The role of rivers in the construction of Bangladesh

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The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War was a revolution.

And our rivers have played a key role. The freedom fighters strategically used the rivers to defeat the occupying forces. In a way, the rivers guided the way to the victory of the nation.

Bangladesh’s physiography characterizes it as a riparian country, and this unique geographic landscape has played a role in the glorious history, politics, and spatial dynamics of the region.

Over time, these relentless rivers have fought many wars and defeated many enemies. And in 1971, the rivers played the role of resistance to the movement of the enemy.

There are over 700 rivers that generally flow south. The larger rivers serve as the main source of water for cultivation and main arteries for commercial transport.

Rivers in 1971, a guerrilla strategy and river maps

Bangladesh is located in the fertile delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna River System (GBM). During the liberation war, river Bangladesh was strategically divided into 11 sectors. The border of the sector was not political but geographic, and this planning proved decisive in defeating the Pakistani forces.

Rivers such as Padma, Brahmaputra, Meghna, Jamuna, Surma, Madhumati, Muhuri, etc. played a key role in shaping the sector.

The River and Delta Research Center (RDRC) has conducted studies and prepared several maps that help us understand the geographic features of the rivers and water bodies of Bangladesh in 1971 and how they influenced the birth of the country.

The main features of this map have geopolitical and geostrategic implications as it highlights Bangladesh through the framework of its canals, streams and over 1,200 rivers. 1971 can be used as a point of reference or benchmark to compare the current situation of rivers and water bodies.

Naval operations during the liberation war

Operation Jackpot was carried out on August 16, 1971. After the completion of the training operation, which began on May 15, 1971, naval commandos launched several sabotage operations in the towns of Chattogram, Chandpur, Mongla and the Narayanganj district against the combined forces of Pakistani soldiers, Pakistani navies, Pakistani Navy SEALs and East Pakistan security forces.

During the liberation war, naval commandos undertook operations to sabotage military and economic means, demoralize Pakistani soldiers and disrupt their supply network in 21 districts and mahakumas.

In declassified government documents, we found 73 separate naval operations conducted by Sector 10 commandos.

These operations carried out by the Mukti Bahini and the Indian army proved to be so effective that initially the opposition forces believed that this type of operation could only be carried out by Indian special forces. It was not until much later that they learned the truth.

The simultaneous attacks on Pakistani Navy ships on August 16 shattered the myth of normalcy in East Pakistan as the international media spread the news. The Pakistani military’s investigation later concluded that no one imagined that the Mukti Bahini would be capable of carrying out such an operation.

In August-December 1971, naval commandos managed to sink or damage 126 ships / coasters / ferries, while a source confirmed that at least 65 ships of various types (15 Pakistani ships, 11 coasters, 7 gunboats, 11 barges, 2 tankers and 19 riverboats in November 1971) had been sunk.

At least 100,000 tonnes of supplies were sunk or deemed unrecoverable, with piers and docks becoming disabled and canals blocked. In this way, the valiant commandos kept East Pakistan under siege without having a single warship.

The operational capability of the Pakistani Navy was compromised as a result of Operation Jackpot.

Operation Hot Pants

After the operation of August 16, all the commandos returned to India. After that, no planned simultaneous operations were launched by the naval commandos. Instead, some groups were dispatched to destroy specific targets while other commandos began hitting military targets as the opportunity presented itself.

Major Jalil, sector 9 commander of Mukti Bahini, had obtained permission from Premiere Tajuddin Ahmad to form a naval unit in August and asked Commander MN Samanth for four gunboats.

In October 1971, the Kolkata Port Trust donated two patrol boats (Ajay and Akshay) to the Mukti Bahini. The ships underwent a month-long overhaul at the Khidirpur shipyard at a cost of 3.8 million yen to carry two Canadian 40x60mm Bofors guns, two light engines and eight landmines, four on each side of the bridge in addition to 11 landmines on board.

Renamed BNS Padma and Palash, the boats were piloted by 44 Bengali sailors, 12 naval commandos and led by Indian navy personnel. It was handed over to Mukti Bahini on October 30, 1971.

The Minister of State of the Government of Bangladesh in exile, Captain Qamaruzzaman, was present when the boats were commanded by the Chairman of the Kolkata Port Trust, PK Sen., along with Lieutenant Commander KP Roy and K. Mitra of the Navy Indian commanding the ships.

