I am sharing this story about the British Indian Army First Lushai Expedition of 1871-72 to honor the memory of the Tibetan soldiers who arrived in Demagiri, Tlabung, Lushai or Mizo Hills in October 1971 and gave their precious lives during the military action in the Chittagong Hill Tracts initiating the Liberation of Bangladesh. On behalf of The Living Tibetan Spirits, I ask that a Memorial Stone be erected in Demagiri, Tlabung, the place which served as the Force Headquarters of The Fifth Army in Bangladesh under the command of Major General Sujan Singh Uban, the Inspector General of Special Frontier Force.
Captain Thomas Herbert Lewin was appointed as the Deputy Commissioner and Political Agent for the Chittagong Hill Tracts in March 1866. He held that post until 1875. In 1874, he was made an honorary Lieutenant Colonel.. He made his first camp at Chandraghona and later in Rangamati. He was the founder of a military camp and settlement at Demagiri ahead of the British Indian Army First Lushai Expedition of 1871-72.
The British Indian Army Lushai Expedition of 1871 to 1872 was a punitive incursion under the command of Generals Brownlow and Bourchier. General Charles Henry Brownlow commanded the Southern Column or the Chittagong Column for the Lushai Expedition and then served as Assistant Military Secretary for India for ten years. General George Bourchier commanded the East Frontier District, and in 1871 to 1872 he commanded the Cachar Column or the North Column in the Lushai Expedition.
In 1871, the British Indian Army military expedition named the Southern Column started from Kasalong in Rangamati and it followed the course of Karnaphuli River to reach Demagiri, Tlabung in Lushai, Mizo Hills. Whereas in 1971, the Special Frontier Force military expedition named the South Column started from Demagiri and initially it was an overland incursion followed by the use of passenger boat service to reach Rangamati and used captured vehicles to advance to Kaptai by road and launched a separate airborne operation to secure the Naval Base at Chittagong Sea Port. The South Column reached Chittagong by road taking advantage of the vehicles left behind by the enemy but camped in Kaptai and around the Kaptai Lake until the conclusion of the Campaign in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The objectives of the British Indian Army First Lushai Expedition were to rescue British subjects who had been captured by the Lushais (Mizos) in raids into Assam—including a six-year-old girl called Mary Winchester—and to convince the hill tribes of the region that they had nothing to gain and everything to lose by placing themselves in a hostile position towards the British Government. Mary Winchester, or Zolûti to Mizos, (1865–1955) was a Scottish girl who was captured and held hostage by the Lushai, Mizo tribes of Lushai Hills, Mizo Hills in 1871, and rescued by the British expedition in 1872.
Captain Thomas Herbert Lewin signed a Peace Treaty with Mizo Chief Rothangpuia of Thangluah clan following which he shifted his headquarters from Rangamati to Demagiri, Tlabung. The Mizos called him Thangliana or the Man of Great Fame. Captain Lewin returned to England due to ill health, was made an honorary Lieutenant Colonel and received a Colonel’s pension. He returned to India in 1875 to take up the post of Deputy Commissioner of Cooch Behar, and later became Deputy Commissioner of Darjeeling, where he remained until his retirement in 1879. In 1885, Thomas Herbert bought Parkhurst, a house in Abinger, near Dorking, Surrey where he lived until his death in 1916. Lewin was the author of several works on India and Indian languages.
The Story of South Column
I joined duty at the Military Hospital Wing of Establishment 22 (Two-Two) on September 22, 1971 and at the end of the month I was sent on temporary duty to provide medical support to Bangla Freedom Fighters training on the eastern banks of the Yamuna River between the Shivalik Hills and Dakpathar Barrage across the Yamuna River. This Training Camp was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Prasanta Coomar Purkayastha, The Regiment of Garhwal Rifles. I did not take my service weapon to perform this duty while the men did receive weapon training. I returned to Chakrata during the third week of October 1971 and was not yet aware of any battle plan to take military action in support of the Bangla refugees in India.
On October 19, 1971, while serving in the Military Hospital Wing of Establishment 22 (Two-Two) in Chakrata, I was asked to provide medical support to the Mobile Reserve Force (MRF), Kailana Camp in Chakrata Cantonment. I was not briefed about the nature of my temporary duty and I moved to the MRF Kailana Camp with a steel trunk and a bedding, a heavy load of personal belongings.
