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  Books   15 Jul 2023  Book Review | How BSF was the first to launch the war to liberate Bangladesh

Book Review | How BSF was the first to launch the war to liberate Bangladesh

Published : Jul 16, 2023, 12:07 am IST
Updated : Jul 16, 2023, 12:07 am IST

The book is dotted with the untold story of BSF heroes who were the first to extend the hand of friendship to the rebels against Pakistan.

Cover photo of 'India’s Secret War: BSF and Nine Months to the Birth of Bangladesh' by Ushinor Majumdar. (Photo by arrangement)
 Cover photo of 'India’s Secret War: BSF and Nine Months to the Birth of Bangladesh' by Ushinor Majumdar. (Photo by arrangement)

Every December 16, at least for the last 25 years, I have braved the nip in the winter air and religiously made my way to Kolkata’s Fort William at the dot of 8. At 9, a poignant ceremony would unfold to honour the martyrs of the Indian Army in the 1971 war of liberation of Bangladesh. Once the bugles fell silent, it was time for tea on the lawns behind the memorial where I would meet retired soldiers of the Indian Army and guerrilla warriors of Bangladesh’s celebrated Mukti Bahini, without whom the notion of Bangladesh may have been stillborn, and listen to stories of how the war was won. I met Navy and Air Force officers, too, and even some from the Assam Rifles who fought on the eastern front.

But till I started reading Ushinor Majumdar’s book, it never struck me that I had never met an officer of the BSF at the celebration of India’s victory in 1971 in which they, too, were integral, in fact, perhaps the spearhead.

That may have been my oversight, that I never bumped into a BSF officer at the annual observance of 1971 at Fort William. But it is an oversight that Ushinor Majumdar’s book does a wonderful job of setting right. The book: India’s Secret War: BSF and Nine Months to the Birth of Bangladesh. 1971 was 52 years ago in which tomes have been written about the war. But I do believe this book is the first to examine, as closely as it deserves to be, the role of the BSF in a war like no other in the world, one that gave birth to a whole new nation.

Majumdar has tapped into a rich source of stories of BSF officers and men who were perhaps the first to alert India on March 26, 1971 that something was very wrong in East Pakistan after ordinary people from that country rushed to the Indian border seeking shelter in BSF camps. It was the day the Pakistan Army launched its crackdown on the rebellious Bengali population of the east led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman who declared on the night of March 25 that they must have a nation of their own.

The book is 275 pages long and has 26 chapters and is dotted with the untold story of BSF heroes who were the first to extend the hand of friendship to the rebels against Pakistan, at least a couple of months before the Army took over operations in May.

The story of Assistant Commandant Parimal Kumar Ghosh at the Srinagar Border Out Post in Tripura. He risked court-martial by responding to an informal request for help and crossed the international border into East Pakistan pretending to be Professor Ali of a college in Chittagong district. He drew up tactics for what was possibly the first group of freedom fighters of Bangladesh to deal with Pakistan Army soldiers guarding a bridge. When word of such clandestine operations reached Indira Gandhi, she told then BSF chief K.F. Rustamji: “do what you like but don’t get caught”. These cryptic words of encouragement were all that the BSF needed.

There is a marvellous story of how the BSF helped the freedom fighters with perhaps their most powerful tool in the revolution: the radio. Late on the night of March 25, after Mujibur Rehman declared independence, the Pakistan Air Force seized Radio Dacca. Radio Chitttagong renamed itself Swadhi Bangla Betaar Kendra, or Independent Bangla Radio Station, and clandestinely started broadcasting Mujibur Rehman’s speech. On March 30, at lunch time, the Pakistan Air Force bombed the rebel radio station.

Ten men — technicians, scriptwriters and others — fled, walking 90 km from Chittagong to the Sabroom BSF camp in Tripura, India, carrying all the equipment they could — mics, cables, tape recorders. BSF Sabroom messaged the BSF headquarters near Agartala, which thought it best to ask the chief. Rustamji gave the go-ahead and, in a tiny room in the barracks, a 1 KW medium wave radio station came up broadcasting to East Pakistan the words of Mujibur Rehman and the Rabindrasangeet that went on to become the new nation’s national anthem, “Amar Sonar Bangla”.

Most endearing is ‘Onkar Sir’, short for Lt Col Noel Gregory O’Connor, which his men had trouble pronouncing. Onkar Sir came from a military family but wanted to be a priest, yet the onset of the Second World War forced him to join the Indian Army and later the BSF. He led a battalion at Raiganj in North Bengal’s Dinajpur district and his exploits could make an entire separate book, I think. He led joint missions of the BSF and the Mukti Bahini deep into East Pakistan and the exchanges with the Pakistan Army at Haripur and Jadurani, with BSF soldiers dressed in lungis and singlets but boots on their feet, have all the makings of a terrific war movie.

Many more such stories pepper Majumdar’s book. And Rustamji wasn’t complimenting Onkar Sir alone when he sent him a message at the end of an operation and said: “BSF is making history.”

One request to Majumdar. When you order a reprint of the book, would you request a fresh eye on the edit? There are some unfortunate errors that made my reading a little bumpy at the start. For example, ships don’t TROLL the high seas, they TRAWL and there is really comical error later on where Samir Mitra’s men shoot at Pakistan Army soldiers just as they are squatting to relieve themselves. The “morning ablutions” usually happen at dawn and not at twilight.

At the end of the day, minor distractions, honestly. But I guess, once a sub-editor, always a sub-editor. And given that I have heard the exact same stories from my brother, who served in Siachen, and given that my father, an Army doctor, was deployed to Jaisalmer in December 1971, for me, this book is a little personal.

The BSF’s role in the 1971 liberation war had no business being forgotten in dusty files. It is a story that has waited too long to be told.

Tags: border security force (bsf), book review, assam rifles