THE UNTOLD STORY OF 1971 WAR HERO

Muhammad Nawaz Raza

Lt Commander Mohammad Ayub, after his retirement in 1967 from Pakistan Navy, accepted employment as Harbour Master at Mongla/Chalna Port in East Pakistan.

During 1971 insurgency when Pakistan Army started its “Operation Search Light” he had literally become hostage at the port for few days until some fellow naval officers made their way to the port and rescued him. Thereafter Port Trust Authority sent him to West Pakistan on a short leave to visit his family. However, Ayub could not even complete this short leave when, due to worsening  situation in East Pakistan and non-availability of a suitable officer to take charge of the port, he was recalled by Pakistan Navy with directive from top military authorities to resume his responsibility at Mongla Port. In compliance he went back to East Pakistan and resumed his responsibilities at Mongla Port in July, 1971.

Mongla Port is situated at the confluence of Pussur and Mongla rivers and lies about 62 miles north of the Bay of Bengal. This port was inter-connected with major inland river ports and the rail terminal at Khulna and used to be a busy port. In 1971 Mongla Port was administered by the Port Director stationed at Khulna. Two Harbour Masters were assigned to this port, one based in Khulna and the other at the main port itself. Lt Commander Ayub, being Port Harbour Master stationed at Mongla, was directly responsible for port operations which he effectively and efficiently managed by:

• Planning and careful monitoring of vessels through Port Control Center with the help of control towers, radio communication equipment, radar and charts.

• Ensuring safety of the port for ships to navigate to/from their berths for loading/ unloading of cargo.

• Ensuring sufficient depth of water in the ship channels, alongside the wharfs, jetties and piers within the port.

• Proper positioning of navigation marks to assist ships to navigate from the Pussur River to Bay of Bengal and within the port.

• Overseeing river pilots and ensuring availability of enough coverage of river pilots for sailing and docking of ships. River Pilots were responsible for proper assistance to the Ship Masters for safe entry and exit of ships at the port. After planning the route/passage of the vessel taking into account tides, weather, length, draft, tonnage, handling characteristics and the need of tugs, River Pilots normally boarded moving vessels in the Bay of Bengal from small high powered launches. Once aboard, the pilots, in close coordination with the Ship Master and other crew, were responsible for safe navigation of the vessel in and out of the harbour. This whole exercise used to be executed/completed under direct supervision of Port Harbour Master.

• Ensuring implementation and observance of port laws and other regulations, also adhering to the licensing commercial craft requirements.

In July 1971, situation at Mongla port was tense and worsening day by day with no physical presence of Pakistan forces at the port. To secure the port, a new naval base ‘Titu Mir’ was established in Khulna, East Pakistan under Commander Gul Zareen and a small detachment of Pakistan Army under Lieutenant (or Captain) Allah Ditta Khan from Frontier Corps was also deployed. A naval liaison office at Mongla Port was also launched where Commander Gul Zareen and the Harbour Master (Commander Ayub) used to sit right next to each other.

In February 2014, Mohammad Kamal Ayub, a son of Shaheed Lt.Commander Muhammad Ayub, managed to visit Khulna and Mongla ports in Bangladesh where he was able to meet mess person and some other subordinates of his father. Bengali support staff (Harris Talaqdar, Wireless Operator and Mizan-ur-Rehman, Radio Officer) informed his son that when the war started, small contingent of Pakistan Army and Navy with little equipment fought gallantly against overwhelming odds and tried all their best to defend the port but due to hostile local population, close proximity to India, guerrilla raids and frequent ambushes from Mukti Bahini, free movement of Pak troops or assistance from other stations was not available. On 6th December, 1971 when the enemy achieved mastery of air, Mongla Port was heavily bombarded by Indian Navy. This fact can be confirmed from the Indian Naval Archives, http://indianna-vy.nic.in/print/book/export/html/964 Chapter 14 “Naval Assistance to Bangladesh after the 1971 war”. Relevant portion is reproduced below:

After visiting the ports of Khulna and the Mongla/Chalna Complex, the Officer-in-Charge NAG Khulna informed that:

(a) The jetties and warehouses at Khulna had suffered only negligible damage.

(b) Ships at Mongla had suffered considerable damage during the Navy’s air attacks. The pilot vessel and mooring vessel had been damaged and were non-operational. Of the six heavily damaged and abandoned ships in port, four were Pakistani (Ocean Enterprise, Mustali, Makran and Shapta Dinga), one was Danish (Nede Cole) and one Greek (Mastro Stelios).

