Military & Aerospace

Politico-Military Strategy for the 1971 Indo-Pak War: A Perspective
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 15 Oct , 2021


National strategy during a war cannot be primarily confined to the military, but rather embody the wide gamut of national interests. Military strategy is derived from the political strategy which leads to the evolution of national policy. It must also include the common consensus of members of different political organizations and most importantly the people of the nation to see it through. Some of the prerequisites for the evolution of national strategy would be national homogeneity, internal stability, military capability, and most important the strength as a nation to safeguard its values and national interests. Therefore, there is a requirement for the development and utilization of the political, economic, psychological, and military power of a nation to safeguard national interest. Like many wars in modern history, the 1971 war took place after exhausting all political and diplomatic options. The article will discuss the politico-military strategy of the key stakeholders together with a background of the crisis that triggered India’s military campaign. An attempt will be made to discuss broadly campaign strategy in the context of the war. Most importantly, it will examine the politico-military strategy formulated and executed during the 1971 war.


The crisis that erupted in Pakistan in the late 1970s was apolitical. At the heart of the problem lay Pakistan’s inability and unwillingness to address the issue of ethnic inclusion. The Bengali population at that time comprised about 60 percent of Pakistan’s population. They were treated as second-class citizens since the early days of Pakistan’s inception and saw a unique opportunity in the 1970 elections. Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League was given a clear electoral mandate in these elections to stake his claim to the office of Prime Minister.However, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s ambition to become Pakistan’s undisputed leader at any cost sparked Pakistan’s worst crisis since its inception.

The Pakistani military supported Bhutto’s thirst for power and began a ruthless campaign of repression against the Bengali populace. The campaign was also directed against intellectuals and other minorities. The main reason for India’s military intervention in the liberation of Bangladesh was the denial of democratic rights after the 1970 elections. Moreover, the inadequate administrative responses and failure to respond to the devastating flood and cyclones towards the latter stages of the election campaign only served to further alienate the people against the Pakistani administration.

Another relevant event amid this upheaval was Pakistan’s involvement in the hijacking of an Indian Airlines Fokker Friendship aircraft from Lahore, which was destroyed on January 30, 1971, by Pakistani agents and militants from Jammu and Kashmir. Following the hijacking, India suspended Pakistan’s civilian and military aircraft flights over its airspace. This decision was instrumental in imposing severe restrictions on Pakistan’s ability to build up its forces in East Bengal at the height of the crisis in October and November 1971.

The greatest threat to the stability and security of India arose from the massive influx of millions of refugees who were evicted from their homes by the Pakistani army from March 25, 1971, onwards. This security compulsion required the formulation of a general strategy for a possible conflict. The number of refugees rose from a quarter of a million on April 21st to 1.48 million on May 6th, mainly in the states of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura.

The perceived threat of the influx of refugees became serious when the number of refugees rose to 6 million in July 1971. In November that year, it finally peaked at 9 million. Pakistan had managed to push around 8-10% of the population of East Bengal into India. Indira Gandhi articulated this threat to the internal security of India as a serious challenge to national security in a speech on May 24th.She commented, “What has been said to be Pakistan’s internal problem has also become an Indian internal problem.” The already overburdened infrastructure in India was enormously strained and could not help there fugees.

The sustained influx of refugees undoubtedly led to a plethora of security concerns. First, the Pakistani military’s persecution of the rebels in Bangladesh created uncertainty along the border.Many Pakistani intelligence agents, posing as refugees, had entered India, and tried to provoke communal hatred, and indulged in sabotage. By the end of August 1971 at least 400 trained Pakistani officers had been arrested in Assam and Meghalaya. The concentration of refugees in a small area of ​​West Bengal had the potential to create tensions in a state where conditions were already unstable. On the other hand, the spread to other parts of the country would only have tempted Pakistan to push the Bengali population further into India. Furthermore, large numbers of refugees were concentrated on the border, and given the continued influx of especially Hindu minorities, there were fears of greater communal violence in West Bengal and Assam, the hardest-hit states. The negative impact of the refugee influx on socio-economic development was particularly evident in the relatively poorer border regions of West Bengal.

