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How an Indian infantry unit gained control of a Bengal border village, that was well-entrenched with Pakistani army

In 1971, as the border heated up, and refugees poured into India with tales of unspeakable horrors, Lieutenant Colonel Surinder Kapur, commanding officer of 1 Jammu & Kashmir Rifles knew the war was coming.

Written by Manraj Grewal Sharma | Chandigarh |
Updated: December 15, 2021 10:34:49 am
Lieutenant Colonel Surinder Kapur with his wife. (Photo: Anil Mehra)

When Lieutenant Colonel Surinder Kapur, commanding officer of 1 Jammu & Kashmir Rifles, an infantry unit, was deployed in West Bengal for internal security duties in February 1971, little did he know that it would herald a year of living dangerously.

It’s been five decades, but Kapur, 86, who was awarded Maha Vir Chakra (MVC), the second highest gallantry award on the battlefield, remembers every little detail of those tumultuous months that began with his troops chasing away Pakistani intruders, and ended with the surrender of a highly decorated brigade commander of Pakistan and seven of his lieutenant colonels.

Today, his battalion’s campaign epitomises the blood, sweat and tears that go into war.

In 1971, as the border heated up, and refugees poured into India with tales of unspeakable horrors, Kapur knew the war was coming.

But even though his troops would routinely retaliate when Pakistani posts opened fire at refugees crossing the border, it was on November 3 that they had their first serious encounter, when they shot dead three Pakistani soldiers who had crossed into the Indian territory while chasing a band of Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters) men. Soon afterward, India’s Corps Commander Lt Gen TN Raina visited them. “He asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘I want to attack and eliminate them’. He just laughed,” says Kapur.

On November 11, however, Kapur received the go-ahead to capture the post. “It was midnight, we were nearing the enemy position when the brigade commander called to say the attack had been cancelled, and we should occupy a position close to the enemy and frighten them.”

Dutifully, the unit took position near the Masalia post, near the border. “We knew the enemy wouldn’t stay silent. Sure enough, on November 15, they began pounding us with heavy mortar fire that lasted 25 minutes followed by an infantry attack.” The Pakistanis launched five such attacks, but were beaten back each time, and were forced to withdraw.

But that was not the end, the next day onwards, they started sending four Sabre jets that would make three sorties a day, diving low to shoot at and bombard the unit.

“I kept seeking Indian Air Force (IAF) support from the Brigade headquarters only to be told that war had not yet been declared. I said, ‘it’s declared for me’,” says Kapur.

Finally, on November 19, the IAF came to his rescue with three Gnats and knocked down two of the enemy planes.

When war was declared on December 3, Kapur’s battalion was sent on the Bangaon (India)-Jesssore (east Pakistan) route. At Jhikargacha, they learnt that the enemy had already withdrawn from Jessore. “I thought it was a good opportunity to enter Jessore. Since our vehicles were far behind, I got hold of an auto rickshaw and started towards the town,’’ says Kapur.

He was on his way when one of his officers arrived with another vehicle, a fire engine.

Lt Gen A A K Niazi signs the instrument of surrender on Dec 16, 1971, as Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Arora looks on (Express Archive)

Today, Kapur gets all misty-eyed as he remembers the loyalty and bravery of his men. His favourite was his intelligence officer (IO) Lt Umesh Chand Gupta, a 22-year-old athlete, the only child of a widowed mother, who made sure his commanding officer was always protected.

After a few days at Jessore, the battalion was told to move to Khulna manned by 107 brigade of the Pakistani army, which had five battalions. Protected by the tempestuous Bhairav river on the right and marshy land on the left, the Pakistanis were well-entrenched at Shyamganj village, West Bengal.

“On December 13, I was called and told that 19 Maratha LI has failed in its attack on the left flank, and I should go in,” recalls Kapur.

Lt Col Shamsher Singh, commanding officer of the Maratha unit, showed him the dense paan plantation which made it impossible for them to see the enemy. His IO (Intelligence Officer) Lt Gupta helped them get an estimate of the Pakistani machine guns by loudly shouting, “Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaja ki Jai”, the war cry of the Marathas, at different points, which made them open fire. Little did he know that the very next morning, he would be killed in one such burst of MMG (medium machine gun). Fifty years on, Kapur says, “That was the saddest moment of my life.” The bullets grazed the earlobe of Shamsher and went through the forehead of Lt Gupta but left Kapur, standing between them, unscathed.

His focus on the job at hand, Kapur sought a squadron of amphibious tanks to cross the river and provide supporting fire from the other side. “I wanted them to neutralise the MMG and heavy machine guns,” he says.

Scheduled at 5.30 am on December 15, the attack was launched at 7 am as the three tanks had trouble crossing the swollen river. Five minutes into it, he got a call from the Bravo company commander.

BSF in action during the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh. (Twitter/@BSF_India)

“He said he was wounded and the attack had been stopped. I told the radio operator to fetch the lamb (code name for second in command) and he said the 2IC is dead.’’ Kapur immediately ordered the Charlie company to come forward, while he ran to see the Bravo company, which had suffered over 20 casualties. Soon enough, the Alpha and Delta company also came forward and joined the attack. Three hours later, around 10 am, the Pakistani troops gave up and withdrew.

The victory was snatched by bare-knuckled heroism. Kapur recalls sending one of his soldiers, a Vir Chakra-awardee, to silence an MMG. The five soldiers who accompanied him were shot as they advanced. The soldier carried on and completed the mission, only to be gunned down while returning. Having conquered Shyamganj, the victorious battalion then marched on to Khulna, where Pakistan’s Brigadier Mohd Hayat Khan, Sitara-e-Jurat, an award equivalent to that of MVC, surrendered to Kapur, along with seven commanding officers. “All of them removed their belts, and handed over their weapons, the Brigadier with tears in his eyes.”

The unit received a slew of gallantry awards for the Masalia attack with Kapur getting an MVC, but the Shyamganj operation went unrecognised. It was something that continued to rankle Kapur even after he took premature retirement in 1978. In 1979, a review committee finally heard his account and awarded 1 JAK RIF battle honour for Shyamganj, and theatre honour for Bangladesh. Justice was finally delivered.

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