11 December 1971 1600 hours

The Packet flies over Tangail. It carries a full load of forty-one paratroopers, kitted up with their 20 kg load of main and reserve parachutes, weapons and ammunition. A nervous Lali is last in line, his heart thumping so loud that he fears others might be able to hear it too. Fear is mingled with excitement since this is his first time on a plane.

The warning hooter sounds and, five minutes to the jump, the red light starts flashing. The men stand and hook up to their parachute static line. The doors open, blowing a strong gust of wind into their faces. Moving forward, they start dropping off one by one from the two doors at the rear of the aircraft.

Lali finally reaches the door. He has already told the air force staff that he is not to be pushed. “I will jump myself,” he has said, trying to keep his voice confident. Inside, his nerves are in a complete tangle. The cold December wind whips his face like a lash. Down below, he can see an unending expanse of blue with the paratroopers who have jumped off showing as fading dots in the sky.

As the red light at the door turns green, Lakhan Pal’s voice rings out in his head. “Hare pe kudega.” Taking a deep breath, Lali steels his nerves and takes a leap of faith.

Falling through the air at breakneck speed, Lali feels a massive jerk in his back and legs. He looks up to find green fabric unfurling above his head and billowing in the wind. His parachute has opened. Floating in the air, he is filled with a tremendous sense of relief. He has done it and he is still alive!

A smile spills across the grand old man’s face as he remembers his first jump. “It took me a minute to reach the ground from 1250 feet. Looking down, I could see a flat brown patch rushing up at me and felt really fortunate that I was getting a smooth, grassy tabletop to land on,” he recollects.

It is only when his feet hit ice-cold water that rushes up to engulf his body that Lali realises he has fallen into water. “I just sank into the pond and when I emerged, water was lapping around me up to my shoulders. It was freezing cold but at least I didn’t get hurt.” Col Gill laughs, going on to describe the stinking muck that covered him as he waded through the water. “It was a very bad landing,” he admits, “but I was filled with a deep sense of achievement. I was elated that I could jump with my battalion in the war zone.”

Walking out of the pond, Lali unharnesses himself. His ammunition, weapon, kit, blanket, food, parachute and clothes are soaked. Rolling up his wet parachute, he sprints towards the DZ that is 800 m away where everybody else has landed, his wet shoes squirting water at each step.

He is greeted with a volley of abuse from Pathfinder 2 commander, Maj PL Tiwari. “He gave me a piece of his mind for drifting away, for falling into water and also for carrying my parachute since I had forgotten instructions that it was to be dumped at the place of landing,” Col Gill remembers.

By then, Pathfinder 1 has already secured the DZ and put up lights for the main body, and the mainstream paratroopers have started dropping from the sky. Packets and Dakotas fly past. The sky is filled with black dots that slowly turn into olive-green parachutes, and young paratroopers start landing on the ground one after the other. After unhooking their parachutes, they sprint to the FUP. Eight recoilless (RCL) and six artillery guns are also dropped with the soldiers.

In what will be remembered in the history of the parachute regiment as a crafty and shrewd battle move, Caribou aircraft are used to drop dummy loads at the same time in various locations. This confuses the enemy, leading it to believe that an entire brigade (three battalions or 1800 men) is landing at Tangail, whereas only one battalion of around 600 men has landed.

At 2000 hours, Alfa and Bravo companies get attack orders. When the two companies and the COs party reach the bridge, they are surprised to find it deserted. Completely fooled by the dummy drops by the aircraft and terrorised by what they believe is a massive landing of enemy paratroopers, the Pakistanis have fled.

Peering down from the bridge, the soldiers spot some moving lights in the darkness. They quickly identify it as a convoy of enemy vehicles heading in their direction. The Pakistani forces are fleeing to Dacca since they have been beaten by the Indian Army at Jamalpur, 80 km away.

Col Pannu orders the men to get down from the bridge and take on the enemy soldiers before they reach it. Bravo Company is placed on the left side of the road while Alfa Company is on the Tangail side. The paratroopers take cover in the foliage and watch the headlights of the enemy convoy slowly come closer.

The moment the vehicles are in firing range, Paratrooper Vaidya Nath Shinge, who is balancing a rocket launcher on his shoulder, fires at the one-and-a-half-tonner lumbering along. The truck goes up in the air and rolls on to the other side, catching fire.

It turns turtle and lies there burning with its wheels in the air. Orange flames lick the cold December air lighting up the road. The Pakistanis are shocked to find armed paratroopers emerging from behind the shrubs on both sides. A fierce battle rages through the night.

A Pakistani captain gets a bullet in his butt and is captured alive. He is taken to the battalion headquarters, his uniform filthy and bloodstained. “I have been shot,” he tells Col Pannu. “Could I get a cigarette?” Col Pannu holds out his own pack to the injured officer.

The captain draws out a cigarette with trembling fingers. Pannu leans forward to light it for him and then one for himself. The two share a smoke in silence for a while and then start talking. After all details of the battle situation have been extracted from him, the Pakistani officer is operated upon by the 2 PARA mobile medical team and the bullet is removed.

Meanwhile, in the battlefield, there is complete chaos. Many of the Pakistani soldiers are trying to make their way past the Indian Army, taking cover in the darkness and the dense vegetation. At the crack of dawn, Indian Air Force Hunters appear in the sky and strafe the area, taking on the convoy of Pakistani vehicles and soldiers who are trying to run away. They cause utter devastation among the enemy forces and also send back a tactical report informing the ground forces that they have spotted small enemy columns trying to bypass the battalion-defended area.

