31 Aug 2014

Who Stole The Bengali Treasure ?

 I confess that this is an unsubstantiated story from the annals of the 1971 war, liberation of Bangla Desh. Perhaps it is just innuendo, an invitation for libel. I am just a silly story teller, more fiction than facts, but you perhaps may find it difficult to figure out where the facts end and the fiction begins !!

The necessity to conduct a covert or overt war with East Pak became apparent to the Indian Govt some time in Apr or May 1971, when the world community and the UN ignored the unparalleled genocide in East Pak, resulting in about 10 million Bengali refugees in Indian territory. The quantum of refugees were increasing daily and it appeared to GoI that if it did not do something on its own, the entire Bengali population in East Pak would run out and come into India, with unthinkable political, economic and ethnic consequences. 

 In a meeting in Delhi, chaired by the then Prime Minister Mrs Gandhi, end Apr or beginning May 1971, the Chief Of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Manekshaw sensibly refused to go to war immediately due to several reasons (onset of monsoons that would flood the countryside impeding military movement, unpreparedness of the army, basic need to collect military stores and dump them within easy reach of war zone, movement of military personnel from all corners of India, strengthening of borders with West Pak and China to be prepared for counter strike, etc etc). He sought more time, till the winter set in, the Himalayan passes closed and the army could go into battle with favourable conditions.  Despite severe political pressure and urgency of the situation, Manekshaw would not budge.  So GoI let him have his way and set Dec as a target for overt military intervention basically to liberate a 1800 sq km triangular tract from Jalpaiguri to Bogra.

 However, GoI did not procrastinate and also decided on covert action to help the Bengalis to precipitate a civil war by creating an adhoc armed militia using able bodied volunteers from the refugee camps, to be named ‘Mukti Bahini’. To this ragamuffin force, elements of East Bengal Rifles (a Paki para military force) who had defected into India, was to be added to form a liberation army. The Indian army was to help arm and train this force and if required operate with them deep inside East Pak dressed not in military uniforms but like the barely clad Bengali militia. After a quick three months training, this force, backed by Indian army and para military elements (BSF), started operating in border areas drawing most of the Paki military resources to the border and keeping them on constant vigil, demoralising them and tiring them out. Dacca was left wide open. 

 Perhaps because the army sought time out, the GoI also committed into this covert action, the Tibetan militia (22 force) under command of Maj Gen Uban, a secretive force under the direct control of R&AW. They were to move from Chakrata and Charbatia in the Himalayas, Dum Duma in Assam, and enter East Pak from Meghalaya, head west to Feni and with the help of Mukti Bahini / EBR cut off access to Chittagong and try and capture the southern salient. If the army was not able to liberate the triangular tract from Jalpaiguri to Bogra, then the Chittagong salient was to be the stand by territory for hoisting the flag, resettling the Govt in exile and Bengali refugees, in a country to be named Bangla Desh.   Uban’s covert force was code named ‘Kilo Force’. They mobilised almost immediately to Agartala and further south, penetrated through thick inaccessible jungles and went into action, while the massive eastern army began to move with elephantine gait.

Army HQ plan for that war, perhaps preapproved by GoI, was secretively revealed in a closed door high level war gaming held at HQ 4 Corps at Tezpur sometime mid Sep 71, by Manekshaw, the concerned Army and Corps Commanders of 2, 4 & 33 Corps, GOC 101 Com zone (Generals Arora, Raina, Sagat, Thapan and Nagra), the DGMO (KK Sigh) and Chief Of Staff Eastern Command (Jacob) all in tow. The overwhelming compulsion of the commanders perhaps was to keep the duration of the war very short, at best to 21 days, with limited objectives. Military, political and diplomatic intervention were expected from international community in general and US/China/USSR as well as UN in particular, restricting the duration of operations. They also had to contend with formidable Paki opposition, well prepared for Indian military intervention, all of them well protected in fortified concrete bunkers at strategic locations.

