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Gurkha From Kargil

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Gurkha From Kargil - I / II / III
Major General Syed Ali Hamid tells the story of an exceptional commando: Major Kazim, Sitara-e-Jurat

by Major General Syed Ali Hamid
November 22, 2019 | November 29, 2019 | December 6, 2019



The Oak Grove School at Jharipani near Mussoorie, where Major Kazim received his early education

Why does a man yearn to visit the grave of a brother who fell in the line of duty decades ago and 3,000 km away from home? Is it grief, or a sense of duty, or the wish to bring back his remains to the motherland, or to honour the memory of his parents who mourned a lost son? I asked Major Qasim who found the grave of his brother Major Muhammad Kazim, Sitara-e-Jurat, 44 years after he was martyred in 1971, in what was once East Pakistan. He acknowledged that he was motivated by an overwhelming love for a brother he adored as a hero. Indeed Kazim was worthy of adoration because he was an exceptional person, a dutiful son, a caring sibling and a brilliant solider.

Rajab Ali Khan, their father, was from Kargil Tehsil on the border between Baltistan and Kashmir. He established a prosperous construction business far away in Southern Bihar as well as Mussoorie, a hill station overlooking Dehradun. Kazim’s early education was at the renowned Oak Grove School in Jharipani (cold water) near Mussoorie, home to a number of other prominent boarding schools, including two Jesus and Mary Convents – Hampton Court and Waverly, as well as St George’s Woodstock School. Oak Grove was established as a residential public school in 1888 by the East Indian Railway and is still ranked as one of the best government-run educational institutions in India – a dream school because apart from its enviable record in sports and education, it is surrounded by 256 acres of forest and situated on a hill top with a magnificent view of Dehradun.


One of the three sketches prepared by Capt Kazim while planning the raid on Sangream

Kazim was a born warrior, in spite of a non-martial background. He was an avid reader who began with comics but advanced to novels of war. His toys were swords and pistols and his games were about fighting – with his friends and the younger of his seven sisters as the “enemy”. He loved battle movies and accompanied his father on hunts in Dehradun’s forests with enthusiasm. There was, however, a soft side to his personality which liked English literature and enjoyed singing as well as playing the mouth organ.

Rajab Ali’s secure world collapsed at Independence in 1947 and the family left everything behind in India. While his father struggled to reestablish his business in Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir’s upcoming capital, Kazim was enrolled in a government school in Murree. His previous school had the distinction of producing a line of Olympic players like Richard Allen who had thrice been the goal keeper at the Summer Olympics and made brilliant saves during the famous Berlin Games of 1936. While he was an all-rounder, Kazim excelled in cricket and in Murree played with Javed Burki, a national batsman who turned civil servant and his brothers, Nausherwan and Jamshed.


Capt Kazim being awarded a Sitara-i-Jurat by President Ayub Khan, circa 1964

After graduating from Gordon College in Rawalpindi, he was commissioned in 1957 from the sixth course conducted at the Officer’s Training School (OTS) in Kohat. Here he earned the nickname of “Gurkha” probably due to the mountainous region from which he came and his height of one-and-a-half metres. He was modest, God-fearing and well regarded in the 10th Battalion of the Azad Kashmir Regular Forces (AKRF) where he was initially posted. The AKRF was the military element of the Azad Kashmir Government, with its own intake of officers and soldiers enrolled from Azad Kashmir and a pay and training structure separate from the Pakistan Army. All the AKRF battalions were stationed in Azad Kashmir which is where Kazim earned his Sitare-e-Jurat before the 1965 War.

It was March 1964 and the Indian Army was harassing the civilian population living close to the Cease Fire Line (CFL) in Azad Kashmir. His battalion was deployed in the Bagh Sector where an Indian raid killed and wounded a number of villagers, including women and children. When the harassment persisted for two months, a counter-raid was planned on Sangream, an isolated post in the Bara Gap. The post overlooked Salamabad Nallah, an infiltration route to the town of Uri. And Kazim, who did well at the Advanced Commando Course at Shinkiari, was selected to lead the raid by the battalion’s commando platoon.

I was intrigued by the records of Kazim covering the raid which his brother shared with me. They contained a set of three-dimensional sketches drawn and shaded with colour pencils, prepared meticulously during the planning. Each bunker, sentry post and trench was identified, as well as the urinal. Numbers on the sketch corresponded to the position of each group/party at the start of the assault. It was obvious that the preparation was thorough and that was why the raid was so successful. An 11-page post-action report accompanying the sketches covered every aspect of the action as well as the lessons learned. Reading this paper submitted 55 years ago was an education. The captain’s expression is good and thinking rational – a product of his education at the Oak Grove School. The paragraph of Lessons Learnt opens with, “Although the raid had been a complete success, it would be wrong to say that the whole affair was without any loop holes. Experience, which is the greatest of teachers, opened my eyes on many avenues of this op (operation) for further thought”.

Kazim initially conducted a daylight reconnaissance from across the valley. The post was on a spur that descended through a series of terraces, with fire trenches facing down a steep slope towards Salamabad Nallah. He understood that if it was targeted from the rear, there were greater chances of success. A second reconnaissance at night in which he approached within 30 metres of the post, confirmed the route. The reconnaissance confirmed the information from locals that Sangream was occupied by two platoons sleeping in three bunkers (houses) – a single-storey one to the north had a platoon of 1 Para Battalion and a double-decker structure 50 metres to the southwest had soldiers from the PAPs (an acronym unfamiliar to the author). In spite of being isolated, neither was the post secured by barbed wire or mines, nor was there a listening post on the obvious track taken by the raiding party. However, on top of the bunkers were three small towers, each manned round-the-clock by a pair of sentries who constantly shone their torches. Except for the weapons with the sentries, the rest were stored in the kote (armoury). The path reached a depression 30 meters west of the post, providing a good starting point for the final assault.


An early picture of Capt Kazim, 10 AKRF Battalion, circa 1963-64

On the night of 20 June, in a light drizzle, Kazim with his 30-strong platoon and local guides left their base at Sank around 8 p.m. Having been bred and served in the mountains, the soldiers were well acclimatized but they still took nearly six hours to descend 1,300 meters through a dense pine forest to the bed of Salamabad Nallah and then climb 650 meters up a steep slope to the track leading to their objective. The night was moonless and the approach took longer than planned but the half-hour margin that Kazim held for the unexpected paid off. The platoon reached the rendezvous (RV) by 1.40 a.m. All his childhood skills honed by eight years of service and the Commando Course were now applied.

The platoon was divided into task-related groups. Sixteen soldiers were carrying Sten submachineguns and the rest .303 rifles. They also carried 64 grenades but Kazim in his post-action report admits that they should have brought a rocket launcher to remove a light machinegun (LMG) post that caused them trouble. From the RV the groups stealthy moved to the launch-point and crept into position. Kazim led the three parties tasked to eliminate the sentries in the towers. Just when Sepoy Akram neutralized the sentries in the central tower, he was hit by an LMG that unexpectedly opened fire from the roof of the double-decker bunker to the southwest. As Akram struggled up, he was hit again but managed to crawl to cover with 11 bullet injuries. Meanwhile, an action group had surrounded the Northern Bunker, firing into the windows and lobbing grenades. Some occupants fled while others fiercely resisted. Kazim wrestled with a Sikh who was nearly twice his weight and size but managed to seize his rifle.


The map indicates the location of Sangream and the route taken for the raid led by Capt Kazim

Identifying the greater danger from the Northern Bunker which housed the platoon of 1st Para, the assault had focused on it. Unknown to Kazim, about 40 Indian soldiers had arrived the previous night and were asleep in the double-decker bunker, which also housed the kote (armoury). Naik Lal Hussain who had been at the forefront of the assault on the Northern Bunker rushed with two soldiers to the upper portion of the double-decker bunker just in time to block the exit and lobbed grenades through the door and windows. Unfortunately, the same LMG that had injured Akram sprayed the area and hit Hussain at short range. Before dying he pleaded to his comrades to continue fighting and take his gun back. To distinguish friend from foe, the recognition signal was an exchange of the battle-cry of “Ya Ali”. As the groups worked their way around the bunkers, firing through the windows and lobbing grenades, not only was the recognition signal effective, it also heightened the men’s courage.

While one action group was occupied with the upper floor of the double-decker, another proceeded to the lower level but found the door blocked, and lobbed a grenade through a window. There were shouts and cries from inside indicating a large body of soldiers but the group was reinforced in time by the holding party one of whom dropped a grenade into the chimney. Unfortunately, he was killed by the LMG that had already inflicted two casualties. Ultimately, Kazim crawled within range and neutralized it with a grenade. In all 33 grenades were used during the raid, which lasted 20 minutes. That is a long time in intense fighting and longer than had been anticipated because of the additional Indian platoon that had arrived a night earlier. However, there was a comfortable margin as Kazim appreciated that reinforcements from the nearest Indian post would take 45 minutes. A Very light was fired into the air, signaling a withdrawal to the RV and an LMG from across the Salamabad Nallah provided suppressive fire to help with this. During the entire raid, an Indian LMG in the fire trenches overlooking the nallah, fired fruitlessly down towards a wooden bridge.


