In 1971, Pakistan found itself in an impossible situation. Severe polarization between the two wings of the country had resulted in the divided mandate of the 1970 elections. The predominantly Bengali Awami League, which had won a landslide victory in East Pakistan, refused to compromise on its ‘Six Points’, which in effect, was perceived in the Western wing of the country as a formula for the partition of Pakistan. Failure to reach a compromise led to a violent revolt in the Eastern wing, which paralyzed the entire province. The government launched a military operation to regain control of the province, which in turn led to an insurgency actively supported by India. In March 1971, the Pakistan Army had only one infantry division in its Eastern Command. After the mutiny of Bengali military personnel, two divisions were airlifted to East Pakistan in April. Meanwhile, India started planning an invasion of East Pakistan.
Pakistani defence plans envisaged delaying the enemy at forward localities after which, their troops were to fall back on strongpoints or fortresses. However, with its meagre resources, Pakistan did not really have many options. In November 1971, the Eastern Command consisted of three infantry divisions, exhausted by months of counterinsurgency operations. In addition to 35,000 regular troops, it also had some 15,000 paramilitary troops, supported by one armoured regiment and a single squadron of Air Force. These men had to protect 2,000 miles of frontier, while cut off from their home base and surrounded on all sides by the enemy. They faced eight Indian divisions and 100,000 Mukti Bahini, who enjoyed overwhelming air superiority. The outcome of the unequal contest was a foregone conclusion. However, the gallant men of Eastern Command faced the overwhelming odds with such valour and tenacity that it surprised even the enemy. This is the story of some of these men from one infantry battalion.
31 Baluch arrived in East Pakistan in April 1971 under Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Aziz Khan. It was deployed in Mymensingh Sector, where it was engaged in operations against the Mukti Bahini and fending off Indian attacks from across the frontier. On 22 September, Lieutenant Colonel Sultan Ahmed, SJ, took over command of the battalion. The responsibility for defence of Mymensingh Sector lay with 36 (adhoc) Division. The formation was an attempt at deception that fooled nobody. The entire division consisted of 31 Baluch and 33 Punjab along with an assortment of paramilitary troops grouped together as 93 (adhoc) Brigade. The divisional front extended 115 miles from River Jamuna in the west to River Surma in the east, divided between the two battalions deployed on border outposts (BOPs). After fighting the enemy at well-prepared delaying positions, the two battalions planned to fall back to the fortresses of Jamalpur and Mymensingh on the southern bank of River Brahmaputra. Facing them was the Indian 101 Communication Zone Area, a division-size formation.
Realizing the futility of attacking the impregnable fortress, the Indian Brigade Commander sent a letter to Colonel Sultan
The Indians had planned a two-pronged attack in this sector. Two battalion groups were to advance along Haluaghat-Mymensingh and Jhangal-Mymensingh axes, while their 95 Mountain Brigade was to spearhead the main thrust towards Jamalpur through Kamalpur and Bakhshiganj. Meanwhile, Mukti Bahini was tasked with disruption in the rear of Pakistani forces. The Indian commander planned to reach Dhaka in less than two weeks. The enemy opened his offensive on 21 November, by attacking Kamalpur BOP, which was manned by a platoon each of 31 Baluch, West Pakistan Rangers and Razakars, under Captain Ahsan Siddique Malik. After subjecting the post to 96 hours of saturation bombing, the Indians assaulted the post but were mowed down by machine gun fire and forced to retreat. Two more attacks met the same fate. Having failed to make any impression on the defenders of Kamalpur and “getting wary because of casualties, successive failures and demoralisation among the attacking troops,” the Indian commander decided to surround it and cut off its supply line.
On 28 November, the Indians launched another attack on Kamalpur but were again beaten back with heavy losses. The Indian commander then decided to bypass it, leaving behind a battalion to continue the siege. On 4 December, he ordered airstrikes against the post followed by a note sent through a courier asking Captain Ahsan to surrender and warning him of dire consequences of his refusal. Failing to elicit any response, he ordered two more airstrikes. Earlier that day, 31 Baluch had vacated all BOPs and fallen back to its next line of defence. This left Kamalpur completely isolated. With their ammunition exhausted and with no hope of relief, the garrison had no choice but to surrender. Captain Ahsan had held up an entire enemy brigade for two weeks with a handful of men and surrendered only when his ammunition ran out. The incredible bravery and defiance of Captain Ahsan and his men against such overwhelming odds won them the admiration even of the enemy. Brigadier HS Kler, Commander 95 Mountain Brigade, came especially “to meet the young captain who had kept his brigade at bay for almost three weeks and to see the fortifications for himself.” Captain Ahsan Siddique Malik was awarded Sitara-i-Jurat for his exceptional valour and heroism.
Meanwhile, the main Indian force arrived at Bakhshiganj after bypassing Kamalpur and cut the road to Kurua, where 31 Baluch was concentrating. During the night of 5 December, ‘C’ Company repulsed two enemy attacks on its positions. Having failed in his frontal assault, the enemy tried to outflank the company. Subedar Ghulam Rasool, the depth platoon commander immediately counterattacked with 10 men and put the enemy to flight. For this audacious action, he was awarded Sitara-i-Jurat. Meanwhile at Jhagrachar, another enemy battalion broke through the defences of Rangers on 6 December. This exposed the flank of 31 Baluch, which then withdrew towards its main defensive position at Jamalpur. 95 Mountain Brigade followed them and after crossing the River Brahmaputra upstream, surrounded Jamalpur Fortress. It had taken the Indians more than three weeks to clear border outposts and reach the main Pakistani defensive position.
