A battle-hardened officer of the Indian army, he gambled with his life to save the family of current Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina from the jaws of death. The heroic tales of Col (retd) Ashok Tara.
The month of December 1971 in the life of Col (retd) Ashok Tara is one that is etched in memory.
“In the autumn of 1971, the tension between Pakistan and India was so intense that war was inevitable,” he recalls. Pakistan’s 27 Brigade held the Akhaura-Brahmanbaria area, an important rail junction. On December 1, Tara, who was then a major with the 14th battalion of the Brigade of the Guards, reached Akhaura with the order to go and capture Gangasagar, six kilometres south of Akhaura (now in Bangladesh).
“The importance of Gangasagar was that it was a major rail and road communication,” he says. But the enemy had positioned themselves two km short of Gangasagar and the area was thickly mined. The initial plan of attack was to conventionally charge the enemy with armoured support but subsequent deliberations indicated that the success of a head on confrontation could induce heavy collateral damage.
However, Major Tara who was a part of the select reconnaissance team surveyed the area and found that the railway track was safe from the mines as they saw a handful of Pakistani troops pushing a rail-wagon over the tracks. This indicated that the area between the tracks was not mined and should be strong contender for a possible breach-point and line of attack.
Back at base, the commanding officer and his team of officers pondered over the idea of attacking the enemy in a Single file. In spite of the underlying risks, the officers were confident of the feasibility of their pitch to achieve success with minimal loss of life and equipment.
This highly unconventional proposal was against all known military norms and conventions and was met with much apprehension at the higher levels in the chain of command. “But with regular persuasion and determination, an agreement was reached to attack on December 3 night or the dawn of December 4,” says Col Tara.
“We moved very close and at 12:30 am in the darkness of the night and thick fog, we reached near the first bunker. Unexpectedly someone shouted ‘koi hain’ (is anyone there?) to which one of my soldiers responded ‘tumhara baap’ (your father). The first shot came from the enemy, after that we were under a hail of bullets. But we had to destroy the bunker before it could bring more casualties our troops.”
So Major Tara threw a hand grenade into the bunker. With this the enemy was a little subdued and before they could come back, he fired from his medium machine gun (MMG) into the bunker. One by one, the Pakistani soldiers literally fell on him. The rest of his troops assaulted the railway station indulging in hand to hand fight. At the same time, another group moved behind the railway station towards the build-up area.
The operation lasted two-and-half hours before they could regain control of the station. For this act of bravery, Major Tara was awarded the Vir Chakra, India’s gallantry award presented for acts of bravery in the battlefield. Five Sena medals were also awarded to his battalion, 14 Guards.
Soon after this, Major Tara moved into another thick battle, the Liberation War (1971) in Dhaka. After finishing one battle, he moved into another. The battalion’s immediate objective was to ensure the safety and security of the VIPs arriving at the airport to formalise the unconditional surrender of the Pakistani army.
By the early hours of December 17, the battalion had implemented all relevant protocols to secure the perimeter. Around 9 am, the same day, while reassessing the arrangements, Major Tara was hastily summoned by his commanding officer Lt. Colonel V.N Channa (Brig Retd).
“On meeting up with him, I was advised of credible intelligence given by Mukti Bahni Jodha, a national resistance group. The briefing indicated that the family of Sheikh Mujibur Rehaman, including the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hassina, was under house arrest by a small contingent of enemy troops. Prompt appraisal of the situation unequivocally ascertained the sensitivity of the situation and the need for immediate action to diffuse a potential threat to the life of the imprisoned family.”
With a Mukti Bahni Jodha member as a guide and two guardsmen, Major Tara arrived at the scene where the first family was detained. “Just 100 yards short of the house there was a big crowd comprising the locals and few media persons. I was stopped and told there is a lot of danger, that well-armed trigger-happy Pakistani army were dugged-in behind sandbagged bunkers. Shortly before I arrived they had fired and killed a media person and I saw bullet-ridden car nearby. I knew any head-on attack was out of the question and that if I called more troops it would take a lot of time. Also any attack in the area would endanger the lives of those holed inside. Time was of the essence.”