Capt Kazim (sitting 3rd row from left) with other officers of TARIQ FORCE who infiltrated into Sonamerg from the direction of Dras-Kargil, preceding the 1965 war

Despite multiple wounds, Sepoy Akram trudged 3 km back to the RV on his own, because he didn’t want to slow down his comrades. Clearly he was strong-willed and was awarded a Tamgha-i-Jurat along with two who fell in battle. He finally became the battalion’s Subedar Major. The raid had been a success and had inflicted 50 casualties for the loss of two killed and two injured. Kazim claimed that a reason they didn’t lose more was that the platoon was wearing Mazri (a dark gray cloth) which blended with the night. A well-deserved Sitara-e-Jurat was presented to him by President Ayub Khan and his proud parents were invited to the investiture.

A year later, during the 1965 War, Kazim was back in action, but not with the battalion. 12 Division, responsible for the entire Kashmir Front, had drawn up a plan to penetrate Mujahids (irregular soldiers) supported by detachments of AKRF troops and the Special Services Group, into the Indian Held Kashmir. There were six groups, each of three companies and Kazim was with TARIQ FORCE that infiltrated into Sonamerg from the direction of Dras-Kargil in the north. His father belonged to this region as mentioned, and at home the family spoke Baltistan’s local dialect, which was probably one of the reasons he was part of this group. The groups were infiltrated in August and to reach its objective, TARIQ FORCE had to scale heights of 5,000 metres. Many suffered high-altitude sickness and the force was nearly recalled. They reached their operational base near Zoji La with great resolve and ambushed columns on the Srinagar-Kargil Road. However, they were unsuccessful in demolishing a couple of bridges and, after a full-scale war erupted, were recalled.

Kazim would fight his next and last battle six years later in a very hostile environment 3,000 km from home. It is remembered as the Battle of Ashuganj – a brilliant action by a Pakistani brigade in former East Pakistan that delayed the advance of an Indian division for ten days and culminated in the rout of it troops.


Pakistani infantry defending a position in East Pakistan during the 1971 Pakistan-India war

Major Kazim’s long and rewarding tenure with 10th AKRF Battalion ended after the 1965 War when he was posted to the Regiment Center at Mansar Camp near Attock. From here he transferred to 12th AKRF which mobilized for East Pakistan in mid-1971. He had been engaged a year before, but broke it off when he became aware that the battalion was leaving for a conflict zone. The unit sailed for Chittagong but Kazim followed later because a brother-in-law was killed in a road accident, leaving behind a very young family. It was November and the situation in the Eastern Wing was volatile but he could hear “the call of distant drums”, and boarded one of the last PIA flights before the airspace closed over East Pakistan. The “Gurkha” as Kazim was called by his friends because of his short height, was again heading into the line of fire.

His battalion was under the command of 27 Brigade which was defending the approach to Dhaka from the west, opposite the Indian town of Agartala. The brigade had two-and-a-half infantry battalions: 12 Frontier Force, 33 Baloch and 12 AK less two companies. It was supported by ten artillery guns, a platoon of antitank recoilless rifles (RRs) and two troops of M24 Chaffee light tanks that had been pulled out of storage in Dhaka. It also had a number of companies of Civil Armed Forces (CAF) comprising of Frontier Scouts and police airlifted from West Pakistan, as well as local Razakar and Mujahid units whose performance was inconsistent during the war.


The railway bridge over the River Meghna at Ashuganj that was demolished on the morning of the 9th of December 1971

Indian and Bangladeshi sources make much of the defeat of the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan. However, not only did many of its brigades and units perform exceptionally well, they also preserved their cohesion and discipline in an environment where a lesser force could have simply disintegrated. The brigade had been in operation since late September when – through the deployment of Bengali rebels – the Indian Army attempted to wear down the Pakistani forces through raids and occupying enclaves on the frontier. From then until the end of the war, 27 Brigade’s performance was exemplary. Nothing less could be expected of a formation led by Brigadier Saadullah Khan, an outstanding officer who had earned the Sword of Honour. After the war he was bestowed the Hilal-e-Jurat, Pakistan’s second highest gallantry award. In his book East Pakistan to Bangla Desh, he accuratly narrates the brigade’s operations after it arrived in East Pakistan in April 1971 and provides a detailed insight into the Battle of Ashuganj.

When the Indians invaded East Pakistan on the 30th of November, they threw the full weight of a brigade against two 12 FF companies defending a border position at Akhaura with the backing of a few recoilless rifles and two tanks. The Indian brigade of three regular battalions was assisted by two battalions of rebels, and supported by a squadron of amphibious PT-76 tanks, the entire divisional artillery of 72 guns and the Indian Air Force. With their ever-present brigade commander, the two FF companies held this large force at bay for five days. This was no mean feat, and the story of this engagement deserves to be told separately.


Brig Saadullah Khan as a lieutenant colonel commanding the 14th Punjab, circa 1967

When the Indians finally outflanked their position, 12 FF conducted a fighting withdrawal to Brahman Baria defended by 33 Baloch. In order to provide a passage for troops expected to withdraw from Sylhet in the north, for two days they held the Indians at Braham Bari. However, when it was decided to transport them by steamers, 27 Brigade fell back to protect Ashuganj and the one-kilometer-long rail bridge over the River Meghna.

The Indians were emboldened by the rapid withdrawal of 27 Brigade but they had a problem. Their guns were held up by the channels of River Titas and to their subsequent ill luck, an artillery round destroyed the team for directing air strikes. From the rapid disengagement by 27 Brigade the Indians misjudged that it was disorganized and retreating across the river. They decided that their PT-76 tanks which had swum across the Titas could compensate for the absence of fire support, but they were mistaken. Additionally, they failed to appreciate that their troops were relatively green, while the Pakistani brigade had been involved in skirmishes since September. Each fifth man in its regular battalions had been either killed or injured. The Indian 57 Infantry Division commanded by Major General B.F. Gonsalves was in for a shock.

27 Brigade withdrew from Brahman Baria along the railway line that was converted with a Herculean effort into a roadway by removing 10 km of track and sleepers. Saadullah reckoned that the Indians would use the same approach and 3 km ahead of Ashuganj, he deployed 33 Baloch with a screen of a depleted company of 12 AK and CAF. A second company commanded by Major Kazim, who was also the acting commander of 12 AK, held the railway embankment near the Ashuganj Station – the last line of defense before the bridge. Two 12 FF companies went back across the river to secure a large supply dump, but Saadullah felt very comfortable with the remaining two companies as his reserve. This did not last however, because they were also withdrawn for Dacca’s defense leaving the brigade and Ashuganj dangerously vulnerable. The most exposed side was the town north of the railway line occupied by four CAF companies. They crumbled when an outflanking manoeuver struck them unexpectedly on the 9th of December.

On the 8th of December the Indians resumed their advance from Brahman Baria. 57 Division had taken eight days to penetrate only 14 km, against a Pakistani brigade that was low in number but high in fighting spirit. The Indians quickly pushed the screen back, but it wasn’t till midday that their tanks appeared in front of 33 Baloch and its two RRs. The RR had limited range but its 106 mm caliber gun could pulverize the light Indian tanks. A couple of rounds from the RRs and the PT-76s veered off into a clump where they were harassed by the battalion mortars. The brigade did not want to expose their guns at this early stage of the battle. Later in the day there was the rumble of tanks to the northeast and worried about this open flank, the commander deployed a screen in Durgapur of a platoon reinforced with CAF.


Ashuganj Railway Station looking west towards the bridge over the River Meghna. The HQ of 27 Brigade was located at the grain silo on the left

For the rest of the day there was little Indian action but around 8 a.m. next morning on the decisive day of 9 December, there was again the sound of tanks heading towards the screen in Durgapur. A little later, the brigade commander who spent the night with 33 Baloch, received an alarming message from his headquarters. The Indians had penetrated Ashuganj and the GOC wanted him to return with a 33 Baloch company. The battle for Ashuganj was on. Without waiting for the company to assemble, Saadullah rushed back and on the way was alarmed to see the screen at Durgapur falling back. A large body of Indian troops approaching the railway embankment through Ashuganj was also visible. Saadullah acknowledges that on three accounts he had miscalculated. First, the Indian advance from Brahman Baria accelerated by the rebels carrying their supplies, had arrived a day earlier than expected. Secondly, the Indians had outflanked his brigade from the north and thirdly, he relied too much on the strength of Ashuganj’s built-up area and the CAF troops now driven out by the Indians. Saadullah was still 1,000 meters short of Major Kazim’s company and with the troops who had fallen back from the screen, engaged the Indian battalion from the railway embankment.

