Gorkha Kukris get a Blood bath – Assault on Atgram

The year 1971 will go down as a decisive year in the history of the Indian subcontinent, the winds of war had started blowing since March – April ’71 after Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League won a clear majority in general election held for Pakistan’s National Assembly, and its claims to power were thwarted. I was then serving on the Jammu boarder as the second-in-command of the 3/5 GR (ie Third Battalion the Fifth Gorkha Rifles) our operational roles were well rehearsed during field exercise with troops, in the previous two years of our tenure in that area under the 26 Infantry Division. I had put in a little over 15 years’ service in 3/5 GR and had endeavored (like all officers do) to earn the trust of the men under me. Starting as a fresh 2/LT joining the Battalion (3/5 GR), I was put to the test within first three months; of service in Nagaland. There, while leading a Commando Platoon attack against a strongly held Naga hostiles position I was wounded in action. (It was in this action that Rifleman Ran Bahadur Thapa was awarded Kirti Chakra for his gallantry. Incidentally this was the first gallantry award won by 3/5 GR after Independence). Such shared risks and experiences during ambushes, raids and years of soldering in difficult terrains create a bond of mutual trust between officers and men. During a war this absolute mutual trust between the officers and men is a linchpin which plays a crucial role.

Therefore, I was surprised when in Aug 1971 on the eve of the war I received orders to move across the subcontinent to Nagaland and take over the Command of the 4/5 G,  the fourth Battalion the Fifth Gorkha Rifles on promotion in the rank of a Lt-Col. I was surprised because I was expecting to play my role as the second in command of 3/5 GR in the forthcoming war. However, I was happy that I was going to lead a Battalion in the war. I was also concerned about the short time (three months) that I had for earning the trust of my officers and men in the battalion (4/5 FR) that was the Moving Finger which had moved me more than 2000 km to be placed at the helm of the Battalion which was to take the battle field within three months.

On 16 Aug ’71 I took over the Command of the 4th Battalion 5th Gorkha Rifles (4/5 GR) at Zakama in Nagaland. The battalion was spread over a large area in penny packets. Within a week of my joining, the battalion was concentrated and moved to Panchgram (near Badarpur in the Cacher district of Assam), west of Silchar (refer to map 1). It was clear as daylight that we were deployed in the Battle Zone and war could break out any day. Concentration of the battalion at Panchgram provided me an opportunity to learn about the nuances of the battalion. Each battalion has a personality of its own. I realized how fortunate I was to have a team of officers, JCOs and other ranks, who had during a short stint in counter insurgency operations, captured well known Naga hostile leaders and earned a name for itself. There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and Regimental spirit amongst the officers who were ready to stake their lives for the battalion and for each other. Almost all the company commanders as well as the Adjutant had grown with their companies having joined the battalion as 2/LTs years earlier. This was a most fortuitous circumstance. As young officers, they had also fought in the 1965 was. Other young officers had also joined as 2/LTs and had grown with their platoons and companies. Moreover, the second in command of the battalion, Maj. Shyam Kelkar and I were not only together in our college days (Rajaram College, Kolhapur) but had shared experiences and life in many NCC camps during 1950-54. It was also coincidental that the Subhedar Major Dacchiring Gurung and I were together in Alfa company in 3/5 GR; he as a young Havaldar while I was its young company commander.

With the certainty of a war looming in the near future, the first priority for the battalion was to train itself and hone its individual skills, section, platoon and company battle drills and battle procedures, for attack, defense and infiltration on manpack basis. Making up deficiencies in specialist platoons like Signals, Mortar, MMG, Antitank, Pioneer, medical and motor transport and creating reserves for these platoons was equally important. Short cuts had to be devised to overcome the exigencies caused due to inadequate time. Thus, all companies were instructed that the maximum number of persons in their respective companies should atleast be able to fire a Medium Machine Gun in emergencies, load and fire Mortars and Anti Tank guns besides acquiring of mastery over personal weapons. Short but intensive training was carried out in watermanship, rowing and swimming, in view of the large number of water obstacles we were likely to face during the war. The battalion was also given the task of training Freedom Fighters in batches of about 1000 persons, each batch receiving basic military training of three weeks. These Freedom Fighters were young, exuberant and highly motivated teenagers mostly from Comilla and Chittagong. The training, organization and the role of Freedom Fighters in the liberation struggle of Bangaldesh is a separate story in itself. It was codenamed “Operation Jackpot”. We were all too busy to realize that we had already spent three months around Panchgram, when during the second week of Nov ’71 we received orders to attack and capture a Pakistani company defended locality, viz, Atgram (Refer to Sketch 1). Atgram was about 5 kms inside Pakistan as the crow flies, but for us, the foot sloggers, it would come up to 8 to 10 kms or more, as we needed to avoid villages and hamlets. Atgram was to be captured on the night of 20/21 Nov ’71. It was a dark night and coincidentally happened to be the night of Id (Refer to Sketch 1).

