What goes through a soldier’s mind when a PoW asks to be set free so that he can tend to his sick child? What happens when a sailor is so enraged by the atrocities of war that he decides to follow his conscience at the risk of being court martialed?
Stories from the frontlines tend to focus on the grit and valour of the men in uniform but Rachna Bisht Rawat’s new book, 1971: Charge of the Gorkhas And Other Stories, is a collection of stories that is sensitive, moving and all-too human.
Focused on the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, each story leaps off the page as Rawat writes about the dread, the fear, the conflict and the trauma that seared the hearts and minds of India’s soldiers as they found themselves in the thick of the 13-day conflict that redefined the borders of the Indian subcontinent. Handling each story delicately, she presents a side of war that is usually ignored but is chillingly real.
On the 50th anniversary of the surrender of Pakistan in the 1971 war, here’s a bloodcurdling account of an Indian Gorkha battalion that charged into enemy bunkers armed with nothing but traditional Gorkha machetes called khukris, and the war cry ‘Jai Mahakali! Aayo Gorkhali’ on their lips. An excerpt:
21 November 1971
Around 0300 hours
Atgram appears like a fortress surrounded by inverted L-shaped cement and concrete bunkers. All of a sudden, a few Pakistani soldiers appear on the road. Surprised at seeing unknown men, they shout, ‘Kaun hai! Haath khada karo.’ A blood-curdling cry of ‘Jai Mahakali! Aayo Gorkhali!’ rings out in the darkness. Every single Gorkha whips out his khukri and leaps forward. Before the Pakistanis can realize what is happening, the soldiers are upon them. The slaughter has begun.
The sounds of battle are heard and the Pakistanis open MMG and mortar fire on the road. Though lethal, the fire does not deter the Gorkhas, who sprint across and leap to the other side in one wave after another. These are the braves of Alfa and Delta companies (Platoons 1–3 and 10–12 respectively). Those caught in the fire fall but their comrades step across their bodies and move forward, with fire in their eyes and flashing blades in their hands. Ignoring the hail of bullets, they make their way to the enemy bunkers.
No. 1 Platoon under Captain Johri goes in for the western defences. No. 2 Platoon under Lt Hawa Singh penetrates through the barracks. And No. 3 Platoon under Subedar Ran Bahadur Gurung takes on the defences right of No. 2 Platoon. Soon, flesh is flying all around. Writhing bodies with heads hacked and bent at queer angles lie everywhere. Col Harolikar and his group charge right behind the assaulting company as they move from bunker to bunker with blood-stained khukris in their hands, slaughtering whoever comes in their way.
I found myself drawn by an unknown and inexorable force, running forward along with my comrades-in-arms. The charge was like a wave with its own momentum and I could hear and faintly discern our brave jawans with their drawn khukris—now bloodied—moving from bunker to bunker, slaughtering one and all. It was as if all of us were possessed by superhuman powers,’ writes Col Harolikar.
He is about to enter an enemy bunker when Subedar Ran Bahadur Gurung steps forward, signalling to him that there are enemy soldiers inside. Unpinning a grenade with his mouth, Ran Bahadur makes his way to the firing slit of the bunker and flings it inside. There is a deafening explosion that kills the two enemy soldiers inside and silences the guns.
Meanwhile, No. 1 Platoon, under Capt. Johri, encounters a roadblock. Johri steps forward with his khukri and clears the bunker but is shot dead. An MMG is firing continuously in their direction from another bunker right ahead and not letting them move further. Rifleman Phas Bahadur Pun runs left and, getting behind the bunker, sprints towards the closed door with his unsheathed khukri in his hand.
Pushing it open, he disappears into the dark chasm. Screams ring out from inside the bunker, and the guns fall silent as a victorious Pun steps out. He is moving towards the next bunker when a burst of enemy automatic fire hits him. Bleeding profusely, Pun drops his khukri. He knows his time is up but, making one final superhuman effort, he reaches out for a grenade. Using the last vestige of his energy, he grips the pin with his teeth, pulls it off and lobs the grenade inside the bunker. There is a blast and thick fumes start spooling out of the destroyed bunker as Pun falls to the ground.
No. 2 Platoon, under young Lt Hawa Singh, has penetrated the Pakistani barracks, destroying bunkers and defences behind the main building and along the road. Leading the charge, Hawa Singh moves swiftly towards the small door at the rear of a bunker and tries to push it open. When it doesn’t budge, he moves back a little and comes running to kick it hard. It breaks opens and he rushes inside with the impact. He manages to throw a grenade and kill the occupants of the bunker but is repeatedly shot, with the bullets ripping his stomach open. His men lay him down on a bamboo cot inside the bunker.
Meanwhile, Alfa Company commander, Major Rana, has spotted defences towards Chargram Bridge and orders the platoon to clear that area next. The platoon havildar takes charge and the platoon moves on reluctantly, leaving a dying Hawa Singh behind. Subedar Bhobilal Pun, mortar fire ontroller (MFC) with the company, is shot just as the soldiers reach Chargram Bridge. He too has to be left behind as the platoon moves on to complete the task at hand.
As Col Harolikar’s notes mention, he enters a bunker, where he hears the hoarse whisper of someone asking for water. He goes in to find Lt Hawa Singh lying on a cot, with his stomach ripped open. He has taken ten bullets and is in unbearable pain. Col Harolikar rushes to his side and calls out for water to be brought. Hawa Singh manages to sip some from the hands of a comrade but dies within an hour. Later, it is found that one of the bullets had pierced his spleen. A simple Jat from Haryana, he had been the sole support for his younger brothers and sisters back home and had gone for the attack knowing he might not come back.
There are many stories of incredible bravery from that night. Early in the attack by No. 1 Platoon of Alfa Company, Dil Bahadur Chhetri’s rifle stops firing. He flings it away and moves ahead with his khukri in his right hand and his torch in the left. He finds a bunker and goes inside to see three enemy soldiers, whom he massacres in cold blood. He comes out with bloodshot eyes and blood dripping from his khukri and enters the next bunker. He repeats the carnage, slaying two enemy soldiers with his khukri.
When he emerges from the bunker, he finds that a tall and hefty Pakistani soldier has lifted the small-built Lance Naik Joom Bahadur Gurung by the neck. Gurung is dangling in mid-air with his arms and legs flailing around. A furious Dil Bahadur charges. He jumps in the air and, with a powerful swing of his arm, cuts off the enemy soldier’s head. It rolls to the ground while his torso is left standing for a few seconds. The man’s fingers unclasp, letting go of a surprised Gurung, who drops to his feet and watches his assailant fall.
Col Harolikar mentions running into Rifleman Dil Bahadur Chhetri engaged in what he calls ‘the dance of death’. ‘I found Chhetri with his bloodied khukri in his hand, emitting sounds which were a mixture of laughter and the cry of an insane man. And it was a death dance with a number of dead bodies with decapitated heads hanging loosely at different angles lying around him,’ he writes.
Excerpted with permission from 1971: Charge of the Gorkhas And Other Stories (2021) by Rachna Bisht Rawat and published by Penguin Random House.
Cover Image: Gurkha Soldiers on a captured Pakistani Tank via ADGPI