Three Indian prongs were closing in – 4th Guards along the railway track, 10th Bihar in the middle down the road from Sylhet, and the 18 Rajputana Rifles (Raj Rif), through Ashuganj. At this juncture, I am going to refer to a post by Shahzaman Mozumder that appears on his blog site with the title “Born for 71.” He was a college student who joined the Mukti Bahini rebels, and was in the front line with a rebel battalion that was following 10th Bihar. According to him, when the Raj Rif ejected the CAF from Ashuganj, they were engaged from the railway embankment and took casualties. The leading company was pinned down and a second company that passed through, lost their company commander and men when they came under fire from the railway station. While trying to extricate the first two and get to the bridge, the next two companies met the same fate. The absence of artillery support was telling and the entire battalion was pinned down. Indian aircraft were circling overhead but without the aid of an air controller, they couldn’t discern friend from foe. This was fortunate for the very exposed Pakistani troops on the embankment.


Major General B. F. Gonsalves, GOC 57 Indian Mountain Division, whose battalions were routed during the Battle of Ashuganj, examining Pakistani documents

Kazim’s company took the brunt of the attack. He was aware that the embankment was the linchpin of the brigade’s defence and moved along the trenches, encouraging his men. The Indians had almost reached the bridge when Munir, the Staff Captain followed by Sarfraz, the brigade major along with runners, clerks and signalers of the brigade headquarter located at a grain silo 400 meters behind, rushed to the embankment. They were joined by the GOC who directed the fire of his artillery. Kazim grabbed a light machinegun and entered the firefight when the situation became bleak. In the words of his brigade commander, “12 AK troops fought gloriously and tenaciously”. No greater praise can be offered to his soldiers by a commander.

In spite of being shot in the thigh, Kazim kept inspiring his men till he was mortally wounded in the chest and neck. With his last breath he shouted, “I am dying but carry on and finish the devils”. Seeing both the GOC and Brigadier Saadullah on the embankment more soldiers rallied to the defence and the Indians started suffering heavier casualties. Around 10:00 am there was a massive explosion as the GOC ordered the span of the railway bridge to be demolished but the Pakistani troops did not panic. They were too immersed in the fire fight. While standing next to the GOC, Sarfraz was hit in the neck and gasping for breath, collapsed in a pool of blood. He recovered miraculously after a doctor removed blood clots and restored his breathing. He was subsequently awarded a Sitara-e-Jurat and attained the rank of lieutenant general. The attack had been checked by the determined defense. In the words of the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo, it was, “A damn close-run thing”.

The Indians had made a bold but careless attempt against what they presumed were only covering troops on the eastern end of the bridge. The Raj Rif was taking serious casualties and under heavy small arms and artillery fire, its soldiers started pulling back. Back to Shahzaman who termed the subsequent events as catastrophic:

“18 Rajput was in deep trouble and rapidly started taking casualties. As soon as it tried to withdraw, the Pakistanis, emboldened that they had the upper hand, started chasing the now disorganized Indian troops. A few Pakistani jeeps with recoilless rifles (RCL) suddenly appeared. The first one got a direct hit from an Indian PT-76 tank and was knocked out. However, the other RCLs very quickly knocked down three tanks in front of our eyes. The Pakistanis, now encouraged by their initial success, came out from their hidden positions; shouting ‘Ya Ali! Ya Ali!’ charged the retreating and disorganized Indians. There was complete chaos among the Indian troops. Some took position in the cover-less terrain and started shooting at the Pakistanis, while others started retreating in panic.”

Sadly, Kazim had not survived to witness this spectacle but his stand unto death had not been in vain.

There is a quote attributed to Napoleon, the great captain of war: “In every battle there is a moment in which the least maneuver is decisive and gives superiority, as one drop of water causes an overflow.”

Saadullah had the ability to identify and seize the moment. The counterattack did not begin as a deliberate and well organized affair but with what Saadullah describes as a “sally”. Grabbing a rifle, he led 10 to 15 soldiers through a culvert on the embankment and to their extreme luck, just then an M-24 tank sent by the GOC arrived, along with 15 soldiers of its close protection group. It too followed and in the words of the brigadier, “stole a march by subsequently leading the assault”. The M24 has a relatively small 75 mm caliber gun, but with 48 rounds of high explosive ammunition and three machineguns, it can be very effective against infantry. Blasting at the Indian trenches with its main gun and spraying the area with its machineguns, the M24 was followed by the Pakistani soldiers shouting their battle cry. It was a drop of water but caused an overflow and the Raj Rif began to crumble as the Pakistani infantry advanced in short rushes from one cover to the next.

Elated by this, the company of 12 AK, also crested the embankment and as the sally transformed into a counterattack, the troops were delighted to see the Raj Rif rapidly abandon its trenches. Even its soldiers who had been bypassed, ran. Apparently yet another Indian battalion that had been ordered to close up to the bridge after Ashuganj had been taken, took to flight. By the time the counterattack reached the furthest end of Ashuganj, most of the Pakistani soldiers were running out of ammunition and some were using the small arms abandoned by the Indians. However, there was more to follow. As the brigadier and his group headed back through Ashuganj flushing out the remaining Indians by shouting battle cries, two companies of 33 Baloch, withdrawing along the railway line, swung north and began pursuing 10th Bihar as well as their tanks – all infected by panic of the Raj Rif. It’s dangerous when panic sets in and infuses wild excitement among the hounds chasing their quarry. Everyone was joining into the pursuit including the soldiers from the administrative echelon. Even the jeep and ambulance drivers enjoyed the chase in their vehicles and called on others to join it. Unable to withdraw in a hurry, some of the Indian crews abandoned their tanks.

The last episode in this affair is of two 33 Baloch officers with ten soldiers who had reached the farthest in the pursuit. They emerged from a clump of trees and found 300 disconcerted soldiers of the Raj Rif milling around. The Indians raised their hands instinctively, but when they realized it was only a small group of attackers, some yelled, “Take hold of them. They’re only ten.” The Pakistanis fired and pell-mell the Raj Rif fled again. That night, after immobilizing the Indian tanks they had captured, 27 Brigade crossed over to Bhairab Bazar in good order and buried their fallen comrades. They also buried the bodies of five unfortunate soldiers they found tide up and shot in Ashuganj. This was not the first time they had seen evidence of Indian brutality with PoWs.

What do Indian authors say? Major General Ashok Verma wrote an article on the 41st Anniversary of the blowing of the Meghna Bridge. He commanded the battalion of the Raj Rif which bolted and precipitated a general rout but glossed over that fact. “After fighting through the built up portion of Ashuganj,” he writes, “The battalion got close enough to the Bridge to make the GOC of the Pakistani Division panic. He hastily ordered the blowing up of the Mehgna Bridge at both ends. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s 27 Brigade, finding itself bypassed, fell back and then counter-attacked the threatening Rajputs.” He does not elaborate on the impact of the counterattack and I wonder how long he took to reassemble his errant unit? In a more recent study by Arjun Subramaniam titled India’s Wars, the author briefly concedes a “spirited resistance by 27 Brigade” but makes no mention of the two companies that held an entire Indian brigade at Akhaura for five days. He refers to the Pakistanis withdrawing across the river in the face of “fierce assaults” (a highly exaggerated statement), by two Indian brigades and what he considers a “riveting account” of Lieutenant General Shamsher Mehta who commanded the squadron of PT-76s. I have not read the General’s account but I wonder if it includes how the RRs of 27 Brigade mauled his squadron?

General Sir Ian Hamilton who commanded the Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli in World War I put it this way:

“On the actual day of battle, naked truths may be picked up for the asking; by the following morning they have begun to get into their uniforms.”

Nevertheless, as historians document and compile/verify individual battle accounts, reality emerges and the true heroes shine. A more accurate account of the battle around Ashuganj is by the Indian author Major General Gurcharan Singh Sandu. In his history of the Indian Armored Corps, he mentions the withdrawal of the Raj Rif while it repeatedly appealed for assistance from the tanks, the “pressure” on 10th Bihar, the loss of three PT-76s to the RRs and the abandonment of a fourth, and the destruction of one Pakistani RR. Finally, in a fairly accurate account in his book Indian Army after Independence, Major Praval describes the operation of the 57th Indian Mountain Division but when it comes to the final stage of the battle of Ashuganj he also stumbles. “As at Kushtia,” he writes, “the Pakistanis let the Indians come into the built-up areas and then opened up. The brigade lost 120 men and 4 tanks. About this time 10 Bihar also arrived from the North and both battalions had to fall back”. Falling back is a diplomatically mild term for a rout.

