Military & Aerospace

India-Pakistan War 1971: Analysis of India’s Military Strategy
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Issue Vol. 36.1, Jan-Mar 2021 | Date : 07 Mar , 2021

Sectors and Indian Army Plan

Formulation of Political Objective

The paradigm of war typically follows the sequence – ‘Confrontation-Crisis-Conflict-War-Resolution’.1 The 1971 India-Pakistan War generally unfolded to this pattern. The India-Pakistan confrontation is well known to be recounted here. The Pakistan Army’s ruthless military crackdown ‘Operation Searchlight’ launched on March 25, 1971, to suppress East Pakistan’s populace triggered an influx of refugees into India. The continued refugee deluge from East Pakistan created a severe socio-economic crisis for India. The change in demographic composition from 20 percent to 80 percent of Bengali Hindu refugees within one month, made India apprehensive of their non-return even after a political settlement. This constituted an ‘indirect aggression’ that could destabilise the socio-economic security of the North-Eastern States. India, therefore, formulated the return of the refugees as its political objective; implicit in this was the liberation of Bangladesh. After ruling out immediate military intervention, it strategised to achieve its political objective through diplomacy and calibrated indirect military support to the Mukti Bahini, keeping open the option to militarily intervene at an appropriate time as a last resort. India undertook a sustained diplomatic campaign to urge the world community to persuade Pakistan to seek a political settlement. By the end of August 1971, the unwillingness and inability of foreign powers to persuade Pakistan for a political settlement, catalysed India’s propensity towards military intervention. The possibility of war became a distinct probability.

Military Strategy and Plan

The relative military capability of India and Pakistan is shown in the Table. The Indian Army had a distinct quantitative advantage over the Pakistan Army in the Eastern theatre and near parity in the Western theatre. The Mukti Bahini was the force-multiplier. The Indian Air Force (IAF) enjoyed a qualitative and quantitative advantage over the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), while the Indian Navy (IN), with an aircraft carrier, was considerably more robust. India’s policy, strategised a ‘Swift Offensive in the East, Offensive-Defensive in the West and Defensive along the Northern border’ 2 and evolved the following military objectives:3

Relative Military Capability of India and Pakistan

Formations/Units Western Theatre Eastern Theatre
Army India Pakistan India Pakistan
Infantry/Mountain Divisions 13 10 11 04
Armoured Divisions

+ Indep Armed Bdes

01+04 02+03 2 Regts + 2 Sqns 1+1
Parachute Brigades 01   01  
Mukti Bahini/East Pakistan Civil Armed Force 1,06,844 25,000
Air Force        
Combat Aircraft 350 254 160 19
Aircraft Carrier 01
Submarines 2 3 1 1
Cruisers /Destroyers/Frigates 16 6 5

Relative Military Capability of India and Pakistan in 1971

Formations/Units India Pakistan
Army Western Eastern Western Eastern
Infantry/Mountain Divisions 13 11 10 04
Armoured Divisions
+Indep Armed Bdes
01+04 2 Regts+2 02+03 1+1
Parachute Brigades 01 01
Equipment 1450 TKS + 3000 GUNS 850 TKS + 800 GUNS
Mukti Bahini/PMF 1,06,844 73,00
Air Force        
Combat Aircraft 350 275 254 19
Aircraft Carrier 01
Cruisers/Destroyers / Submarines 09 11
    • Eastern Theatre. To assist the Mukti Bahini in liberating a part of East Pakistan, where the refugees could return and live under their government.
    • Western Theatre. To prevent Pakistan from capturing any Indian territory of consequence in J&K, Punjab, Rajasthan or Gujarat.
    • Northern Borders. To defend the country from a possible attack by China along the Northern borders.

