Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Eastern Command, who was to command the land forces of India and Bangladesh and coordinate the functions of the Air Force and the Navy in liberating Bangladesh, had come up the professional ladder with ease, both through his personal endowments and the influence of powerful connections. He had held prized appointments in the Army, but his most notable contribution was as Brigadier General Staff to Lt Gen Umrao Singh in NEFA before the Chinese invasion in 1962.
It is said that he was the author of Umrao Singh’s appreciation bringing out the ill-matched capability of the Indian Army at the point of decision opposite the Namka Chu river.
At the time of the Indo-Pakistani conflict in 1965, Aurora was serving at Army Headquarters with Chaudhuri as Director of Military Training. Being generally pleasant and mild-mannered, he was acceptable to all camps which came to power, but his chief mentor was Manekshaw. Their relations were very warm, and as a result Manekshaw had taken him along as he rose in the hierarchy. The Chief trusted him fully and considered Eastern Command an extension of his personal command. He expected his instructions to be implemented there according to the spirit of his own thinking. Aurora played the part of a trusted subordinate well in the beginning, but as his own stature grew as a result of success in battle he started asserting his individuality and their friendship began to cool.
The Chief trusted him fully and considered Eastern Command an extension of his personal command. He expected his instructions to be implemented there according to the spirit of his own thinking.
Aurora had apparently everything, a smart and impressive bearing, a sound professional background and an incisive mind. Yet his command did not take him seriously as a fighter because he did not display the flamboyance of a soldiers’ general. That is why in the final count his contribution to the unqualified success in Bangladesh, however genuine, remained suspect in the professional eye. Many others, orbiting in lesser spheres of responsibility, later claimed credit in shaping the plan without serious challenge.
Based on Army Headquarters directions, Headquarters Eastern Command issued operational instructions sometime in August 1971 which spelt out the sectorwise allotment of resources in te rms of troops and material, the objectives to be achieved, and the broad time frame of operations, with the necessary coordinat ion instruction between the sectors.
The stage was then set for sector operational plans to be worked out in detail, covering the formulation of thrust lines, formation of objectives and sub-allocation of resources. This was done during the greater part of September, and the plans were examined during war games right up to the end of October, down to brigade level. Modifications were incorporated as a result of the examination, and in the light of the latest information on Pakistani dispositions gathered in border skirmishes.
I found the formation commanders had a good knowledge of the local topography and a fair idea of the deployment of Pakistani forces and their fighting potential.
I was deputed to tour Eastern Command in September to sense the reactions of the executors to the operational plan and generally verify on the ground the progress achieved in setting up the infrastructure, the buildup of troops and logistic backing. I met the formation commanders at corps and division level and discussed the plans and their attendant problems. Most of the commanders were old friends and colleagues, and as a result the discussions were free and informal. They yielded frank briefings.
I found the formation commanders had a good knowledge of the local topography and a fair idea of the deployment of Pakistani forces and their fighting potential. They had a reasonable measure of the tasks in hand and were confident of success, provided some latitude was allowed to them in planning and the conduct of battle. In one voice, they disdained “spoonfeeding” from the top.
Like the top half of an hour-glass, the northwest sector is divided in two, with the pinched waist in the middle. It was bounded by the Tista and its tributaries in the north, Jamuna in the west, and Ganga in the south. The Atrai and numerous other rivulets, running northwest to southeast, cut up the entire area. Road and rail communication follow the grain of the country and run between the river obstacles.
Indian intelligence had been juggling its estimates to suit the purpose of the assessor, both at the higher and lower levels. Army Headquarters estimated a buildup of five to six battalions in the sector while Eastern Command claimed a count of eleven. Both erred purposely…
The main communication centres were Thakurgaon, Dinajpur and Rangpur in the northern half of the sector and Rajshahi and Bogra in the southern. The Balurghat bulge pointed like a sword at the waist, ready to sever the north from the south along the Hilli-Ghoraghat line. Banking on the possibility of Chinese collusion, Niazi had given great importance to this sector. The operational responsibilty for its defence was assigned to Pakistan’s 16 Infantry Division under Maj Gen Nazar Hussain Shah, who was holding it, apart from the paramilitary forces, with approximately one brigade group in the north in the general areas of Thakurgaon, Dinajpur and Rangpur, another in the Hilli and Ghoraghat area and a third in the south in Rajshahi, Ishurdi and Naogaon.
Indian intelligence had been juggling its estimates to suit the purpose of the assessor, both at the higher and lower levels. Army Headquarters estimated a buildup of five to six battalions in the sector while Eastern Command claimed a count of eleven. Both erred purposely, one on the conservative side and the other on the liberal, to suit their own requirements. Army Headquarters wanted to keep down the allotment of troops, and Eastern Command to raise its bid for extra resources. Despite the improved means of information now available through the Mukti Bahini, intelligence estimates oscillated between these two stands and were never reconciled till the conclusion of the campaign. Eventually, this sector proved to be held by nine battalions.
