Gurkha From Kargil - II

Major General Syed Ali Hamid tells the story of an exceptional commando: Major Kazim, Sitara-e-Jurat

Gurkha From Kargil - II
Note: This is the second of a three-part series on Major Kazim, who was awarded a Sitara-e-Jurat in 1964 and died a hero’s death in East Pakistan in 1971. He earned the nickname of “Gurkha” probably due to the mountainous region from which he came and his height of one-and-a-half metres

Major Kazim’s long and rewarding tenure with 10th AKRF Battalion ended after the 1965 War when he was posted to the Regiment Center at Mansar Camp near Attock.  From here he transferred to 12th AKRF which mobilized for East Pakistan in mid-1971. He had been engaged a year before, but broke it off when he became aware that the battalion was leaving for a conflict zone. The unit sailed for Chittagong but Kazim followed later because a brother-in-law was killed in a road accident, leaving behind a very young family. It was November and the situation in the Eastern Wing was volatile but he could hear “the call of distant drums”, and boarded one of the last PIA flights before the airspace closed over East Pakistan. The “Gurkha” as Kazim was called by his friends because of his short height, was again heading into the line of fire.

His battalion was under the command of 27 Brigade which was defending the approach to Dhaka from the west, opposite the Indian town of Agartala. The brigade had two-and-a-half infantry battalions: 12 Frontier Force, 33 Baloch and 12 AK less two companies. It was supported by ten artillery guns, a platoon of antitank recoilless rifles (RRs) and two troops of M24 Chaffee light tanks that had been pulled out of storage in Dhaka. It also had a number of companies of Civil Armed Forces (CAF) comprising of Frontier Scouts and police airlifted from West Pakistan, as well as local Razakar and Mujahid units whose performance was inconsistent during the war.

The railway bridge over the River Meghna at Ashuganj that was demolished on the morning of the 9th of December 1971

Indian and Bangladeshi sources make much of the defeat of the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan. However, not only did many of its brigades and units perform exceptionally well, they also preserved their cohesion and discipline in an environment where a lesser force could have simply disintegrated. The brigade had been in operation since late September when – through the deployment of Bengali rebels – the Indian Army attempted to wear down the Pakistani forces through raids and occupying enclaves on the frontier. From then until the end of the war, 27 Brigade’s performance was exemplary. Nothing less could be expected of a formation led by Brigadier Saadullah Khan, an outstanding officer who had earned the Sword of Honour. After the war he was bestowed the Hilal-e-Jurat, Pakistan’s second highest gallantry award. In his book East Pakistan to Bangla Desh, he accuratly narrates the brigade’s operations after it arrived in East Pakistan in April 1971 and provides a detailed insight into the Battle of Ashuganj.

When the Indians invaded East Pakistan on the 30th of November, they threw the full weight of a brigade against two 12 FF companies defending a border position at Akhaura with the backing of a few recoilless rifles and two tanks. The Indian brigade of three regular battalions was assisted by two battalions of rebels, and supported by a squadron of amphibious PT-76 tanks, the entire divisional artillery of 72 guns and the Indian Air Force. With their ever-present brigade commander, the two FF companies held this large force at bay for five days. This was no mean feat, and the story of this engagement deserves to be told separately.

Brig Saadullah Khan as a lieutenant colonel commanding the 14th Punjab, circa 1967

When the Indians finally outflanked their position, 12 FF conducted a fighting withdrawal to Brahman Baria defended by 33 Baloch. In order to provide a passage for troops expected to withdraw from Sylhet in the north, for two days they held the Indians at Braham Bari. However, when it was decided to transport them by steamers, 27 Brigade fell back to protect Ashuganj and the one-kilometer-long rail bridge over the River Meghna.

