On Jessore road Mother wept at my knees
Bengali tongue cried mister please
Then children starve three days in a row
and vomit their food unless they eat slow

— from 'September on Jessore Road', Allan Ginsberg (1971)

Just when one thought we knew all that was needed to know about the 1971 Indo-Pak War, investigative journalist Ushinor Majumdar brings to us India’s Secret War, a startling piece of history that adds a new dimension to the unimaginably complex machinations underway during the tumultuous, epochal year of 1971.

The roots of the Border Security Force can be traced back to the aftermath of the 1965 Indo-Pak War, when a need was felt to have a separate paramilitary force dedicated to guarding India’s borders. Prior to December 1965, this charter – of guarding India’s borders – was shared, in an ad hoc manner, between the Central and State Reserve Police, while the Indian Army served in an active combat role. However, in 1971, the six-year-old BSF was thrust into action, as “the implementing agency” (while R&AW would strategise) in an intense operationally demanding, morally-demanding theatre.

Above and beyond duty

Operationally demanding because ever since Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s historic proclamation of independence in March 1971, conditions had deteriorated in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), thus first exposing BSF personnel to the fall-out of the mass ethnic cleansing that had begun. During this time, the BSF was pushed, both literally and figuratively, to commitments that demanded them to go beyond their charter while maintaining the highest standards of military professionalism. As Majumdar observes in the initial chapters, “Rustamji [then-Director General of the BSF] and the officers and men of the BSF went much beyond their mandate. They chose to defend humanity itself, while several countries debated whether the genocide was an internal matter”.

The carnage across the border had raised several moral challenges for the BSF as well, given that they were the first ones exposed to, and called upon to help, hapless, penniless, desperate Bengali refugees. Consider that it is never easy to turn away a neighbour fleeing from a despotic regime back home. Imagine Asst Comdt BN Chaturvedi’s quandary, stationed at the Mahadipur Border Outpost (BOP), in Malda, West Bengal, when at 3 am on the night of March 26, 1971, a thousand Bengali refugees arrived at the BOP, screaming, “either give us refuge, or else shoot us”. Or the numerous times BSF personnel dug out blood-stained saris and bodies of raped women from deserted Pakistani Army camps.

The BSF’s contribution to the 1971 Indo-Pak War, and, more important, towards the formation of Bangladesh does not find more than a cursory mention in the otherwise burgeoning scholarship about the period. Thus Majumdar’s book shines a light on the critical role of a silent, yet highly professional force which ensured that history marched in the right direction.

Looking closer

While existing scholarship focuses on military operations of the three Armed Forces (Arjun Subramaniam’s India’s Wars, Ian Cardozo’s 1971: Stories of Grit and Glory from the Indo-Pak War), politico-diplomatic manoeuvring (Arthur Blood’s The Blood Telegram), and the lives of the refugees (Anam Zakaria’s 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India), Majumdar’s book reconstructs that volatile time preceding the conflict – a time whose depths were rumbling with trouble, but its surface was calm yet taut with tension. And so, the protagonists of this time, chiefly the BSF personnel, found themselves in a peculiar period that wasn’t war, and yet, the demands made on them resembled that of war, and any shortcomings would bring the penalties that come with failure in war.

To illustrate, consider Asst Comdt Parimal Ghosh’s daring act of “unofficially” (that is, without the sanction of his superior officer) crossing the border into East Pakistan, on March 26, 1971, on the request of Constable Nooruddin and rebel officers of East Pakistan Rifles (EPR), to render tactical advice on how to liberate the Shubhapur road-bridge from the Pakistani army. After returning, when he confessed his audacious act to his superiors, he knew a court martial could be in the offing. And yet, overwhelmed by the feeling that “he had done the right thing”, Ghosh had penetrated into enemy territory not once but twice.

His advice had worked well – the Shubhapur bridge had been liberated, and shouts of “Joy Bangla” and “Joy Bangabandhu” rang through the morning of March 28, 1971. The whole situation would have worked out differently had Ghosh refused to help, or worse, had got caught on the other side of the border.

In a similar vein, perhaps the events of 1971 would have panned out differently, had the BSF not done all that it did, going out of its way numerous times to render assistance, both to the fledgling Bangladeshi freedom movement and also to the Indian Armed Forces, over the entire March-December 1971 period. In several places, Majumdar illustrates how BSF’s involvement had tremendously bolstered the morale of Mukti Bahini cadres, and demonstrated the difference broader Indian involvement would make to the Bangladeshi liberation movement.

The BSF training Mukti Bahini. | Image credits: BSF Archives. | Sourced by: Ankush Banerjee.

In broad brushstrokes

Majumdar’s book vividly brings to light many audacious episodes, such as the manner in which the BSF supplied weapons to Mukti Bahini, trained their cadres, crossed into East Pakistan, facilitated important meetings between Awami League and Indian Government leaders, blew up critical infrastructure (thus hindering Pakistani Army’s advances), and gathered intelligence that would prove useful to the Indian Army and Air Force.

Among these, one particular incident the book highlights that merits attention was how the BSF facilitated to and fro movements of Awami League leaders that culminated with the Provisional Government’s swearing-in ceremony and its Constitution being articulated in the backrooms of BSF buildings located in Calcutta. Likewise, an incident written with the crackling suspense of a thriller has the BSF aiding Awami League set up radio stations on Indian soil to disseminate messages of revolution into East Pakistan.

One is driven to ask – ultimately, what motivated BSF, a paramilitary force, to go out of its way and do all that it did. The reason, perhaps, can be traced to their unique position as the first ones exposed to the gruesome occurrences in East Pakistan – ethnic cleansing, violence, murder, rape, and the potential erasure of a generation of Bengalis for whom the pull of cultural roots had become stronger than that of religion. Perhaps, the most fundamental humanitarian impulse – to put an end to crimes against humanity – was at the heart of BSF’s professionalism and the uncountable instances of bravery and valour that the book goes at length to reconstruct and describe.

Majumdar’s style, while never lapsing into the triteness of chronology, is taut, urgent, and sensitive while unspooling those layered historical threads that bound many of the (Bengali) BSF officers with East Bengali citizens. The incident where a rescued East Pakistani woman travels all the way to Calcutta, to thank Asst Comdt Ghosh’s mother for her son’s bravado, is poignant in its telling.

In closing, BSF’s contributions, not only to the 1971 Indo-Pak War, but to the formation of Bangladesh as a nation were as critical, as they have sparsely been written about. Hence, this book needs to be read, not only in India, but in Bangladesh, and any other country, whose history books are soaked in the blood of its martyrs, emerging from the depredations of tyranny, injustice, and oppression.

Ankush Banerjee is the Books Editor at Usawa Literary Review, PhD scholar, three-time winner of the United Services Institution of India Gold Medal Essay Prize, and an Indian Navy Officer currently posted at National Defence College, New Delhi.

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