When the Cactus Lilly bloomed...

There was darkness everywhere. Nothing was visible. There were sweat beads on me even in chilly December night. Smell of cordite, smoke, blast surrounded me and I was like a mad man who wanted to finish it off. I did not even see the face of Pakistani soldiers whom I pierced with my bayonet”. When Brigadier I N Rai explained the incident in one breath, the sparks in his eyes were still bright, even after 40 years of a famous victory India won over its traditional enemy- Pakistan.

“I had just finished my degree from St Aloysius College in Mangalore and had joined the Army. I joined the Military Academy in 1969 and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1970. I was posted in the Sikh Light Infantry and we had just come to Jalandhar from Assam,” he said.

Same time, tension was mounting in Eastern Pakistan (now Bangladesh). In the 1970 Pakistani election, the East Pakistani Awami League won 167 of 169 seats in East Pakistan and secured a simple clear majority in the 313-seat lower house of the Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament of Pakistan). Awami League leader Sheik Mujib-ur Rahman claimed the right to form the government. After the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, refused to yield to the premiership of Pakistan to Mujibur, President Yahya Khan called the military, dominated by West Pakistanis, to suppress the dissent.

Pakistan launched ‘Operation Search Light’ and conducted a widespread genocide against the Bengali population of East Pakistan, aimed at the minority Hindu population, leading to approximately 10 million people fleeing East Pakistan and taking refuge in India. The Indian government repeatedly appealed to the international community, but failing to elicit any response, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on March 27, 1971, expressed full support of her government for the independence struggle of the people of East Pakistan.

“We were ordered to mobilize and to occupy the defenses from top and we were preparing ourselves for the war. We made huge trenches filled with water and bunkers. We placed mines at different places and made safe ways for the villagers, so that they do not come on the way where mines were placed,” he recalled.
Even though Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, expressed her full support to Bangladesh liberation on March 27, India did not step in to the war. The Army waited until December for drier ground, which would facilitate easier operations and Himalayan passes would be closed by snow, preventing any Chinese intervention.

“We were also fed up waiting for the war to begin,” recalled I N Rai going on to say: “On December 3, we were all chatting and having tea, just like any other day. Suddenly, we heard the sound of artillery guns firing and Pakistan Air Force flying over us, launching pre-emptive strike. That evening India officially stepped in to the war and Indian aircraft launched counter attacks”.

“Our General Officer Commander decided to capture one of the important Pakistan posts known as Fathepur and he chose our Infantry, which is the 8th Sikh Light Infantry to accomplish the task by December 12. Under the leadership of Major General Bhattacharjee, we started making plans. We understood that conventional attacking method is not practicable and we may have to suffer huge casualties. So we decided to go in two single lines and attack the post. We calculated the timings to reach each 100 metres and when and where to start the attack.”

On December 11 at 11 pm, we started our operation. Our artillerymen started firing from some kilometers back so that Pakistan soldiers would not see our movements.

A personal loss

“Before the operation, we had a simple dinner- Chapatis and Dal. We were talking about everything under the sun, except war and death. I had food with my close friends Captain Karam Singh and Second Lt Hardevpal Nayyar. More than friends, they were like my brothers.

Nayyar was my roommate during our training. We had the food from the same tin and all went back to their respective companies,” recollects Rai.

At 11 pm, the attack started. Even though they were surprised by our direction of attack, they expected us. We suffered huge casualties. Our Major got injured and I took charge of the group. I could not see anything except smoke, dust, smell of cordites and sweating in that biting cold. I speared my bayonet at every Pakistani soldier coming in front of me. Some of the faces I did not see at all. By 2 am, we captured the post. They launched counter attacks twice in minutes, but had lost. By 4 am, everything got over. At 7 am, I came out of the post and I saw the dead bodies lying at different places covered with white clothes.

I removed the cloth from one dead body, and that was my friend Karam Singh. Only half of his body was found. A shell used to blast tanks took his other half. Second body was of Nayyar, who served me Chapati and Dal the previous night. Half of his head was scattered by the machine gun. “Out of three of us, two died, and I am here to tell the story,” smiled the war hero with pain.

Honour

India lost 46 brave soldiers in that attack. We killed 32 Pakistani soldiers and captured another nine. We also seized 12 medium machine guns and three tons of other weaponry.

For the brave and courage we showed in the war, our infantry got the honour, ‘Battle honour Fathepur’.

Only memory

“About 40 years later, I could still smell that night and still have the taste of chapati and dal that my friend Nayyar served.” Brigadier said with an emotional but stern voice.

On December 16, Pakistan surrendered at Eastern Front and thus marked the end of one of the shortest wars (13 days) in the world history.

Brigadier I N Rai served in Nagaland, Chinese Border, Ladakh etc.

He got seriously injured in Sri Lanka, where he was a member of Sri Lanka Peace Keeping Force during the Lankan Civil war and was airlifted to Bangalore.

In 1991, he got the honor of leading the 8th Sikh Light Infantry, which he belongs to during the 1971 war, as a Colonel. In 1999, he became the Brigadier.

On the occasion, when the country marks 40th anniversary of its prestigious victory, this great man who fought for country is worried about the youth in this area, who are still not aware of the pride of being in to Army.

(* Operation Cactus Lilly is the name of Indian Air Attack against Pakistan at Western front)

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