Unarmed major who disarmed Pak soldiers and saved a future PM
New Delhi, June 27: The cold steel of a rifle barrel poked Major Ashok Tara in the chest.
The finger on the trigger was trembling, as was the scared Pakistani soldier who was pointing the gun. Barely out of his teens, the fresh-faced youth, Tara noted, was wide-eyed and his lips were quivering. One false move and the nervous boy could squeeze the trigger by mistake.
At such close range, the bullet would go through his body taking half the chest with it. It was a precious chest having braved two wars.
It endures. Even today, India is riding the goodwill that it commands.
On Monday this week, Dhaka announced that it was conferring the "Friend of Bangladesh" Award to Ashok Kumar Tara who retired as a colonel in 1994. Indira Gandhi, India's Prime Minister in 1971, was conferred the award in her time.
This morning, Tara told The Telegraph during a chat in his modest ground-floor flat in Noida, that of all the events that tumultuous December of 1971, he still remembered the feel of the barrel of a gun aimed at his chest like a phantom limb.
That morning of December 17, 1971, Tara had disarmed himself — unthinkable for an officer in the face of hostilities — in a gamble with his life. Is this how it was going to pay off? The choicest Punjabi expletives aimed at himself were racing through his mind. His wife and four-month-old baby were at home in Delhi.
For two weeks he had gone from battle to battle ever since his unit, the 14 Guards, was ordered out of Agartala to cut an axis to Dacca. He had killed the enemy himself and had seen his comrades getting killed in firefights. He was quite ready to be killed himself in a firefight. He was a seasoned soldier and a company commander.
This was already his second war. He was leading Alpha company and two weeks earlier was decorated with the Vir Chakra, the third highest gallantry award, in the Battle of Gangasagar. In that battle, Lance Naik Albert Ekka of his unit's Bravo company was killed and posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra, the highest gallantry award.
But this was no firefight. Yet here Major Tara was — that winter's morning made colder still by the feel of the rifle barrel aimed at his heart. A crowd had gathered some distance away from the gates of the house in Dacca's Dhanmondi locality where Tara stood alone.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's family, future Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, then 24-years-old and the mother of a baby herself, among them, were under arrest in that house for nine months.
It was past 9 in the morning. A day earlier Lt Gen. A.A.K. Niazi, the commander of forces in East Pakistan, had surrendered to the Indian Army.
Since then, Tara's unit was assigned by divisional commander Maj. Gen. Gonsalves to secure the battered Dacca airport. Its runway had been strafed by the Indian Air Force and only helicopters could land. Senior officers and VIPs were reaching Dacca after the surrender. Tara's company was asked to secure the main terminal when a local political leader came up to his battalion commander, Col Vijay Kumar Chanana, and told him that Mujib's family was in danger of getting wiped out by Pakistani soldiers.
Chanana called Tara and asked him to go to Dhanmondi, a 20-minute drive. Tara left with three soldiers.
At Dhanmondi, the local politico fled after pointing out the place. A Mukti Joddha, Bangladesh liberation warrior, came to Tara's vehicle and told him that Pakistani soldiers who were in the house had threatened to kill the family. He pointed to the burnt car, half way between the crowd and the house, that a man, possibly a journalist, was taking to reach the gates. The bullet-riddled body of the man was inside the charred car.
Tara looked hard at the house. There was a sandbagged bunker on the roof with a light machine gun (LMG). He could make out the sentry who had a clear field of vision. There would be other guards.
One bunker was on the terrace, the others were on either side of the gate. A Pakistani flag flew atop the building.
"The Pakistani guards had fired on a crowd in front of the house last night, killing at least five persons including a woman," reported the United News of India from Dacca in a despatch dated December 17, 1971.
There was no way Tara could charge with just three men. He called his JCO (junior commissioned officer) and handed him his sten gun. Stay on one side of the road, he instructed.
Unarmed, he began a slow walk to the gates. As he passed the car, the sentry on the rooftop warned him that he would open fire if he took another step. Tara, whose parents migrated to Delhi from Rawalpindi in 1945, understood his language.
