Many are of the opinion that the year 1971 was the most glorious year of the Republic with a focused government in operation, well-thought out plan, adjusting admirably to the unfolding of events during the year and crafting out a visionary goal with a sure instinct.
The real casualty of the 1971 War was the two nation theory which had led to the birth to Pakistan.
As the year dawned, the creation of Bangladesh was in nobody’s sights, either in India or in Pakistan. Yet going by the dynamics of history, there was a certain inevitability about it. Creating a country in 1947 in two parts located a thousand miles apart with no commonality in language and culture, was a monstrosity which was bound to unravel on its own. India did play an important role in the process, a role which crystalised on the basis of day to day assessments and co-ordination of efforts of different members of a policy advising politburo, the kind of which had not existed before nor surfaced since.
In the earliest conceptualisation of Pakistan, East Bengal or its interests had found no role. No letter in the name of ‘Pakistan’ had a reference to Bengal. The Muslim League, which grew into a significant Muslim mass movement during the period of the Raj, had been born in Dacca in 1906, but had taken shape in the Eastern belt of India and was principally ruled by non-Bengali personalities with rare exceptions. With the Partition in 1947, a vast majority of non-Bengali Muslims migrated to West Pakistan and not to East Pakistan. The underlying reason was that such migrants did not identify the East Bengal with the idea of Pakistan.
The top honours were truly deserved by the Indian Intelligence which provided invaluable inputs.
Jinnah’s purpose in including East Bengal in his concept of Pakistan was to create an entity with a sizeable Muslim population that could demographically offset India with its large Hindu majority. Otherwise, constituting this geographical freak had no strategic, economic or cultural rationale. Pakistan had to continually pay a price for this unnatural unity. While on the one hand, there was increasing dissatisfaction amongst the people of East Pakistan, on the other, the effort to deal with East Pakistani extracted a heavy toll on Pakistan’s energy, resources, time and development.
From 1947 till 1971, no acceptable solution to address the concerns each wing of Pakistan had regarding the other, could be worked out. West Pakistan had begun to look upon the Eastern wing as a colony and hardly considered its inhabitants as equal citizens of Pakistan. Culturally too, the strong Hindu influence came in the way of them being regarded as true Muslims. East Bengal’s aversion began with the language issue, moving on to demand for autonomy, then greater autonomy and finally with secession and independence.
The creation of Bangladesh was in nobody’s sights, either in India or in Pakistan.
General Elections held in December 1970 proved to be a watershed for the national legislature in Pakistan. The East Pakistani Bengali party, Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, secured a clear majority with 160 seats in the house of 400, whereas the party winning the largest number of seats in West Pakistan was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party that won 81. The results entitled Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan, a prospect totally repugnant to the West Pakistani elite, the Armed Forces as well as the political parties. Mujib was willing to accept a confederal status but Bhutto was unwilling.
The Pakistani authorities sought to solve the impasse through a military crackdown which commenced on the midnight of March 25, 1971. The Punjabi and Pathan troops engaged in an unimaginably savage butchery of the Bengali population, which was regarded as alien, low and unsavory. In acts of savagery that shocked the world, they targeted elite Bengali professionals, students, Awami League workers and politicians and police killing them in thousands. About ten lakh refugees streamed into West Bengal and were housed in camps.
The crackdown was the spark transforming Bengali radicalism into an open rebellion against the Pakistani State. Total independence from Pakistan now became the unified aim of all Bengalis of East Pakistan. Bengali soldiers and officers of the Pakistan army revolted. Bengali diplomats serving in Pakistani missions abroad defected. Pakistani brutality in East Pakistan touched new heights. Urdu speaking civilians became Razakars. Members of an extremist Sunni organisation, Al Badar joined hands with Pakistani soldiery to kill and maim the defenceless Bengalis. The misery of East Bengal was compounded by the visitation of a cyclone during this period. Some observers have placed the loss of life due to the cyclone and Pakistani repression at nearly a million.
The General Elections in December 1970 proved to be a watershed for the national legislature in Pakistan.
Such was the backdrop of events when the Awami League leaders, who had escaped to Kolkata, appealed to the Government of India to step in and check the Pakistani campaign of atrocities against the Bengalis in East Pakistan. By then, Mujibur Rahman had already been arrested and incarcerated in West Pakistan.
Never having faced a situation of this kind before, India had no precedent to go by. The Indian Army was clearly not prepared for such a situation. Foreign governments that were contacted for possible assistance were sympathetic towards the travails of East Pakistanis but were unable to render any help.
India understood then that if succour had to be provided to East Pakistan, it would have to be from her side. Thus began the planning to figure out the response to the growing crisis next door which had resulted in an influx of refugees into West Bengal.