The Indians were emboldened by the rapid withdrawal of 27 Brigade but they had a problem. Their guns were held up by the channels of River Titas and to their subsequent ill luck, an artillery round destroyed the team for directing air strikes. From the rapid disengagement by 27 Brigade the Indians misjudged that it was disorganized and retreating across the river. They decided that their PT-76 tanks which had swum across the Titas could compensate for the absence of fire support, but they were mistaken. Additionally, they failed to appreciate that their troops were relatively green, while the Pakistani brigade had been involved in skirmishes since September. Each fifth man in its regular battalions had been either killed or injured. The Indian 57 Infantry Division commanded by Major General B.F. Gonsalves was in for a shock.
Kazim kept inspiring his men till he was mortally wounded in the chest and neck. With his last breath he shouted, “I am dying but carry on and finish the devils”

27 Brigade withdrew from Brahman Baria along the railway line that was converted with a Herculean effort into a roadway by removing 10 km of track and sleepers. Saadullah reckoned that the Indians would use the same approach and 3 km ahead of Ashuganj, he deployed 33 Baloch with a screen of a depleted company of 12 AK and CAF. A second company commanded by Major Kazim, who was also the acting commander of 12 AK, held the railway embankment near the Ashuganj Station – the last line of defense before the bridge. Two 12 FF companies went back across the river to secure a large supply dump, but Saadullah felt very comfortable with the remaining two companies as his reserve. This did not last however, because they were also withdrawn for Dacca’s defense leaving the brigade and Ashuganj dangerously vulnerable. The most exposed side was the town north of the railway line occupied by four CAF companies. They crumbled when an outflanking manoeuver struck them unexpectedly on the 9th of December.

On the 8th of December the Indians resumed their advance from Brahman Baria. 57 Division had taken eight days to penetrate only 14 km, against a Pakistani brigade that was low in number but high in fighting spirit. The Indians quickly pushed the screen back, but it wasn’t till midday that their tanks appeared in front of 33 Baloch and its two RRs. The RR had limited range but its 106 mm caliber gun could pulverize the light Indian tanks. A couple of rounds from the RRs and the PT-76s veered off into a clump where they were harassed by the battalion mortars. The brigade did not want to expose their guns at this early stage of the battle. Later in the day there was the rumble of tanks to the northeast and worried about this open flank, the commander deployed a screen in Durgapur of a platoon reinforced with CAF.

Ashuganj Railway Station looking west towards the bridge over the River Meghna. The HQ of 27 Brigade was located at the grain silo on the left

For the rest of the day there was little Indian action but around 8 a.m. next morning on the decisive day of 9 December, there was again the sound of tanks heading towards the screen in Durgapur. A little later, the brigade commander who spent the night with 33 Baloch, received an alarming message from his headquarters. The Indians had penetrated Ashuganj and the GOC wanted him to return with a 33 Baloch company. The battle for Ashuganj was on. Without waiting for the company to assemble, Saadullah rushed back and on the way was alarmed to see the screen at Durgapur falling back. A large body of Indian troops approaching the railway embankment through Ashuganj was also visible. Saadullah acknowledges that on three accounts he had miscalculated. First, the Indian advance from Brahman Baria accelerated by the rebels carrying their supplies, had arrived a day earlier than expected. Secondly, the Indians had outflanked his brigade from the north and thirdly, he relied too much on the strength of Ashuganj’s built-up area and the CAF troops now driven out by the Indians. Saadullah was still 1,000 meters short of Major Kazim’s company and with the troops who had fallen back from the screen, engaged the Indian battalion from the railway embankment.

Three Indian prongs were closing in – 4th Guards along the railway track, 10th Bihar in the middle down the road from Sylhet, and the 18 Rajputana Rifles (Raj Rif), through Ashuganj. At this juncture, I am going to refer to a post by Shahzaman Mozumder that appears on his blog site with the title “Born for 71.” He was a college student who joined the Mukti Bahini rebels, and was in the front line with a rebel battalion that was following 10th Bihar. According to him, when the Raj Rif ejected the CAF from Ashuganj, they were engaged from the railway embankment and took casualties. The leading company was pinned down and a second company that passed through, lost their company commander and men when they came under fire from the railway station. While trying to extricate the first two and get to the bridge, the next two companies met the same fate. The absence of artillery support was telling and the entire battalion was pinned down. Indian aircraft were circling overhead but without the aid of an air controller, they couldn’t discern friend from foe. This was fortunate for the very exposed Pakistani troops on the embankment.

