On the map, Bangladesh looks like the head of a female stag with stunted horns pointing towards Siliguri, and its narrow neck is represented by the Agartala bulge. The country is landlocked on three sides: by the Indian states of West Bengal in the west; West Bengal and Meghalaya in the north; Tripura and Mizoram in the east, and Burma in the lower regions opposite Cox’s Bazaar. The southern portion is open to the Bay of Bengal.
Three major rivers flow through Bangladesh, and they are so broad that it is difficult at places to see one bank from the other. Before they empty into the Bay of Bengal, they form vast deltas that run far inland, almost reaching the heart of the country. Most of the inland traffic consists of steamers and boats plying on these rivers, which are dotted with inland ports handling sizable quantities of commercial goods and passenger traffic.
The Brahmaputra, known as the Jamuna in Bangladesh, runs from north to south and divides the country roughly in the middle.
The Brahmaputra, known as the Jamuna in Bangladesh, runs from north to south and divides the country roughly in the middle. The western half is again divided in two at the waist by the Ganga or Padma running northwest to southeast and joining the Jamuna north of Faridpur. The Meghna flows from the northeast parallel to the eastern border with India and joins the Jamuna south of Dacca. Thus Bangladesh is divided by these rivers into four distinct regions or sectors :
(a) Northwestern sector : includes the general areas of Dinajpur, Rangpur and Rajshahi north of the Ganga and west of the Jamuna.
(b) Southwestern sector : includes the general areas of Jessore, Khulna, Faridpur and Kushtia lying south of west of the Ganga and Padma.
(c) Northern sector : covers the general areas of Dacca, Tangail and Mymensingh lying between the Jamuna and the Meghna.
(d) Eastern sector : lies east of the Meghna and includes the general areas of Sylhet, Comilla and Chittagong.
With the exception of the Chittagong Hill Tracts and Sylhet, the countryside is generally flat and lowlying paddy land, waterlogged and intersected by numerous rivers and rivulets. The southern regions are covered by a large number of hills or lakes and swamps. The monsoon breaks in full force by the middle of May and runs into the first week of October. The main crops are paddy and jute.
Bridging these mighty rivers would call for great engineering skill and effort.
The road and rail systems generally run north to south between the rivers and serve the main towns. A peculiar feature common to both are the numerous ferries linking various segments. Bridging these mighty rivers would call for great engineering skill and effort. Only two rail and road bridges existed for trans-sector traffic, Hardinge Bridge joining the northwestern and southwestern sectors near Ishurdi and Pabna, and the Bhairab Bazaar bridge connecting the northern and eastern sectors near Ashuganj.
There were a few arterial roads and a number of subsidiary ones, both metalled and unmetalled. Much of the surface communication was by inland water transport. The airport for international traffic was at Dacca, which was connected with other sectors by subsidiary airfields near the main urban centres. These fields were fit for short-landing aircraft and were well served by the internal flights of Pakistan International Airlines.
Much of the surface communication was by inland water transport.
The lowlying countryside, heavy monsoon rains, paucity of surface communications and mighty rivers combined to make Bangladesh a military planner’s nightmare. The Indian Army’s advance in this terrain, especially in the context of a short and swift campaign, needed vast engineering resources in the way of bridging equipment, assault and river craft and other requirements which could not be mustered even by pooling the entire country’s resources. Those who had fought in Burma in World War II knew the problems of fighting in lowlying paddy land, and as a result of this doubted our chances of quick success in the quagmire of Bangladesh.
From the early 1960s, the Indian high command had been forced to have contingency plans for defence against Pakistan in the west and east and against China in the north. On account of China’s active political support to Pakistan, the spectre of having to fight on three fronts had always been present. The Chinese did not come in on Pakistan’s side in the 1965 Indo-Pak hostilities, but they issued an ultimatum and we were forced to retain almost all our troops facing them in their operational locations.1 A similar situation now faced the country, except that we would have preferred to localise the hostilities to Bangladesh. The military planners had therefore to think how best we could achieve our aims within the resources available.
The lowlying countryside, heavy monsoon rains, paucity of surface communications and mighty rivers combined to make Bangladesh a military planners nightmare.
It would be worthwhile here to take a look at India’s strength vis-a-vis its potential enemy. In the west, Pakistan had about ten infantry and two armoured divisions, two independent armoured brigades, two artillery brigades, two independent infantry brigades and a couple of armoured regiments. The infantry divisions included the two being raised to replace 9 and 16 Divisions sent out to reinforce their Eastern Command in Bangladesh. Against this, India had 12 infantry divisions, one armoured division, three artillery brigades, two independent infantry brigades, two armoured brigades and one independent para brigade. Thus India had a marginal advantage in infantry, but this was offset by Pakistan’s edge in armour.
