1971 Bangladesh War

Battle of Atgram

Battle of Atgram - 20th/21st Nov. 1971

(Sylhet District - East Pakistan)

Khukri Assault by 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force)

* Brigadier Rattan Kaul (4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force))

"Trust each other again and again, when the trust level gets high enough, people transcend apparent limits, discovering new and awesome abilities for which they were previously unaware." - David Armstead

Pre-war Preparation

Operations in Support of Mukti Bahini

The Battalion had since concentrated at Panchgram (Badarpur- Cachar District; Assam); fondly called Char Panch Gram after our Battalion (Ed. note: Char Panch = Hindi words for 4 and 5. Gram = Village in Hindi and Bengali languages. The author is referring to the fact that his battalion was 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force)). It was evident that the Battalion will have to unsheath Khukris soon. There was furious activity, exchange of fire and forays deep inside the East Pakistan territory by Mukti Bahini fighters. The influx of refugees had reached all time high and everyday there were news of some activity along the border.  Foxtrot Force (Brigadier Wadke) was generally keeping an eye on this area and was responsible for various refugee camps. Further South, Echo Force, under late Brigadier, later Major General, Shahbeg Singh, AVSM, then Deputy GOC 8 Mountain Division, were doing a wonderful job. He used to move around in a checkered lungi, tied in typical East Bengali style. With his short beard, a gold earring and cropped hair, he looked more like a Bahini man. It was during one of the reconnaissance (recce) missions to the border outposts that I met him; his Punjabi as well as Gorkhali had given way to working Bengali. He knew of the battalion from 1964 onwards as he was commanding 3/11 GR, our neighbouring battalion in Balnoi/Krishna Ghatti Sector (Rajouri – J&K). His warmth was as warm as it was in those days. Reports of possible sabotage by Paki Forces along Silichar / Jaintia Hills (Meghalaya) Border were ripe and my Company (Delta) was moved to the general area of Ratachara / Natanpur for patrolling, support of Mukti Bahini forces operating in this area and also to instill confidence amongst the local population.

Sketch: Delta Company's Foray - Sept. 1971

The BSF Commander in the area, Deputy Commandant Mr Singha (or Singhla?), did quite a few errands with me; chasing on intelligence information; to villages, God forsaken hamlets, jungles and quite a few ambushes; nothing was found. Finally, we plonked ourselves alongside a BSF Post at Dumchara, just on the banks of Surma river; which later was to be a part of our history during the war. One fine day (third week of Sept?) Brigadier Bunty Quinn (Late Brigadier C A Quinn, Commander 59 Mountain Brigade), accompanied by Brigadier Tom Pandey, Commander 57 Artillery Brigade, visited the Company. This was the time Pakistani guns from Charkhai in Sylhet Sector opened on our positions, to be silenced by a troop of our medium guns, deployed in the area. In the coming weeks (end of September), due to frequent firing by Pakistani Forces in this area, mostly on Mukhti Bahini fighters, they (Mukti Bahini) had planned to go inside and capture Sarkar Bazar and the area around it. They were to move inside East Bengal territory, after crossing Surma River in boats, from a firm base established on the Southern banks of Surma, overlooking Sarkar Bazar. The base was established by around first light and D Company supported Mukti Bahini operations in the Sarkar Bazar Area. My senior JCO, Subedar Bal Bahadur Thapa, with a platoon, escorted them, as we had orders not to go beyond the firm base. The marshy area which was full of leeches, didn’t initially deter the Mukti Bahini force and by about 3 PM they were in Sarkar Bazar and in jubilation they fired in the air and remained there for the night, withdrew and fell back on our firm base. We remained in the area for two days and there was no retaliation of any sorts from the Pakistanis. On the third day, on orders, we returned to our base. This area (Sarkar Bazar) was to become a landmark in our battalion operations in November 1971. In the meantime, East Bengal Rifle Units, organised as a brigade (1 EBR Brigade under Colonel Zia. Late General Zia-ul–Rehman who became Bangladesh Army Chief and later President Of Bangladesh after the assassination of Sheikh Mujib-u- Rehman in a coup on 15 Aug 1975). One fine day, 1 EBR Brigade moved into the area, with one of its battalions. Colonel Zia too arrived and we had a quite evening together over Maach and Bhat {Fish Curry and Rice}. He was all in praise of our Colonel Of The Regiment, General Zoru Bakshi, who had been nice to him and his wife (Begum Zia, who too became or rather is Prime Minister of Bangladesh), when they crossed over from the Pakistan cantonment of Sialkot. Things had started hotting up; a quiet Dasain (Dussehra) for the Battalion and the end of October saw the whole battalion again concentrate at Panchgram; fondly called Char-Panch Gram, after our battalion numerical number 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force), for the next session.

Countdown Begins

It was a quiet Diwali and reconnaissance of Pakistani Posts opposite Karimganj and Natanpur began in early November. Captain Praveen Johri was at own Border Outpost (BOP) Banga, at the junction of Surma and Barak river (the Barak river from this point onwards is known as the Khusiara river). The two battalions in our brigade were 9 Guards (Lieutenant Colonel Raghubir Singh) and 6 Rajput (Lieutenant Colonel Hardev Singh). This was the time Maj. Gen. K. V. Krishna Rao, General Officer Commanding

Three days before attack on Atgram.

L to R: Late Lt. Hawa Singh (A Coy), Vr. C; Major Viru Rawat (B Coy);

Major Rattan Kaul (D Coy); Late Capt. P.K. Johri, SM (A Coy);

Late Major Dinesh Rana (A Coy)


(GOC) 8 Mountain Division talked to all officers of the division; generally giving the situation around the country with particular reference to then East Pakistan. Though everyone knew what was coming in the weeks ahead, I remember, there was no mention of impending plans or tasks by him. As we moved back to our location recce for the next task was uppermost in our minds.

 Reconnaissance and the Next Objective

We had already done reconnaissance (recce) along the borders but this time it was area-specific where the brigade was to operate: Zakiganj (opposite Karimganj) and the area opposite Natanpur / Karbala BOPs (i.e.) Pakistani BOP Amalsid, IB adjacent to Amalsid, area around Amalsid Masjid, Atgram bus stand (also known as Atgram Road Junction) and Raygram. All of these, except Atgram bus stand, were in front and could be observed and had been actively engaging our BOPs with fire and rockets. Atgram, being in depth, could not be observed and information about the Pakistani deployment was scanty. The guns supporting Pakistani defences were reported to be around Charkhai; on the road to Atgram-Charkhai-Sylhet. By 16th November we were told of our areas of interest; Atgram Complex was the focal point (i.e) Amalsid Masjid, Amalsid BOP, IB and the Atgram bus stand.

Pakistan's Defence Concept and Deployment

Defence Concept

Pakistani deployment in East Pakistan was designed to defend territory and deny attempts at establishment of a corridor along the borders for a 'Free Bangladesh'. By the first week of November 1971, our forces; notably in other Corps/Divisional Sectors, had taken certain amount of aggressive postures all along the border. With 'Knife Thrusts' by our forces and active role of Mukhti Bahini (Mukhtis), the Pakistanis concentrated on the defences of important towns and locations like Sylhet, Comilla, Chittagong etc. and turned them into fortress defences. Other towns, along the approaches to these locations, were turned into "Strong Points". These strong points, closer to border, were to delay our advance, fight until ordered to withdraw and not allow Mukhti Bahini to gain momentum or ground. Finally these strong point forces, on withdrawal, were to fight as part of the "fortress defences". It was the best of what Pakistanis could do, with hostile population, active Mukhtis and our own forces lurking on the borders. This strategy of Pakistanis left open subsidiary axes, which were later gainfully used, both by us and Mukhtis. Sylhet sector through Karimganj salient was one of them.

Deployment in the Sylhet Sector

By this time, the Pakistanis had deployed two brigades of its 14 Infantry Division, headquartered at Bhairab Bazar in the Sylhet division sector, and 202 Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Saleemullah) at Sylhet. This brigade was guarding the approaches from North and East and defences around and in Sylhet town with 31 Punjab, 91 Mujahid and two companies of 12 AK Battalion. It had elements, approximately a Company each, of Khyber, Thal and Tochi scouts. 313 Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Iftikar Rana), located at Maulvi Bazar, covered approaches from Dharmanagar, Kalaura/Kailashahr and Juri. 22 Baluch of this brigade was at Gazipur and Kalaura; 30 Frontier Force covering/defending Shamshernagar and Maulvi Bazar. At the operational level Razakars, mostly Bihari Mohajirs, had been organised at district and tehsil/taluk levels and incorporated with "strong points", closer to their villages.

