In democratic India, political leadership led the way, and the soldiers followed
By Col. H.V. Sharma
The principle of political control of armed forces is vested in the concept of representative democracy. Thus parliament is supreme and controls the defence and security apparatus including the military leadership. Democratic control should always be a two-way process between armed forces and society. This article is devoted to briefly discussing the contribution of the Indian defence forces in the country’s defence since 1947 and describing the unique rescue of the family of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. The family included Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh since 2009.
The contribution of the Indian defence forces can broadly be divided into two phases. The first phase which lasted upto the India-China war of 1962 and the second phase thereafter.
Jawaharlal Nehru had reportedly asked a British general to put up a paper on how to disband the Indian defence forces. The general enquired if the prime minister was serious.
The contribution of the defence forces upto the India-China war of 1962
Soon after independence Pakistan attacked Kashmir using Pashtun militia to prevent the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India. The war started on 22 October 1947 and ended on 5 January 1949. India was the clear victor. However, surprisingly, India approached the United Nations for mediation. Despite this aggression by Pakistan, immediately after independence the process of the degradation of armed forces commenced. It started from the top political leadership. The then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had reportedly asked a British general to put up a paper on how to disband Indian defence forces. The general was surprised and enquired if the prime minister was serious. Fortunately, this did not happen. Though the armed forces were pushed back as far as order of precedence is concerned. The salaries of Indian commissioned officers were reduced substantially though it remained the same for the King Commissioned Indian officers! Mr. Nehru did not visualise any role for the defence forces and wanted the Army to contribute to development of the nation by engaging them in farming. This phase of neglect continued till the India-China war of 1962 in which the Indian Army was thrashed badly by China. An area of 38000 sq km, including Aksai Chin, was ceded to China. In hindsight, we should be thankful to China for opening the eyes of the then political leadership.
Indian Defence Forces in Peace-Keeping Missions
Fortunately, this dark phase too had a silver lining, as India contributed to the UN peace-keeping missions. India’s role in Congo was especially lauded by one and all. However, the politically motivated, forced peace-keeping mission in Sri Lanka from July 1987 to March 1990 badly backfired resulting in 1165 personnel killed and 3009 others wounded.
Indian Defence Forces Post-1962 India-China War
The second phase was marked by increased defence budget under then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who had also coined the famous slogan of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” in 1965 Indo-Pak war. Although we won the war on the ground, the Tashkent agreement forced us back into pre-war status for both the countries, and we lost the advantage gained in the war. However, the moral victory was of Indian defence forces as they not only gave ‘a bloody nose’ to Pakistan army equipped with Patton tanks and F86F Sabre fighter from United States but also washed away the blemish of the 1962 debacle. The lightweight Gnats of IAF earned the name “Sabre Slayers” and remain a legend to this day!
The Glorious Victory
The glorious moment of Indian defence forces came in the 1971 Indo-Pak war, when in an intense fight of 13 days, Indian defence forces dismembered Pakistan and created Bangladesh, a new nation. The crowning glory was surrender of East Pakistan army command led by General AAK Niazi along with over 90,000 soldiers to Indian Army Commander General J S Arora. This is one of the biggest ever surrenders by a professional Army in the history of the world.
Major Tara had gained the psychological edge and the guard commander agreed to surrender. Major Tara went inside the house and met Mrs Mujibur Rahman and the children.
In fact, post-1971 war, all other operations and attempts at war by Pakistan have been to somehow ‘wash away’ the defeat of 1971 war. The entire insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir is sponsored by Pakistan with the aim to give India a festering wound. The Siachen glacier operations and holding of glacier is a huge economic burden on India. The Kargil war was another botched attempt by the Pakistan army in 1999. The Uri success of Pak-sponsored militants was blunted by a bold government with strong leadership by carrying out a surgical strike at Balakot. The modernization as well as indigenisation of the Indian defence forces is going on in an earnest way for last few years.
The Rescue of Family of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Now, I would like to narrate a rare contribution by a Major of Indian Army which had an extraordinary impact on the new-born nation, Bangladesh. The incident occurred at Dacca on 17 December 1971.
14 Guards, the infantry battalion at Dacca, received information that the family of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, under house arrest by Pakistani army, was likely to be killed. The commanding officer asked Major Ashok Kumar Tara to go and check. 14 Guards had successfully captured Gangasagar prior to the move to Dacca. Major Tara was awarded Vir Chakra for his gallant action in the Battle of Gangasagar!