India could muster about seven infantry divisions against East Pakistan. One of these had been originally earmarked for the contingency plan in East Pakistan, two divisions had been taken off counter-insurgency operations in Nagaland and Mizoram, three taken from reserves located in the Siliguri corridor against the Chinese, and one brought from the UP-Tibet border, accepting risk in the region. But this division was not to be committed in depth in Bangladesh so that it could be moved back quickly in case of a hostile Chinese reaction. In armour, India had three regiments, two independent squadrons and an APC battalion against Pakistan’s one armoured regiment and a couple of independent squadrons. Our superiority in ground forces over Pakistan was not overwhelming enough for the nvisaged speed of operations. Only audacity in planning and boldness in execution would clinch the issue.
In the air, India had a total of 45 squadrons in all of combat and transport aircraft against Pakistan’s 13 compared with 34 and 12 respectively in 1965. The Indian Air Force had replaced most of its vintage Vampires, Toofanis and Mysteres with the Russian built SU-7. It had also gone in for the MIG-21, now being assembled in the country,2 while Pakistan had acquired the Chinese-made Mig-19, somewhat inferior in performance to Mig-21. On the other hand, Pakistan had in service 24 Mirages which were superior in performance to any Indian aircraft.3 Both sides were however weak in deep-penetration bombing capacity and were numerically at near parity as in 1965.
The Chinese did not come in on Pakistans side in the 1965 Indo-Pak hostilities, but they issued an ultimatum and we were forced to retain almost all our troops facing them in their operational locations.
After the Chinese invasion in 1962, India had improved its early warning radar system with the help of US military aid, but this was abruptly cut off after the conflict in 1965. The project was however continued with help from other sources and with indigenous production. By the time operations started in 1971, considerable progress had been made in improving the system. The western theatre from Kashmir to the Arabian Sea, apart from the mountainous section, was adequately covered, but the eastern theatre, especially in the context of war in East Pakistan, was rather neglected. Nobody had taken a war in this region seriously, and as such this aspect of the warning system had received low priority.
In naval power, India had an edge over Pakistan in conventional warships like cruisers, destroyers and frigates besides an aircraft carrier. But these vessels were mostly obsolescent and not fit for fast manoeuvre. In fact, the aircraft carrier was chugging along at the time on only one boiler. The fleet’s overall performance had however been improved vastly through better organisation and the creation of western and eastern wings under separate naval command headquarters.
The navy’s strike capability was further increased by procuring missile boats from the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Pakistan had gone in for submarines of the Daphne and Midget class, hoping thus to neutralise India’s naval strength through underwater operations.4
- On 19 September 1965, in a note handed on behalf of the Chinese Foreign Ministry to the Indian Charge d’Affaires, J.S. Mehta, in Peking, the Chinese Government extended to the midnight of 22 September, the deadline of its ultimatum to India for dismantling military structures which it alleged had been built on the Chinese side of the Sino-Sikkim border.
- The MIG division in Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd took steps in 1971 to manufacture under licence a modified version of the Mig-21 with an eye to improved performance.
- Asian Recorder, Vol XVIII, No .1, p. 10537, “Strength of Pakistan Air Force, an Indian Assessment.”
- Daphne class submarines, spareparts for torpedoes, tank and artillery ammunition were supplied by France to Pakistan. This was revealed by Mr SC Shukla, Minister of State for Defence Production, in the Rajya Sabha on 4 August 1971.
Before the war, the Indian Navy had found an answer to the Pakistani submarine menace by obtaining British Sea King helicopters which could operate from shore bases as well as from ships at sea. In addition, maritime reconnaissance was better organised by equipping the old Constellations with a more sophisticated radar system under Maritime Headquarters established by the IAF in Bombay.
Traditionally Pakistan had one infantry division of four brigades deployed in East Pakistan. After the events of March 1971, as described earlier, this force was built up to a strength of about four divisions comprising some 35 regular infantry battalions, seven wings of paramilitary forces brought in from West Pakistan, 17 wings of the locally raised East Pakistan Civil Armed Forces, some sub-units of the industrial security force, and a large number of Mujahids and Razakars.
Traditionally Pakistan had one infantry division of four brigades deployed in East Pakistan.
