| by Ashok K Mehta
( December 19, 2012, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) In the capture of Atgram during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, it was the knife in the hands of the brave warriors that set the tone for India’s eventual victory
Three days ago, on the 42nd anniversary of Vijay Divas the country commemorated, to my mind, inadequately, the historic victory in East Pakistan. One great initial battle of the war fought at Atgram to break the outer crust of Pakistani defences in the East opposite Sylhet sector needs revisiting. The battalion tasked was 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) which went on to capture Gazipur and eventually single-handedly took the surrender of the Sylhet garrison.
Preparations for the break-in began from a place called Panchgram which the battalion happily renamed Char-Panchgram after its name. In the same area was a future VIP, Col Zia ul-Rehman, commanding the East Bengal Regiment Brigade, who later became Chief of the Bangladesh Army and upon the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the President. He became a friend of the battalions over bhaat and maach during operational discussions. His wife Khaleda Zia could recover the Bangladesh presidency next year through elections.
The capture of Atgram involved a series of complex manoeuvres: Crossing the Surma river and securing a bridgehead; infiltrating about five kilometres between BoPs through marsh; establishing road blocks south and west of Atgram; and finally silently seizing Atgram from the rear. The assault was to be without any preparatory bombardment or accompanying fire support, a classic close-quarter battle operation relaying on Gorkha ingenuity, instinct and the khukuri which proved to be the weapon of decision.
Not before and not since has any battalion launched a full scale assault employing just the khukuri and guile. Only two companies were used in the actual attack as three stops were deployed to ensure that Pakistan’s B Company — 31 Punjab — reinforced with Mujahids, Tochi Scouts, medium machine guns, recoil-less guns, rocket launchers and 81 mm mortars under Major Azhar Alvi did not withdraw to Zakigunj, south of Atgram, which was to be captured by 9 Guards from the same 59 Mountain Brigade of 8 Mountain Division.
Surprise had to be maintained at all costs so that the khukuri could perform its task. Attack by stealth is an old ruse but not easy to achieve while infiltrating through marsh, bypassing BoPs and especially when friendly but jittery Mukti Bahini are also in the vicinity. The task given to Four Five was to capture Atgram by first light 21 November 1971, secure Sarkar Bazaar four kilometres west of Atgram and on orders, advance to Charkhai, opening the gateway to Sylhet.
A major difficulty encountered in planning for assault was lack of proper reconnaissance as Atgram lay deep inside Pakistani territory. Since hostilities had not been officially declared the international border could not be violated except that this rule did not apply to the Mukti Bahini. By the third week of November 1971, it had been decided to create convenient launch pads inside East Pakistan for swift and decisive operations for the capture of objectives in depth. Atgram was one such launch pad.
For Four Five, victory in this battle was paramount. It is the dream and prayer of every fighting unit to begin the campaign with a successful operation. The battalion knew that if it could establish its operational ascendancy in the first battle it would sail through to whatever its assigned goal: Taking the surrender at Sylhet, as it turned out.
In pitch darkness, Charlie Company completed its mission of securing the far bank of Surma and establishing a bridgehead and corridor for the battalion. While Bravo, Charlie and support companies established stops around Atgram, Alpha and Delta Companies were in the assault. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel AB Harolikar, took the calculated risk of nominating stops as reserve in case the assault had to be reinforced. The battalion column suddenly came under intense artillery and mortar fire but was unprovoked, maintaining ‘fire silence’ and freezing in its locations for nearly one hour. The enemy took the movement to be a Mukti Bahini jitter party.
Advance was resumed. Unknowingly the assault companies had reached close to the objective but not quite, when a Pakistan patrol shouted: “Kaun hai? Haath khada karo!” This became the signal for a spontaneous charge of “Aaayo Gorkhali” with khukuris glistening in the darkness. But no weapons were fired. Surprise was intact and by 5am the fierce khukuri assault had silenced Maj Alvi’s Bravo Company. In the mopping up, nearly 45 bodies were found scattered around the main position. Among these was Maj Alvi, who feigned death and would have taken out the Commanding Officer but for an alert Subedar Ran Bahadur Thapa. Shrieking furiously all this time was Maj Alvi’s caged parakeet who was whistled to normalcy and later presented as a trophy to the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Bunty Quinn.
The heroes of this silent battle were Rifleman Dil Bahadur Chhetri, whose khukuri accounted for eight Pakistan soldiers, and was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra; Rifleman Phas Bahadur Pun and 2nd Lieutenant Hawa Singh received posthumously, the Vir Chakra; and Captain Pravin Johry (posthumously) and Subedar Teerth Bahadur Gurung won the Sena Medal. Maj Alvi was awarded the Hilal e Jurrat (equal to MVC) for a gallant hand-to-hand last ditch stand.
After the war, Maj Mumtaz Husain Shah of 31 Punjab had this to say about Maj Alvi’s company: “Bravo Company was mauled completely. Maj Alvi and his men laid down their lives. Only a few stragglers reached the battalion headquarters at Charkhai to tell the tale.”
A well kept secret but a master stroke of Lt Col Harolikar was the quiet release of four Pakistani soldiers found alive. They were to act as the agents of Four Five, spreading the terror of the khukuri, the Gorkha cunning and the numbing war cry “Aayo Gorkhali”. All these traits and talents traveled well ahead of the nimble warriors.
The highlight of Atgram was its leadership — officers and JCOs leading from the front —with a dynamic Commanding Officer prepared to take risks. Releasing the four captured Pakistani soldiers proved a game-changer. Choosing stealth and silence to surprise the enemy gave a defining advantage and set the victorious trail for the campaign. Being chosen for all the three major battles — poignantly chronicled by Brig Rattan Kaul of the Battalion — fought by the formation in the Sylhet Division was the crowing glory. It was not easy but Four Five let the khukuri do the talking. Lesson: The battle utility of the khukuri has to be preserved and promoted.