Actual action of the Unbelievable Rescue
Major Tara with two jawans moved to the place where family of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was under house arrest. He noticed a crowd approximately 200 m short of the house. Nearby a car was there and a dead body was lying in the car. The crowd warned Major Tara not to go ahead or Pakistani soldiers would kill him as they had killed the person in the car, probably a journalist who did not pay heed to the warnings by Pakistani soldiers. Major Tara decided to leave the soldiers accompanying him and he also left his weapon with them. He was in his battle uniform. He started moving towards the house. When he was 100 m from the house, he could see the sentry at the gate as well as soldiers on top of the roof. The sentry was carrying his loaded rifle. The sentry shouted at Major Tara and asked him not to move ahead or he would shoot him. Major shouted back saying that he is an Indian army officer and want to talk to his guard commander. The sentry said that he will check up. The sentry went inside and came back and shouted that guard commander doesn’t want to talk to him. In this period, Major Tara had moved ahead and was close to the gate. Sentry shouted that he should not move ahead, or he will shoot him. However, Major Tara continued walking and reached the gate. He stopped there. The sentry put the bayonet on his neck with finger on the trigger and asked him to raise his hands. Major Tara raised his hands and shouted so that the entire guard could listen, “Look Pakistani army has surrendered. You surrender to me, and I promise you safe passage wherever you want to go. If you kill me, the Indian Army will kill all of you.” By this time guard commander got engaged in talks and said they don’t trust that Pakistani army has surrendered. As per Major Tara, the sentry was shivering, and he worried that he might fire in panic. So Major Tara quietly and gently moved the bayonet from his neck and let the barrel of the rifle point towards the ground. Fortunately, at this time an Indian army helicopter flew over that area. Major Tara did a quick thinking and taking advantage of the situation shouted, “Look at the sky, that is an Indian Army helicopter. If you don’t surrender you will never be able to meet your wife and children who are waiting anxiously in West Pakistan. I am also from West Pakistan, my parents moved from Rawalpindi to India. If you surrender, I will ensure no harm comes to you. Otherwise, your children will be orphaned forever.” By this time Major Tara had gained the psychological edge and the guard commander agreed to surrender. Major Tara went inside the house and met Mrs Mujibur Rahman and the children. They started crying and thanked him profusely. They informed him that there was grave risk to their life, and they could have been killed by Pakistan soldiers anytime. Major Tara provided security to the family. He kept his promise of escorting Pakistan soldiers to their headquarters without harming them. What a heroic deed ! Unheard of and unparalleled!
The Uri success of Pak-sponsored militants was blunted by a bold government with strong leadership by carrying out a surgical strike at Balakot.
Surprisingly, Major Tara was never rewarded or awarded anything for this wonderful and daring act by the Army or the Indian government! The daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, Sheikh Hasina specially invited Col Tara to Dhaka in 2012 after becoming prime minister and conferred upon him one of the highest civilian awards of Bangladesh, called“Friends of Bangladesh Liberation War”. Any recognition or appreciation by our government or Indian Army is still awaited!
The New Era
Indian defence forces are undergoing restructuring and modernization. They are battle hardened and respected all over the world. Pakistan is silenced in more ways than one.
China probed Indian Army last year at Galwan Valley at Ladakh. However, swift and effective action by the Indian Army came as a big surprise not only to China but to the entire world. No country or nation can survive in the modern world without strong defence forces. A country like India with 1.36 billion population and 15200 km of borders including 3488 km with China and 3323 km with Pakistan cannot afford to let its guard down. More than defence commanders, the political leadership needs to realise this fact, and continue necessary support by providing adequate defence budget and other resources to ensure state-of-the-art weapons, equipment and technology to the defence forces. The Indian defence forces have contributed tremendously in ensuring integrity of the nation by thwarting all external attempts as well as maintaining internal security by taking on militants in Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and many North-Eastern states. Indian defence forces have not only ensured sanctity of our borders and peace within India, but also rescued the future of the neighbouring friendly country of Bangladesh.
The author is a 1980 batch infantry officer from Mahar regiment. He commanded an Assam Rifles battalion at Mon district of Nagaland.
He took early retirement in 2007 and has worked in different organisations.