India-Pakistan war of 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh, Major Karkhanis shares his experience

Photo: Maj.Karkhanis

Dressed in dark trousers and a simple t-shirt, I am greeted with a smile by an elderly gentleman. “Major B B Karkhanis,” he introduces himself. At the age of 93, he seems physically fit. I was told by one of his acquaintances that he was part of the 1971 India-Pakistan war which eventually led to creation of Bangladesh. One of the most successful battles ever fought – the Indo-Pak War of 1971 – is an example of excellent leadership, professionalism and coordination between the Government of India and the Indian Army.

Much information on what transpired in those December days of 1971 is out in the public domain in books written by bureaucrats, war reporting by journalists and declassified documents. However, it is rare to be able to hear a first person account of the officers who took part in the war.  

Maj Karkhanis was commissioned in the Army in the 1950. He joined the Corps of Signals as a Lieutenant Officer and commanded a communications unit. As a young officer in the Army, Karkhanis shouldered the responsibility of establishing lines of communication to enable different army units communicate amongst themselves and with Corps Command. This included both wireless and telephone communication. Wireless communication was the mainstay of communication. The motto of Corps of Signal is ‘Teevra Chaukas’ (Hindi) or ‘Swift and Secure’ and Karkhanis’s unit was called in to live up to this motto soon.

Lt.Gen W.A.G Pinto, who led one of the most successful campaigns, Battle of Basantar, during the 1971 war.  Photo Courtesy: Twitter handle @adgpi. 

Maj. Karkhanis said, “It was 1971. The talks between the Indian and Pakistani governments reached a stalemate. War seemed imminent now. We were posted to Darjeeling. Our role changed as the war drew closer. The unit was posted first to keep an eye on China and now the war front developing in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) was a priority.  We set-up our mobile communication station atop a hill called Tiger Hill in West Bengal. The higher elevation of the place gave us an enviable position. From Tiger Hill, we could keep a close eye on enemy troop movement on the East-Pakistan side of the border. This was done by intercepting the enemy signals. We could hear their talks and messages. Our job was to intercept and decode these messages. We would then relay this information to our formations on the ground. This went a long way in planning the war which ultimately led to defeat of the East Pakistani forces.”

Compared to Infantry, which are boots on the ground, Signal Corps are far away from the war front. Signals play the same role as ‘nerves’ in the human body. Signals receive, analyse and relay information. It is the responsibility of Signals to communicate battle plans from Command Head Quarters (HQ) to troops and provide feedback from troops to Command HQ. This is how a battle progresses. Thus, the lives of soldiers is in hands of Signals because information is an important weapon in a battle. It becomes a keystone in deciding the outcomes of battles.

After the war ended, Karkhanis had the opportunity to visit Rangpur, a place near the border in what is now Bangladesh. He reminisces about the look on faces of Pakistan Army officers after they surrendered to Indian forces. As prisoners of war, the Pakistan Army officers were given treatment as agreed in the Geneva Convention on treating war prisoners.

Now-a-days, when a lot is being talked about conforming to specific ideas of nationalism, who better to answer than an army man? Karkhanis said, “We are in public memory only when there is a war. Other times we are forgotten for what we do. Citizens should learn discipline and brotherhood from soldiers. These are the values we always stood for and are worth emulating.” Karkhanis added, “I have also noticed this urge to chatter among citizens without fully understanding the situation which is not correct. Speaking only when necessary is thus equally important and something which civilians must follow.”

With Maj. Karkhanis signing off on a confident note, I, as a young citizen, cannot help but feel a sense of respect, admiration and responsibility towards our country.