Military & Aerospace

1971 War on the Eastern Front: Observations, Comments and Lessons
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Grand Strategy

Pakistan, at its creation, comprised the Western and Eastern Wings, separated by a distance of about 1600 kilometres. For the survival of Pakistan, it was essential that both the Wings remained united. Everything possible should have been done to maintain the unity and integrity of the Nation. The Pakistan rulers felt all along that religion, which was the basis for Partition of the Indian Sub-Continent, would continue to sustain the unity of the country. It was not realized that other important factors such as divergences in ethnic background, language, culture and economic conditions also have an important bearing on the unity of a Nation. The hegemonic domination over and the step-motherly, indeed inhuman, treatment meted out to East Pakistan resulted in the people revolting in that part of the country and seceding from the mother country.

It would be pertinent to mention here that Pakistan’s claim to Jammu and Kashmir also is based on the religion factor. However, the willing accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India, which had the support of the then undisputed leader of Kashmir Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and subsequent confirmation by regular elections held several times in the State, was based not on religion, but various other important factors such as cultural heritage, common political struggle, economic progress, security and so on, which were perceived by the people of Jammu and Kashmir to be in their best interests. Indeed, history is replete with instances, where despite professing a common religion, nations went to war against each other, due to other considerations affecting the interests of their peoples. The secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan further proves the point.

Military involvement in politics, is one of the main reasons for the dis-memberment of Pakistan. Admittedly, during the formative years of Pakistan’s history, there was considerable political instability and no elections were held nor a constitution framed, during the first decade of its Independence. The Military took over power on the plea of anarchy in October 1958 and the Military Rule lasted for about fourteen years. During this period, Pakistan went to war twice with India. While Ayub Khan held restricted elections based on a system of Basic Democracies, Yahya Khan held elections based on adult franchise in 1970. However, Yahya did not respect the verdict of the electorate. Neither the National Assembly met nor a democratic government was allowed to be formed. Instead, in the name of preserving the integrity of the country, a Military crackdown was imposed on East Pakistan, with the resultant disastrous consequences. Perhaps, if the Military had kept out of politics, a democratically elected civilian government might have been able to sustain the unity and integrity of the Nation. Perhaps, it might have been possible to find a mutually acceptable political solution, which would satisfy the aspirations of the people of East Pakistan and at the same time preserve the integrity of the whole country. Of course, some of the important political leaders also played an irresponsible and negative role.

From time to time, Pakistan accuses that India has not reconciled itself to Partition of the Sub-continent and that it entertains hegemonic aspirations. Such an accusation is clearly baseless. The past record of India proves that it has no such aims. In Jammu and Kashmir, it was Pakistan that invaded the State and India only took counter measures to evict the aggressor, after the State legally acceded to India. After the 1947-48 War and 1965 War, India took a positive attitude and came to the Karachi Agreement and Tashkent Agreement respectively. The same applies to the Kutch Agreement arrived at in 1965. India all along wanted a ‘No War Part’ with Pakistan, but it was Pakistan which had not favourably responded. Even in the case of the 1971 War, India all along tried her best to avert a war and obtain a diplomatic solution to the problem of East Pakistan. In this connection, the efforts of the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi up to the last moment, are well-known. Again, after the war, the Simla Agreement was arrived at and all territory captured in the West and all the prisoners captured both in the East and West, were returned. Ever since, the efforts of India have been to improve relations with Pakistan and resolve all outstanding problems in a peaceful manner. Thus, it would be un-charitable to accuse India of not reconciling itself to Partition or entertaining hegemonic aspirations. On the other hand, it was Pakistan which had been trying to secure Jammu and Kashmir by force, got embroiled in numerous military alliances and pacts, and had been building up its armed strength well beyond its defence requirements. Unjustifiable suspicion of India’s intentions and non-reconcilation to realities on the part of Pakistan, are some of the reasons for the tension between the two countries. Perhaps, a democratic and responsible Civilian Government would help in normalisation of relations between the two countries. As far as this war was concerned, India had to ensure that in the event of war, it isolated East Pakistan and completed the operations before any outside interference could materialize. Thus, such a period had to be selected for the campaign, when its other adversary China could not interfere. This meant that it had to wait, till the Passes in the Himalayas in the North were closed for the winter.