 Therefore, the objective of Army HQ war plan that was revealed in that meeting was perhaps a pragmatic one, basically to use the Bengalis to liberate the territory that extended to Bogra, hoist the B’Deshi flag, transfer the Govt in exile in Calcutta to Bogra, send the refugees back into this strip of land to let them fight their own war to liberate East Pak, with a little help from the Indian Army. Perhaps much like the Brtish plan to resettle Jews in Israel after WW-II. None other than Sagat believed during that meeting in Tezpur that we could conquer Paki forces in East Pak in a short war, before the Americans and the Chinese interfered to upset our apple cart.  Even the Tangail air drop of para commandoes, a backup plan that emerged from the war gaming, was to march them north to Bogra and not south to Dacca – there was no mention of Dacca in that original war pan !!

 The main incursion and capture of territory upto Bogra was tasked to 33 Corps at Sukhna led by Thapan. 2 Corps under Raina (later COAS) was to create a diversionary attack on Jessore axis in the south to relieve pressure on Thapan advancing southwards. 4 Corps under Sagat was to move from Tezpur to Agartala and create similar diversions east to west. 101 Com Zone forces under Nagra was to create diversion from north to south.  A rather simplistic, but achievable plan. I sincerely believe that at that time only Sagat Singh had the audacity and conviction of a military genius to liberate entire East Pak. While everyone was looking at Bogra on the map, his eyes perhaps were focussed on Dacca.

 In retrospect, Sagat’s vision of total liberation evolved around a single percept, that he could make his army cross the impassable Meghna river estuaries and swamp, by pass Paki defences, charge and enfilade Dacca with him leading his army right from the front. He perhaps held his vision close to his chest, but I think he did make caustic comments at the Tezpur meeting on the timidity of Army HQ war plan. I think he made himself very unpopular with COAS, Army Cdr and his peer group in that meeting. He was given a verbal warning by COAS to stop dreaming and abide by Army HQ plan. Even during the war he had altercations with Arora at his HQ in Tallimara, because he was not doing what he was told to do, he was going beyond his brief. But Sagat, he was an incredible man, just as he imagined, he air lifted his army right across the Meghna using Mi-4 helicopters, with IAF continuing to insist that it cannot be done. Once his army crossed the Meghna, everyone from COAS down to the last mule, changed their war plan and ran helter-skelter to Dacca. Though he had been ordered not to do it, he singlehandedly brought 4 Corps and 101 Com Zone to the outskirts of Dacca within 9 days from the start of operations starting 4 Dec 71. The rest is history, told in convenient manner by the vociferous participants, glorifying even those who had no vision or military genius.  Sagat got no acclaim or his due share of recognition because he was a ruddy maverick.

 After the surrender ceremony on 16 Dec 1971, in which Lt Gen Niazi unconditionally surrendered, Sagat Singh was left behind in Dacca with a small detachment of 4 Guards and 101 Com Zone to manage on his own, surrounded by enemy still brisling with arms and heartfelt hate. All other ‘Brass’ who attended the surrender ceremony (including the silver, Arora’s wife)  flew off to Agartala same evening on their way back to Calcutta. By and large the rest of 4 Corps and 101 Com Zone were deployed outside Dacca. Others were still on the move barely 100 km from their launching pads on the border. 2 Corps which was to have been the main spear head had not even reached Bogra.

Around 17 Dec evening, the B’Desh Govt in exile with 4 or 5 IAS officers flew into Dacca from Calcutta to take control and establish modicum of civilian command and control. Sagat Singh issued orders for de-induction of troops just after the ‘Guard Of Honour’ for Manekshaw, I think two or three days later. By then the Mukti Bahini and EBR had taken control of all treasuries in the new Bangla Desh and found the coffers empty. Led to a lot of heart burn and Indian Army was blamed for looting the treasury. Reason why Sagat ordered check posts and physical check of all officers and men returning to India, exemplary punishments for anyone found with any form of loot. Lot of honourable men including 3 of Sagat’s senior and illustrious commanders and friends were victims. Wait, let me tell you the story in proper sequence, as it evolved.