The terrain of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, is interspersed with numerous rivers and nullahs. The Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers bifurcate Bangladesh into four distinct sectors – Western, North-Western, Northern and South-Eastern. The plan of the Indian Army envisioned capturing maximum territory in East Pakistan bordering the Brahmputra and Meghna river lines and setting up a ‘provisional Bangladesh government with Khulna and Chittagong being the principal objectives’.4 Subsequently, the task was enhanced to liberate the whole of East Pakistan.5

The Eastern theatre planned a multi-prong offensive along each of the four sectors. No 2 Corps was to capture Jessore and Jhenida and subsequently secure Khulna and Faridpur in the Western sector, while 33 Corps was to capture Bogra/Rangpur in the North-Western sector. In the Northern sector, 101 Communications Zone was to capture Jamalpur, Mymensingh and secure Tangail with airborne forces. No 4 Corps was to capture Meghna Bulge between Chandpur and Ashuganj, Sylhet, Daudkandi-Mynamati and Chittagong in the South-Eastern sector. The Pakistan Army had deployed a division in each sector to deny ingress to the Indian Army. Its strategy was to hold firmly the cities and garrisons located along the major roads. India continued to deploy four divisions along the Northern borders against China.

The Western theatre adopted a holding strategy with plans to execute limited offensive operations. Western Command’s 15 and 11 Corps defended Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab, respectively, deploying ten divisions, while the Southern Command held the desertic Rajasthan sector with two divisions. 15 Corps planned limited offensive operations in Shyok Valley, Kargil, Lipa Valley and Chicken’s Neck Area, while 11 Corps planned to capture the tactically important Enclaves. Southern Command planned an offensive in Jaisalmer and Barmer sectors. Nop 1 Strike Corps, with three infantry divisions, was responsible for the defence of Samba-Pathankot area and to launch the main offensive in Shakargarh sector. No 1 Armoured Division was the Army Headquarters reserve positioned near Ferozepore to execute the offensive on orders. The Pakistan Army had three Corps (Nos 1, 2, and 4) with ten infantry, two armoured divisions, three independent armoured brigades deployed on the Western front.

The IAF planned to support operations by the Army and the IN besides attacking the enemy’s strategic targets. The IAF had 350 combat aircraft in the Western and and 160 in the Eastern theatre. The transport fleet was considerably enhanced in the East to accelerate the tempo of operations. The IN had deployed an aircraft carrier INS Vikrant in the East to ensure a complete blockade and to destroy the enemy’s naval assets. It was to be the first significant operation by the IN since independence.

Conflict Stage: Escalation

With effect from September 1971, India began to coerce Pakistan to work out a political settlement. It concurrently stepped-up military activities by regular troops along the border and in the hinterland by Mukti Bahini. Commando troops were stealthily embedded to fight alongside the Mukti Bahini within the territory of East Pakistan. Pakistan responded to India’s intensified activities by mobilising in the West to deter it in the East. It also moved in strength to the borders. President Yahya Khan created a war psychosis by stating in an interview, “War with India is very near and Pakistan would not be alone in case of war.”6 India was undeterred and began to conduct operations from the second week of October 1971 within East Pakistan. The scale and intensity of military operations witnessed a sharp rise, with both sides employing tanks and air assets at times. After November 21, 1971, Indian troops, began to position themselves within East Pakistan to improve its defensive posture and secure suitable launchpads for subsequent offensive operations. The conflict between the two sides was in full force by end-November.

The War, Surrender and the Cease-Fire

Pakistan launched pre-emptive airstrikes on December 03, 1971, at 5.45 pm IST on several Indian airfields in the Western theatre, marking the commencement of the 1971 India-Pakistan War. India declared hostilities and recognised Bangladesh. The Indian Armed Forces concurrently launched attacks in the Eastern and Western theatres.

Eastern Theatre

The Indian Army’s multi-pronged offensive made rapid progress capturing Jessore, Jhenida, Jamalpur, Mymensingh, Daudkandi-Chandpur area and securing the Eastern bank of the Meghna River by December 10. The IAF neutralised the PAF effectively and achieved total air superiority by December 07, paving the way for uninterrupted close-air support and heliborne/airborne operations. PNS Ghazi was sunk outside Vizag harbour. The IN established a naval blockade to prevent any Pakistani build-up in the region.

