Military & Aerospace

Between Wars 1965 to 1971
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Issue Book Excerpts: The Crimson Chinar | Date : 23 Nov , 2021

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The years between the two wars were turbulent times for both Pakistan and India. Having lost her indomitable Prime Minister at Tashkent, the Indian polity threw up the relatively unknown Mrs Indira Gandhi, and she became the third Prime Minister of the country. Despite being from the Nehru family, the President of the Congress Party since 1959, and even the Union Information and Broadcasting Minister, she was unknown beyond Indian frontiers.

On the other side of the border, though Field Marshal Ayub continued in power, his credibility was in tatters, especially after the dream he had shown to the Pakistanis remained elusive and he was under immense pressure for ‘selling out’ the nation at Tashkent. Bhutto, now in the wilderness, but not out of the political game, bayed for his blood, despite being the one who had pushed Ayub down the precipice.

Economically and militarily, Pakistan found herself in international isolation and internally the war opened up a chasm between her wings that made up the Islamic nation of Pakistan.’ In the east, the pro-Punjabi policies had already alienated the Bengali speaking but more populous East Pakistan, and despite the 1956 constitution promising equality for all Pakistanis, equitable opportunities still eluded the Bengalis.

Government services remained a West Pakistani preserve, while the army remained dominated by the Punjabi-Pathan martial races. What was more demoralizing for the Bengali East Pakistanis was the unconvincing military doctrine of Pakistan which was premised on the fallacy that ‘the defence of the East lay in the West.’ This questionable military dictum for the East Pakistanis separated by 2,575 kms had proved hollow, as the Bengalis had felt helpless, having been left to fend for themselves.

In Kashmir, simmering of the unrest took on a new form, and in a way, 14 September, 1966 was the start of a new phase of the conflict. Maqbool Bhat,[1] part of the ‘Jammu and Kashmir National Liberation Front,’ the fore runner of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) shot to prominence after the gunning down of a Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI) Inspector.

In the ensuing encounter, one of his accomplices ‘Aurangzeb’ was killed, while Bhat and ‘Kala Khan’ were arrested and both were found guilty of murder by a Srinagar Court. However, Bhat managed to evade punishment by tunnelling his way out of the Srinagar prison and escaping to POK. Pakistan on her part briefly carried out the charade of arresting him, but allowed him to proceed to UK where he formed the ‘JKLF[2] along with another separatist Amanullah Khan.

He later returned to India to continue his subversive activities till he was again arrested and subsequently hanged in the Tihar Jail in February1984 for the murder of the CBI Inspector. Bhat thus become another martyr of the struggle and his hanging was a manifestation of the violent trajectory the Kashmiri angst was taking.

General Yayha Khan – the Reluctant Politician

In view of the political turbulence, Ayub was forced to move his trusted lieutenant, Yayha Khan, as his Deputy Chief of the Army for providing ‘stability,’ if push came to shove. Free to do what he knew best, Yayha concentrated on his forte – the modernisation of the Pakistan Army.

This was a process he had initiated in 1954 and he applied the lessons of the 1965 war to prepare the army of the future. The most significant of the reforms were the introduction of ‘Corps HQ’ to harmonise the application of divisions, which had proved as the major reason of the Pakistan failures in Khem Karan and also in Akhnur.

The second was to improve on the infantry-armour ratio, and as a result, three additional infantry divisions were raised, using newly received Chinese arms and equipment. Though East Pakistan had not been the focus of the conflict, Pakistan realised her weakness and she raised her Eastern Command and this was to prove to be invaluable to coordinate her crack down in the Bangladesh War which was to follow.

However, the public movement against Ayub plunged him in a political morass and he was forced to hand over the Presidency in 1969. This left the reluctant Yayha to fight a new type of battle, one he was ill prepared for. Now as the Head of State, he had the difficult task of mollifying the incensed populace, who wanted a return to democracy while East Pakistan demanded a modicum of equality with their counterparts.