Sagat’s main concern at the time Jacob was twisting Niazi’s arm to sign on the dotted line for unconditional surrender vis-à-vis conditional surrender as Niazi wanted, his concerns were probably the mustering and safe transfer of 93,000 odd POWs to Indian territory before they were butchered by Mukti Bahini, to maintain law & order in East Pak, immediate withdrawal of Indian forces, and finally peaceful transfer of power to the civilian authority in Bangla Desh. Perhaps he wanted to go home, his job well done, and not stay back in conquered territory like Mc Arthur or Eisenhower. So he hastened his pre-departure tasks with zestful efficiency and with great élan, to the full satisfaction of the hastily assembled provisional Govt Of B’Desh.  Everything went well in the war and after the war in B’Desh, as well as the subsequent transfer of power. All except one simple thing. The B’Desh treasury was empty. That offset the goodwill and bonhomie that Bangla Deshis had for Indians. The rumours spread far and wide with rapidity, the Bengalis began to view Indians not as saviours but as rapists and looters, as bad as the Paki army.

B’Desh accused Indian army of pillage and loot despite the fact that there were check posts at all exit points manned by Indian Military Police, accompanied by B’Deshi police, with explicit orders from Sagat to search and arrest all personnel who indulged in any form of loot. To retain the honour of the Indian army, under the unwavering eye of Manekshaw, Sagat and the MPs perhaps became overzealous.  The MPs did not spare even very senior and illustrious military officers returning to India. Even few bottles of Scotch whisky, that were presented to army officials by Paki army officers as well as EBR / Mukti Bahini, were confiscated as stolen contraband. There were exemplary court marshals and several senior officers, honourable men who had fought the war with distinction, they were asked to leave dishonourably, or were cashiered.

So if it were not the Indians, who looted and emptied the treasury in B’Desh? I simply wish to clear the needle of suspicion and an unjust blemish on the Indian army as well as the man in charge, Sagat Singh, perhaps by connecting the dots of truth with a few lies, artistic licence of a fiction writer.

 It is truth that R&AW had practically ceased to operate in B’Desh after the purge in Jun/Jul 1970, all our covert operatives in B’Desh were arrested, tortured and put to death.  Few intelligence operatives were inducted immediately after the surrender, and hence they would not have had the knowledge or wherewithal to run off with the treasure. So that makes me conclude that the ones who ran off with the Bengali treasure was none other than the ISI. And the man who can perhaps give a clue about the missing treasure is none other than Parvez Mushraff, who as a SSG Major, was an ISI clandestine operative in East Pak in the closing stages of that war. Several Mukti Banhini and EBR veterans that I talked to recollect seeing Mushraff in Dacca in the closing stages of the war.  How was he inducted into Dacca despite the Naval and Air blockade by Indians, who knows ? Perhaps by submarine ?

 So how did the ISI do it and what happened to the treasure ? Perhaps few others who could explain, if they are so inclined to do it, is the crew of ‘SS Buckeye State’, a merchant ship owned and operated by the CIA that was used to ferret out the treasure along with CIA and ISI operatives out of the war zone, from Chittagong. But let me not jump the gun. Let me tell it as it was in sequence.

 Hamoodar Rehman was an elderly, conscientious and sagacious Paki Supreme Court judge, was empowered and appointed by Govt Of Pak, after the 71 war, to enquire into the follies that led them to lose half their country.  His ‘Report On Commission Of Inquiry Into 1971 War’ (Vanguard Books, Lahore), is perhaps the most officious book of guilt as it can get, castigating those Pakis who deserved blame and praising those who fought with valour. To find the Bengali treasure, which was not one of his charter or brief, one has to read between the lines of his report.

