Tales of valor need to be retold to revive faith in the fighting spirit of our army. The story of Jamalpur Fortress is one of such stories that reflects the true grit of the forgotten soldiers who fought and laid down their lives in former East Pakistan.
1971 was a troublesome time for the nation. East Pakistan was in the throes of civil war. The situation had become grave because the national leadership had failed to address the issues raised in the six-point demand of the Awami League. The party had won a landslide victory in the 1970 general elections and it was now expected to be asked to form the next government. Unfortunately, this genuine demand was not accepted and the decision to use force in order to suppress dissent was taken. This was a last-ditch effort that was bound to fail. The writing was on the wall. This was a doomed venture; East Pakistan was seething with unrest. It was more than a thousand kilometers away from West Pakistan and was surrounded by India on all sides. Only a 270 km border with Burma in the South could be considered safe.
To fight the Mukti Bahini (Indian trained force comprising local dissenters) and Indian Army that had started to build up on the borders, troops were rushed to East Pakistan on commercial flights. Since India had closed its airspace for Pakistan’s air traffic, the East Pakistan bound flights had to take the longer route via Sri Lanka. Ad hoc divisions were raised to beef up the defences and to fight the internal war. The army had to fight the internal war with one hand tied behind its back. The policy of the Eastern Command was to defend every inch of the territory in case of an Indian offensive, and fall back and defend Dhaka Bowl as a last resort. The hastily sent reinforcements were ill-equipped and ill-trained to fight a counterinsurgency battle. The soldiers disembarked from the planes with only small arms, and went into battle without air support and very little artillery or mortar support. They were not familiar with the terrain (riverine country). The loyalties of the local population were suspected because most of them were providing help and refuge to the secessionists, either out of fear or conviction. India was actively sponsoring the Muktis by training, equipping, and funding them.
Our story takes place in Jamalpur, a small town in the North of Dhaka. Distance from Dhaka to Jamalpur is 150 km. On a clear day with light traffic, it can take just one and a half hour of traveling time to reach it. The road passes through the towns of Mirpur (just outside Dhaka), Tongi, Tangail, and Madhupur. Jamalpur is part of Mymensingh Division and shares an International Border with the Indian state of Meghalaya in the Northeast. It is surrounded by Kurigram and Sherpur Districts in the North; Tangail District in the South; Mymensingh and Sherpur districts in the East; Jamuna River, Bogra, Sirajganj and Gaibandha districts in the West. Jamalpur town is situated on the Southern bank of River Brahmaputra and can be reached by road, river, and railway. The slowest journey is by a river ferry. There are two train routes to reach Jamalpur. One is from Dhaka to Dewanganj and another is from Dhaka to Tarakandi.
366 km towards the West is Hili, where a brave and determined company of 4 Frontier Force (FF) held off a brigade size attack for 14 days. The brave company commander, Major Akram, died in action and was awarded the highest gallantry award – Nishan-e-Haider.
The hero of our story, Lt Col Sultan Ahmed (retired as a Brigadier), took over the command of the battalion in Jamalpur on September 22, 1971. His inspiring command was acknowledged not only among the rank and file but also by the enemy. He was awarded a bar to his first Sitara-i-Jurat (SJ) that he had won in the 1965 War for his inspiring leadership.
Lt Col Sultan Ahmed was lucky to have a very brave team of intrepid men. These included Major Fazal-i-Akbar – his second-in-command (2IC), Major Mehr Muhammad, Major Muhammad Ayub Khan, SJ (shaheed), Captain Asan Siddique Malik, SJ (his gallantry was acknowledged by Field Marshal Manekshaw in an interview given to Karan Thapar on BBC), Lt Munir Ahmed Butt, SJ, Lt Muneeb Ahmed (shaheed), Captain Tauqeer Qamar, Captain Shamshad Ali, Lt Quddus, Lt Syed Ali Muhammad Shah, Lt Asad-ur-Rahman and Captain Javed Jalaluddin (popularly known as JJ). Two volunteer officers; Lt Abdul Naveed Qadeer (Artillery)1 and Lt Jahanzeb (Baloch Regiment), were attached with the unit for a tenure of three months and left just before the outbreak of the war. RMO Captain Jan-i-Alam, Major Javed Aziz – mortar battery commander (MBC), Captain Siddique GPO, Major Nadir (West Pakistan Rangers) and Raja Hasan Akhtar (the Commanding Officer’s (COs) cousin, who was in East Pakistan) also fought along with the battalion. Although Lt Col Sultan was very proud and fond of all his officers and men, he had a very high opinion of the bravery of Major Ayub (dubbed the sword of 31 Baloch). Major Ayub was buried where he fell. The Indians visited his grave after the cessation of hostilities and presented arms to honor their brave foe.
