Among the less known incidents of the 1971 Bangladesh war which speaks of the high traditions of soldiering despite the grim reality of armed conflict, a hand written tribute from the enemy was the basis for a posthumous honour for a Pakistan army commander killed in action.
During the bitter battle on the Western front, Lt. Col. Ved Prakash Airy, then commanding the 3 Grenadiers in Shakargarh sector, fought off the 35 Frontier Force (FF) Regiment, commanded by Lt. Col. Muhammad Akram Raja in the battle for Jarpal on December 17, 1971.
Lt. Col. Airy was awarded MVC for his leadership in the battles of Bhairo Nath and Basantar river. His battalion not only captured enemy positions of Jarpal and Lohal but also defended them from fierce attack.
The battle of Basantar, which lasted from December 4–16, was one of the bloodiest battles on the Western front in the 1971 war.
Pakistan’s Jarpal attack was led by Lt. Col. Raja, who was killed in action.
Despite the fierce confrontation, Lt. Col. Airy’s tribute to his counterpart was the basis for Pakistan awarding its second highest military honour, the Hilal-i-Jur’at, equivalent to India’s Maha Vir Chakra to Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Raja.
Lt..Col. Airy later went on to become a Lieutenant General and died in December 2007 at the age of 72.
With full honours
Recalling the incident in a conversation with The Hindu, Ritu A. Pandit, Lt. Gen. Airy’s daughter, said, “After the ceasefire, when both sides were picking up the bodies and their wounded, the Pakistani unit was 35 FF and they were looking for their CO Lt. Col. Raja. My father directed his men to help them. When finally his body was found, my father said it will not be handed over just like another body. So it was brought over to the Unit.”
Lt. Col. Raja’s body was recovered on December 17, 1971 after one of the prisoners of war directed the search team and also helped to identify it.
One set of the Lt. Col.’s ranks was packed and given to the Pakistan Army in a small silver box and the body was placed in a casket and handed over with full military honours, along with a hand written note from Lt. Col. Airy, she said.
Titled ‘Tribute to a soldier’ and dated December 18, 1971, Lt. Col. Airy wrote that Lt. Col. Raja had “died a real soldier’s death.”
“Our hats off to him,” he wrote.
Lt. Col. Raja was personally leading the attack by being on the frontline of assault when he was hit by a Medium Machine Gun (MMG) burst right on the face killing him on the spot, Lt. Col. Airy wrote.
“We found both his hands frozen after death in the position in which he was holding his stengun, which indicated his determination to get ahead. In this action Lt. Col. Mohd Akram Raja displayed courage, determination and personal bravery of the highest order in keeping with the traditions of the soldiers,” the note says.
Lt Col Airy ended the note saying, “This heroic deed of Lt. Col. Raja, a brave soldier, should not go unnoticed.”
The Pakistanis had so much respect for my father, said Ms. Pandit recalling another incident.
In another instance, when the Unit went on a United Nations Peace Keeping mission in Lebanon in 2006, an officer from 35 FF also happened to be there and he joined the 3 Grenadiers unit in celebrating Jarpal Day on December 17.
The portraits of both Commanding Officers were also exchanged which are today displayed in the Officers Mess on both sides.
After this, Ms. Pandit recalled that Lt. Col. Raja’s son, who also joined the same regiment, sent a token to Lt. Gen. Airy which was delivered to his house.
In another recollection from the 1971 war as narrated by her father, Ms. Pandit said after ceasefire was declared and Pakistani Army surrendered, Pakistani soldiers wanted to watch the film Pakeezah which was very popular at that time. “My father arranged it right there at short notice with a make shift projector and it was screened,” she recalled.
Lt. Gen. Airy was popular for his doga, a stick, in hand and a white balaclava, Ms. Pandit recalled. Lt. Gen. Airy’s two sons are serving Major Generals in the Army.
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