As in other Eastern countries, the Indian public is easily swayed by sentiment. Important issues are taken to the streets instead of being debated calmly. Slogan-shouting crowds are used by political leaders to build-up public opinion on issues of the moment. Even the news media lend a hand with subjective reporting and comments. Under such conditions, a government may sometimes be forced into a corner by vociferous public opinion and commit itself to a course of action it may later repent.
This happened in 1962 when, to placate public opinion, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru ordered the Army to take on the Chinese. A supine Chief of Army Staff obeyed, though he knew he hardly had a chance of success. Fortunately for the Army and the country, India had a strong Prime Minister and an equally strong Chief in 1971.
Mrs Gandhi had won the parliamentary elections held early that year with a thumping majority. She was known for her boldness and political astuteness. Gen Manekshaw had acquired a stature that none of his predecessors except Thimayya had. He possessed rare professional acumen and was extremely popular with officers as well as troops. His greatest asset was that he could stand up to people.
Fortunately for the Army and the country, India had a strong Prime Minister and an equally strong Chief in 1971.
This quality stood him in good stead when the Indian public, agitated over the mass killings and other excesses of the Pakistani Army in Bangladesh, began to urge the government that the Indian Army should immediately march in to liberate that oppressed land so that the Bengali refugees could go back to their homes.
Pressure increased when the revolt failed. Some retired generals and several cabinet ministers also joined in the cry for immediate liberation. But Manekshaw was not the man who could be stampeded into action. As mentioned earlier, Government had directed him to assess the situation and draw up contingency plans and his experts were on this job. He advised the Prime Minister against immediate military intervention and she accepted his advice.
Manekshaw was not the man who could be stampeded into action… He advised the Prime Minister against immediate military intervention and she accepted his advice.
Immediate intervention was inadvisable for many reasons. A nation cannot make war successfully without proper preparation. That needs time. Military planners have contingency plans, but these have to be updated to meet the changing situation. Many questions face them. For example, what is the enemy’s strength and how is it disposed? What are the options open to him? Who are going to be our allies and who will side with the enemy? What is the time frame? What is the state of communications and what is the terrain in the area of operations? What is the state of our own forces and their equipment? Have we the necessary superiority? If not, how can we arrange to tilt the balance in our favour in the strike area? There are many other factors such as weather conditions and the attitude of local people that have to be taken into consideration by the planners. Some of the answers lay with the politicians.
By the middle of April, Pakistan had three infantry divisions in the eastern wing. It was also raising another division (36th) and enrolling large numbers of paramilitary forces such as EPCAF, Razakars, Mujahids and Ansars. India therefore had to muster six or seven divisions to get the necessary numerical superiority. Normal contingency plans required the presence of only about one division in West Bengal to ensure the security of the Siliguri corridor and Calcutta. The rest of the troops would have to be found by partly drawing upon reserves and partly by temporarily withdrawing some formations facing the Chinese in the eastern sector and those employed in a counter-insurgency role in Nagaland and Mizoram.
A nation cannot make war successfully without proper preparation.
Though there had been no open hostilities with the Chinese after 1962, except for an artillery duel in 1967 around Nathu La, India could not be sure of China’s attitude if we went to war with Pakistan. That country’s leaders had consistently wooed China and had been receiving assurances of friendship and considerable aid in weapons and equipment. In the 22-day war of 1965, China had issued an ultimatum to India and had moved some troops threateningly, but had refrained from intervention.
Sensing the likelihood of war over Bangladesh, Pakistan’s rulers had been at great pains to cement their friendship with China. At the military level, Indla’s planners proposed to neutralise the Chinese threat to some extent with a winter campaign, when the passes connecting India and Tibet would be snowbound. But the Chinese would still have some potential for intervention. At this stage, the politicians came to the rescue with the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. The clause on mutual help in case of aggression1 was intended to deter the Chinese in case they wanted to come in on Pakistan’s side.
India had to muster six or seven divisions to get the necessary numerical superiority.
Another question that was purely political was the justification for a campaign. Could India arrogate to itself the right to walk into East Pakistan to evict the Pakistani Army and set up a democratic government there? It could claim that it was doing so to send back the 10 million refugees who had been sitting on its doorstep for many months. But would international opinion accept such justification? The answer lay in :
- projecting India’s case to the world community so that international opinion could force Pakistan’s rulers to instal a government of the elected representatives of the country in Bangladesh; and.
- leaving the commencement of hostilities to Pakistan should it choose to decide the issue by force of arms.