Karimganj Salient - Atgram and Zakiganj (Sylhet Sector)

Karimganj Salient

The ground level operations by Mukhtis had created a favourable position. The Pakistanis could only retaliate by artillery shelling on our BOPs or suspected Mukhti launch pads. In the first week of November, it had been decided by Eastern Command that the border could be crossed up to about 10 miles (16 kilometres) deep, by our own troops, to silence these guns or force them to withdraw. This was also to secure areas across the border, contiguous to own areas for operation, as area for 'Free Bangladesh'. Karimganj Salient (See Sketch above), one such suitable area, east of Sylhet, consisted of two important locations suitable for the Pakistani defence; Atgram Complex and Zakiganj. The salient offered the shortest route to Sylhet (approximately 30 kilometers) and possibly been appreciated by Pakistanis as the main approach our Army could adopt for an offensive towards Sylhet.

Atgram and Zakiganj

Atgram and Zakiganj, part of Sylhet District, formed the North-eastern corner of then East Pakistan. In the North, river Surma was the boundary with India; on the east, river Barak formed the border till the Surma river joined it, short of Karimganj (at Banga- see sketch above) and named thereafter as the river Khusiara. The salient literally touched the only rail bridge connecting our Tripura State and Silichar (Cachar District). The Pakistanis were reported to have strong point defence(s) in the salient, held by regular troops and flanks/BOPs of these strong points held by paramilitary forces or Razakars, mixed with regular troops. There were conflicting reports of some of the Pakistani held areas being either occupied by night or daytime only. Reasonable road communication between these two places and to the rear existed. Atgram had a regular bus service from Sylhet and the place was also called as Atgram bus stand. Local Bihari Mujahirs and Pakistanis referred to it as Umagar. Villages and hamlets dotted the salient, though mostly abandoned, except the hamlets inhabited by Bihari Muhajirs (expatriates). Paddy was the main crop and being low lying area next to major river systems, the ground was wet, the water table was almost touching the ground level and large areas were marshy. Roads were 5 to 7 feet above the ground level and the Pakistanis had effectively used these for defence purposes. Atgram was not visible from our own BOPs and could be seen from Ratachera, a place about 6-7 kilometres in depth, from a hill, along Karimganj - Shillong Road (NH 44). Being in the rear, even observation from Ratachera was not clear. In case of Zakiganj, referred to as Dakshinbagh by the Pakistanis, large trees made it difficult to find its extent, depth and deployment, further accentuated by the river Khusiara flowing between Karimganj and Zakiganj. The two tips, Atgram and Zakiganj, held the key to this salient. Capture of this salient was allocated as a task to 59 Mountain Brigade (Late Brigadier CA Quinn, Garhwal Rifles; fondly called Bunty Quinn). 9 Guards of the brigade was located around Karimganj, 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) (4/5 GR(FF)) were at Panchgram, while 3rd battalion (6 Rajput) was further south.

Harry's Discussion with GOC

By the first week of November things moved fast and a showdown was evident. While we, company commanders, were on our recce, Harry (CO; Lt. Col., later Brigadier, A. B. Harolikar, MVC) had already been sounded of the objectives of the operations of the brigade; Atgram Complex by 4/5 GR (FF) and Zakiganj by 9 Guards. During these discussions our objective was referred to as "Atgram", but to us each area held or reported to be held by Pakistanis was important and had to be catered as such. It was evident that Harry held the view that the area was strongly held and his quote would sum up the deployment dilemma; "During Sand Model Discussions at the Divisional Headquarter, General Rao had mentioned that there is only one platoon in that area. While giving out my appreciation and plan of attack, I mentioned that there is a Company with supporting detachments at Atgram (i.e. area/objectives we attacked) excluding BOPs and planned for three-company attack. After discussion (at Divisional Sand Model) we settled down to a two Company attack. General Rao felt I was overestimating enemy strength. I felt that they were underestimating enemy strength." Finally, it was decided to launch a two Company attack on Atgram Complex; first step! That much dilemma, as beeline to Ratachera followed for next two days.

Brigade Attack Plan

So far, the divisional area had been low key, barring Mukhti Bahini operations and localised actions. Battalions and brigades of the division had been deployed wide apart and thus, to that extent, an element of uncertainty would have arisen in the minds of Pakistan's 14 Infantry Division, deployed opposite their area. Operations had been active in the southern sector of the Corps Zone and certain localised actions by other brigades had not been much successful. With this, operations in this area would have had certain element of surprise and it could be more if unconventional method of attack was adopted. BOPs on the other side would become redundant and the aim would be to strike at Pakistani strong points, like foot pincer movements; attack by infiltration. The brigade attack plan, possibly not envisaged as major thrust in the area at this stage, encompassed the following:

  1. Capture of Atgram Complex by 4/5 GR (FF) on the night of 20th-21st November 1971, in phase I of the attack.
  2. Capture of Zakiganj (Dakshinbagh) by 9 Guards in phase 2 of the attack.
  3. On orders, secure Karimganj Salient and be prepared to progress operations further.

 Analysis of Brigade Attack Plan

Basically the operations seemed to be localised in nature. Atgram-Zakiganj Salient was tempting, but had its major disadvantage of two major river crossings and own logistics across these water obstacles. In the plan, the objectives had been given, but conduct and methodology was evolved between the COs and the Commander. While 9 Guards opted for a conventional directional attack across a water obstacle on Zakiganj, it was different chemistry between Harry (CO) and Bunty Quinn (Commander). To achieve surprise, Harry wanted it to be a silent attack by infiltration i.e attack localities/BOPs from rear avoiding frontal or directional attacks across the river Surma, which otherwise would produce tougher objectives in depth by sequential reinforcements of depth areas by Pakistanis. Harry wanted battalion’s Khukris to unsheath and be on blood drawing warpath. To quote Harry; "Our plan of attack on Atgram was evolved keeping three important aspects in sight. First, this attack was going to be the first one of the Indian Army in this area and the Pakistani troops would not have expected it. Therefore, it was conducive to 'surprise' and 'silent' attack. Secondly we would quietly infiltrate through the gaps between the enemy BOPs, attack and capture Atgram (as against capturing BOPs as a preliminary operation and mounting a deliberate attack in phase II with the support of artillery fire). Thirdly, we decided to exploit Gorkhas' reputation (established during World War II and subsequent Indo-Pak Wars of 1948 and 1965) of using their personal weapon 'Khukri' with deadly effect in close combat." While this formed the basis of the attack, objectives included clearance / capture of BOPs/positions along IB and Atgram complex. The date/day of attack was significant; night of Id ul-Zuha (Eid). Laxity on this day was but natural, as they would think that Mukhtis too would be celebrating Eid and nothing significant will happen. I am not sure whether this day’s effect and likely laxity was considered for selection of D-Day, in achievement of surprise, which it did.

Deployment Dilemma

We could somehow get and collate possible deployment patterns, confirmed by ground indicators and periodic firing on our BOPs. Zakiganj and Atgram were defended by troops of 31 Punjab and their deployment, in general, in our area of interest was as under (Detailed information, including names of commanders, was known decades later):-

  1. A Coy 31 Punjab (Major Sarwar) Zakiganj; also called Dakshinbagh.
  2. B Coy 31 Punjab Atgram Complex (also called Umagar) (Late Major Azhar Alvi, HJ (Hilal-e-Jurat)) with elements of Mujahids, Thal, Tochi Scouts and Rangers.
  3. C Coy 31 Punjab (Major Mumtaz  Hussain Shah) with EPCAF and  Khyber  Rifles; under Brigade Headquarter 202 Brigade guarding Sylhet Airfield and Lathi approach to Sylhet.
  4. D Coy 31 Punjab; generally guarding axis from Dauki (Shillong- Meghalaya)
  5. Battalion Headquarter at Charkhai (CO; Late Lieutenant Colonel Riaz Hussain Javed).Battalion Headquarter at Charkhai (CO; Late Lieutenant Colonel Riaz Hussain Javed).
  6. Headquarter Company elements, which had MMG, RCL, Chinese Rocket Launchers and 81 mm mortars, distributed to these sub units.
  7. Troops at Zakiganj / Atgram were supported by guns, deployed in the areas of Sarkar Bazar/Charkhai.

