'You have been surrounded from all directions, if you want the safety of your troops and your personal safety, we will give you eight hours to make up your mind to surrender.'
Lieutenant General Ashoke K Chatterjee, former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Southern Command, speaks to Claude Arpi about the 1971 Bangladesh operations and his participation in the Surrender in Dacca.
General Chatterjee was then a young officer from the Sikh Light Infantry posted in the Eastern Command in Kolkata.
He had the privilege to accompany Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, the Eastern Army Commander, to Dacca for the surrender of the East Pakistan forces led by Lieutenant General A A K Niazi, the last governor of East Pakistan and commander of the Eastern Command of the Pakistan army.
General Chatterjee's direct boss was Major General 'Jack' Farj Rafael Jacob, the Chief of Staff of the Eastern Command.
It is a fascinating first-hand account.
In March 1971, I was a Lieutenant Colonel (GSO-I), meaning General Staff (Operations) - Grade 1.
At that time, a Lieutenant Colonel was looking after the entire operational aspect of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army.
Today, the same appointment has been upgraded to a Major General rank.
I was working under the Chief of Staff; every morning at 8 o'clock, I had to report to him and subsequently brief all the officers at the headquarters of the Eastern Command.
My briefing included internal security issues in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh [NEFA at that time], Mizoram as well as the situation on the China [Tibet] and Bhutan borders and on the East Pakistan front.
After this, I had to meet Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora, the Army Commander, along with General Jacob in a smaller gathering for a briefing regarding the happenings in East Pakistan.
General Jacob took a lot of interest in the planning of the operations, while General Aurora was more interested in preparing for the war.
The latter used to go on a round all the formations, the 4 Corps (in Tezpur), the 33 Corps (in Siliguri) and the 9 Mountain Division which was based in West Bengal.
[During these war games/briefings] for the Bangladesh operations, we decided to avoid hitting the enemy in conventional attacks.
The problem was that they were holding their defences on large obstacles, such as water courses, deep rivers, which we could not cross without specialised equipment.
Therefore, the idea was to always avoid these strong points, take a longer detour and come from the rear; cross smaller obstacles, not held by the enemy, and then maneuver.
By the time the Indian Army entered East Pakistan, the Mukti Bahini [the guerrilla resistance movement consisting of Bengali soldiers in the Pakistan military, paramilitary and civilians who fought for the liberation of Bangladesh] had created such a sense of fear among the Pakistan army and also the people supporting the Pakistan government, that psychologically we had already won the war.
At some stage, a Bangladesh government was formed in Kolkata; it was prior to our going into Bangladesh.
The Mukti Bahini had workers all around East Pakistan, starting from West Bengal, North Bengal, Cooch Bihar district, then in Assam, Sylhet border, Tripura border, Mizoram border, everywhere we had organised Mukti Bahini camps.
They would go in by night, raid the Pakistani strongholds and get back in the morning.
So, the Pakistani army was afraid of the Mukti Bahini and we realized they had lost faith and confidence in the locals, except for some Bengali people who still provided support to them.
By the time we went in, there was some opposition at Jessore in West Bengal sector, we also encountered opposition in the North, in the area of East Dimapur.
There was hardly any opposition in Khudmiya, same thing for Sylhet, but there was opposition at the Tripura border, when the Pakistanis had deployed the average of a brigade against a division of ours.
Our buildup took place and luckily we were on exterior lines, and they were fighting on internal lines, so our deployment had to be from multi directions along East Bengal border.
Our first thrust line moved in from Tripura, the Guards battalion crossed the river Meghna and then moved in right up to river line near Dacca.
This created a panic among the Pakistani army and subsequently the 8 Mountain Division came from Sylhet and closed in on Dacca.
The 33 Corps came from North Bengal, and 9 Division from West Bengal in Jessore sector. These morning briefings continued throughout the war.
We used to get 'sitreps' ('situation reports') and I used to go to the ops [operation] room at about 4 o'clock in the morning to get all the 'sitreps' speak to the general officers commanding the divisions and the Corps about important issues.
I remember General Sagat Singh, GOC 4 Corps, responsible for the two thrust lines on Dacca from the East.