It has to be remembered that the bulk of the troops for the war in East Pakistan were found from those meant for the Northern border. These troops could only be taken away, after ensuring that there was no possibility of a major attack by the Chinese. Another factor that helped in creating the necessary confidence among the Indians, was the Indo-Soviet Treaty with the Soviet Union. Perhaps, this Pact might have dissuaded China from interfering in the war. As far as the United States of America was concerned, no direct interference was anticipated, but full support to Pakistan in the United Nations was definitely visualized. Under the circumstances, the arrival of the United States Seventh Fleet in the Bay of Bengal came as a surprise to the Indians and had an adverse impact on Indo-US relations. United Nations efforts at ceasefire were anticipated and indeed there was considerable pressure from that quarter. It was unfortunate that many of the Member Countries did not fully understand the aspirations, sufferings and sacrifices of the people of East Pakistan for their liberation from the Pakistani yoke; and instead became victims of propaganda and supported the Military Regime of Pakistan in their repression of the Eastern Wing. Subsequenly, however, the United Nations recognized the new country, Bangladesh! With regard to speedy completion of operations, as can be seen, the Indian Armed Forces so devised their plans and implemented them, that within a period of fourteen days, the entire operation was completed and the surrender of Pakistan Forces obtained.

Military Strategy

Pakistan should have realized that in the event of the situation in East Pakistan escalating into an all out war with India, it was essential that it retained an adequate foot hold in East Pakistan, pending intervention by its friends or at least by the United Nations. This meant that the Dacca Bowl had to be held at all costs. Holding on to Dacca should have formed the Central feature of Pakistan’s strategy in the East. However, the strategy actually adopted did not ensure that when the threat materialized, the Dacca Bowl was effectively safeguarded. It envisaged holding a number of fortresses in the periphery all around and destroying the enemy as far forward as possible. This might have succeeded, had there been fortresses in depth, and adequate reserves to deal with enemy forces infiltrating between fortresses and heading for strategic objectives in depth. Even so, as and when the enemy pressure became irresistible, there should have been plans for systematic and organized withdrawal to prepared positions for the defence of the Dacca Bowl. In actual fact, none of these requirements were fulfilled and the Pakistani troops more or less spread out their defences along a thin line close to the border, with no depth in their defences. When it came to actual implementation in battle, even the prepared fortresses could not be fully occupied by the troops in front under pressure; and they withdrew in a most disorganized fashion to what appeared to be safer places. There was no proper organization of reserves to deal with infiltrating enemy forces. As the Indian forces by-passed forward positions and reached the so-called fortresses and subsequently strategic objectives in depth, no organized resistance could be offered by the Pakistanis. Admittedly, the Pakistani Military set up in the Eastern Wing was functioning under several constraints, which included the geographical disadvantage of being surrounded from three directions, the Naval blockade from the fourth direction, the air supremacy enjoyed by the Indians, harassing by the Mukti Bahini in the rear areas, non-cooperation of the local people due to their alienation and so on. However, by the time the war started, the Pakistanis had adequate forces to put up the requisite degree of resistance for the defence of the Dacca Bowl, pending receipt of help from outside. About five Divisions worth of troops that they had, were adequate against about seven Divisions worth of troops that India brought to bear against them, provided sound strategy was followed and the plans properly implemented.

The main task given to the Pakistani Eastern Command was ‘to defend East Pakistan against external aggression’. Perhaps, the Pakistani High Command did not envisage that India would launch a fullfledged offensive, in order to liberate the entire East Pakistan, but instead calculated that India would only capture sufficient territory to facilitate establishment of the Provisional Government of Bangladesh and to return the refugees to their homeland. It would appear that Niazi also agreed with this assessment, as otherwise, the strategy that he adopted of the fortresses concept, and laying bare Dacca cannot be justified. If his assessment of the likely Indian threat was different and coincided with what Indians actually did subsequently, then he should have firmly conveyed his views and recommendations to his High Command. In military affairs, where national security is at stake and the lives of many soldiers are involved, a commander whatever be his level, must convey his appreciation to his higher authorities, without fear or favour, as otherwise, he would be doing grave injustice to his country. Equally, the higher authority, whatever be his level and whether Military or Civil, must give due regard to the subordinate commander’s recommendations. In the event, a faulty apprisal of strategy, coupled with incompetent handling of operations, caused Pakistan dear.

