1971 War: Reflections on International Relations and Indian Leadership
The 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War was a rebellion and armed conflict sparked by the rise of the Bengali nationalist and self-determination movement in the then East Pakistan, and fuelled by the genocide by Pakistan Military against Bengali population.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto denied Awami League its constitutional right to form a government, after its sweeping victory in the 1970 elections winning 167 seats of 169, and of a total of 313 in the National Assembly. Mujibur Rahman was imprisoned by the Pakistani government followed by ‘Operation Searchlight’ to eliminate the intellectual Bengali Muslims of the then East Pakistan, which escalated the uprising of a rebellion by Bengali paramilitary units and defections.
Operations by the Pakistani military in East Pakistan resulted in the exodus of nearly ten million refugees into India by March 1971, with an additional 30 million internally displaced, imposing a grave humanitarian burden on India. India’s repeated appeals to the international community got no substantial support towards diffusing this crisis, running into 15,000–30,000 in Dhaka and approximately 2,50,000 in East Pakistan.
Outbreak of War
The Bangladeshi war of independence was declared by the Mukti Bahini, the liberation force formed by the Bengali military comprising the East Bengal Regiment, East Pakistan Rifles, other paramilitary forces, and civilians. The Mukti Bahini, under the Bengali Gen MAG Osmani, initiated a massive guerrilla war against the Pakistani Army Navy and Air Force. India’s military operations in East Pakistan commenced towards the end of November 1971 with its land divisions gaining ground by the day, supported by the Air Force virtually in command of the air. Unable to deter India’s build-up on both the eastern and western fronts, Pakistan declared war on 3 December 1971 by launching airstrikes on airfields in the western and eastern theatres. India responded with intense airstrikes on both fronts, followed by land offensives into West and East Pakistan.
Three Indian corps supported by three brigades of the Mukti Bahini fought the war against three divisions of the Pakistani Army deployed in this theatre. The Indian Navy’s Eastern Command blockaded Pakistan’s Navy in the Bay of Bengal while the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant inflicted heavy losses on Pakistan’s naval ports of Cox’s Bazaar and Chittagong.
The western front witnessed successes at Dera Baba Nanak, Sehjra enclave, Khokrapar, Gadra city and Naya Chor in the desert sector and capture of Turtuk and posts in Kargil as also Tut Mar Gali in J&K, and the battle of Longewala, inflicting disproportionate losses on the enemy. The Indian Air force inflicted heavy losses on the Pakistani Air Force assets on ground and in air, while the Navy destroyed several ships and assets for fuel storage at Karachi.
With the surrender of the Pakistani forces in the former East Pakistan on 16 December 1971, hostilities ended on 17 December 1971.
Role of the International Community
Reported moves by the British carrier ‘Eagle’ with other battle ships into the Bay of Bengal witnessed simultaneous posturing by Soviet Union’s nuclear submarines backed by cruisers and destroyers from Vladivostok. The move of the USS Enterprise and the USS Tripoli into the Indian Ocean reflected US support for Pakistan, fearing Soviet expansion into South and Southeast Asia.
China’s restraint, though considered voluntary during the war, was later disputed by records of being a consequence of threats by the Soviet Union. US President Richard Nixon’s encouragement to China to open a second front was an open secret, but India’s readiness for such a contingency with three corps on this front deterred any irrational action.
Disclosures from confidential records and reports subsequently declassified by international media and government offices exposed adversarial perspectives for intervention by external powers, which will remain important lessons for posterity.
Lessons from 1971
While military lessons were significant, the response of the international community to the humanitarian crisis was perhaps most complex and unexpected.
Notwithstanding the international community’s indifference to the humanitarian crisis, the turn of events followed by the voluntary return of Bangladeshi refugees to their homeland drew extremely positive responses in recognition of the independence of Bangladesh.
The 1972 Simla Agreement between the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Pakistani counterpart Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto guaranteed the release of 90,000 Pakistani PoWs; pardon to 200 soldiers accused of war crimes, and the return of approximately 13,000 sq km of land captured by Indian troops. While many viewed this agreement in the interest of “lasting peace,” others saw this as too little a price for Pakistan to pay.
India’s inability to benefit from its huge moral ascendency in the surrender of 90,000 troops held by India, by a commitment from Pakistan on Kashmir or the vacating of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) proved extremely costly for India.
Two aspects that founded the victorious outcome of this war will remain significant in any analysis of this war. First, the Indian military’s performance and successes achieved under the dynamic leadership of General Sam Manekshaw reflected the professionalism, integration, operational readiness and high morale of the forces that shattered morale of the Pakistani military and inflicted serious losses to its strategic assets. Second, perfect synergy between the political and military leaderships backed by excellent civil-military relations emerged as the most significant determinant in this historic victory.