Fifty years ago, on chilly, dark nights of 1971, teams of BSF commandos would go deep inside East Pakistan to carry out stealth operations. They only had the few precious hours before dawn to cross the border under cover, blow up bridges, fuel depots or railway tracks, and sneak back into the safety of Indian territory – all in the face of flying bullets and exploding enemy mortar shells.
Meet Nikhil Chandra Ghosh, Dulal Ghosh and Khetra Mohan Majumder, war veterans from Tripura who took active part in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. Decorated for their service, five decades hence, most of them are now forgotten as they lead quiet lives in Tripura, which was then a crucial hinge-point of the war.
As he sits in his hardware shop at Shalbagaan Bazaar, on the outskirts of Agartala city, it is hard to think of the 76-year-old Nikhil Chandra as part of this phantom force of BSF commandos – in a lungi, with high explosives, timers and detonators beneath his vest or shirt.
That was the time when the Pakistani Army and pro-Pakistani forces or Razakars had unleashed a reign of terror among their own Bengali-speaking citizens. Many of them started fleeing en masse to Tripura and West Bengal.
According to official records, Tripura sheltered 15 lakh East Pakistanis at that time, with 35-40 refugee camps set up across the state. At least eight major Mukti Joddha (Liberation Warrior) training camps were fully functional here, backed by the BSF and Indian Army.
While the 13-day Liberation War broke out on December 3, preparations for the offensive were on since March that year, recounts Nikhil Chandra, the retired BSF commando.
Nikhil Chandra says he and his team had several crucial missions assigned to them, including taking down the Sobhapur bridge, Dhumghat bridge, and Rezu Miah bridge in Feni and Noakhali districts of East Pakistan.
He says they disrupted Sitakunda and Barokunda fuel depots in Chittagong, and disabled transformers and communication routes, essentially crippling the Pakistani Army while the fierce Free Bangladesh guerrilla force of Mukti Bahini tore down the occupying force.
Nikhil Chandra says his team freed large tracts of land at Parshuram Sector, 3 km into the border from Belonia, the nearest Indian town. “It was our last major operation. We captured a Pakistani command post, neutralised several enemies, freed a large area and handed it over to the Mukti Bahini,” he said.
On many of these operations, Nikhil Ghosh had with him Dulal Chandra Ghosh, a friend and now retired BSF commando who lives in Belonia town of South Tripura district.
Recounting his days in the run-up to the war, Dulal Ghosh says the BSF was raised in 1965 and they were among the first personnel to join the force’s Tripura sector that was launched in 1966.
Dulal Ghosh, now 76, recounts how he was part of a BSF team, accompanied by the Indian Army, that entered East Pakistan through Ramgarh, a small village across the border from Sabroom, Tripura’s southernmost tip. He talks of the operations the team conducted, while “braving a volley of enemy gunfire”, to capture the Pakistani ammunition depots of Kaila, Heanko and Karerhat, which they then handed over to Mukti Bahini rebels.
Recounting a 24-hour gun battle with Pakistani forces at Kumbhira in Noakhali, Dulal says, “We had a full company of 137 people and were completely pinned down. But we never gave up and eventually, the enemy retreated. We captured the area and went towards Chittagong,” he says.
Khetra Mohan Majumder, 75, who retired as BSF Assistant Commandant, too has many such memories, only his was an even riskier role. Majumder was attached with the BSF’s G-Branch or intelligence wing and would often need to enter hostile Pakistani installations, set up sources, collect intelligence and crawl back to relay them to Indian authorities.
Then a Havaldar, Majumder served extensively in Akhaura, Debipur and Bamutia sectors of West Tripura district, all sensitive war zones.
“I used to collect and bring back intelligence on Pakistan army deployment and offensive operations. We would go deep inside East Pakistan at times. I was assigned duties that extended up to Narsindhi in one sector and Comilla in another sector,” he says.
All three former BSF personnel were highly decorated for their role in the Liberation War. While Nikhil and Dulal Ghosh were decorated with the BSF Poorvi Star, Tripura Police Special Medal, Sangram Medal, 1971 Medal and the BSF commendation medal for contributions to the War, Majumder, who later served in Nagaland, Manipur, West Bengal and Kashmir, was decorated with the Indian Police Award for meritorious service and a President’s Award.
Decades down the line, these veterans say they make it a point to join Bangladesh Vijay Diwas celebrations every year and pay tributes to their comrades who fell in the war. Asked if they expected to be honoured by the Bangladesh government for their role in the War, they say they have no complaints. “It was our duty, nothing else. We were honoured enough by our country,” says Nikhil Chandra.