1971 indo-pak war History & Culture

Armed Forces veterans in Chennai share their memories of the 1971 Indo-Pak War

Veterans of the 1971 War at the Victory War Memorial, Chennai. (Left to right) Air Commodore SK Jayarajan, AVSM, VSM; Major-General Jose Manavalan, AVSM; Commander PV Francis; Colonel A Krishnaswami VrC, VSM**; Wing Commander PK Ayre and Captain DP Ramachandran

Veterans of the 1971 War at the Victory War Memorial, Chennai. (Left to right) Air Commodore SK Jayarajan, AVSM, VSM; Major-General Jose Manavalan, AVSM; Commander PV Francis; Colonel A Krishnaswami VrC, VSM**; Wing Commander PK Ayre and Captain DP Ramachandran | Photo Credit: R RAGU

A brisk wind whips up the Tricolour fluttering atop the mast at the Victory War Memorial, Chennai. It is December 4, 50 years to the day the Indian Navy bombed Karachi harbour in Operation Trident .

A group of Armed Forces veterans, bodies limber, spirits intact, sporting medals and regimental ties pores over an album filled with black-and-white photographs of men on the brink of manhood.

At the war memorial, salutes and friendly fist-bumps are exchanged — the easy camaraderie of brothers-in-arms — a legacy of having served together and being part of veteran groups. These men are tiny integers in a war, a human tapestry of the time that Bangladesh was born, when Pakistani forces laid down arms in the largest military surrender since the Second World War.

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Among them is Commander PV Francis, a communications officer onboard the INS Katchall, a Petya-class frigate that was part of the task force for the operation. “I was a sub-lieutenant,” says the 74-year-old from a family that has seen action since the Great War. “Captain KN Zadu was at the helm and on November 30 we left Bombay for Okha, our fuel topped up, sailing in darkness along with the missile boats Nipat, Nirghat and Veer. It was a cold night when we headed in arrowhead formation for Karachi harbour.”

Cdr Francis spent the time running seven storeys between the communications room and the bridge decoding secret messages from a series of envelopes that had to be opened at a particular time and place. Over the next couple of hours, two enemy ships were fired at and the Kiamari oil tanks at Karachi set afire.

This victory has been commemorated as Navy Day since.

By the time he returned to land a couple of days later, Okha had been bombed and Cdr Francis spent the night near Dwarka, warmed only by a bottle of brandy that the Jam Sahib had given before he had to confront the horrors of the sinking of the INS Khukri, the only Indian naval ship to be lost in war post-Independence. The torpedoed ship went down with nearly 200 men. “We buried some of them at sea, sewing them in weighted canvas. There wasn’t a dry eye on the ship.”

The war lasted only 13 days but it had been in the making since Partition with the eastern component of Pakistan disillusioned with living in the shadow of its more prosperous, politically dominant western counterpart. Indian Armed Forces supported the Mukti Bahini’s efforts, and retaliated when Pakistan bombed Indian airfields on December 3, writing their own saga of courage in both theatres of war.

Over phone from Kanchipuram, Wing Commander PK Ayre’s sprightly voice tells me how he and his squadron mates bombed a train full of enemy tanks, crossing the border at Bahawalpur in their Sukhoi Su-7. The 80-year-old who was born in Burma and raised in Bombay, lost his pilot father to an air crash over the Nilgiris but was not deterred from flying planes.

“Commissioned in 1962, I had flown Vampires and Mysteres and was based in Halwara as a Flight Lieutenant with a ground attack squadron on the eve of the war. When the Commanding Officer got a call, my family comprising my wife, children, mother and grandmother-in-law were accommodated in a house that belonged to the Hero Cycles family. By the next morning Pakistani planes were bombing Srinagar, Adampur and Ambala. In retaliation we crossed over.”

In the rich alluvial plains, fed by the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers where emerald rice fields criss-cross marshlands, the war was being fought both against the enemy and the unforgiving terrain. The Indian soldier’s only friend remained the common man, spurring him on with shouts of “Jai Bangla!”

On the Eastern front

It was to one such riverside in Tripura that Major-General Jose Manavalan, AVSM, then a 21-year-old 2nd Lieutenant arrived for the war, guitar in hand. “We stayed in tents from August to December and my seniors chided me asking if I’d come to fight a war or sing,” says Gen Manavalan who was posted to 4 Engineer Regiment as a platoon commander.

“The bridges had been blown up and we had to transport men and ammunition across. We requisitioned country boats from locals and crossed at night navigating sandbanks with poles and oars. We were shot at often while recceing ferry points, but built roads under artillery fire, cleared minefields and made marboat bridges that moved with the tide. When we moved West we constructed duckboards that let us take water for our troops embedded deep in enemy territory. The aim was to get the Army across. All the while my parents in Delhi had no clue where I was.”

Captain DP Ramachandran, military history enthusiast who raised the Colours of Glory Foundation, an NGO promoting awareness of the country’s military heritage, says his time with the 63 Cavalry, a tank regiment, was a “baptism by fire”.

“The unit fought in all sectors of the war and this confounded the Pakistanis that they called us the Ghost Regiment. Once I was standing in the turret when we ran smack into the enemy. Both sides were surprised and we shot at each other. Retrieving one of my men, with flares lighting up the scene was quite a task and at the defence of Charkhai we had to fight the bog as well. We were ravenous by then and our prize for the victory was tea and biscuits. When we won the war we were stuffed with Bengali sweets,” he says.

Logistical duties

Beyond the scenes of action were also huge logistical duties that enabled smooth operations. Air Commodore SK Jayarajan, AVSM, VSM, then a 25-year-old Flying Officer was in-charge of movement control.

Moving overnight from mountainous Pithoragarh to Krishnanagar in Nadia district, his primary job was to liaise with the Railways and ensure safe passage of tanks, ammunition and troops from 2 Corps who were being moved to the western front.

“I made frequent forays into Jessore with my clerk from the Kumaon Regiment, a hill boy who had never seen a train. One night captured artillery shells exploded and it felt like an earthquake,” he says, adding that eating duck’s egg fried in mustard oil put him off Bengali food for life.

Some battles were a mix of guns, grenades and guts, like the one in which Colonel A Krishnaswami, VrC, VSM** (awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal twice, indicated by **) and his boys of C Company, 10 Jammu And Kashmir Rifles found themselves in. A Kanyakumari native raised in Delhi, and a Stephanian, he is fluent in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Dogri, the language of his troops which led him to be fondly christened Kishan Singh by them.

A Major during the War, the 85-year-old Col Krishnaswami says, “Not everybody gets a chance to go to war. We were deep inside Jamalpur, operating behind enemy lines. To say I was not afraid is a lie. I once forgot my helmet and was running between trenches. My batman, Kaka Ram charged towards me and rammed the helmet on my head. A second later a bullet whizzed past. A war-time acquaintance is a life-long association. When we met in 2012, we embraced and I introduced him to my grandsons. I’m alive because Kaka Ram put that blooming helmet on my head.”

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