Military & Aerospace

East Pakistan: The Problem
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Undoubtedly India’s national interest lay in having a friendly regime in neighbouring East Pakistan as the economic and cultural affinities of the two Bengals were linked indivisibly. Part of the same province in undivided India, the correlation of industries and sources of raw materials had not foreseen the effect of the artificial territorial partition in 1947. At that time jute was grown in the Pakistani part of the province while the factories producing finished goods were in and around Calcutta.

The tea grown and processed in the Sylhet area of East Pakistan was sold in Calcutta along with the Assam product. Fish caught in the eastern rivers was eaten in Calcutta. Cheap river transport carried tea, teak and other commercial goods from Assam and northern Bengal to the markets of Calcutta. Although India had developed its own rail and road links with Assam after partition through the Siliguri-Charduar corridor, for reasons of economy it had used East Pakistan’s rail and river transport facilities till this was stopped by the Ayub regime when hostilities broke out in 1965 and never resumed despite the Tashkent agreement.

This minority looked to India for moral support, and in difficult times for their security.

Above all, unlike in West Pakistan, there had always been a sizable Hindu minority in the eastern wing as rightful citizens of Pakistan. This minority looked to India for moral support, and in difficult times for their security. It was in this context that India had all along followed a two-faced policy towards Pakistan, comprising continued and outright confrontation in the west and an extended hand of friendship and cooperation in the east. For instance, the Nehru-Liaquat pact of 1947 regarding the transfer of population from certain areas of India and Pakistan did not apply to the east. Later, the evacuee property law enforced by the two governments did not apply to this region. It was in pursuance of this policy of friendship towards East Pakistan that Lal Bahadur Shastri did not permit the extension of hostilities to this region in the conflict of 1965 despite the temptation of easy victory.[1]

India did not have to work, as Bhutto and other Pakistani politicians alleged, for the alienation of the eastern wing from the western or covertly encourage secessionist activities. The Pakistani rulers themselves encouraged this tendency over the years by treating East Pakistan like a colony rather than a part of their country.[2] The economic development of the western wing was carried out at the cost of the east to the extent that, enjoying the benefit of a captive market, West Pakistan industries monopolised the sale of products in the east and repatriated their profits to the west. The foreign exchange earnings from exports of tea and jute produced in the east paid for the west’s development.[3]

Mujib often accused the 58 million people of West Pakistan of keeping the 72 million of East Pakistan in a state of subservience in that the west took 70 per cent of the foreign aid the country received and 70 per cent of its imports, and practically monopolised the central bureaucracy and the army, its share of posts being 85 and 90 per cent respectively.[4] By contrast, the more populous East Pakistan remained the world’s most densely populated region and one of the poorest, as well as prone to disaster, afflicted with seasonal floods and cyclones which took a heavy toll in lives and property yearly.[5]

After narrating the brutalities of the Pakistani Army and the horrifying tales of genocide, the Indian press and other propaganda media advocated using this opportunity of a lifetime to settle scores with Pakistan.

This ruthless economic and political exploitation by successive West Pakistani-dominated governments and military dictatorships drove the east wing in desperation to open revolt. And the Pakistani Army, the instrument of power which was used or threatened to be used, became the target of Bengali hatred. The years of suppressed resentment against regional inequities and the military power responsible for it ignited the spark which engulfed the entire subcontinent in the crossfire of revolt.

After narrating the brutalities of the Pakistani Army and the horrifying tales of genocide, the Indian press and other propaganda media advocated using this opportunity of a lifetime to settle scores with Pakistan. All eyes were now focused on Indira Gandhi, known for her decisive, resolute and timely actions. Since she made no move, her colleagues, her party men, opposition politicians and the impatient public began to chafe at her inaction at such an opportune moment, although their protests were muffled.[6] Some retired generals publicly argued in favour of immediate military action for the liberation of the eastern wing before the Pakistani forces there could be strengthened by the arrival of heavier weapons and ammunition by sea. The more time India allowed Pakistan, they argued, the more costly would the venture become militarily. It was time to act now, they echoed.

Some of them accused Gen S.H.F.J. Manekshaw, Chief of Army Staff, of developing cold feet. It was remoured that Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram, backed by Finance Minister Y.B.Chavan, had urged Mrs Gandhi to resort to armed action immediately, adding that if Manekshaw had any misgivings he should be replaced. But under no circumstances, they are said to have argued, should this opportunity, providentially offered to India, remain unavailed of.

But Manekshaw had his own justifiable reservations about instant action. He was the right Chief for this time of national crisis. He was the only senior general of his generation who combined military know how with acute political and strategic sense. Having risen in stature along with the growth of the Indian Army, he knew and understood India’s military capability so well that he was not prepared to fumble in a situation which he could not dominate in full measure. He was against half baked, inconclusive involvements, and he had the moral standing to withstand pressures against his convictions. He wanted to lead a victorious army and not a hastily committed rabble. And there he stuck, and for very valid reasons.