Luckily for me, he was my instructor when I was doing my junior commander's course in Mhow [at the Army War College].
General Sagat always said: "Ok this is the story from my side, now you ring up the divisional commander and get his story too."
He was commanding 4 Corps, the 8 Mountain and 57 Mountain Division came under him; he was based in Agartala and that is how the 4 Corps came in from that direction.
Eventually the 4 Corps crossed the river, and they reached Dacca.
There was a Mukti Bahini force that came from Meghalaya, Foxtrot Sector, I don't remember now which force; it was commanded by the Shillong Area Commander.
General Sagat was given certain troops and the Mukti Bahini was put under his command.
They were the troops who entered Dacca first with the Mukti Bahini along with a platoon of the Indian Army which came from the north, from Shillong.
They crossed the hills and just came down.
And when they reached the outskirts of Dacca, the 57 Mountain Division had crossed the river Meghna. There was really a panic among the Pakistan army.
Preparations for the Surrender
Soon after, General Jacob drafted a beautiful letter for General Niazi.
In his letter, General Jacob mentioned: 'You have been surrounded from all directions, if you want the safety of your troops and your personal safety, we will give you eight hours to make up your mind to surrender.'
This was, I think on December 9; General Niazi was then in Dacca.
Pressure was being built on him from international groups also and then ultimately on December 12, he agreed.
On December 13, the surrender papers were drafted in Calcutta and on 14th morning along with the Army Commander, we were to fly into Dacca where the ceremony was to take place.
My overall impression is that the Pakistan army had no will to fight.
They were encouraging the Razakars [an anti-Bengali paramilitary force organised by the Pakistan army in East Pakistan] to create atrocities on the civilian population, which they felt would affect the Bangladesh volunteers [the Mukti Bahini], who after March 1971 had come across the border to India and were operating under India's control.
The role of the Razakars was revealed to me only after the signing of the surrender document, I put this together after talking to many Pakistani officers of rank of brigadier and generals...
The next day, I was told by my Army Commander [General Aurora], "You will represent me in Dacca."
At the time of the Surrender, Major General Sarkar, who was the head of the civil administration of the Mukti Bahini, became the civil administrator on behalf of the Eastern Command.
So the responsibilities were divided between General Sarkar and myself.
I was to look after the military aspect; he looked after the civil side.
Military aspect meant that India did not want to get committed to restoring law and order in Bangladesh.
The Indian forces in Bangladesh had come from our northern borders, from Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura.
Because we went in the month of December, we thought that in March, with spring, the Chinese border could get activated, so the idea was to complete the operation quickly so that the Indian troops could then go back to their original task.
There was not much threat from the Chinese, they moved near our border, but they did not cross it.
All the major mountain passes in Sikkim, or Arunachal Pradesh, including Nathu-la [in Sikkim] and Jelep-la [in West Bengal] were closed due to heavy snow fall.
The Set-up for the Surrender
The ceremony of the Surrender was very interesting.
General Niazi had agreed to surrender on the December 12.
He had got the clearance from his government in West Pakistan.
The United Nations had also intervened; they put pressure on Western Pakistan leaders to surrender.
Having decided that, we formulated the surrender text the next morning, not only with army lawyers, but also with the leading Kolkata lawyers including one of the high court judges.
They all sat to make the surrender papers.
On December 15, it was cleared by the Army Headquarters in Delhi.
On December 16 morning, we left from the Eastern Command Headquarters in Calcutta to the airport by helicopter and then used a Dakota plane to reach Dacca; General Jacob, General Aurora, his wife and me.
We landed at Dacca and from there we drove by road.
After the surrender ceremony, the Army Commander with his wife returned to Calcutta the same evening.
General Jacob too returned the same day.
As we arrived, the Bangladeshis, the civilians, were very excited; there was a surge of people; the ceremony took place at the heart of Dacca city, on the Dacca polo ground.
On one side was the university, on another side was the famous Kali Mandir, and on yet another side was the secretariat building, all these places were surrounding the polo ground; it was something like in Kolkata where you have the Eden gardens or in New Delhi, Rajpath, with greenery all around.