The Alienation of Bengali East Pakistan

The alienation of the Bengalis started in 1948 itself over the language issue when Urdu was made the state’s lingua franca over Bangla. After this inauspicious start, systematic denegation of the Bengalis continued under Ayub and they were progressively side-lined from important power centres. Within the defence services, Ayub reversed the directions of the Qaid by placing a ban on raising ‘all Bengali units’ in the military; the reason purported was that the Bengalis lacked the fibre required for making good soldiers. In fact, the bluster of the superiority of the ‘martial races[3] was repeatedly abused in Pakistan, and as a result, Bengalis were marginalised in the profession of arms, especially in the army. Though this was corrected to an extent by General Yayha Khan, but by that time, it was too late in the context of the war to follow.

The Bengalis were equally despised as the Hindus by the stuttering Punjabi-Pathan politico-military leadership of Pakistan. “This myth has the status of being the gospel truth in Pakistan till date, although the 1971 war and the relatively poor performance in the 1965 war did deflate this myth… Reference is made to Muslims being more martial than infidels, but the ulterior meaning always is that the Punjabi or Pathan Muslims are more martial.”[4]

Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman, the leader of the Awami League, and who had lent his support to Ayub’s political opponent, Ms. Fatima Jinnah in the Presidential elections of 1965, forwarded his ‘six point Programme’[5] in 1966 which proposed greater autonomy for both units which made up Pakistan.

A frustrated Ayub, smarting after the 1965 war went on to arrest the Sheikh, charging him with high treason. This resulted in the Bengalis being further alienated and their demand changing from ‘Autonomy’ to ‘Independence.’ Mujib was tried for an ‘alleged conspiracy with the Indian Government’ in the famous ‘Agartala Conspiracy Case.’ However, since nothing could be proved, he was freed after two years. The internal pressures built up and Ayub was forced to promise elections – a legacy he left for Yayha.

It was in these surcharged conditions that Pakistan went to the polls on 17 December, 1970 based on the 1956 Constitution which promised pro-rata political representation. The results were a body blow on the dominance of the West Pakistani. Mujib-ur-Rehman and his Awami League of East Pakistan won 167 of the 300 Assembly seats compared to the mere 82 won by the Peoples Party of Bhutto. The result was not only shattering for Bhutto who aspired for absolute power and was seeing 1971 as his moment of triumph, but it also shook one of the fundamental premises on which Pakistan was informally based – the supremacy of West Pakistan over the Bengali dominated East Pakistan.

Mujib’s Awami League, buoyed by the victory now demanded a swift transfer of power and the formalisation of the ‘Six Point Programme,’ the basis of which the party had swept to power. On the other side, Bhutto’s PPP, though the second largest party, having lost the endorsement of the entire populace of the nation, spoke for the all-powerful West, while the Awami League had emerged dominant only in the Bengali dominated East Pakistan.

Yayha Khan was placed on the horns of a dilemma as acceptance of Mujib and primacy of a Bengali on the pinnacle of power in Pakistan was anathema. On the other hand, Bhutto demanded that since his party was the largest party in the West, he represented West Pakistan and ipso facto the rule in West Pakistan should be his, despite the difference in seats. Yayha, caught between the devil and the deep sea, chose to pit Bhutto and Mujib against each other and deny both a role in the mess that had overtaken Pakistan.

Yayha also wanted Mujib to water down his ‘Six Point Programme,’ which amongst others aimed to change the character of Pakistan by ushering in equality for the Bengali dominated East Pakistan with the Punjab dominated West Pakistan and indirectly denuding the Army in the power structure of Pakistan. Thus, both Yayha and Bhutto wanted to block Mujibs path of reframing the constitution. Bhutto differed with Yayha by wanting complete political power in West Pakistan, and he was only willing to ‘share’ power at the centre, though, by the decree of the ballot, he had no locus standi. Yayha on the other hand wanted to exploit Bhutto to block Mujibs path to power, and having denied the return to democracy, crush East Pakistan’s demands by military action.[6] Yayha chose to use military means to crush both democracy and against the Bengalis who wanted to break away from the domineering role of West Pakistan.

