrender Ceremony” of the Pakistani Army was held there.
In our Jessore-Khulna Sector, it was held on December 17. That day, Lt-Col Malik, Commanding Officer, 6 Punjab (Pak Army), had come to us to tie up details. The Brigade Major of our infantry was to go with him. Though not required, I, a captain then, also accompanied him. On the way we saw an open jeep with a Pakistani soldier. He signalled us to stop and introduced himself as ‘Second Lieutenant’. He informed us that he had some wounded soldiers in the jeep but could not proceed as locals, who were heavily armed, would fire at them. We quickly decided that they had to be helped.
Accordingly, I took the wheel of his jeep and made my radio operator stand on it, thinking that seeing our olive green uniforms, especially my turban, we would not be fired upon. It worked. I safely got the wounded soldiers to their Military Hospital at Khulna. The Pakistani officer (Second Lieutenant) then asked me if I could leave him to his battalions’ ‘Rear Party’ location which was close by, imploring me that his parents had migrated from Hoshiarpur and so on. I told him irrespective of his Hoshiarpur connection, I would help him and I took him to his location.
It was a weak platoon (less than 30 soldiers) and surrounded by an armed mob, presumably Mukti Bahini, which had disarmed them of their weapons. Their money and valuables were piled up on the ground. I sensed trouble. I was alone with just my radio operator. I had to think and act fast. On approaching them, I shouted “Joi (Jai) Bangla” (which was a greeting of the Mukti Bahini), the loudest I had ever done. They too responded enthusiastically and made me feel like a ‘Victorious VIP’.
A Mukti Bahini leader informed me that the Pakistanis would be taken to a nearby river, shot and their bodies thrown into it. I needed all my diplomatic skills to save them. To buy time, I talked about their bravery, the newly liberated country, the compassionate Bangla culture and so on. “With all that greatness, how could they do such a thing?” I asked them. But they were adamant and narrated the stories of Pakistan army’s alleged atrocities.
I said that rather than shooting the Pakistani soldiers, they should be made to surrender before the great Mukti Bahini in front of a TV camera. This worked and they agreed to the idea. Now my only concern was that if the Pakistani soldiers went without their weapons they would be fired upon by the mob. But the Mukti Bahini would not let the looted weapons restored to them.
I tried to impress upon them that a surrender ceremony without weapons would not let the world know that the ‘Great Mukti Bahini’ had actually disarmed them. Let Pakistanis be disarmed on TV. The idea clicked and they reluctantly agreed.
The platoon then “marched off” with their weapons. On reaching the surrender ceremony location, which was guarded by the Indian troops, I quickly vanished amongst the milling troops, thereby depriving the Mukti Bahini the thrill of the surrender in front of a TV Camera.
My disappearing was an “unsoldierly” act and I had broken my promise as well. I don’t regret my decision as so many lives were saved, even though they were “enemies”.