Military & Aerospace

1971: Making Bangladesh a reality - I
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Issue Book Excerpt: Indian Army After Independence | Date : 16 Dec , 2012

The Indian cabinet met on 28 April 1971. General Manekshaw was told to attend the meeting as he was Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Without much ado, he was told to take charge of the situation. When he asked what was actually required, he was told: “Go into East Pakistan”. He pointed out that this would mean war. ‘We don’t mind it,’ was the reply.1

Till the middle of April the Army had not even been told of the BSF­ backed Mukti Bahini operations. Manekshaw now explained that war was not something one started casually. No plans had yet been made and a good deal of preparation was necessary. Even the time was not opportune. A war with Pakistan now would mean fighting on two fronts – in Bengal and in Punjab and possibly on a third front, if the Chinese decided to intervene. This was harvest-time in Punjab and if the troops moved forward at this juncture, it would not be possible to reap the harvest. This would mean famine in the land. Also, the Himalayan passes would soon open and the Chinese might give an ultimatum, as they did in 1965. That would make it impossible for him to pull out any troops facing the Chinese for operations in East Pakistan.

Manekshaw also pointed out that the monsoon broke in the Eastern region in the middle of May; thereafter, till late autumn, Bangladesh would be one big marsh. Confined to the roads, the Indian Army could be stopped easily. There were three divisions in West Bengal at the time. They had been split into penny packets to maintain peace in the state and were without their heavy weapons. To collect these divisions and to train them for operations would take some months. His most telling argument was in respect of India’s only armoured division. Most of its armour was unfit for operations due to the lack of spare parts, for which the Finance Ministry had till then refused funds. He finally said: “I guarantee you hundred per cent defeat if you want to go in now”.

The target set by Manekshaw was to train and equip three brigade groups of regular Bangladesh troops, organized to function independently.

Mrs Gandhi dismissed the meeting but asked Manekshaw to stay back. Left alone with her, he straightaway offered to resign on some pretext if that suited her. But it was not his resignation that the Prime Minister wanted. What she did not like was the Chief’s blunt manner. “Well, it is my job as your Army Chief to put the facts before you,” Manekshaw told her. Then he added: “If your father had had me as his Chief and not General Thapar he wouldn’t have been shamed in 1962”.

The upshot of the meeting was that planning and preparation began for a possible operation in East Pakistan in case further diplomatic efforts failed to solve the refugee problem. The task of training and guiding the Mukti Bahini was also taken over by the Army, though the latter was not to enter East Pakistan. The target set by Manekshaw was to train and equip three brigade groups of regular Bangladesh troops, organized to function independently. Their main content would be the personnel of the East Bengal Regiment, the shortfall being made up by men from the East Pakistan Rifles. At the same time, about 70,000-80,000 guerrillas were to be trained and equipped. Their training, which till then had been sketchy, was to be improved. Recruits for the guerrilla force were to be found from among the young able-bodied refugees as also the ranks of the East Pakistan Rifles.

Manekshaw wanted a quick, decisive campaign that would be over before any outside intervention could materialize. Towards this end, he planned multi-pronged thrusts from the East, North and West; the Navy would blockade the province’s ports and the Air Force would destroy or ground the enemy Air Force. It was foreseen that Pakistan would attack in Punjab; and possibly in Kashmir also, in case India launched large-scale operations against East Pakistan. However, offence being the best form of defence, it was decided that in that theatre also a posture of offensive­defence would be maintained; a limited campaign formed part of it.

Auroras commitment was the defence of the borders and counter-insurgency operations in Nagaland and Mizoram.

Lieutenant General Jagjit Singh Aurora was the GOC-in-Chief Eastern Command at this time. As such, the task of detailed planning and preparation for operations in East Pakistan, as also the Mukti Bahini commitment, fell to him. A quiet but confident Commander, Aurora had taken over Eastern Command in June 1969 from Manekshaw. He belonged to the 2nd Punjab Group and had commanded its 1st Parachute Battalion with distinction in the Jammu & Kashmir operations of 1948, where he also commanded 19 Infantry Brigade during the Punch link-up. A cautious and careful man, he believed in facing a given situation after due thought and preparation. Once the ball was set rolling, he led the team with vigour.

