Bangladesh celebrates December 16 as its Victory Day. It was on this historic day that 93,000 Pakistani soldiers and officers led by Lt General AAAK Niazi surrendered to Lt General Jagjit Singh Aurora, commander of the India-Bangladesh joint command, at Dhaka’s Raman Race Course Maidan.

This day is a special occasion for the muktijodhdhas who recall their own heroic exploits and also that of their Indian comrades in arms like Albert Ekka. MVC of the Guards Regiment, and 18-year-old Anshu Prasad of the Mahar Regiment, during the final phase of the nine-month-long Liberation War of Bangladesh.

But there are some muktijodhdhas like Lt Col Sajjad Zaheer, Bir Protik (RTD) who poignantly and reverentially recall their personal experiences of other lesser known Indian heroes like Captain SS Duggal of the Artillery Regiment, who, barely two months before his scheduled marriage, volunteered to be part of a dangerous mission against the heavily fortified Pakistani positions at Shamshernagar airport in Sylhet.

This airport, built during World War II, was heavily guarded by the Frontier Force, one of the elite regiments of the Pakistan Army, and had heavy gun emplacements all around. These guns regularly pounded the Indian tribal villages across the border causing heavy casualty.

Lt Col Sajjad’s narration of the Indian braveheart’s contribution to the Liberation War does not end with Captain Duggal’s martyrdom. Suddenly it assumes a tinge of pathos as he recounts with gratitude as to what he did as a muktijodhdha a year later to pay back his country’s debt to this brave Indian officer’s supreme sacrifice for Bangladesh’s liberation.

Paying tribute to Captain Duggal’s courage and conviction, Lt Col Sajjad said, “Since his marriage date had been fixed, I had cautioned him to think twice before he embarked on this highly dangerous mission. I had also warned that his chances of returning alive from this mission were extremely bleak. I felt compelled to warn him as he treated me like his brother and invited me to Amritsar for his marriage in February. But he remained undaunted, replying that for a soldier the call of duty always came first.”

Lt Col Sajjad was a Pakistani paratrooper who defected in August 1971 by crossing over to India through the Shakargarh border. Holding the rank of a Lieutenant, he was straightaway posted at a muktijodhdha camp at Kukitol, a tribal village along the Assam-Tripura border adjoining Sylhet.

Shamshernagar airport was just six kilometres from where he was posted and was being increasingly used by the Pakistanis for ferrying in supplies and huge amounts of reinforcements. The airport was strategically located and its capture became vital for the collapse of the Pakistan Army’s eastern flank. Tribal residents on the Indian side had requested Indian commanders to silence the gun emplacements at Shamshernagar.

Capt Duggal had come to Lt Col Sajjad’s Kukitol camp in mid- September to introduce himself as the local commander of the Indian Army which provided backup to the muktijodhdhas. “He, till date, remains the most handsome man I have seen. He at once won me over by inviting me to his wedding. I told him February was still far away, but Duggal was confident that the war would be over before his marriage. Our personal chemistry worked wonderfully.”

Heavy civilian casualty on the Indian side because of artillery barrage from Shamshernagar airport forced the Indian commanders to plan the November 28 night attack on Shamshernagar. Capt Duggal volunteered to be with the advanced troops of the 3rd Punjab Regiment as forward observation officer of artillery regiment who would order his men to direct fire on the Pakistani positions. “The battle raged fiercely throughout the night and I prayed for Duggal’s safe return. But this operation fell through with heavy casualties on the Indian side. I was extremely worried about Duggal’s fate. As dawn broke, I rushed out to see bodies of Indian soldiers being brought in trailers towed by jeeps. The trailers were covered with tarpaulins. Even in the confusion I saw an arm jutting out from the side of a tarpaulin which bore an expensive watch around the wrist. My heart sank. Duggal was very fond of this watch as it showed the time correctly during battle conditions even in pitch darkness. I took a quick peek through a gap and saw his blood-soaked body, mutilated beyond recognition. The sight was so horrendous that I stood still ……for how long I don’t know.” Shamshernagar airport was eventually captured by Mahar Regiment in a daring attack on November 29 night.

A year later Lt Col Sajjad was sent by the Bangladesh Army to do an advanced course at the famous Deolali artillery Training Centre. He earned the distinction of scoring the highest marks in all his subjects, breaking all previous records and was warmly felicitated by the faculty members for this rare feat. When Lt Col Sajjad tried to know from the Director of the training centre whose record he had broken, the Director politely declined saying this was against the rules and tradition of the centre. “But somehow I had a hunch that I had broken Duggal’s record as I was aware he had been an outstanding alumnus of the Centre. So I told the Director, “Sir, if that is the case, I beg you to lower my marks so that Captain Duggal’s record marks remain intact and unbroken. I don’t want to break his record. Because this is the least I can do to show my respect for this brave Indian brother officer, who, without batting an eyelid made the supreme sacrifice for my country’s liberation.’ The Director demurred my request but I insisted that an exception had to be made.”