Atgram was a strongly defended company locality in the Sylhet district, in the north-east corner of the then   East Pakistan. From our eastern border this was the shortest route to Sylhet and its fall would threaten Sylhet itself. Pakistan had evolved a defensive plan according to which certain selected positions – Atgram was one of them – on the border were to be turned into strong points and certain strategically located towns – Sylhet was one of them – were to be turned into Fortresses. In the words of Lt-Gen AAK Niazi (commander for all forces in East Pakistan) these strong points were like fingers which will be drawn back into a fist (into Fortresses) which will bash into advancing enemy (Indian Forces). This strong point of Atgram was defended by a Regular company (Bravo Company) under major Alvi of the Pakistan Army. The locality, being deep inside East Pakistan, was not visible from Inidan territory even through binoculars. We had assessed that it was about 800-10000 m in length and providing equal depth. It had cement concrete bunkers and a section each of MMG, Mortars, and RCL guns. It’s all round defences were well coordinated and supported by artillery fire. There were reported to be scattered mine fields around the defences. Besides a regular company, it was reported to have about two platoons of paramilitary forces. This information was gathered from intelligence reports and from the Freedom Fighters. However no reconnaissance (which is absolutely essential to ascertain location of automatic weapons, length and depth of locality, its general layout, etc) could be carried out as the war had not yet started.

The river Surma was the International Border. Across the river and about one kilometer from its far bank, there was a string of Border Out Posts (BOPs) manned by a mixed force of 31 Punjab Regiment, Khyber Rifles and Baluch Scouts of the Pak Army. These BOPs were space at about 1 km distance from each other and the gaps between them were patrolled. By now the activities of the Mukti Bahini and the Freedom Fighters had gathered considerable momentum particularly by night. But their activities were essentially confined to the raids, ambushes, blowing of bridges and disrupting communications etc by night. The Pak BOPs would open up with Light Machine Guns (LMGs) and small arms fire in the direction of any movement, even suspected, by using ‘Search by Fire’ tactics (ie searching of an area suspected of enemy movement, by spraying and sweeping that area by heavy volume of automatic weapons’ firing/fire). This was a daily affair and we used to hear these firings going on regularly from inside East Pakistan territory.