In September 1971, 31 Baloch was covering the Northern approach to the provincial capital – Dhaka. Its spread frontage was of about 65 km and its area of responsibility, extending roughly from Madhupur to Jamalpur, was flat and an open country. The unit had established four Border Outposts (BOPs) of a platoon strength, each deployed along the International Border. Each BOP was separated by 15 to 20 km, which was covered through patrolling. The battalion headquarter was at Jamalpur, and the headquarter of 27 Brigade was operating from Mymensingh. The unit was organized into five companies and had troops of civil armed forces (West Pakistan Rangers) under its command. The CO had appreciated that the enemy would cross the river upstream and attack from the South, following the Kamalpur-Bakhshiganj-Sherpur route. His analysis was based on the nature of the terrain. He was proven correct in his assessment. He had three BOPs (Kamalpur, Naqshi and Baramari) along the International Border and two company sized delaying positions at Jaggar Char, Karua and Riazabad. The troops from these positions were to fall back to Shergarh and Jamalpur Fortress.
Through his untiring efforts, Lt Col Sultan was able to improve his positions in a manner that the Indians could not penetrate from any direction after the war broke out. Although he was short of resources, he made use of everything available to make the defences impregnable. His Engineers officer, Lt. Ali Muhammad Bangash, provided him with good advice and support in the construction of the unit defences. Without any ‘defence brick’ at his disposal, he made use of the railway construction material and bricks piled up by the Building and Repair Department to strengthen his positions. The lack of anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines was made up by the ingenious use of abbattis (felled trees), punjis (bamboo sticks) and anti-tank ditches. To make up for the shortage of labor, he engaged with the locals and sought their willing support for the construction of bunkers and communication trenches. In this way, he was able to build up a warren of fighting and communication trenches. The defences were properly camouflaged and concealed but some decoy trenches were deliberately left uncovered so that the enemy air could waste their ammunition in targeting these decoy positions.
The routine in defence was very hectic even before the war broke out on the 3rd of December. The enemy had to be kept at bay. Their probing attacks, led by the Muktis, were to be frustrated and clearing operations had be carried out in the rear to keep the area clear of insurgents. On the night of December 8-9, as expected, the Indians attacked the positions of 31 Baloch from Southeast and the Southwest directions. Four Indian battalions (1st Marhata, 13 Guards, 1st Sikh Light Infantry and 6 Bihar) were part of the attacking force. Reportedly, Indian 95 Brigade was astride the road 2000 yards to the South of the Jamalpur Fortress, where the battalion was concentrated. On the evening of December 9, a local messenger (a bearded 60-year-old) came bearing a letter of the Indian Brigade Commander, Brigadier Hardit Singh Kler. The letter read:
Having read that letter, Lt Col Sultan composed a handwritten note that has now become a part of Pakistani military lore. It exhibits extreme composure in a desperate situation. Sultan made light of the threat and wrote back:
As the CO was about to return the letter to the messenger. Lt Asad came up with an idea:
“Sir, I think we should also enclose a bullet in the envelope.” This caught the fancy of the Colonel “Excellent idea”, the CO responded, and a bullet was made part of the letter to the enemy. The officers witnessing this episode broke into a hearty laughter. The messenger was seated comfortably and served tea before he departed carrying the letter and bullet.
Half an hour later, after the enemy was sent the brave reply, the unit received a coded message to withdraw and join up with 93 Brigade at Madhupur. Lt Munir was despondent and asked the CO why they should withdraw. The CO, understanding the implications of the order, explained to his perturbed officer: “You are not withdrawing; you are advancing. Finally, Eastern Command has decided to defend a smaller perimeter and we have to augment those defences.”
31 Baloch, under the dynamic leadership of Lt Colonel Sultan Ahmed, was able to break through the siege and march to Dhaka, where they were assigned a portion of the defensive around the city. But the war was over before a pitched battle could be fought to defend the Dhaka Bowl.4
The writer is a retired Brigadier and PhD. Presently he is the Associate Dean for Centre of International Peace & Stability (CIPS) at the National University of Sciences & Technology (NUST), Islamabad. He is also Honorary Colonel of the Battalion, 7FF Regiment.
E-mail: [email protected]
1. Col Naveed now lives in Islamabad and very graciously gave a lengthy interview to the author. He went to great lengths in describing the inspiring personality of the Commanding Officer (CO) Lt Col Sultan and how it electrified and motivated the rank and file of the unit to put up a brave fight. He also narrated his own adventure across the International Border when he and Lt Jahanzeb took a Bengali cook as a guide and two sections armed with LMGs and mortars to raid the Indian post across the Naqshi BOP. This bold action effectively silenced the Indians from pestering the Pakistani post. This act could have triggered a war and the CO was annoyed because the two subalterns hadn’t sought his permission. But, so as not to curb their initiative, he later patted them on the back and rewarded them with packets of Dunhill cigarettes, a great treat for a young officer in those days.
2. Wing Commander Abhinandan (IAF), whose aircraft was shot down in Azad Kashmir in February 2019 certainly liked his cup of tea and called it ‘fantastic.’
3. Fortress was underlined twice to emphasize the importance of it being strongly defended.
4. The material for this article is based on the book The Stolen Victory by Brig Sultan Ahmed (SJ and Bar) printed by Pakistan Post Foundation (second edition printed in 2018).
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