While watching a clip on YouTube on their programme of enacting the surrender ceremony of the Pakistan Army, I am reminded of an interesting incident that happened to me. The ceasefire happened on 13th December 1971 and we were in a relaxed mood in the officers mess, chatting on how we could visit Dacca.
Going by road was out of the question as the Pakistanis had blown up all the bridges while retreating. So, going by air was the only option we had. We had done quite well in the war as far as our air support communications were concerned and I was on good terms with the Air Force officers of 5 Tac (Tactical Air Centre attached with Headquarters 4 Corps).
I asked Wing Commander Mohan whether they had any plans of going to Dacca. In case there was, I would also like to join. The next evening he told me that he was going there the following morning. I promptly accepted the offer and was at the airfield the next morning at the given time. At the airfield, Mohan told me that the plan was to go in an Otter aircraft to Agartala. From there we were to go to a place called Bhairab Bazar in a MI 4 Helicopter to pick up a Pakistani General
(Gen). We were to come back to Agartala and then proceed to Dacca in the same Otter. It was around 6 AM on 15th December that Mohan and I landed at Bhairab Bazar. The pilot took some time in locating a suitable place to land. Finally, we landed in a railway yard which was quite open and spacious. We may have walked for about 10 minutes when I noticed that Mohan was looking at his watch frequently. When I inquired the reason for this, he stopped and said,
“Siddiqui, we have a problem. The Otter in which we have come is required for Army Commander’s duty, who is landing at 9 AM at Dacca and then going to Chittagong. We have already lost some time in reaching here. So, what I will do, is to go back and proceed to Dacca in the Otter and send back the helicopter duly fueled up. You go ahead, find the General and bring him to Dacca directly from here”.
Now, suddenly I found myself alone in an alien place. The place was deserted with no one around as if the whole place was under a curfew. I lamented myself for not carrying my stun gun. Although the ceasefire had taken place, the Paks were still armed. I just wondered what would happen if I met a trigger happy soldier and this is exactly what happened. As I turned a corner and came on a main road, I came face to face with a burly Pathan, who lost no time in straightening his rifle.
With a great show of bravado, I waved at him and said loudly: “Dekho hum aapke General Sahab se milne aaye hain, aap hamen apne officers mess ka rasta bata do.” He then relaxed and gave me directions on how to reach there. Just then a rickshaw appeared from nowhere and was promptly commandeered by him.
He told the rickshawala where to take me. After a ten minutes ride I was there. I wanted to pay the guy but he refused, saying, “What you people have done for us, we will not be able to pay back in generations.” I thanked him and went inside the mess.
The only place active at that time was the kitchen. I asked the staff about the Gen and was told that he was still asleep. I told them to go and wake him up and tell him that an Indian Army officer was there to meet him. I then waited inside the mess. The interior looked no different than any of our own mess, with a rich display of silver and trophies hung on the wall. The visitor’s book caught my attention and I sat down and
started browsing through it. After some time, the mess staff came and told me that General Sahab was ready to meet me. I went and told the General the purpose of my visit. He was still in his sleeping suit and dressing gown. He said, “You will have to give me some time to get ready.” I said it was not a problem and went back to the mess and continued browsing through the visitor’s book.
There were entries dating back to pre-partition days with mostly British officers’ names. I found some senior Indian names too, like Srinagesh, Cariappa and Rajendar Singh ji. One name that caught my attention was Brig Wajahat Husain. He hailed from my hometown, Allahabad. I had known him as a kid and we used to call him Wajjan Bhai. Their family went across during the partition and later I heard that he had joined the army in Pakistan.
It was breakfast time and slowly their officers started arriving. Some nodded and said hello. Others remained grim-faced and ignored my presence. Seeing my nameplate, an Engineers Col started talking. On hearing that I hailed from Allahabad, he got interested as he was posted there in the mid forties.
He inquired of various places in the town and I updated him on the changes that had taken place since partition. Like most Pak officers who found service revolvers too bulky and heavy, he too was carrying a small .32 bore pistol. I was tempted to ask him to give it to me as a souvenir as sooner or later, it will be taken away from him. I however, did not do so, thinking that they will have a rather dim view of us.
The mess staff came and informed me that Gen Sb was ready. I went and saw that he was dressed in full military attire. I told him that I was not sure in what form our set up in Dacca existed. He was a known face and it would be easier for us if he wore a civilian dress, for security reasons.
At this he remarked: “All my civil clothes are in my bungalow in Dacca and I am sure by now the Bengalis must have cleaned up the place”. He then wanted to know if he can take his ADC and the orderly along. I told him that we had no instructions on this but they could come along if the pilot had no objection.
The flying time was a little over one hour. As we landed on the tarmac, we could see a huge crowd around everywhere, cheering and waving their newly acquired flag and shouting ‘Joya Bangla’. They were all looking towards our helicopter as it was in the process of landing. Looking out of the window, I saw no sign of any of our own troops. I pointed out the scene outside to the General and told him that I could not sight any of our own army people.
I said, “As it is, you have already earned a name for yourself here. If you came out dressed like this, I am not sure what they would do to you”. Quickly all of them shed their uniform and changed into civil dress. We came out of the helicopter and looked around. I saw some activity in a distant hanger. I told them to wait while I made arrangements to take them to the cantonment (cantt).
