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.
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.