Down the memory lane

The horrors of 1971 war cannot be measured in words
Down the memory lane
File Photo

The war was in air. But when war strikes, it is hard to believe that it was in air for so long. It was December 3rd evening of 1971, sky was turning translucent. While turning pages of Hindi translation of French novel, Three , at the District Library Kathua, an ear-deafening roar of Pakistani fighter aircraft pierced through the calm. That Pakistan will send its fighter jets to this side of the border was known for months, but when it came, it had its own element of surprise. Even the most anticipated wars have surprises reserved for the masses, who become unpaid warriors of their countries, driven by patriotism, and enthusiasm to defeat the enemy.

As Pakistani fighter jets were making the roar, the Indian aircraft guns started their assigned job, spitting sparkles chasing the enemy’s aircrafts. The sky was lit, a rare thing for those who had not seen such scenarios in their life. The Pakistani aircraft came and went back without causing any damage to the town.

Kathua, now a town beyond recognition of what it was 50 years ago, is very close to the international border with Pakistan. Months ahead of war in the western sector, preparations were going on for this day: the bunkers were dug, endless rehearsals undertaken how to get into bunkers, put off the light in the evenings, each siren warning about the impending arrival of the Pakistani fighter jets had become a daily routine. What a war looks like: I had no idea. Its horrors cannot be described or measured in words.

Wars test the resolve of the nations, and demand sacrifices of soldiers, defending their nation, and masses are gripped with hysteria, where every word against the enemy is greeted with cheers, without knowing the sorrow that descends at homes of the martyred soldiers. Each sacrifice has only one definition – martyrdom, and there are loud pledges and processions vowing that their sacrifices would remain alive forever. And it is considered unpatriotic to speak up for the losses, because even best of the victories in wars leave a trail of irreconcilable tragedies.

In December 1971, when the war broke out, it took me to the memories of another war about which I had heard in Anantnag in the Valley – the 1965 Indo-Pak war. At the age of seven, living in Kashmir, my father was posted as professor in the Degree College, Khannabal, on the edges of Srinagar-Jammu highway. All markets were shut. An eerie silence gripped the town. There was no roar of fighter jets or that of the gun fire. Borders were distant, but war was there, relayed on radio. Till date I have not been able to understand, why markets were shut. But there were certainly some feelings, which were summed up in the comment I heard in my neighbhourhood in Rishi Mohalla. A middle-aged teacher of a government school scolded his neighbour for listening to the news on Radio Kashmir, Srinagar and advised him to tune on to Radio Pakistan.

Coming back to December 3rd evening of 1971. From library, I rushed to my home Now, it was all dark. Doors and windows had started rattling as the guns were roaring. “ The war is on”, I heard many in the locality saying. BBC had declared that the war has broken out between India and Pakistan, but the British broadcaster wanted confirmation to come from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. At 11 pm, Mrs Gandhi addressed the nation, saying: “Pakistan has thrust war on us, and we will fight it to victory.”

India won the war. The end result of the war was Pakistan lost erstwhile East Pakistan. Bangladesh emerged as a reality. There were celebrations all around. And when schools reopened, our principal at Jagriti Niketan School, Kathua, P N Raina, announced: “India has won war. Indira Gandhi has not only changed the history but geography as well. It is unprecedented”. It took some time to comprehend what the Principal had said. Later, as the years passed, we knew what it meant for Pakistan and India – Simla Agreement of July 1972 offered few glimpses. Late Benazir Bhutto, who had accompanied her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, gave a detailed account of what transpired in Simla in her book “Daughter of the East.”

Even before the war ended with the surrender of Pakistani army in Dhaka on December 16, 1971, we knew the direction the war was taking. On December 4th and 5th, local Gurdwara in Kathua was filled with people who had fled Nagri-Parole and other border villages. That created panic among many townsfolk. Locals arranged food for them. There were young boys and girls collecting money from homes and shops to serve the displaced persons. There were several tea stalls set up for jawans. Young boys with a glass of tea in their hands would run at the speed of the army convoys to make it to jawans. Once accepted, there was some kind of smile on their faces of satisfaction, as if they were little soldiers. This bond with the Indian army was seen to be believed. This was consciousness that we are Indians, and soldiers were our ultimate defenders.

At the crack of dawn of December 6, the border residents had returned to their villages, as Indian army had advanced. More than the radio broadcasts, it was the mood of the people that told us what was happening. It was substantiated when the residents of Kathua who had come from the other side of the border started boarding buses to visit their homes, some of them had brought the family treasure placed beneath the earth.

This was one aspect of the war. Indira Gandhi was hailed as epitome of Shakti (absolute power) by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. But Indira will also be judged for her decision to handover power to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah in 1975 owing to Beg-Parthasarathy Accord.

Mirza Afzal Beg was a native of Anantnag , my adopted childhood town ( 1964 to 1970 ) town. He was known for his fathomless wit and vast wisdom, which made him to bring Sheikh Abdullah out of the years of “political wilderness.”

Kashmiris, in the aftermath of the defeat of Pakistan in 1971 war, understood two things very clearly: ( a) Pakistan has reduced itself to slogans, nothing beyond. It was also no match to India’s military power nor it could develop the diplomatic capacity to match Indira Gandhi’s statesmanship of returning the captured territory and more than 93,000 prisoners of war, ( b) the return of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah to power was a tactical move, which required vision and understanding of things and also how to control the uncontrollable situations. Histories have been written about the 1971 war, but much more remains to be analysed and written. Kashmir needs to understand it more than any other place and people.

Greater Kashmir