In the heady drumbeat of war there are battles that get celebrated and others which fail to get the spotlight they deserve. One such forgotten tale of valour unfolded on December 9, 1971 at Kushtia in Bangladesh – a classic tank action where the odds were heavily stacked against a group Indian tankmen and infantry who were ambushed by a mix of Pakistani tanks and infantry.
Apart from being a story of a gritty fight back, it is also a poignant tale of two young Second Lieutenants of Indian and Pakistan armies, with barely a few months service under their belt, who fought and died in this ambush.
The two Second Lieutenants who feature in this remarkable tale are Second Lieutenant S R Chandavarkar of 45 Cavalry of Indian Army and Second Lieutenant Abdul Mohsin Khalid Kark of 29 Cavalry of Pakistan Army. Both fought on opposite sides in the tank ambush at Kushtia and both died.
While Khalid Kark died after his tank was shot by the tanks of 45 Cavalry, Sam Chandavarkar was captured, tortured and killed by the Pakistani infantry.
Perhaps because of the initial reverses faced by the Indian brigade Kushtia, this action has gradually been forgotten. Also forgotten has been the bravery of the soldiers of 1 and 3 Troops of ‘A’ Squadron of 45 Cavalry, who gave a good account of themselves despite landing in a sticky situation due to haste by senior commanders.
The advance on Kushtia
The Indian advance on Kushtia was being undertaken by troops of 7 Mountain Brigade, which in turn was under command of 4 Mountain Division.
The division had already seen a fair bit of fighting by the time it reached the town of Kushtia and it had fought through the towns of Jibannagar, Kotchandpur, Suadih, Jhenida and Magura.
As per the detailed history of 45 Cavalry operations written by Colonel Nitin Chandra (retd), a former officer of the same regiment, senior commanders had decided that Kushtia should be captured expeditiously and that it was thought that no Pakistani troops were present in the town.
“Based on information received from civilian sources, that Kushtia was held with almost negligible enemy strength, GOC 2 Corps and GOC 4 Mountain Division took a bold decision to capture Kushtia expeditiously,” writes Colonel Chandra.
The Number 1 and 3 Troop of 45 Cavalry, equipped with PT-76 tanks, which were attached to the brigade, were to lead the advance with ‘A’ Company of 22 Rajput. The remaining troops of the Rajput battalion were to follow behind the tanks and secure Kushtia.
The advance commenced at 9 am on December 9, 1971 and at mid-day it was halted due to minefields when the leading elements were approximately five-km short of Kushitia.
It was at this stage that the senior commanders intervened and demanded that the advance take place immediately.
“GOC 2 Corps and GOC 4 Mountain Division did a helicopter reconnaissance over Kushtia town and landed near HQ 7 Mountain Brigade. Commander 7 Mountain Brigade was categorically told that their own visual reconnaissance had corroborated intelligence inputs that no enemy elements were in Kushtia,” the history of the battle written by Col Chandra notes.
The road to the town was on a high embankment with trees and construction on both sides. There were also boggy areas on either side. In the haste to carry out the orders of the senior commanders, the objections of the Indian tank troop commander 2/Lt Chandavarkar that the infantry precede the ranks due to the unsafe approach for tanks, was brushed aside. The young officer with a few months of service was hardly in a position to argue and carried out the orders.
What was not known to the commanders was that the Pakistani 57 Infantry Brigade had commenced withdrawal in this sector but had put in place half a squadron of tanks of 29 Cavalry and one Company of 18 Punjab to delay the Indian Army advance. These Pakistani forces had set up a well sited ambush on the approach to Kushtia and were lying in wait.
At around 2 pm, 2/Lt Sam Chandavarkar led the advance into Kushtia as ordered with five tanks. These five tanks were commanded each by Lance Dafadar Shankaran, Naib Risaldar George Thomas Dafadar Vasu Mallapuram, 2/Lt SR Chandravarkar and Dafadar Cherian Abraham (in this order in the advance).
As soon as the leading tank crossed a culvert on the canal, the tank Commander of the leading tank radioed to 2/Lt Chandavarkar that the area was very still and highly suspect.
“The officer decided to move up his tank to the front and lead the column through the built-up area. The tank column thus resumed advance with infantry following, interspersed in its wake. As soon as the last tank crossed over the culvert, ambush was sprung. Enemy opened up with all weapons, tanks, artillery, infantry automatic and semi-automatic weapons,” the history notes.
The leading tank of Sam Chandavarkar and the third tank got hit and went up in flames. The second tank in line of advance went down the left side of the embankment while engaging the Pakistanis with its main gun and machine gun in a bid to break the ambush. This tank, commanded by Lance Dafadar Shankaran, shot and destroyed a Pakistani M-24 Chafee tank. He kept engaging the enemy till his tank took an artillery hit on its engine deck and was immobilised. The crew then abandoned the tank and retreated on foot.
The engine of the fourth tank in line of advance stalled when trying to engage the reverse gear and could not restart. It thus became a sitting duck on the road embankment and took a number of direct hits from Pakistani tanks, says Colonel Chandra.
It is here that the last tank in the line of advance, led by Dafadar Cherian Abraham played a pivotal role in saving the lives of the infantry soldiers and took on the Pakistani infantry and tanks with his weapons. He made a quick skid turn, reversed the gun and broke the ambush, while continuously firing. Having crossed over the culvert, the tank got into a hull down position and destroyed one enemy tank besides giving covering fire to the withdrawing 22 Rajput troops, thus saving the lives of a large number of them.
By 5 pm the situation had stabilised and IAF strikes were called in and more troops were inducted.
