The author discusses his new book on the role of the Border Security Force in the Bangladesh liberation war.
When one thinks of the creation of Bangladesh, one generally thinks of the 13-day war in December 1971. Little attention goes to the covert operations from March 25, 1971, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared independence, until the actual war. Key to that was the Border Security Force (BSF), largely unsung. Until now: Ushinor Majumdar has written India’s Secret War: BSF and the Nine Months to the Birth of Bangladesh (Rs.499, Penguin), an action-packed recounting of key moments in that insurgency. Aditya Sinha spoke to the author recently. Excerpts:
What gave you the idea for this book? The truth is that when you hear about 1971, you usually think Sam Manekshaw, JFR Jacob and Jagjit Singh Aurora. So this book was an education.
For me also. As I mention in the first chapter, it all started for me with Gary Bass, who wrote Blood Telegram and whom I met in 2013. I read his book. Since then, and even in 2021 (the 50th anniversary of the liberation), a lot of stuff started coming out about this war. I kept going back to what he mentioned, about India having participated in the Bangladesh Liberation War and not just the 13-day war, but never having officially acknowledged it. His book didn’t have many details. He didn’t mention that the BSF was involved. I started talking to them, talking to other people.
India’s Secret War: BSF and the Nine Months to the Birth of Bangladesh
What is most of the writing in India on the war?
There is a little on the genocide, not much. There is a lot about Pakistan-India, a lot about diplomacy and the diplomatic impact of the proclamation of independence. There’s a lot of military history about the 13-day war itself. Chander Suta Dogra has written a great book called Missing in Action. In my research I found that in certain sectors the military was working with the BSF. Apart from operational command, some army personnel actually donned BSF uniforms and were embedded.
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Was this always an interest of yours, or did something lead you to Blood Telegram?
I was working with Tehelka and was at the ThinkFest. Gary Bass was there as a speaker. Each of us reporters was assigned to different authors and journalists, and I got assigned to him. Before that I didn’t know about his book. I literally bought it there, got him to sign it. On the way back I read it and I just couldn’t put it down because it was so engrossing.
Basically, chaperone duties led to this book.
[Laughs] You could say that. I was interested in Tripura.
In the book you said you had never been there until you started working on this book.
Tripura, because my grandfather came from Comilla in 1922. I’ve always been curious about that place.
K.F. Rustamji, who raised the BSF from scratch in 1965, is a key figure, motivating his officers. How would you rate him in the history of the Indian police?
He’s definitely interesting, not just pioneering the BSF but also as the Inspector General of [Police in] Madhya Pradesh before he became Director General, BSF. And before that he had worked many years with the IB [Intelligence Bureau] before it split. He was responsible for catching several dacoits in Madhya Pradesh, including the one immortalised as Gabbar Singh in Sholay.
All the people that I spoke to, survivors, everybody, seemed impressed with him. There are officers and jawans who after speaking about him for a while will start crying. He was seen as a father figure, and he knew he had this burden.
I spoke to his son Cyrus Rustamji, who stays in Canada. I spoke to his biographer, P.V. Rajagopal, who had interviewed a lot of people. There is a uniform opinion that he was warm, he wanted to create an environment for everybody to grow in. He did not politick or play one staff officer against another.
He had this constant mobility. When he hears that two Bangladeshi leaders have come to the border, he immediately gets on a plane and he’s there. He doesn’t go into verification, sources, nothing. By the time IG Golak Majumdar has gone to the Banpur BOP [Border Outpost], he’s already landing at Dum Dum airport.
He’s a hands-on guy. He pulls out the stove, says khana arrange karo, and they make omelette for the Bangladeshis. He’s a guy who wants to get the job done. He doesn’t have an ego.
Definitely. He’s also very dynamic and interested in innovation. For example, he found the BSF didn’t have a budget for buying rockets. He got his officers to innovate and make their own.
Most of your impressions are from BSF people?
From his biography, along with the people who served at that time. But you know many senior people of the early 1970s are gone. He was close to [Research and Analysis Wing chief] R.N. Kao. Both had a good rapport.
In one place, Kao lands up with Rustamji.
Kao was deeply involved, but this is not a book about the RAW, so I have not gone much into his role. But Kao was very much involved in building all the strategies, right from day one.
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It is good that the book focusses on the BSF because for the common reader it illuminates their role. Did you visit any of the places, the BOPs?
Tripura, Bengal, North Bengal. Meghalaya is the only one I haven’t been to. I’ve been to Dhaka. I was there recently while writing the book. I went to the liberation war museum there.
Does it feature the BSF in any way? Or is it mostly their own politicians, etc.
Their own politicians, but it’s more about the freedom fighters. It’s also a great curation of an entire story. You learn a lot about how they pulled off Operation Searchlight and how it was designed. There were several Bahinis, right? Mukti Bahini is a generic name, but there were several like Kedar Bahini and Mujib Bahini. So it speaks about them, the heroes. The BSF, unfortunately, has not found mention because its role is not public. Perhaps this book will make them reconsider.
