Operation Kalachara Tea Garden
After a series of delaying battles at Ujanishar, Akhaura, Kharampur, Rajapur in April, 1971, my forces i.e. D Company, 4E, Bengal and two assorted platoons consisting of EPR, Mujahid and volunteers were forced out of Bangladesh. We crossed the border at Narsingarh opposite Singerbil of Bangladesh in the first week of May, 1971. For obvious reasons we were battle-fatigued and exhausted. On crossing over to India, my first priority was to consolidate my troops and take stock of all available arms and ammunition, and at the same time establish a camp where all troops could be accommodated. During this time there was very little space available in the area as the border area was already populated with Bengali refugees who had built scanty shelters for themselves all along the border. On the other side, the Indian BSF was not sure how to deal with armed refugees like us. To start with, they wanted us to deposit our arms in their armoury, which we refused. However in a few days' time, with the help of the battalion headquarter and the newly established Government of Bangladesh we could start managing our affairs. We also started receiving some support, from some relief organisation in the form of polythene sheets and bamboo, to establish our camp. The main uncertainty was food, as no one was sure where the next meal would come from.
However, within a few days of establishing the camp, we started our operational activities by sending out fighting and harassing patrols, setting up small ambushes, etc. During this time, a large number of Bengali youths were crossing over to India and all of them wanted to join the Mukti Bahini. Due to acute shortage of accommodation, food and weapons, it was not possible to accommodate them in our camp, although we did accommodate a few local volunteers.
By end of June '71, the enemy had established permanent defensive positions at Akhaura, Kharampur, Rajapur, Singerbil and Kalachara Tea Estates. The gaps between the defensive locations were dominated by foot/rail patrols. Our forces had to infiltrate between their positions to go inside and carry out minor operations. A good number of Gono Bahini fighters from Sectors 2 and 3 used to enter Bangladesh through my area.
There was also another development on the Indian side. About 2 km east of our location in Narsingarh, one Indian infantry battalion (10 Bihar) established its camp. In the beginning of July, I received a number of visitors from that unit. On one occasion the commanding officer also came up to see us and rapport with them was quickly established. However the commanding officer reminded me a number of times that we should not undertake any operation from within Indian territory. Moreover, I was also asked to keep them informed of our operations before execution. They were very apprehensive of Pakistani retaliation on the Agartala air field as well as the Agartala township.
By this time, the strength of my company had risen to about four hundred men. Though the number of freedom fighters increased manifold, we were seriously short of weapons and equipment. We were also faced with a serious shortage of ammunition as we were using Chinese weapons and the Indian Army did not have any Chinese ammunition. Due to these limitations and because of the onset of monsoon, the situation was not at all conducive for launching operations deep inside Bangladesh. Our main occupation was to train freedom fighters and send them to Bangladesh for minor operations. However, regular forces also carried out limited operations like fighting/domination patrols, raids and ambushes in the border areas.
During this period our operations more or less remained limited to hit-and-run actions against the enemy's fixed defences and other locations of the occupation forces. Through extensive patrolling, we regained some control over the area. The enemy restricted themselves to daytime movement only. From Narsingarh camp it was easy for Gono Bahini members to infiltrate inside Bangladesh as the bordering area was thickly vegetated and sparsely populated. Additionally, after crossing about a thousand yards of land, the great Kalia Bill, east of the Akhaura-Brahmanbaria rail line over which Pakistani forces had no control, provided great flexibility for the Freedom Fighters. In fact by June, Narsingarh corridor became a very safe and popular crossing point for Gono Bahini members of Sector 2 and Sector 3. Since a large number of Mukti Bahini members were infiltrating through Narsingarh corridor and carrying out successful operations in the Dhaka-Comilla- Brahmanbaria area, Pakistani authorities started taking actions to close the gap. By the beginning of July a Pakistani battalion (31 Baluch) was deployed in the area and they deployed two companies with the battalion headquarter at Akhaura, one company at Rajapur-Singerbil-Merashani area and another company-plus at Kalachara Tea garden area. The whole deployment was supported by a battery of artillery based at Kodda area, west of Akhaura. Through these deployments and domination patrols, they effectively controlled the area, the Mukti Bahini infiltrations virtually came to a standstill. On the other side, Indian authorities also imposed strict restrictions on any operations from Indian territory.