"Dekho, main Hindustani fauj da afsar toadde saamne khada hoon, main bin hathyar ke hoon," Tara shouted back in a mix of Punjabi and Hindi. (See, I am an Indian Army officer standing unarmed in front of you.)
"Jab main pahunch gaya hoon aapke saamne bina weapon ke iska matlab hain ki aapka fauj ne surrender kar diya. Aap apni afsar se pooch lo," he continued. (If I have reached unarmed in front of you, it means your army has surrendered, you can ask your officer).
The sentry asked him to halt. After a while, he shouted back: "Sadda un nala koi link nahin". (I have no contact with the officer). Tara, then 29 years old, learnt later that a Pakistani captain had abandoned his post. Even then, he knew that the news of the surrender had not yet reached the lower ranks because communications were disrupted.
At that time, Indian helicopters flew overhead. "I pointed to them and shouted 'look our helicopters are flying in the sky and look behind me, our jawans are inside Dacca. You have a family with children as I do; if you lay down your arms and come out peacefully, I guarantee you a safe passage to your camp or wherever you want to go to'."
He was walking closer to the house as he shouted these words and was at the entrance when the guard in the bunker at the gates pointed the rifle at him.
"I locked eyes with the shivering boy even as I was talking to the havildar on the rooftop," recalls Tara now. From inside the house, the family of Sheikh Mujib (Mujibur Rahman was in a jail in Pakistan and was to be flown to Dacca a few days later) was also shouting. "If you do not save us, they will kill all of us, we know," a woman's voice wailed out to him.
They had overheard his shouted conversation with the havildar. "I kept up the conversation as I softly pushed the barrel of the gun away from my body," says Tara. "Those were different times, there was a different kind of josh because I had been through the Battle of Gangasagar just two weeks earlier," Tara says now of the experience of overcoming the fear of death.
The UNI reported laconically: "A major who led the (Indian) detachment ordered the guards to surrender. They (the Pakistani soldiers), however, refused to move out of the bunker unless ordered by their own officers. The major explained that the Pakistani troops had already surrendered and that they should do the same instead of provoking the troops to eject them. After much argument, they agreed to come out. They were given civilian clothes to wear lest they be shot on the road by vengeful youths."
A more enthusiastic Northern India Patrika despatch reported: "The release of Begum Mujibur Rahman has been as thrilling as the fall of Dacca or for that matter the liberation of Bangladesh."
Tara says Begum Mujib embraced him and said: "You are my son who has come as God to me".
The Patrika quotes Begum Mujib in its December 1971 report. "Many a time I thought that neither I nor the Indian officer will survive this. It is a new lease of life for us."
Inside the house, there was barely any furniture. The family had been sleeping on the floor. There were hardly enough rations either. "I saw only biscuits," recalls Tara.
Tara clicked a picture of the 24-year-old Sheikh Hasina with her baby in her arms. He intends to enlarge and frame the picture and gift it to the Bangladesh Prime Minister when he goes to Dhaka shortly to receive his award.
Her sister, Rehana, wrote to Tara for a long time afterwards. In her letters penned in childish but neat writing she asks repeatedly about "bhabhi (Tara's wife) and baby". Tara was asked to stay on in Dhaka to meet "Bangabandhu" Sheikh Mujibur Rahman even after his unit was ordered back to the Mizo Hills. When Mujib returned, he was treated like a family friend. Tara shows photographs with the family signed by Mujib.
Nearly 41 years later, Sheikh Hasina has invited Colonel (retired) Ashok Kumar Tara to return to Dhaka for thanksgiving. "She tried earlier too when she was the Prime Minister (1996-2001) but somehow that did not materialise," says Tara.
In his Noida flat, Tara, now 70 years old, still gets up to open the door when the bell rings, assuming that one of his soldiers from the unit has come. His wife, a former teacher, lives with him. His daughter and son live in Australia with their families.
In prising Col Tara out of obscurity, Sheikh Hasina is acknowledging the role of India in the liberation of Bangladesh, something that her detractors have been seeking to erase. With the passing of Tara's generation, that would become all too easy, lest New Delhi uses the past as the springboard for a renewed friendship.