The Battle of Sylhet Fortress, Nov – Dec 1971 By Maj. (Retd.) Mumtaz Hussaini Shah, Pakistan Army. Rejoinder By Brig. A.B. Harolikar, M.V.C (Retd.), Indian Army

THE BATTLE OF SYLHET FORTRESS, NOV – DEC 1971 BY MAJ. (RETD.) MUMTAZ HUSSAIN SHAH, PAKISTAN ARMY. REJOINDER BY BRIG. A.B. HAROLIKAR M.V.C. (RETD.),
INDIAN ARMY.

Background to Rejoinder

1                   My attention has been drawn to an article titled “The Battle of Sylhet Fortress, Nov-Dec 17”, written by Maj. (Retd.) Mumtaz Hussain Shah of Pakistan Army.  The article has appeared on computer network http://www. Pakdef.com/war 1971/ article/htm, dated 20/05/2000 on the website of India Times.  It has been released by Pak Def.com, Pakistan Military Forum. The article purports to give a first hand account of the Battle of Sylhet.   The author has not made an honest attempt even to correctly state undisputed facts about operations of Pak and Indian Armies in Sylhet Sector in November- December of 1971. Major Hussain Shah has given a key-hole view of what he saw and heard, and passed it off as a battle account. It is obvious that he is ill informed; besides, he shows little comprehension of operations beyond company-level. He seems to have had little first hand experience of actual fighting that took place in Sylhet Sector. Had he remained content with describing his exploits like frightening, hapless school masters, and enjoying sound sleep in his bunker when his own forwards posts were preparing to surrender, I would have no cause to take up with him. But he has cast aspersions on me, and on my battalion, and I do not propose to let this calumny go unanswered.

2                   The Indian Army’s operations in the Sylhet Sector were brought to a close when some 6000 Pak troops surrendered to the Indian Army on 16 Dec 71 at Sylhet. During these operations our Battalion attacked heavily defended company localities of the Pak Army in terrain that favoured defensive operations, and mauled two Pak Battalions. These attacks were mostly carried out by stealth and daring, we relied on our ability to close in and carry out an assault in the best traditions of the infantry. Later, we were lifted by helicopters behind the enemy lines with very little except pouch-ammunition. We held our own, surrounded by the enemy, for nine days.  Here I wish to place on record the part played and what I came to know first hand, in narration of this tale.

3                   I took over the command of 4th Battalion of the 5th Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) i.e. 4/5 Gorkha Rifle on 16 Aug 1971, in the rank of Lt. Col.  It was this Battalion of the Indian Army that was selected for its heliborne operations because of its earlier performances at Atgram (referred to by Maj. Hussain Shah as SW of Umagar-kelegram) and Gazipur. This was the Indian Army’s First Ever Heliborne operation carried out on 7 Dec 1971 which involved landing my battalion in the thick of enemy defenses in Sylhet1. Our offensive defense in Sylhet effectively tied down two Pakistani Brigades, viz., 202 Infantry Brigade and 313 Infantry Brigade, from 7 Dec to 16 Dec 71.2   Again, these two brigades, with the strength of over 6000 troops, failed to evict or eliminate barely 350 brave Gorkha soldiers and they surrendered to us. The surrendered troops include 3 Brigadiers, I   Colonel,  107 officers, 219 JCOS, 6190 Pakistan Soldiers and 39 non- combatants or LOBs  (Left out of Battle such as Sweepers, Barbers etc amongst which interestingly enough – Maj. Hussain Shah includes himself in his article). Before I describe the battles fought by our Battalion at Atgram, Gazipur and Sylhet, it would be worthwhile to understand Pakistan’s concept of ‘Fortress Defense’ and deployment of its forces in Sylhet sector. (Refer to Map 1)

Concept of Pakistani Fortress Defense

4.  The Pakistani deployment in East Pakistan was designed to defend territory and deny any attempts at the establishment of a Free Bangladesh Government. Lt-Gen A.A.K. Niazi concentrated on the defense of Jessore, Jhenida, Bogra, Rangpur, Mymensingh, SYLHET, Bhairab Bazar, Comilla and Chittagong and ordered these towns to be turned into strong points. This policy as well as fortification of the main approaches to these fortified towns was anticipated by the Eastern Command of the Indian Army. Niazi’s strategy was that the troops deployed on the border should fight on, until ordered to withdraw, delaying the Indian Army’s advance as they withdraw into the fortress which would be defended to the last. This strategy left open subsidiary axes which the Indian Army used.

Pakistani Deployment in Sylhet Sector

5. The Pakistan Army had deployed two brigades of its 14th Division (headquarters at Ashuganj) in this sector. (Refer to Map 1) The 202 Infantry Brigade under Brig. Salimullah was at Sylhet and 313 Infantry Brigade under Brig. Iftikar Rana was located at Maulavi Bazaar. The Sylhet Brigade was to guard the approaches from the North and the east with the help of 31 Punjab, 91 Mujahid and two companies of 12 Azad Kashmir Rifles. It had also some elements of Khyber Rifles, and Thal and Tochi Scouts. The 313 Infantry Brigade was to guard the approach from Kulaura and Kailashahar. It consisted of 22 Baluch in the Gazipur and Kulaura area and 30 Frontier Force in the Shamshernagar and Maulavi Bazar area.4

31 Field Regiment (Artillery) and 88 Independent Mortar Battery were also deployed in Sylhet. While 31 Punjab ( Ex 202 Infantry Brigade) was mauled by our Battalion by a Khukri assault at Atgram; 22 Baluch (Ex 313 Inf. Brigade) was similarly mauled by our  Battalion by a similar Khukri assault at Gazipur. More of it later in this narration.