By this time, due to serious shortage of logistic support such as accommodation, ration, ammunition etc., the morale of the Mukti Bahini was sagging. A few soldiers and freedom fighters started deserting the camp. Only the training activity at the camps could not keep the fighters happy. As such, I felt the urgent need of undertaking some operation to raise the morale of my own troops as well as shatter the confidence of occupation forces located in the area. After some deliberation, I decided to attack the Kalachara Tea Garden area as it was isolated from the rest of the enemy positions. The tea garden is located about 12 km north of Akhaura Railway Station and to the East of the Akhaura-Sylhet railway line, within the area protruding inside India. The border, to the South and East of the tea garden, was thickly vegetated with three to four feet high tea plants and other trees. The area was undulated with heights varying between 15 and 20 feet. The capture of the area would open up the previous route of infiltration for Freedom Fighters. After extensive patrolling and thorough reconnaissance, we established that a full company of the Pakistan Army with an additional platoon of EPCAP was located in the area. The location was logistically supplied from Akhaura and also supported by the Artillery Battery located at Kodda, west of Akhaura.
As per military norms, more than a battalion strength was required to attack a company position. Though I had about four hundred personnel in my camp, I had weapons of only one company strength and another two platoons of men from EPR, Mujahid and Ansar equipped with assorted weapons. I also needed additional troops to establish blocking positions to stop any re-enforcement to the area from Akhaura in the south as well as Mukundapur on the north. Shortage of small arms ammunitions for our Chinese weapons and total absence of indirect fire (artillery/mortar) support were serious limitations. However considering the situation I had no alternative but to launch the attack. My main strength was the urge of the rank and file to undertake some operation inside Bangladesh to shatter the confidence of the occupation forces in the area. Due to extensive patrolling and other operations in the area in the last few months, we had acquired a fairly good knowledge of the ground. Moreover, the population of the area was on our side. To make up for the deficiency of weapons, I approached my neighbouring camp commander Captain (later Major General) Golam Helal Morshed (BB) for help. Captain Morshed was generous and loaned me two LMGs, two 2-inch mortars and one thousand rounds of 7.62mm Chinese LMG ammunition. Captain Morshed also agreed to establish a blocking position at Mukundapur area to block any reinforcement from the north. This support gave tremendous boost to the zeal of my troops. Our extensive reconnaissance of the defence area established that three sides facing the Indian border were extensively mined with anti-personal mines. The mines were also covered with low wire entanglement and bamboo spikes (punjis). In view of these obstacles it was an extremely difficult proposition to attack the position from the south, east and north. Moreover Indian authorities also barred us from undertaking any operation from Indian soil. Considering all these factors we had only one option i.e., to launch the attack from the west, which was to the rear of the enemy defence.
The only available approach route to the objective area was the supply route used by the occupation forces. Yet we decided to launch the attack from the west. Since we did not have any artillery/mortar support we decided to launch the attack at night. To overcome the shortage of manpower, weapons and equipment, we put great emphasis on surprising over the enemy. Considering all these factors I decided to launch the attack in the early hours of Tuesday, August 3, 1971. We decided to attack at 3 am. The final plan was that, a one company-plus strength of men under my leadership would launch the main attack from the west. Another section under the leadership of Havildar Halim (Shaheed) would establish a blocking position on the home bank of the canal facing Merasani covering the railway bridge and block any reinforcement from the south. Captain Morshed was to establish another blocking position at Mukundupur to stop reinforcements from the north. We left a section under command of Subedar Rezaul at the base camp as reserve. This group was tasked to help either Havildar Halim's group or the main attacking group in case of emergency. To ensure the element of surprise we did not go for conventional markings of Forming up Place (FUP). However in the base camp we practiced a lot as to how to form up before the attack. This practice gave us dividends at the end. We recruited ten volunteers from the locals who agreed to accompany the troops and guide them to the objective. These guides proved to be extremely valuable in reaching the objective without much difficulty.
After briefing all subordinate commanders I felt that everyone was excited and enthusiastic about the attack. I also addressed the troops and reminded them about the importance of surprise. After the address, I felt that everyone was not only enthusiastic but also very eager to accomplish the task. I was really overwhelmed and also surprised to see that no one was concerned about the shortage of weapons and ammunition. Everyone felt confident that the job could be done. I knew we were taking a great risk. If, by any chance, we were to get stuck any where during the process, extrication would be extremely difficult and we would have to suffer a lot of casualties. However, I was determined to launch the attack and achieve success.
