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Enduring Mysteries of 1971 War
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Maj Gen Sheru Thapliyal
Maj Gen Sheru Thapliyal

The lightning campaign launched by the Indian Army in Dec 1971 which resulted in the birth of a new nation — Bangladesh, is surely the greatest feat of arms in our history. As happens in any war, many issue become controversial with differing perceptions and opinions. 1971 war was no exception. It has its fairs share of issues which have retained their mystery over the years. With most of the participants dead, these mysteries will perhaps continue to remain so.

In his book Surrender at Dacca —Birth of a Nation Gen Jacob claims that in April ’71 Sam rang him up and said Eastern Command needs to march into East Pakistan immediately which Gen Jacob refused to do.

Did Sam actually tell Mrs. Gandhi what he claimed?

Sam is universally credited for withstanding pressure from Mrs. Gandhi and her cabinet colleagues to March into Bangladesh in April ’71 itself. In an interview to Quarter Deck, a publication of The Ex servicemen’s Affairs Cell of the Indian Navy in 1996. Sam recounts verbatim, what transpired at the Cabinet Meeting. Gen Jacob, who was Chief of Staff, Eastern Command in 71′ puts it differently. In his book Surrender at Dacca —Birth of a Nation he claims that in April ’71 Sam rang him up and said Eastern Command needs to march into East Pakistan immediately which Gen Jacob refused to do. Gen Jacob, however gives credit to Sam for standing up to Mrs. Gandhi and not marching into East Pakistan in April ’71.

Impression conveyed is that Sam was initially keen to march into East Pakistan in April as directed by the Govt. but later was apprised by Gen Jacob of the disastrous consequences such an action will have and then changed his stance in the famous cabinet meeting. Gen Jacob also claims that knowing Mrs. Gandhi, nobody dares to talk to her in the manner Sam describes in his interview to Quarter Deck. As to why Sam would by-pass the chain of command and tell Gen Jacob, who was Chief of Staff that Eastern Command should march into East Pakistan and not speak to Lt. Gen Jaggi Aurora, the Army Commander is a little farfetched.

Was Dacca the terminal objective at any stage of the War?

Gen Jacob, in his book claims that he always maintained that Dacca, being the geo political and geo strategic heart of East Pakistan must be the terminal objective of the Indian offensive while Sam felt that by capturing the entry ports of Chittagong and Khulna, Dacca would automatically fall. Army HQ Operation instruction for ’71 war in the East issued in Aug ’71 did not mentioned Dacca as the terminal objective. In this context what late Lt. Gen Inder Gill, then DMO, has to say may be relevant.

Did Mrs. Gandhi really tell BSF to march into East Pakistan in April ’71 after Army indicated its unwillingness to do so?

Operational Instructions issued to Eastern Command specified capture of areas up to main river lines. Dacca was not included as the terminal objective. This was because it was considered at the time planning was done that Eastern Command would not have the capability of capturing the whole of East Pakistan before a ceasefire was forced on us. It is the great credit of Indian Army leadership that once Pakistani defences started crumbling, they were able to quickly switch gears and head for Dacca with dash and élan. Did Mrs. Gandhi really tell BSF to march into East Pakistan in April ’71 after Army indicated its unwillingness to do so?

Gen Jacob, in his book “Surrender at Dacca” recounts an interesting tale. According to him, sometimes in April ’71 Mr. K. Rustomji, then Director General Border Security Force (BSF) came to meet him. Mr. Rustomji told Gen Jacob that since Army was reluctant to move into East Pakistan, govt had ordered BSF to do it. Mr. Rustomji said he would be able to do it in two to three weeks and wanted Gen Jacob to keep an Army contingent ready for the victory parade. This sounds most incredulous. In the event BSF’s plans of a victorious march into East Pakistan were doomed to failure. Since apart from Gen Jacob, all other participants are not longer alive, it shall remain a mystery.

Why was Northern Axis from Shilling to Dacca not exploited?