As an Officer of the Indian Army, I received training in the use of a 9 mm Sub Machine Gun known as Sten Gun or SMG (Carbine, Machine, Sten) and had always passed in my weapon training tests. It is a devastating close-range weapon. It is a compact, lightweight automatic weapon firing pistol ammunition and it would fire without any lubrication. The personal weapon is held in the Unit Quarter Guard (Armory) and is generally taken out for range practice and weapon training during peacetime and is carried during the performance of active duty deployment either training or actual combat operations. I proceeded for this assignment at MRF, Kailana Camp without taking my personal weapon and ammunition as it was primarily a peacetime assignment. My Movement Order did not specify that I must draw the service weapon and ammunition prior to proceeding on this duty. However, the men were personally briefed to prepare for a wartime duty and I was in the Hospital and did not listen to the motivational speech given by Gyalo Thondup, the brother of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
At Sarsawa Air Force Station, I boarded the Antonov An-12, Soviet designed transport aircraft in the early morning hours of October 21, 1971. The runway was illuminated by rows of flaming torches on either side. The Commandant of Establishment 22 (Two-Two) Brigadier T S Oberoi delayed the departure of the flight until a hot breakfast was served to all the men boarding the aircraft. The men were fully armed and were dressed in combat gear and I was the only exception proceeding on Operation Eagle mission without carrying a service weapon. I was permitted to carry the heavy load of my personal belongings as the nature of the mission was not formally disclosed. While we boarded the aircraft in a single file, Brigadier T S Oberoi warmly shook hands of each person. He wished me all the best and did not inquire about my service weapon as the mission remained a secret and its objectives were not disclosed in Sarsawa. I was just taking part in an unknown military mission and did not even know the destination of this morning flight from Sarsawa Airfield until the aircraft landed in Kumbhigram Airfield near Silchar City in Cachar District, Assam. However, I checked the Movement Order that was issued to me. The Commandant of Establishment 22 has the authority to sanction my move from the Military Hospital Wing to the Mobile Reserve Force Base, Kailana Camp in Chakrata and from there to Sarsawa airfield where we often go for parachuting or para jumping. The Inspector General of Special Frontier Force has the authority to sanction my move from Chakrata to any other location within India. The Inspector General does not have the sanctioning power to ask me to move across the boundaries of India. The Movement Order deploying me for Operation Eagle that I received in Sarsawa did not specify any particular location but the Move was sanctioned by the Cabinet Secretariat, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the executive branch of the Government of India which has the sanctioning power to move me to any location in India as well as across the borders of India. Before boarding the Antonov An-12 transport aircraft in Sarsawa, I knew I may have to move across the borders of India but had no clue about its precise location. I was not briefed and I did not ask any questions as my mission was still under the wraps of operational security. On October 21, 1971, I was blissfully unaware of the existence of a place known as Demagiri in Lushai, Mizo Hills. On that date I am aware of the training imparted to Bangla Freedom Fighters but had no clue about an impending operation that follows the course of the British Indian Army’s First Lushai Expedition of 1871-72.
October 1971, Operation Eagle Deployment at Demagiri, Tlabung
Friday, October 01, 1971 to Friday, October 15, 1971: I was at a Training Camp with Bangla Freedom Fighters near Dakpathar Barrage across the Yamuna River, Uttarakhand, India.
Tuesday, October 19, 1971: Moved from the Military Hospital Wing, Headquarters Establishment 22, Chakrata to the Mobile Reserve Force, Kailana Camp, Chakrata Cantonment.
Wednesday, October 20, 1971: Moved from Mobile Reserve Force, Kailana Camp, Chakrata to Sarsawa Airfield, near Saharanpur by road in a military convoy.
Thursday, October 21, 1971: Moved from Sarsawa Airfield to Kumbhigram Airfield, Cachar District, Assam in the Antonov An-12 transport aircraft. The air flight was provided by Aviation Research Centre. The Movement Order described the move as Operation Eagle deployment and did not specify the name of any location.
Friday, October 22, 1971: Moved from Kumbhigram Airfield, Assam, to Border Roads Task Force Camp, Project Pushpak, Aizawl, Mizoram by military convoy.
Saturday, October 23, 1971: Moved from Aizawl to Border Roads Task Force Camp, Project Pushpak, Lunglei, Mizoram by military convoy.
Sunday, October 24, 1971: Moved from Lunglei to the Force Headquarters, Operation Eagle Camp in Demagiri, Tlabung, Mizo Hills by road convoy. I viewed the Khawthlang Tuipui, Karnaphuli River. Found several Bangla refugees on the streets of Demagiri.
Monday, October 25, 1971: I was informed that I am posted as the Medical Officer of South Column under the Command of Lieutenant Colonel B K Narayan, the Regiment of Artillery. Attended the first briefing by Colonel Narayan. Briefed about the battle plan to operate on Manpack basis to assault the enemy posts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. I reviewed the options for my service weapon. I viewed the Hungarian AK-47 Assault Rifle and the US Marine Corps M14 Rifle. On the recommendation of the Company Commanders of South Column, I selected the US Marine Corps M14 Rifle.