As I started walking towards the hanger, I met one of our own unit officers, Maj Nayyar. He was quite senior to me, and had just landed from Calcutta and looked quite lost. He was in full battle-dress with a helmet, “pithhoo” on his back and a stun gun slung on his shoulder. This solved a part of my problem. At least we had an armed escort now. I told him that I knew where he was required to report and asked him to come along with me.
I found that some kind of adhoc HQ was set up in the hangar. I met Col Mavalankar of Artillery whom I had known from my previous tenure with the 9 Infantry Division. After exchanging greetings, I told him my problem and requested for an armed escort and transport to take the General to the cantonment. He issued instructions to his staff, while we sat having a cup of tea.
Suddenly, he asked, “By the way, who is this General you have brought with you?” As soon as I mentioned the name “Qazi Abdul Majeed”, he jumped out of his chair. Livid with rage, he started shouting and abusing the General. It appeared that some of his men, who were taken prisoner, were badly treated by the Pakistanis.
They were paraded in front of locals in an open ground with their hands tied. They were tied to a jeep and dragged around before being shot. He picked up his sten gun, shouting and screaming, “Where is that bastard? I will kill him right now. He has no right to live anymore”
I was quite taken aback by this sudden change in situation.All my euphoria had vanished and my joy ride had already turned sour. The importance of the mission I had inadvertently been entrusted with, suddenly dawned upon me. For any misadventure, I would be held fully responsible. I cooked up a story that the Gen was not with me and is coming a little later in another helicopter. I had come in advance to make necessary arrangements to take the Gen to the cantt. I then signaled to Maj Nayyar to move away from there.
The aim was to decide what our next course of action should be, under the suddenly changed situation. As we moved away, a well-dressed gentleman who had been watching the commotion from a distance came up to us and introduced himself as the duty magistrate of the area. He said, “I can see that you are having some problems. Let me know if I can be of any help.” I explained to him my ordeal and he promptly agreed to take us in his own car.
With Maj Nayyar as the armed escort, we started off from the airport. As we came out, we saw a crowd had gathered on both sides of the road. On seeing me, they started cheering and waving their flags. At this, the General made a rather sarcastic remark: “Look at these Bengalis! Until only yesterday, they were waving a Pakistani flag, and now they are waving this silly-looking flag”.
I glanced at our host to see his reaction as I knew that Bengalis are very emotional people. His face had turned red with rage but he kept quiet and said nothing. After reaching our destination, we bade goodbye to the Magistrate and thanked him profusely for his help.
Wingco Mohan was already there waiting for us. He told me to wait in an office. After he handed over the General to the concerned people, he came back and said, “Let’s go”. I asked, “Go where Sir?” His response was, “Back to Mayanamati.” I protested that after having gone through all this trouble, the least we could do is to take a quick round of the city?
After looking at his watch, he agreed and we set off. As we came out of the HQ, we waved at a car. The owner, who was driving himself, asked where we wanted to go. On being told that our aim was to just take a quick ride of the town, he agreed and we started off in his car. As we left the cantonment and turned towards the city, we saw dead bodies lying on the road, with the cyclists, rickshaws and cars, weaving their way past them.
No one was paying any attention to them. On being asked who they were, and why nobody was doing anything about them, he replied, “Oh! They are Bihari Muslims.” In their definition, a Bihari Muslim was one who was not a Bengali. He could be from UP, Bihar, Punjab, or any other part of the country- but if he was not a Bengali, they were identified as Bihari Muslims.
He continued, “They had sympathised with the Pakistani army and when the war ended, they were promptly picked up and shot.” Being told this, was a shocking realization for me of how close a shave we all had with destiny. My mind went racing back to the partition days, when my father was sick and admitted to the railway hospital in Allahabad.
One day, a letter came from his office, asking him to exercise his option on whether he wanted to continue serving in India or would go over to Pakistan. There was a temporary option too, in the sense that one went across and if he was not happy with the working environment, he could come back to India and would be reinstated.
My father exercised only one option, “India Permanent”. When he had recovered and we went back to Katihar where he was posted, we realized that out of 150 Muslims in his department, he was the only one who had stayed back in India. Those who went across were a very unhappy lot as they could not integrate with the locals due to cultural differences. Most wanted to come back but by then, the policy had changed and the temporary option was no more available.
I sat thinking about what would have been our plight, had my father decided to go across to Pakistan. I was thus lost in my thoughts, when Wingco Mohan tapped on my shoulder, saying, “Come on Siddiqui, we have reached the airport”. With a sigh of relief, I thanked God and my father for his wise decision. Here we were, leading a life of dignity and respect.
My next trip to Dacca was on the 9th of January, 1972. This trip proved to be much more peaceful. One of the places that we visited was No 1Dhanamondy, which was supposed to be the residence of Sheikh Mujeeb-ur-Rehman. We learnt that he had arrived from Karachi on that day only, after being released from captivity by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. We expressed a desire to meet him and he was gracious enough to invite us in. He offered us a cup of tea, and also posed for a photograph with us.
About The Author
Lt Col MA Siddiqui (Retd) was commissioned on 15 December 1957 in the Corps of Signals. He earned a degree in Telecom Engineering and took part in the 1962,1965 and 1971 wars and was awarded Mention-in-Despatch in the 1971 war.