Several extraordinary war tales have undoubtedly emerged from the battle of Sylhet; from both the Indian and Bangladeshi fronts. However, nothing will come close to the bravado of Major General Ian Cardozo, who amputated his own leg after stepping on a landmine.
The year was 1971 and India was waging war with Pakistan to help expedite the liberation of Bangladesh. Cardozo was a Major at that time enrolled in a course at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, Tamil Nadu. Following the death of the officer who was the second-in-command of the battalion 4/5 Gorkha Rifles deployed in what was then East Pakistan, an immediate replacement was to be found, and the concerned officials zeroed in on Major Cardozo. His posting was cancelled, and he was ordered to leave immediately to East Pakistan. His timely arrival was of immense help to the battalion, which was severely short on manpower. Through a swift military offensive that lasted only 13 days, India successfully defeated Pakistan and liberated Bangladesh. In fact, the battalion of only 480 men charted history when they accepted the surrender of about 1,500 men that included three Brigadiers, a full Colonel, 107 officers, 219 Junior Commissioned Officers (JCO), and 7,000 troops from the Pakistan Army!
After the fall of Dhaka, when the Indian Army was rounding up the prisoners of war (POWs), Major Cardozo, who had gone to help the BSF commander in charge of the count, met with an accident that would change his life forever—he stepped on a landmine, and lost most of his leg in the resulting blast. A part of his leg which had remained attached to his body could not be amputated surgically because due to the extensive war wreckage, no form of medical anaesthesia or surgical equipment was available.
Recounting the days of the 1971 war, Cardozo said, “During the Battle of Sylhet my battalion undertook the first heli-borne operation right inside Pakistan. We went about a hundred kilometers behind the enemy defences and captured an airfield. We were told that we would be linked up within 48 hours, but we were not linked up for nine days. So we were without food or water. We had carried more ammunition than food and blankets, so we had a bit of a tough time. The enemy artillery destroyed the MI Room and all the medicines with it. The MI Room is a place where casualties are kept. Thus when I got wounded there were no antibiotics, no pain killers and there was nothing to amputate the leg. So when the doctor took his time finding a suitable instrument, I decided to do something. I belong to the Gurkhas. We carry a knife called the Khukri. It’s a 14-inch blade which is curved. Basically it is used to chop off the enemy’s head, and we did quite a lot of damage with that in the first two attacks. I first asked my Jawan to cut my leg off but he was hesitant. So I said: “give it to me” and I cut off my own leg.”
This incident would have meant the end of field duty for any other officer, but Major Cardozo was not going to be demoted to staff duty, and allow the impairment take control of his life. He valiantly fought for the commander’s position and even surpassed the ‘two-legged’ officers during the intense physical fitness examination. History was created when he went to become the first war-disabled Army officer to command not just a battalion but also a brigade, composed of three to six battalions plus supporting elements. And it wasn’t a cakewalk. Despite acing the fitness test, the medical officers didn’t clear Major Cardozo, so he took his case to General Tapishwar Raina, the then Chief of Army Staff. Impressed by Cardozo’s resilience, the General asked him to accompany him to Ladakh. Upon observing that Major Cardozo could easily walk through the sturdy mountains with the snow hardly affecting him, the General personally recommended that the Major command a battalion. The incident repeated itself when Major Cardozo motioned for the brigade commander’s position, and emerged victorious once again. Maj. Gen. Ian Cardozo who was decorated with an Ati Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM) for “distinguished service of an exceptional order” and Sena Medal (SM) ‘for individual acts of exceptional to duty or courage’ has been able to do many things in life, which many others can’t dream of – just because he did not give up and bashed on regardless. After retirement, Major General Cardozo served as the Chairman of Rehabilitation Council of India from 2005 to 2011. The 82-year-old currently resides in New Delhi with his wife and `three sons.