Armed Forces Day

The legacy of November 21, 1971

The forerunner of the present-day Bangladesh Army is the Bangladesh Forces of 1971. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had laid the foundation for the Liberation War. The revolt and the war began on the first hour of March 26 with the Eighth Battalion pioneering the revolt under Major Ziaur Rahman in the city of Chattogram. Major Zia also went on air from Kalurghat Radio station (near Chattogram town) to declare independence in his own name but it was later reinforced by the second declaration in the name of Bangabandhu.

The First Battalion fought bravely against the Baluchis and was extricated from the Jashore cantonment under the leadership of young Captain Hafiz Uddin Ahmed. The Second Battalion under Major KM Safiullah had revolted from Joydebpur near Dhaka, moved to Mymensingh in the north, then veered east to cross the Meghna and finally found the battleground in the districts of Brahmanbaria and Habiganj. The Third Battalion had suffered huge casualties in Saidpur cantonment before they could extricate and find shelter on Indian soil. The Fourth Battalion under Major Khaled Mosharraf revolted from Cumilla Cantonment and made the southern part of Cumilla district and greater Noakhali district their battlefield.

Most Bengalis serving in the then East Pakistan Rifles and the then East Pakistan Police revolted against the Pakistani authorities in their own way, extricated from the place where they were serving and either joined battalions or organised others to start fighting. Thousands of young gentlemen had joined the war within the first four months. They were trained by the Bengal Regiment in various camps and groups. The young boys were also trained in camps organised by Indian forces. The number of regular as well as guerilla fighters swelled fast. To command the forces and to take the war forward, headquarters was needed. The headquarters was Bangladesh Forces organised in Calcutta (Kolkata) and collocated with the wartime Prime Minister's Office. Retired Colonel Muhammad Ataul Gani Osmani, who was also elected a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan in the election of December 1970 on Awami League's ticket, was appointed the Commander-in-Chief of Bangladesh Forces. Another senior retired officer Lieutenant Colonel MA Rob had also been elected a MNA in December 1970 election. Colonel Rob was appointed Chief of Staff of Bangladesh Forces and was further appointed as head of the Echelon Headquarters of Bangladesh Forces in Agartala, on the eastern side of Bangladesh.

India had supported the war and the fighters in as many ways as possible. They had given arms and ammunition, clothing and ration, and financial support to the fighters. They had allowed the fighters to set up camps on their soil. India had portrayed the cause of Bangladesh gloriously, defended its own involvement, courageously and logically. Thus the war had progressed reasonably well.

By July 1971, the whole of Bangladesh was divided into 11 sectors—each having many sub-sectors. A fresh decision was taken to raise or organise three forces in the form of infantry brigades; it was completed by mid-September 1971. The Z Force commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ziaur Rahman was positioned in the northeastern border of Bangladesh, poised to move towards Sylhet in phases. The S Force commanded by Lieutenant Colonel KM Safiullah was on the eastern border of Bangladesh, north of Agartala, poised to move into Bangladesh to clear Akhaura and reach Ashuganj. The K Force commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Khaled Mosharraf was also on the eastern border of Bangladesh, south of Agartala, poised to move towards Cumilla and Chattogram. The aim of organising brigade-like forces was to involve Bangladeshi combatants in regular or conventional war alongside the Indian Forces when the time was ripe. The guerilla warriors spread over the whole country, like fish in water, were sapping the vitality of the Pakistani Forces. When they would be weak enough, that would be the time for regular forces to launch a conventional offensive against the Pakistani Forces, entrenched in various garrisons like Rangpur, Bogura, Jashore and Cumilla. Weather was a factor; therefore, winter was the best option.

The headquarters of the Bangladesh Forces and those of the Eastern Command of the Indian Army, both located in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata), were working together to plan a joint offensive. The Commander of the Eastern Command Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora was appointed commander of the joint forces. The planners at the highest level knew what the rest of the fighters did not. It was decided to activate or ignite the battlefields all along the border of Bangladesh before December began. So each of the sectors and each of the forces were given specific responsibilities. The date was fixed for November 21, 1971.

Beginning November 21, 1971, sectors and battalions of the Bangladesh Forces attacked various Pakistani defensive positions nearer to the border—the Pakistani paramilitary border outposts. While doing this, cooperation and coordination between the Indian artillery and Bangladesh Forces matured. The Bangladesh Air Force operating from the soil of northeastern India also launched daredevilish operations on targets inside Bangladesh. Whatever naval personnel were available had been gathered in Sector 9 which covered the whole of the Sundarbans in the southern part of Bangladesh. They had improvised local watercrafts to make patrol boats out of them. The Bangladesh Mukti Bahini flotilla also carried out a number of operations on Pakistani targets between November 21 and November 25. The guerrilla fighters of various sectors had been conducting small-scale operations in their area of responsibility.

But beginning November 21, they were told to multiply the number of their operations so that Pakistani Forces in the areas nearer to the border and their local collaborators became jittery and unstable. By November 30, the entire border area of Bangladesh was hot enough for the regular Indian Army Forces and Bangladesh Forces to launch major offensives. On the night of November 30/December 1, regular offensives began in many areas, for example in the area of S Force. We shall not go into details here.

The forerunner of the present-day Bangladesh Army is the Bangladesh Forces of 1971. The forerunner of the present-day Bangladesh Navy lies in the persons involved in Operation Jackpot of mid-August 1971 in Chattogram, Mongla, Chandpur and Narayanganj. The other legacy of the navy officials lies in the patrol crafts of sector 9 in the Sundarbans. In independent Bangladesh, the army, the navy and the air force developed the tradition of celebrating their own foundation day separately. When General Hussain Muhammad Ershad was the president of Bangladesh in the late 80s, he ordered the three services to celebrate their foundation day together in a befitting way. It was decided that November 21 is the best date because not only cooperation between Indian Armed Forces and Bangladesh Forces began on a new footing on this day in 1971, but also cooperation and coordination between Bangladeshi sectors, forces, the air wing and the flotilla of the Bangladesh Forces got a new lease of their relationship on this very day. This day, November 21, is celebrated as the Armed Forces Day.

As a freedom fighter, I join thousands and millions in gratefully acknowledging the contribution of the Indian Armed Forces to our Liberation War and our victory. As a freedom fighter and as a former general officer of the army, I join millions in felicitating the Bangladesh Armed Forces of today.

Maj Gen (Retd) Syed Muhammad Ibrahim Bir Protik is a freedom fighter and a former general officer of the Bangladesh Army.

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