The artillery was limited to six field regiments and some independent mortar and field batteries which could be augmented from the artillery element left behind by the divisions hurriedly flown in from the western wing. Armour consisted mainly of about one regiment of Chaffee tanks, one independent Chaffee squadron, and one ad hoc squadron of Chaffee and PT-76 tanks. The few PT-76 tanks in service had been captured by the Pakistani Army in the conflict of 1965 in the Khemkaran sector, where India had destroyed or captured about a regiment worth of brand new Patton tanks.
As regards airpower, Pakistan had some 20 to 25 Sabrejet fighters in Bangladesh and a few helicopters for intercommunication flights. An unspecified, but substantially large, number of gun-boats, some of them improvised, were operating both in the coastal and inland waters.
An unspecified, but substantially large, number of gun-boats, some of them improvised, were operating both in the coastal and inland waters.
Initially, the Pakistani high command had develoyed its forces purely for internal security and counter-insurgency operations in widely sprea d penny packets. As the insurgency progressively intensified, the locations and groupings continued to alter to meet the changing circumstances. But in formulating the plan it was appreciated that in the event of a full-fledged war, the Pakistani Army’s sectorwise allocation of troops was likely to conform to the following pattern :
(a) Northwestern sector : the horn jutting out of this sector pointed towards Siliguri and provided easy access for closing the Siliguri-Gauhati corridor as well as a linkup with the Chinese. The ground was firmer than in the other sectors and would facilitate the use of armour. Pakistan was likely to allocate to it an infantry division with a regiment of armour and about two field regiments. One brigade was likely to cover the areas of Dinajpur and Rangpur, the second would look after the Hilli-Ghoraghat waistline and the third would guard Raj shahi and Naogaon. If the Chinese coalition was not forthcoming, Pakistan might consider thinning out this sector to one infantry group of four or five battalions and using the remainder of the division elsewhere for offensive or defensive tasks, particularly in the sector southwest of Dacca.
(b) Southwestern sector : This was likely to be held with one infantry division of three to four brigades, with a brigade each in the general areas of Khulna, Jessore, Kushtia, and Jhenida or Megura. From here Pakistan could develop a thrust towards Calcutta. Although such a move had no chance of success as India had already moved an infantry division to counter it, this area was close to Calcutta, and even a temporary intrusion could induce serious repercussions in India.
To make sure that India could not concentrate overwhelming superiority against East Pakistan, Yahya Khan had to ensure that any largescale operations by the Indian Army against that wing would be countered with an attack in the west.
(c) Eastern sector : We expected this area to be held with one or two divisions, with a brigade each at Sylhet, Brahmanbaria, Comilla, Feni and Chittagong. It was very thinly held by India, and if Pakistan struck northeast or east at the soft belly of Meghalaya or Assam, or the still softer flank of Tripura, it could disrupt the only road from Silchar to Agartala, running parallel to, and at places within field gun range of, the international border.
(d) Northern sector : One brigade was expected to be deployed in the general area of Jamalpur and Mymensingh.
We felt that Pakistan would initially have about a brigade defending Dacca, with a contingency plan for pulling back two or three brigades from any of these sectors to a depth defence of the city, depending upon the tactical situation.
The strategic options open to Pakistan were limited. To make sure that India could not concentrate overwhelming superiority against East Pakistan, Yahya Khan had to ensure that any largescale operations by the Indian Army against that wing would be countered with an attack in the west. Pakistan could not thus afford to reinforce the eastern wing more than had already been done. As it was, Yahya Khan had depleted his strike forces in the western wing to send two urgently needed divisions to the east. Although raising had started to make up the loss, it would take about six months to make the new division battleworthy. On the other hand, there was the possibility of raising a fourth division by using unaffiliated formations and units. This the Pakistani high command began to do.
Yahya Khan’s next best bet was to bring China openly into the conflict so that the Indian Army would be unable to attain the required superiority in East Pakistan. Pakistan strove hard to do this right up to the end of hostilities. Yahya Khan made full use of Bhutto’s diplomacy by rushing him to see Chou En-lai as late as November 1971. Evidently nothing substantial materialised except a promise for Pakistan and admonishment to India. But at the time our plans were being formulated collusion between Pakistan and China could not be ruled out. As such, borrowing formations from the holding force against China had to be very judiciously executed, both in terms of quantity and time.
Another option for Yahya Khan was to stabilise East Pakistan politically by creating even a faked normalcy so that India would find it difficult to justify military intervention. The refugee problem could be underplayed through suitable propaganda and adroit diplomacy, especially in international forums. But the ever-growing strength of the Mukti Bahini and the failure of Tikka Khan’s measures combined to thwart this design.