After the death of Jinnah, soon after Paki independence, Paki politics and the military hierarchy veered, it became an all Punjabi show. The diaspora of Sindhies, the Baluch, the Kashmiris or the Bengalis were shunned, perhaps like the OBC mentality in India. The political parochialism and fratricide finally led to the Army under Ayub Khan to take over controls in 1958. After 12 yrs of ‘Martial Law’, sometime 1970, Gen Yahya Khan had enough and decided to revert Pak to democracy, perhaps with a revision of the Paki constitution to keep the military still in the decision making loop.  The precipitator of such a policy was Zulfakir Ali Bhuto, a dynamic, vitriolic and very ambitious Paki Punjabi political, who was expected to win the election.  To every one’s surprise, the Awami League in East Pak, with Mujibur Rehman in the lead, won a resounding victory, purely because of the political dynamics of vote bank, the voters in East Pak surpassed those in the west by 40%. Mujibur then caught a flight via Colombo and rushed to Islamabad to stake claim to form a Govt with himself as a Prime Minister of East and West Pak. Bhuto got Yahya Khan to put him in prison on charges of treason, it was unacceptable to the Punjabi mentality to have a Bengali rule Pak, West or East !! It sparked the civil war in East Pak.

 Yahya Khan then appointed the ‘Butcher Of Baluchistan’ Gen Tikka Khan as the martial law administrator in East Pak, inducted a large number of troops and started a crackdown. The crackdown soon turned into an enthusiastic ethnic cleansing which had only one historic parallel, the Jewish purge by Hitler or in a smaller context Bosnia, with Bihari Muslims as collaborators to vanquish Bengalis Muslims of all kind.  The mass genocide, exodus, search and seizure, UNICIF, Red Cross and World Bank Aid, the CIA funding, all these enriched the coffers East Paki treasury in bullion, US Dollars in cash, precious art and artefacts, all of them stored in safe houses, mostly in and around Dacca. Maj Parvez Mushraff from the crack special forces SSG seconded to ISI, assisted by few SSG and West Paki EBR personnel was in-charge of safekeeping of this treasure.

 None could be trusted in East Pak since Mar 1971.The Bengalis officials including EBR (East Paki Bengla Rifles, hard core military, mostly officered by west Pakis or a few Bengali officers whose wives and children were hostages in West Pak) began to desert or abscond, most of them heading for the Indian border. The brutal Paki Military police, Punjabis to the last man, took over policing and the ISI took over the clandestine activities, the encounters and the ‘Ab Tak Chappan’. Due to the naval blockade, and prevention of over flights, only a few could filter in or out via Colombo. The young Maj Parvez Mushraff, a dynamic zealot, was then an important functionary of the ISI in Dacca, though his exact role at that time, besides guarding the treasure is not known.

 A few days after the official war was declared on 4 Dec 71, when Indian Kilo force (R&AW Military Establishment 22) under Maj Gen Uban began to pose a threat to Laksham and the escape route to Chittagong, the ISI decided to move the Bengali treasure from Dacca to Chittagong by rail. The treasure was shifted, staging through Lalksham, by a special train travelling nonstop, mostly at night. At Lalksham, a very fortified staging post, Mushraff and his small contingent of ‘treasure guards’ were attacked by two hunters from IAF led by Wg Cdr Vinod Nebb VrC & Bar. Though Nebb managed to destroy most of the fortifications, Mushraff and the Bengali treasure were safe in deep underground bunkers. They moved again at night to Chittagong, unmolested by IAF.  At Chittagong they awaited the arrival of SS Buckeye State’.

 In it’s chequered history of 35 yrs, till it sank, or was purposefully sunk off Panama in 1978 (perhaps due to US congressional investigation), SS Buckeye State had been registered and re-registered under 28 flags, under different names, mostly spurious offshore companies owned by the CIA. The superstructure had undergone frequent modifications to make its silhouette different around 32 times. It was a very powerful flat bottomed ship capable of sailing in shallow water and high speeds in open sea with retractable hydraulically operated stabilisers. It was retrofitted with every modern electronic gadgets that could be bought.  It had done everything from infiltration and exfiltration of CIA agents and worldwide political dissidents, gun running, opium smuggling, cash delivery and the most illustrious thing that it did in its lifetime was to run off with the  Japanese cache of bullion and treasure from Philippines after the Japanese surrender in 1945, with the assistance of Marcos, then a leader of the underground. The incredible Japanese treasure had helped CIA to grow to be the only intelligence agency, besides ISI, who does not need Govt funding to conduct its worldwide operations, they have enough money of their own in Swiss banks. Around first week Dec 1971, SS Buckeye State (a new name and a new silhouette) sailed from Taiwan, through the Malacca Straits into the Indian Ocean, ducked the Indian Navy blockade by skirting along the Malaysian and Burmese coast and sailed into Chittagong around 8 or 9th Dec 71.

