In conversation with RP Singh

Brig R P Singh was a young captain in the Indian Army when the Pakistan Army launched its genocidal campaign in Bangladesh on 26 March 1971. When the Bangladeshi volunteers were being organised in various camps in India, captain Singh was posted at Murti Camp in Siliguri district, where young Bangladeshi freedom fighters were being trained to join the Mukti Bahini.

Brigadier Singh retired from Indian army after serving various ranks. He is now working on the history of the liberation war and has plans to produce books and films on the war. Recently, he paid a visit to the office of The Daily Star and shared his experience of the war with the editor Mahfuz Anam who was one of his cadets in 1971. Here are excerpts of the tête-à-tête.

Brigadier RP Singh, Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Mahfuz Anam: What motivated you to join the army?

RP Singh: I was born in Uttar Pradesh, India. My father was a freedom fighter. When Bhagat Singh was hanged, my father had just passed matriculation exam. He was actively involved in politics.

My father's grandfather was a Jotdar, he was head of couple of Zamindars. He thought his grandson would create problem for him. So he sent him to Burma where he joined in the Burma National Congress. It was founded by Suu Kyi's father General Aung Sung. There my father started the same type of activities; police got after him. So he escaped to Chittagong and then to Calcutta and finally to Punjab. His grandfather gave him 5000 Rupee that time, and he bought a village in Kanpur district of UP. My mother's father was a freedom fighter too.

My father died in 1953 when I was a young boy. He was district Congress president at the time of his death. After I completed my class 12, I was selected for the army. I did my cadet training in OTC, Madras. On January 12, 1969, I was commissioned as second Lieutenant and posted in Pirojpur. I was posted in Shiliguri district at Murti Camp and stayed there till November 1971. After serving with the MuktiBahini, I went back to my unit on December 16, 1971. Then I went to the Chinese border. After that I attended the staff college in Wellington. I commanded a brigade before I retired in 2004, as a brigadier.

I was with the whole unfortunate events of 1971 from 1968 onward when the Agartala conspiracy case was filed. That time the Indian media gave prominent coverage of the case, and I read much about Bangabandhu. The Indian media were very favourable to him. Most of the journalists at that time were from Bengal, and they wrote very highly Sheikh Mujib. Then in 1969 he was released, and that news was also covered by the media very well. Maulana Bhasani's agitation was also covered very well.

MA: How prepared were you to face the eventualities in March 1971?

RPS: After March 17, 1971, we in the Indian army were very concerned about something happening in East Bengal. My unit was deployed in West Dinajpur along the border so that if there was any trouble we could take care of that. I was then a captain; I was made ad hoc company commander of headquarter company. On March 25 we got some information that Pakistanis may create some problem. We passed a very busy day and remained awake the whole night. In the morning on March 26, I came to know from BBC news that there was a crackdown the previous in Dhaka and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been arrested. A large number of Awami League leaders were arrested, and fighting was going in different military stations between the East Pakistanis and Pakistani army. I went after the Urdu news, they repeated the same thing. All India Radio also repeated the same thing. Foreign correspondents were reporting that houses were burning on; fighting was going on; we got unconfirmed news that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been arrested.

We also got army report about what was going on in East Bengal. From March 27 onwards we started taking in some refugees. Initially they came in ones and twos so we stopped them at the border and reported the matter to the battalion headquarter. And orders came that let them in. They were guided to designated places and were provided with food and all that. Lots of people were injured and women were also in a very bad state and some of the women were raped, their private parts were mutilated. That started from March 27 and over April, May and June exodus of people continued. They were telling different stories of torture that they had seen across the East Bengal. There were dead bodies lying under open sky and nobody to bury those. We saw smokes in the nearby villages in the other side of trhe border four five kilometers. away, huge black smoke. People were coming at mid night using different tracks, not the main ones. So it became 24 hour process day and night. Some peoples who were not able to walk were left behind.

Thereafter, I was pulled back to the training camp where I met Sheikh Kamal who was in the first batch of officers. I came in close contact with them. I had very close relationship with Sheikh Kamal. He was sometimes frustrated particularly when his father was tried. Daily news came that he would be shot dead; he would be killed; he would be tried by court martial. The world leaders were urging that he should be saved; he should not be harmed. Some were talking that the Yahya government should hand over power to the East Bengalis.

MA: Would you like to put some focus on training of the Mukti Bahini?

RPS: As I was at the training camp, I saw gallant officers of the first and second course who were getting training. I saw lot of zeal in the young boys particularly Sheikh Kamal, the boy was full of leadership qualities. In the second batch, there were very smart and handsome boys including Mahfuz. They were full of enthusiasm. They did not come to adopt soldiering as a career rather they joined the Mukti Bahini to liberate their motherland. Unfortunately, at that time, India was a poor country. We could not afford luxuries. They had to sleep on bunks.

MA: I remember the very first night in the camp. We had to sleep on the bamboo beds, and it was full of bugs. I got horrified; I went to the commander and said him that there were millions of bugs. And he replied, 'you will get used to it.

RPS: 3000 boys were trained at the camp and they were given basically the rifles of the Second World War vintage, .303 LMGs. The First Course was given gold box type of magazine. Deficiency of the weapon was compensated by courage, imagination and innovation of the boys. Those were the thing

that make the difference, and with these qualities you can defeat a much stronger army. Mukti Bahini had tough soldiers, the villagers. Who could go bare foot, go unfed and could do anything.