To exploit the rapidly deteriorating situation, the Indian Army modified its plans. Between December 06 and 12, No 4 Corps employing a combination of helicopters and river craft, built up almost a division-sized strength to cross the Meghna river. The IAF flew around 350 sorties, including 100 by night, to airlift 4,000 troops, ammunition and supplies.7 On December 08, two brigades were pulled out from the Chinese border to strengthen the Northern sector.8 A parachute battalion was airdropped on the Eastern bank of the Jamuna River at Tangail on December 11. On December 13, 1971, the United States (US) Seventh Fleet entered the Bay of Bengal. India carried out intensive bombings on naval assets in East Pakistan to render them unusable for the Seventh Fleet. The IAF launched a successful airstrike on the Governor’s house on December 14. This was a huge psychological blow to Pakistan. In the meantime, build-up by the Indian Army continued. By the morning of December 16, nearly five brigades had encircled Dacca, with four infantry battalions and an independent armoured squadron entering the city by the afternoon. The Naval air operations mounted from INS Vikrant flew 291 sorties causing extensive damage to the enemy’s naval assets.9

While India intensified psychological pressure on the Pakistan Army to surrender, the Pakistan government was desperately looking for an UN-sponsored ceasefire as a face-saving mechanism to avoid the ignominy of surrender. The UN Security Council’s negotiations for a ceasefire were also progressing at a very hectic pace. Time was of utmost essence. Poland submitted a resolution to the UN Security Council for discussion on December 15. It asked India and Pakistan to accept an immediate ceasefire, withdraw forces from each other’s territory, renounce claims to any occupied territories and transfer power in East Pakistan to the representatives elected in December 1970. A ceasefire followed by the withdrawal of troops before the capture of Dacca would have deprived India of the advantages of surrender by Pakistani forces and substantially curtailed its capacity to ensure the smooth accomplishment of Bangladesh’s liberation – the desired end-state. The resolution failed due to Bhutto’s ulterior motive.10 While speaking in the Security Council, Bhutto lambasted the UN for not acting on time, tore up a copy of the resolution and walked out of the session. No further discussion took place and the resolution was dead. With the Indian Army closing in on Dacca, the Pakistan Army had no option but to surrender on December 16, 1971.

Western Theatre

No 15 Corps captured Turtok in Partapursub-sector and several vital posts in Kargil. It secured a significant success in Lipa Valley and the Chicken’s Neck area. However, it could not make any headway in the Uri sub-sector. Pakistan’s offensive as appreciated materialised in the Poonch and Chhamb sub-sectors. The Indian Army defended Poonch resolutely, but suffered a significant reverse in Chhamb. No 11 Corps captured Jassar Enclave in the Dera Baba Nanak and Sehjra Bulge in the Khem-Karan sub-sectors. Pakistan achieved meaningful success in the Ferozepur and Fazilka sub-sectors. No 1 Corps launched an attack on Shakargarh Bulge on December 05, when the likely Pakistan offensive did not materialise. It achieved limited success and could not fully exploit battle opportunities. The Southern Command captured Parbat Ali overlooking the Naya-Chor defences in the Barmer sub-sector. It tenaciously defended the Longewala post in the Jaisalmer sub-sector, with the IAF playing a significant role. However, it could not carry out a successful pursuit towards Rahim Yar Khan, despite the Pakistani troops being in total disarray. The IN conducted a well-planned missile attack on Karachi harbour causing substantial damage. India announced a unilateral ceasefire on the Western Front after the Pakistan Army’s surrender in the East. Pakistan accepted and the 14-day war ended on December 17, 1971.


India flawlessly executed the military campaign with great aplomb to achieve a decisive victory over Pakistan. More than 92,000 Pakistani soldiers, paramilitary, police personnel and civilians surrendered. 5,620 square miles of territory was captured against the loss of 120 square miles on the Western front. However, a critical analysis is imperative to draw meaningful lessons.

