Recalling the surreal encounter at Kolkata two months after the 1971 war

by Wg Cdr JS Bhalla (Retd)

Captain Karamjit Singh Sodhi, a retired merchant navy officer, was a junior navigating officer in 1971 when he joined MV Andaman, a passenger ship of the Shipping Corporation. In February 1972, when MV Andaman was berthed in Kolkata, they were asked to prepare themselves for embarking the next morning on an important mission. As the ship sailed out, they were told that they were on a mission to bring back Pakistani Prisoners of War (PoWs) from Bangladesh to Kolkata.

The war had ended two months back but fear was writ large on many faces because it was known that the Pakistanis had mined the approach to Chittagong harbour. The vessel arrived at Chittagong safely and with the help of the local pilot, they went up to Karnaphuli river, which was strewn with the remnants of bombarded and sunk merchant ships — a testament to the brave actions of the Indian Air Force and pilots of INS Vikrant.

In the evening, Sodhi went out for a meal and saw the local population raising slogans of “Indian-Bangla Bhai Bhai”.

No rickshaw-wallah or restaurant owner accepted any money from him. It was the valour displayed by the Indian armed forces that generated respect in the hearts of the local population, he thought.

The following day, 1,500 PoWs, escorted by the Army, were brought to the ship. Officers up to the rank of Major were assigned the space meant for lady passengers in the ship. The senior officers were kept in the ship hospital, which could accommodate about 10 of them. The PoWs cooked their own meals in the galley while senior officers were brought to the officers’ mess and were served the same food as the ship officers.

When the ship berthed at Kolkata’s King George dock, an Army Colonel took charge and went through the list of the PoWs. He wanted to meet the senior-most officer, who was of the rank of Commodore. Sodhi was detailed to bring the Commodore from the ship hospital.

When the Colonel saw the Commodore, both of them saluted and addressed each other as “Sir”. They shook hands with moist eyes but neither could utter a word; their body language indicated that they knew each other.

Later it was revealed that before Independence, the Colonel was a cadet in the same training institute where the Commodore was an instructor. At the time of Partition, the two had gone on separate paths but MV Andaman had brought them face to face once again, though this time their loyalties, like the circumstances, were all too different.