Reconnaissance (Recce)

We had already observed the areas of Amalsid Masjid, Paki BOP Amalsid and Inspection Bungalow (IB). Atgram bus stand (also known as Atgram road junction) and Raygram were in the depth and not observed from own BOPs. Another location, Sarkar Bazar, a few miles west of Atgram, on the road to Sylhet, was also a location of interest. By 16th November we were told of our areas of interest (i.e.) Amalsid Masjid, Amalsid BOP, IB, Atgram Bus Stand and Sarkar Bazar. Generally, Harry gave the following deployment of Pakistanis in the area, as available to him from higher headquarters and available information obtained from BSF BOPs/ Mukhti Bahini operating in the area :-

  1. Approximately a Company plus of Pakistanis including some Scouts (identity and full strength in the area was not then known) in Atgram Complex.
  2. Amalsid BOP - a platoon, some Scouts and Razakars.
  3. Company Headquarters with some regular troops at IB (Inspection Bungalow).
  4. Area near Amalsid Masjid; Razakars with one section each of Regulars and Scouts.
  5. Section mortars in the area of Atgram bus stand and possibly and at best (or worst) by a platoon, including high ground north of it.
  6. Raygram and Bala; east of Atgram Complex; approximately one platoon, with Razakars.
  7. Amalsid BOP had recoilless guns, as they had fired rockets many times on our BOPs.
  8. The information about the Company Headquarters of the Pakistanis was based on observations of lighter vehicle movements in the area and an officer having been frequently seen in the general area of IB (Inspection Bungalow) by BSF troops of our own Karbala BOP.
  9. Guns supporting from general area of Sarkar Bazar.
  10. Battalion Headquarter at Charkhai, with immediate counter-attack force capability of Company or Company plus, effective within 45 minutes to one hour along road Charkhai–Sarkar Bazar-Atgram.
  11. Villages appreciated to be acting as eyes and ears of Pakistanis with the help of pro-Pakistani locals and Razakars, mostly Bihari Mohajirs, brought in from depth areas.
  12. Due to frequent crossings and raids by Mukhtis across the Surma and Khusiara rivers, vulnerable crossing places would be effectively patrolled.

Recce and Apprehension

While our own BOPs at Karbala and Natanpur precluded close observation of Raygram, Bala and Atgram, Ratachara was a suitable view point to observe these areas. A few days prior to finalisation of the attack plan, Harry took us all to Ratachara, which gave an unlimited view of the area but it was restricted in terms of clarity, due to distances involved, being nearly 6-7 kilometres from the objectives and Atgram looked like a tiny speck. We could make out the roads, a few huts and even saw  a bus at the stop, but nothing more.

We could appreciate the objective to be 300 to 350 yards in length along the road with certain amount of depth. The observation of Atgram was obscured by a high ground to its north, towards the border, which also denied observation of most of the Atgram objective. Here, generally, Harry instructed us to focus on sub objectives as under (See sketch above):-

  • Alfa on Amalsid BOP and IB (Inspection Bungalow).
  • Delta on Atgram Road Junction Locality.
  • Bravo on general area of Sarkar Bazar.
  • Charlie Gap between IB (Inspection Bungalow) and Raygram and area of jungle south of Atgram along the road to Atgram - Zakiganj.
  • Major, later Colonel, Yashwant (Jassi) Rawat, area just south of Atgram.

 Atgram - Key to Pakistani Defences

Armed with this information, we felt that Atgram bus stand was the key and should be held by more than a mortar section and some regular troops. Jassi and Maney also shared the same views and felt that we were underestimating the enemy strength (We, at that time, didn’t know Harry’s discussion at Divisional Headquarters and that he too was of this view.) From the general allocation of areas of interest, it was clear to us that it would be a two-company attack (Alfa and Delta), while Charlie and Bravo would be either held as reserves or employed differently. It was a major task and any slip would have proved costly for the entire battalion. Each one of us was curious and apprehensive too; should there be more than the estimated strength, then what? We had discussions with Harry and he convinced us that the Pakistanis would and should be low in morale and it would be our valour and Khukris, which would take care of the rest or any additions in the estimated strength of the Pakistanis.

Attack Plan of Atgram

The countdown began on 17 November 1971. CO gave out attack plan in the Officers Mess at Panchgram, on an enlargement (see sketch above):-

  • Concentration into Forward Assembly Area (FAA) on the night of 19th-20th November. FAA two kilometres behind Natanpur BOP, in a jungle area. Move partly by day ex Panchgram and move beyond NH 44 after hours of darkness.
  • Attack by infiltration, after establishing secure corridor across Surma river. Movement to Surma riverfront to start after last light on 20th November.
  • Crossing of Surma river with pneumatic boats under arrangements by 108 Engineer Regiment, BSF to secure home bank but to be told of the task at last minute. C Company (Major, later Colonel, Maney Malik) secure far bank and establish corridor by 2130 hours, 20th November. Kelagram/Raghur Chak to be masked, but no physical assault.
  • Beyond the far bank, B Company (Viru Rawat) to move ahead; bypass Raygram, Kamalpur villages, establish road block in the area of Sarkar Bazar as early as possible, but not later than 0300 hours, 21st November, act as reserve from the direction of west and CO 2 (Second-in-Command)(late Major Shyam Kelkar) to move with the company and control road block operations.
  • C Company, less a platoon, to move behind B Company, establish road block on Atgram – Zakiganj road in the jungle area south of Atgram road junction and act as reserve. Platoon (under Ravindra Singh?) for corridor protection to reel up and move at the tail of the battalion column and join the company as early as possible.
  • Major, later Colonel, Yashwant (Jassi) Rawat with Pioneer section, section each of MMG’s and RCL, making ad-hoc platoon; to move behind C Company and establish in general area just North of C Company for task to be given later.
  • A Company (Late Major Dinesh Rana) to move behind C Company and capture Amalsid BOP and IB (Inspection Bungalow).
  • D Company (Major, later Brigadier, Rattan Kaul) to move behind A Company and capture Atgram bus stand to include Atgram high ground.
  • Attack timings to be synchronised depending upon movement, but appreciated between 0100 and 0300 hours, 21st November 1971 (more details later).
  • Battalion R Group to move with C Company up to the corridor and thereafter move with one of the companies, as the situation and progress of movement warranted.
  • Strict silence and fire control; avoid known positions or as they come up. No return fire, while moving to the objectives.
  • Artillery support only during the assault to be coordinated on Radio by CO, Company Commanders, BC and Artillery OPs.

(This is the gist of the Attack Orders given out by the CO and put in chronological order, as best as I can recollect. There may be minor differences here and there, but overall the essence/base remains the same.)

Choice of H Hour

Unlike a conventional attack, Harry gave a broad band of Hotel hour and rightly too, for the attack was by infiltration; timings depended upon progress of movement through the area. It also depended, to a certain extent, on the time it took to cross the Surma river. Harry, when asked about his Hotel hour at the Divisional Headquarters, had given a down-to-earth reasoning and in his own words; "Planned to 'close in' (i.e. pounce on the enemy inside their bunkers) between 1 AM and 3 AM on the night of 20th/21st November 1971, their senses dulled, and reactions and responses slow. I had seen (in peacetime manoeuvres) tired soldiers sleeping while standing or walking like zombies. There could not be a better time than that to assault them....". There was no denial of this fact and reasoning in his mind.

Analysis of Attack Plan

Within the task allocation and available resources, this was the best option. Surprise attack by infiltration and use of Khukri were the hallmarks of the plan. In keeping with the progress of the operation, the artillery fire support was to be ‘On Call’, that too when surprise was lost. Reserves were suitably located on two different axes, effective within short time and by their location enabled interdiction of any Pakistani reinforcements into the area. There was, however, element of two assaults by a Company each (Alfa and Delta) and coordination of these assaults would have been difficult. CO (Harry) had kept his location wide open but as luck would have it, things changed fast and rapidly; to find Harry (CO) at the right place at right time with right troops. The artillery had allocated OP Officer with each company with an ‘Anchor OP’ at Ratachara (2/Lt Chaturvedi SM; who achieved a direct hit on enemy guns at Sarkar Bazar on 21/22 November.) 

Allocation of Objectives by Company

Based on  orders, both assaulting Company Commanders allocated objectives and tasking as under, after coordination within themselves:-

  1. Alfa: Simultaneous attack on Amalsid and IB (Inspection Bungalow) from rear with two platoons (Praveen Johri (No. 1 Platoon) and Hawa Singh (No. 2 Platoon)) with Subedar Ran Bahadur’s platoon (No. 3 Platoon) as reserve. Attack timings were to be coordinated with Delta and progress of the movement.
  2. Delta: Simultaneous attack from rear along Zakiganj-Atgram road with two platoons (Yang Bharat (No. 10 Platoon) and Subedar Tirtha Bahadur (No. 11 Platoon) with Subedar Bal Bahadur Thapa’s platoon (No. 12 Platoon) as reserve. No. 10 Platoon was specifically tasked to capture area of Atgram Road Junction, (No. 11 Platoon) Subedar Tirtha Bahadur capture high ground overlooking road junction.