War-Avoidance Strategies: Compellence and Deterrence

The purpose of deterrence in statecraft is to discourage an adversary from waging war to achieve political objectives. India applied a compellence strategy to coerce Pakistan to seek a political settlement with East Pakistan and avert war by intensifying military activities from September onwards. It was also to set the stage for military intervention, should the strategy failed. To counter the same, Pakistan mobilised in the West to deter India from waging war in the East. According to S Kalyanaraman, a research scholar, compellence and deterrence are two major subsets of strategic coercion.11 Compellence is active and attempts to alter the status quo, while deterrence is passive, seeking to maintain the status quo. The strategies rely on threats to persuade each other’s hostile behaviour. Both strategies failed.

Pakistan overplayed the threat of its perceived alliances with the US and China. India had credible intelligence about Chinese strategic calculations not to intervene militarily; it had not given any specific commitment to help protect Pakistan’s territorial integrity.12 The US, too, had not made any commitment to Pakistan. For compellence to succeed, the coercing power’s threat must be credible enough to convince the adversary of its military capacity. The Indian Armed Forces had a favourable force-ratio of 1.4:1 over Pakistan, but not adequate to compel Pakistan to accede to India’s demand for a political settlement. However, its provocative escalation matrix succeeded in strategic dislocation and deception of Pakistani forces.

The synchronised intensified activities along the border and the interior made Pakistan apprehensive of India’s possible politico-military objectives in East Pakistan. It was in a dilemma – would India capture limited territory close to the border to install a puppet Bangladesh government and recognise the same internationally or launch a well-planned military offensive to defeat and secure its Army’s surrender? Appreciating the former option, the Pakistan Army relocated from the interior around Dacca to build up strong defences around major towns. The Mukti Bahini dominated the hinterland denuded by Pakistan.

India’s occupation of territory in East Pakistan since November 21, incensed the Pakistani officers who felt that their leadership was not doing anything except issuing empty statements. They felt strongly to declare war on India as a matter of pride, prudence, and necessity.13 Adding fuel to fire, Bhutto warned the President that if he did not react forcefully to India’s aggression, he would be “lynched by the people.”14 Yahya ordered pre-emptive airstrikes on December 03, 1971. India naturally welcomed the development as it would not be seen as an aggressor by the world. When informed, D.P Dhar, a member of the Prime Minister’s core group, succinctly remarked, “The fool has done exactly what one had expected.”15

War-Fighting Military Strategy

Considering East Pakistan to be the centre of gravity where the war was to be won or lost, the overall Indian military strategy of ‘a swift offensive in the East, offensive-defensive in the West and defensive along the Northern borders’ was eminently logical, sound and prudent. A quick offensive in East Pakistan was imperative to achieve a decisive victory before the international community could intervene. It was exactly opposite to that of Pakistan, who had planned to defend East Pakistan by waging war in the West to draw the Indian forces away from the East, thereby gaining enough time for the international community to intervene. Considering the vast geographical separation between the two Pakistans, its strategy for defending the East by war in the West was sound and correct; however, it could not aggressively execute its offensive plans.

Eastern Theatre: Dacca not a Military Objective

The Indian Army did not earmark Dacca – the capital and the geopolitical centre of power of East Pakistan, a military objective, not even a contingency task. The planners considered its capture an ambitious proposition. According to Raghavan, Major General KK Singh, the Director of Military Operations felt, “The Indian Army with its inherent inhibitions against anything unorthodox and a more speedy type of manoeuvre, was ill-suited for attempting the capture of Dacca.”16 It considered crossing one of the three rivers – Padma, Jamuna and Meghna in the face of enemy opposition to attack Dacca, a tall order. In August 1971, the Eastern Command had proposed to keep Dacca as the final objective, but the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) had overruled it. According to Lieutenant General Jacob, the COAS felt that by capturing Khulna and Chittagong, Dacca would automatically fall and there is no need to take it.17 Both Khulna and Chittagong did not fall until December 16 – the day the Pakistani Forces surrendered.

