The Battle of Hilli

Columnist Col (Retd) GH NIAZ TI (M) writes about the epec battle of HILLI in 1971 in former East Pakistan

A study of wars is exhilarating but tactical battles are sometimes frightening and horrible. Victory comes to the side where leaders are courageous men rise above the dangers and show epic heroism and self-sacrificing gallantry to leave glorious and inspiring examples for posterity. Only great leaders and commanders have the qualities which make others follow them at the risk of death and to achieve glorious deeds. Battle of Hilli fought for nineteen consecutive days from Night 22/23 Nov. 1971 to Night 11/12 Dec 1971 in erstwhile East Pakistan is a classic example of defence in the history of modern warfare. According to Indian military authorities this battle was the toughest of battles fought during 1971.

Unfortunately where this battle received wide publicity by foreign media, our press more or less remained silent on this issue. Even the Indian military analyst carried out an in-depth post war study of this battle. This battle is the story of the gallant warriors of 205 Brigade of Pakistan Army led by Brigadier (Now Maj. Gen Retd) Tajjamal Hussain Malik 'THE ONLY SENIOR OFFICER/RED TAPE' of Pakistan Army who did not surrender during 1971 war. Without going into much of the tactical details of this battle, which may be of a little interest to civilian readers, I will endeavour to highlight certain important aspects of the battle.

Bogra being the main communication centre and also the Headquarters of Pakistan 16 Division (Commanded by Maj. Gen Nazar Hussain), it was main object of Indian Army to occupy it and throw the Pakistani forces operating in this sector off balance. The best way of getting to Bogra was through Hilli. By achieving this aim the Indian Army wanted to cut off Pakistani forces in the North from rest of the country. 205 Brigade under command 16 Division was given the task to defend the vital area of Hilli. Against this one Brigade strength operating under hostile civilian population Indian Army employed 4 Infantry Brigades supported by an Armoured Brigade an Engineer Brigade and Division Artillery augmented by 33 Corps reserve. This group was commanded by Maj. Gen Lachhman Singh. Despite employing such a large force and repeated attacks supported by heavy concentration of artillery fire and armour, the Indians could not dislodge the determined soldiers of this gallant Brigade. Hilli sector became an iron wall which the Indians could never break. Brigadier Tajjamal Hussain Malik, man with a fanatic motivation and will to fight, preferred to remain with his forward troops inspiring them with his presence. He declared that, 'Even if I am left alone with my pistol I will not surrender'. Surrender to him was not the fate of a Muslim soldier.

Maj. Gen Lachhman Singh frustrated with continuous unsuccessful attempts decided to bypass this position (Hilli) from the North to establish a block at the rear. Subsequently on 11 Dec 1971 Hilli troops were ordered by Maj. Gen Nazar Hussain, GOC 16 Division to move back to Bogra for its defence. Even after the announcement of surrender on 16 Dec 1971 fierce fighting was still continuing in the streets of Bogra. Brigadier Tajjamal Hussain, true to his faith/convictions and against the advice of his staff officer did not surrender. On the morning of 16 Dec 1971 Brigade Major of 205 Brigade along with 50 Jawans surrendered. Brigadier Tajjamal Hussain still full of vigour and will to fight along with his orderly decided to break out and join a battalion at Naogaon from where he intended to continue and fight. However, en route his orderly was shot dead and he was caught badly wounded and semi-unconscious by the Mukti Bahani. Brigadier Tajamal neither surrendered nor was directly captured by Indian Army. For the formal surrender of his Brigade, Major General Nazar Hussain was brought by Indians in a helicopter from Natore about forty miles away from Bogra on 18 Dec '71. Major General Lachhman Singh in his book wrote 'Brigadier Tajamal was the only exception in my sector who showed fanatical will to fight even at the cost of his life'. This battle is an excellent example of dedication and tactical sense shown by commanders and troops which proves that even against heavy odds, dedicated Pakistani soldiers if led well can defend their motherland.

Let me quote a para of the book 'Liberation of Bangladesh' by General Sukhwant Singh Indian Army.

'Did Thapan (Indian Corps Commander) capture territory? At the time of ceasefire, had captured all territory east of Atrai River and north of Balurghat Bulge as well as a substantial area of waistline, but all the important towns like Dinajpur, Saidpur, Rangpur, Rajshai and Natore were still holding out and had the capability of sustained resistance'.

General Niazi in his book ' The Betrayal of East Pakistan' page 206 wrote.

'I had plenty senior NCOs, JCOs and Officers, so my command structure was very good. For instance sections were being commanded by JCOs and Platoons by Captains with Lieutenants as 2 I/C and so on. In addition to myself there were three Major Generals one Admiral, one Air Commodore and many Brigadiers to command the troops and sectors. On the whole my defence of Dhaka, if not impregnable, was a hard nut to crack and fulfilled nearly all the requirements of an ideal defence position. With all that there were 30,350 troops available to the defence of Dhaka.'

Having impregnable defence of Dhaka, holding out of all the important and major towns with capabilities of sustained resistance and having prolonged logistics support, it is difficult to understand why all the Generals present in Dhaka decided to surrender.

Had all or at least 50% of our red tapes decided to stand and fight, we could have added a glorious chapter in the history of Islam, which could have served examples for the generations to come. It causes jitters just to imagine the nerve breaking ceremony of surrender, where one had to salute the victor, take out one's empty pistol and offer it as a token of submission and finally sign a printed proclamation for surrender of command.

What caused us to go through all this ordeal remains somewhere locked in the Hameed ur Rehman commission report which is yet to see the light of the day but for 'How Long'. Someday the truth will come out and bring out the historic lesson. It is never too late.

(Based on the books, 'Story of my Struggle' by Major General Tajamal Hussain Malik, 'Indian Sword strikes in East Pakistan' by Major General Lachhman Singh, 'The Betrayal of East Pakistan' by Lt. General A.A. Niazi and 'Liberation of Bangladesh' by General Sukhwant Singh.