Tuesday, October 26, 1971: Attended the second briefing by South Column Commander B K Narayan. Discussed the options for my service weapon. Took permission to return the US Marine Corps M14 Rifle and to serve in the military mission without carrying any service weapon and ammunition. Deposited all the heavy personal belongings in the store of Quartermaster of Force Headquarters Camp in Demagiri. Collected all the field gear, rations, medical supplies required for the conduct of operational tasks on the manpack basis.
In October 1971, the US Army in Vietnam was using the same items and supplies that I was supplied in Demagiri. After the Sunset, South Column began its tactical move to Borunasury, a Border Security Force Company Post located South of Demagiri. The South Column marched in single file along a narrow walking trail observing absolute silence and without the use of lights. The trail was not maintained and was broken at several places with steep trenches and we had to very slowly negotiate these obstacles maintaining the distance between the person ahead and the person behind. Sometimes, we were forced to stop the march as the advance elements checked the route for any possible threats. We were in an area known for Mizo rebel activity and took precautions to avoid getting ambushed. I still remember the moment when I watched a bunch of snakes crawling under my legs while I rested on the trail using my heavy backpack as my support. I just silently watched the snakes without making any move and they moved quickly without noticing my presence.
Wednesday, October 27, 1971: Camped at Borunasury Border Security Force Company Post preparing for the next tactical move to assault the enemy post at Jalanpara, the Chittagong Hill Tracts located across the international boundary West of Borunasury. Using binoculars, we could watch activity at Jalanpara Camp as the enemy prepared trenches around the Camp.
Thursday, October 28, 1971: Crossed the international boundary West of Borunasury under the cover of darkness wading through the waters of a narrow stream. After marching through the forest for several hours, wading through shallow streams, avoiding all known walking trails and beaten paths, the South Column decided to Camp in the forest near an abandoned Chakma hut. One Company of South Column moved to a location just East of Jalanpara enemy camp to keep the enemy engaged while the assault gets launched from North of Jalanpara enemy camp.
Friday, October 29, 1971: The march resumed in the morning to reach a place North of Jalanpara enemy post to secure the enemy’s supply chain. Wading through the forest streams posed its own problems like leeches and my feet got soaked for so long, the skin simply peeled off. After Sunset, the enemy patrol spotted our movement and fired upon our position. We remained calm taking cover in trench pits and kept the enemy patrol at bay by very restrained response with a very few men returning the fire. The enemy patrol went back and didn’t get the chance to estimate the size of our force.
Saturday night, October 30/early morning hours of Sunday, October 31, 1971: Two Companies of South Column with Company Commanders Major Savendra Singh Negi, the Grenadiers, Major (Honorary) G B Velankarmove South along the trail to assault the enemy post at Jalanpara.The enemy resisted the assault fiercely shooting the made in China machine guns and I was able to hear the bouts of coughing noise of the gunfire for several hours. Finally, the enemy was neutralized and the machine gun fire stopped.
Sunday, October 31, 1971: South Column Commander radioed me and spoke to me using my mother tongue Telugu. We knew the composition of the enemy troops and we knew that they would not be able to decipher the words spoken in Telugu. He asked me to come to the enemy post at Jalanpara. I moved there with four men providing me the escort. South Column lost nine Tibetan men in the action due to hostile fire and had 13 battlefield casualties. South Column cremated the bodies of the battlefield dead as per the Tibetan Customs. I was informed that an airlift of the battlefield casualties was not possible as the helicopter flight across the international boundary was not sanctioned. The men were utterly surprised and reacted with anger. I spoke to the men giving them the assurance that I can take care of the situation. I made a decision to evacuate the casualties to Borunasury Border Security Force Company Post in India by using improvised stretchers. South Column assembled a party of about sixty or sixty five men to lift the stretchers and to provide armed escort to the evacuation team. We marched to Borunasury Border Security Force Post on foot and had to halt the march after 4 hours due to night fall. During the night of Sunday, October 31, 1971, I continued to monitor the condition of the battle casualties providing nursing care and support. For this battlefield casualty evacuation, I performed the duties of the Army Medical Corps Medical Officer, Nursing Assistant, as well as Ambulance Assistant. The services of the AMC Nursing Assistants of the South Column could not be spared for this ground evacuation from Jalanpara as we had to be on alert for an enemy counterattack.
Monday, November 01, 1971: The ground evacuation of the battle casualties resumed before dawn and I reached Borunasury Border Security Force Company Post early in the morning and prepared the battle casualties for airlift to the Field Hospital in Lunglei, Mizoram. Flight Lieutenant Jadhav of Aviation Research Centre (ARC) arrived at the helipad in Mi-4 Helicopter. Operation Eagle was provided airlift support by two ARC Mi-4 Helicopters.
On Monday, November 01, 1971, myself and the battle casualty evacuation team marched back to Jalanpara and the foot journey took about eight hours. I had a very surprising encounter with a Chakma youth who stopped me asking for medical assistance.