Our plan of attack on Atgram was evolved keeping three important aspects in sight. Firstly, this attack was going to be the first one of the Indian Army in this area and the Pakistani troops would not have expected it. Therefore it was conducive to “surprise” and “silent” attack. Secondly, we would quietly infiltrate through the gaps between the enemy BOPs and the attack and capture Atgram (as against capturing BOPs as a preliminary operation and mounting a deliberate attack in Phase II with the support of Artillery Fire). Thirdly, we had decided to exploit Gorkha’s reputation (established during World War II and subsequent Indo-Pak wars of 1948 and 1965) of using their personal weapon “khukri” with deadly effect in a close combat. We decided to use this method by rushing into enemy bunkers surprising them and fighting hand to hand with our khukris thus creating terror in the minds of the enemy which would benefit us in the remaining period of the war. Based upon these three factors, the plan of the attack emerged. Thus Atgram was planned to be attacked simultaneously by two companies. In the assault Formation facing the enemy; “A” company (Alfa coy) under Maj. Dinesh Rana and ‘D’ company (Delta coy) under Maj. Rattan Kaul were tasked to be on the left and right of the assaulting wave. “B” company (Bravo coy) under Capt Virendra Rawat would establish a road block on the road Atgram – Sarkar Bazar cutting off communications, isolating Atgram and also ambushing any reinforcements or enemy counter attack force coming in to Atgram. “C” company (Charlie coy) under Maj Maney Malik was to carry out similar tasks (like Bravo Coy) on the road Atgram – Zakiganj. Additionally Charlie Coy was also to act as a reserve for the attack. Maj Shyam Kelkar, Battalion Second-inCommand was made responsible for launching of reserves if and when required. Softening of objective (Atgram) and neutralizing of interfering enemy localities by artillery fire and air attacks which is a normal practice prior to and during deliberate attack was avoided. However, the Artillery Battery Commander, Maj Segan, and his technical support team was to accompany the CO’s (Commanding Officer’s) party and artillery fire was to be made available “on call” (ie guaranteed artillery fire was to be) made available within seconds as and when we ask for it or when surprise is given away. The authority to call for fire support in such an eventuality is vested in the commanding officer (in this case – myself). 108 Engineer Regiment was to take us across the Surma River in the inflatable rubber boats. With the Pakistani BOPs just across the river, which was under surveillance of their patrols; unobserved river crossing and thereafter infiltrating through gaps between enemy BOPs was crucial to the success of maintaining surprise. We had planned to “close in” (ie pounce on the enemy inside their bunkers) between 1 am and 3 am on the night of 20/21 Nov ’71. By that time sentries on the post are tired by the day’s work (in this case routine since Mar ’71). Their senses dulled and reactions and responses slow. I had seen (in peace time maneuvers) tired soldiers sleeping while standing or walking like zombies. There could not be a better time than that to assault them with khukris, thus taking them by surprise, creating panic leading to the collapse of a well coordinated defensive locality. On the night of 19/20 Nov ’71, ie night previous to the assaulting night, our Battalion was to concentrate in a gully like place, about a kilometer behind our own BOP of Natanpur but, without their knowledge (Their patrolling was accordingly organized to preclude their patrols being anywhere near us). Each one of us was carrying a weapon, ammunition, shakkarparas3 to last for 48 hours and water. That night (night of 19/20 Nov) and entire day time of the 20 Nov was to be spent in the “gully” without stirring out and without cooking in that area (to avoid smoke/fire being noticed from outside). We were to reach the near bank of the Surma River at 8 pm (2000 hours) simultaneous to 108 Engineer Regiment bringing in rubber boats. This coordination between us and the Engineers was important to maintain surprise. Orders were issued to the “O” group (Order group consisting generally of all the company commanders and specialist platoon commanders) on a sand model and with the help of a large sketch of the area. Bravo coy under Capt Virendra Rawat was to cross the river Surma first, move ahead about 500 – 700 meters and secure the far bank without alerting the Pak BOPs. Bravo coy would be followed by Alfa, followed by delta and Charlie coys. However after crossing the river Surma, the order of march was to change with Alfa company leading, followed by Delta company, as these two companies under their respective company Commanders Maj Dinesh Rana and Rattan Kaul were to “close-in” and assault Atgram. Others, Bravo and Charlie companies, Mortar, Anti-Tank and Medical platoons were given their respective places in the order of March keeping in mind their roles. In the order of march, location of the CO’s (Commanding Officer’s) group plays a pivotal role. In the battalion attack almost always there are times when the line between success and defeat hangs in balance. There is an invariable “battle confusion” which precludes a clear picture emerging. At such times, what matters is the knowledge and trust of the soldiers that their commanding officer and other officers are staking their lives equally with the other ranks (soldiers) and leading from the front. It is axiomatic that a commander (be that a section/platoon/company or Battalion commander) who cannot risk his own life has no authority to risk anybody else’s life. I had joined this battalion only three months earlier and this was the first opportunity for me to indicate by my example, my belief in the above maxim. Soldiers (that includes officers) look for examples in their leaders and they do not get carried away only by motivational lectures! Therefore, consistent with my nature and beliefs, I had decided that my group (CO’s party) would be marching along with the leading company commander’s group which incidentally, moves behind the leading platoon (of about 30 soldiers). This naturally meant that I would be participating in the assaulting wave. (Though it is in an accepted norm for a co’s group to be  behind first company – behind 125 – 140 soldiers – during infiltration and to remain at the FUP (Forming up place) which is about 1000 – 1500 meters short of objective being attacked). If I came out alive out of this first assault I would have established myself in the eyes of all ranks and my tasks in the future would become that much easier.