Major Kazim’s last resting place remained unrevealed for the next 40 years along with 43 other martyrs of his battalion. And then according to his brother Qasim, came “Divine intervention” – an act of God that did good.


The auditorium at the Center of the AKRF Regiment at Mansar Camp is named after the legendary Maj Kazim and was opened by COAS Gen Bajwa after renovation

Although during the 1971 war there was scant information flowing back to the families from what was then East Pakistan, Major Kazim’s father was informed by the Ministry of Defense (MOD) on the 16th of December 1971: that he was officially reported missing but thought to be a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, in time, the family became conscious through letters from PoWs – which had been routed via the Red Cross – that he had fallen in battle and was buried at Bairab Bazaar. They were devastated. The formal confirmation arrived three years later in July 1974 after the PoWs were repatriated. The letter from MOD stated, “It has been recorded by GHQ, AG’s Branch (through evidence furnished by returnee PWs), that he laid down his life in action on 9/10 December 1971 in East Pakistan while serving with 12 AKRF.”

Unfortunately, official death notices are always inexpressive with no description of the circumstances. His comrades in combat in East Pakistan, however, told the family that Kazim, alias Gurkha, had fallen as a hero in Ashuganj, defending a railway embankment against overwhelming odds. They heard how brilliantly his commander Brigadier Saadullah had not only held an Indian infantry division for almost ten days but also counterattacked and routed the Indians. They also learned that there were more heroes, including Major (later Lieutenant General) Sarfraz, who survived a bullet in the neck and was awarded a Sitara-e-Jurat; and Staff Captain Muneer, who rallied the brigade headquarters troops to reinforce the embankment.


The auditorium that bears his name also has this portrait of Maj Kazim (alias ‘Gurkha’), Sitara-e-Jurat

Although the tale of bravery of a twice-hero is inspiring, I was fascinated when Qasim explained how he concluded that God had decreed that he would discover his brother’s last resting place. Kazim was 20 years older and as much a father as an elder brother. On the last day of every leave, he would take his youngest sibling to a matinee show before boarding a bus back to his duty station. Kazim dissuaded his brother from joining the army but after the tragedy of 1971, Qasim was adamant and his father relented.

The Azad Kashmir Forces became a regular Pakistan Army infantry regiment in 1974 and a year later Qasim was commissioned into the 2nd AK Battalion. His father died a sad man in 1979 and ten years later, Qasim took an early retirement. His mother passed away in 2006. Among her possessions was her Kazim’s shirt and vest which she smelled and kissed when she believed no one was looking. Qasim never gave up his love of a brother lost but not forgotten in a distant land – but life must continue.


Maj Qasim prays at the last resting place of his brother Maj Kazim – with the Imam who witnessed his burial at Ashuganj

The Quran has a verse (3:54) that informs humanity that “[…] but Allah planned. And Allah is the best of planners”.

In 2011, Qasim’s daughter was in Sydney to complete her Masters and a family from Bangladesh who had settled in Australia proposed for her. While talking to the prospective father-in-law on a long-distance call, Qasim told him about the burial of his brother at Bahirab Bazaar. When the gentleman said his village was only 18 kilometers from the town, Qasim believed that the proposal had the blessings of his brother. The wedding was in Islamabad and after the Valima (marriage reception) in Dhaka, the host took Qasim and his family on what was to be a pilgrimage to the battlefield at Ashuganj.

They walked from the railway station along the embankment resolutely defended by Kazim’s company. They could see the railway culvert through which Brigadier Saadullah launched a sally with a tank and a handful of men that transformed into a full-fledged counterattack. Qasim’s military eye could visualize it rolling over the now overbuilt landscape and putting two Indian battalions with their tanks to flight. On the way back they stopped at a war memorial whose inscription in Bengali glorified the role of rebel forces but the Indian Army wasn’t acknowledged in name and only as “friends”. Considering that Bangladesh would not have emerged on the world map without an offensive by more than three Indian Corps, this inconsistency is strange.


Trio of heroes – Surviving veterans of the 1971 Battle of Ashuganj: Brig Saadullah HJ (center), flanked by his staff captain Maj Munir (left) and his brigade major, Lt Gen Sarfraz, SJ

I asked Qasim how he felt after the visit. “My family and I were overwhelmed with emotion,” he replied, “and I thanked the Almighty for getting us that far.” It was just a day trip, and there was no time to search for the graves of the martyrs of 12th AKRF Battalion.

He returned to Dhaka three years later in 2015 to celebrate Eid’s festival and this time headed for Bhairab Bazaar. Close to the town, he stopped at a tea stall to buy cigarettes. Qasim claims there was “divine intervention” at this moment – an act of God that brought about good. “I saw a young man curiously looking at me and likely wanting to talk,” he recollects. “When I told him I was from Pakistan, he warmly responded saying he had visited Karachi to meet his relatives. I casually asked if he knew about a school where a Pakistan Army unit camped during the 1971 War.” The lad said he was too young to remember but called his mother, who said that it was next to their house and she remembers seeing the Pakistani soldiers through the window. The lad led them to the school and while they looked around and took pictures, he said that he had heard from his elders that the bodies brought from Ashuganj were buried in the city’s old cemetery.

The Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful, had taken Qasim by the hand and was leading him on.


The old railway bridge over the River Meghna that was blown up during the 1971 war is still visible between two new bridges

With hopeful expectation they arrived at the graveyard where they were approached by an elderly group of men. When told of the intent of the visit, one of them asked the for the exact date of the burial and then introduced himself as the Imam of the adjacent mosque. He recalled that as 16-year-old lad, had attended the last rites and indicated a bare plot which a mass grave of the soldiers. He also pointed out where a an officer was buried separately. It was in an unkempt corner adjacent to the mosque with no mound or headstone – known but to God. For Qasim, the enormous gulf of time and distance had narrowed to a patch of soil that guarded his beloved brother’s remains. This was the last resting place of a fighting hero of Pakistan.

To paraphrase a verse composed by Robert Brook in a poem titled “The Soldier”:

“If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field, that is forever Pakistan […] Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.”

Qasim wants to bring the remains of his brother home and spoke to Pakistan’s Ambassador in Dhaka as well as the Army Headquarters on his return to Pakistan. The main obstacle is the Bangladesh government’s hostile attitude. From the army’s viewpoint, this is not a one-off case. There are many officers and soldiers buried in the fields of Bangladesh. But Qasim remains hopeful and prays, “Maula madad de” [May God assist me].

But in Pakistan, Kazim’s gallantry and sacrifice was not forgotten and in 1983, a new auditorium at the AK Regiment Center was named after him. Kazim was again remembered in April 2019, when on the initiative of Lieutenant General Sher Afgun, the Colonel Commandant of the AK Regiment, the auditorium was remodeled and inaugurated by the COAS, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who paid glowing tribute to Major Kazim. His brother Qasim was present at the occasion.

At the time of writing this article, Brigadier Saadullah is 90 years old. I sent his son Dr. Billal a photograph of Kazim, hoping the brigadier would recall something about this fighter. I was cautioned that the brigadier’s memory was failing but when he looked at the photograph he said, “Yeh East Pakistan min Shaheed hua tha!” [He was martyred in East Pakistan]. Billal showed him the photo again early next morning when his mind was more active and he uttered the opening stanza from one of the lyrics that inspired the country during the 1965 War:

“Aye puttar hattan te nayein vikde” [Sons like these cannot be purchased in a store].


The Bangladesh War Memorial at Ashuganj. The railway embankment where Maj Kazim fought to the end on the 9th of December 1971 is in the background

Though 40 years had elapsed and in spite of a failing memory, the brigadier remembered the officer. Kazim was one in a million. The Gurkha, as he was known at the Officers Training School, was conscious of being short and stood on his toes next to a very tall officer in a group photograph taken during a course. But in combat, he proved to be a giant among men.

The lyrics of the song “Aye puttar hattan te nayein vikde” are from the great poet Sufi Tabassum and recorded by the iconic singer Noor Jehan. The next stanza is:

“Ki labni aye vich bazaar kure?” [What are you searching for in the market?] – followed by the verse “Aye dain aye mere data di. Na aiwein takran maar kure” [This is the gift of God. That cannot be purchased by your own desire].

The author is indebted to Major Qasim for providing him documents and photographs and sharing personal recollections that made this article possible. He also wishes to thank his neighbour and friend Ali Bilgrami, who first suggested that he write about Major Kazim

The Friday Times | Gurkha From Kargil - I
The Friday Times | Gurkha From Kargil - II
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This is the picture engrained in my mind since childhood:-"Muslim soldiers charged the retreating and disorganized Indians. There was complete chaos among the Indian troops. Some took position in the cover-less terrain and started shooting at the Pakistanis, while others started retreating in panic.”
 