Eastern Command, with Headquarters at Fort William (Calcutta), was responsible for the whole of North-East India. It had two corps under it: 4 Corps and 33 Corps (for total force levels on both sides, see Appendix 2). Aurora’s commitment was the defence of the borders and counter-insurgency operations in Nagaland and Mizoram. His troops were, however, equipped and trained for warfare in mountainous areas, except for the division responsible for the defence of West Bengal. Thus, except for this division, his formations had very little armour and their artillery consised mostly of towed mountain guns, which were too light to be effective against well-prepared defences. Moreover, the troops on counter-insurgency role had no artillery at all. Also, large quantities of bridging and river-crossing equipment would be needed for the operations in East Pakistan.

Aurora saw that his biggest difficulty would be in regard to the bases for launching the operations, particularly in the Tripura and Meghalaya regions, which had hardly any roads at the time. The airfields in the area would also need improvement. The work of building the essential roads, and the improvement of airfields was taken in hand straightaway; it continued through the rainy season. Aurora estimated that he would need eight divisions for the task. However, while allocating troops and equipment to Eastern Command, Manekshaw had to strike a balance between the requirements of the two theatres. He gave Aurora the bridging and river-crossing equipment, the artillery and the armour that he needed. In infantry, Aurora got his eight divisions but in equivalents: a number of ad hoc brigade-sized forces were raised and given over to him.

A serious snag in the scheme was the likelihood of intervention by China. Some degree of insurance against this eventuality was achieved when, on 9 August, India signed a treaty of friendship and co-operation with the USSR. The treaty catered for mutual consultations in case of aggression or a threat of it. All the same, Aurora had to be very careful in the use of formations normally committed to the defence of the Northern borders. It was after a good deal of changing and chopping that he was able to muster the requisite forces. For the effective control of operations he was given a third Corps Headquarters. This was done by raising Headquarters 2 Corps early in October.

…on 9 August, India signed a treaty of friendship and co-operation with the USSR. The treaty catered for mutual consultations in case of aggression or a threat of it.

The Bangladesh assignment would commit the Indian Army for the first time since Independence to large-scale operations on two fronts which were 1,600 kilometres apart. It would be an all-out war. As Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, the task of co-ordinating the aspects that concerned all three Services fell to Manekshaw. With his knack for evoking a team spirit among those who worked with him, he got the unstinted co-operation of the other Chiefs: Admiral S.M. Nanda and Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal.

Besides inter-service co-ordination, Manekshaw had the gigantic job of co-ordinating the planning and preparation within the Army, as also with the civil authorities concerned. The personal prestige that he had built up over the years and his rapport with the Prime Minister helped him immensely in orchestrating various organs of the Government towards the common national goal. Manekshaw worked in close concert with D.P. Dhar, Chairman of the Policy Planning Committee of the Ministry of External Affairs. This enabled him to cut through the red tape. Reminiscing about this period, Manekshaw said:

“I got everything I wanted. I got the money. I went to the Soviet Union and got Soviet tanks; went elsewhere, got the equipment I wanted much against the wishes of the bureaucracy; they don’t like such things coming into the hands of the Service Chief, especially a Service Chief who took no notice of them. It was all done against their opposition but I had the Prime Minister’s support. She knew what the aim was and she understood that this man would carry it out”.2