One of the earliest and most significant steps was to set up a brain trust comprising secretaries to the PM, R&AW, defence, external affairs and the Chief of Army Staff. This body functioned effectively both as a National Intelligence Coordinator and a National Security Advisor. In its former capacity, it coordinated the evolution of scenarios on the basis of an action-oriented, analytical approach and aggregates of data, identified gaps in intelligence, material and equipment, and adopted measures to eliminate those. In the latter role, it provided strategic policy options to the Prime Minister and suggested a road map for diplomatic action. In the wake of diplomatic initiatives followed the Treaty of Friendship and Security with the Soviet Union which provided a strategic cover to India. Much of the vast and complex burden that remained fell on Intelligence.
Pakistan had to continually pay a price for this unnatural unity.
Meanwhile, the Bengali leadership that had sought refuge in India declared complete independence from Pakistan for East Pakistan and formed a government in exile located near Kolkata. A radio station was also set up to broadcast messages to the masses in East Pakistan. Intelligence was responsible for the micro as well as the macro management of this enterprise. The government in exile was successful in raising the tempo of resistance among Bengalis against Pakistan through broadcasts and other means. It was evident to the Intelligence that the turn of events in East Pakistan was demoralising the Pakistani authorities in Islamabad and a surprise sneak attack on the Western borders of India, to distract attention from East Pakistan and to compel immediate intervention by the UN to freeze the situation in favour of the earlier status quo, could be in the offing. Their new tasks then became identifying the signs of war preparations in West Pakistan.
The misery of East Bengal was compounded by the visitation of a cyclone during this period.
A large number of tell-tale signs were discovered which confirmed that a war was actually a “work in process” in Pakistan. It was found that the 9 Infantry Division of the Pakistan Army was being moved to East Pakistan by sea. A new division, 17 Division, was being raised to augment the military strength. A regiment of T54 Russian tanks had been moved towards Chhamb near Jammu. One infantry battalion along with a regiment of M48 tanks had been moved to Longewala for infiltration across the Rajasthan border. A heavy concentration of armoured and infantry troops was taking place around Multan for deployment towards the Indian border. War stores were being collected in the forest areas near Lahore. Chaffee tanks had been transported to the East. The Pakistani submarine Ghazi had moved out of its base in Karachi towards the Bay of Bengal. Although the authenticity of some information was questioned by a few of the recipients in the Indian military establishment, it stood tested and confirmed subsequently on the battle ground.
Some time around the midnight of November 30, 1971, Intelligence woke up the three Service Chiefs and alerted them that the Pakistani Air Force was going to mount air raids on the forward Indian air bases within the next 72 hours. The air raids took place on December 03, 1971 but the response of the alert Indian forces took a heavy toll on the raiders. With these attacks, the 1971 War had begun. Pakistani tanks and infantry also moved forward in the Longewala and Chhamb sectors. The Pakistani armoured regiment of Patton tanks was completely decimated by the Indian troops in Longewala. The stores dumped in the forest areas near Lahore were totally bombed out and burnt.
The real casualty of the 1971 War was the two nation theory which had led to the birth to Pakistan – a process accompanied by horrendous carnage at Partition.
With the commencement of the war, Indian troops moved into East Pakistan from all three sides of the land border. A debate arose whether their priority objective should be capture of Dacca or the countryside where the government in exile of the newly proclaimed Bangladesh could be located. As the Western powers by now were active in the UN for a ceasefire, all on the Indian side wanted the government in exile to be installed as soon as possible in Dacca. The Indian troops, therefore, kept pushing towards Dacca ending their offensive on December 16, 1971, with the unconditional surrender of the Pakistani Commander and his garrisons. Dacca now had its own government of a free Bangladesh.
If Kargil 1999 later became the scene of the most valorous acts of the Indian armed forces ever, Bangladesh 1971 stood out as the most successful Indian operation in which the military had moved with utmost dedication, single mindedness and patriotism to achieve the set targets. The nation felt proud of their glorious performance.
No less was the contribution of diplomacy and intelligence. Diplomacy ably thwarted the designs of the meddling and unfriendly powers to put spokes in the wheels of the Indian enterprise. However, the top honours were truly deserved by the Indian Intelligence which provided invaluable and substantial inputs on the basis of which advance warnings were issued and military campaigning was planned. They also took care with great tact and vision the intricate management of the Bangladeshi leadership, defectors and their requirements till Dacca was rid of the Pakistanis. Credit must go to the political leadership of the day that remained unfazed by the threats of intervention by certain global powers in favour of Pakistan.
The real casualty of the 1971 War was the two nation theory which had led to the birth to Pakistan – a process accompanied by horrendous carnage at Partition. The destruction of the theory was equally attended by the multiple loss of life, eventually ending in the emancipation of the new national identity of Bangladesh. The second casualty was the demolition of the concept of Islamic nationalism as a premise for nationhood – an aspect that has not as yet received the attention it deserves from research scholars.