1971 Debacle

Maj Rana Bilal Ahmed Shaheed, SJ: A Hero of the 1971 War

Maj Bilal belongs to a generation of young men who died for their country fighting for the unity of motherland in East Pakistan. The deck was heavily stacked against them but notwithstanding the odds, the officers and men fought and died courageously in a war far from home. They did not return and lie buried in unmarked graves. May have Allah shower his infinite mercy on their souls. 

I met Maj Bilal when I was a schoolkid, and he was a young captain in the special forces. I think the year should be 1968 or thereabouts. I was eleven years old and he 24. His elder sister was married to my father’s friend Mr. Subah Sadiq (SS for short) Hameed. Mr. Hameed was posted as manager of the State Bank’s Peshawar branch. He had a large house at Fort Road in the Cantonment near the cricket stadium.  We children always had a fun time in the large rambling lawn, playing cricket and hide and seek. The Hameed children: Saeed, Gul and Sameena, were the same ages as us (myself and my two younger sisters Sadaf and Humaira).  
I presume Maj Bilal Rana was deployed with special services at either Attock or Cherat at that time. I remember him as a dashing young officer. A few years later he was killed in action in the former East Pakistan in 1971. He was only 27 years old at the time. A grateful nation acknowledged his supreme sacrifice and awarded him the coveted gallantry award of Sitara-i-Jurat (Star of courage). 
I joined 7FF in 1976 and my acquaintance with Maj Bilal renewed. His portrait adorned the anteroom of the officers’ mess. Bilal Masjid in our company lines in Multan was constructed by funds provided by his mother and was a constant reminder that Maj Bilal belonged to our unit. Each rifle company vied for the award i.e., the Bilal banner. The best company proudly displays it in its lines.
Maj Bilal was born November 12, 1944 to Rana Sher Jang and his wife. His parents lived in Rana Mansion Block 2 Commercial Area, PECHS Karachi. He joined PMA in a regular course on November 23, 1961, twelve days after his seventeenth birthday. He was allotted GC No. 3024. Commissioned as a second lieutenant on April 19, 1964 after one-and-a-half year of training, he was given the Army No PA 6917. The last digit matched the unit he joined – the prestigious 7th battalion of the Frontier Force Regiment.  Bilal fought the 1965 War as a lieutenant and was promoted as a captain during the war. A few years later, he joined the SSG. After his basic training in Cherat, he was sent to the U.S. for an advance course.   
When the war of 1971 broke out, Maj Bilal was serving with 2 Commando battalion. As the situation deteriorated, his company was sent to East Pakistan to become part of 3 Commando battalion. On the 25th of March 1971, 3 Commando was tasked to apprehend Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from his Dhan Mandi residence in Dhaka. The operation was fraught with danger, but Maj Bilal and his platoon pulled off the mission with clockwork precision. Sheikh Mujib was whisked away to West Pakistan, he would return to Bangladesh and hailed as its founding father. While Maj Bilal would never return to Pakistan to the bosom of his family. 
The civil war in East Pakistan was actively supported by the Indians. After Pakistan Army had been suitably weakened fighting the Mukti Bahini, Indian army invaded East Pakistan on November 23, 1971. Maj Bilal’s depleted SSG company was employed for the protection of 39 (raised on ad hoc arrangements) Division. His ragtag band included naval ratings and sundry left-over elements were deployed in defending the Chandpur blocking position. He was killed in action on December 14, 1971 in aerial strafing on the naval gunboat that served as his company HQ, on the banks of the River Meghna in Chandpur district. The battlefield citation written by his GOC for the award of an SJ read:    
“On 5th December 1971, when the enemy columns had broken through our defences between Laksham and Comilla and were heading for the Divisional Headquarters and Chandpur base, there were no troops on defensive positions except small detachments on bridges between him and his objectives. At that critical stage approximately half a company of commandos under Major Bilal Ahmed was made available to my Division. This company was given the task of delaying the enemy’s advance consisting of strong outflanking foot columns of Indian Army and Mukti Bahini supported by thousands of locals acting as porters. Major Bilal fought the enemy columns for almost three days and nights with his very small force holding a front of 5-6 miles. He not only held the enemy away from Chandpur, but he inflicted serious casualties on him. His troops were separated in twos and threes over this large frontage and were being harassed in the rear by hostile local population. By being continuously on the move conducting raids and readjusting his positions, he fought numerous skirmishes with the enemy as well as the local population, but maintained an intact front and thereby succeeded in delaying the enemy till the night of 7/8th when final evacuation of Chandpur took place. Exhausted, hungry and continuously under enemy attacks, this officer showed determination and gallantry of the highest order. Despite the casualties being suffered by his small band, he fought rear guard action against vastly superior enemy columns over a distance of approximately 40 miles for about 72 hours gaining in valuable time for the evacuation of Chandpur base. But for his personal courage, continuously exposing himself to enemy fire and his daring raids, his small force would have melted, resulting in disaster in that sector. He displayed exemplary courage, determination and the will to fight on against great odds during a withdrawal which taxed the morale of his troops to the utmost but was sustained only by his personal example. 
He, unfortunately, was killed in enemy air attack soon after he had accomplished his mission. I strongly recommend him for a posthumous award of Sitara-i-Jurat.” 
An eyewitness account states: 
“Dear Tughral! I am an eyewitness to Maj Bilal’s shahadat. I was Adjutant 2 Commando Battalion at Dacca. On 13/14 night December 1971, I, with one Platoon, proceeded to Chandpur Ferry in a naval boat to reinforce Bilal's Jangju Company. On 14 December, at first light Indian Air Force attacked and strafed bullets on the gunboat in which Company HQ was located. When Indian Air Force came for a second round, Maj Bilal aimed his SMG at the attacking aircraft and fired. But unfortunately, we both got severely wounded due to bullets and the boat's collapse. From there our men evacuated us to CMH Dacca in a native power-boat. Bilal during evacuation succumbed to wounds and embraced shahadat. I remained in CMH Dacca and from there was evacuated to CMH Agra for subsequent treatment. This is an eyewitness account of my short stay with Bilal’s Jangju company. Regards, Col Zaffar Cheema (Retired). SSG/2 Cdo Bn.” (Received on November 5, 2020)
Obituary report of Col Suleiman SSG published in The News edition of  December 19, 2019 stated: During the war, SSG Commando Major Bilal Rana turned to his friend Col Suleiman and said, "Promise me one thing, take this grenade of mine and should the enemy get close, use the grenade but never be captured by them and one last thing, should you have a son, name him Bilal" and with this sentence, they both erupted with uncontrollable laughter. 
Col Suleiman was able to escape from East Pakistan and did not become a prisoner of war. True to his promise, he named his son Bilal and so did another coursemate, General Pervez Musharraf.  
Col Zaffar Cheema says that Maj Bilal is buried in the Army graveyard in Dhaka. He had visited the site in a subsequent visit to Bangladesh to attend the wedding of the daughter of a Bengali friend. The graves of the Pakistani soldiers in East Pakistan bear no markers. It is time that we reclaimed the graves of our fallen soldiers and accord them the respect that they deserve.

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]

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