After carrying out intense artillery bombardment and airstrikes for two days, the Indians attacked Jamalpur on the night of 9 December but were easily repulsed. Realizing the futility of attacking the impregnable fortress, the Indian Brigade Commander sent a letter to Colonel Sultan.
To: The Commander Jamalpur Garrison I am directed to inform you that your garrison has been cut off from all sides and you have no escape route available to you. One brigade with full complement of artillery has already been built up and another will be striking by morning. In addition you have been given a foretaste of a small element of our air force with a lot more to come. The situation as far as you are concerned is hopeless. Your higher commanders have already ditched you.
I expect your reply before 6.30 p.m. today failing which I’ll be constrained to deliver the final blow for which purpose 40 sorties of MiGs have been allotted to me.
In this morning’s action the prisoners captured by us have given your strength and dispositions, and are well looked after.
The treatment I expect to be given to this civil messenger should be according to a gentlemanly code of honour and no harm should come to him. An immediate reply is solicited.
10 December 71 Brig HS Kler Commander
Colonel Sultan’s reply was wrapped around a bullet:
Dear Brigadier, Hope this finds you in high spirits. Your letter asking us to surrender has been received. I want to tell you that the fighting you have seen so far is very little; in fact the fighting has not even started. So let us stop negotiating and start the fight.
40 sorties, I may point out, are inadequate. Ask for many more.
Your point about treating your messenger well was superfluous. It shows how you underestimate my boys. I hope he liked his tea.
Give my love to the Mukties. Let me see you with a sten in your hand next time instead of the pen you seem to have so much mastery over.
Now get on and fight.
Yours sincerely, 10 December 71 (Commander Jamalpur Fortress)
This was no empty bravado. Jamalpur Fortress was a well-prepared position defended by 1,500 men, which included several hundred paramilitary troops besides 31 Baluch. Bypassing such a large force was not an option. While the Indian commander was grappling with his dilemma, providence came to his rescue. Soon after sending the reply to the enemy, CO 31 Baluch received the order to breakout towards Madhupur. The enemy had broken through in other sectors and was fast approaching Dhaka, which lay cut-off and undefended. The only formation able to reach Dhaka was 93 Brigade. On 10 December, it was ordered by Eastern Command to fall back to Dhaka for its defence.
Just before midnight on 10 December, 31 Baluch broke out of Jamalpur Fortress along with the rest of the garrison. Standing in its path were three Indian battalions. Fierce battle raged all night, as the gallant Baluchis fought their way out. Second Lieutenant Munir Ahmed Butt and his platoon were ordered to neutralize an enemy blocking position to clear the way for the rest of the column. About 2,000 yards short of its objective, the platoon was fired upon from the right side of the road. Lieutenant Munir immediately charged the position and silenced it. On reaching the main objective, he again led the assault on the enemy position. During the intense firefight, 14 of his men embraced shahadat. Among them was Lance Havildar Mian Khan, who charged an enemy machine gun, which had halted his platoon’s advance. Despite being wounded twice, he kept on advancing until he was killed by a burst of machine gun. For this action, Lieutenant Munir was awarded Sitara-i-Jurat, while Lance Havildar Mian Khan received Tamgha-i-Jurat.
The battle took a heavy toll of the Jamalpur garrison. The motorised column under Major Fazal-e-Akbar carrying the wounded men and supplies was totally destroyed. Captain Abdul Quddus with about 40 men got separated from the main body. They fought their way south over 50 miles of Mukti Bahini-infested territory until their ammunition ran out. Second Lieutenant Munib Ahmed was surrounded by the enemy, who asked him to surrender. He refused and was killed. Pakistani losses during the breakout included 235 killed and 376 captured. Most of the casualties were among the paramilitary troops, while the bulk of 31 Baluch; about 500 men was able to break through the enemy cordon. At midday on 11 December, the battalion joined Headquarters 93 Brigade and 33 Punjab at Madhupur, from where they moved to Kaliakair about 30 miles north of Dhaka. On 13 December, 31 Baluch was ordered to take up defence on River Tungi outside Dhaka. But it was a futile exercise. By now the enemy was converging on Dhaka from all sides and on 16 December, Eastern Command surrendered to the Indians. But not before a firefight in the morning at River Tungi; a last act of defiance by 31 Baluch. During its stay in East Pakistan, the battalion suffered casualties of 101 fallen in the line of duty, including 3 officers and 3 JCOs, and 151 wounded including 5 officers and 2 JCOs. It was awarded 5 Sitara-i-Jurat and 4 Tamgha-i-Jurat for its glorious conduct.
In a war where so many behaved admirably, the officers and men of 31 Baluch stand out for their gallantry and fighting spirit, for which the nation owes them an eternal debt of gratitude.
1.) Matinuddin, Lt Gen Kamal, Tragedy of Errors: East Pakistan Crisis 1968-1971, Lahore: Wajidalis, 1994, p.116.
2.) Riza, Maj Gen Shaukat, The Pakistan Army 1966-71, Rawalpindi: Services Book Club, 1990, p. 86.
3.) Ahmad, Lt Col Rifat Nadeem, History of The Baloch Regiment, Abbottabad: The Baloch Regimental Centre, 2017, pp. 222-224.
4.) Singh, Maj Gen Sukhwant,India’s Wars since Independence, volume 1, New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1980, pp. 185-188.
5.) Ahmed, Brig Sultan, The Stolen Victory, Rawalpindi: Maktaba-Tul-Mukhtar, ND, pp. 220-222.