As far as India was concerned, there has been a view that if military action was taken soon after the Pakistani crackdown in the Eastern Wing, many civilian lives could have been saved and Bangladesh helped to liberate itself earlier. It is argued that the Pakistanis did not have adequate forces as the build up was still taking place, that their available forces were dispersed and in a state of disorganization, and that the operations could have been completed before the impending monsoon. There were many factors which militated against such a course of action. The first and the foremost one was that without first trying to have the problem resolved peacefully by diplomatic means, if India had taken the law into its own hands, it would not have been able to justify its action. It would have been accused of aggressive designs and hegemonic aspirations. Another factor was the need for proper preparations for an offensive on such a large scale, such as mustering of the requisite forces, developing of intelligence, preparation and coordination of plans, development of communications, movement of forces and so on. Yet another important factor was that possible Chinese interference on the Northern borders had to be taken into consideration and during this period the Himalayan Passes were opening up. Also, in case the operations were not completed before the monsoon, a stalemate could ensue. The Mukti Bahini also needed time to organize, equip and train itself. Thus, it would not have been appropriate to launch operations prematurely, in the wake of the Pakistani crackdown.

There had been some discussion whether Dacca has been known as the final objective and whether the strategy included plans for the capture of Dacca at an early date. In actual fact, Dacca was always the central factor in the strategy of the Indian High Command, and Eastern Command was indeed ordered to secure it, in the event of a war breaking out. However, as far as planning was concerned, while Dacca had to be constantly kept in view as the final objective, detailed planning on a realistic basis could only be done for advance up to the line of the major rivers, in the first instance. Depending on the progress of the operations, subsequent plans had to be made for the capture of Dacca. A great deal depended on the initiative, determination, ingenuity and aggressiveness of the Field Commanders in pursuing the operations vigorously for the capture of this final objective; and as the events subsequently brought out, the Field Commanders did India proud.

A point of criticism that could be justifiably advanced is that, certain formations continued to press for certain original objectives, which had really no bearing on the advance to Dacca, and that they could have suitably altered their plans in order to facilitate the achievement of the primary aim of capturing Dacca. Some examples are the advance to Khulna after the capture of Jessore, advance to Kushtia after the capture of Jhenida, advance to Rangpur after the capture of Bogra, and the attack on Maynamati after the crossing of the Meghna. If the forces employed on these strategically unimportant and infructuous missions, could be utilized for developing thrusts towards Dacca, perhaps, the capture of Dacca would have been even further speeded up and number of casualties reduced.

The Indian strategy otherwise, the main components of which were achievement of air supremacy in the shortest possible time, a Naval blockade in the South, multi-pronged thrusts by the Army from the West, North and East into East Pakistan, integration of Mukti Bahini operations, timing of the offensive, early seizure of Dacca and so on, was commendable, both in its conception and subsequent implementation.

Could there have been a different strategy from the outset? For instance, couldn’t all efforts have been directed towards the capture of Dacca, the nerve centre and the vital politico-military objective in East Pakistan? Perhaps this could have been accomplished by three major thrusts, namely, from the South West (2 Corps Sector), from the North (101 Communication Zone Sector) and from the East (Mid-Eastern Sector of 4 Corps); with a basically defensive stance in the other sectors. The advantages of such a strategy would have been that all concentration as far as military operations were concerned would have been on Dacca, and proper planning and preparations would have been carried out for the purpose from the outset. The operations could also perhaps have been speeded up. On the other hand, the disadvantage would have been that the enemy would have been able to withdraw forces from the dormant sectors once he discerned the thrust lines, and utilize them for the close-in defence of Dacca. He could also undertake limited offensives opposite those sectors, particularly against the Siliguri corridor and Badarpur (Silchar), isolating important areas and formations. The strategy might have worked but the risks were greater. In any case, it has to be remembered that the main military aim was to destroy the Pakistani forces and the territory would then have automatically been liberated.