Learning from the 1965 War experience, the Indian Army, factored in the likely international pressure for a ceasefire. It was apprehensive that an early ceasefire might end the war without capturing vast territory or Dacca. It opted to secure a vast area, appreciating that the military’s rapid progress would lead to the eventual collapse of the Pakistani resistance and make Dacca untenable before a ceasefire. Therefore, the task assigned to Eastern Command was, “limited to occupying the major portion of Bangladesh instead of the entire country.”18 India did not expand its strategic aim to secure Dacca even after achieving significant success in the first week of the war. Instead, it needlessly captured some tactical objectives that did not contribute to the strategic aim of a swift offensive to occupy vast territory. The advance to Khulna after the fall of Jessore, the capture of Hilli, Jhenida, Rangpur and the attack on Mynamati are examples. Attrition battles were fought instead of manoeuvres. General Rao, the former COAS, rightly lamented, “If forces employed on these strategically unimportant and infructuous missions could have been utilised for developing thrust towards Dacca, perhaps its capture would have been further speeded up and the number of casualties reduced.”19 The Indian Army captured these tactical objectives to have substantial territory in its control before the imposition of any UN-sponsored cease-fire. However, in the final analysis, it was the threat posed to Dacca by more than five brigades across the Meghna river that made the Pakistani position militarily untenable. Lieutenant General Sagat Singh’s boldness in executing a brilliant manoeuver, to transport more than a division-size force by helicopters and river craft across the Meghna river, made the crucial difference.

The Indian Army allotted the least number of troops to the Northern sector, which did not have any river obstacle negating the DGMO’s assertion that Dacca’s capture was not attempted due to the difficulties in river crossing. The lack of an adequate logistics axis in the Northern sector curtailed the quantum of troops employed. However, it could have been built up in the preparatory period. Despite India having credible intelligence about Chinese non-military intervention and the Indo-Soviet Treaty’s deterrence, it remained unduly worried about the Chinese threat. The Indian Army did not pull out any forces from the Chinese border till December 08, 1971, and employ No 6 Mountain Division less a brigade for any offensive. India could have hastened the operations had Dacca been kept as a strategic military objective and thrust lines been developed along the Western, Northern and South-Eastern sectors to converge on Dacca. One of the formations could have been tasked ab initio to attack earliest in conjunction with securing territory. No 2 Corps could have considered manoeuvre similar to the one executed by No 4 Corps.

The crossing of Meghna river demonstrated the highest degree of close coordination between the Indian Army and the IAF. Lieutenant General Sagat Singh and Group Captain Chandan Singh meticulously planned and brilliantly executed the heli-lift of almost three brigades in over 350 sorties. This build-up rendered Dacca’s position untenable. The synergy assumed greater significance as it was not pre-planned, but the Pakistan Army’s rapid collapse offered the opportunity that was exploited optimally. The pressure exerted by the IN on Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar, interdiction of Pakistani shipping, added psychological pressure on Pakistan to surrender.

The Mukti Bahini played a useful role in providing intelligence, harassing Pakistani forces by raiding isolated/lightly held posts and static installations; however, they could not undertake independent operations.

Western Theatre: Cautious

The Western Theatre, adhering to its strategy to hold ground, succeeded considerably in thwarting Pakistani designs and capturing significant territory. India took a significant risk in deploying its defensive formations quite late to provoke any Pakistani offensive. The Pakistan Army was battle-ready by mid-October, the Indian Army achieved operational readiness by mid-November. Had Pakistan mounted a surprise attack, the situation would have become precarious for the Indian Army. The decision not to launch offensive by No 1 Corps till Pakistan mounted its offensive, led to the loss of initiative and surprise. No 1 Corps could not secure Zaffarwal or Shakargarh. Excessive caution in its employment limited its potential; however, its initial deployment in a defensive role ensured the Pathankot corridor’s security. In the Chhamb sector, the field commander’s obsession with offensive operations despite impending enemy attack inputs, led to the neglect of defensive preparations.