(While the plan of Delta Company was formulated by me, it is my recollection as to what was formulated by Late Major Dinesh Rana for Alfa Company, as discussed by him with me during our mutual coordination.)

Concentration and Pakistani Reception

OC Delta (Kaul)
OC Delta [Kaul] crossing Barak river on a barge
for move to Atgram on 19th December 1971

Invocation of blessings of Durga Mata, presiding deity of the Paltan (Battalion) in the Battalion Mandir at Panchgram, 19th November 1971 was the day for move to Forward Assembly Area (FAA). Since the crossing of the Barak river was possible only with help of barges and that too before last light, movement across was to be by day. Battalion O (Order) Group moved in two parts; Battalion R (Reconnaisance) Group, CO 2 (Kelkar) and Bravo Company O Group in first lot, followed by Alfa, Charlie, Delta Company O Groups and Major, later Colonel, Yashwant (Jassi) Rawat in the second lot. The battalion F (Fighting) Group was to move slightly later, cross the Barak river and stay in a place 10 kilometres from Panchgram and move to the general area of Natanpur only after last light. Last few kilometres of the move were to be on foot and even kept secret from BSF. Harry, briefed Battalion O Group in turns at Natanpur BOP View Point and as part of surprise, even BSF Commander in the area, Mr. Singha, was not told about it. During the briefing at the View Point, we could see IB (Inspection Bungalow), Amalsid Masjid / BOP and portion of Kelagram, hidden amidst thick grove of trees. While we were on it, two rockets (which had Chinese markings) fired from IB hit the post quite close to us (This Chinese Wheeled Rocket Launcher was in our hands after the attack). Harry gave out more details and outline orders in the FAA; a jungle of mixed forest. No cooking, self-contained for 48 hours. Battalion F Group fetched up by about 2100 hours 19 November, dispersing into Company areas.

Last Thoughts and Sound Sleep Before the Storm

The morning of 20th November was different, it was Eid Day  and a test day for the Paltan. This was the first time in the history of the Paltan, after re-raising, a set piece deliberate attack by infiltration was being launched. Johnny’s (acronym for our troops) had no expression and went about their sleep. Few of us huddled together for last minute coordination and final touches to CO’s orders. We were wondering that Harry had not given his position in the order of march and I asked him this question. The reply, which at that time I thought was curt, but as matter of factly he said, "I will be there when you want me." On God we left and there was a gun salute as the FAA was shelled by Paki Artillery. Shyam Kelkar (CO 2) strolled across and we sat together for a while, he was sure that the attack would go very well, what he was worried was the crossing of Surma, which he thought was time consuming and dependant on 108 Engineer Regiment troops arriving, with boats, in time and at the right place. Company Commander’s briefed their O Groups on the make shift Sand-Model. I briefed the whole company, one platoon at a time, about the task. 10 Platoon (Yang Bharat) to capture Atgram Bus Stand, 11 Platoon (Subedar Tirtha Bahadur) to capture High Ground overlooking Atgram Bus Stand and 12 Platoon (Subedar Bal Bahadur) to be reserve. My party, with RCL Detachment, at the tail of 10 Platoon, followed by 11 and 12 Platoons. With orders over, leaving rest to Durga Mata, went to sleep for few hours amidst the din, soft and pleasing sunshine of November, till it was time to get up for the move.

Atgram Terminators on way to Atgram

Atgram Terminators on way to Atgram on 19th November 1971.

L to R: Dinesh Rana (Alfa), Kaul (Delta) and Yashwant Rawat. Front: Maney Malik (Charlie)


On the Way to Atgram - Khukris Wait to Unsheathe 

Crossing of the Surma

At last light, CO’s Party and elements of C Company (Maney Malik) left for the riverfront to marry up with 108 Engineer Regiment Platoon, who were reaching directly  with boats. Their arrival was delayed and when they arrived the boats were deflated and had to be inflated. Lack of adequate number of foot pumps for inflating boats further delayed the crossing. After inflation of a few boats, at about 2030 hours, Maney with a platoon crossed over. The southern bank was secured and the remaining elements of Charlie Company built upon this base. Due to restricted and narrow strip of crossing area, each trip could carry about a platoon. Harry was himself on the bank supervising the crossings. By 2100 hours, remainder of Charlie Company had built up followed by Shyam Kelkar with a platoon of Bravo Company, the remainder of Bravo Company was under Viru Rawat. As the crossing was going on, one could hear sporadic firing from the general areas if Kelagram and Bala. The initial bridgehead having been established, crossing of Surma picked up. Jassi Rawat and his troops, Alfa under Dinesh Rana and finally Delta (Kaul) crossed, in that sequence.

Raygram Hold Up

As the column moved, it was the dampness of the ground which retarded our movement. Suddenly the ground became soft and marshy, reducing our movements further. Around 2300 hours we were, that is what we thought, closer to Raygram when all hell broke out. Amidst shout of Allah-o-Akbar, firing from Pakistani posts started from both flanks in the general direction of the column. The whole column took to ground, orders not to return fire superbly adhered to. Jassi Rawat and myself were together and thinking that we were getting late for the assault. In the process of whispering, in otherwise quiet night, we heard, what appeared to be a Pakistani Outpost; “Allah-o-Akbar. Allah sab momin ko taufiq farmai” (Allah is great. May Allah (God) be benevolent on all who believe in Him (Allah))”. This was in chaste Urdu language and accent was that of Punjabis, so different from Bengalis or even Bihari Muhajirs. I surmised that it must be a Pakistani troop post, at best their Para Military Forces. Nearly 30-45 minutes or so in doggo position, around midnight or so, firing died down. One didn’t know as to whether the Pakistanis had withdrawn or gone to sleep or was it a standing timed patrol. Well, irrespective of it, the silence was welcome and suddenly Harry was looking for us. I had last seen Harry when we were on the home bank, he had moved ahead and he too must have been held up. Like us, time running against us was his prime concern. Quickly the column started to move.

First Steps to Luck

Harry had kept his position in the column wide open and so far he had been moving either with Bravo or Charlie. During this halt all except Bravo were together. Shyam had moved ahead and remainder of Bravo Company (Viru Rawat) were ahead as per the plan. Harry, Maney, Jassi Rawat, Dinesh and I were now together. Time was around 0200 hours and movement was slow due to marshy area. Frankly we had moved, halted and all our direction bearings were mixed up. There was no indication of any landmark being picked up against the skyline, as it was second or third day of new moon (The Eid, Muslims holy festival is generally on the second/third day of the new moon and this time, Eid was on 20th November). Looking towards the north, we could see the hill range of Meghalaya against the skyline and it was of no consolation or help. The columns movement had been circuitous, avoiding Pakistani firing and possibly due to inadequate information on terrain available to us; like existence of a marsh in the area. However, there was someone generally keeping a listening watch; Bunty Quinn, our Brigade Commander. At Karbala (Natanpur?) BOP he was keeping a tag of the column. Time was running out and standing in a marsh Harry called us for a ‘conference’, gist as under:-

  1. We knew we were beyond Raygram, but our feeling was that we had gone too deep and away; possibly more towards Zakiganj possibly away from the objective and we had to move fast.
  2. Take help of artillery round fired on one of the objectives for direction finding and navigation; possibly Atgram, being in the rear we could pick up this round.
  3. Alfa and Delta to move together and CO would move with them. The aim was to reach closer to the objective and once fixed and confirmed, Companies to go in for assault. CO himself was to coordinate this aspect.
  4. Viru (Bravo) and his troops to move faster and join Shyam Kelkar, who had moved ahead with a platoon but was still far from Sarkar Bazar; as he thought.
  5. Maney Malik (C) and Jassi Rawat’s force to move faster to their location.

(The timings of events are approximate but four timings are certain. First, the time of crossing of Surma river was around 2230 hours 20th November. Second, around 0130 hours 21st November, we moved again after being held up. Thirdly, it was just first light when Atgram, barring one odd bunker, was captured; i.e. around 0450-0500 hours. Fourthly, both companies were in file formation at the time of charge and next to the objective, just turned right and assaulted Atgram; main position as it turned out to be. Though it is difficult to say how much time the assault took, I think it was swift and in barely less than an hour we had annihilated the whole company of the 31 Punjab of Pakistan Army.)