The next morning, Lali is told to take a patrol of ten soldiers and ambush escaping enemy columns. MMG platoon commander, Capt Surjit Singh, who goes to check on the young officer soon after orders have been passed, finds him meticulously planning the ambush in textbook style and loses his temper. “What the hell are you still doing here?” he bellows. “Get out of here and get on with the task.” A jittery Lali immediately sets out.

The patrol makes its way across the swampy, marshy river terrain. Suddenly, there is a gunshot. Paratrooper Janardan Nair, one of the two scouts, has been shot in the arm. Lali spots two men in khaki running away into the shrubbery. They disappear into the foliage. A bleeding Nair is told to walk back and seek medical help while the rest of the patrol takes position inside the foliage.

The shrubbery is so dense that even Lali, who stands taller than six feet, cannot be spotted behind it. Soon, the men hear the sound of heavy boots – enemy soldiers are in sight. Lali steps forward and, lifting his Sten gun, fires at them. His men follow suit.

Since each paratrooper has only one magazine, in thirty seconds their ammunition is finished. They fall back into the foliage. When they do a body count, they find one man missing. The missing paratrooper is identified as Lance Havildar Joseph Martha, who has been handling the light machine gun.

All of a sudden, artillery shells start dropping from the sky. Lali finds Captain Surjit coming in his direction along with two soldiers. Surjit informs him that they are getting artillery support and tells him to extricate and return to the unit. Lali does not want to go back without his missing comrade but Surjit orders him to do so, reassuring him that he will send a team to the site of the ambush.

When the team returns, it finds Martha dead. He has taken a burst in the left temple. His body is brought back by his fellow soldiers with heavy hearts.

At 1600 hours, 2 PARA spots a massive column of troops advancing in their direction – the Indian Army’s 95 Infantry Brigade is moving towards Dacca after vanquishing the enemy. The leading columns are of 1 Maratha. With textbook precision, the airborne forces and ground forces have linked up within the stipulated twenty-four hours.

Since 2 PARA is the old 3 Maratha, there is an emotional Maratha reunion near Poongli Bridge. Then, 1 Maratha crosses the 2 PARA location, marches across Poongli Bridge and goes into Tangail. It is followed by 167 Brigade, also returning after action on the Jamalpur side.

At 0900 hours on 12 December, information is received that Tangail has been vacated by the enemy forces. A force is sent to Tangail to occupy it. On the evening of 12 December, the battle at Tangail is over. Peace reigns at Poongli Bridge.

The same evening, Lali is called to the battalion command. He goes nervously, wondering if he is going to get ticked off for something he did wrong. All the officers stand seriously as he enters, making him sweat even in the cold. Col Pannu glares at him and then steps forward with a smile to pin a Para Wing on his shirtsleeve. He also gets an extra star and is promoted to the field rank of captain. The twenty-one-year-old’s dream has come true.

2 PARA goes on to march into Dacca with the other Indian forces. They engage and dislodge the enemy from Mirpur Bridge, on the outskirts of Dacca, on the night of 15-16 November, and on 16 December at 1100 hours, they are the first unit to enter Dacca. The paratroopers watch the public surrender ceremony, standing right behind the photographers taking that iconic picture of Gen JS Aurora and Gen AAK Niazi signing the document of surrender.

They watch as Gen Niazi is taken into custody, his belt and weapon removed. They observe the scramble for souvenirs as people take his epaulets, his car flag, the star plates on the car, and the pen used to sign the surrender document. The battalion is now assigned the job of providing a safe and secure corridor to the Pakistan Army, keeping at bay the Mukti Bahini that is out in full strength seeking revenge.

On 17 December, the unit moves back to Tangail, from where they are brought back to Guwahati by army transport, and from there to the New Bongaigaon train station. A special train brings them back to Delhi Cantonment where they have been told to participate in the Republic Day parade. The train reaches Delhi Cantonment on the evening of 31 December, and the soldiers spill out in high spirits.

“We got into our jeeps in our dirty, ripped fatigues and had a field run that night,” remembers Col Gill, his face lit up by a smile of remembrance. “We drove down to the Dhaula Kuan Club, then to the Oberoi hotel, which had a disco called the Tabela. No one charged us anything that night; we were treated like heroes. From there we went to Connaught Place and drove around the Inner Circle and the Outer Circle in our jeeps fitted with RCL guns. No one was celebrating the New Year; they were all celebrating the war victory.”

The soldiers are greeted with marigold garlands and loud whoops of joy; proud citizens lift them on their shoulders; crowds are out on the roads with the tricolour in their hands and cheerfully waving kids on their shoulders. Wherever they go, the soldiers are greeted with open arms and wide smiles. They are treated like heroes. Bangladesh has been born.

Author’s Note

In February 1972, 2nd Lt (later Col) Lali Gill went on to do his Para Basic Course from the Paratrooper Training School in Agra and the mandatory training jumps that officially entitled him to jump from an air force aircraft. He finally formally acquired his well-deserved Para Wings. He is possibly the only paratrooper in world military history who jumped straight into the battlefield without any training or wings. The proud colonel is now seventy-one years old and settled in Mohali.

1971: Charge of the Gorkhas and Other Stories

Excerpted with permission from 1971: Charge of the Gorkhas and Other Stories, Rachna Bisht Rawat, Penguin Veer.