In Rajasthan, the Barmer sector’s offensive achieved significant success and set the stage for further exploitation, but the lack of adequate logistic support inhibited it. No 1 Armoured Division remained unemployed throughout the war, catering to a Pakistani threat, which did not materialise. Nor did it pose any threat to Pakistan, despite its own offensive in Shakargarh and Rajasthan had drawn in additional Pakistan forces. Arjun Subramaniam commented very aptly, “The anticipated mother of all battles between the two armoured divisions remained in the realm of fiction.”20 General Rao was right in asserting that India could have made substantial gains in the Western theatre had the strategy been implemented more vigorously.21 India could have continued military operations in West Pakistan after the surrender in the East. However, the government considered the political advantages of international prestige and goodwill accruing out of a unilateral ceasefire of far greater significance than inflicting additional attrition and capturing crucial territory. It overlooked the long-term strategic deterrence on any futuristic Pakistani misadventure and did not invoke the Clausewitzian theory of suppressing the enemy’s will.


India’s military objective in East Pakistan was initially modest, but seeing the rapid progress of operations, it quickly modified its plan to attack Dacca. The threat posed to Dacca with a substantial build-up of forces and the failure of the UN resolution in the Security Council, led to the surrender of the Pakistan Army resulting in a strategic and decisive victory for India.


  1. General Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, (New York: Vintage Books, 2008) p. 183.
  2. Gen KV Krishna Rao, PVSM (Retired) Prepare or Perish A Study of National Security (New Delhi: Lancer Publishers, Pvt. Ltd., 1991) p. 170 and, SN Prasad and UP Thapliyal, The India-Pakistan War of 1971 A History (Dehradun: Natraj Publishers, 2014) pp. 105-106.
  3. Prasad and Thapliyal, opcit, p. 105.
  4. Lt Gen JFR Jacob, An Odyssey in War and Peace (New Delhi: Roli Books, 2011) pp. 79-80. Also see Srinath Raghavan, 1971 A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2013) p. 238.
  5. Rao, op cit, p. 171.
  6. Rao, op cit, p. 158.
  7. Arjun Subramaniam, India’s Wars A Military History 1947-1971 (Harper Collins Publishers, Noida, India 2016) pp. 382-383, quoting Air Vice Marshal Chandan Singh, The Meghna Crossing in Maj Gen Dhruv Katoch and Lt Col Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahar, ed., Liberation Bangladesh 1971 (New Delhi: Bloomsbury, 2015) pp. 218-22.
  8. Jacob, op cit, p. 84.
  9. Prasad and Thapliyal, op cit, p. 395.
  10. Bhutto calculated that only an ignominious surrender of the Pakistan Army would lead to his political ascendancy. He was proved right. Five days later, he took over as President and Chief Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan on December 20, 1971. The previos day, when President Yahya seeing an opportunity to avoid the surrender rang up Bhutto in New York to accept the Polish resolution, the latter pretended not to hear despite repeated calls and admonished even the operator, who intervened to state that the telephone connection was good. See Raghavan, op cit, p. 261, quoting 1614th Meeting of the UN Security Council, 14/15 December, 1971, S/PV.1614, UN Archives.
  11. S Kalyanaraman, “Operation Parakram An Indian Exercise in Coercive Diplomacy” Strategic Analysis, Volume 26, Issue No 4, Oct-Dec 2002, Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, p. 479.
  12. Raghavan, op cit, pp. 186-188.
  13. Richard Sisson and Leo E. Rose, War and Secession: Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990) p. 228.
  14. Ibid, p. 230 quoting Interviews Pakistan and USA, 1979.
  15. Raghavan, op cit. p. 234, quoting JN Dixit, Liberation and Beyond: India-Bangladesh Relations (New Delhi: Konark Press, 1999) p. 89.
  16. Raghavan, op cit, p. 236.
  17. Jacob, op cit. p. 80.
  18. Raghavan, op cit, p. 236, quoting Sukhwant Singh, India’s Wars since Independence: The Liberation of Bangladesh (New Delhi: Lancer, 1980) pp. 68-69, 72, 90-91. Major General Sukhwant Singh was the deputy director of military operations in 1971.
  19. Rao, op cit, p. 200.
  20. Subramaniam, op cit, p. 418.
  21. Rao, op cit, p. 244.
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Lt Gen (Dr) JS Cheema

Former Deputy Chief of the Army Staff.

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