Quinn's Pearls of Wisdom

Literally getting late and feeling of moving away from the objectives, the CO spoke to the Commander. The conversation went nearly on these lines {May be around 0300-0315 hours}:-

  • Harry-  We are delayed due to firing around Raygram. I think we seem to be much beyond Raygram.
  • Quinn- Appears to me you are nearer to your objective, and that too without Pakistanis knowledge. You must keep the element of surprise.
  • Harry-  Could you ask the gunners to fire a round on Atgram, so that we generally know the direction of our objective(s)? We have to hurry too as it is getting late.
  • Quinn- Harry, you have been moving so well so far, a round may give away the surprise. I feel that the Pakistanis have taken your move as a routine Mukhti raid and all is quiet. I am sure you will get onto your objective soon, move ahead and we can see later. Do you see the North Star? Take help from it in your navigation.

Conversation over, Harry decided to move with the instructions to us (Dinesh and Kaul) that he would give orders for assault, control move hereafter as he would be with assault companies. Bunty Quinn’s words of wisdom were pearls and this brought two-fold advantage to us:-

  • Surprise maintained so far was not given out. Later events proved that the complete troops of 31 Punjab and others in the Atgram Complex were surprised.
  • Both assault companies were now together and the CO himself was with them for on-the-spot coordination and decision. This, as the events followed, allowed capturing the most important objective Atgram with a combined two-company assault.

Pakistani Patrol's "Order" to Raise Hands

As the move started picking up momentum, Shyam Kelkar (CO 2) reported that he was nearing Sarkar Bazar with a platoon of Bravo Company, while Viru Rawat (B) confirmed he was on his way. A short distance away Maney Malik (C) too thought that he was nearing his objective and moved south-westwards. Soon, our column crossed a track/road. It was 5 to 7 feet above ground level and we thought we had either crossed Atgram-Raygram/Bala or Atgram-Zakiganj road and the objectives were still far off. At this juncture the assaulting column guides (Alfa Company) started steering towards the north. There was need to go closer towards the objective, as it was felt that we were going away. Alfa column, CO’s Group had crossed over the road, Delta’s 10 Platoon too had crossed. My Group had just crossed and part of 11 Platoon too had crossed, but the bulk of this platoon was on the road. By some coincidence, Subedar Bal Bahadur bringing up the tail, fetched up parallel to this platoon and in whispers, was asking me as to how far we were from Atgram. The road remained solidly silhouetted against the starry night. Suddenly, a few men appeared against the skyline, on the road, with a bunker close by. Someone amongst them shouted “Kaun Hai. Hath Khara Karo” (Who is there? Raise your hands). I felt that this was the position of Atgram; indicators being road, bunker and Pakistani troops who must have thought that Mukhtis had come. In retaliation, a few of us, close by, shouted "Charge! Ayo Gorkhali". Frankly, to this day I don’t know what made us shout the war cry, at this stage, when indicators were not enough of being next to the objective. I could hear Harry shouting "Parkha, Objective ma pughe Chhaina" (Wait, we are still away from the objective). To quote Harry; "My instant thought was that we had called the 'charge' prematurely and the main Atgram position was still further ahead. But the arrow had gone out and there was no way to turn it back. But, as luck would have it, this was the main position. The slaughter had begun and blood (enemy) started flowing. There was no stopping of the Gorkha fury. It was either 'we' or 'they', and it had to be 'We'". And indeed it was 'WE'.

Unsheathing of Khukris - The Assault

Pakistani Defences and Assault at Atgram

Alfa Company had already crossed Atgram – Zakiganj Road and so had part of Delta Company. The head of the column was veering due north and the force was somewhat diagonal to Atgram. Of course, no one knew at that time that it was Atgram, but we knew it was definitely an enemy position. The shout of "Ayo Gorkhali" remained for a little while and soon it was the rattle of Paki MMGs and firing which tried to counter it. Most of the Pakistani defence structures at Atgram were based on reinforced shellproof bunkers and constructed horizontally in inverted ‘L’ form. The longer arm of the defences/bunkers was along the Atgram-Sarkar Bazar road and shorter arm along Atgram-Zakiganj road. The western edge was more towards the wooden bridge, 100-150 yards away along road to Sarkar Bazar, while its eastern edge extended up to 50 yards from the road junction towards Raygram.  North of the road junction there was a small piece of high ground, with thick bamboo trees and a few bunkers. Basically, the defences were front (north) oriented, but defence structures at the edges were duplicated to cover rear approaches also. Living barracks were in the centre and a fair number of defence structures were constructed north of the road also. Defences south of the road were closer to barracks; possibly for the purpose of quick occupation in an emergency. From the layout of defences, it was apparent that Atgram apart from being logistic base, was the main depth position and covering approaches from Surma river-Sarkar Bazar; Chargram- Amalsid; Inspection Bungalow; Raygram- Bala and Banga - Zakiganj. Both edges of the defences had MMG bunkers with a clear field of fire.

Alfa Company Assault

All the three platoons in a file, their charge drew MMG fire from the western flank MMG defences, as they veered north for the charge (See sketch above and painting/sketch below). The assault can best be narrated in CO’s (Harry) words, who at that time was with Alfa Company. "I found myself drawn by an unknown and inexorable force, running forward along with my ‘Comrades-in-arms’. This [charge] was like a wave with its own momentum and I could hear and faintly discern our brave jawans with their drawn Khukris- now blooded- moving from bunker to bunker, slaughtering one and all. It was as if all of us were possessed by super human powers………... The enemy had been alerted by the war cry 'Ayo Gorkhali' and was resisting with all its might, if for nothing else but to save their lives! As I was rushing into a bunker I suddenly found Subedar Ran Bahadur [a platoon commander] abruptly stopping me and informing that two of the enemy soldiers were still inside and firing. He [Subedar Ran Bahadur] was in the process of unpinning a grenade, which he lobbed inside through the bunker’s firing slits. There was one big explosion and both enemy soldiers were dead and beyond recognition. There were battle sounds of bursting grenades, rifle and MMG fire from all around." No. 1 Platoon under Captain Johri went in for the western defences then veering inwards, towards defences in front of the barracks. No. 2 Platoon under Lieutenant Hawa Singh penetrated through the barracks, destroying bunkers on the southern side and thereafter defences ahead of barracks and along the road. Subedar Ran Bahadur with No. 3 Platoon took on the defences right of No. 2 Platoon and then veering west towards the barracks and the defences close by. Again to quote Harry; "As I moved further I found Rifleman Dil Bahadur Chettri with his bloodied Khukri in his hand, emitting sounds which were a mixture of laughter and the cry of an insane man dancing the dance of death. And it was a death dance, with a number of dead bodies {…….. } lying around him (He was later awarded a MVC for gallantry, the first one of the battalion).

Painting depicting the assault on Atgram

A little further, in front of another bunker, I found Captain Johri lying face down with a bloodied Khukri in his hand and another enemy soldier lying nearby." Hawa Singh’s platoon having penetrated in the centre of the defences, cleared bunkers at the rear of the main barracks and many more in front along the road. Dinesh Rana (Company Commander) was moving along No. 1 Platoon and as soon as he sighted defences towards Chargram Bridge, ordered No. 2 Platoon to clear the area. Hawa Singh had been seriously injured and in his absence, the platoon havildar took charge of the platoon, veered left and cleared the area. With Johri dead, Hawa Singh seriously injured, Dinesh divided overall responsibility of platoons between himself and Subedar Ran Bahadur. While he looked after the western edge of the defences including approach from Chargram - Sarkar Bazar, Subedar Ran Bahadur looked after the Central Barrack area. As this was happening, first light had broken out and one could see movements, dead, casualties clearly. It was the leaders who had led the assault; two officers of the company (Hawa Singh breathed his last an hour later), Subedar Bobi Lal Pun, MFC with the company, killed as he had been hit by a bullet short of the objective; two Other Ranks killed. As the firing melted down, shots could be heard from Amalsid, Raygram etc.