The 30 January, 1971 hijacking and blowing up of the Indian Airlines plane ‘Ganga’ at Lahore where it had been forcibly diverted after taking off from Srinagar raised the temperature in the sub-continent. The plane had been hijacked by two Jammu Kashmir National Liberation Front militants, Ashraf and Hashim Qureshi at the behest of Maqbool Bhat and provided Yayha the distraction he was looking for.[7] By whipping up familiar anti-India sentiments and raising the bogey of an Indian hand in instigating the East Pakistanis, Yayha stalled the inevitable, i.e. convening the Assembly as required by the mandate of the people.

Mujib’s neutrality and his condemnation of the hijacking and asking for an impartial inquiry was portrayed by the West Pakistani press as adequate proof of the Indian hand in East Pakistan. In response to the hijacking and the ‘Crush India’ hysteria whipped up in Pakistan, India banned flights over her soil and this affected the build-up of forces in East Pakistan. In February, Yayha dissolved his cabinet and it was in a conference of senior military leaders of Pakistan in February itself that Yayha gave the ‘go ahead’ to the military to plan the crackdown in East Pakistan.

The volatile internal situation and hostile Anti-India tirade provided Yayha with the excuse to suspend the meeting of the National Assembly indefinitely, a decision he announced on 3 March, 1971 in the aftermath of the firing on demonstrators by the Pakistan Army in Dhaka. Yayha overtly tried a last ditch effort to convince Mujib to withdraw the ‘Civil Disobedience’ and ‘Non Cooperation’ movements by flying into East Pakistan, but his failure resulted in his infamous order to the new Martial Law Administrator, General Tikka Khan to ‘sort things out.’

In order to check the deteriorating situation, Tikka Khan, the ‘no nonsense’ Martial Law Administrator who had replaced the genial General Sahibzada Yakub Khan on 7 March, 1971 launched Op ‘Searchlight’ on 25/26 March, 1971 which aimed to smash the rebellion. The same day, Mujibur Rehman signed an official declaration of independence, while Major Zia-ur-Rehmam[8] announced the Provincial Government of Independent Bangladesh and the Government-in-Exile was established at Baidyanathtala in Mehrup District (Khulna). Mrs Gandhi responded by promising ‘unconditional Indian support’ for the cause of independent Bangladesh.

Op Searchlight: The Military Crackdown in East Pakistan

Op Searchlight was a planned military operation of the Pakistan Army to crush the Bengali Nationalist movement in East Pakistan. It envisaged taking over of all important cities and then fan out to the countryside for eliminating opposition and was expected to be completed within a month. The plan was drawn up by Major General Khadim Hussain Raza along with Major General Rao Farman Ali, and pre-dated Yayha’s holding the olive branch to Mujib in March, 1971. The ingredients for the operation as given by Salik Siddiq are reproduced.[9]

  1. “Operations to be launched simultaneously all over East Pakistan.
  2. Maximum number of political and student leaders, and those among cultural organisations and teaching staff to be arrested.
  3. The operation must achieve hundred percent success in Dhaka.
  4. Free and greater use of fire authorised for securing cantonments.
  5. All internal and international communications to be cut off, including telephone, television, radio and telegraph.
  6. All East Pakistanis troops to be neutralised by seizing weapons and ammunition.
  7. To deceive the Awami League, President Yayha Khan to pretend to continue dialogue, even if Mr. Bhutto disagreed, to agree to Awami League demands.”

Pakistan Forces for the Operation

In addition to Pakistan 14 Division, comprising of four brigades of twelve battalions, Pakistan GHQ flew in 9 and 16 Divisions under a massive airlift, unimaginatively codenamed ‘Fly In,’ using the Pakistan International Airlines and C-130 transport aircraft and was completed by 6 April.

This massive force had been built up to crush the rebellion expected from the six battalions of the East Bengal Regiment and approximately 15,000 strong East Pakistan Rifles. The Bengali troops in East Pakistan were dispersed geographically to break their cohesion and disrupt their command and control channels. Tikka Khan was determined to crush the revolt before it gets out of hand but his methods were so harsh that he antagonised the population.

The Crackdown. The crackdown which started from midnight of 25 March was brutal and swift-no quarters nor mercy was shown as should have been expected for their co-religionists and countrymen. The genocide which followed resulted in an assessed death of 26,000 persons as admitted by Pakistan themselves, and 3,00,000 as claimed by Bangladesh,[10] which included serving Bengali military personnel.