During this preparatory period, all ranks also had to make their “last will” which is kept on record. At the risk of little digression, I want to bring to the reader’s notice that at that time a Lt-Col’s family pension was a princely sum of Rs 180 (Rupees One Hundred and Eight only) pm. However, before war broke out, pensionary benefits were marginally improved according to which war widows were to get 75% of the last pay drawn by the soldier killed on the battlefield. Conditions of the wounded soldiers were even worse. Kargil was 28 yrs (and 2500 km) away to change all that.

As planned, we left Panchgram (in Silchar Dist) after last night on the night of 19/20 Nov ’71 and arrived at the “gully” behind Natanpur. After hiding there for that night and the next daylight, we left the place and arrived on the banks of the Surma River around 8 pm. As coordinated, two-three vehicles of the 108 Engineer Regiment came over slowly, without lights, from the opposite direction and quietly unloaded their inflatable boats. “B” coy sent a platoon ahead to secure the far bank followed by remaining “B” company and thence followed by other companies and platoons, as per the order of march. Engineers provided us with their expert skills in rowing. Thus the entire battalion crossed and concentrated on the far bank almost under the nose of the Pakistani BOPs but without their getting any inkling or their patrols getting suspicious of any movement in their vicinity. Now each one of us had to be extremely cautious and alert as we had to infiltrate through a gap between two Pakistani BOPs and also to avoid their patrols moving in the gaps as well as in the interior. We had to also avoid all hamlets and any habitation, for the barking of dogs is a sure indication to the enemy that some suspicious movement was taking place. The enemy always responded with indiscriminate directional firing (search by fire) to such suspicious movements. Avoiding such hamlets also meant increasing our infiltrating distance further by a few kms.

We were moving stealthily, confidently but slowly. There were two teenaged freedom fighters, working as guides with the leading platoon. Forward most were two experienced scouts, followed by the leading section, platoon commander (Capt Johri with two guides) with his radio operator and runners, followed by the two remaining sections of Capt Johri’s platoon. Behind this platoon was the Alfa company commander’s (Maj Dinesh Rana’s) group along with CO’s part (Lt-Col Arun Harolikar, Intelligence Officer, artillery Battery Commander Maj Segan, radio operators, runners, etc – a total of 10 to 15 persons). Behind the co’s party were the remaining tow platoons (commanded by a young officer 2/LT Hawa Singh and Subedar Ranbahadur respectively) close behind Alfa company was Delta company commanded by Maj Rattan Kaul. These were two companies which were tasked to assault the enemy defences at Atgram. Both the company commanders and almost all the JCO’s and NCO’s (Non Commissioned officers like Havildars and Naiks) were 1965 war veterans.

