The book “Cartoos Saab: A Soldier’s Story of Resilience in Adversity” by Maj. Gen. Ian Cardozo is the story of how a young boy becomes an officer of the Indian Army, how he experiences a life of responsibility, adventure and challenges and how he handles the disability of losing a leg in battle.
Although this is his journey through more than three decades of life in the military and his own experiences of three wars, his story could well be the story of many other officers of the Indian Army who lived through those challenging times.
This true story of grit and commitment takes the reader through the myriad twists and turns that soldiers face in their lives and how they take the most testing situations in their stride. It is a life of courage, effort and determination that embodies the spirit of never giving up, which is ultimately the message of this book.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
The men were holding on resolutely to the perimeter of the ground that had been captured by us at Sylhet. We were at war with Pakistan and our battalion, the 4th Battalion the 5th Gorkha Rifles (Frontier Force) had landed deep behind enemy defences in East Pakistan on the afternoon of 7 December 1971, in the Indian Army’s first heliborne operation.
Pakistani forces were doing their best to evict us from the ground that we had captured but their counterattacks had been effectively repulsed. War cries of ‘Allah o Akbar’ mingled with energetic responses of ‘Ayo Gorkhali’ from our men. Our men were being restrained from launching counter-attacks with their khukris. They had used this weapon very effectively in earlier battles of the previous weeks but this was not the time and place. The strength of the Pakistani forces seemed to be more than what was told to us; in fact, their numbers seemed to be overwhelmingly large.
Our task was to capture Sylhet in East Pakistan. We were informed that Pakistan’s 202 Infantry Brigade that had been defending Sylhet had moved for the defence of Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan, and that there were just a few razakars defending Sylhet. But there seemed to be something radically wrong with that intelligence report. The ground which we were holding on to so desperately was being plastered with enemy artillery, mortar, machine guns and small arms fire. Surely, this could not be the response of a small body of irregular troops? It appeared that Pakistan’s 202 Infantry Brigade had not moved to Dhaka after all! But at that moment we did not know.
The Mi-4 Indian Air Force helicopters that had landed us had managed to get away safely despite the best efforts of the Pakistanis to destroy them on the ground and in the air; but now that we were on our own, we increasingly became the target of enemy fire.
Our strength was just 384 all told, and if Pakistan’s 202 Infantry Brigade had not moved out, then we were in the inadequate ratio of 1:6 and they could overwhelm us with sheer numbers. In addition to the seemingly incorrect intelligence on the basis of which our battalion had been launched, we had also been assured that we would be linked up by friendly forces within 48 hours. However, after 36 hours of being under fire, there was no indication whatsoever that help was at hand.
I looked at the sequence of events that had led to the present impasse. Our battalion had launched two successful attacks at Atgram and Gazipur where khukris were used with abandon. We began to realize however, that success sometimes has its own convoluted outcomes. Because we did a great job in the first attack at Atgram, we were tasked to capture Gazipur and because we succeeded in capturing Gazipur, where an attack by another unit had failed, we were now ordered to capture Sylhet!
Success, however, had not come easy! The price we paid was heavy. Two young officers, a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) and three men had been killed in the first attack at Atgram; and our second-in-command (2ic) and ten men killed and four officers and fifty-seven wounded at Gazipur. Out of eighteen officers when the war began, only eleven were left and things had only just begun! Our Commanding Officer (CO), Lieutenant Colonel Arun Bhimrao Harolikar, a very brave and competent officer, was barely coming to terms with his losses and trying to reorganize the command and control of the companies when he received orders for the battalion to capture Sylhet. The CO felt that this was an unfair order. To do well in the next battle, he needed time to reorganize the rifle companies because of the large number of casualties. The officers and men had been without rest ever since the war had started. He said as much but his objections were overruled. The Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Sagat Singh, was a man in a hurry! He felt that Sylhet was thinly held and that this was an opportunity that was too good to pass up. His orders were: ‘Send in the Gorkhas. I know them well. They are best suited to this task. I want Sylhet to be occupied before it is reinforced.’
In the Indian Army you can protest up to a point. After that, orders are orders!
Meanwhile, we who were holding on to the ground at Sylhet, had no time to think of what was happening. We were doing our best to hang on to what we had captured and to extend the perimeter of our defences.
Based on the assurance that we would be linked up within 48 hours, the CO had decided, after consultation with our officers and JCOs, that instead of food, water and clothing, we would take more ammunition and hand grenades. In those cold nights all that we had were our own water bottles and a handful of shakarpara as food and no protection against the weather except our barsatis.
We were taught at our schools of instruction that troops which are para-dropped or heli-landed behind enemy lines have necessarily to be linked up within 48 hours, otherwise the force would gradually degrade and disintegrate due to casualties and lack of reinforcements, ammunition, food, water and medical facilities. It looked as if our present situation was exactly this.
Our platoon commander at the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Captain Desmond Hayde had dinned into our heads that ‘Battles are won or lost in the minds of men before they are won or lost on the ground’. He had proved this as a CO at the Battle of Dograi in the 1965 War under impossible conditions and it appeared that our battalion would have to prove this once again at the Battle of Sylhet in 1971.