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This is the picture engrained in my mind since childhood:-"Muslim soldiers charged the retreating and disorganized Indians. There was complete chaos among the Indian troops. Some took position in the cover-less terrain and started shooting at the Pakistanis, while others started retreating in panic.”
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Gurkha From Kargil - I / II / III
Major General Syed Ali Hamid tells the story of an exceptional commando: Major Kazim, Sitara-e-Jurat

by Major General Syed Ali Hamid
November 22, 2019 | November 29, 2019 | December 6, 2019



The Oak Grove School at Jharipani near Mussoorie, where Major Kazim received his early education

Why does a man yearn to visit the grave of a brother who fell in the line of duty decades ago and 3,000 km away from home? Is it grief, or a sense of duty, or the wish to bring back his remains to the motherland, or to honour the memory of his parents who mourned a lost son? I asked Major Qasim who found the grave of his brother Major Muhammad Kazim, Sitara-e-Jurat, 44 years after he was martyred in 1971, in what was once East Pakistan. He acknowledged that he was motivated by an overwhelming love for a brother he adored as a hero. Indeed Kazim was worthy of adoration because he was an exceptional person, a dutiful son, a caring sibling and a brilliant solider.

Rajab Ali Khan, their father, was from Kargil Tehsil on the border between Baltistan and Kashmir. He established a prosperous construction business far away in Southern Bihar as well as Mussoorie, a hill station overlooking Dehradun. Kazim’s early education was at the renowned Oak Grove School in Jharipani (cold water) near Mussoorie, home to a number of other prominent boarding schools, including two Jesus and Mary Convents – Hampton Court and Waverly, as well as St George’s Woodstock School. Oak Grove was established as a residential public school in 1888 by the East Indian Railway and is still ranked as one of the best government-run educational institutions in India – a dream school because apart from its enviable record in sports and education, it is surrounded by 256 acres of forest and situated on a hill top with a magnificent view of Dehradun.


One of the three sketches prepared by Capt Kazim while planning the raid on Sangream

Kazim was a born warrior, in spite of a non-martial background. He was an avid reader who began with comics but advanced to novels of war. His toys were swords and pistols and his games were about fighting – with his friends and the younger of his seven sisters as the “enemy”. He loved battle movies and accompanied his father on hunts in Dehradun’s forests with enthusiasm. There was, however, a soft side to his personality which liked English literature and enjoyed singing as well as playing the mouth organ.

Rajab Ali’s secure world collapsed at Independence in 1947 and the family left everything behind in India. While his father struggled to reestablish his business in Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir’s upcoming capital, Kazim was enrolled in a government school in Murree. His previous school had the distinction of producing a line of Olympic players like Richard Allen who had thrice been the goal keeper at the Summer Olympics and made brilliant saves during the famous Berlin Games of 1936. While he was an all-rounder, Kazim excelled in cricket and in Murree played with Javed Burki, a national batsman who turned civil servant and his brothers, Nausherwan and Jamshed.


Capt Kazim being awarded a Sitara-i-Jurat by President Ayub Khan, circa 1964

After graduating from Gordon College in Rawalpindi, he was commissioned in 1957 from the sixth course conducted at the Officer’s Training School (OTS) in Kohat. Here he earned the nickname of “Gurkha” probably due to the mountainous region from which he came and his height of one-and-a-half metres. He was modest, God-fearing and well regarded in the 10th Battalion of the Azad Kashmir Regular Forces (AKRF) where he was initially posted. The AKRF was the military element of the Azad Kashmir Government, with its own intake of officers and soldiers enrolled from Azad Kashmir and a pay and training structure separate from the Pakistan Army. All the AKRF battalions were stationed in Azad Kashmir which is where Kazim earned his Sitare-e-Jurat before the 1965 War.

It was March 1964 and the Indian Army was harassing the civilian population living close to the Cease Fire Line (CFL) in Azad Kashmir. His battalion was deployed in the Bagh Sector where an Indian raid killed and wounded a number of villagers, including women and children. When the harassment persisted for two months, a counter-raid was planned on Sangream, an isolated post in the Bara Gap. The post overlooked Salamabad Nallah, an infiltration route to the town of Uri. And Kazim, who did well at the Advanced Commando Course at Shinkiari, was selected to lead the raid by the battalion’s commando platoon.

I was intrigued by the records of Kazim covering the raid which his brother shared with me. They contained a set of three-dimensional sketches drawn and shaded with colour pencils, prepared meticulously during the planning. Each bunker, sentry post and trench was identified, as well as the urinal. Numbers on the sketch corresponded to the position of each group/party at the start of the assault. It was obvious that the preparation was thorough and that was why the raid was so successful. An 11-page post-action report accompanying the sketches covered every aspect of the action as well as the lessons learned. Reading this paper submitted 55 years ago was an education. The captain’s expression is good and thinking rational – a product of his education at the Oak Grove School. The paragraph of Lessons Learnt opens with, “Although the raid had been a complete success, it would be wrong to say that the whole affair was without any loop holes. Experience, which is the greatest of teachers, opened my eyes on many avenues of this op (operation) for further thought”.

Kazim initially conducted a daylight reconnaissance from across the valley. The post was on a spur that descended through a series of terraces, with fire trenches facing down a steep slope towards Salamabad Nallah. He understood that if it was targeted from the rear, there were greater chances of success. A second reconnaissance at night in which he approached within 30 metres of the post, confirmed the route. The reconnaissance confirmed the information from locals that Sangream was occupied by two platoons sleeping in three bunkers (houses) – a single-storey one to the north had a platoon of 1 Para Battalion and a double-decker structure 50 metres to the southwest had soldiers from the PAPs (an acronym unfamiliar to the author). In spite of being isolated, neither was the post secured by barbed wire or mines, nor was there a listening post on the obvious track taken by the raiding party. However, on top of the bunkers were three small towers, each manned round-the-clock by a pair of sentries who constantly shone their torches. Except for the weapons with the sentries, the rest were stored in the kote (armoury). The path reached a depression 30 meters west of the post, providing a good starting point for the final assault.


An early picture of Capt Kazim, 10 AKRF Battalion, circa 1963-64

On the night of 20 June, in a light drizzle, Kazim with his 30-strong platoon and local guides left their base at Sank around 8 p.m. Having been bred and served in the mountains, the soldiers were well acclimatized but they still took nearly six hours to descend 1,300 meters through a dense pine forest to the bed of Salamabad Nallah and then climb 650 meters up a steep slope to the track leading to their objective. The night was moonless and the approach took longer than planned but the half-hour margin that Kazim held for the unexpected paid off. The platoon reached the rendezvous (RV) by 1.40 a.m. All his childhood skills honed by eight years of service and the Commando Course were now applied.

The platoon was divided into task-related groups. Sixteen soldiers were carrying Sten submachineguns and the rest .303 rifles. They also carried 64 grenades but Kazim in his post-action report admits that they should have brought a rocket launcher to remove a light machinegun (LMG) post that caused them trouble. From the RV the groups stealthy moved to the launch-point and crept into position. Kazim led the three parties tasked to eliminate the sentries in the towers. Just when Sepoy Akram neutralized the sentries in the central tower, he was hit by an LMG that unexpectedly opened fire from the roof of the double-decker bunker to the southwest. As Akram struggled up, he was hit again but managed to crawl to cover with 11 bullet injuries. Meanwhile, an action group had surrounded the Northern Bunker, firing into the windows and lobbing grenades. Some occupants fled while others fiercely resisted. Kazim wrestled with a Sikh who was nearly twice his weight and size but managed to seize his rifle.


The map indicates the location of Sangream and the route taken for the raid led by Capt Kazim

Identifying the greater danger from the Northern Bunker which housed the platoon of 1st Para, the assault had focused on it. Unknown to Kazim, about 40 Indian soldiers had arrived the previous night and were asleep in the double-decker bunker, which also housed the kote (armoury). Naik Lal Hussain who had been at the forefront of the assault on the Northern Bunker rushed with two soldiers to the upper portion of the double-decker bunker just in time to block the exit and lobbed grenades through the door and windows. Unfortunately, the same LMG that had injured Akram sprayed the area and hit Hussain at short range. Before dying he pleaded to his comrades to continue fighting and take his gun back. To distinguish friend from foe, the recognition signal was an exchange of the battle-cry of “Ya Ali”. As the groups worked their way around the bunkers, firing through the windows and lobbing grenades, not only was the recognition signal effective, it also heightened the men’s courage.

While one action group was occupied with the upper floor of the double-decker, another proceeded to the lower level but found the door blocked, and lobbed a grenade through a window. There were shouts and cries from inside indicating a large body of soldiers but the group was reinforced in time by the holding party one of whom dropped a grenade into the chimney. Unfortunately, he was killed by the LMG that had already inflicted two casualties. Ultimately, Kazim crawled within range and neutralized it with a grenade. In all 33 grenades were used during the raid, which lasted 20 minutes. That is a long time in intense fighting and longer than had been anticipated because of the additional Indian platoon that had arrived a night earlier. However, there was a comfortable margin as Kazim appreciated that reinforcements from the nearest Indian post would take 45 minutes. A Very light was fired into the air, signaling a withdrawal to the RV and an LMG from across the Salamabad Nallah provided suppressive fire to help with this. During the entire raid, an Indian LMG in the fire trenches overlooking the nallah, fired fruitlessly down towards a wooden bridge.