The brutalities and the wanton rape, shocked the conscience of the world and had immediate repercussions on India who being the neighbour was deluged by approximately ten lakh refugees. The Awami Party leadership fled from prosecution and formed a provisional government under Mr. Tajuddin Ahmad. On the military side, the Bengali resistance which had started on 26 March itself was organised under Colonel (Retd) MAG Osmania who was made the overall commander and the country was divided into four under sector commanders, who functioned under Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad’s Government-in-Exile. By the middle of June, the entire country was under Pakistan military control and things were back to ‘normal.’ However, with support from India, the rebellion flourished. This stretched the Pakistan Security Forces as they not only had to guard the border against infiltration, but also police the countryside and guard vulnerabilities. “The eventual strain of combating the insurgency caused Pakistan to attack India on December 3, 1971, with the objective to stop Indian support for the Mukti Bahini.”[11]

Cold War Geo-Politics

The US policy of appeasement of Pakistan to reach out to China has been dubbed as “a blundering diplomatic performance which can have few parallels.” As a consequence of the Sino-Soviet split of 1969, USA was trying to alter the global balance of power and was attempting to align the Chinese with them against the Soviets.

Since the road to Peking was chosen through Islamabad, Nixon was inclined to assist Yayha, and America’s new found love for Pakistan was a result of Yayha facilitating Kissinger’s’ secret trip to China in July 1971. Since Pakistan was a close ally of the China, Nixon wanted to negotiate a path breaking rapprochement with China and by doing so, deny strategic space to USSR in South Asia.

Kissinger’s visit set the grounds to broker a new power balance for the future, and this was to be followed up with a Presidential visit to China in February 1972 to concretise the deal. Nixon feared that an Indian invasion of West Pakistan at this crucial moment of American history could derail the process and pave the way for Soviet intervention in the region.

This would not only undermine the global position of the United States and the regional position of America’s new ally, China, but also open up another theatre of super power rivalry. In a way, this was the start of the ‘New Cold War’ and as a result of the growing Sino-American relations which involved Pakistan, India was pushed further into the Soviet camp.

Nixon now went on and (illegally) sanctioned military supplies to Pakistan, routing them through Jordan and Iran, while encouraging China to posture militarily to restrain India. Nixon’s famous remarks on the policy option memo prepared by Henry Kissinger, “Don’t squeeze Yayha at this time” is perhaps the most telling policy statements and indicative of the US position of the time.[12] Pakistan’s military dictator became the conduit to bring American democracy and Chinese communism together to confront the Soviet Union.

Indo-Soviet Strategic Convergence

While the US-Sino relations were envisioning a new future, there was also the concurrent improvement of Indo-Soviet relations. By 1965, the Soviet Union was already the second largest contributor to India’s development and Soviet aid was extended on the basis of long-term, government-to-government programmes, which covered technical training for Indians, supply of raw materials, progressive use of Indian inputs, and markets for finished products.

Thus, the Soviet contribution to Indian economic development was generally regarded by foreign and domestic observers as ‘positive.’ Till 1969, the Soviet Union had undertaken an even handed position and had even supplied a limited quantity of arms to Pakistan in 1968. However, this underwent a sea change after the signing of the twenty-year Indo-Soviet ‘Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation’ in August 1971.[13] Under the treaty, USSR gave assurances that if a confrontation with the United States or China manifests, she would take counter-measures and this assurance was enshrined in the Indo-Soviet friendship treaty. India benefited because of this treaty since the Soviet Union came out openly to support the India and it was this that acted as a deterrent for both China and USA and played a major part in the outcome of the war.

The Sino-Indian Border Flare Up of 1967

On 11 September, 1967, in response to the Chinese troops opening up automatic fire on the Indian troops caught in the open at Nathu La (Sikkim), the Indians had retaliated with automatic fire and mortars. When the Chinese responded, General Sagat Singh opened up with his 5.5 inch medium artillery guns which created havoc amongst the Chinese.