 Due to dock worker’s strike, sabotage by Bengali frogmen led by an Indian Navy Officer Lt Cdr Akku Roy, strafing by an Alize ex Vikrant which destroyed some of its superstructure, the loading of the treasure on Buckeye was delayed and the ghost ship was caught up in Chittagong port when Niazi surrendered on 16 Dec 71.  Tremendous pressure was then put on GoI by the US Ambassador in Delhi to allow the ship to sail. No mention was made of its purpose of visit to Chittagong or cargo manifest.  None in India bothered to ask what was Buckeye doing in Chittagong. It sailed on 18 Dec, two days after the war ended, with CIA deep cover operatives and Maj Mushraf with his escort guarding the Bengali treasure below deck. In the post war euphoria, the Indian Navy even offered a mine sweeper as escort. Off Trincomalee coast, the escort said good bye to Buckeye and returned to Vizag.

 It is said that a Paki Navy gun boat intercepted Buckeye off Makran coast when it was trying to duck and sail off to Dubai. Buckeye was then escorted to Karachi. Mushraff was given a gallantry award, and the treasure transferred to a vault in Karcahi. Buckeye was allowed to sail off into the yonder, ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ world of CIA.

 The subsequent Indo–Pak Shimla conference did not go as well as Bhutto desired. On the last day the politically shrewd Mr Bhutto  requested Mrs Gandhi for an hour long private tet-a-tet, all by themselves. After the tet-a-tet, despite having 93,000 prisoners and many thousand square miles of Paki territory in the Indian kitty, it was perceived afterwards that it was Bhutto who dictated the final Shimla agreement, not Indians.  India gave it all away, including the swaths of hard won, tactically most important real estate, stupefying the team of Indian interlocutors including those from MO Directorate. The line of control (LOC), Indo-Pak border, it was incredibly reverted back to pre-war days despite the mournful yodelling from the petrified MO directorate. Perhaps the Bengali treasure was an incentive, deposited as Congress party funds in Swiss bank account ?  The ISI is very clever, they would not have given all of it away, perhaps just a part of the bullion.  

 Three decades later, at Agra after the Kargil war, Mushraff now Paki President asked our then PM Vajpai for a similar private tet-a-tet, all by themselves. Perhaps the sum offered, the balance of the Bengali Treasure that was not squandered by ISI, perhaps it was not enough to buy off Kashmir. In 1847, after the first Punjab War, when Gulab Singh bought Jammu & Kashmir from Henry Lawrence of East India Company, the price was just Rs 70 lks.  With inflation and compound interest, perhaps Vajpai deemed that the price for Kashmir was everything in Paki treasury + Paki GDP for next five years + the balance of Bengali treasure, all of it to be transferred into BJP’s Swiss bank account ? I have great regards for Vajpai, though slow witted, he was good at maths !! Part of the Bengali treasure is perhaps still safe in Switzerland, out of the reach of the politicals in B’Desh as well as India. It is being put to good use by the Pakis, to conduct the proxy war, ‘kill by thousand cuts, and the new found love Jihad’ in Kashmir, and elsewhere in India !!!

 God bless Lt Gen Sagat Singh. May he RIP. He neither stole anything, nor did he allow the Indian Army to steal anything, especially the Bengali treasure. A few woman did offer themselves to him, but I believe without any coercion. He was after all like Julius Caesar, irresistible to the Cleopatras of those days and we really cannot complain about that sort of privileges of a conquering hero who accepted affections of the gallant ladies like a true gentleman, with total discretion !!