As would be seen from the map, the shortest axis to Dacca is the Northern Axis from Shillong to Dacca. The biggest advantage of this axis is the fact that no river crossing was involved while in all the other three axes a major river crossing was involved. It is indeed a mystery that allocation of forces to the Northern Axis was just HQ 101 Communication Zone Area with one brigade. In the event they had the last laugh since they were the first to reach Dacca.

It appears rather farfetched that Army Chief can be kept in dark about move of three brigades.

Did Gen Jacob and Gen Inder Gill really move three brigades from China front to Eastern Front without informing Sam?

The Govt. permits the Army Chief to move a certain number of Divisions from one theatre to another in a war situation without reference to the Govt. Gen Jacob in his book “Surrender at Dacca” has mentioned that between him and Maj Gen (later Lt. Gen) Inder Gill, the DMO, they ordered move of three brigades from the Chinese front without even informing Sam. It appears rather farfetched that Army Chief can be kept in dark about move of three brigades. The only other person who could verify this was late Lt. Gen Inder Gill who is no more. So this intriguing aspect would also remain a mystery forever.

Did Sam really decline to be part of Indian delegation to Shimla?

A story does the round from time to time that Mrs. Gandhi wanted Sam to be a part of India delegation for Shimla conference in June 1972. Sam felt that an Army Chief was too high an appointment for such a delegation. He accordingly earmarked a Lt Col from Military Operations Directorate as a member of delegation which was turned down by the Govt. It is a matter of conjecture whether deliberations at would have taken a different turn had Sam been a part of the delegation. One thing is sure. He would not have agreed to return all captured territory and all prisoners without getting something substantial in return — perhaps solutions of J & K problem. Alas we would never know.

We had not shown any line on our maps and it is only after our occupation of Siachen Glacier that we stared showing a line from Point NJ 9842…

Why was the line of Control not delineated North of Pt NJ 9842 after ’71 War?

The 1949 Karachi Agreement between Indian and Pakistan mentioned the delineation of the Ceasefire Line upto map reference NJ 9842. Thereafter the Ceasefire line was to run Northward to Glaciers. This was vague enough but was accepted by both India and Pakistan because no one could visualize any armed conflict in this high attitude wilderness. However, not to mention specifically the alignment of Ceasefire Line / Line of Control right till the India — Tiber border is an act of omission which has cost us dear. 

Pakistan launched cartographic warfare after ’71 war and showed the line of control joining Point NJ 9842 to Karakoram Pass. Soon many world Atlases started showing this line on their maps. We had not shown any line on our maps and it is only after our occupation of Siachen Glacier that we stared showing a line from Point NJ 9842 to Indra Col and calling it the Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) to distinguish it from the Line of Control (LC).

Since all dramatis personae are no longer alive, the reason for this costly mistake will forever remain wrapped in mystery. And finally the biggest mystery of all why did Gen Jaggi Aurora, the Eastern Army Commander abdicate his operational responsibility and allow Gen Jacob, his Chief of Staff to not only plan but also conduct operations in East Pakistan?

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19 thoughts on “Enduring Mysteries of 1971 War

  1. Sam Manekshaw died in 2008. The book by Jacob came out August 1, 1997 as per Amazon. Eleven (11) years earlier. Lt. General Aurora died in 2005. Other players from the time were also alive – Lt. Gen Inderjit Singh Gill died in 2001. So it’s not true that nobody was alive who could verify/falsify the events of the book.

    Jacob published his book while all the major players were alive and well.

    The only thing I find true is that people denigrating Jacob, waited until all the players had died, so nobody from that theater could fact-check their denigration.

    Why would Manekshaw bypass Aurora? Because he was the big bloody boss, he could do whatever he wanted. Were you, Thapliyal, going to tell Sam Manekshaw what he could or could not do? No, you could do it after he died, but not to his face.