“The politicians came to the rescue with the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.We have already spoken of the action the Indian Government took to put India’s case before the world. In regard to Pakistan’s options for military action, even a layman could see that its potential for an offensive lay only in the west. With the resources at its disposal, it was in no position to launch one from Bangladesh, though the possibility of large-scale forays was there. Hence the Indian planners had to provide for containing a Pakistani offensive in the west.
India’s experience of international reactions in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani hostilities had been quite disconcerting. While no one lifted a finger when the two countries were heading for a collision, many jumped into the arena to separate the combatants once the fighting started. The ceasefire that resulted from this intervention did not bring lasting peace. This time, India did not wish to face a similar situation. There had to be a decision before the peacemakers could come in or any possible allies of the enemy could sway the issue. It had therefore to be a short war and a time frame of three weeks was laid down.
After Tikka Khan’s Operation Blitz, the Pakistani Army in the east was busy in May consolidating its hold over the country. Though the Pakistanis achieved some success in this, Yahya Khan did not follow it up with any political measures to instal a democratic government in the province. All he did to placate Bengali sentiment was to appoint Dr A.M. Malik as governor in place of Tikka Khan. This move did not mollify the Bengalis as Niazi was at the same time made Martial Law Administrator. Real power lay in his hands.
Could India arrogate to itself the right to walk into East Pakistan to evict the Pakistani Army and set up a democratic government there?
With the onset of the monsoon the threat of a preemptive strike by Pakistan had receded. Though the rains in Punjab are not as severe as in B: ngal, the sodden plains do not permit the deployment of armour. Even other transport cannot move off the road till the ground dries by mid-September. India therefore got a breather.
No country can afford to be in a state of preparedness for war at all times. The cost would be colossal. All that can be done is to have updated contingency plans, and to deploy the available resources judiciously. Manekshaw, Chief of Army Staff at this time, also functioned as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. He had been Chief for about two years. In the process of making the Army battleworthy, he had become aware of its strong points as well as its shortcomings. One of the reasons for his recommendation against immediate military action was the Army’s shortfalls in preparing for war, and he started to remedy them straightway.
It had therefore to be a short war and a time frame of three weeks was laid down.
In all democracies, more so in India, it is generally the habit to economise on defence expenditure in peace. Since it is difficult to make drastic cuts in the recurring establishment charges of a large standing force, the axe usually falls on reserve holdings of equipment and ammunition, stockpiled to sustain a war of a visualised duration. The erosion of reserves lowers the level of holdings in peace and recoupment becomes very difficult in case of war. Production has to be geared afresh both in the private and public sectors for items manufactured indigenously. This often takes a considerable lead period, especially when supplies of raw material and power are so sluggish and uncertain, with attendant labour troubles and other constraints. Much greater difficulty is confronted in procuring items of foreign manufacture.
Equipment held by underdeveloped countries like India is usually obsolescent if not actually obsolete. Its manufacture has usually been stopped by the supplying countries, and their inventories have usually run out of complete equipment and spares. The required items can usually be procured from private concerns dealing in junk, or those with limited manufacturing capacities, or from third countries still holding the equipment. Since the selling parties are generally aware of the pressing need of the buyer, the prices quoted are generally exorbitant. The time required for scouting, entering into international contracts and for transportation is long, and these delays are reflected in the preparation schedules.
Such last-minute hurry can be avoided by systematic turnover and recoupment of inventories with a continuous flow in the pipeline. This requires planned and timely allocation of funds in the defence budget, but unfortunately this is not done. In April 1971 the Army’s reserve holdings were generally low, enough for approximately 60 days in common-run items and considerably lower in those which were critical and in short supply. One of the first acts of Manekshaw as Chief was to see that the reserves were made up expeditiously. The entire government machinery was geared to step up production and procurement to achieve this in the shortest possible time.
The next action was to make units and formations fit for war, and he applied himself energetically to this task. Making up their deficiencies in manpower, equipment and ammunition became difficult as a major reorganisation and reequipping of the Indian Army was then in progress, especially in the Armoured Corps and Artillery. Some units were under raising, others were converting to newly introduced equipment, and yet others were getting familiar with specialised equipment.
The Army had been equipped with a heterogeneous mixture of equipment and ammunition. Some of it was from Western countries, received during and after the debacle in 1962. Some had been recently procured in the Soviet Union and other East European countries, and the rest had been produced indigenously. This equipment was spread indiscriminately as the units and formations were equipped as and when equipment became available and frequent change overs had taken place. Urgent rationalisation of equipment holdings, first theatrewise and then formationwise, was essential to fascilitate administrative and repair backing.