Delta Company Assault

When the Pakistani Patrol was encountered, Yang Bharat’s platoon had crossed the Atgram – Zakiganj Road, Company Headquarters was literally hugging the road. With the shout of charge, 10 Platoon under its commander turned diagonally right and charged with their centre of attack, just to the left of the road T Junction (See sketches/painting above and sketch below). The firing of MMG was not that effective, as they pressed home the attack and destroying fortifications in the area. While this was happening I asked 11 Platoon to clear the enemy patrol area, which turned out to be a sentry post on the southern edge of Atgram defences on Atgram- Zakiganj Road. The road was about 5-7 feet above the ground level and as such, movement of the platoon took place along the sides of the road. This proved to be useful as the fortifications were covering the road and with this side movement, were tackled from the rear. It was at this stage, a MMG from T Junction fired onto the platoon and one of its sections moving along the road was pinned down. 57 mm. Rcl detachment  at this  time , was  moving  along with me and was pressed into destruction of the bunker, which they did with two direct hits.

The section, pinned down along the road, thereafter charged and cleared the fortification in front of them. Rifleman Than Bahadur of the section was in the lead and while spraying bullets inside the bunker was hit by a Pakistani bullet in the head. Probably this firing was from Atgram High Ground, as I could hear the firing from there and see the tracer flights also. 12 Platoon in the meantime had been briefed and I felt that Atgram High Ground would have to be cleared at the earliest. The fighting onto our left was still raging and what we were worried was the daylight breaking as one could see at this stage. The CO (Harry) suddenly came from left searching for me and asked me to hurry, as the dawn was to breakout at any time. This was the time the 57 mm. Rcl blew up the enemy fortification. A few more minutes and 10 and 11 Platoon were on the objective and clearing /securing bunkers north of the road. Firing from Atgram High Ground was also neutralised by 12 Platoon, who assaulted it from the direction of Raygram and captured it. Dead bodies in different coloured uniforms and a few in civvies were lying all over. The surprise had been total, evident from the loose shoes etc. The tenacity of the opponents, though surprised, was evident as they fought till the end; there were no prisoners; either they fought till dead or had bolted. As the firing died down, both companies were in the process of reorganisation and regaining of command and control. It now dawned on us that we had captured Atgram, which happened to be main position in the area.

Reorganisation Phase Alpha Company

After the capture of main position, Alfa Company less a platoon troops, moved due west towards Chargram wooden bridge. Moving for coordination with Dinesh, I found Harry rushing towards a bunker. I was stunned to see Johri lying dead at the entrance of the bunker with three dead enemy soldiers inside. He had apparently charged the bunker and had been shot in the hand-to-hand fighting. During the last few months, he had volunteered to be at Banga Post and almost every night, would cross over Barak river into our own toe hold enclave and then even go across the border in civvies. BSF personnel of the Banga Post had special respect for his dare devilry. For his bravery during the assault, he was awarded the Sena Medal posthumously. This was not the time to grieve, I moved towards the barrack where our injured men had been shifted. Harry was also moving around and entered a side room, which appeared to be Company Commander’s bunker/shelter and a telephone hanging with a long ring breaking the eerie silence. Harry picked up the receiver; apparently it must have been someone from one of the posts or probably from the now-alerted headquarters! It was difficult to know the conversation from other side but I was stunned as Harry told the person on the other side, in a somewhat nasty language, that all of their men had been killed and to tell everyone that the Gurkhas had done it. It was not Harry’s rage which stunned me, but the tone of the conversation he used, but that was it; "anger and a chemistry unknown to me" as he himself called it. In the partly open barrack just outside the side room, a line of Pakistani dead had been lined up. A moan for water from a high bamboo cot drew our attention. The voice was familiar; that of Hawa Singh. He had been hit by a bullet in the spleen and was in great pain. Someone gave him the water and his voice quivered and was silent thereafter. Though we didn’t realise it, he had apparently breathed his last. He and his platoon had cleared the centre portion of the enemy defences and in the hand-to-hand fight, had been shot. He was awarded the Vr. C posthumously, for his bravery of the highest order. A few metres away, the body of another brave man, Rifleman Phas Bahadur Pun, reminded one of further tales of the fierce hand-to-hand fight. He had single-handed destroyed an enemy bunker together with its occupants for which he too was awarded Vr. C posthumously. At this stage there were reports of some movement from Charkhai towards Atgram and Harry directed Dinesh (A Company) to move further ahead along the road to take positions astride it for countering any Counter Attack from that direction. Subedar Ran Bahadur’s platoon and Delta Company remained in the area and also occupied Atgram High Ground. 

Reorganisation Phase Delta Company

The platoon under Yang Bharat had cleared bunkers both South and North of the road and had organised defence in coordination with A Company Platoon (Ran Bahadur). For 11 Platoon (Subedar Tirtha Bahadur) the battle had started as soon we were crossing the road and encountered Paki patrol just south of Atgram (it was the enemy post as part of Atgram defences covering Zakiganj). Tirtha Bahadur had moved his platoon along both sides of the road, getting some sort of protection from Pakistani small arms of fire. There was no time for me or to him or other platoon commanders to divide or allocate objectives. His sections moved clearing the bunkers on the way till they reached the T-junction. It was here that a strong bunker had opened up; rather late. His balance of the troops charged and cleared the bunker. For his exemplary bravery he was awarded the Sena Medal. Atgram High Ground, for this narration has been called High Ground (See sketches above) but literally was 50 by 50 feet mound, about 4 to 6 feet high, covered with thick bamboo. This High or raised ground had two bunkers, possibly giving depth to forward defences of Amalsid and Inspection Bungalow. No. 12 Platoon, under Subedar Bal Bahadur Thapa, on the spot was tasked to clear it (BB, as we called him, became Subedar Major of the Paltan (Platoon)). Typical of BB; shouting "Mero Pache Move" {Follow Me} amidst the din of firing, he moved out with his platoon along the right side of the road and cleared the High Ground and deployed his platoon. Sporadic firing from Amalsid and IB continued. Atgram had been captured finally and what remained were Amalsid and IB; both now relegated to lower importance as the majority of Pakistani troops had been cleared/ killed. Movement of Pakistanis from Charkhai towards this area was reported by Anchor OP. Harry, therefore, decided to ensure the defence of Atgram and approaches to it. 

Progress of Bravo, Charlie, Jassi's Force and Zakiganj Front

Shyam Kelkar, with one platoon, had reached Sarkar Bazar road block site just as the assault went in, as the remainder of the company had been held up due to firing. At first light, the remainder of the company had joined and effectively blocked the road to Atgram-Charkhai-Sylhet. Charlie was in the process of establishing a roadblock when the assault was launched and Maney, realising this, quickly deployed his company and also effectively blocked the road to Zakiganj-Atgram. Mortars under Sally (Salgotra) had been deployed closer to C Company, location under the eyes of Jassi Rawat. Jassi Rawat had established his force along the road closer to Atgram and ensuring that our route of infiltration was kept under fire and observation for any interruption by desperate Pakistanis through this route. Artillery had opened up on predetermined and fixed targets; we had hardly asked for a few rounds at Atgram, as the surprise was complete and troops were already on the objective. It is at this stage, scattered minefields covering the northern approach to Atgram, just adjacent to Atgram High Ground, were detected and so did Jassi Rawat next to his position. Luckily for us, home sides had been demarcated with wire and since we had taken the rear approach, it helped us. Karan Puri (Adjutant) with administrative echelons was close to Natanpur. RMO, Captain DK Sengupta was despatched with his light man-pack MI Room on foot along the infiltration route with his Nursing Assistant and personnel from medical platoon. His journey was not smooth as his Nursing Assistant was hit by a bullet but DK, as we called him, continued with one Johnny and just an hour or so  after the capture of objective, was seen by us literally running in.  As soon as he arrived, he was busy with the injured men (Captain Sengupta was awarded the Sena Medal for his exemplary devotion to duty and performing his job under extreme difficult conditions, without any concern for his personal safety). The information from Zakiganj was not forthcoming and was confusing. It appeared that only part of the objective had been cleared, as the assaulting troops had been day-lighted. This situation was of concern as the Pakistanis would have tried to induct troops into this area and the most possible route for reinforcement was Atgram/Kamalpur-Zakiganj. This situation demanded effective blocks for reinforcements from Charkhai and/or Sylhet. In either case, Sarkar Bazar became the focal point. At this time, Harry decided that part of Alfa (Company, less one platoon) under Dinesh should move to Sarkar Bazar to further reinforce the road block site. Subedar Ran Bahadur was to remain at Atgram with his platoon. Dinesh, on his move out, was also to secure Chargram area, astride the road. 