We felt that Pakistan would initially have about a brigade defending Dacca, with a contingency plan for pulling back two or three brigades from any of these sectors to a depth defence of the city, depending upon the tactical situation.
Yahya Khan had a valid reason for crossing the international border in the eastern wing in pursuit of the guerillas as well as to overrun their bases in India about the end of May and, if opportune, to enlarge the conflict into a full-fledged war by hitting India also in the west. That was India’s worst hour : its reserve formations were in the hinterland; it had serious shortfalls of war material, and the Indian soldier and civilian were not mentally attuned to immediate war. If Yahya Khan had struck at that time, he could have gained profitable objectives both in the western and eastern theatres before the onset of the monsoon.
By the time India could have fully geared up its war machine for battle, the quagmire of mud in both theatres would have negated the development of its full war potential. Pakistan could hold on to its hastily won territory during the stalemate of the rains. Meanwhile, it could strive to generate international pressure against India so as to effect a ceasefire and a political settlement suited to its interests before the monsoon lifted and the terrain permitted the resumption of military operations.
Yahya Khan however slipped up on this very feasible option, perhaps because of his belief in Tikka Khan’s ability to suppress the Bengali insurgency and bring back normalcy so that India would have no excuse to intervene. Perhaps his fears of the inadequacy of Pakistan’s own military preparedness for such lightning action in the west, especially after having lost two divisions of its strike force, influenced his judgment. Yahya Khan thus lost the opportunity of a lifetime.
After the monsoon, he expected Indian intervention in Bangladesh in support of the Mukti Bahini. By then, Pakistani diplomacy had b: en sufficiently active to gauge how much help would be forthcoming, and from what quarters, except perhaps the inscrutable Chinese. He had decided in case of a conflict in East Pakistan to escalate the war to embrace the western wing and resist the Indian and Bangladeshi forces long enough to bring about the end of hostilities under international pressure without losing any vital objective. Loss of a little unprofitable peripheral territory was acceptable as this could be negotiated for Indian territory that might be captured in the west.
In any event, Yahya Khan and his associates felt that India would be content with limited gains of territory, with the sole aim of establishing a provisional Bangladesh government in East Pakistan. Should he fail in both his estimate of India’s war aims and military capability, and should the war not be halted in time, Yahya Khan felt that Niazi would be able to carry out an organised withdrawal, combined with a scorched-earth policy, in the direction of the ports of Chittagong and Khulna, from where the Pakistani forces in Bangladesh could be evacuated to the western wing with the help of the navies and merchant shipping of friendly nations. If East Pakistan was lost, at least the four divisions there would be back home to fight another day.
Loss of a little unprofitable peripheral territory was acceptable as this could be negotiated for Indian territory that might be captured in the west.
India’s planners had to find answers to all the military contingencies emanating from Yahya Khan’s options and evolve a plan that would thwart Niazi’s efforts to implement these concepts. Many claimed authorship of the plan for the liberation of Bangladesh after it resulted in a resounding victory. Truly, victory has many fathers but defeat is an orphan. So was the case with this plan. To set the record right, it can be said with all the emphasis it deserves that the master plan was evolved by Lt Gen K. K. Singh, then Director of Military Operations at Army Headquarters. It went through many changes as a result of the alteration in the parameters of the original premises because of the developing situations. But then all good plans should have the flexibility to withstand reviews on feedbacks, and this one stood the test well. Others also certainly contributed to its progressive betterment.
Although Manekshaw was known for his sentimental leanings towards his old associates and liked to gather them around himself, he was a shrewd judge of professional ability. He was quick to spot talent and used it effectively. One such find was KK Singh. An Armoured Corps officer with outstanding professional ability and battle experience, he had gone in 1962 to NEFA with Lt Gen B. M. Kaul to serve as his Brigadier General Staff and stayed on with Manekshaw when he took over the corps from the much humbled kaul.
If East Pakistan was lost, at least the four divisions there would be back home to fight another day.
A quiet, over the corps from the much humbled unassuming man, austere in living and moderate in habits, he was a thorough professional and a patriot, seemingly living only to further national interests. He preferred to lead by peruasion and the example of his tireless devotion to duty.
The Chief had implicit faith in K.K. and this faith could not have been better justified as he was one of the best conceptual brains of his time on the wider horizons of national strategy and the lower domain of tactics. In addition, he was perhaps the only officer, with the exception of his successor Inder Gill, who could stand up to a towering personality like Manekshaw and tell him what was right for the nation and the services.