The flare up continued for four days wherein the Chinese suffered over 400 casualties, while the Indians also had 65 killed and 145 wounded. This unexpected Indian response also helped cool Pakistan’s ardour.

The Downslide to War

Pakistan and India both sensed war. On 22 November, Pakistan even went to the extent of using her air force and tanks for the first time on the eastern front. In the brief dog fight that ensued, three of the four Sabre jets of the PAF were shot down by Gnats, while the Indian ground forces knocked out thirteen tanks.

As a consequence, declaring a state of emergency on 23 November, 1971, Yayha asked his people to be prepared for war. Pakistan had got ensnared into this situation by choosing to seek a military solution to what was essentially a political problem. There can be no two views that Pakistan had brought this predicament on herself by her misplaced self-beliefs and alienation of the Bengalis.

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[1] Maqbool Bhat was the first of many home grown Kashmiri militants. He belonged to Trehgam in Kupwara District, and after schooling at the St Joseph’s College at Srinagar, went to Peshawar for higher studies which marked the militant phase of his education.

[2] JKLF traces its origin to the Jammu and Kashmir National Liberation Front, which was an offshoot of the Plebiscite Front. The group was created as a separatist movement which after being re-incarnated in Birmingham, spread its wings to many capitals of Europe and in both halves of J&K, indicative of its financial backing by powerful lobbies. The Front later split with the faction led by Yasin Malik in India, who later shunned violence, while the militant faction continued to operate under Amanullah Khan from POK. The front has since lost the backing of the ISI, having been overshadowed by more militant groups in the Indian part of J&K.

[3] The theory of the martial races superiority was espoused by Lord Roberts in the aftermath of the Indian War of Independence of 1857. Roberts, who served as the C-in-C of the Madras Army and Bengal Armies for the cumulative period of thirteen years from 1881 to 1893, preferred politically reliable Indian races for meeting the British military ends in India. The aim was to in some way keep the ‘unreliable’ Hundustanis of Central India who had spearheaded the ‘mutiny,’ out of the army.

[4] Amin AH, Major (Retd) Note 57, The Pakistan Army: From 1965 to 1971 as available at

[5] The programme was proclaimed by Mujib as ‘Our Charter of Survival’ which called for ‘Self Government’ with considerable autonomy for East Pakistan, and bordered on ‘separatism.’ The programme called for all subjects less defence and foreign affairs, and even called for a separate fiscal system with a separate accounting and a different currency, with the freedom of carrying out independent international trading. By asking for even a separate militia for the Eastern Wing were practically asking for ‘independence’ under a thin veneer of remaining within the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

[6] Prasad SN, Official History of the 1971 War, p. 65.

[7] As available at http:/ Hijacking.htm. Qureshi was tasked by Maqbool to hijack a plane to highlight the Kashmiri quest for independence. As per General Candeth, once the plane landed at Lahore, Qureshi asked the pilot, Captain G S Oberoi to announce on the loudspeaker that Hashim Qureshi has brought the plane, implying that the plane was expected. In addition, after the hijacked plane had been in Lahore for eighty hours, Pakistani Intelligence asked him to destroy the plane. Kerosene was then spread and Qureshi was given the match. Though arrested, both the hijackers were granted political asylum and met by no less a personage than Z A Bhutto. Though he was subsequently sentenced to a term of nineteen years in Pakistan, Qureshi was eventually released after eight years. Married and now settled in Pak, he has since shunned violence and established the ‘Maqbool Bhat National Welfare Trust’ for widows and orphans of Kashmiri martyrs.

[8] Later President of Bangladesh, who subsequently ousted Sheikh Mujib in a coup which resulted in the killing of the Sheikh.

[9] Wikipedia: Op Searchlight.

[10] Wikipedia: Op Searchlight.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The National Security Archives, Handwritten note from President Nixon on 28 April, 1971 on a National Security Decision Paper.

[13] The treaty signed on 9 August, 1971 was a significant deviation from India’s ‘non-alignment’ policy which was to equi-distance India from both the principals of the Cold War and was the key for India to counter balance USA and China in the explosive situation brewing up in South Asia.

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