Everything started moving as per plan on the night of August 2, 1971. At around 11 pm, we left the base camp at Narsingarh and infiltrated inside Bangladesh through Qasimpur in platoon groups. Taking a long detour we followed the route Qasimpur-Bishnupur-Ganeshpur-Shejamura-Kalachara. Every subordinate group had local guides and they played a pivotal role in taking the group to their designated areas. Luckily everything went smoothly, and we reached the assembly area Shejamura at around 1:45 am, half an hour earlier than schedule. However our reorganisation for the attack took a little longer than planned, as such the time was adjusted. We moved out of the assembly area in time and proceeded towards the objective. At this time we were faced with a problem—we could not see the objective area through the undergrowth and due to heavy fog. We also failed to locate the designated FUP. Luckily we could hear voices during a change of sentries. We realised we were only 15-20 yards away from the objective. We instantaneously shouted “Allahu Akbar” and “Joy Bangla”.
The attacking soldiers, on the run, took up the attack formation, and in no time they were on the objective. The defence was taken completely by surprise. They even could not call for artillery support, as the telephone line was cut off at the very first instance. A few minutes later the enemy artillery fired a few rounds on the eastern side of the objective. It was their anticipation that the attack would come from the east, which is why the guns fired towards that area. By 3:45 am we had overrun the whole objective area. The whole thing happened so fast that the enemy had no time to react. However, the position towards the east (enemy left forward platoon) opened up but they failed to realise the direction of attack. As such these fires were also not very effective. After capturing the whole area, we realised that the area needed mopping-up, as most of the trenches/bunkers were still intact. By around 4:30 am the area was quite clear. The dead and injured lay scattered over the area. We gave priority to mopping up all the trenches/bunkers. Unfortunately we had to suffer some casualties during the mopping up process. Some enemy soldiers in the defence could not escape and they remained inside. During mopping up they opened fire which gave rise to confusion within the attacking troops. This confusion prevailed for about an hour or so. During this time I lost my runner as well as a wireless operator and as they became martyrs. Nevertheless, by about 6 am we were firmly in control and had re-established command. Both the blocking position at Mershani Railway Bridge and Mukundupur had to face severe pressure too but they had remained in their position till the end.
Havilder Halim displayed extraordinary courage in holding off the reinforcement group of about a company strength with only one section. The attacking enemy group there suffered four injuries and two dead. Havildar Halim's group suffered two serious injuries.
By all standards the attack was a complete success. We not only captured the area, but also a lot of weapons and ammunition including two MGIA3, four 7.62mm LMGs, fifteen rifles, approximately 20 thousand rounds of ammunition and 2,000 grenades, as well as rations, blankets and clothing. We captured 12 POWs of whom 7 were regular soldiers and 5 EPCAF members. The senior and junior
commissioned officers (JCOs) of the enemy company were also captured. As per normal military equation, attacking a one company strength position with only one company-plus troops is impossible, particularly when there is a shortage of arms and ammunitions and no indirect fire support. More so, the defensive locations were located on higher grounds than the attacking troops. If we had lost our element of surprise reaching the objective, the results would have been catastrophic for our troops. The determination of all ranks and their courage played a significant role in achieving the success against all odds. The courage and valour shown by a few soldiers, particularly Havildar Halim (Halim later became Shaheed during the Chandrapur attack), Naib Subedar Gias, Naib Subedar Rezaul, Havildar Monir, civilian Amir Hossain Bhuyan, Mizan, Abul Khair, Dhan Mia and Jasim (Guerrilla), are unprecedented. The nation owes a lot to these valiant fighters for their gallant contribution in achieving freedom for the country. In the operation we lost four valiant freedom fighters and three suffered serious injuries and were evacuated to Agartala Hospital.
The success of the attack gave tremendous boost to the morale of my troops. Pakistani forces never tried to reoccupy the tea garden area and as such, the area remained liberated till the end of the war. After capturing of the area, the route for infiltration of Gono Bahini members into Bangladesh was reopened and remained so till the end. We were also able to get valuable information from the captured POWs on the deployment of Pakistani troops in the area and also about the state of their morale. The captured soldiers (mostly from Punjab) informed us that they never knew that they were fighting against Muslims. The authorities always briefed them that they were fighting against Indian Hindus. In fact they were really surprised to hear the sound of Azan (Prayer Call) in the camp when they were brought to the base camp.
Though I did not inform anyone in the hierarchy about the attack earlier, the news of its success spread to all concerned within no time. The Indian authorities were very alarmed when the fire fight broke out at the dead of night. However as nothing was happening from their territory they felt comfortable. On receiving the news, Commander of Sector 2 Major (later Major General) Khaled Musharraf along with D Sector Commander, (Indian) Brigadier Shah Beg Sing visited the base camp in the late afternoon. Though Brigadier Shah Beg Sing expressed dissatisfaction for launching the attack with such a high risks involved, he congratulated every one for the success in pulling it off.
The writer is former Chief of Army Staff.