When Condoms Saved the Day Back in 1971

First Person

When Condoms Saved the Day Back in 1971

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Thirteen days in Bangladesh remain forever etched in the memory for every one of us who served in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

Fifty years have passed since that historic fortnight. Today when I think back, I don’t think so much about victory or the casualties. I don’t dwell on the attacks – the ones we perpetrated and the ones we came under – or the comrades we lost. Those are broad brushstrokes; the actual colour comes from the little things. Today when I think back, I think of being drenched through most of those two weeks in the paddy fields of Bangladesh. I think back to how I would have traded my world for a pair of dry socks and a cigarette! I think back to the jokes we cracked under fire, the bonds we forged in the trenches or the sight of a battalion marching with condoms pulled over their rifles!

War is a strange suspension period in the life of a soldier. History will capture military action or movement of men and materials, but no history book can keep track of the everydayness of war, the stories that play out between men, the small mercies, the lighter moments.

I belonged to Sikh Light Infantry, but in the years prior to the war, I was attached as a young captain to Colonel Himmeth Singh’s 4 Guards 1st Battalion of the Rajput Regiment. I had acquired the reputation of a bit of a troublemaker – a “disciplinary case” who might be asked to leave anytime – but Col Singh took me under his wing as a mentor. We were stationed between Mizoram and Tripura during a period known as the “Phony War”, where our job was to patrol the jungles and suss out “hostiles” being trained by the Pakistani army in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, and train the soldiers of Mukti Bahini. We carried out small operations, hit-and-run missions like the ambush of supplies or a road block, which eventually weakened the Pakistani army.

In Bangladesh, things had heated up. The Awami League had won the elections by a huge majority in March, but the results were ignored by the Pakistani establishment and the military junta started a brutal crackdown on the Bengali population. There was a great deal of enthusiasm on the night Col Singh briefed us (which might have been tempered in the subsequent days). In the weeks leading up to the war, all of us had been feeling like we were being held back by a tight tether. But on the night that we got our orders, we finally felt unleashed. Col Singh was a picture of calm – after briefing us, he headed straight into his evening game of golf.

The India-Bangladesh border is a riverine ecosystem, full of nullahs and tributaries and marshes everywhere. Movement is not easy and our troops would routinely trip and fall while trudging through. Inevitably, the men would try to use their rifles to balance, and we’d end up with dirt up the rifle’s muzzle. Now if water goes in, it can easily be drained out. But cleaning out the mud was a real problem. If there was a clump in the muzzle, the chances were that the barrel would bloody blow up in your face. How could we block the muzzle and yet be able to fire?

The Pakistanis had taken some of our men as prisoners of war in Akhaura. They must have interrogated them harshly, put them through third-degree.

When our experiments with stuffing cotton up the muzzle failed to work, someone came up with the genius idea that we should protect it with a condom. It was a beautiful thing! No one had thought of it before. There were about a thousand of us and each needed at least two-three condoms. We got in touch with the army doctor, who first laughed at us thinking it was a joke. But he later managed to source them from the local hospitals in Tripura. So there we were – an army of men out to win a war with multiple condoms pulled over our rifles.

When I sit down for a drink with my friends, we always laugh about the condoms. We also laugh about “Paunchy”, one of our decorated majors. Paunchy’s company of a hundred-odd men were appointed to capture the post at Akhaura, a railhead, which turned out to be our first major action in the war, where we had a lot of casualties.

I think Paunchy and his men were there for two nights. And the call of nature does not abide by the rules of war. Anyway, Paunchy became notorious for a very dubious reason. Every time he went to do his business – and this happened three or four times – the Pakistanis would begin shelling. Every time, he would be caught with his pants down and come running toward us. These were the things that endeared us to each other. It drew us closer than fighting shoulder-to-shoulder.

Of course, our time in Bangladesh was not without its moments of inspiration. The Pakistanis had taken some of our men as prisoners of war in Akhaura. They must have interrogated them harshly, put them through third-degree. But once we entered Dacca and the war was declared over, the mood was upbeat. Some people went gallivanting. Some, like me, went off to have a drink at The Intercontinental hotel. But the first thing Col Singh said was, “I am going to look for my boys.” He asked around, spoke to Indian soldiers – the Pakistanis were also beginning to talk – and finally located them in a barrack inside a university. He commandeered a jeep and drove straight to the university to bring the boys back.

We stayed on until the March of 1972. There was so much to take care of: The prisoners of war, the refugees, the logistics. The skirmishes had turned into a period of relative calm – marked only by the disturbances we’d face when we were moving Pakistani PoWs. There was overwhelming sentiment against the Pakistani army, and we had to protect them from Bengali women, who would attack them with whatever they were carrying: sickles, stones, belans. For every 100 Pakistanis, we had about 10 Indian soldiers guarding them, but we would routinely have to shelter them from getting stoned. I am not sure any army has had to face this situation.

Now those days are past. So many of my colleagues have passed away; General Himmeth Singh is no more. Those of us who are still around though, stay in touch through WhatsApp groups. We meet occasionally and talk about “Push push and push to Dacca” – and I only recall a mental image of a decorated officer rushing with his trousers around his legs.