I must make a mention here of the tremendous spade-work done by the staff at Army Headquarters and lower formations to get ready for the eventuality of war. A scheme for the reorganization and re-equipment of the Army, specially affecting the Armoured Corps and Artillery, was under way at this time. Many units were under-strength, besides being deficient in equipment. The reorganization and re-equipment was completed in record time and a crash programme taken in hand at regimental and corps centres to turn out combat soldiers by cutting down the training period.The lessons of 1965 were not ignored. The annual turnover programme of units was held in abeyance. Reservists were called up for training before the monsoon and were kept on till after the war. Leave was restricted to keep units at a reasonable level in preparedness. Deficiencies in the officer cadre were made up by pruning the staff at Army Headquarters and other static Formation Headquarters. Courses of instruction for officers were cancelled and a scheme was drawn up to utilize the instructional staff at officer training establishments and the students at the National Defence College. Territorial Army units were embodied and made effective well before the commencement of hostilities. Several measures were effected to improve the jawans’ morale. These included better financial assistance to the dependents of battle casualties.

While these preparations were under way, the Indian Government did all that was possible to solve the refugee problem by peaceful means. It gave wide publicity abroad, through diplomatic missions and special delegations, to the colossal problem that the refugees posed for the country. These efforts brought much sympathy but no practical help for sending them back to their homes. As a last resort, Mrs Indira Gandhi undertook two tours abroad to personally brief the heads of government of important countries. She went to the Soviet Union towards the end of September. Her visit to countries of the Western bloc – Belgium, Austria, the United States, the United Kingdom, France and West Germany – was undertaken from 23 October to 13 November. However, the effort brought no tangible results.

Besides the Mukti Bahini, there were several independent guerrilla groups within East Pakistan. Prominent among these were the Qadir Bahini and the Mujib Bahini.

The United States could have played a crucial role in defusing the situation in the sub-continent. It could have used its immense influence to persuade Yahya Khan to check himself and restart a political reconciliation process. It could be done as Pakistani commentators themselves maintain.

Over the months the Mukti Bahini had been gaining in strength. From August onwards its operations showed more daring and better leadership. In October, it began to liberate small chunks of territory in the border areas, Pakistani authorities claimed that such operations had the backing of Indian troops and artillery. Besides the Mukti Bahini, there were several independent guerrilla groups within East Pakistan. Prominent among these were the Qadir Bahini and the Mujib Bahini. The former operated in the Tangail area and attained a strength of 16,000-20,000. The Mujib Bahini, which was equally large, operated around Dacca.

Confronted by insurgents from across the border and from within, the Pakistan Army came under greater stress. With a strength of about 42,000 regular troops, it had to contend with rebellion spread over the whole of East Pakistan. Though it was able to maintain its hold over most of the province, the prolonged counterinsurgency operations left their mark. Casualties were heavy: 237 officers, 136 JCOs and 3,559 other ranks.3

The stepping up of the Mukti Bahini’s operations forced Lieutenant General A.A.K. Niazi, GOC-in-C Pakistani Eastern Command, to move a large number of his regular troops to defend the border areas, which had normally been the responsibility of paramilitary personnel. A veteran of the Second World War, during which he had won the Military Cross, Niazi was tall, well-built, and full of self-confidence. He had the reputation of being a soldier’s general and the Indo-Pak conflict of 1965 had brought him the Hilal-i-Jurat, Pakistan’s second highest award for gallantry. Flamboyant in his lifestyle, he was said to be fond of the good things of life. According to Lieutenant Colonel Salik, his Public Relations Offlcer, Niazi was given to bluff and boasting. “He declared several times that if war broke out, he would take the battle to Indian territory. In his loud fantasies, his attack sallied at one time, towards Calcutta and, at another, towards Assam”.4

Reacting to Pakistani moves and pronouncements, the Indian Army took precautionary steps. The formations on internal security duties in West Bengal and Bihar had, by the end of August, collected their heavy weapons and begun to move to their concentration areas. About the same time, other formations allotted for the task in East Pakistan also began to assemble.