During our movement forward we could hear firing in the distance; apparently Pakistani soldiers were searching by fire, areas where movement of Mukti Bahini personnel was suspected. This was a daily routine that we had known about. We kept on progressing towards our objective for quite some time when all of sudden firing opened up in our direction from a nearby Pakistani post or patrol. Instantaneously the entire battalion had taken over without firing a shot in response, which also indicated to me the self confidence and excellent training of all ranks, achieved by their company commanders. The crescendo of firing increased, joined by light machine guns, the bullets whizzing past could be heard all around us. Apparently the enemy was searching by spraying bullets in the suspected area. The enemy had suspected some movement in this general area and had presumed it to be by a small group of freedom fighters. But soon the tempo of firing increased, joined by nearby posts. Indiscriminate, heavy firing of light machine guns and rifles continued. We had gone to the ground, seeking covered provided by the Mother Earth in her plentiful folds, normally we would also have called for artillery support in such an eventuality to silence the enemy, but it was very important to continue maintaining the enemy’s impression that the suspected movement was that of freedom fighters. The Indian Army had so far not gone across the border in this area and therefore, surprise, when sprung, would be total. The crescendo of firing slowly reduced and died down totally after about 45 mins or so. Apparently the enemy must have presumed that they had scared away the intruders. However the firing had disorganized the battalion, losing their link with each other, which needed to be quickly and silently re-established. I was also deeply concerned about the likely casualties our companies may have suffered affecting their combat effectiveness. Darkness of the night only increased my anxiety. Alfa and Delta companies were scattered nearby and I could feel and guess their combat readiness myself but report from the entire Battalion was required to quickly assess extent of casualties. These reports would have been called for normally through radio communication which was available down to the platoon level. But it was essential to continue radio silence as any spoken sound at night travels far and wide. During training we had practiced a method of passing messages by whispering – from mouth to ear. This method enables sections/platoons to quickly and noiselessly reform in to their respective sub-units. Besides, this method is also adopted to inform company and battalion commanders about casualties or any other happenings. Thus I got all the correct (OK) report from Alfa and bravo companies but there was no report coming from Bravo and Charlie companies. The next best method was pressing the hand set of the radio communication in a specific way, whereby the receiving operator understands it and answers by pressing the hand set switch for predetermined numbers, thus releasing certain sound waves which other operator understands. By this method I got the report that Bravo and Charlie companies were also intact and that they were proceeding in the direction of their respective locations. But the report from Alfa company was disturbing. They reported that the freedom fighter guides had vanished during the confusion of firing! Besides, disorganization caused by the firing had led to the disorientation of direction and therefore at that crucial stage, for all practical purposes, we were “lost”. It must have been past 1 am and I thought that we were about 2 km short of our objective Atgram. But where was Atgram?  In which direction? Majors Kaul, Rana, Capt Johri and Lt Hawa Singh were nearby. Maj Segan was also walking behind me. We all put our heads together and sent a few small teams of one JCO and two other ranks to observe, listen and see if they could locate Atgram. But the teams came back without being able to locate either direction or distance to Atgram.

There was only one way left to find out the location of Atgram. That was to ask for three/four rounds of artillery fire on our objective. Some of the guns would have been laid on Atgram and their fire could be brought down on Atgram within seconds. But – and it was a very big but 0 our surprise would have been given away as the enemy would be alerted and we would face stiff resistance. Therefore I decided to consult Brigadier Quinn, of whose Brigade we were a part of. Even for this consultation I had to break radio silence which again was risky as that also could give away surprise. But there was no other way. Brigadier Quinn was on the “listening watch” (ie his radio set was next to him, tuned to laid down frequency and switched “on” with one operator constantly listening with earphones plugged into his ears, for any incoming transmission from us). Brigadier Quinn had heard all the firing (one sided) going on across the border and was worried. The moment I contacted him, he was there on the radio set. I briefly mentioned about guides having fled and that we were ‘lost’, not knowing where Atgram was. I also suggested that a few rounds of artillery be fired on the objective. He assured me that our Battalion had so far done exceedingly well and that the enemy was not aware that we were ready to pounce on them. Brigadier Quinn was a seasoned infantry officer and a Godly person in whose leadership we all had full faith and I felt relieved and happy after talking to him. As he was talking on the radio set, we suddenly heard a medium machine gun firing in the distance. That was a God-sent opportunity as we knew that only Atgram had medium machine guns in its defences and all other posts had light machine guns. It was a signal from the enemy saying ‘come hither!’. Also almost immediately after this we received speechless signals on the radio set from Bravo and Charlie companies that they were in their respective road block positions. The noose around Atgram’s neck was now in its place. Alfa and Delta companies resumed their advance in the direction from which MMG firing was coming. It must have been between 2 am and 2-30 am 21 Nov and Atgram was expected to be within next 2 kms. No all our senses were extremely alert. We were like a panther who has marked his prey (but unseen by it), is stalking it and is just poised for the kill. We had resumed our advance and had walked for about another 30 to 40 minutes. All firing – nearby – had ceased. There was some firing in the distance as well as some infrequent bursts of MMGs from Atgram. There was a deathly silence all around. Intuitively, I had moved further forward and was behind the leading section of the Alfa company when that section suddenly charged with their drawn khukris and roaring with all fury “Ayo Gorkhali” (Run – the Gorkhas are with you – the war cry of the Gorkhas). I can still see in front of my eyes two leading scouts vanishing into the first bunker! Simultaneously, Alfa and Delta companies spread out to the left and right respectively, as per plan. Led from the front by their company and platoon commanders with a deafening roar of “Ayo Gorkhali”, they charged into bunkers with their khukris drawn and a fury hitherto unknown. My instant thought was that we had called “charge” prematurely and that the main Atgram position was still further ahead. But the arrow had gone out and there was no way to turn it back. But, as luck would have it, this was the main position. The slaughter had begun and blood (enemy) started flowing. There was no stopping of the Gorkha fury now. It was either “we” or “they” who would come out alive and successful, and it had to be “we’. I found drawn by an unknown and inexorable force running forward along with my ‘comrades in arms’. This  (charge) was like a wave with its own momentum and it could stop only when it had killed all the enemy that came under it. On both my sides I could hear and faintly discern our brave jawans with their drawn khukris – now bloodied – moving from bunker to bunker, slaughtering one and all. It was as if all of us were possessed by super human powers. But the situation was confused, unclear and fluid. The enemy had been alerted by the war cry of Ayo Gorkhali and was resisting with all its might, if for nothing else but to save their lives! As I was rushing into a bunker, I suddenly found Subedar Ranbahadur (a platoon commander) abruptly stopping me and informing that two of the enemy soldiers were still inside and firing. He was in the process of unpinning a grenade, which he lobbed inside through the bunker’s firing slits. There was one big explosion and both enemy soldiers inside were dead and beyond recognition. There were battle sounds of bursting grenades, rifle and MMG fire from all around.

