Friday, March 6, 2015

The only Place the Pakistan Army fought: The Glorious stand at Hilli in East Pakistan

The Stand in East Pakistan at Hilli

. Recently, I had a letter from a Pakistani friend who pointed out that there was a case to also project the better side of the Pakistan army. After all the Pakistan army fought very well at a number of places. I agree and I thought to set the record straight about one battle in East Pakistan where the Pakistan army fought very well.
Leadership and Brigadier Malik
One of the battles  where leadership made a difference was when the Indian Army was moving into East Pakistan. Field Marshal Viscount William Slim has  written ‘the essence of good leader is to lead by example and drive the men all the time’ . This was true in one battle in East Pakistan where a Pakistani brigade held off 4 Indian brigades in a bloody battle at Hili despite having no air cover.
One man whose name crops up in this battle is that of Brigadier Tajammul Hussain Malik. He was a Punjabi . In 1971 war clouds were hovering over the sub continent. The Indian army was actively aiding the Mukti Bahini inside East Pakistan in a guerrilla war. At the same time on orders of Indira Gandhi, the General officer Commanding, Eastern command Lieutenant General JS Aurora was planning a major operation to enter East Pakistan at an opportune time. The Pakistani intelligence helped by the CIA was aware that the irregular troops of the Indian armywere deep in East Pakistan. In such an atmosphere no senior Pakistani officer was willing to go the East Pakistan.
Brig Malik Takes Charge
Just 3 weeks before the start of hostilities Brigadier Malik volunteered to go to East Pakistan. It was a brave decision and the Pakistan Army headquarters transferred Brigadier Malik to its Eastern wing. Brigadier Malik took command of an infantry brigade at Hili in north central Bangladesh. This was a nodal point and the Indian army had made plans for its capture as early as possible. Strategically the capture of Hili or Bogra was important as all the routes to south and East Bangladesh would be opened and the Pakistan army would be cut in two.
On landing in East Pakistan he was given command of 205 mountain brigade. This force mainly of Punjabis was at that time low in morale. This was because of a feeling of uncertainty that loomed over the brigade. Brigadier Malik immediately set to work. He had realized the importance of defending Bogra and in as short a time as possible he began to set up defensive fortifications and barricades. He personally supervised the defenses and went from post to post to cheer up the troops. This had a magical effect and the brigade resolved not to surrender but give a bloody nose to the Indians.
Indian Tactical Superiority
In 3 weeks Brig Malik greatly shored up the defenses around Hili. He was aware that he was short on man power and he had no faith in the Pakistan Air force in the east. General Aurora after consultation with General Maneckshaw appointed Major General Lachhman Singh to command the Indian assault. The task to capture Hili was given to 20 division. Thus the Indians in terms of manpower had a superiority of 4:1. In addition the Indians had the upper hand as the principles of war and the theory of Douhet favored them
The Battle of Hilli
Major General Lachhman Singh ordered the assault on Hilli. With the IAF strafing the defenders and heavy guns pounding the Pakistan position the Indian general expected a quick victory. But repeated assaults all came to naught and it is on record that the Indians suffered heavy casualties. The battle raged for 13 days and the Indians with everything going in their favor could not take Hili. It was a glorious stand by the Pakistan army. All credit must go to Brigadier Malik who led from the front and visited all the front line posts to raise morale. Thus given proper leadership a soldier can deliver the impossible and this Malik got from his Punjab troops.
But the top Pakistan military leadership led by Lieutenant General Niazi and Major General Ali had lost heart and asthe battle unfolded with a Para drop at Tangail (Dacca cantonment) the Pak generals surrendered. Thus after 13 days the war was over. Had the Pakistan generals showed the resilience of Brig Malik the result could have been different as the US 7th fleet was nearing and everything was possible. However defeat and victory is in the mind and that is where the Pakistan officer class lost.
Brigadier Malik came to know of the surrender and an appeal was made by the Indians to Malik to surrender. He refused to surrender and continued fighting. A last assault was mounted by 20 div but it again failed. In a hopeless situation with ammo and fuel running low an express order from Niazi to surrender was again ignored. But ultimately Brig Malik did surrender nearly 50 hours after the Pakistan army had surrendered in Dacca. But he had shown the spirit expected of a soldier. Brig Malik was made a POW and remained in Indian custody for over a year.
The Indian Assessment
At the end of the war the Indian general staff impressed by the stand of the Pakistan army carried out an appreciation and study of this campaign as to how a much smaller force with no air support stood against a force 4 times its strength. The findings of this report were never made public.
Brigadier Malik on return to Pakistan was the only Brigadier from East Pakistan who was promoted to Major General. But in 1980 he was arrested by general Zia Ul Haq and court martialed on a charge of trying to overthrow Gen Zia. He was released from prison 1988 after the death of Zia.