Major Azhar Alvi, Company Commander B Company 31 Punjab Pakistan Army Fights Back

During the process of reorganisation, I was moving along with Harry and we had already seen the Company Commander’s bunker. As we came out into a bigger room, where our injured and dead were lying, we saw a row of 8 to 10 Pakistani dead bodies; but none except one with a weapon. The person was fully and neatly dressed, lying amongst the dead. I am not sure as to whether he was injured or feigning; in no case seriously injured. A sudden movement by this person startled us. Harry was quite close to him with myself, Battery Commander and Subedar Ran Bahadur (A Company) with him. Actually, we were taking toll of enemy dead and our own casualties, little realising, which can best narrated by Lieutenant Colonel, later Brigadier, A. B. Harolikar, MVC. "As I entered the first big room I noticed about 8-10 enemy soldiers lying

Company HQ Barracks Atgram

Company Headquarters Barracks of B Coy 31 Punjab at Atgram,

where Maj. Alvi tried to kill the CO and others.

dead. This was obviously the ‘Company Headquarters’ bunker. As I entered, I noticed an enemy person lying apparently dead. He was sturdy and well built and hardly had I sensed that I had seen this person somewhere earlier, when Major Rattan Kaul who had arrived there earlier and now standing at the other end shouted ‘Sir Sir Look Out’. That warning saved my life. What happened next cannot be explained in sequence or in words. I recollect, that with those warning words, I noticed that the sturdy young person posing as dead, was moving his hand on the rifle at his side (Actually it was a Chinese carbine, as I recollect- Author). (I came to know later that he was Major Alvi, B Coy Commander, 31 Punjab Pakistani Army.) Having moved in the pre-dawn darkness from his bunker to the company headquarters bunker, he was probably awaiting an opportunity to kill a company or battalion commander. Major Kaul- always alert- had noticed the movement of Major Alvi’s fingers moving on the rifle and had instantly shouted the warning for me. I found myself and Major Alvi struggling with each other on the ground. I do not have any recollection whether he pulled me down or I jumped at him. But I do remember very strong fingers near my eyes as if a strong force was trying to gouge them out. Next I remember is, again Major Kaul, in a bid to save me had instantly come very near me and was trying to shoot Major Alvi. But that was difficult as Major Alvi and I were grappling with each other. My recollection is that Major Kaul twice tried to shoot Major Alvi, but his sten gun misfired (that is, when the trigger of a cocked sten gun is pressed, it does not fire. Sten Guns in those days were known to be unreliable because of this well-known phenomenon). In the meanwhile, I noticed somebody standing towards the head of Major Alvi, took out his sten gun and holding its barrel in his two hands, hit hard on Major Alvi’s head. I remember a fountain of blood and then all was quiet!." Major Alvi lay dead. Subedar Ran Bahadur, who was next to us and seeing my sten not firing, hit him and pumped a burst into Alvi and killing him instantly. Major Azhar Alvi of B Company 31 Punjab died a death of a brave soldier. Even when the chips were down, he tried his best to kill command elements of the Battalion. Exemplary bravery, a dignified death in the best tradition of the troops he commanded and for the country he served. Major Azhar Alvi was awarded Hilal-e-Jurat, Pakistan’s second highest award for bravery (equivalent to our MVC) posthumously. He deserved it, for he set an example by doing something spectacular in these circumstances. 

Securing of Chargram Jungle, Amalsid BOP and Inspection Bungalow 

By 0500 hours, Atgram had been captured, blocks on incoming roads effective and ready for any counter-attack. Occasional firing was still heard, possibly from isolated posts that may not have known of the fall of Atgram. Chargram, barely a kilometre from Atgram Junction, a raised ground, effectively dominated the road and the wooden bridge close to it. For any local defence of Atgram, securing of this area was important. The task was given to Alfa Company, less a platoon, and by 0700 hours Dinesh (A) and his troops had secured the area. Atgram was now defended physically by four platoons; Platoon of Alfa and complete Delta Company. Alfa, less a platoon, was deployed covering the western edge- Chargram. We had yet to secure/capture Amalsid/IB and it was assessed that either they would have been vacated or the strength could not be more than a section each. Physical securing of Amalsid/IB would have cleared a route to our own BSF posts and made the area across Surma contiguous. At about 0700 hours, CO tasked Delta, less a platoon, to secure/capture these places. By about 0730 hours, we were close to Amalsid Masjid with no signs of Pakistanis and quickly moved through it. Pak BOP IB too seemed to be vacated; there was no sign or movement as seen from Amalsid Masjid. The initial plan, after securing these two places, was to leave some troops for their defences. At about 0745 hours, after completion of the task, CO instructed the company to return to Atgram, as reports of movement of Pakistani troops, possibly for counter-attack, had been received. By 0800 hours, Company was back at Atgram. At this stage Alfa Company was instructed to move to Sarkar Bazar and build up on the Bravo Company road block site, which it did and by 0900 hours, both Companies (A and B) had established effective blocks astride the road. Delta was also warned to be ready to move ahead. Charlie was now earmarked as reserve for Zakiganj, as it was apparent that 9 Guards would have to launch a further attack. Lot of Pakistani currency notes were lying around at Atgram and it had no value to any of us and Johnnies were tearing these notes. Older JCOs had told the boys that taking any such war booty would bring ill luck. By about 0900 hours, D Company was also warned to move to Sarkar Bazar, to be deployed to cover Jamalpur approach either to Atgram or Zakiganj.

At Atgram, the CO had found a walking stick and when, after the situation had stabilised, Commander Bunty Quinn came  to Atgram, he tried to present the walking stick to him, which was declined. But he, Bunty Quinn, noticed a parakeet (possibly the pet bird of late Major Alvi) shrieking, forlorn, almost insane and caged in the room. He whistled to the bird for a while and was successful in quietening him. The bird was handed over to the Commander and he gracefully took it. The parakeet would have sensed death of his master and in his hour of grief someone, Bunty Quinn, had come to share it and that is how he quietened as Bunty Quinn whistled to him.

Battalion, less Charlie Company, Concentrates at Sarkar Bazar

Soon it was learnt that 9 Guards had captured the remaining portion of Zakiganj defences and both battalions established contact with each other; CO 9 Guards came to Atgram and met Harry. The threat was now from the Sylhet side and Delta was ordered to move to Sarkar Bazar. As I led the company column along the road, we saw a 6 foot tall burly Pathan, in Muzri dress, duly tied with rope, being escorted by two Johnnies; Naik Damar Bahadur Gurung, a boxer of the battalion who was hardly 5 feet tall and  Naik Suk Bahadur; both of Bravo Company; with the remainder of a few men walking loosely behind them. It was apparent that the patrol had captured the Pakistani and were now escorting him to Company Headquarter. A smile appeared on my lips, while men around me giggled. We were approximately 100 yards away from them when I hailed them. "Damare", as we called Naik Damar Bahadur Gurung, looked towards me and before I could say "Jack Robin", there was a grenade blast. The Pathan seeing his predicament had taken out a grenade from his pouch, took off the pin, kept it next to his body, told Damare and his colleagues to "Bago" (run away) and blew himself up. He was from Tochi Scouts, as his shoulder titles indicated. Tochis are Pakistan’s Northern Area tribals; fiercely proud and brave. This unknown Tochi had stood by the reputation of his tribe.

Sarkar Bazar area - Atgram

Area ahead of Sarkar Bazar where the

platoon finally firmed in.

After deploying D company, I reported to Major Shyam Kelkar, our second-in-command and now in charge of the defences in the area. He stood up hugged no words were exchanged for a while and it was welcome cup of tea and puri offered by his sahayak which broke the ice. The battle of Atgram had gone our way against all odds; anticipated strength of Pakistanis, delays, uncertainties of direction of the objective. He assigned my Company (D) to cover the Jamalpur approach and by about 1230 hours three Companies (Alfa, Bravo and Delta) had taken defences at Sarkar Bazar to counter any Pakistani reaction from the Sylhet-Charkhai side.

Consolidation, Visits and Body Count

As the afternoon of 21st November rolled, Harry visited us. On his way, he had moved over mines laid along the road, which were later cleared by sappers. In the afternoon, the Commander came and as ever in soft words was in praise for the well-accomplished task. Vigilant night, it was more at Atgram than at Sarkar Bazar, for many Pakistani Posts had yet to come to know about the fate of their Atgram troops. It was around midnight 21st/22nd November Jassi  Rawat was on guard at Atgram, when a patrol of Pakistanis rolled in. A smacking short and sweet conversation in Punjabi with a gentleman like Jassi followed for a few seconds and then his LMG let go. No patrol or lost Pakistanis dared to come anywhere near Atgram while 4/5 Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) were there. Captain V K Sharma and Transport Officer (Captain T.D. Gopalkrishna) brought the battalion B echelon late in the night on man pack and light vehicle basis and by evening, we had the first fresh meal of the day, but what eluded smokers was the cigarettes. The locals gave us a few and then it was selling of Bengali Cigarettes and even Pakistani currency would do. Alas, we hardly carried own own currency and had torn Pakistani currency. Night in wet, soggy trenches was never comfortable, but it was slumber for all of us, of course in turns. The morning of 22nd was special for we saw a few known faces with cartons loaded on their heads.