In the next bunker, I noticed a well built, sturdy person of 30-35 years lying on a cot with the telephone loosely hanging down. I could hear a panicky sound emanating from the telephone “hello’ ‘hello’. It was obvious to me that the person lying there must be the company commander and that it was his “command” bunker. With an unexplainable fury of my own, mixed with rage, anger and a chemistry unknown to me, I found myself shouting some abuses through the telephone and rushing out towards the other bunkers. Pre-dawn light had become faintly perceptible. It must have been around 3:30 am as it dawns earlier in the east. As I moved further, I found Rifleman Dilbahadur Chhetri with his bloodied khukri in his hand, emitting sounds which were a mixture of laughter and the cry of an insane man dancing the dance of death. And it was the death dance, with a number of dead bodies (with decapacitated heads hanging loosely at different angles) lying around him. (He was later awarded the Mahavir Chakra for gallantry, the first one of the Battalion). A little further, in front of another bunker, I found Capt Johri (a platoon commander of Alfa Company) lying face down with bloodied khukri in his hand and another enemy soldier lying nearby. Johri was a young and lively person full of fun and joy. A daring officer. A young life had been extinguished in its prime of 23-24 years. He was posthumously awarded the Sena medal for gallantry. Fighting was at its peak and was raging on through many bunkers. Delta Company had pushed forward towards the inspection bungalow locality and was also involved in hand-to-hand and bunker-to-bunker fighting. These bunkers were living cum fighting bunkers and the enemy soldiers trapped inside were fighting desperately for their very survival. As I was rushing further towards other bunkers, I heard somebody from inside a bunker asking for water. Entering, I found 2/LT Hawa Singh lying on a cot (some of his comrades must have put him in there and moved forward fighting) with his bloodied khukri nearby him. He could sip the water a little but before our Regimental Medical Officer could reach him, 2/LT Hawa Singh had breathed his last. This young and gallant officer was posthumously decorated with Vir Chakra for his gallantry. He must have been just about 20-21 years old. A Jat from a Haryana village, he was supporting not only his brothers and sisters back home, but also one of his friends, in their education.

