Any story of the BSF in its formative years is incomplete without mentioning its emphasis on innovation. KF Rustamji encouraged it and he himself was a great believer in making the best use of what was available around him. In 1965, the union finance ministry approved the first budget of the BSF, except one important item. Rustamji had asked for foreign exchange to procure radios and weapons from abroad.

This was denied.

But this did not stop Rustamji, who decided to build both at home. He recruited IPS officer CP Joshi into his core team as the inspector general of communications. IG Joshi started a technical wing of the BSF at the academy in Tekanpur. The first project was to build radios, and it was a success, greatly aided by Vikram Sarabhai, the pioneer of Indian space technology. The bigger challenge was making bombs and rockets. The only artillery that the BSF had were Indian Army hand-me-downs of World War II vintage. There was a two-inch (51 mm calibre) and a three-inch (81 mm calibre) mortar bomb.

A brief explanation of a mortar and its operation is in order here to understand why Rustamji wanted better firepower.

A mortar is a bomb launcher or a modern cannon. Except cannons, like artillery guns, can fire straight at targets. The mortar fires at an angle between 45 and 85 degrees, which gives the shell a parabolic trajectory and a sharp fall to the target. The mortar is a cylindrical metal pipe, with its base end blocked and a trigger pin sticking out of the base into the inside of the pipe. The pipe is fixed on to a base plate, which is placed on the ground. Soldiers dig a shallow hole in the ground so that the base plate is firmly in place. The lower end of the mortar is balanced using a bipod that can be adjusted to correct the aim.

One soldier operates the mortar and corrects the aim, while another drops the bombs into the mortar. The shell or bomb falls to the base, and a firing pin triggers the detonator at the base of the mortar. This sets off explosive charges on the waist of the bomb that propel it out of the mortar and towards the target. It lands nose first and sets off an impact fuse that is connected to a detonator, which runs through the bomb like its spine. The detonator triggers the high explosives packed into the torso of the shell. The biggest advantage of the mortar is that it can shoot past an elevated fortification, such as a mound of land, a clump of trees or a high wall around a camp.

The two-inch mortar was obsolete in 1971 because of a number of issues. The barrel was short, and instead of a base pin, they were fired using a trigger. There was no bipod, so the mortar had to be held by a trained soldier. The shell itself was small and had low impact.

The three-inch mortar bomb was more effective, but the one the BSF used in 1971 was obsolete. It dated to World War II. Although it was heavier and had greater impact than the two-inch mortar bombs, there had been several upgrades to these shells by 1971. The BSF was fighting against a regular army, armed with the upgraded three-inch mortars, which were also available with the Indian Army but not with the BSF.

Rustamji wanted to upgrade to the new one and also have access to his own stocks. So the technical wing of the BSF began to develop and produce the three-inch mortars and bombs that it required. But the BSF had no access to heavy-artillery guns or rockets. Rockets have greater range and explosive power, and can be used to destroy tanks. IG Joshi was asked to build a rocketry division, and Dy Comdt GP Bhatnagar was recruited from 16 Bn to lead the division. Before joining the BSF, Dy Comdt Bhatnagar had served as an emergency commissioned officer of the Indian Army, where he had been an artillery officer.

In 1969, Rustamji sent Dy Comdt Bhatnagar to Trivandrum to meet with Vikram Sarabhai and begin the project. Sarabhai, who was leading India’s space tech development, agreed to help. The BSF men in the technical team were not scientists. They went to different institutes to study rocket science. They trained at the Pilani and Mesra (Ranchi) campuses of Birla Institute of Technology and Science. By 1970, they had gained some knowhow but had to regularly travel to the space research centre (now called the Vikram Sarabhai Space Research Centre) at Trivandrum, where the rocket was to be built, and also set up a liaison office there.

Rustamji has written that both APJ Abdul Kalam and Vikram Sarabhai greatly contributed to the development of the BSF’s first rocket, which had a long aluminium body, filled with solid propellant. They first began by developing small-range rockets that could fire up to 200, 300 and 400 yards to test whether they could design the rockets. The practice fire was on the parade ground at the BSF Academy Tekanpur, so that if the rockets overshot the range they would fall in the lake.

On the day of the first test fire, Rustamji turned up with RN Kao as a surprise guest for the event. With great ceremony, the guests were led to the firing area. There, the technical wing had set up two stationary launchers next to each other, loaded with rockets. The tests were meant to demonstrate the flight, and not explosive, capability of the rockets.

One of the officers began to count down from ten for the first launcher. The technical wing waited with bated breath as the countdown progressed, eager to see their experiment succeed. However, to their dismay, the rocket did not fly but exploded in the launcher. Since it was stationed next to the second launcher, the explosion of the first blew up the other rocket in the second launcher.

It was a very embarrassing moment. The DG was present and had brought his friend, who was the director of an important institution. Dy Comdt Bhatnagar was nonplussed and, after packing up, skipped the after-party and headed home. Rustamji realised that Dy Comdt Bhatnagar was missing
from the party. Sensing that Bhatnagar was embarrassed about the fiasco, Rustamji sent another officer to fetch him to the party. As soon as he arrived, Dy Comdt Bhatnagar headed straight for the bar to down a few pegs of rum. He was downing his third when he sensed two tall figures looming behind him. As he turned to see who it was, Kao and Rustamji took their seats on the bar stools on either side of him.

“What’re you up to?” Rustamji asked.

“Sorry, sir. I could not demonstrate the firing of the rockets to you,” Dy Comdt Bhatnagar replied.

“How much money did Khusro give you?” Kao asked. He was on first-name terms with Rustamji.

Dy Comdt Bhatnagar shrunk in his seat with embarrassment. “Sir, quite a few lakhs.”

“Do you know how much was spent on the Apollo mission?” Kao asked, referring to the US space programme.

“Must be in millions.”

“You have spent a fraction of that on the rockets. If the Apollo mission can fail, your rockets can too. At least you made the test fire in the presence of a VIP. That is a big achievement in itself. Keep at it and you will succeed.”

Dy Comdt Bhatnagar went back to the drawing board, and soon enough, the rockets were firing absolutely fine. From 200 and 400 yards, the range of the rockets was increased to hit targets 20 kilometres away. The formal test fire was done in Pokhran, Rajasthan, and travelled a distance of 90 kilometres. These rockets were used in the 1971 war at the western front, and Dy Comdt Bhatnagar himself led a group at the Battle of Dera Baba Nanak.

Excerpted with permission from India’s Secret War: BSF and Nine Months to the Birth of Bangladesh, Ushinor Majumdar, Penguin India.