The 1971 War Between Covers: Tales of valour, resilience, sacrifice and sorrow

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Poignant as it may sound, war brings out the best in men and women. There are the brave, those who refuse to give up, those who give up their lives for a cause – and those who suffer immensely.

These are their stories – tales that should never be forgotten.

Anam Zakaria (Penguin), 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India

This is the story of a humanitarian intervention, of triumph and valour that paved the way for India’s rise as a military power, the beginning of its journey to becoming a regional superpower.

Navigating a widely varied terrain across Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, Zakaria sifts through three distinct state narratives, and studies the institutionalisation of the memory of the year and its events. Through a personal journey, she juxtaposes state narratives with people’s history on the ground, bringing forth the nuanced experiences of those who lived through the war.

Using inter-generational interviews, textbook analyses, visits to schools and travels to museums and sites commemorating 1971, Zakaria explores the ways in which the year is remembered and forgotten across countries, generations and communities.

Maj. Gen. Vijay Singh (Speaking Tiger), POW 1971

The war with Pakistan in December 1971 lasted barely two weeks. It concluded on December 16 with a victory for India and the formation of Bangladesh. A lesser-known side to this epic military confrontation is that of the Western Front, namely Jammu and Kashmir.

Many contests on this side of India’s border were won, but some battles were ill-fated. The heroic battle at Daruchhian in the Poonch Sector was one of them.

A cone-shaped feature, approximately 1’000 metres in height, Daruchhian was of great tactical significance. The fierce clash on its slopes on the night of December 13, however, could not ensure its capture. Many Indian soldiers were martyred, and the survivors taken prisoner, including Brigadier (then Major) Hamir Singh, Vir Chakra.

Seriously injured in battle, he underwent a prolonged recovery at the Command Military Hospital, Rawalpindi, followed by detention at the POW camp in Lyallpur.

Brig. Hamir Singh’s eyewitness account, recorded by the author, his son, Maj. Gen. Vijay Singh, narrates in riveting detail what took place on that fateful night and what followed. From battle plans that were too perfect to succeed, to soldiers who didn’t give up, enemies who honoured each others’ professionalism, Pakistanis nostalgic about pre-Partition India, and the shared sorrow and joy that dissolve boundaries of nation and religion,

This is a view of war, valour and humanity that is as heart-wrenching as it is moving.

Maj. Gen. Ian Cardozo (Retd) (Penguin), Stories of Grit and Glory from the Indo-Pak War

An under-strength Gorkha battalion undertakes the Indian Army’s first heliborne operation deep behind enemy lines, defeating a Pakistani force 20 times its strength. Fighters of the Indian Air force target the Government House in Dhaka in a daring air raid, forcing the Pakistani government to capitulate and surrender. Four battle casualties become close friends at the Artificial Limb Centre in Pune in the war’s aftermath.

In this collection of true stories, decorated war veteran Major General Ian Cardozo (Retd) recounts what really happened during the 1971 War, piecing together every story in vivid detail through interviews with survivors and their families. The book also seeks to commemorate the lives of those who were killed and wounded in this war.

From the tragic tale of INS Khukri and its courageous captain, who went down with his ship, to how a battalion of the Gorkhas launched what we accept as the last khukri attack in modern military history, these stories reveal what went on in the minds of those who led their men into battle – on land, at sea and in the air.

Rachna Bisht Rawat (Penguin), 1971: Charge of the Gorkhas

Why do the Gorkha soldiers of 4/5 GR attack a heavily defended enemy post with just naked khukris in their hands?

Does Pakistan find out the real identity of the pilot who, after having ejected from a burning plane, calls himself Flt Lt Mansoor Ali Khan?

What awaits the naval diver who cuts made-in-India labels off his clothes and crosses into East Pakistan with a machine gun slung across his back?

Why is a 21-year-old Sikh paratrooper being taught to jump off a stool in a deserted hangar at Dum Dum airport with a Packet aircraft waiting nearby?

This is a deeply researched collection of true stories of extraordinary human grit and courage that shows you a side to war that few military histories do.

Rajesh Ramachandran (Ed.) (Harper Collins), ‘The Heroes of 1971 – The Bravehearts of the War That Gave Birth to Bangladesh’

These are the stories of the fearless warriors who fought heroic battles to liberate Bangladesh, redrawing the map of South Asia in what is still considered the most conclusive military victory – in a ‘just war’ – in contemporary history.

Written by serving and retired officers of the three services to celebrate the memory of the four Param Vir Chakra and 76 Maha Vir Chakra awardees of the war, the essays in this book first appeared in ‘The Tribune’, Chandigarh. From the exploits of Flying Officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon, who rose to the occasion for the Flying Bullets at the Srinagar airfield, to the capture of prisoners of war at Faujdahat by Brig. Anand Sarup’s ‘Kilo Force’, this book catalogues it all, while the big-picture analyses by veterans, top bureaucrats and journalists help set the scene and enable readers to understand the war better.

Raghu Rai (Niyogi Books), Bangladesh: The Price of Freedom

Ace photographer Raghu Rai documents the plight of the refugees, the action during the war and the jubilant scenes of victory and Independence.

His treasure trove of photographs, which for over four decades he thought had been lost, was recently rediscovered. The stories are perhaps not unknown, but have been retold by a master visual storyteller – the refugee camps, the exodus, the never-ending journey, a whirlwind of poignant, tormented history. And finally, a new nation, a new tomorrow.

Here are never-before-seen photographs that comprise a significant body of work documenting a turning point in the history of South Asia.

Manash Ghosh (Niyogi Books), Bangladesh War: Report from Ground Zero

This riveting first-hand account of the Liberation War has been written by a former journalist of ‘The Statesman’ newspaper. The author, then a mere cub reporter, had predicted the coming of the war as early as in January 1971 in an article in the ‘Sunday Statesman’ titled ‘When Brother meets Brother’. When the conflict started, he was one of the very few Indian journalists who covered the epochal event from the very beginning till the final surrender by the Pakistan military in Khulna on December 17.

Syed Badrul Ahsan (Niyogi Books), Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: From Rebel to Founding Father

The emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign state in 1971 is a tribute to the sagacity and leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Through the long years he spent in prison, Mujib, as he is known, burnished his political beliefs and eventually emerged as the single most significant spokesman for Bengali rights in East Pakistan.

This biography sensitively portrays Mujib’s transformation to Bangabandhu, ‘the friend of Bengal’. Author Syed Badrul Ahsan traces Mujib’s meteoric evolution from a young follower of the All India Muslim League, driven by a zeal for Pakistan in the 1940s, to a mature political leader who believed the Bengalis of Pakistan needed to return to their secular traditions.

Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya (fiction; translated by Mitra Phukan; Niyogi Books), Blossoms in the Graveyard

This is the story of Mehr, a young girl from a village in what is at that time, East Pakistan. Penned by a pioneer modern Assamese literature, it is the story of Mehr’s journey from dependence to self-reliance, both emotionally and physically.

Parallel to her story, is the narrative of a land that is struggling to assert its identity, and moving towards a hard-won independence in a crucible of blood and tears.

Mehr is the symbol of the land. Her suffering, her distress, her tortured anguish, is an emblem of its agony, in particular of the women of the country, as it is being birthed. Set at a crucial time in the history of the struggle, when the land is on the cusp of becoming Bangladesh, the novel is in the voice of Robin Babu.

As an Assamese, he, like so many others living in that part of India adjacent to the theatre of war, is deeply affected by the horrors taking place at his very doorstep.

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