  2. An informative article. However, the claims made by Gen. Jacob cannot be given any credence. From another incident it might be concluded that the relations between Mrs. Gandhi and Field Marshal Manekshaw were friendly enough for him to be candid in expressing his views. One such incident was when the PM asked the the General when was the army going to take over and he told her something like he was minding his business and she should mind hers. Also, the story above about delegating a Lt. Col when he was asked to join the delegation for Simla talks, even if apocryphal, is indicative of the relaxed relations between the PM and FM. Therefore, the Gen must have felt quite at ease to tell the PM the impossibility of an April Campaign because the June rains would be too close for comfort. Though, he may have sought the opinion of the Eastern Command in the matter, given the political compulsions that the government felt.

  3. Lt Gen Jacob’s book written and published after the demise of all principal characters have gone, has lost all the credibility. Why did not he write the book when Field Marshal Manekshaw and Lt Gen JS Aurora were alive?106

  4. enthusiastic about the suggestion of GoI have answers on two of the so called mysteries. I was the GSO 2 Incharge of the Operations Room at HQ Eastern Command. I was the one who marked all operational plans and proposals on the maps and was privy to most communications and discussions even when plans were presented to the PM, RM etc.
    1. The Northern Axis was indeed not planned for initially by 33 Corps or 4 Corps. Hq Eastern Command also did not project any need for it till Goc 101 Area suggested this in a Top Secret DO Letter. So next morning I brought this out and suggested its acceptance. The question was availability of Troops. I suggested that 167 Brigade be pulled out from Nagaland for the purpose. This was accepted after some hesitation and included in the plans. Soon after the surrender, I took over as B M of 167 Brigade.
    2. Dacca was indeed not nominated as the Final objective. The policy of Expanding Torrent visualised reaching the river lines ASAP by bypassiong strong resistance points but all along Dacca was visualised as an objective for the exploitation phase. This possibility was always on the minds of both Gen Aurora and Gen Jacob. Also it is true that the draft operational plan was first made out by Gen Jacob . It was duly presented to the Army Commander and discussed in the Ops Room. And was approved by the Army Commander himself. At no stage during the planning phase was the Army Commander in any doubt about what the plan is to be. I had the rare opportunity to work very closely with both of them on this matter . It will be wrong to say that the plan was entirely that of Gen Jacob. It is however true that as Chief of Staff ,Gen Jacob was a lot more involved in making the plan or finalizing it than most other Chiefs of Staff in our Army are known to do. At no stage were there any serious differences between the two in evolving the final plan. In fact Gen Arora was more enthusiastic than Gen Jacob about the proposal of GOC 101 Area.

  5. Lt Gen Jacob did not speak a single word till the time Fd Marshall Manekshaw was alive.He is a cynic who believes in self praise.In his books & his oft repeated remaks on 1971 Indo Pak War (Eastern Sector), he constantly relegates both the Fd Marshall & Lt Gen Aurora to a position of strategic non entity.The author fully knows the role of a COS in planning operations of such a magnitude.It is rather unfortunate that Gen Jacob has blurted out narrations which are totally out of context .Why he has been resorting to such imaginative talks possibly points out to a typical complex that he has developed after hanging his spurs.In a chance encounter with him at the IIC at New Delhi a few years ago, this trait was distinctly visible.Since he was giving his own hypothesis to me- as the sole captive audience, I politely asked his leave.It was bad on my part!
    I have seen the Fd Marshall since my 2/Lt days.He was our Army Commander.Later, during the Republic Day Thanksgiving Tea of the RM, in 70, he saw me & walked straight to the Garhwali Contingent.He had recognized me.Later during 1971 War, both-prior commencement & end of the War, he had visited us in Chamb Jaurian Sector.He was quite unhappy that we had lost Chamb.
    Later, one fine Sunday morning, while I & my wife were purchaing vegetables at Lower Coonor, lo & behold , it was the Fd Marshall standing next to us also purchaing vegetables.He remembered my first name.Later we were his guests at Stavka on Kotagiri Road.Last I met him was at a Polo Match at New Delhi.
    Well, I was too junior to even possess the temerity to talk about his demeanour & grand style of functioning/dealing with PM or other politicians. He was the SOLDIERS’ GENERAL who defeated death in Burma as his CO pinned his MC on his chest !Gen Jacob cannot reach his stature.
    Possibly,this photograph was clicked near Mandiala Bridge with Gurkha soldiers of 3/8 GR.
    We all know how dangerously he sailed as the Commandant of DSSC!
    Fd Marshall-I salute you.
    RIP