Equipment held by underdeveloped countries like India is usually obsolescent if not actually obsolete
Rationalisation was ordered in good time and was over by the end of August. Rationalisation of stockpiling General Staff (GS) reserves of equipment and spares backing needed more time. After the rationalisation of equipment, the GS reserves were also so placed that replacements and spares were available to the demanding unit at short notice, and a steady flow in the pipeline in time of expenditure was ensured on systematic feedbacks.
Placing ammunition stocks presented certain difficulties, especially of imported varieties because the required quantities were not available. Although some stocks were under procurement abroad, these could not be counted as assets till they actually landed in the country. Items in short supply were proportionately distributed in such a manner that the immediate requirements of a short and intense war would be met in the battle zone, at least in the initial stages. Replenishment was to be controlled by planned expenditure. The redistribution was completed surreptitiously by the middle of October under cover of monsoon and winter stocking, and it served the war well.
The next action was to make units and formations fit for war, and he applied himself energetically to this task.
In weapons and other equipment there were critical shortages in unit holdings, and a considerable backlog in their repair because spare parts were short. The situation became more acute when after an armoured formation exercise it was found that 70 to 80 per cent of its tanks needed repair. This needed a major repair organisation to get them back into service. The work was taken up on a war footing and the manufacture of indigenous tanks was temporarily stopped to expand the production of spare parts. Wishing to show greater production of complete units, the management of the factory had starved users of spares. This anomaly was redressed, and the manufacturer and the repair organisation made a coordinated effort to make the damaged and defective tanks battleworthy. This was achieved in good time, and Manekshaw personally presided over meetings of the coordinating committee to give it an extra fillip.
In the earlier conflicts of 1962 and 1965, many formations were thrown into battle with units with which they had not trained before, and this accounted for some of the setbacks they suffered. The annual changeover of a proportion of units from operational to non- operational areas was largely to blame for this. Almost one-third of the fighting strength gets shifted and changes formation affiliations in peace. This changeover means the induction of one–sometimes even two–new infantry battalion into a brigade and the withdrawal of an equal number. But the system is accepted as a necessary evil as it gives the jawan a chance to serve in a family station with his wife and children.
Items in short supply were proportionately distributed in such a manner that the immediate requirements of a short and intense war would be met in the battle zone, at least in the initial stages.
The Chief did not however want the annual turnover to affect the conduct of operations he was planning. Accordingly, the change over programme for 1971-72 was suspended on the ground of “railway transport constraints imposed py civilian priorities.” Not to cause despondency among the troops in operational areas, they were informed that their tenure in family stations would be suitably extended to compensate them for the extra time spent in the field.
Manpower shortage was another problem confronting the Chief. Units were under strength, having been milked for new raisings and because of normal wastage through retirement and release. This was tackled by a crash programme of training recruits at the regimental training centres and reducing the training period by some weeks. Fresh intake was surreptitiously increased to cater for war wastage as the normal manpower pipeline did not cater for this. Reservists were called for training in the monsoon and were kept on till well after the conflict. Used as reinforcements, their performance was poor. Only about 60 per cent responded to call notices and even they became disgruntled as their period of mobilisation dragged on.
During the period of preparation, it was essential that units should maintain a battleworthy level of manpower. Leave was therefore restricted to 10 per cent of unit strength, and that too only on extreme compassionate grounds. This meant forgoing leave for most of the rank and file. To avoid discontent on this account, Government was prevailed upon to extend the privilege of availing of leave entitlement for 1971 up to 1973. This was later extended to 1974.
The officer situation was more serious. It was estimated that 30 to 35 per cent of the authorised officer strength in a unit was away at any given time on leave, courses of instruction and other duties. To remedy this, the Chief ordered the staff at Army Headquarters and the headquarters of other formations to be drastically pruned to spare officers for posting to field formations. He also ordered the cancellation of courses of instruction involving the absence of essential command elements from their units on the ostensible ground that important training institutions were to be reorganised.
Plans were also made to use the instructional staff of the training institutions and students of the National Defence College in war establishments of field formations on mobilisation. The campaign and new controlling headquarters to be raised needed the services of experienced and fairly senior officers who would be forthcoming from such sources. The Chief was also keen that continuity in the command and control of fighting units and formations should not be upset on the eve of war. To implement these schemes all changes already planned in command and staff of formations and units were suspended.