A notable mission of the Bangladeshi Navy flotilla was to successfully mine the Chalna Port entry point and attack Pakistani sea lanes with the help of an Indian Navy escort frigate on November 10, where these boats successfully mined the entrance to Mongla harbor.

They also drove the British ship “The City of St. Albans” from Mongla on November 11, 1971.

Our major rivers and their geostrategic importance

The bed of the Padma is wide and the river is divided into several channels. Until recently, it was ranked as one of the busiest waterways in the world.

Jamuna enters Bangladesh from the Nageshwari upazila of Kurigram district and meets the Ganges at Aricha, which is the most dynamic of all the rivers in Bangladesh.

The Brahmaputra River enters Bangladesh from Jamalpur in Mymensingh district and meets Meghna in Bhairab. Its strategic location made it the focal point of many 1971 operations in Mymensingh with its tributary Shitalakhya protecting Dhaka from any potential invasion.

Meghna, the widest and largest river, separates Sonargaon. Mughal subedar Ishakha and his son Musa Khan built a naval force on this river. During the Mughal and British colonial times, this river was a corridor for the supply of goods from Bengal and Assam.

The Karnaphuli River facilitated trade and the geostrategic development of Chattogram and its seaport. The regions of Dhaka, Chandpur, Narayangonj, Mongla and Aricha are very dependent and interconnected with its river.

The Feni River is geostrategically important in maintaining and controlling the communication between Feni, Noakhali and Chattogram with the center of Dhaka.

In addition, the Surma Kashiyara, the upper Meghna river system and its tributaries and haor areas are themselves a water barrier against any force during the monsoon.

Some small canals in Dhaka, for example the Little Norai River, and the wetlands east of Dhaka greatly facilitated many important operations against Pakistani troops and settlements.

In addition, the rivers of Barishal and Sundarbans played a central role in the liberation war for communication, the passage of refugees, military operations and the supply of weapons. The Mukti Bahini used these canals as a safe area for training and ambushes.

We found that 1,270 rivers and streams existed in 1971 in Bangladesh, with each channel and stream playing a role in providing direct defense mechanisms and supporting tactical advantages that created an unassailable position against the enemy.

Rivers and freedom fighters

Mukti Bahini’s hard-earned gains on the country’s rivers were instrumental in the overall victory. When the full story of the great liberation war is written, the geography of rivers and streams will be noted as an essential part of our victory.

From the start of the war in March 1971, the eastern units of Pakistani troops were supported and supplied with logistics and ammunition via the river networks. In the beginning, guerrilla operations were mainly land. However, as the war raged, Pakistani troops began to use rivers and waterways as the safest route.

Vessels and supply chain networks remained active and transported goods through all of the country’s major river ports. This situation was functional until mid-August.

The regularity of inland waterways and river transport implied a stable situation. During the war, our violent struggle for independence had to be heard by the international community. Naval and other river operations have attracted worldwide attention and have affected the morale of Pakistani forces.

According to declassified government data, Naval Commandos in Area 10 operations had undertaken 73 operations as well as Operations Jackpot and Hotpants. In this regard, the RDRC found that more than 300 guerrilla operations were carried out via the rivers. In these operations, the rivers provided both direct defense mechanisms and support for tactical advantages.

This greatly contributed to our victory and to our effectiveness in the war of liberation.

Large and small rivers, monsoons and rains isolated and slowed down enemy forces, boosting the morale and optimism of compatriots during the war.

Here is what the RDRC found about the protection offered by our rivers.

Distinguish three main types of river defense in 1971:

  • Direct defense intended to prevent easy crossing.
  • A more indirect form, in which the river and its valley serve only as components for a more favorable tactical development.
  • Absolute direct defense, which consists of creating an unassailable position for the enemy.
  • It can be said that the rivers themselves acted as strategic freedom fighters.

Bangladesh has successfully deployed 30,000 regulars and 100,000 guerrillas and waged a campaign that would destroy or damage at least 231 bridges, 122 railway lines, 90 power stations, disrupting the logistics / supply systems of Pakistani forces and killing at least 237 officers, 136 JCOs and 3,559 soldiers who were members of the standing army, from April to November 1971, as well as an unknown number of West Pakistan Rangers, EPCAF members and Razakars.

The guerrilla operations had also undermined the morale of the Pakistani army and, by November 1971, had forced it to withdraw to some extent to their bases.

In no time, our guerrillas claimed victory on December 16, fifty years ago today, with the help, among others, of the many rivers of the country.


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