New Delhi: It was a day after the 13-day-long Bangladesh Liberation War had ended, but a group of Pakistani soldiers posted near the Dhaka airport hadn’t got wind of their army’s surrender to the Indian forces.
The soldiers — numbering around a dozen — were holding the family of Bangladesh liberation leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman hostage at their residence in Dhanmondi. Those held hostage included Rahman’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, the current Prime Minister, and her son.
The soldiers reportedly had orders to wipe the family out. But those orders were never carried through.
A brave young officer of the Indian Army deployed to save the family had walked right up to the Pakistani soldiers, unarmed, and tackled the situation. With a gun pointed at him throughout, he thought on his feet. He told the soldiers the war was over, and reasoned with them.
It worked, and the family was released. The Pakistani soldiers, meanwhile, were carted off with the promise of safe return to the homeland.
Looking back at the episode 50 years later, Colonel Ashok Tara (Retd), then a Major aged 29, said he knew psychological warfare could help defeat an enemy.
Walking into that situation, another thing that helped him was a message his mother had instilled in him. “My mother had taught me that fear is a state of mind,” he said.
Tara’s role in rescuing Rahman’s family remains one of the most celebrated feats of the Bangladesh Liberation War. In the ensuing days, Rahman, who went on to lead the nation as President, requested a personal meeting with him, while his younger daughter, Sheikh Rehana, wrote letters to Tara.
In 2012, he was awarded the ‘Friend of Bangladesh’ honour by Sheikh Hasina. Five years later, he shared the stage with Hasina and PM Narendra Modi as part of a ceremony to honour 1971 war martyrs.
As India marks 50 years of the Bangladesh Liberation War, Tara, who was awarded the Vir Chakra for his role in the Battle of Gangasagar that took place in the initial days of the war, spoke to ThePrint about the events of that day.
Rescuing the family
When the 1971 war began, Tara was in his eighth year in the Army, having been commissioned into the 14 Guards in 1963. He had been honoured with the Vir Chakra days before the Dhanmondi incident.
When he was assigned the mission of rescuing the Rahman family, he reached the neighbourhood with two jawans. Around 100 metres from the house, he said, a large crowd warned him of the risk he faced.
“I was told that anyone going ahead would be killed by the Pakistani Army,” he told ThePrint. But he carried on.
“I handed over my weapon to the two jawans and asked them not to follow me. I started moving towards the building without a weapon,” he said.
On reaching the house, he added, he was warned by the Pakistani soldiers not to move any further or he would be fired upon. He informed them then that the Pakistan Army had surrendered a day before, but they didn’t believe him initially, Tara said.
“I told them that if you fire at me, you will all be killed. I also told them that the Pakistan Army, which has surrendered, will not be able to save them and asked them to imagine what would happen to their bodies and their families waiting in Pakistan,” he added.
The Pakistani soldiers kept telling Tara that they wanted to meet their leaders. Tara said he told them to surrender and promised them that, if they did, he would ensure they are eventually able to return to their families.
The negotiations, he added, continued for nearly 30 minutes. Throughout the entire time, a rifle was aimed at Tara. At one point, one of the Pakistani soldiers also opened a round of fire to scare the Indian Army officer, he said.
However, the negotiations yielded results. The Pakistani men saw reason and surrendered, he added.
When he subsequently opened the door to the house, the first person he met was Rahman’s wife Sheikh Fazilatunnesa Mujib.
“She embraced me and told me that I am a godsend and like her son,” Tara said, adding that she told him to replace the Pakistani flag in the building with the new Bangladeshi one. “She shouted ‘Joy Bangla (Victory for Bengal)’ when it was done,” he said.
The Pakistani soldiers were taken to Tara’s car, where they changed into civil clothes so they would not be recognised by the Mukti Bahini — the resistance movement leading the fight for independence — and could be safely transported, “so as to keep my promise of ensuring they go back to Pakistan unharmed”.
Tara stayed on in Bangladesh for nearly a month, even as his unit moved to Mizoram, because Rahman wanted to meet him.
“When I met him on 12 January, I felt the pain in his talk. He spoke about how to heal the wounds of the people of Bangladesh, who went through atrocities at the hands of the Pakistan Army, and to regain their glory, dignity, language and economy,” he said.
After Tara left Dhaka later that month, he received two letters from Rehana. “I also wrote back to her but they never received my letters. I don’t know for what reasons,” he said.
There was no contact between him and the family for years afterwards. In the interim, almost the entire family — including Rahman and his wife, and Hasina’s brothers — was assassinated in their house during a coup in 1975. Hasina and Rehana survived because they were in Germany at the time.
When Hasina visited India years later, she tried to contact Tara. “But I missed meeting her again as I was out of station at the time,” he said.
They, however, managed to meet when Tara was honoured by Bangladesh.
Tara retired from the Army in 1994.
Talking about the India-Bangladesh relationship, Tara said they were good during Rahman’s time. After his assassination, the newborn country was faced with political turmoil, he noted, but added that the relationship got better again under Hasina.
“India and Bangladesh are like two brothers. We have to look after each other’s interests,” he said. “If needed, India should compromise at times to maintain mutual trust and regard (with Bangladesh).”
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