    • Sir,
      Could you please explain why the Indian Army under the commander Lt Gen Sartaj Singh did not launch a counter offensive to cross over to the western bank of Munawar Tawi and wrest Chamb back from the Pakistanis ? In other words, what stopped FM Manekshaw then as the Army Chief from ordering that action ?

      • The reason was that Mandiala North could not be captured by Brigadier Morlin’s Brigade.Had this been accomplished,The story of Chamb would have been different.IAF played a significant role on the mornings of 9/10 December 1971.This prevented enemy tanks crossing the Mannawar- Wali Tawi.The attacking Pakistani GOC had died in a helicopter crash at Chamb. Counterattacks were launched by us at Thako Chak,Raipur & Darh Xgs & defences on the Eastern Bank were strengthened.!
        Had we captured Mandiala North ,then,we would have been in a position to attempt to wrest Chamb !.
        It was Sartaj’s battle as a Corps Cdr.Sam would definitely have ordered to retake Chamb -had 15 Corps delivered !

        • Thank you general for clearing up. But it raises one more point: was Mandiala North in Indian possession before the war broke out in 1971? If so, how it was lost to the Pakis? Why did the Army overlook the defence there ?
          Besides, I have read, that the Pakis used their same plan in 1971 as in 1965 war when they captured Chamb. If that is correct, I would have thought that Army Headquarter would have taken into account that plan to counter adequately Paki’s war strategy for Chamb. Or did the Pakis execute a different strategy to overrun Chamb in 1971? Or did they have better armour and fire power in 1971 to defeat the Indian Army in Chamb ?

          • Mandiala is a large & imposing hill feature divided into Mandiala North & Mandiala South. Mandiala North is the most dominating.We lost Chhamb & that included this dominating feature.That is why Mandiala North had to be recaptured to progress further operations to recapture Chhamb. Pakistan’s attack on Chhamb took Indian Army by total surprise.There was a fierce battle fought by own 191 Infantry Brigade inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy both in men & material.
            It was an intelligence failure as no one ever expected Pakistan Army to repeat 1965 ! You are right, they had not only taken Chhamb but had reached close to Akhnur !
            During 1971 War, Pakistan had employed 4 infantry brigades supported by an armoured brigade & eight artillery regiments.We had one infantry brigade supported by one squadron of tanks West of Mannawar-wali-Tawi.
            In Chhamb Battle, we lost 440 All Ranks while 723 All Ranks were wounded.Enemy’s losses were 1385 Killed & 4130 wounded.Besides Paki’s 28 T-59 , & 8 SHERMAN Tanks were knocked down by us & 12 other Tanks(Unidentified) were damaged.
            I hope it makes everything clear now !

  6. Interesting points raised for further investigation. But, it has been reported sometime ago in Times of India, that Gen Aurora had destroyed some crucial war documents in Fort Williams (Calcutta) relating o 1971 war operations If that is true, it could confirm the validity of what Gen Jacobs had tried to record . In particular, there could have been there the explanations to many questions here including:
    “As to why Sam would by-pass the chain of command and tell Gen Jacob, who was Chief of Staff that Eastern Command should march into East Pakistan and not speak to Lt. Gen Jaggi Aurora, the Army Commander is a little farfetched” .

  7. Gentlemen,specially Prodip both Sam and Jonny were respected and competent soldiers. Let’s not call names like fat slob etc. it doesn’t behove. Of course Sam will remain the ultimate icon of the officer class.

  8. Just one factual mistake. In the Karachi Agreement, the last point demarcated was not NJ 4892 but a village called Khor. After 1971, the line had been moved to Turtok, beyond Khor, so NJ 9842 located on Saltoro Ridge came into the picture.

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