Capt Kazim (sitting 3rd row from left) with other officers of TARIQ FORCE who infiltrated into Sonamerg from the direction of Dras-Kargil, preceding the 1965 war

Despite multiple wounds, Sepoy Akram trudged 3 km back to the RV on his own, because he didn’t want to slow down his comrades. Clearly he was strong-willed and was awarded a Tamgha-i-Jurat along with two who fell in battle. He finally became the battalion’s Subedar Major. The raid had been a success and had inflicted 50 casualties for the loss of two killed and two injured. Kazim claimed that a reason they didn’t lose more was that the platoon was wearing Mazri (a dark gray cloth) which blended with the night. A well-deserved Sitara-e-Jurat was presented to him by President Ayub Khan and his proud parents were invited to the investiture.

A year later, during the 1965 War, Kazim was back in action, but not with the battalion. 12 Division, responsible for the entire Kashmir Front, had drawn up a plan to penetrate Mujahids (irregular soldiers) supported by detachments of AKRF troops and the Special Services Group, into the Indian Held Kashmir. There were six groups, each of three companies and Kazim was with TARIQ FORCE that infiltrated into Sonamerg from the direction of Dras-Kargil in the north. His father belonged to this region as mentioned, and at home the family spoke Baltistan’s local dialect, which was probably one of the reasons he was part of this group. The groups were infiltrated in August and to reach its objective, TARIQ FORCE had to scale heights of 5,000 metres. Many suffered high-altitude sickness and the force was nearly recalled. They reached their operational base near Zoji La with great resolve and ambushed columns on the Srinagar-Kargil Road. However, they were unsuccessful in demolishing a couple of bridges and, after a full-scale war erupted, were recalled.

Kazim would fight his next and last battle six years later in a very hostile environment 3,000 km from home. It is remembered as the Battle of Ashuganj – a brilliant action by a Pakistani brigade in former East Pakistan that delayed the advance of an Indian division for ten days and culminated in the rout of it troops.


Pakistani infantry defending a position in East Pakistan during the 1971 Pakistan-India war

Major Kazim’s long and rewarding tenure with 10th AKRF Battalion ended after the 1965 War when he was posted to the Regiment Center at Mansar Camp near Attock. From here he transferred to 12th AKRF which mobilized for East Pakistan in mid-1971. He had been engaged a year before, but broke it off when he became aware that the battalion was leaving for a conflict zone. The unit sailed for Chittagong but Kazim followed later because a brother-in-law was killed in a road accident, leaving behind a very young family. It was November and the situation in the Eastern Wing was volatile but he could hear “the call of distant drums”, and boarded one of the last PIA flights before the airspace closed over East Pakistan. The “Gurkha” as Kazim was called by his friends because of his short height, was again heading into the line of fire.

His battalion was under the command of 27 Brigade which was defending the approach to Dhaka from the west, opposite the Indian town of Agartala. The brigade had two-and-a-half infantry battalions: 12 Frontier Force, 33 Baloch and 12 AK less two companies. It was supported by ten artillery guns, a platoon of antitank recoilless rifles (RRs) and two troops of M24 Chaffee light tanks that had been pulled out of storage in Dhaka. It also had a number of companies of Civil Armed Forces (CAF) comprising of Frontier Scouts and police airlifted from West Pakistan, as well as local Razakar and Mujahid units whose performance was inconsistent during the war.


The railway bridge over the River Meghna at Ashuganj that was demolished on the morning of the 9th of December 1971

Indian and Bangladeshi sources make much of the defeat of the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan. However, not only did many of its brigades and units perform exceptionally well, they also preserved their cohesion and discipline in an environment where a lesser force could have simply disintegrated. The brigade had been in operation since late September when – through the deployment of Bengali rebels – the Indian Army attempted to wear down the Pakistani forces through raids and occupying enclaves on the frontier. From then until the end of the war, 27 Brigade’s performance was exemplary. Nothing less could be expected of a formation led by Brigadier Saadullah Khan, an outstanding officer who had earned the Sword of Honour. After the war he was bestowed the Hilal-e-Jurat, Pakistan’s second highest gallantry award. In his book East Pakistan to Bangla Desh, he accuratly narrates the brigade’s operations after it arrived in East Pakistan in April 1971 and provides a detailed insight into the Battle of Ashuganj.

When the Indians invaded East Pakistan on the 30th of November, they threw the full weight of a brigade against two 12 FF companies defending a border position at Akhaura with the backing of a few recoilless rifles and two tanks. The Indian brigade of three regular battalions was assisted by two battalions of rebels, and supported by a squadron of amphibious PT-76 tanks, the entire divisional artillery of 72 guns and the Indian Air Force. With their ever-present brigade commander, the two FF companies held this large force at bay for five days. This was no mean feat, and the story of this engagement deserves to be told separately.


Brig Saadullah Khan as a lieutenant colonel commanding the 14th Punjab, circa 1967

When the Indians finally outflanked their position, 12 FF conducted a fighting withdrawal to Brahman Baria defended by 33 Baloch. In order to provide a passage for troops expected to withdraw from Sylhet in the north, for two days they held the Indians at Braham Bari. However, when it was decided to transport them by steamers, 27 Brigade fell back to protect Ashuganj and the one-kilometer-long rail bridge over the River Meghna.

The Indians were emboldened by the rapid withdrawal of 27 Brigade but they had a problem. Their guns were held up by the channels of River Titas and to their subsequent ill luck, an artillery round destroyed the team for directing air strikes. From the rapid disengagement by 27 Brigade the Indians misjudged that it was disorganized and retreating across the river. They decided that their PT-76 tanks which had swum across the Titas could compensate for the absence of fire support, but they were mistaken. Additionally, they failed to appreciate that their troops were relatively green, while the Pakistani brigade had been involved in skirmishes since September. Each fifth man in its regular battalions had been either killed or injured. The Indian 57 Infantry Division commanded by Major General B.F. Gonsalves was in for a shock.

27 Brigade withdrew from Brahman Baria along the railway line that was converted with a Herculean effort into a roadway by removing 10 km of track and sleepers. Saadullah reckoned that the Indians would use the same approach and 3 km ahead of Ashuganj, he deployed 33 Baloch with a screen of a depleted company of 12 AK and CAF. A second company commanded by Major Kazim, who was also the acting commander of 12 AK, held the railway embankment near the Ashuganj Station – the last line of defense before the bridge. Two 12 FF companies went back across the river to secure a large supply dump, but Saadullah felt very comfortable with the remaining two companies as his reserve. This did not last however, because they were also withdrawn for Dacca’s defense leaving the brigade and Ashuganj dangerously vulnerable. The most exposed side was the town north of the railway line occupied by four CAF companies. They crumbled when an outflanking manoeuver struck them unexpectedly on the 9th of December.

On the 8th of December the Indians resumed their advance from Brahman Baria. 57 Division had taken eight days to penetrate only 14 km, against a Pakistani brigade that was low in number but high in fighting spirit. The Indians quickly pushed the screen back, but it wasn’t till midday that their tanks appeared in front of 33 Baloch and its two RRs. The RR had limited range but its 106 mm caliber gun could pulverize the light Indian tanks. A couple of rounds from the RRs and the PT-76s veered off into a clump where they were harassed by the battalion mortars. The brigade did not want to expose their guns at this early stage of the battle. Later in the day there was the rumble of tanks to the northeast and worried about this open flank, the commander deployed a screen in Durgapur of a platoon reinforced with CAF.


Ashuganj Railway Station looking west towards the bridge over the River Meghna. The HQ of 27 Brigade was located at the grain silo on the left

For the rest of the day there was little Indian action but around 8 a.m. next morning on the decisive day of 9 December, there was again the sound of tanks heading towards the screen in Durgapur. A little later, the brigade commander who spent the night with 33 Baloch, received an alarming message from his headquarters. The Indians had penetrated Ashuganj and the GOC wanted him to return with a 33 Baloch company. The battle for Ashuganj was on. Without waiting for the company to assemble, Saadullah rushed back and on the way was alarmed to see the screen at Durgapur falling back. A large body of Indian troops approaching the railway embankment through Ashuganj was also visible. Saadullah acknowledges that on three accounts he had miscalculated. First, the Indian advance from Brahman Baria accelerated by the rebels carrying their supplies, had arrived a day earlier than expected. Secondly, the Indians had outflanked his brigade from the north and thirdly, he relied too much on the strength of Ashuganj’s built-up area and the CAF troops now driven out by the Indians. Saadullah was still 1,000 meters short of Major Kazim’s company and with the troops who had fallen back from the screen, engaged the Indian battalion from the railway embankment.