Major General B. F. Gonsalves, GOC 57 Indian Mountain Division, whose battalions were routed during the Battle of Ashuganj, examining Pakistani documents

Kazim’s company took the brunt of the attack. He was aware that the embankment was the linchpin of the brigade’s defence and moved along the trenches, encouraging his men. The Indians had almost reached the bridge when Munir, the Staff Captain followed by Sarfraz, the brigade major along with runners, clerks and signalers of the brigade headquarter located at a grain silo 400 meters behind, rushed to the embankment. They were joined by the GOC who directed the fire of his artillery. Kazim grabbed a light machinegun and entered the firefight when the situation became bleak. In the words of his brigade commander, “12 AK troops fought gloriously and tenaciously”. No greater praise can be offered to his soldiers by a commander.

In spite of being shot in the thigh, Kazim kept inspiring his men till he was mortally wounded in the chest and neck. With his last breath he shouted, “I am dying but carry on and finish the devils”. Seeing both the GOC and Brigadier Saadullah on the embankment more soldiers rallied to the defence and the Indians started suffering heavier casualties. Around 10:00 am there was a massive explosion as the GOC ordered the span of the railway bridge to be demolished but the Pakistani troops did not panic. They were too immersed in the fire fight. While standing next to the GOC, Sarfraz was hit in the neck and gasping for breath, collapsed in a pool of blood. He recovered miraculously after a doctor removed blood clots and restored his breathing. He was subsequently awarded a Sitara-e-Jurat and attained the rank of lieutenant general. The attack had been checked by the determined defense. In the words of the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo, it was, “A damn close-run thing”.

The Indians had made a bold but careless attempt against what they presumed were only covering troops on the eastern end of the bridge. The Raj Rif was taking serious casualties and under heavy small arms and artillery fire, its soldiers started pulling back. Back to Shahzaman who termed the subsequent events as catastrophic:

“18 Rajput was in deep trouble and rapidly started taking casualties. As soon as it tried to withdraw, the Pakistanis, emboldened that they had the upper hand, started chasing the now disorganized Indian troops. A few Pakistani jeeps with recoilless rifles (RCL) suddenly appeared. The first one got a direct hit from an Indian PT-76 tank and was knocked out. However, the other RCLs very quickly knocked down three tanks in front of our eyes. The Pakistanis, now encouraged by their initial success, came out from their hidden positions; shouting ‘Ya Ali! Ya Ali!’ charged the retreating and disorganized Indians. There was complete chaos among the Indian troops. Some took position in the cover-less terrain and started shooting at the Pakistanis, while others started retreating in panic.”

Sadly, Kazim had not survived to witness this spectacle but his stand unto death had not been in vain.

There is a quote attributed to Napoleon, the great captain of war: “In every battle there is a moment in which the least maneuver is decisive and gives superiority, as one drop of water causes an overflow.”

Saadullah had the ability to identify and seize the moment. The counterattack did not begin as a deliberate and well organized affair but with what Saadullah describes as a “sally”. Grabbing a rifle, he led 10 to 15 soldiers through a culvert on the embankment and to their extreme luck, just then an M-24 tank sent by the GOC arrived, along with 15 soldiers of its close protection group. It too followed and in the words of the brigadier, “stole a march by subsequently leading the assault”. The M24 has a relatively small 75 mm caliber gun, but with 48 rounds of high explosive ammunition and three machineguns, it can be very effective against infantry. Blasting at the Indian trenches with its main gun and spraying the area with its machineguns, the M24 was followed by the Pakistani soldiers shouting their battle cry. It was a drop of water but caused an overflow and the Raj Rif began to crumble as the Pakistani infantry advanced in short rushes from one cover to the next.