In what seemed as a moment’s impulse, Tara literally gambled with his life. He decided to tackle the situation psychologically. Handing over his weapon to his men, he told them to stay behind and started walking towards the building. “Upon reaching the bullet ridden car – I hailed my Pakistani counterparts – ‘Koi Hain’ (anybody there) – but failed to get a response.
“Cautiously, I kept treading towards the house. About 10 yards from the main entrance of the house, a Pakistani soldier atop the roof shouted out in Punjabi to halt my approach else expect retaliating fire. Being well versed in the spoken dialect, I understood the gravity of the threat. I responded by apprising them that I was an officer of the Indian Army, in uniform, standing unarmed, warning them to lay down their arms as the Pakistani Army had already surrendered and that the war was over. They seemed unconvinced.”
To his good fortune, at that very moment an Indian Army Helicopter flew overhead. “I grabbed the opportunity to re-convey the fact that the Indian Army was in control of the capital city as was evident with the unimpeded flight of the chopper in the skies above.
“This seemed to have struck a chord with the enemy who asked for some time to speak to their command. To which I re-asserted that all officers of the Pak Army were now Prisoners of War and the communication grid was offline. All this while, I steadily paced myself towards the enemy positioned at the front gate of the house. I didn’t want to give them any time.”
When Tara reached the gate, he came face to face with a young Pakistani soldier nudging the cold steel of the barrel of his rifle under his right ribcage. “His trembling hand and his jittery finger on the trigger of his rifle was an unmistakable reminder of the delicate position I was in. It was quite obvious that he had never been in such close vicinity of his adversary. I gently pushed the weapon one side, looked in his eyes and told him that his officers had surrendered and taken to a safe place and that telephone lines were cut off. At the same time I kept my eyes on the roof.”
Suddenly, a woman’s shrill scream broke the conversation. She was waving frantically and shouting, ‘Don’t give them time, If you do not save us… they will kill us’. This reconfirmed Tara’s fears of the intentions of the soldiers in the building. Not wanting to give time to the enemy to consider alternatives, he continued to convince them to capitulate.
With the conviction that the enemy was almost swayed with his narrative, it was time for Tara to play the final card, an emotional salvo. “I reminded them of their families back home and assured a safe passage back to their Units in exchange for death at the hands of the Mukti Bahni Jodhas, as a consequence of non-compliance. I assured them that as an officer of the Indian army I would take them to a safe place. This tactic finally brought about realisation of the dire situation they were in and eventually they yielded.”
Almost immediately, Tara rushed in and pushed the doors open to secure the family and mitigate any chances of possible foul play. “The first lady who came out was Begum Mujibur Rehaman. She embraced me and said ‘God has sent you to save us .. you are my son”. Inside the house were her daughter Sheikh Hasina (now prime minister), her younger sister Rehana, brother Sheikh Russel, and her uncle Khoka. Then Tara was asked by Khoka to take down the enemy flag and hoist the Bangladeshi flag over the roof of the house.
Tara was asked to stay on in Dhaka to meet “Bangabandhu” Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. When Mujib returned from house arrest in Pakistan, Tara was treated like a family friend.
Almost 41 years since this battle of ‘wits and guts’ on 20th October 2012, the Bangladesh government invited Tara to Dakha to confer the honour of “Friend of Bangladesh Liberation War Honour” by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. It was a long awaited honour, which sealed a friendship.
Asked if he was not scared in hindsight of his close encounter with the enemy, Col Tara quips, “The mind is programmed to take risk when you are serving in the army. I was also raised by an army officer.”
After his heroic adventure in Bangladesh, Tara joined 9 Para Commandos and took part in counter-insurgency operations in the north-east of India. He retired as Colonel in 1994.
In Australia to spend time with his two children who are based here, Tara says the fact that the Indian government has so far not recognised this brave feat does not bother him. As far as he is concerned he has done his duty. “If the Pakistani soldiers had killed the family, the history of Bangladesh would have been different; the political relations between India and Bangladesh would have been different,” he reflects, adding, “I am happy God has helped me, that’s all.”
However, in prising Col Tara out of obscurity, Sheikh Hasina has acknowledged the role of India in the liberation of Bangladesh, something that her detractors have been seeking to erase, said reports. The fact remains, the likes of Col Tara are indeed a glory in the name of the Indian army. And such stories need to be retold.
By Indira Laisram