When the first batch passed out, all 61 officers were commissioned into the infantry; all went to the frontline units; they became company commanders, and they really created havoc for the Pakistanis. Six weeks training was equal to one and half year's tactical training of the Indian military. It was heavy dose, but the boys were so motivated. The training was day and night and there was no comfort. It was very intense training. The things were done, and the boys started performing. By November, 90 BOPs out of 300 along the East Pakistan border was liberated by the Mukti Bahini. So one third was now free.

Brigadier RP Singh with Mahfuz Anam, Editor, The Daily Star, Photo: Amirul Rajiv

MA: What about the joint operations?

RPS: The operation of Jukto Bahini was easier because information was coming easily; the boys led us where the Pakistan army had taken shelter; they knew each position. There was a boy in the Mukti Bahini who was from nearby area who knew every trap and route. He guided us to avoid freaky roads, and follow the shortcut otherwise we would have had to spend a lot of time to get sense of that.

One day, two of my Mukti Bahini colleagues asked me if I would fight for them. I said, “Of course. But, why are you asking me this question?” They said, “You wear turban and have long beard, you are easily identifiable as a Sikh.” I replied that if situation demanded I would shave off my beard. Next day, I did so. There were 850 boys and six companies. We advanced to Haldibari of the Dimla thana. Dimla was a major Pakistani defense. We had a deliberate operation there; we lost three boys; we killed six Pakistanis. It was a major battle. Flag of independent Bangladesh was raised, and national anthem was sung; whole village joined with us. They fed us well.

After that we moved to Godagari. Godagari was another battle spot. There we luckily did not suffer any casualty because we had previous information. If you have fool proof information then it is easier to command. I and my company commander thought that we should carry the attack from a close distance. So we picked up hay of paddy. I wore lungi and korta. They said, “Sir, do not wear shoes.” I was not used to it. We walked bare feet. We faced some Pakistanis and they asked us, “Where are you going?” We answered in Urdu that we were going to our village home. They prohibited us to go in that direction as the route was mined. So we got another route. So we got the exact plan of their defense and changed our plan of attack. Then we attacked from behind and succeed to crush their defense. Next day when we freed the entire area; the whole area burst into joy, and we joined with them.

MA: And after Godagari?

RPS: After liberating Godagari, we advanced towards Mirganj. Mirganj was very well protected. They had very strong defence and there was a company of Pakistani army. They did not put up any fight. Some of my boys jokingly sent a message across to the villagers that 5,000 Indian troops and Mukti Bahinis are coming tomorrow to liberate Mirganj so prepare lunch for them. So the moment we advanced to Mirganj, some of the villagers came and informed us that Pak armies had run away. Then, we advanced to Kaliganj. We did not have to fight in Kaliganj. By the time, Manekshaw's message was broadcast for the Pakistanis to surrender otherwise they would be surrounded in all sides. And you would not be left alive if you do not surrender. It was December 10. After the ceasefire on December 16, I went back to the cantonment. I was back again in Rangpur on January 15, 1972.

MA: Did you happen to meet any captured Pakistani officer?

RPS: I wanted to meet 48 Punjab which was captured there. Major Khattack was the commanding officer. He was a very rude officer. The Indian army treated them like normal human being. I met him in the then Rangpur Medical College. I asked him, “What have you done here?” He said frankly, these Bengalis required these sort of treatment only. I felt like slapping him. We have their names with us. They should be brought to justice. Even two of the 95 listed war criminals became Lt. Generals in the Pakistan army. They are living in posh houses and enjoying life. But Sheikh Mujib, like your Prophet (PUH), forgave them all, and that was why probably he met his end.

Rao Farman Ali was the brain behind the massacre. The killing of intellectuals on December 14 followed his diary list. He had the names of every Awami League leader; who was student leader; who was professor intellectual; who was Hindu leader; every name was in his diary. The diary was running more than three thousand names.

After the war when I visited Rangpur and Sayedur, I found all the roads and infrastructure destroyed. There was very little to feed the mass people. There were no crops to harvest in 1971. All the farmers had run away to India. No bridge was left intact; no DC who was pro-Bangladeshi was left. There was no second tire administration to build the country. The junior officers were made secretary overnight who had no experience to lead a country. So it is very difficult to pass a comment at this time what should have been done that time.

The US was not happy that Bangladesh was liberated and that India and USSR had a treaty of friendship. The US thought that it was a Cold War; it was a win for the Soviet bloc. My opinion is that India would not have been able to sustain three or four more days. Because the pressure was so high; The Seventh Fleet was at Bay of Bengal. Russia was behind them. They came to break the barricade of the Navy. It was a big game. How Mrs. Gandhi took the decision to carry on and how we fought that war. The US took 24 hours to clear the surrender.

MA: What are your feelings after forty years of the war?

RPS: Recently, I met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. I said to the prime minister that we could not share our prosperity we shared our poverty. But our spirit was with you, because you are our brothers, our kith and kin. I gave her thanks for reviving the same spirit now and urged her support to teach the young generation what their forefathers had done. For that reason, I am trying to put the things on the TV and writing history book from that perspective because, unfortunately, the history of liberation has been hijacked in Bangladesh. It has been militarized. It is the one sided history.

MA: Why is it militarised?

RPS: Militarised in that sense that the dictatorship came, they probably did not want to let other people take the credit. The credit does not go to one section or two sections but to the whole nation. Particularly your batch (Mahfuz Anam's batch) and your previous batch had done very good job. Now I want to bring the true history to the young generation.

MA: Thanks for sharing your memories of the War
Thank you too.


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