Defensive Operations

Having decided to adopt the ‘fortress’ concept of defence, it would appear from the initial deployment, that the Pakistanis tried to defend every inch of territory. While the fortresses were well prepared with concrete bunkers, wire and mines, most of the troops were deployed forward almost right up to the borders, covering every conceivable approach. Even some posts forward were well prepared. The Pakistanis felt that they would inflict maximum attrition on Indian troops as far forward as possible and then fall back on to their fortresses, where they would complete the destruction of the enemy. This thinking had resulted in dispersel of their troops in penny-packets, with hardly anything of significance holding the fortresses. For instance, in the North-Western Sector, the Padma river along the border was a major obstacle for the Indians to launch operations across. Yet, the Pakistanis deployed a whole Brigade (34 Brigade) for the defence of the Nawabganj-Rajshahi-Nator Sector, whereas a reasonable appreciation of the likely thrust lines of the enemy, would have indicated to them that the greater threat was further North and that the greater requirement of troops was there. Similarly, the strategically important Comilla-Laksham Sector was defended by only one Brigade (117 Brigade) while a whole Brigade (53 Brigade) was initially deployed in the Fenny area, from where it had to be moved in haste to Laksham when the threat there had already materialized. In the Central Sector, the Pakistanis deployed only one Brigade (93 Brigade), while this provided the best approaches to Dacca, without any major obstacles to cross for the Indians. On the other hand, the Pakistanis deployed a whole Division (16 Division) in the North-Western Sector and a Division less Brigade (14 Division) in the North-Eastern Sector. It should have been apparent to them that if strong thrusts were to be launched for the capture of Dacca, these would be from the South-Western, Central and Mid-Eastern Sectors; and greater strength of forces should have been accordingly deployed for the defence of these Sectors. The Para-Military Forces, with essential regular forces should have been mainly deployed in the other Sectors.

When actual fighting started, it was found that as Indian troops infiltrated between forward positions and rapidly got into the depth areas or in some areas overcame resistance by the thinly dispersed forward troops and advanced forward, there was considerable confusion among the Pakistani units and formations. They were unable to appreciate accurately the Indians’ intentions and could not even fall back intact on the fortress positions. Thus, neither they could offer any worthwhile resistance forward, nor could they effectively defend the fortresses, in most cases. All these happened, because of violating the basic concept of defence and faulty deployment. As brought out, the conduct of defensive battle also left much to be desired.

Offensive Operations

The Indian plan of multi-pronged thrusts from three different directions was basically sound. However, with Dacca as the final objective, allotment of troops to different Sectors for offensive operations, indicated some weaknesses. The South-Western and Eastern Sectors were quite rightly allotted a Corps each. However, the Central Sector was made the responsibility of 101 Communication Sone Area, with only about two Brigades worth of troops, although subsequently it was reinforced. Equally, the bulk of the tanks available with Eastern Command, as also an Engineer Brigade, were allotted to North-Western Sector, whereas the need for these was much greater in the Central and Eastern Sectors. Admittedly, there were logistic problems in moving tanks to the Central and Eastern Sectors, but these were not insurmountable.

In war, while initial plans for offensive operations must be sound and the course of operations should be forecast as accurately as possible, Field Commanders must display flexibility, dynamism and an aggressive outlook, in order to exploit fleeting opportunities that invariably come their way, and in order to give no respite to the enemy and to rout him. In this war, there have been several occasions when Field Commanders displayed these commendable qualities in ample measure. In particular, mention must be made of Sagat Singh’s decision to change the thrust line of 57 Mountain Division towards Ashuganj once a new road was discovered; and his bold crossing of the Meghna by every available means, in order to strike at Dacca before the enemy had time to recover and organize himself.

In this war, for the first time ever, helicopters were used to unbalance the enemy and to speed up the progress of the operations. Initially, the available fleet of helicopters was used for the Heliborne Operation in Sylhet. Although only essential elements of a battalion were dropped, the enemy estimated the strength to be a Brigade and became completely passive and paralysed. The capture of Sylhet was facilitated, because of this operation and the better part of an enemy division was bottled up there. Subsequently, a Heliborne Operation was mounted across the Meghna, in the Raipura-Narsingdi area. Again, this operation had resulted in panic in the enemy ranks and early capture of Dacca. Of course, it has to be remembered that attainment of air supremacy by the Indian Air Force, helped to a considerable extent, the successful conduct of these Heliborne Operations. Although the operations were launched with limited number of helicopters and in considerable haste, these had succeeded because of the circumstances prevailing. These have brought out the potentialities available in the use of the third dimension. The need to create a sufficient force of helicopters as well as training in the planning and conduct of Heliborne Operations for the future, requires little stress.

A para-drop of a battalion group was initially planned for Tangail. However, as the land operations progressed, it was felt that the drop could be further South. The Air Force found some difficulty in changing the site for the drop. This brings out the need for alternative plans for airborne operations, which should cater for some of the more likely situations that may arise, depending on the progress of operations. It so happened in the case of the Tangail operation, that the bulk of the enemy, which was supposed to be intercepted, had already withdrawn. To derive full advantage of such ventures, it is, therefore, necessary to have flexible plans.