Lt Gen Thapan was in charge of operations in this sector while Maj Gen Lachhman Singh Lehl, General Officer Commanding 20 Mountain Division, was to carry out the invasion and execute the plans. Thapan was known to his colleagues as a “copybook” general who followed Army pamphlets in letter and spirit. A typical infantry officer, he had the courage of his convictions but lacked imagination and was rigid in his views.
It was well known in the Army that in the Indo-Pakistani conflict of 1965, when Thapan was General Officer Commanding 26 Infantry Division, he sat some three miles from Sialkot watching the top of its high buildings without stirring out of his firm oases. When questioned afterwards, replied that his orders did not include raiding Sialkot. A dutiful soldier, he only carried out orders. And yet our defective systems elevated him to command a corps commited to invading Bangladesh.
The Pakistani deployment was dispersed in localities defended by independent battalions. It was therefore prudent to interpose Indian thrust lines between the localities so as to split the Pakistani force in penny packets, thus facilitating its piecemeal destruction.
Aware of Thapan’s lack of enterprise, Aurora wanted to hand over the conduct of the Bangladesh part of the corps operations to Maj Gen J.S. Nakai, Chief of Staff XXXIII Corps, leaving Thapan to deal with the Chinese side. But Thapan insisted on retaining this command too and Aurora was not strong enough to get his wish implemented. The unsatisfactory arrangement continued, resulting in one blaming the other for the subsequent setbacks in the sector.
Thapan’s force for capturing the northwestern sector consisted of 20 Mountain Division and two independent brigade groups. Out of these, one group had been committed to hold the Balurghat bulge for general security of the area and provide a firm base for developing thrust lines. Thus the opposing strengths gave Thapan only an edge of one brigade or so, and this did not lend itself to assured success if he decided to go in for systematic attrition by fighting and eliminating each defended locality.
The Pakistani pattern of deployment divided Shah’s force broadly into three separate sectors–the head of the hour-glass with one brigade group, the waist with one brigade, and the bottom with the third brigade group along with Divisional Headquarters. The northwestern sector was connected with the rest of Bangladesh by rail and road communications only over Hardinge Bridge, and by ferries with the southwestern sector at Pabna and Kushtia, and with the northern sector at Sirajganj. The logical course would have been to swiftly sever these access routes to frustrate Niazi’s effort to reinforce the sector and deny Shah a route of withdrawal for his force to join hands with the troops operating in the southwestern sector or to fall back on the Dacca defences.
…plan was ill-conceived. It committed the force piecemeal on independent axes, so far apart from each other that mutual support was not feasible.
Since the possibility of overt Chinese collusion had now receded, priority for capture lay in the southern portion. Rich dividends could accrue if the Pakistani force was cut in two by driving a wedge at the waist in strength and then fanning out north and south to deal simultaneously with the forces deployed there. The balance of strength of the thrusts should have been tilted towards the southern portion as the success in the south automatically affected the north. The Pakistani deployment was dispersed in localities defended by independent battalions. It was therefore prudent to interpose Indian thrust lines between the localities so as to split the Pakistani force in penny packets, thus facilitating its piecemeal destruction.
Thapan could not however grasp the intricacies of lightning warfare and decided that after establishing a firm base in the Balurghat bulge with one brigade group he would develop three simultaneous thrusts. One brigade group was to advance along the Islampur-Ruhea-Zhakurgaon-Atrai Bridge axis to secure the bridge. The second thrust was to be towards Dinajpur from the south to link up with the first by D+3 day. This brigade was then to advance towards Palasbari. The third brigade group was to capture Hilli by D + 1 day and was then to advance and capture Palasbari in conjunction with the second brigade group. After its capture, sufficient forces were to be dispatched to cut the Dinajpur-Gaibanda road and, depending upon the prevailing situation and the availability of forces, to advance and capture Rangpur or Bogra, whichever offered greater chances of success.
This plan was ill-conceived. It committed the force piecemeal on independent axes, so far apart from each other that mutual support was not feasible. Each thrust was expected to progress on its own, and yet for crucial objectives like Atrai Brigade and Palasbari the brigades were visualised to join for action. Since the progress of each thrust was an indeterminate factor, it was unwise to plan for securing vital objectives on an imponderable combination of forces which might not arrive in time for combined action.This plan also visualised using the obvious approach along Hilli- Gaibanda, which was heavily defended. The brigade group allocated for the task was not likely to make much headway on its own. Besides, one brigade group was tied up in the firm base holding the Balurghat bulge throughout the operations, as none of the thrust lines, even when making good progress, could relieve this commitment.