Now the sounds of firing and explosions of grenades were slowly receding, indicating that the battle had turned in our favor. However it was too early to be certain. The enemy could be forming up to counter attack. At this most delicate moment in the battle. I had hardly rushed a further 10 to 20 meters when I found myself entering a large bunker with probably two or three large room inside. As I entered the first big room, I noticed about 8 to 10 enemy soldiers lying dead. This was obviously the “Company Headquarters” bunker. As I entered, I noticed an enemy person lying apparently dead. He was sturdy and well built and hardly had I sensed that I had seen this person somewhere earlier than Maj Rattan Kaul who had arrived there earlier and now was standing at the other end shouted ‘Sir Sir Look Out’. That warning saved my life. What happened next cannot be explained in sequence or in words. I recollect that with those warning words, I noticed that the sturdy young enemy person posing as dead was moving his hand on the rifle at his side. (I came to know later that he was Maj Alvi, B Coy Commander, 31 Punjab, Pak Army). Having moved in the pre-dawn darkness from his bunker to company headquarters bunker, he was probably awaiting an opportunity to kill a company or the Battalion commander. Maj Kaul – always alert – had noticed the movement of Maj Alvi’s fingers moving on the rifle and had instantly shouted the warning for me. I found myself and Maj Alvi struggling with each other on the ground,. I do not have any recollection whether he pulled me down or I jumped at him. But I do remember very strong fingers near my eyes as if a strong force was trying to gouge them out. Next I remember is, again Maj Kaul in a bid to save me had instantly come very near me and was trying to shoot Maj Alvi. But that was becoming difficult as Maj Alvi and I were grappling with each other. My recollection is that Maj Kaul twice tried to shoot Maj Alvi but his sten gun ‘misfired’ (that is, when the trigger of a cocked sten gun is pressed, it doesn’t fire. Sten guns in those days were known to be unreliable because of this well known phenomenon). In the meanwhile, I noticed somebody standing towards the head of Maj Alvi – took out his sten gun and holding its barrel in his two hands, hit hard on Maj Alvi’s head. I remember a fountain of blood and then all was quiet! In this first battle. I had carried my personal weapon – a pistol. It was not loaded as I had not visualized a commanding officer ever needing to use his personal weapon. After this action, I always carried a rifle with me – with a magazine charged for instant use!

The night of 20/21 Nov and that dawn has been frozen in my memory and every year on that day it unerringly and automatically unfolds itself re-enacting the entire scene from the time we set out from our own border till a few hours beyond the personal struggle just described above.

It is almost 30 years after that action that I am writing this narrative but the faces of Capt Johri and 2/LT Hawa Singh are as clear in my mind as I had seen them – vivacious and laughing – when I took over the command of the battalion. They made the ultimate sacrifice for the battalion and the nation. Their sacrifice and that of Subedar Bhobilal Pun with three other gallant soldiers have been written in our regimental history in golden letters. Their photographs adorn our Battalion Officers’ and JCOs’ messes and the Motivation Hall. The battalion fought two more actions at Gazipur and Sylhet. And all those who laid down their lives and those who were permanently incapacitated are gratefully remembered on 4 Dec every year (4 Dec is celebrated in the battalion as the ‘Sylhet Battle Honour Day’). On that day, early in the morning, the commanding officer and all ranks gather together in the Battalion Mandir and in a solemn function conducted by Battalion Panditji (Religious Teacher) pay their homage to all those who made the supreme sacrifice. This tradition will continue as long as the battalion exists.

I always remember an incident which occurred sometime in Aug ’71 when Capt Johri who had gone on leave came late from it due to circumstances beyond his control. He came in front of me in my office and told me, “Sir, I am late returning from leave and I will accept whatever punishment you decide”. I could only remind him that the war is imminent and that I expect with the moral courage and the sense of responsibility displayed by him, the soldiers under him will follow him wherever he led them! Both Capt Johri and 2/Lt Hawa Singh richly deserved a Param Vir Chakra each (the highest gallantry award of our nation).

We had lost two officers, 1 JCO and 3 other ranks in this battle while 22 other ranks were wounded. But ‘B’ Coy 31 Punjab Pakistan Army was wiped out and ceased to exist. This was made possible by my brave officers, JCOs and the men, many of whom performed acts of valour which remain unrewarded except in our memories.