A quiet, over the corps from the much humbled unassuming man, austere in living and moderate in habits, he was a thorough professional and a patriot, seemingly living only to further national interests.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, could deter K. K. from speaking out his mind or putting his views on paper. And no pressures, however great, could deflect him from the right path. It was the Chief’s practice to call K.K. to his office or walk straight to K.K. whenever some issue, operational or otherwise, was in his mind. K.K. would listen attentively, and in his characteristic quiet style undertake to get it examined in depth before commiting the Chief to a particular course of action. K.K’s examination in depth meant dissecting issues threadbare from all conceivable angles. After sifting the wheat from the chaff, he would present the various options with firm recommendations for a particular course of action.
In his examination, he encouraged his team to air their views frankly and picked up the pearls wherever they could be found. Although he did not show it, he found ‘yesmen’ and conformists irksome. He valued original, but solid, military thought wherever he saw it. Such was the man who led the team that formulated the plan for liberating Bangladesh. Needless to say, the plan went through Matnekshaw’s close scrutiny before it was accepted. This scrutiny lasted several sittings, punctuated by occasional excursions for golf by K. K. much to the Chief’s annoyance.
The first consideration confronting the planners was to work out the miximum quantity of resources of troops and equipment which could be mustered within the time frame of a short war of about three weeks duration to liberate Bangladesh. On these resources depended the aim and objectives of the plan, as also the scope of the military operations. The traditional contingency plan for East Pakistan had the limited aim of ensuring the security of Calcutta and the Siliguri corridor. For this, 9 Infantry Division, located in the Ranchi complex, was earmarked along with some brigades of 20 Mountain Division located within the corridor, in case they were not already committed against the Chinese.
In addition, he was perhaps the only officer, with the exception of his successor Inder Gill, who could stand up to a towering personality like Manekshaw and tell him what was right for the nation and the services.
To contend with a buildup of some four divisions by Pakistan, it was necessary to concentrate about seven or eight divisions if the campaign was to make any headway. From the reserves earmarked for employment in case of a Chinese attack, 4, 20 and 23 Mountain Divisions were selected with the proviso that at least two of them would go back to face the Chinese should they decide to enter the fray. But this was to be done only if the holding forces suffered a serious setback and restoring the status quo on the northern border became absolutely necessary.
Two other mountain divisions, 8 and 57, occupied with counter-insurgency operations in Mizoram and Nagaland, were also to be employed for the liberation. Of the six brigades of 8 Mountain Division, two were to form an integral part of the Division, one was to be left behind in Nagaland, and two others were to function independently. The Mizoram counter-insurgency operations were to be handed over to two infantry battalions raised for the purpose so as to spare the entire 57 Mountain Division for the campaign. An independent brigade originally chosen as a reserve for Rajasthan was also allotted to Bangladesh.
Some risks were accepted in partially denuding the UP-Tibet border in the central sector by moving 6 Mountain Division and leaving only one brigade group behind to carry out the original role. 50 Independent Para Brigade, an Army Headquarters reserve, was also allotted to Bangladesh. Thus it was considered feasible to muster a strength of seven to eight divisions without upsetting the strategic balance in relation to Pakistan, but with some reservations with regard to China.
This scrutiny lasted several sittings, punctuated by occasional excursions for golf by K. K. much to the Chiefs annoyance.
In the way of armour, it was possible to gather about three regiments, out of which one was equipped with T-55s and another with PT-76s, and the third a collection of three independent squadrons with AMX-13 tanks and Ferret scoutcars.
There was an overall shortage of artillery. The six brigades of 8 Mountain Division operating in Nagaland did not have a single a rtillery unit. 57 Mountain Division, a newly raised formation, had a reduced artillery complement. Except 9 Infantry Division, all the other formations participating in the offensive operations were w mountain units equipped with guns with smaller range and lighter in eight of shell. Some calculated risks had to be accepted by moving artillery units from the holding force on the northern border to make up the shortfall. Two medium regiments were also nominated from outside Eastern Command to augment firepower. The availble resources needed to be rationalised to provide balanced support to all formations.
With the intensification of Mukti Bahini operations in the border areas and limited incursions by it in the way of raids and forays inside East Pakistan, the Pakistani forces were drawn more and more towards the peripheral areas As a result, a wide dispersion in their deployment became apparent. The detailed Pakistani order of battle and locations down to infantry battalions became available. The intelligence agencies had considerably improved in their functions with the abundance of sources provided by the Mukti Bahini and the refugees pouring in across the border.
- The operations of Mukti Bahini had by the end of September 1971 intensified considerably and scored success against isolated garrisons and patrols of the enemy. Their sanctuaries, where they went into hiding and sought training, were strung out along the whole border with India.