Tribune News Service
New Delhi, December 20
A narration of personal experiences of four officers, who took part in the historic and one-of-its-kind crossing of Meghna river in East Pakistan during the 1971 war, was the highlight of the concluding day of the 4th Military Literature Festival on Sunday.
The annual event was held virtually in Chandigarh due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Each officer narrated how crossing the Meghna (December 9-15, 1971) was done while the Indian Army approached to encircle Dhaka (then Dacca) from the eastern flank. Interspersed with some thrilling anecdotes of the war and the conduct of 4 Corps Commander Lt Gen Sagat Singh, the session was moderated by Squadron Leader Rana TS Chinna, who is part of the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research.
Dhaka was then the capital of East Pakistan. Indian troops crossed the Meghna using helicopters while tanks forded across the strong current leading to a hasty fall of Dhaka.
Lt Gen SS Mehta, who led the first tank troop using PT-76 tanks into Dhaka, termed this as a victory of democracy over military rule and a victory of humanism over barbarism. In his opinion, the Indian Army played for manoeuvre over attrition. “They played to their plan, we played to ours. The result was Dhaka,” he said.
“The game changer was the helicopter-lift of troops and the crossing of the Meghna by tanks which forded across the river,” he later told The Tribune.
“The war was about liberation over occupation. Pakistan had occupied it (Bangladesh) and we liberated it. We did not stay beyond 90 days,” said General Mehta, who was commanding the 5th independent squadron of his regiment, the 63 Cavalry. The General, then a Major, did the task of making his squadron tanks cross the river using them in an amphibious mode.
“We captured Dhaka with just 3,000 troops and 30,000 personnel of the Pakistan army surrendered,” he said, recollecting how his tank squadron was parked in the grounds of Dhaka University and on its edge stood 16th century Gurdwara Nanak Shahi, which was damaged by the Pakistan army that also killed its granthi. The gurdwara was rebuilt and the troops brought a new granthi too. The first speech of new leaders of Bangladesh in their officiating capacity was made from the same gurdwara.
Lt Gen GS Sihota, who was air operations pilot tasked with Gen Sagat Singh, described how the operation was planned and how the general himself visited each spot to select the best possible location to cross the Meghna after several air reconnaissance sorties. “Sagat Singh could not accept defeat,” he said.
Group Captain CS Sandhu, who was commanding the 110 Helicopter unit of the IAF, was tasked with ferrying troops across the Meghna. He said the unit had 10 Mi-4 helicopters supplied by the then USSR. “In June 1971, I was told that I would be operating with the 4 Corps and asked to go and see General Sagat Singh who advised me to train for night flying. No radio transmission permitted. With just a navigation and a small cockpit light, the task was to coordinate the flying speed of the copters with accuracy to prevent mid-air crashes. The training was done after the monsoon in 1971,” he said.
From December 9-15, IAF helicopters lifted 6,000 men from the east bank of the Meghna and dropped them at the west bank for onward march to Dhaka, he said.
Maj Chandrakant Singh, who was in the infantry, described the battle of Akhaura as the toughest in the eastern sector. By December 6, the troops were moving towards the river line of the Meghna. “The planning to heli-drop troops was done overnight and it helped us push Pakistan further westwards towards Dhaka. Sagat Singh was clear that he would use helicopters in an offensive role,” he said.