Ajit Chaudhuri – July 2019
I don’t often speak about my family, and I have my reasons for this. There are, however, a selected few worth speaking about and one such is my mother’s brother Aku Roy. I remember Akumamu very well as a small child – he was a naval pilot with a larger-than-life persona and always had sweets hidden on him when he visited (my sisters and I would clamber all over him to find them before even saying hello). I remember visiting the INS Vikrant when he was serving on it, and being taken out for joy rides in a red Standard Herald that was the love of his life. I was 8 years old at the time of the 1971 war, in which he was (and still is) deemed missing in action (MIA) after an operation in the Arabian Sea. I also remember my maternal grandparents’ distress in dealing with this – my grandfather was a tough guy, a General in the Army’s Medical Corps who had fought the Japanese in WW2, and it was strange for me to see him so distraught at the time. Life went on, as it always does, and Akumamu slowly became a forgotten figure – appearing only in occasional listings of MIAs as a cryptic ‘Lt. Cdr AK Roy, VrC’ and of Vir Chakra awardees, again with minimal details of who he was and what he did.
It is only now that I have some idea of events leading up to the 1971 war and his role in them. The Pakistani Army was given carte blanche to curtail a freedom movement in what was then the Pakistani province of East Pakistan, resulting in large numbers of refugees flowing into India from late-1970 and in the formation of the Mukti Bahini (MB), a guerilla force of Bangladeshis who were tasked with fighting back.
My Akumamu was pulled out of normal duties (he was posted in Bombay at the time), sent to Tripura, and tasked with selecting young men from among the refugees and training them to be naval commandos who could disrupt shipping along East Pakistan’s waterways (which was the main mode of transportation in the province). He himself went into East Pakistan for missions with his trainees, particularly brave for a fair, ‘Pathan-like’ six-footer who was easily identifiable by authorities in a group of Bengalis.
One such was the bombing of Chittagong Harbour in August 1971, which announced the MB as a serious fighting force and highlighted the issue of Bangladeshi independence to the world. He and his men returned into Tripura by intermingling with refugees, where he was caught by an Indian Army unit at the border on the suspicion of being a Pakistani spy trying to infiltrate into India. He was tied up, beaten and abused until he asked to speak in private to the commanding officer of the unit, wherein he exposed himself to prove he wasn’t Muslim and identified himself as an officer of the Indian Navy. A hair-raising description of this encounter by the army officer concerned, Maj. C. Singh, is available in this link - https://salute.co.in/a-surgical-strike-at-sea-in-1971/.
Aku Mamu returned from the eastern front and rejoined his naval base in the west before hostilities between India and Pakistan formally began. He was shot down during an operation over the Arabian Sea during the war, disappearing and never to be seen again.
All this was almost 50 years ago. A recent book, “Operation X: The Untold Story of India’s Covert Naval War in East Pakistan 1971” by Captain Samant (who oversaw the navy’s involvement with the MB) and my journalist colleague in India Today Sandeep Unnithan, tells the story of some of India’s forgotten servants, among them my Uncle. I am grateful because, in bringing this man to life, it has provided subsequent generations of my family with a role model who did a little more than live well and make money.