Elated by this, the company of 12 AK, also crested the embankment and as the sally transformed into a counterattack, the troops were delighted to see the Raj Rif rapidly abandon its trenches. Even its soldiers who had been bypassed, ran. Apparently yet another Indian battalion that had been ordered to close up to the bridge after Ashuganj had been taken, took to flight. By the time the counterattack reached the furthest end of Ashuganj, most of the Pakistani soldiers were running out of ammunition and some were using the small arms abandoned by the Indians.  However, there was more to follow. As the brigadier and his group headed back through Ashuganj flushing out the remaining Indians by shouting battle cries, two companies of 33 Baloch, withdrawing along the railway line, swung north and began pursuing 10th Bihar as well as their tanks – all infected by panic of the Raj Rif. It’s dangerous when panic sets in and infuses wild excitement among the hounds chasing their quarry. Everyone was joining into the pursuit including the soldiers from the administrative echelon. Even the jeep and ambulance drivers enjoyed the chase in their vehicles and called on others to join it. Unable to withdraw in a hurry, some of the Indian crews abandoned their tanks.

The last episode in this affair is of two 33 Baloch officers with ten soldiers who had reached the farthest in the pursuit. They emerged from a clump of trees and found 300 disconcerted soldiers of the Raj Rif milling around. The Indians raised their hands instinctively, but when they realized it was only a small group of attackers, some yelled, “Take hold of them. They’re only ten.” The Pakistanis fired and pell-mell the Raj Rif fled again. That night, after immobilizing the Indian tanks they had captured, 27 Brigade crossed over to Bhairab Bazar in good order and buried their fallen comrades. They also buried the bodies of five unfortunate soldiers they found tide up and shot in Ashuganj. This was not the first time they had seen evidence of Indian brutality with PoWs.

What do Indian authors say? Major General Ashok Verma wrote an article on the 41st Anniversary of the blowing of the Meghna Bridge. He commanded the battalion of the Raj Rif which bolted and precipitated a general rout but glossed over that fact. “After fighting through the built up portion of Ashuganj,” he writes, “The battalion got close enough to the Bridge to make the GOC of the Pakistani Division panic. He hastily ordered the blowing up of the Mehgna Bridge at both ends. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s 27 Brigade, finding itself bypassed, fell back and then counter-attacked the threatening Rajputs.” He does not elaborate on the impact of the counterattack and I wonder how long he took to reassemble his errant unit? In a more recent study by Arjun Subramaniam titled India’s Wars, the author briefly concedes a “spirited resistance by 27 Brigade” but makes no mention of the two companies that held an entire Indian brigade at Akhaura for five days. He refers to the Pakistanis withdrawing across the river in the face of “fierce assaults” (a highly exaggerated statement), by two Indian brigades and what he considers a “riveting account” of Lieutenant General Shamsher Mehta who commanded the squadron of PT-76s. I have not read the General’s account but I wonder if it includes how the RRs of 27 Brigade mauled his squadron?

General Sir Ian Hamilton who commanded the Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli in World War I put it this way:

“On the actual day of battle, naked truths may be picked up for the asking; by the following morning they have begun to get into their uniforms.”

Nevertheless, as historians document and compile/verify individual battle accounts, reality emerges and the true heroes shine. A more accurate account of the battle around Ashuganj is by the Indian author Major General Gurcharan Singh Sandu. In his history of the Indian Armored Corps, he mentions the withdrawal of the Raj Rif while it repeatedly appealed for assistance from the tanks, the “pressure” on 10th Bihar, the loss of three PT-76s to the RRs and the abandonment of a fourth, and the destruction of one Pakistani RR. Finally, in a fairly accurate account in his book Indian Army after Independence, Major Praval describes the operation of the 57th Indian Mountain Division but when it comes to the final stage of the battle of Ashuganj he also stumbles. “As at Kushtia,” he writes, “the Pakistanis let the Indians come into the built-up areas and then opened up. The brigade lost 120 men and 4 tanks. About this time 10 Bihar also arrived from the North and both battalions had to fall back”. Falling back is a diplomatically mild term for a rout.

Major Kazim’s last resting place remained unrevealed for the next 40 years along with 43 other martyrs of his battalion. And then according to his brother Qasim, came “Divine intervention” – an act of God that did good.  n

(To be continued)

The author is indebted to Major Qasim for providing him documents and  photographs and sharing personal recollections that made this article possible. He also wishes to thank his neighbour and friend Ali Bilgrami, who first suggested that he write about Major Kazim