As per the information provided by these subordinates, in the absence of any instructions from the superiors Lt Commander Ayub decided to continue his assignment but for the second time he had become hostage at the port. One day when Ayub was in office, his housekeeper/cook, Ratan, may be out of fear from the repercussions of insurgents, double crossed him, locked the apartment and fled with its keys. On return from the office quite late in the evening, he had nowhere to go. He sought refuge in one of the heavily damaged ship ‘PNS Makran’. All this was narrated by surviving Bengali support staff members who further informed that Ayub spent few days in the abandoned ship. The insurgents, already on the look-out, traced him in the abandoned ship and abducted him.

Surviving mess person, Abdul Hakim, informed his son, Kamal Ayub, that he was standing at the jetty when Lt Commander Ayub was being abducted and that he (mess person) kept running after the abductors with pleas to let him go as he did no harm to anyone but his pleas went unheeded and finally he had to give up the chase. The leader of the abductors group, Abdul Azia, had already passed away. According to the statements obtained from two surviving abductors by Kamal’s hosts, Lt Commander Ayub was kept in captivity in Badumari village in Sundarbans for few days. According to these surviving abductors, Ayub did not take any food though his captors made numerous fruitless efforts to feed him. Being the highest ranking officer and Incharge of Mongla Port, captors’ intention was to collect ransom money from Pakistan Navy for his release but in the changed scenario, after creation of Bangladesh and Pakistan military itself in chaos, such a deal was not imminent. As such, on a breezy day, insurgents implemented their decision to take Lt. Commander Ayub inside Sunderban forest and made him a martyr.

Lt Commander Ayub’s son also tried to personally meet the two surviving abductors and one of them even agreed to meet but knowing his identity as son of Lt Commander/Harbour Master Mohammad Ayub, he changed his mind and backed off by saying that he was not part of that group. Here this needs to be clarified that as per the death certificate issued by Pakistan Navy Lt Commander Ayub was martyred by local insurgents on December 7, 1971 which is not correct as he was martyred after fall of Dhaka. Records might also indicate that Lt Commander Ayub’s colleague, Commander Gul Zareen, before withdrawing from Titu Mir Base in Khulna, sent a message to Ayub that he would be picked on December 7, 1971 but Lt Commander Ayub failed to show up at the given time. It is a good possibility that he could not get the message as most of his support staff had already fled to their native places for safety or else he just chose to continue his duties as this was not the official position of Government of Pakistan at that time. According to the Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission Report, Commander Gul Zareen withdrew himself from Titu Mir Naval Base, Khulna and fought his way through Bay of Bengal to Singapore on 7th December, 1971 by a French ship called MV Fortescue. Complete details are available in http://www.pppusa.org/humudurrehman.htm

In the military records Lt Commander Mohammad Ayub might be mentioned as a Naval Officer who sadly went missing in chaotic war and presumably got killed by local insurgents. At this critical juncture, one would like to mention his devotion and loyalty which turned him from conventional to rather an exceptional naval officer.

Though he was unable to defend and defeat the evil but he did not walk away from it either and had the courage to stand against it. Such selfless courage is a victory in itself. In ordinary circumstance a person gets terrified when he is all by himself, no one to seek advice or no one to lead. Under such circumstances his decision to continue to guard the post all by himself is a proof of courage.

In the annals of history, Lt Commander Ayub has proved that heroism doesn’t occur just from taking orders but rather from your will power and strength as he chose to sacrifice his life for a national cause. He was aware that in acts of bravery and heroism, there is a certain enthusiasm which makes human nature rise above itself and when the will defies fear and honour scorns to compromise with death that is heroism. He tasted actual heroism which is much different from what is found in poetry. The lyrics appeal irresistibly to those who do not go to a war, and even more to those, for whom the war is a commercial business. To stand up for a national cause is not just heroism but definition of heroism.

Gallantry of Shaheed Lt Commander has proved how an unsung and unwept hero, all by himself, made a difference in the annals of war. On a breezy day, he marched on the song of martyrdom from Badumari village with the chanting and dancing trees of Sunderban forest and embraced shahadat like a hero going home. It is hoped that Pakistan Navy will once again re-examine his heroic contributions and grant him the status of a National Hero.