They are a foreign police force as far as Bangladesh is concerned.
There is the Tripura State Museum, which has got two rooms for the 1971 liberation war, because like Kolkata, Agartala was a hub, as was the rest of Tripura. I didn’t see anything about the BSF in those two rooms.
How long did the book take?
Two years, give or take.
While you were writing, were you doing some supplemental reading? Have you read what other people have been writing, on military matters, during the last few years?
I have. I tried to keep my writing style but in some places one can’t avoid data dumps. Take the story of Assistant Commandant Ram Krishna Wadhwa on the Western front. He got a Maha Vir Chakra and his story is remarkable. I could write an entire chapter on him. But unfortunately there wasn’t any resource to go on, beyond official records. There is a demand from historians to make these records accessible sooner and give access to these personnel. My style is to make the writing more accessible. A lot of people won’t read unless you recreate action sequences and scenes.
- Aditya Sinha speaks to Ushinor Majumdar about his new book, India’s Secret War: BSF and the Nine Months to the Birth of Bangladesh, published by Penguin.
- Ushinor Majumdar writes about the role of the Border Security Force (BSF) in the covert war that India fought in the months leading up to the formation of Bangladesh.
- In the interview, Ushinor Majumdar talks about how he came about writing the book, the people he researched, the people that he spoke to and the places he visited..
- In particular he talks about the legendary BSF Director General K.F. Rustamji and his hands-on role in the war..
You have done it nicely.
Which is tough, because you have to talk to three-four different people about each event.
It is deceptively tough because while you are reading you are engrossed in the cross-firing or villagers fleeing, etc., and it is like a movie action scene. You are not looking at the craft, you are looking at the action. How helpful was the BSF? You have mentioned this in the book.
Very. Pankaj Singh, who’s now Deputy NSA [National Security Adviser], was DG at that time. He and Krishna Rao, the PRO, were absolutely on board with the idea. I noticed the BSF was celebrating 1971, but nothing was coming out in public. I wanted this to become accessible to the public.
Krishna Rao is great with research. He had a lot of material ready but I had to push him for more. New things started emerging, like the clandestine radio station. We made several trips to Tekanpur, to the BSF Academy, and to Chawla camp where they keep documents; we went through old dusty files. And the BSF gave me access to its network of veterans, let me reach out to them, speak to them, arranged meetings.
One was 99 years old.
The person who’s 99 is not a veteran but a civilian who was close friends with Golak Majumdar in Kolkata. Nihar Chakravarty. Lucid memories.
Lucky you. And how did the veterans react?
Some were sceptical of anything really being published, but mostly they were super happy that it was being written about. I had to get the BSF to convince some of them because they were cautious about violating classification laws.
I delivered a copy to “Captain Ali”, Assistant Commandant P.K. Ghosh. He’s in his 80s, quite ill. He worked very hard with me because descriptions like those [in the book] can only come through hours of interviews. If you’re getting into description, you make them repeat just for clarity of facts.
What were your other memorable encounters with people from that time?
DIG S.K. Mitra. You quoted that extract [about harassment of Pakistani soldiers while they tried to attend the morning call of nature.] He’s a really funny person. He’s completely in your face, doesn’t pull any punches. He’s like, look I have only done this but I’m proud of it. I’m not going to embellish any facts or create anything new. Cocky fellow.
You have written about the clandestine radio station. Does it resonate with today’s readers who have seen a change in technology over the past 52 years?
I moved in with my parents while writing because Kolkata was a convenient base, and my mother was very excited when I mentioned Swadhin Bangla Betaar Kendra (the clandestine radio service). They used to listen to it all the time. There were some great programmes. I found a few on YouTube and other resources online, and I heard the programmes.
Others that I spoke to from that time said ya-ya, I used to listen to it all the time. So this story, and the fact that India helped run it—while giving them the independence to run it with their own content—that was something important that had to be told.
The veterans who you spoke to, what do they feel about Bangladesh as it is today, as opposed to the adventure they went through 52 years ago?
Many had mixed views about the several coups that Bangladesh went through. Largely people were happy that Bangladesh is a democracy. A number of people, for strategic reasons, were Bengalis placed around the border. They feel that the political situation that happened after 1971—a lot of heroes are no longer heroes. They may no longer be, but you can’t take away their role in the liberation war. And shouldn’t. For example, Ziaur Rahman [a military officer who became President after one of the coups].
What is next for you as a writer?
Now I’m faced with the tough job of marketing the book, definitely tougher than writing one. There is one book I’m commissioned for, that I’ve been working on for almost six years now. Nonfiction, a different genre that fits in more with my own style of investigative reporting.
Apart from that I’m working on something on Kolkata crime, but not in the current era. From a few decades ago.
What about pushing this book to OTTs?
I will reach out. This is a book that is definitely for the screen.
Aditya Sinha is a writer and journalist based in the NCR.