Crossing Meghna led to fall of Dhaka in 1971, share 4 officers

Ajay Banerjee
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 the Meghna river during the 1971 war with Pakistan, was the highlight of the concluding day of the 4th military literature festival on Sunday.

The annual event conducted in Chandigarh is being held ‘virtually’ this year due to the COVID-19 protocols.

Each officer narrated how the crossing across the Meghna river (Dec 9- Dec 15, 1971) was done while the Indian Army approached to encircle Dhaka (then known as Dacca) from the eastern flank. 

Interspersed with some thrilling anecdotes of the war and also the conduct of the 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 (CAFHR), under the USI.

Dhaka was then the capital of East Pakistan, the river Meghna was crossed by troops using helicopters while tanks forded across the strong currents leading to a hasty fall of the Pakistan Army.

Lt Gen SS Mehta who led first tank troop — using PT 76 tanks — into Dhaka termed this as victory of democracy over military rule and a victory of humanism over barbarism.

“The game changer was the helicopter-lift for crossing of troops and tanks by fording across the Meghna,” he later told the Tribune. The river has strong currents and is as wide as 15 km.

“The war was about liberation over occupation. Pakistan had occupied it (Bangladesh) and we have liberated them. 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 role.

The proof is that Bangladesh is a faster growing economy. “We captured Dhaka with just 3000 troops and 30,000 Pakistan Army surrendered”.

He recollected how his tank squadron was parked in the grounds of the Dhaka University and at its edge stood a 16th century Nanak Shahi Gurdwara which was damaged by Pakistan Army and its ‘granthi’ was killed. 

The gurdwara was refurbished and troops got in a new granthi too. The first speech of new leaders of Bangladesh in their officiating capacity was made from the gurdwara.

Lt GS Sihota was air operations pilot tasked with Gen Sagat Singh the 4 Corps Commander 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 ferry troops across the Meghna said the unit had 10 Mi-4 helicopters supplied by then USSR.

“In June 1971, I was told that I would be operating with the 4 Crops and asked to go and see General Sagat Singh, who then advised me to train for night flying.”

With just a navigation light, a small cockpit light and with no radio transmission permitted, the task was to coordinate the flying speed of the copters with accuracy to prevent any mid-air crashes. The training was done post-monsoons in 1971.

From December 9 to December 15, IAF helicopters lifted 6,000 men from the east bank of the Meghna and dropped them at the west bank of the river for the onward march to Dhaka, he said.

Maj Chandrakant Singh, who was in the infantry, described the battle of Akhaura as the toughest battle of the eastern sector. Akhaura is further east of Meghna and close to Tripura, India.

By December 6, the troops were moving towards the river line of Meghna.

“The planning to heli-drop troops was conveyed over night and it helped us push Pakistan further westwards towards Dhaka. Sagat Singh was clear in his mind that he would use helicopters in an offensive role”.

The moderator Squadron Leader Chhina, said these individuals on the panel shaped the destiny of three countries and the operation across the Meghna was a  daring plan which led to the fall of Dhaka.

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