Three Indian prongs were closing in – 4th Guards along the railway track, 10th Bihar in the middle down the road from Sylhet, and the 18 Rajputana Rifles (Raj Rif), through Ashuganj. At this juncture, I am going to refer to a post by Shahzaman Mozumder that appears on his blog site with the title “Born for 71.” He was a college student who joined the Mukti Bahini rebels, and was in the front line with a rebel battalion that was following 10th Bihar. According to him, when the Raj Rif ejected the CAF from Ashuganj, they were engaged from the railway embankment and took casualties. The leading company was pinned down and a second company that passed through, lost their company commander and men when they came under fire from the railway station. While trying to extricate the first two and get to the bridge, the next two companies met the same fate. The absence of artillery support was telling and the entire battalion was pinned down. Indian aircraft were circling overhead but without the aid of an air controller, they couldn’t discern friend from foe. This was fortunate for the very exposed Pakistani troops on the embankment.


Major General B. F. Gonsalves, GOC 57 Indian Mountain Division, whose battalions were routed during the Battle of Ashuganj, examining Pakistani documents

Kazim’s company took the brunt of the attack. He was aware that the embankment was the linchpin of the brigade’s defence and moved along the trenches, encouraging his men. The Indians had almost reached the bridge when Munir, the Staff Captain followed by Sarfraz, the brigade major along with runners, clerks and signalers of the brigade headquarter located at a grain silo 400 meters behind, rushed to the embankment. They were joined by the GOC who directed the fire of his artillery. Kazim grabbed a light machinegun and entered the firefight when the situation became bleak. In the words of his brigade commander, “12 AK troops fought gloriously and tenaciously”. No greater praise can be offered to his soldiers by a commander.

In spite of being shot in the thigh, Kazim kept inspiring his men till he was mortally wounded in the chest and neck. With his last breath he shouted, “I am dying but carry on and finish the devils”. Seeing both the GOC and Brigadier Saadullah on the embankment more soldiers rallied to the defence and the Indians started suffering heavier casualties. Around 10:00 am there was a massive explosion as the GOC ordered the span of the railway bridge to be demolished but the Pakistani troops did not panic. They were too immersed in the fire fight. While standing next to the GOC, Sarfraz was hit in the neck and gasping for breath, collapsed in a pool of blood. He recovered miraculously after a doctor removed blood clots and restored his breathing. He was subsequently awarded a Sitara-e-Jurat and attained the rank of lieutenant general. The attack had been checked by the determined defense. In the words of the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo, it was, “A damn close-run thing”.

The Indians had made a bold but careless attempt against what they presumed were only covering troops on the eastern end of the bridge. The Raj Rif was taking serious casualties and under heavy small arms and artillery fire, its soldiers started pulling back. Back to Shahzaman who termed the subsequent events as catastrophic:

“18 Rajput was in deep trouble and rapidly started taking casualties. As soon as it tried to withdraw, the Pakistanis, emboldened that they had the upper hand, started chasing the now disorganized Indian troops. A few Pakistani jeeps with recoilless rifles (RCL) suddenly appeared. The first one got a direct hit from an Indian PT-76 tank and was knocked out. However, the other RCLs very quickly knocked down three tanks in front of our eyes. The Pakistanis, now encouraged by their initial success, came out from their hidden positions; shouting ‘Ya Ali! Ya Ali!’ charged the retreating and disorganized Indians. There was complete chaos among the Indian troops. Some took position in the cover-less terrain and started shooting at the Pakistanis, while others started retreating in panic.”

Sadly, Kazim had not survived to witness this spectacle but his stand unto death had not been in vain.

There is a quote attributed to Napoleon, the great captain of war: “In every battle there is a moment in which the least maneuver is decisive and gives superiority, as one drop of water causes an overflow.”

Saadullah had the ability to identify and seize the moment. The counterattack did not begin as a deliberate and well organized affair but with what Saadullah describes as a “sally”. Grabbing a rifle, he led 10 to 15 soldiers through a culvert on the embankment and to their extreme luck, just then an M-24 tank sent by the GOC arrived, along with 15 soldiers of its close protection group. It too followed and in the words of the brigadier, “stole a march by subsequently leading the assault”. The M24 has a relatively small 75 mm caliber gun, but with 48 rounds of high explosive ammunition and three machineguns, it can be very effective against infantry. Blasting at the Indian trenches with its main gun and spraying the area with its machineguns, the M24 was followed by the Pakistani soldiers shouting their battle cry. It was a drop of water but caused an overflow and the Raj Rif began to crumble as the Pakistani infantry advanced in short rushes from one cover to the next.

Elated by this, the company of 12 AK, also crested the embankment and as the sally transformed into a counterattack, the troops were delighted to see the Raj Rif rapidly abandon its trenches. Even its soldiers who had been bypassed, ran. Apparently yet another Indian battalion that had been ordered to close up to the bridge after Ashuganj had been taken, took to flight. By the time the counterattack reached the furthest end of Ashuganj, most of the Pakistani soldiers were running out of ammunition and some were using the small arms abandoned by the Indians. However, there was more to follow. As the brigadier and his group headed back through Ashuganj flushing out the remaining Indians by shouting battle cries, two companies of 33 Baloch, withdrawing along the railway line, swung north and began pursuing 10th Bihar as well as their tanks – all infected by panic of the Raj Rif. It’s dangerous when panic sets in and infuses wild excitement among the hounds chasing their quarry. Everyone was joining into the pursuit including the soldiers from the administrative echelon. Even the jeep and ambulance drivers enjoyed the chase in their vehicles and called on others to join it. Unable to withdraw in a hurry, some of the Indian crews abandoned their tanks.

The last episode in this affair is of two 33 Baloch officers with ten soldiers who had reached the farthest in the pursuit. They emerged from a clump of trees and found 300 disconcerted soldiers of the Raj Rif milling around. The Indians raised their hands instinctively, but when they realized it was only a small group of attackers, some yelled, “Take hold of them. They’re only ten.” The Pakistanis fired and pell-mell the Raj Rif fled again. That night, after immobilizing the Indian tanks they had captured, 27 Brigade crossed over to Bhairab Bazar in good order and buried their fallen comrades. They also buried the bodies of five unfortunate soldiers they found tide up and shot in Ashuganj. This was not the first time they had seen evidence of Indian brutality with PoWs.

What do Indian authors say? Major General Ashok Verma wrote an article on the 41st Anniversary of the blowing of the Meghna Bridge. He commanded the battalion of the Raj Rif which bolted and precipitated a general rout but glossed over that fact. “After fighting through the built up portion of Ashuganj,” he writes, “The battalion got close enough to the Bridge to make the GOC of the Pakistani Division panic. He hastily ordered the blowing up of the Mehgna Bridge at both ends. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s 27 Brigade, finding itself bypassed, fell back and then counter-attacked the threatening Rajputs.” He does not elaborate on the impact of the counterattack and I wonder how long he took to reassemble his errant unit? In a more recent study by Arjun Subramaniam titled India’s Wars, the author briefly concedes a “spirited resistance by 27 Brigade” but makes no mention of the two companies that held an entire Indian brigade at Akhaura for five days. He refers to the Pakistanis withdrawing across the river in the face of “fierce assaults” (a highly exaggerated statement), by two Indian brigades and what he considers a “riveting account” of Lieutenant General Shamsher Mehta who commanded the squadron of PT-76s. I have not read the General’s account but I wonder if it includes how the RRs of 27 Brigade mauled his squadron?

General Sir Ian Hamilton who commanded the Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli in World War I put it this way:

“On the actual day of battle, naked truths may be picked up for the asking; by the following morning they have begun to get into their uniforms.”

Nevertheless, as historians document and compile/verify individual battle accounts, reality emerges and the true heroes shine. A more accurate account of the battle around Ashuganj is by the Indian author Major General Gurcharan Singh Sandu. In his history of the Indian Armored Corps, he mentions the withdrawal of the Raj Rif while it repeatedly appealed for assistance from the tanks, the “pressure” on 10th Bihar, the loss of three PT-76s to the RRs and the abandonment of a fourth, and the destruction of one Pakistani RR. Finally, in a fairly accurate account in his book Indian Army after Independence, Major Praval describes the operation of the 57th Indian Mountain Division but when it comes to the final stage of the battle of Ashuganj he also stumbles. “As at Kushtia,” he writes, “the Pakistanis let the Indians come into the built-up areas and then opened up. The brigade lost 120 men and 4 tanks. About this time 10 Bihar also arrived from the North and both battalions had to fall back”. Falling back is a diplomatically mild term for a rout.

