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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Bangladesh@50: Bangla War theatre from ruins of a cinema hall, a veteran recalls

🔴 Then just 19 and a Second Lieutenant, Binay Kumar Sinha recalls the meeting happened in a “half-finished cinema hall with no screen”.

Written by Leena Misra | Ahmedabad |
Updated: December 15, 2021 8:43:42 pm
Retired IAS officer and former 2nd Lt in the Indian Army, B K Sinha. (Express photo)

On the morning of December 13, 1971, Commanding Officer Col V K Singh of 26 Madras Regiment called a meeting of his officers. Then just 19 and a Second Lieutenant, Binay Kumar Sinha recalls the meeting happened in a “half-finished cinema hall with no screen”. The task before the battalion was to capture Siramani town in Khulna district, in what is now Bangladesh, from the Pakistan army, by the end of the day.

“On our left was the Bhairab river, on the right was marshy land with a railway track. In the front, where the cinema screen should have been, the hall was open, showing a jungle and a water tank, from where the Pakistanis were directing airbursts at the troops. Even the Air Force had sent out messages that they could not decipher the enemy strength because of the jungle,” says Sinha, speaking to The Indian Express.

B K Sinha as Second Lieutenant (Credit: BK Sinha)

The battalion ended that day a winner, and was decorated with Battle Honours, ‘Siramani’. Sinha was injured, quit the Army soon after, and having joined the Civil Services, retired from the Gujarat Ports and Transport Department in 2012. On Sunday, Sinha and other officers part of the battalion reunited to celebrate the golden jubilee of the Siramani Battle.

Recalling the events of that day 50 years ago, Sinha says that by around 2 pm, the soldiers negotiated the railway track toward the Pakistanis. “Crawling, with our binoculars, we tried to gauge their strength when suddenly phuch!…something hit me. It (the bullet) had gone through, hitting me near the heart, I was lucky (it missed the heart). I fell. Somebody tried to pick me up, but I asked him to go on as he would be a sitting duck,” Sinha says.

He crawled back, and with some medical attention, his arm tied in a sling, he was back on his feet in about an hour, though his upper body remained numb for some time. “I felt no pain, but knew I had barely survived.”

B K Sinha with colleagues Capt Joginder Singh, Major HA Roshan on the blown-up Jhingergacha Bridge near Jessore. (Credit: BK Sinha)

Sinha recalls that their Commanding Officer, Col Singh, was among those injured that day. Singh had been a POW in the 1962 war. “A shrapnel hit Col Singh and he was unconscious for about 30 minutes, but he refused to be evacuated and went back to fight,” Sinha says.

He brings out a photo taken of him and the other soldiers at that cinema hall before they ventured into battle. Taken by noted photographer Raghu Rai, then with The Statesman, it shows Sinha, Major R K Mannon, 23, and Major Utpal Sen, 22. Mannon died that day within an hour of telling an injured Sinha that he would do fine. On seeing Major Mannon killed in action Captain Joginder Singh who was heading another company, took charge of this one and continued the attack capturing 10 enemy bunkers amid heavy artillery and heavy machine gun fire, “a gallant act”, says Sinha. He only later informed the commanding officer of the change in command. Apart from the Battle Honours, the 26 Madras Regiment saw two of its men decorated with Vir Chakra posthumously.

A week before that battle, Sinha visited Jessore Jail that had been taken control of by the Indian army. He recalls entering the jail, covered in “deathly silence”, on December 6, and noticing the “brand new uniforms and belts” of the men who were now jailors at the same prison they had been kept captive for nine months by the Pakistanis.

The photograph of the surrender signed by General JS Aurora. (Credit: BK Sinha)

“In the night we would hear gunshots from the village,” Sinha says. They were told it was a battle between the Mukti Bahini (fighting for Bangladesh’s freedom) and Razakars (suspected to be working as informers for the Pakistani army). “Let them sort it out, we were told. ‘We are here for another purpose’.”

The injured Sinha was first taken to Jessore hospital and then on a train to Calcutta. He remembers meeting a young captain from the Pakistani army, a POW who was senior to him but insisted on calling him “sir”, while admitted at the Calcutta Army Command Hospital. Sinha says the Pakistani captain felt “let down” by his superiors. “He said, ‘We would have rather gone down fighting and died, than surrender like this’.”

Retired Lt General VK Singh (2nd from left), former 2nd Lt BK Sinha (extreme right) and other officers of 26 Madras regiment at Tuesday’s golden jubilee celebration of the battle of Siramani at the battalion headquarter. The trophy commemorates the victory at Siramani.

Sometime in the third week of December 1971, General Jagjit Singh Aurora’s wife came to the hospital to meet the injured officers. She enquired if they wanted anything. The Punjabi soldiers asked for “sarson da saag and makke di roti”, and Sinha requested for a picture of the formal surrender by Pakistan to India in the 1971 war, signed by General Aurora and General A A K Niazi of Pakistan.

Three days later, the saag and makke di roti arrived, and the photo signed by Gen Aurora. The officer who got the photo “said it was not possible to get Gen Niazi’s signature as he had been shifted to Bareilly”, Sinha says.

Second Lieutenant BK Sinha (Credit: BK Sinha)

With his career likely to be impacted by the injury, Sinha quit the Army, finished his graduation and took the UPSC exams in 1974.

Fifty years later, the black-and-white picture, with “Jagjit Singh” signed in fading red, is among Sinha’s prized souvenirs from the war. He has other photos, taken from a “Rs 10 camera”, as well as copies of pictures taken by Rai “as bullets flew”.

Second Lt Sinha on the blown up Jhingergacha bridge. (Credit: BK Sinha)

He came upon them by accident. Twenty years after the war, Sinha was a director posted in the Home Ministry in Delhi when he located Rai from a picture. He met Rai in his office at Connaught Place, and eventually got copies of those photographs.

Sinha continues to believe in the possible, a throwback to his Army training. As Ahmedabad Municipal Commissioner (1997-99), he was known as a “no-nonsense officer”, and had published a list of 20 high-rise buildings with violations. “In the Army we learnt that if you are given a task, you do it even if your life is at stake,” he says. “Zyada se zyada ka hoga? Badli kar denge… (What is the worst that could happen? A transfer…).”

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