Bangladesh is not ideal campaigning ground. Though most of it is flat country, except for the hilly tracts of Chittagong and Sylhet, nearly a quarter of its area is covered by lakes, rivers and swamps. Three great rivers, with their numerous tributaries and distributaries, meander across its vast plains: the Ganga (called the Padma locally), the Brahmaputra (known locally as the Jamuna), and the Meghna. Before reaching the Bay of Bengal they form vast deltas, the creeks running far inland. Ample monsoon rains and alluvial soil produce a luxuriant growth of vegetation, vast fields of paddy and other crops. Though one of the most densely populated regions of the world, then with a population of about 75,000,000 in an area of 143,272 square kilometres, its surface communications are poor. Inland water-transport is the mainstay, The rail system is sketchy; the numerous ferries that link segments of railways and roads, are a peculiar feature of the region. The major rivers then had no bridges, except for two: Hardinge Bridge over the Ganga and the Ashuganj Bridge over the Meghna.

Its rivers divided the province into four main sectors. The Eastern Command decided to allot the responsibility for operations in relation to the riverine divisions. The tract nearest Calcutta came to be known as the South-Western Sector. It comprised the area lying South and West of the Ganga. Placed under 2 Corps (Lieutenant General T.N. Raina, MVC), the sector had its Headquarters at Krishnanagar (see Fig.). It had under command 4 Mountain Division, 9 Infantry Division and a regiment plus of armour, besides the divisional and corps complement of artillery.

The territory North of the Ganga and West of the Brahmaputra comprised the North-Western Sector. This part of East Pakistan abutted India’s Siliguri corridor, which links the North-Eastern regions with the rest of the country and is not far from the Chinese-held Chumbi Valley. The sector was made the responsibility of 33 Corps, under Lieutenant General M.L. Thapan, who had his Headquarters at Siliguri. The troops allotted comprised 20 Mountain Division (four brigades), 6 Mountain Division (less one brigade), about 2 regiments of armour, the artillery complement and some Mukti Bahini units. It may be mentioned that both 4 and 33 Corps continued to be responsible for their normal Indo-Tibetan border roles and counter-insurgency while engaged on the Bangladesh assignment.

General Niazi had asked for two more divisions to reinforce his command, but he got only five battalions towards the end of November.

The region East of the Meghna came to be called the Eastern Sector and was allotted to 4 Corps, under Lieutenant General Sagat Singh. This sector provided the shortest approach to Dacca and had, therefore, the largest allotment of resources. These consisted of 8 Mountain Division (less a brigade), 23 Mountain Division (with one squadron of armour), 57 Mountain Division (with a squadron of armour), Kilo Sector, Border Roads task forces and a number of Mukti Bahini battalions. The Corps’ Headquarters was set up at Teliamura, East of Agartala.

The triangle of land between the Meghna and the Brahmaputra formed the Central Sector. At its Southern apex lay Dacca, the ultimate prize, and the Jamalpur–Tangail route provided a direct approach to it, with few natural obstacles. But, surprisingly, the sector was given meagre resources and was placed under a static formation, Headquarters 101 Communication Zone Area under Major General Gurbax Singh Gill, with Headquarters at Shillong. Gill was allotted 95 Mountain Brigade in addition to FJ Sector (one regular battalion and two Mukti Bahini battalions initially.)In addition to the formations mentioned above, the BSF battalions guarding the frontier came under the operational and administrative control of respective commanders in whose area of responsibility they were deployed from the second week of November.

It has been said that the art of generalship lies in making the enemy react to your moves in a manner that suits you. This is what Manekshaw managed to do. He knew that the Pakistan Army had enough strength to delay the Indian advance long enough to attract international intervention. To deny the enemy this chance, he made Niazi scatter his forces. The Mukti Bahini operations were designed to do this. They were esclated gradually and spread all along the border to draw out the Pakistan Army.