The Slow and Tedious Military Campaign in the Forests of the Chittagong Hill Tracts
Tuesday, November 02, 1971: At Jalanpara, we expected the enemy to regroup and launch a counterattack the Company Post we captured. It did not happen. We used the beaten track to march towards Barkal which was our next target. As we marched out of Jalanpara in single file, an hour before the Sunset, we had an encounter with an enemy patrol. The advance party of the South Column exchanged fire with the enemy patrol keeping them at bay. The enemy patrol withdrew but left behind a booby trap using hand grenades and a trip wire. Several men marched over the trip wire without noticing it. Soon, the booby trap was discovered, but it was too late. A young Tibetan soldier had hit the trip wire setting off a loud explosion. I immediately rushed forward to see if I could provide some medical care and support. The blast force was too severe and hit him over the abdomen spilling his intestines. He died almost instantaneously. The South Column had decided to cremate him at that site on the forest trail. It taught us a bitter lesson about the use of the beaten tracks.
During the month of November 1971, our march towards Barkal was hampered by the enemy sending heavily armed patrols waiting for us on the tracks we tried to use to reach the Karnaphuli River at Barkal. At the least on two occasions, we had prolonged exchanges of gunfire and we had to use the 81mm Mortar Bombs to checkmate the enemy patrol parties. It took us a while to locate the enemy’s camp in the forest East of Barkal.
Friday, December 10, 1971: The South Column launched a decisive attack on the enemy camp on a hill feature East of Barkal. The assault started early in the morning before the Sunrise to take advantage of the very dense fog. But, it was not much of a surprise. The enemy was fully prepared and the resistance was fierce. The South Column experienced the worst loss of battle dead in this attack. I duly identified all the battle dead and prepared the documentation before the South Column prepared individual graves to bury them on the side of the forest trail near the hill post East of Barkal. The battle wounded were airlifted to the Field Hospital in Lunglei. I met Flight Lieutenant Parvez Rustom Jamsaji, the Mi-4 helicopter pilot for the first time on Friday, December 10, 1971 when he had arrived at that South Column location.
Friday, December 10, 1971: The Battle for Barkal was intense. The enemy withdrew from the hill post taking away the battle wounded and battle dead casualties. The South Column captured an enemy soldier who could not run away because of his ankle injury. I treated this prisoner of war and got him airlifted to the Field Hospital, Lunglei.
Monday, December 13, 1971: The Indian Air Force sent a sortie in support of the advance of the South Column to capture Barkal. The IAF pilots were in contact with the South Column as they targeted the enemy’s fortified bunkers on the hill ridge that overlooks the Karnaphuli River.
Monday, December 13, 1971: The South Column crossed the Karnaphuli River using very small fishing boats left behind my the local fishermen on the east bank of the River. It involved the making of several trips. The enemy and even the civilian population of Barkal had fully withdrawn and I could not find any person in this small village. I visited the enemy’s fortified bunkers on the top of the hill ridge. The bunker roofs were riddled with large gaping holes. Apparently, the enemy withdrew from the post on Sunday, December 12, 1971. I checked the Medical Clinic in Barkal. There were no signs of any casualties from the air raid by the Indian Air Force.
Monday, December 13, 1971: The South Column advanced to Rangamati after the Sunset. A large crowd of Bangla citizens had gathered to greet us as we disembarked from the passenger boat. The crowd was cheering, wild with excitement and enthusiasm as the enemy withdrew from Rangamati prior to the arrival of the South Column.
Tuesday, December 14, 1971: The South Column advanced to Kaptai by road taking advantage of the vehicles abandoned by the enemy.
Friday, December 17, 1971: The South Column deployed itself in Kaptai and a few locations around the Kaptai Lake. Lieutenant Colonel B K Narayan, the South Column Commander officiated as the Imam of the Friday Morning Prayer Service held at the Kaptai Guest House where we camped. A very large number of Bangla citizens of Kaptai attended this Prayer Service and the large conference hall at the Guest House was fully packed.
Soon after capturing Kaptai, South Column Commander Colonel B K Narayan and myself along with our Bangla guide Mr. Siddique Ahmed went to Chandraghona using a captured enemy car. Mr. Siddique Ahmed worked as an engineer in the Chandraghona (Karnaphuli) Paper Mills before he joined the Bangla Freedom Movement.
Tuesday, December 14, 1971 to Saturday, January 22, 1972: I camped in Kaptai and could fortunately enjoy the comforts of residing in the Guest House whose staff prepared and served hot meals using our military rations. I could purchase a few personal care items and some casual wear at the local market in Kaptai. I was visiting the Company locations deployed around the Kaptai Lake using the speedboats the enemy abandoned.