Khukri Tales: An Account Of Gorkha Power And Pakistani Fear
1971 Charge of The Gorkhas is a telling account of Gorkha valour and its impact in the 1971 war that helped create Bangladesh.
1971: Charge of the Gorkhas and Other Stories. Rachna Bisht Rawat. Penguin. Pages 200. Rs 315 (Paperback).
On the night of 20 November 1971, which happened to be Eid-ul-Zuha, the soldiers of the 4th Battalion of the 5th Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) crossed the international border and entered the heavily defended town of Atgram in East Pakistan with naked khukris in their hands. What followed was a chilling saga of courage and sacrifice that can never be forgotten. It was the Indian Army’s first organized attack in 1971.
21 November 1971
Around 0330 hours
Atgram, East Pakistan
Rifleman Dil Bahadur Chhetri stands absolutely still. The whites of his eyes glint like fireflies in the dark, but other than that, he merges completely with the night, his uniform, helmet and boots dissolving into the shadows. He switches on the flashlight in his hand and moves forward, keeping its beam low. The circle of light falls on a figure lying face down on the ground. Chhetri bends down and turns the body over. It is his platoon commander, Capt. Praveen K. Johri, a bloodied khukri still clasped in his hand. He has been shot. His vacant eyes stare into the sky where a crescent moon hangs in the purple darkness.
A paralysing fear grips Chhetri, who is only twenty-one. It feels like a living, throbbing creature is seeping into every pore of his body and slowly starting to suffocate him. Chhetri can hardly breathe. He remembers his beautiful village in Nepal. An image of his elderly parents flashes before him. His father in his Nepali topi, sitting in the courtyard, smiling at him with eyes that get crow’s feet as deep as ravines; his mother in her colourful headscarf and green pothe ki mala, looking at him with so much love that it hurts. Chhetri’s eyes burn with tears. He wonders if he will ever see them again.
The enemy bunker is right before him. He tries to load his rifle, only to find that it has jammed. Flinging it away, he whips out the khukri hanging at his waist. With a menacing snarl, he pushes open the door of the bunker. Torch in left hand, khukri in right, Chhetri steps inside. Three enemy soldiers are bent over medium machine guns (MMGs), spewing death at his comrades. ‘Jai Mahakali!’ he calls out, his voice raised to a high pitch. The soldiers look back in surprise. ‘Aayo Gorkhali!’ Skin erupting in goosebumps, eyes breathing fire, Chhetri falls upon them. Screams of terror ring out as the blade cuts into human flesh.
21 November 1971
Around 0300 hours
Atgram appears like a fortress surrounded by inverted L-shaped cement and concrete bunkers. All of a sudden, a few Pakistani soldiers appear on the road. Surprised at seeing unknown men, they shout, ‘Kaun hai! Haath khada karo.’ A blood-curdling cry of ‘Jai Mahakali! Aayo Gorkhali!’ rings out in the darkness. Every single Gorkha whips out his khukri and leaps forward. Before the Pakistanis can realize what is happening, the soldiers are upon them. The slaughter has begun.
The sounds of battle are heard and the Pakistanis open MMG and mortar fire on the road. Though lethal, the fire does not deter the Gorkhas, who sprint across and leap to the other side in one wave after another. These are the braves of Alfa and Delta companies (Platoons 1–3 and 10–12 respectively). Those caught in the fire fall but their comrades step across their bodies and move forward, with fire in their eyes and flashing blades in their hands. Ignoring the hail of bullets, they make their way to the enemy bunkers.
No. 1 Platoon under Captain Johri goes in for the western defences. No. 2 Platoon under Lt Hawa Singh penetrates through the barracks. And No. 3 Platoon under Subedar Ran Bahadur Gurung takes on the defences right of No. 2 Platoon.
Soon, flesh is flying all around. Writhing bodies with heads hacked and bent at queer angles lie everywhere. Col Harolikar and his group charge right behind the assaulting company as they move from bunker to bunker with blood-stained khukris in their hands, slaughtering whoever comes in their way.
"I found myself drawn by an unknown and inexorable force, running forward along with my comrades-in-arms. The charge was like a wave with its own momentum and I could hear and faintly discern our brave jawans with their drawn khukris — now bloodied — moving from bunker to bunker, slaughtering one and all. It was as if all of us were possessed by superhuman powers,’ writes Col Harolikar.
No POWs are taken. The enemy has either been killed or has fled, carrying tales of blood-curdling violence. For the Pakistanis, the sheer horror of a khukri attack, which they have never experienced, had been so paralysing that many of those attacked could not even fire their rifles due to shock.
"The khukris created so much terror that the enemy soldiers who survived ran to the 9 Guards unit nearby and surrendered to them, pleading, “Please save our lives. The Gorkhas are cutting our heads off. Don’t let them catch us.” This was conveyed to us by the CO of the nearby guards unit later,’ remembers Col Yashwant Singh Rawat.
Maj. Sahrawat seconds this. ‘Only then did we understand why Col Harolikar had insisted on a khukri attack. It instilled abject fear in the enemy and also cut our casualties in the next battle: our attack on the Sagarnal tea estate. When the Pakistanis heard that the Gorkhas were coming, they fled, leaving their posts unoccupied. If it was not war, it would have counted as a comical scene where we were mounting an assault and they were running away instead of putting up a defence. Their will to fight had been completely broken by the Battle of Atgram. We just went and occupied their posts without any resistance,"’ he remembers.
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