Major Kazim’s last resting place remained unrevealed for the next 40 years along with 43 other martyrs of his battalion. And then according to his brother Qasim, came “Divine intervention” – an act of God that did good.


The auditorium at the Center of the AKRF Regiment at Mansar Camp is named after the legendary Maj Kazim and was opened by COAS Gen Bajwa after renovation

Although during the 1971 war there was scant information flowing back to the families from what was then East Pakistan, Major Kazim’s father was informed by the Ministry of Defense (MOD) on the 16th of December 1971: that he was officially reported missing but thought to be a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, in time, the family became conscious through letters from PoWs – which had been routed via the Red Cross – that he had fallen in battle and was buried at Bairab Bazaar. They were devastated. The formal confirmation arrived three years later in July 1974 after the PoWs were repatriated. The letter from MOD stated, “It has been recorded by GHQ, AG’s Branch (through evidence furnished by returnee PWs), that he laid down his life in action on 9/10 December 1971 in East Pakistan while serving with 12 AKRF.”

Unfortunately, official death notices are always inexpressive with no description of the circumstances. His comrades in combat in East Pakistan, however, told the family that Kazim, alias Gurkha, had fallen as a hero in Ashuganj, defending a railway embankment against overwhelming odds. They heard how brilliantly his commander Brigadier Saadullah had not only held an Indian infantry division for almost ten days but also counterattacked and routed the Indians. They also learned that there were more heroes, including Major (later Lieutenant General) Sarfraz, who survived a bullet in the neck and was awarded a Sitara-e-Jurat; and Staff Captain Muneer, who rallied the brigade headquarters troops to reinforce the embankment.


The auditorium that bears his name also has this portrait of Maj Kazim (alias ‘Gurkha’), Sitara-e-Jurat

Although the tale of bravery of a twice-hero is inspiring, I was fascinated when Qasim explained how he concluded that God had decreed that he would discover his brother’s last resting place. Kazim was 20 years older and as much a father as an elder brother. On the last day of every leave, he would take his youngest sibling to a matinee show before boarding a bus back to his duty station. Kazim dissuaded his brother from joining the army but after the tragedy of 1971, Qasim was adamant and his father relented.

The Azad Kashmir Forces became a regular Pakistan Army infantry regiment in 1974 and a year later Qasim was commissioned into the 2nd AK Battalion. His father died a sad man in 1979 and ten years later, Qasim took an early retirement. His mother passed away in 2006. Among her possessions was her Kazim’s shirt and vest which she smelled and kissed when she believed no one was looking. Qasim never gave up his love of a brother lost but not forgotten in a distant land – but life must continue.


Maj Qasim prays at the last resting place of his brother Maj Kazim – with the Imam who witnessed his burial at Ashuganj

The Quran has a verse (3:54) that informs humanity that “[…] but Allah planned. And Allah is the best of planners”.

In 2011, Qasim’s daughter was in Sydney to complete her Masters and a family from Bangladesh who had settled in Australia proposed for her. While talking to the prospective father-in-law on a long-distance call, Qasim told him about the burial of his brother at Bahirab Bazaar. When the gentleman said his village was only 18 kilometers from the town, Qasim believed that the proposal had the blessings of his brother. The wedding was in Islamabad and after the Valima (marriage reception) in Dhaka, the host took Qasim and his family on what was to be a pilgrimage to the battlefield at Ashuganj.

They walked from the railway station along the embankment resolutely defended by Kazim’s company. They could see the railway culvert through which Brigadier Saadullah launched a sally with a tank and a handful of men that transformed into a full-fledged counterattack. Qasim’s military eye could visualize it rolling over the now overbuilt landscape and putting two Indian battalions with their tanks to flight. On the way back they stopped at a war memorial whose inscription in Bengali glorified the role of rebel forces but the Indian Army wasn’t acknowledged in name and only as “friends”. Considering that Bangladesh would not have emerged on the world map without an offensive by more than three Indian Corps, this inconsistency is strange.


Trio of heroes – Surviving veterans of the 1971 Battle of Ashuganj: Brig Saadullah HJ (center), flanked by his staff captain Maj Munir (left) and his brigade major, Lt Gen Sarfraz, SJ

I asked Qasim how he felt after the visit. “My family and I were overwhelmed with emotion,” he replied, “and I thanked the Almighty for getting us that far.” It was just a day trip, and there was no time to search for the graves of the martyrs of 12th AKRF Battalion.

He returned to Dhaka three years later in 2015 to celebrate Eid’s festival and this time headed for Bhairab Bazaar. Close to the town, he stopped at a tea stall to buy cigarettes. Qasim claims there was “divine intervention” at this moment – an act of God that brought about good. “I saw a young man curiously looking at me and likely wanting to talk,” he recollects. “When I told him I was from Pakistan, he warmly responded saying he had visited Karachi to meet his relatives. I casually asked if he knew about a school where a Pakistan Army unit camped during the 1971 War.” The lad said he was too young to remember but called his mother, who said that it was next to their house and she remembers seeing the Pakistani soldiers through the window. The lad led them to the school and while they looked around and took pictures, he said that he had heard from his elders that the bodies brought from Ashuganj were buried in the city’s old cemetery.

The Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful, had taken Qasim by the hand and was leading him on.


The old railway bridge over the River Meghna that was blown up during the 1971 war is still visible between two new bridges

With hopeful expectation they arrived at the graveyard where they were approached by an elderly group of men. When told of the intent of the visit, one of them asked the for the exact date of the burial and then introduced himself as the Imam of the adjacent mosque. He recalled that as 16-year-old lad, had attended the last rites and indicated a bare plot which a mass grave of the soldiers. He also pointed out where a an officer was buried separately. It was in an unkempt corner adjacent to the mosque with no mound or headstone – known but to God. For Qasim, the enormous gulf of time and distance had narrowed to a patch of soil that guarded his beloved brother’s remains. This was the last resting place of a fighting hero of Pakistan.

To paraphrase a verse composed by Robert Brook in a poem titled “The Soldier”:

“If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field, that is forever Pakistan […] Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.”

Qasim wants to bring the remains of his brother home and spoke to Pakistan’s Ambassador in Dhaka as well as the Army Headquarters on his return to Pakistan. The main obstacle is the Bangladesh government’s hostile attitude. From the army’s viewpoint, this is not a one-off case. There are many officers and soldiers buried in the fields of Bangladesh. But Qasim remains hopeful and prays, “Maula madad de” [May God assist me].

But in Pakistan, Kazim’s gallantry and sacrifice was not forgotten and in 1983, a new auditorium at the AK Regiment Center was named after him. Kazim was again remembered in April 2019, when on the initiative of Lieutenant General Sher Afgun, the Colonel Commandant of the AK Regiment, the auditorium was remodeled and inaugurated by the COAS, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who paid glowing tribute to Major Kazim. His brother Qasim was present at the occasion.

At the time of writing this article, Brigadier Saadullah is 90 years old. I sent his son Dr. Billal a photograph of Kazim, hoping the brigadier would recall something about this fighter. I was cautioned that the brigadier’s memory was failing but when he looked at the photograph he said, “Yeh East Pakistan min Shaheed hua tha!” [He was martyred in East Pakistan]. Billal showed him the photo again early next morning when his mind was more active and he uttered the opening stanza from one of the lyrics that inspired the country during the 1965 War:

“Aye puttar hattan te nayein vikde” [Sons like these cannot be purchased in a store].


The Bangladesh War Memorial at Ashuganj. The railway embankment where Maj Kazim fought to the end on the 9th of December 1971 is in the background

Though 40 years had elapsed and in spite of a failing memory, the brigadier remembered the officer. Kazim was one in a million. The Gurkha, as he was known at the Officers Training School, was conscious of being short and stood on his toes next to a very tall officer in a group photograph taken during a course. But in combat, he proved to be a giant among men.

The lyrics of the song “Aye puttar hattan te nayein vikde” are from the great poet Sufi Tabassum and recorded by the iconic singer Noor Jehan. The next stanza is:

“Ki labni aye vich bazaar kure?” [What are you searching for in the market?] – followed by the verse “Aye dain aye mere data di. Na aiwein takran maar kure” [This is the gift of God. That cannot be purchased by your own desire].

The author is indebted to Major Qasim for providing him documents and photographs and sharing personal recollections that made this article possible. He also wishes to thank his neighbour and friend Ali Bilgrami, who first suggested that he write about Major Kazim

The Friday Times | Gurkha From Kargil - I
The Friday Times | Gurkha From Kargil - II
The Friday Times | Gurkha From Kargil - III
Thanks for sharing such brilliant pages from the history of Pakistan and devotion, duty of our soldiers to defend the motherland and how bravely they are laying their lives. My eyes were sobbed while going thru this history.
ALLAH SWT may bless you for your effort.
 

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