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Memories of the 1971 War: As Told by a Grandfather to His Grandson

A college student shares his grandfather’s memories of the 1971 War with The Quint.

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(This story was first published on 6 December 2017. It has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the occasion of Vijay Diwas.)

A college student shares his grandfather’s memories of the 1971 War with The Quint.

Too caught up to read? Listen to the story:

The War of 1971 broke out a few weeks after my father’s first birthday. There were no pompous birthday celebration, as festivities and war do not go hand-in-hand. Posted in the Pay Accounts Office at Grenadiers Regimental Centre in Nasirabad Cantonment, my grandfather was privy to the preparations that were underway. He knew that a war was around the corner.

The situation in Bangladesh had hit rock-bottom and Indira Gandhi was in a warning mood. It was the legendary General Manekshaw who had told Indira Gandhi that an ill-prepared war, with monsoon around the corner, meant a stalemate, and thus, the army took its time and prepared, rather than charging headlong into the war.
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In the prelude to the war, my grandfather was in his office at the Pay Accounts Office (ORs) of Grenadiers Regimental Centre when Jawan Ramanand approached him. As the Unit Accountant of 16 Grenadiers, Jawan Ramanand’s unit, it was my grandfather who maintained accounts of its ranks. Jawan Ramanand, a simple man, was worried about his accounts when he approached my grandfather’s desk.

The date was 27 November 1971, my grandfather recalls, looking away at the wall every time he retells the story, with a distant look in his eyes. For a brief moment, he is transported back to his wooden chair in the bustling office. I can see it in his eyes.

Jawan Ramanand told him that war was just around the corner and his unit, 16 Grenadiers, was moving out to take the field in Jammu and Kashmir. My grandfather was already aware of that. Jawan Ramanand then handed my grandfather his paybook, a document always carried by the soldier with him in those days, having his identification and account details, and inquired if his salary account was to go into negative anytime soon.

He requested my grandfather to take care of his accounts as his family was in the village, and there was no way that his wife could come to Nasirabad with their child to settle any issues that could arise during the course of the war.

Having gone through his records, my grandfather assured him that his salary account was not going into negative anytime soon, and that he would look after his accounts if anything were to come.

Of Blaring Sirens and Jumping into Trenches

My grandfather wished Jawan Ramanand the best and the latter thanked him before leaving the office. Time passed by and my grandfather got caught up in work. The Pakistani premier, Yahya Khan, had already declared a national emergency across Pakistan on 23 November 1971.

He had asked the country to brace itself for war, and it was on the evening of 3 December, around sunset, that Pakistani Air Force’s planes took off from numerous airbases across Pakistan to target multiple targets in north-west India. The war was on.

Sirens blared across the length and breadth of north-west India and blackouts, for which most of the people had been prepared in advance, were imposed. The Indian Air Force responded the same night, and its air operations soon put the aggressors into a defensive mode.

Nasirabad, where my grandfather was posted, was a mere three-minutes away from the Pakistan airbase from where the Pakistani fighters would take off. Thus, it was very often that people would only have a minute’s time to rush out of their homes and jump into trenches that had been built around their houses as a protection from Pakistani air bombing.

Planes would fly over their heads with their deafening roars as people would jump into trenches. They would watch planes chasing each other in the otherwise beautiful night sky, like a surreal dream. My grandparents would also jump with their two children and by the end of the war, they would have lost count of their jumps.

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Living on the Edge

My grandfather would tell me that though the war was a serious affair and life was always on the edge, evenings after the initial days of the war were quite jubilant, when all the men would gather at a local paan-shop and listen to the radio – first to the All India Radio and BBC, and then ‘Radio Joothistan’, the Pakistani radio channel, which would broadcast state propaganda.

Even as the Indian forces pushed back and scored victories on most frontiers, the Pakistani radio channel would broadcast news of victories deep into the Indian soil, and with that, the men would leave for their homes with a high spirit and a light heart.

My grandfather must have met thousands of men and women from the forces in his many years of service, and there were not many he would regularly see or meet and Jawan Ramanand was no exception.

My grandfather never saw the young jawan again. But Jawan Ramanand’s memory has stayed with him ever since.

It was on the morning of 7 December 1971 that my grandfather went to his office, only to be presented with a bunch of paybooks minutes after he entered.

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Memories of War

The atmosphere was already solemn in the office, and my grandfather did not have to be told anything about those paybooks. Those paybooks had come from the field. While he knew very well that he might have to receive such paybooks, he was not prepared for it. It was not his fault. War often catches you off-guard.

With a long breath, he started his work and sought the first paybook. It was bloody. Although the blood was not his, my grandfather felt a sharp pain as he opened it. It was Jawan Ramanand’s paybook.

There were seven paybooks in total, and my grandfather would tell me that it was one of the longest days of his life. He was not a soldier and he did not fight the war. He was not on the field, but decades later, today, he knows that he was ‘there’. He was not out on the battlefield, but he also fought the war.

My grandfather would tell me that the war brought out the best in everyone. People would dig trenches together, even though they were not compelled to.

Those who worked at my grandfather’s office would go out of their way to see that families of soldiers received salaries without a hitch.

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Life after Death

Women would cook plenty of rotis and distribute them amongst troops leaving for the frontier, and there are so many stories of women risking their lives to deliver food to those fighting or going to fight. While there is no way to confirm these stories today, they are now part of war lore.

There were many Jawan Ramanands who never came home from the field, and there were so many like my grandfather who never went to the field but ‘fought’ the war together. Those who did come back, have kept alive the stories of those who did not.

They say that you die twice. First, when you actually die, and second, when your story is forgotten. Jawan Ramanand’s story shall never be forgotten. He will never die, for we will keep his story alive till the end of time.

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(The author is an undergraduate student of history at the University of Delhi. He tweets @madhur_mrt. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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