India’s Policy Strategy

At the beginning of April 1971, there was a debate as to whether immediate military action by India was a good strategy. Opinions were divided: while one group in the government thought of an early war that would culminate in the establishment of an Awami league-led government in Bangladesh according to the electoral mandate and would ensure the early return of the refugees to their homeland. More importantly, that would also ensure the cessation of the influx of refugees. K Subramanyam, Director of the Institute for Defense Strategy and Analysis, a non-governmental think tank, wrote a much-cited article advocating an early war and seizing the opportunity that the turmoil of civil war brought to eastern Pakistan. As K Subrahmanyam astutely argued, it must be clear when the persuasion diplomacy ends and the threat of violence diplomacy and violence itself should be considered.

A closer look at India’s response from March 25 to December 3, 1971, shows that diplomatic efforts and military preparations were undertaken in tandem. Indira Gandhi and her key advisers ran out of diplomatic options and concluded that India would face security constraints if it could not protect its national interests without resorting to a possible war. K. Subrahmanyam convincingly projected the argument, which later caught on in the world’s major capitals, that it would be cheaper to wage war or solve the Bangladesh problem than indefinitely feed millions of refugees. This calculation was not based solely on economic considerations, but also considered the cost-benefit ratios for India in political, social, and international relations. He provided numerous examples from contemporary history of the threat to the use of military force or its use by countries to protect their national interests.

His views were supported by many across political party lines and by some retired generals such as the military historian, Major General D. K. Palit. However, the External Affairs Minister Swaran Singh preferred restraint, believing that India should defend its cause to ensure international credibility and legitimacy for offensive action. General Manekshaw, the Joint Chief of Staff wanted more time to plan and prepare to make up for the lack of manpower and machines. He was aware that the war in the east would spread to the west. The fate of an unprepared army in 1962 was a grim reminder for him. In addition, Manekshaw was also concerned that the army operation might enter the monsoons and that China would enter the war by opening a third front. The rivalry of the Cold War in South Asia was also considered by the decision-makers.

After careful consideration, the following political positions were formulated:

    • The East Pakistan crisis is a political problem and can only be resolved through a political process by accepting the electoral mandate of the Pakistani parliamentary elections. To start the process, Mujibur Rahman must be released immediately and work with him.
    • Pakistan must immediately cease military operations in East Pakistan and the troops must return to the barracks.
    • The international community should lobby through UN and bilateral diplomatic channels to urge Pakistan to resolve the crisis in East Pakistan through peaceful means. The United Nations must take immediate and adequate relief efforts to assist the refugees in India and ensure their speedy return to their homes.
    • Building national public opinion in the country for the likely expansion of formal and active support for the East Pakistani liberation struggle. At the same time, undertake a well-planned diplomatic initiative to make the world aware of the plight of the Bangladeshis and the constraints of India.

India’s External Strategy

    • Political initiative and diplomatic offensive: Documentary evidence suggested that India kept all options open in the beginning and wanted a political solution to the problem. It became important for India to launch a diplomatic offensive to counter Pakistan’s claim that the Bangladesh crisis was an internal issue of Pakistan and the crisis was exacerbated by India’s instigation and active participation in the destabilization of Pakistan, as India has not yet come to terms with partition. As India was a democracy, it was important for the Government to manage the opposition parties using the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha as platforms for debate, information, and opinion-forming. In addition to various officials and ministers, Indira Gandhi also used the services of opposition leaders who were sent to various countries to report on India’s constraints and the socio-economic problems of India due to the refugees from Bangladesh.
    • Alliance with the Soviet Union: The decisive point in India’s grand strategy was the initiative to incorporate the Soviet promises into the Indo-Soviet friendship treaty of August 9, 1971. It was indeed a momentous decision in 24 years of independence in the face of grave national security threats and hostile attitudes from the US.  Although critics also referred to it as ‘the second imposition of Tashkent’, and a ‘departure from non-alignment’. Americans viewed India’s strategy as a counter to the Sino-US pincer against India. Most importantly, to create a strategic stand-off between China and the USA supporting Pakistan and the Soviet Union on the Indian side. This strategy had certainly deterred the Chinese and Americans from intervening militarily. When war became a distinct possibility, the Soviet airlifting of military equipment to India began in late October. In the crucial hours, the USSR vetoed the UN Security Council a couple of times to give India time for a swift military operation and win. The Friendship Treaty proved the main political and diplomatic influence for India during the 1971 war. Two deputy foreign ministers of the Soviet Union, Firbyubin and Kuznetsov, were particularly helpful to India during this time.
    • Media Campaign: India made coordinated efforts to make the world media aware of the plight of refugees from Bangladesh and its compulsions. The report by the Pakistan’s Hamidoor Commission had revealed that Indian propaganda had been so successful that all efforts by the Pakistani military regime to defuse the situation in East Pakistan had left the world unimpressed.
    • Exercising Restraint: India exhibited tremendous restraint not to get easily provoked until the legitimacy of its direct intervention was understood. India did not officially recognize Bangladesh until December 6, despite pressure from opposition parties and the Bangladeshi government in exile. As part of this policy, the military was asked not to move troops for early deployment in the western sector so that India was not seen as an aggressor. The military deployment was not completed until November 1971. 