Such was the setting at the polo ground in Dacca where the ceremony took place.
It was late in the evening and luckily, Generals Aurora and Jacob had flown on a fixed wing aircraft, which could fly even at night.
And at the point of time, General Sagat, who had crossed the river from the East, was also in Dacca.
His responsibility was to look after the military affairs in the city of Dacca, though ultimately after three or four days, he was requested to go back to his headquarters in Tripura and I was instructed to stay behind to represent the Eastern Command in Dacca.
General Sagat had also to initiate a headquarters for the civil administration of Bangladesh; high court judges of Bangladesh, police officers, magistrates, commissioners, deputy commissioners were brought in for administering and restoring the civil administration as fast as possible.
The Ceremony of Surrender
We were late by about by seven minutes. I think the Surrender was to take place at 5 o'clock in the evening. General Niazi, General Jacob, Vice Admiral Nilakanta Krishnan [Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command], and Air Marshal Hari Chand Dewan, in charge of the Eastern Air Command, were there along with General Niazi, waiting for General Aurora, the Eastern Army Commander.
[On behalf of Bangladesh, Group Captain A K Khandker acted as witness to the surrender. Lieutenant General Sagat Singh, Commander of the Indian IV Corps, Air Marshal Dewan, Major General J F R Jacob, Chief of Staff of the Eastern Command, acted as witnesses on behalf of India.]
When we drove in and the Bengalis saw General Aurora and his wife coming, the entire population broke loose and came to try to hug them.
As a result, we were so scared; we were not used to such a large crowd and our four military police chaps could hardly keep our group away from the crowd.
General Aurora told me: "Ashoke, look after my wife and stay with the military police." Ultimately, we went and witnessed the ceremony; it lasted about 15 minutes.
The moment General Aurora went there, he told General Niazi, "You sign the surrender papers." General Niazi said Yes", saluted and signed.
I think Major General Rao Farman Ali (he was later accused to be a 'conspirator' of the civil war in East Pakistan and one of persons directly responsible for committing the mass atrocities) was also there from Pakistani side, and a major general, who was the chief of staff was there too.
At that time, General Niazi was already under arrest.
Rear Admiral Mohammad Shariff, commander of the Pakistani naval Eastern Command and Air Vice-Marshal Patrick D Callaghan of the Pakistan air force's Eastern Air Force Command, who also signed the Surrender.
By that time the Pakistani army operating in Bangladesh were all prisoners of war, they were all disarmed.
On the December 12 itself they had surrendered and we disarmed them.
If you had been leading us
Later, I was given the bungalow of a Pakistani major general, I don't remember his name now; he used to be a civil administrator, he used to represent General Niazi, just like General Sagat used to represent the Eastern Command.
He was from General Niazi's headquarters.
He was commanding eastern command for the Pakistani side. After he was taken prisoner of war and sent to the PoW camp.
I occupied his house. Surprisingly his private staff, who cooked, looked after the garden, washed the clothes, etc, was all Bengali.
They provided this service to him; when I came they jumped and said: "You are our saviour, we will do whatever you want." It was perhaps why this house was allotted to me.
While I lived in that house, they cooked for me; I was there for about eleven days after the surrender.
Interestingly, after the fourth day, the prisoners of war had to be given some exercise, so the jawans were made to clean the roads, under guard of course.
Since I was in the general's accommodation, (with a huge lawn and a garden, December is the flowering season in Bengal, there were lovely flowers, roses, etc), I sent a request for a working party to clean up the place on a daily basis.
And after two days a Pakistani JCO [Junior Commissioned Officer] came up and reported to me: "The working party has come to clean your house," he said.
After they had finished, I offered them a cup of tea, something we normally do (whenever a working party comes, they are given a cup of tea).
Half-way they take a break, are given tea, then they go again to work.
When I offered tea, the JCO was so overwhelmed that a colonel could offer a cup of tea to a prisoner of war, he came to me with tears in his eyes and said: "Sir, we would never have lost, if we had been with us, leading us, if army officers like you, like the Indian army officers had led us."
"Our officers were corrupt; they were indulging in making money, in womanising. We would never have lost the battle with officers like you."
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com