The rest of the 45 Cavalry ‘A’ Squadron under command of Maj (later Maj Gen) Pramod Batra was also inducted into Kushtia on priority. The town was abandoned by the fleeing Pak troops soon after. Military historians have termed the massive build up before the town as an overreaction by Indian commanders as very soon almost the entire 4 Mountain Division had assembled there.
Man who led the fightback
Subedar Major and Honourary Capt Cherian Abraham now lives a retired life in Kerala. Speaking toover phone, he could recall each incident in Kushtia as if it had happened yesterday. The brave soldier recounted how he ensured the safety of the soldiers under ambush.
“I had taken ten tank rounds more than the capacity of the tank as a precaution. You never know when you may need more ammunition. And this helped me as I had almost 50 tank shells with me when the ambush took place. As the action unfolded and I could see that the enemy was well placed, I immediately took a position from where I could give covering fire to our troops and also to inflict damage on the enemy to make them break the ambush. We hit a Pakistani tank and saw it go up in flames. No one came out of it. When my tank ammunition finished I used the co-axial machine gun of the tank to fire and when that ammunition also expended I use the anti-aircraft machine gun on top of the tank to fire,” recalls Abraham.
The brave tankman was later said to have been recommended for the bravery award of Vir Chakra. However, he did not receive it. “The CO of the infantry battalion thanked me for having saved the lives of a lot of his men,” says Abraham.
Major Batra’s account
“The move from Madhumati to Kushtia, a distance of 90 km was a nightmare. All kinds of thoughts kept coming to my mind, my eyes moist and red due to lack of sleep. As we were speeding on a pitch-dark night, there was no fear of enemy. As a commander one has to put up a brave face and not seem weak. As my crew asked me what had happened when we stopped to check our bearings, I just told him that all is well. I was the loneliest person in this world that night,” recounts Maj Gen Batra.
After reaching the brigade headquarters in Kushtia, Batra saw one of his tanks with four dead soldiers in one blanket on the deck.
“My mind went blank with anguish and pain for them. I got down from my tank as I was summoned to meet the GOC and Brigade Commander. As the happenings of this action were narrated to me, I was quite perturbed and a few hot words were exchanged. All the GOC said was, ‘These things happen in war’. I had expected that there would be some regret or a feeling of guilt as we treat our loved ones. The Brigade Major took me aside and explained the grim situation. He told me about the loss of six officers killed and 22 Rajput suffered over 110 casualties,” writes Maj Gen Batra in his account of the events.
Two Second Lieutenants
There are remarkable similarities in the lives of the two young officers of opposing sides who fought in the action at Kushtia. Both had been commissioned just months before the war and both had joined their respective regiments just after completion of their Young Officers’ course.
2/Lt Abdul Mohsin Khalid Kark was killed at the site of the ambush. Pakistani accounts claim that he was hit by machine gun fire when he stood outside the turret. This may or may not be correct, but this is confirmed that his tank was among the two destroyed at the ambush site by Dafadar Abraham and Shankaran.
Speaking to The Indian Express from Lahore, Mashhood Elahi Khan, cousin of 2/Lt Khalid said he was a keen cricketer and a very good fast bowler.“He was also very fond of books and I was very close to him. I was in Karachi when I learnt of his death in the battle. I was distraught, had no relatives around me and could not stop crying. The family does not even know where his grave is. On the 50th anniversary of the war we are trying to gather as much information about his action at Kushtia as possible,” he said.
Khalid’s family is now bringing out a remembrance souvenir on his life. He was awarded the Pakistani gallantry award of Sitara-e-Jurrat posthumously.
2/Lt Sam Chandavarkar was also a keen sportsperson and played football and basketball with his troops. His father had died when he was young and he too had been in the Army. He is survived by two sisters. Maj Gen Batra recalls him as a silent, respectful young man who was well liked by his subordinates as he would always speak courteously. The fact that he took initiative and chose to lead the squadron into the town after initial suspicions by a subordinate showed his courage. And of course, his courage in captivity where he suffered a painful death at enemy hands. Sam Chandavarkar was awarded the Sena Medal posthumously.
Torture of Indian PoW
Indian Prisoners of War, including 2/Lt Sam Chandavarkar, were tortured and killed in captivity by the soldiers of Pakistan Army’s 18 Punjab.
2/Lt Sam Chandavarkar had lost one hand as result of direct shot his tank received and was captured along with many others. Maj Gen Batra says some Indian troops who hid themselves in thick bamboo groves saw the “ghastly and inhuman torture”.
“Sam was tied to a tree and bayoneted, his eyes gouged as he refused to give any information beyond the one laid down by Geneva Convention. “No prisoners” were their orders, so others captured were shot. This happened in the presence of their officers. Would any civilised army do this? It is shame and a blot on the Pakistan Army,” he says.
‘Charge of Light Brigade’
Maj Gen Batra says the action at Kushtia reminds him of Alfred Tennyson’s poem, “Charge of the Light Brigade” and orders given as a mistake resulted in advancing troops cut down to pieces.
As Major Batra puts is succinctly, “Sadly, there is no Tennyson in India to write about courage of 22 Rajput and ‘A’ Squadron of 45 Cavalry. These were the boys who displayed extraordinary courage and devotion to duty. For those who have not seen war with death, bodies soaked in blood and bodies without limbs, young and old, lying sprawled all over, it is impossible to fathom what it means to lose a comrade. These were the boys with families, ordinary people like you and me, their families disappointed when they did not return, not even their coffins and yet these bravehearts with complete disregard for their lives did not fail the nation, the Army and their units.”