Owing to the peculiar circumstances obtaining in the Eastern theatre, it was possible for Indians to achieve air supremacy, within a short period of the start of the war. The land forces were, therefore, able to operate with immunity from the enemy Air Force. It has to be realized that such an opportunity rarely comes the way of an attacker in modernwars. As would be apparent from the operations in the Western Sector, even if local air superiority is achieved for an offensive, it is a great advantage. However, offensive operations have been carried out without this facility and succeeded, many a time in war. Thus, land forces must attune themselves to operating under unfavourable air situations to the extent possible.


Without reasonably accurate intelligence, it is impossible to make sound plans. For this war, as launching a major offensive into East Pakistan never formed part of the contingencies visualized by India, availability of ready intelligence about East Pakistan was extremely limited and had to be more or less collected from scratch. On the other hand, an advantage that was available to the Indians was, that the Mukti Bahini was able to provide considerable intelligence. Despite this facility, at the start of the war, there were some important gaps in the intelligence available to the Indian Commanders. New roads and other topographical information, came to light only as the operations progressed. A typical example is the information that came to light, that the Pakistanis had converted one of the railway tracks to a road between Akhaura and Ashuganj. Although this was close to the border, yet, the information was not available before the start of the war. Similarly, right up to the end during the preparatory period, the firm location of some of the Pakistani forces, was not available for some reason or the other. Also, as the war progressed, conflicting reports with regard to enemy movements used to come to light. There were reports of enemy having vacated or vacating certain areas, whereas it was found that even more than the earlier anticipated strength was existing in these areas. Equally, in some areas where fullfledged attacks were planned, the enemy had withdrawn by the time the attack went in. While it would not be possible to always get absolutely up-to-date and accurate intelligence in war, very effort needs to be made to so organize intelligence that the requisite information becomes available to a reasonable extent. As far as the Pakistanis were concerned, their intelligence about the Indians was poor. Of course, they were functioning under certain constraints, what with the harassment by the Mukti Bahini and an unfriendly population. Due to this lack of adequate intelligence, their plans also suffered from severe draw backs. Despite such constraints, it is necessary that intelligence is properly organized, so that effective counter measures are taken against the enemy. After all, while launching operations into enemy territory, where population may not be friendly, intelligence would still be required to make reasonably sound plans. Therefore, Intelligence Staff must be prepared to function effectively, despite the normal hazards of war.

Irregular Warfare

The part played by Mukti Bahini has already been covered in some detail. This war has once again brought out that with the limited numbers, equipment and training, irregular troops cannot, on their own, take on regular forces in deliberate battles forming part of conventional warfare. The part played by Mukti Bahini in East Pakistan, should not be confused with such operations as in Vietnam, where the North Vietnamese forces were organized as proper regular foces and operated in conjunction with Guerrillas (Vietcong) in South Vietnam. The Mukti Bahini did not have the strength or the experience required, nor had the time available to organize themselves on the same lines. However, the Mukti Bahini played a useful role in carrying out raids on isolated posts, harassment of lines of communication and in later stages establishing blocks behind the enemy and even attacking some lightly held positions. They provided useful intelligence to the regular forces and also acted as guides. Ultimately, after the war, the Mukti Bahini formed the backborne of the new Bangladesh Regular Army and their commanders rose to the highest positions in the country.

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Civil Affairs

Civil Affairs cells comprising civilian and military officers were established at formation Headquarters at different levels, to administer captured areas and to re-establish Civil Administration at an early date. While initially these functioned under the respective formation commanders, later on Maj. B.N. Sarcar who was in overall charge of Civil Affairs at Command level, took control of these. Formation Commanders, in addition to conducting their operations, initially had to deal with such problems as law and order, civil supplies, restoration of communications, medical needs, and so on. Bengali officials of the areas were put in charge as early as possible, pending posting of permanent officials by the new country; and this helped in re-establishing Civil Administration speedily. Indian troops themselves befriended the population and behaved in an exemplary manner, earning in the process the gratitude and praise of the local population.


Many other useful lessons emerged from the war in East Pakistan. These included lessons on training, leadership and morale, inter-Service cooperation, logistics and so on. However, as some of these are common to the Western theatre also, these will be covered in the succeeding chapter.

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