GOC inspecting arms and ammunition at Atgram








GOC Maj. Gen. K.V. Krishna Rao inspecting arms and

ammunition at Atgram. To his left, Lt. Col. A.B. Harolikar (CO),

further left, Late Brigadier Bunty Quinn, Commander.

Also in picture: V.K. Sharma, Maney Malik (extreme left),

Dinesh Rana and Subedar Amar Singh Mortar Platoon (right)

The caravan was that of Mahadev Prasad Poddar- our unit contractor; a package of sweets and cigarettes for each of us, including men. Touching indeed and I cannot forget this gesture and neither will many more amongst us. The day was again busy with GOC, Major General K.V. Krishna Rao, Late Brigadier C.A. Quinn our Commander, accompanied by late Colonel Zia–ul-Rehman (Then Commander 1 East Bengal Rifles Brigade, later Chief of Bangladesh Army and finally President of Bangladesh) visited us. Krishna Rao was all good words for us but did ask Dinesh (Alfa) and me, about the number of Pakistanis killed at Atgram. The day earlier we had counted 31 bodies and we told him so. He wanted the Battalion to move ahead and preparations started immediately. Bunty Quinn was more euphoric, warm as he congratulated Officers, JCOs and men present. The GOC, on his way back, did see the pile of arms and ammunition captured during the attack. We moved ahead of Sarkar Bazar towards Charkhai and firmed in. We were now under the impression that either we will stay in the area for the time being, or continue our operations along the same axis; both proved to be wrong. Harry, for that night stayed with us, and shared a small hut with Shyam Kelkar. We were all together for a while, sombre mood for we had lost our colleagues but were happy to have done a great job. Early morning (23rd), Harry held a conference of all officers and JCOs and were told that we may have to move out and hand over the area to 1 East Bengal Rifle Brigade and/or Mukhti Bahini. All of us had reservations that they (Mukhtis) will not be able to hold the area, thus our efforts and blood shed would go to waste. In fact there was a somewhat belligerent attitude, of most of us, towards such a measure. Harry must have understood our views and we felt he too must be of the same view, but like a true soldier he would  express it to his seniors and not to us. This apparently he must have done, as on 24th we were on way out from Atgram Salient, but it was the BSF that came to relieve us. As we moved through Atgram, back to Panchgram, we had left trail to glory, sacrifices, memories of two of our daring officers, a JCO and men killed or injured and everlasting impressions of Khukri wielding soldiers on the minds of the Pakistanis.

Analysis of Atgram - Luck, Valour and Khukri

After the 1965 War, this was the first major operation of the battalion. The officer lot was new and young, but the CO, many senior officers and JCOs were battle hardened.  At lower level, we had dynamic NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) and many Lance Naiks who had participated in the 1965 war and all beans. Many other ranks too were 1965 war hardened, but about 25 percent of our troops had less than 3-4 years service. While the Nagaland stint had given some training in jungle operations, the excellent field craft picked up had stood us in good stead.In the last few months, training around Panchgram and cooperation with Mukhtis had given added weightage. In spite of all this, there were many factors, which made the operation a 100 percent success:-

  • Harry’s leadership; a mix of firmness, flexibility and exponent of unconventional warfare. He knew whom to tap and at what time.
  • The plan was evolved by the CO based on the premise that infiltration attack, where the combat ratio was nearly equal, would pay dividends.
  • The task put added weight and responsibility on the shoulders of commanders at all levels. Any commander would dread a fiasco.
  • To each one of us, a positive result mattered; to the CO it was first test of his command and to all of us maintaining Battalion’s Izzat {honour}, its reputation and our own reputation being at stake.
  • To Late Major Shyam Kelkar, our beloved Second-in-Command, it had a different significance; considered a lucky mascot in Nagaland, he dared to be in the front; at Atgram he chose to be in the front with Bravo Company and kept it up till his death.
  • From the beginning, Harry had grilled that it had to be a Khukri assault. In the days to come this was the greatest terror creator in the minds of Pakistanis and stood well with our war cry “Ayo Gorkhali”; Gurkha’s did come with flashing Khukris.
  • Leadership at higher, middle and junior level was superb; Harry (CO) and company commanders in the lead of the assault wave; middle level and junior commanders all beans; leading sections. No wonder three junior leaders sacrificed their lives.
  • Valour of the highest order at all levels, where personal safety, in the best tradition, was given no thought, and what mattered was to see the opponent killed.
  • The bulk of our troops were young and raw. It was the move by stealth, which was the beginning of a surprise turning move. For nearly one hour, none stirred as the Pakistanis opened fire at Raygram; a step which made Pakistanis believe to be that of Mukhtis.

The element of luck too favoured us, which steered us to events, which finally paved the way for a quick, complete, timely and exemplary assault come true. Some of those events are:-

  1. Both assault companies and CO join together and then on both companies are together as a force.
  2. Commander refusing to give direction-finding artillery round; had this been accepted and given, possibly Pakistani troops at Atgram would have been alerted.
  3. Atgram Complex had a full company of 31 Punjab plus Para Military Forces, as against own appreciation of scattered deployment at Atgram, Amalsid and IB and required three to four companies for an ideal infantry assault. Joining of both companies and joint assault was just and barely adequate.
  4. I am not sure as to selection of the date of assault, which coincided with Eid. Was it reckoned or mere coincidence? In both cases it was unique, as Pakistanis definitely were caught by surprise, though they reacted quickly and fiercely.
  5. The area was kept inactive for nearly a fortnight, after elements operating in the vicinity had been withdrawn and activated only on the required day and time.
  6. It was sixth sense, which spurred shout of charge, when there was no ground indication that we were closer to Atgram. Pakistani patrol and war cry, which followed thereafter did the trick. Both instruments of luck! To quote the CO (Harry) again: “For a milli-second, a thought had passed in my mind that we have ‘charged’ too early, in that, the objective {Atgram} was still a kilometre ahead. But I remember telling myself ‘Arrow has gone out and you cannot call it back’”.

 Trail to Glory

In spite of inadequate intelligence and topographical information, we waded through a deep marshy area, which was not known, but nobody cared at that time. It can be best summed up by Harry’s words, when reminded of the marsh; "Surprisingly I have no recollection of the marshy area. ………. I think this is because mind is so deeply and intensely occupied with variety of likely consequences and toying with contingencies thereof that body is immune to external stimuli". That is the state of mind on such occasions. Atgram was classic assault by infiltration, against strong and almost equal opposition, delivered with the skill of a craftsman, who achieves a perfect result, even beyond his expectations. B Company 31 Punjab Pak Army and affiliated troops at Atgram ceased to exist for the rest of the war. And finally, the encounter with late Major Azhar Alvi; CO, myself and many others being his close and immediate targets. The encounter for Alvi was  either “you or me”.  It would have been catastrophic had Alvi succeeded, though Second–in–Command (CO 2- Shyam Kelkar) was in place, though away from ‘the’ place. This is what Major Mumtaz Hussain Shah of 31 Punajb Pak Army had to say about the fate of B Company of his battalion at Atgram in the early hours of 21st November 1971; “The second prong (sic: 4/5 GR (FF) assault; first prong refers to 9 Guards attack at Zakiganj) on Major Azhar Alvi’s B Coy was more lethal.... B Coy was mauled completely. Major Alvi and his men laid their lives. Only few stragglers could reach the Battalion Headquarters at Charkhai to tell the tale”. Not that troops of B Company 31 Punjab Pak Army were cowards, but they had been annihilated by Gorkhas from none other than Fourth Battalion The Fifth Gorkhas (Frontier Force).

The Battle of Atgram was the beginning of a saga of valour and fame for next over three weeks as well….

Man should discover his own reality and not thwart himself. For he has his self as his only friend, or as his only enemy. A person has the self as friend when he has conquered himself,  but if he rejects his own reality, the self will war against him……….Bhagwad Gita 

(From the compilation, "AS WE GREW UP WITH FOUR FIVE". Brigadier A.B. Harolikar, MVC, quotes from his compilation, "Bravest of the Brave"


Brigadier Rattan Kaul was Assault Rifle Company Commander (Delta Company) during the infiltration Khukri attack at Atgram, November 1971.