Niazi was unimaginative enough to fall into the trap. Reacting to the increasing tempo of Mukti Bahini operations, he had, by October, tied up most of his Army in penny packets along the border, holding outposts or guarding possible lines of Indian advance. Niazi was not entirely responsible for this. He was under pressure from his superiors not to let any territory fall into Indian hands. It is now well known that the Pakistani assessment of India’s aim was that all she wanted was to capture a sizeable chunk of territory on which the Bangladesh Government could be installed and most of the refugees resettled. According to a Pakistani estimate, Niazi had lost about 7,770 square kilometres of territory in border areas by 12 October as a result of the inroads of the Mukti Bahini.5 Pakistan’s assessment of Indian aims was, in fact, partly correct.

The instructions initially given to Aurora required the occupation of most of East Pakistan, including the ports of Chittagong and Chalna. Though the capture of Dacca was essential for the attainment of the political aim, it was considered impracticable within the time-frame of three weeks allotted for the offensive and the resources available.6 However, a reappraisal towards the end of November led to a change in the orders and Aurora was told that the whole of East Pakistan was to be occupied, with Dacca as the prime objective.

General Niazi had asked for two more divisions to reinforce his command, but he got only five battalions towards the end of November. Having failed to get the additional divisions from West Pakistan, he decided to create them. About the middle of November he set up two ad hoc Divisional Headquarters and four ad hoc Brigade Headquarters. The newly created divisional Headquarters were designated 36 and 39 Infantry Divisions. Bluff was the main aim of this creation and the appearance of the new Divisions did confuse the Indian Army Headquarters to some extent. Niazi used his paramilitary forces, of which he had about 25,000, to bolster up his regular troops.

The Mukti Bahini operations were designed to do this. They were esclated gradually and spread all along the border to draw out the Pakistan Army.

Niazi’s plan for the defence of East Pakistan catered for the conversion of important border towns, particularly those in the expected lines of Indian advance, into fortresses which would have rations to last 45 days and ammunition for two months: Other places, of less importance, were to be made into strongpoints. It was anticipated that these fortresses and strongpoint would effectively halt the Indians. The troops deployed on the border, mostly in company-strength, would fight till they were ordered to withdraw; while withdrawing they would fight delaying actions and then occupy their allotted fortress, which would be defended ‘to the end’.

The plan was sound enough in the circumstances. Carried out with a modicum of imagination it would have delayed the Indian advance considerably. The main drawback was that Niazi used up all his resources to cover the whole border and kept no reserves in hand to influence the battle in any sector once the Indian attack started. It was quite surprising that when two Indian divisions reached Dacca, Niazi had no troops for its defence. Evidently he and his superiors had not visualized the swift campaign that the Indian Army mounted. Also, the success of this type of defensive posture depends on timely withdrawal of troops holding forward positions. But Niazi made this impracticable by issuing orders towards the end of November prohibiting any withdrawals unless 75 per cent casualties had been sustained.

During clashes with the Mukti Bahini, Pakistani troops sometimes fired across the border. This necessitated the positioning of Indian troops nearer the border during November. Shelling and counter-shelling by both sides soon became common. With the two armies facing each other and rebel activity all along the border, clashes between them became inevitable. In ­ fact, by the middle of November it was obvious that war between India and Pakistan was round the corner. Mrs Gandhi had failed in her diplomatic efforts. On the other hand, President Yahya Khan had some-weeks earlier deployed his forces on the Western front. In his public utterances he was becoming more strident and spoke of the imminence of war.

In this atmosphere, some of the border clashes developed into local battles. One that attracted a good deal of attention occurred in the South­Western Sector near Bayra, an Indian village North-East of Calcutta, in which artillery, tanks and aircraft came to be used by both sides. The upshot of the action that was fought on 21 and 22 November was that 14 Punjab (under 9 Infantry Division) succeeded in capturing and retaining the village of Garibpur, about six kilometres inside Bangladesh.7 The Pakistanis lost 13 Chaffee tanks as against the Indian loss of 6 PT-76 tanks. They also lost three Sabres in dogfights with Indian Gnats and two of their pilots, who baled out over Indian territory, were captured.