India’s Military Strategy

India’s grand strategy for management of the Pakistan-created crisis in 1971 and the war that ensued depended critically on an early and successful conclusion of the military campaign. Here was that rare moment in India’s history when it took the military initiative and achieved success. The Lightning tri-service campaign, in which the Bangladesh Liberation Force Mukti Bahini played a key role is the fastest advance of the ground forces since the North Africa campaign in World War II. The focus remained on fighting a defensive war in the West while simultaneously seeking a successful outcome in the east through a creative and innovative offensive strategy. A key decisive factor was that the Indian Air Force achieved air dominance in just two days through the dominance of the skies over East Pakistan.

    • Air Superiority: In the Eastern theater, the Indian Air Force had total air superiority after damaging the only airfield in Dhaka on December 6, 1971. It was able to operate freely due to its total air superiority. This effectively created the much-desired operational space for the five-division strong land force to advance from three directions, bypassing Pakistani fortifications, heading for ferries, crossings, and bridges in the rear to secure choke points, unhindered by the Pakistan Air Force.
    • Sea blockade: The Indian navy blockade in the east ensured that the ports of Chittagong and Chalna were rendered non-operational. This blockade essentially isolated East Pakistan from the rest of the world giving the Indian navy supremacy of the sea in the west, the Arabian Sea as well as in the Bay of Bengal.
    • Psychological Warfare: The psychological warfare attacking the minds of the enemy commanders played a decisive role. The precision in the aerial bombing of Governor Malik’s residence on December 15, along with the siege of Dhaka and psychological warfare of Manekshaw, caused panic among commanders and senior officials. Mitro Bahini’s encirclement of Dacca created a seize situation.
    • Dislocation strategy: Allied forces (Mitro Bahini) outmaneuvered the Pakistani army in time and space and often gained a decisive advantage by threatening the enemy with retreat and disrupting the balance of their local supplies and supplies by having 30,000 soldiers in Dhaka, which is evidence of the fundamental psychological shift in feeling trapped.
    • Civilian Support: Mukti Bahini and the local East Pakistani population proved to be a force multiplier for the Indian army. Support of the civilian population base was crucial in the victory of Mitro Bahini.  Pakistan was at a disadvantage in this regard despite having a section of the population as supporters.

Concluding Observations

In reviewing how the national crisis was dealt with and adopting a strategy for it four decades back, a few aspects stand out: First, a courageous political leadership willing to take risks to safeguard long-term national interests in the face of very overwhelming obstacles. Second, the building of a national consensus to the extent that pragmatism requires. Third, the orchestration of a diplomatic campaign to seek the legitimacy of war was deemed inevitable.And lastly, provision of the fullest support and freedom to the armed forces to plan the timing, military objectives, as also the actual conduct of operations. It was the unrivaled synergy between the political, military, and diplomatic dimensions of national crisis management and decision-making that enabled India to take the initiative of a military campaign to achieve the strategic plan envisioned by politicians.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Nigel Raylyn D’Silva

is Adjunct Professor Analytics, Universal Business School, Kushivili, Gaurkamath, Karjat.

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