During the preceding weeks Indian formations designated for the mission had been preparing for their roles. War games had been held to discuss the plans; doubts had been cleared and shortcomings removed.

On 24 November Mrs Indira Gandhi informed the Lok Sabha that “Indian forces had been instructed to enter East Bengal territory in self-defence”.8 This was apparently the outcome of the Bayra episode. There were similar local actions in other sectors too. We shall take a look at them when we describe the events of the open conflict which President Yahya Khan triggered off on 3 December 1971. At about 1 740 hours the Pakistan Air Force attacked nine Indian airfields in Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The air-strikes were followed by a massive attack against Chhamb. The fighting that developed as a result on the Western front is the subject of our next chapter. Here we shall confine ourselves to the happenings in East Pakistan.

During the preceding weeks Indian formations designated for the mission had been preparing for their roles. War games had been held to discuss the plans; doubts had been cleared and shortcomings removed. The final strategy that evolved out of the experience gained in border clashes and subsequent discussions was to bypass the Pakistani fortresses and avoid obvious routes of approach, attack main communication centres and give no chance to the enemy to reorganize once the main battle started. The actual operations were over in 12 days and the speed with which they were conducted surprised the world. A country larger than Greece was conquered from an Army that claimed to be the finest in the world. There were several factors that contributed to this swift victory.

Geography was a major factor. Another was India’s vast superiority in the air in the Eastern theatre. Air Marshal H.C. Dewan, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Eastern Air Command, had been entrusted with the air operations. This Air Command had its Headquarters at Shillong but for close co-ordination, its advanced Headquarters was established at Calcutta, so as to be near Aurora’s. The air operations were designed to eliminate the Pakistan Air Force in Bangladesh quickly, render maximum assistance to the Army with offensive air support and assist the Navy in isolating the theatre.

The air strength available for these operations comprised 11 squadrons: four of Hunters, one of Sukhoi Su-7s, three of Gnats and three of MiG-21s. Dewan’s command had the capacity to provide an average of 120 sorties per day. However, the helicopter-lift was meagre; it could transport only about two companies of infantry at a time. The Pakistan Air Force in the Eastern wing had only about 16 F-86 Sabres, deployed mainly at the airfield near Dacca. The Pakistan Army had its own aviation squadron (helicopters) in the Eastern wing. The Indian Air Force was able to write off the Pakistan Air Force in Bangladesh by 6 December, for a loss of five Hunters and one Sukhoi. The two airfields near Dacca – Tezgaon and Kurmitola –were put out of action and most of the Sabres destroyed. This cleared the way for the Indian Army to move freely without fear of enemy air-action.

The alienation of the Bengali population was another factor that contributed to the quick collapse of the Pakistan Army.

The complete naval blockade of East Pakistan was another important factor. The blockade became effective from 1400 hours on 5 December, after due notice had been given to neutral ships. The blockade allowed the Army to give low priority to the occupation of Chittagong and Chalna. Naval operations in the Eastern theatre were under Vice Admiral N. Krishnan, dsc, Flag Officer-in-Chief East. His Headquarters was at Vishakhapatnam but an advanced Headquarters was set up at Calcutta.

Krishnan had a strong flotilla under command, comprising the aircraft carrier Vikrant, the frigates Brahmaputra and Beas, two Petyas, one submarine (Khanderi), some local defence vessels and a requisitioned tanker.

The Navy set the tone for its operations by sinking Pakistan’s submarine Ghazi on the very first day. Further kills included Jessore, Comilla and Sylhet. In addition, 17 Pakistani merchant ships were destroyed and three captured, besides many small craft and barges.

The alienation of the Bengali population was another factor that contributed to the quick collapse of the Pakistan Army. After the events of March the Bengali Muslim had no love for his co-religionist from the West.

Continued…: 1971: Making Bangladesh a reality – II

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