Firstly, he assessed that India’s strategic planning always envisaged the decisions to be obtained in any Indo-Pakistani conflict in the western wing, while contingency planning in the east catered only for the security of the Siliguri-Coach Behar corridor and the city of Calcutta. For this limited task in the east, only one infantry division plus was earmarked on the presumption that Pakistan would not reinforce this region. In the event, Pakistan had built up its eastern force to about three or more divisions, counting the communication troops and paramilitary forces.

Although because of the hurried airlift of men and material the normal complement of armour and artillery had not fetched up yet, the combined war potential of such a force level was nonetheless considerable in relation to our earmarked resources. Besides, the eastern region of Tripura lacked the necessary administrative and communication infrastructure to support worthwhile operations. Manekshaw felt, and quite rightly too, that the Indian Army was not well attuned to reorient operational plans rapidly at such short notice, nor had it the wherewithal to conduct operations without the necessary administrative infrastructural backing.

If India intervened without clearly justifying this action in foreign eyes, the charge that it was engineering the breakup of Pakistan would be established and Bangladesh would be refused recognition by the majority of nations.

Secondly, the quantum of force he needed to launch this operation would require time to collect, especially when the immediately available formations were tied up with the West Bengal elections[7] and others had to be found from operationally committed troops engaged in counter-insurgency and other holding roles in far-flung areas.[8] By the time the force was collected the monsoon would be on its way, thus leaving a very tight schedule for the operation.

Recalling his Burma campaign days, Manekshaw did not want his army to get stuck in the quagmire of the monsoon. Moreover, this would give China, a sympathiser of Pakistan and a foe of India, a chance to retaliate on India’s northern borders. China would have about eight months of campaigning, till the Himalayan passes closed sometime in November, to annexe the maximum Indian territory. Manekshaw preferred to fight one enemy at a time, and the weaker one first. He proposed to time his military action for November, when the possibility of Chinese participation was considerably reduced because the Himalayan passes would then be closed.

Thirdly, a reason he kept to himself was the shortage in stockpiled reserves of essential specialised and armoured vehicles and of bridging equipment which would need some time to make up and recoup. In addition, raising new units and formations and the introduction of newly acquired equipment was in progress, and this needed time to assimilate. Even with crash programmin, these tasks, could not be completed before the onset of the monsoon, and then it would be too late.

But political compulsions clinched the issue. What was the invasion of East Pakistan based on, what ostensibly was its internal problem to be justified in international circles? If the creation of an independent Bangladesh was achieved by Indian military action, how was its domestic and external viability to be assured without its recognition by the international forum, the United Nations? If India intervened without clearly justifying this action in foreign eyes, the charge that it was engineering the breakup of Pakistan would be established and Bangladesh would be refused recognition by the majority of nations. After considering the issue carefully, the Prime Minister accepted the postponement of intervention to an opportune moment in the future[9]and supported Manekshaw in his stand.

After this decision was taken, the Indian military planners proceeded to assess two vital parameters. One was: When would war come? India’s basic political philosophy did not envisage resort to force to seek solutions to national problems unless there were grave provocations to do so. The initiative would always lie with Pakistan, and as a result Yahya Khan could start hostilities at a time of his choosing. He could be called a “political novice” and an “unpredictable drunkard,” but he had a good professional reputation. It could be safely assumed that he would not commit his fighting machine to battle unless there was a reasonable chance of success. And more so when his survival as a military dictator depended solely on the out come of a war which he might start or which might be imposed on him.

The ideal time for hostilities from the Indian point of view would be December. The period from the time of this appreciation in April to December may be conveniently divided into pre-monsoon and post-monsoon. Militarily, the pre-monsoon period—April to mid—June 1971–was perhaps the most favourable to both countries provided the campaign could be successfully concluded well before the monsoon set in. India was however strategically unbalanced at that time because of the peacetime location of its reserve formations in the hinterland, as a result of which they would have taken some time to be concentrated on the battlefield.

Yahya Khan could easily have found an excuse for overrunning the guerilla bases in Indian territory as part of Tikka Khans counter-insurgency operations, but he had his own difficulties.

Before this deployment could be executed, Pakistan could launch a preemptive attack and follow its initial success to a tenable conclusion. Moreover, major reorganisation, equipping and repair programmes were afoot in this period, and war at that juncture would have meant committing ill-equipped and half-trained units hastily to battle. Yahya Khan could easily have found an excuse for overrunning the guerilla bases in Indian territory as part of Tikka Khan’s counter-insurgency operations, but he had his own difficulties.

He had recently transferred from the western wing two old and well-trained divisions, 9 and 16 Infantry, forming part of the Pakistani strike force north and south.[9] In addition, counterinsurgency operations in East Pakistan had claimed considerable numbers of paramilitary and communication zone troops[10] at the cost of reducing military capabilities in the west. Although these two divisions had left behind their integral artillery and other heavy weapons in the west, the woeful shortage of infantry with his strike force deterred Yahya Khan from undertaking a meaningful operation. He also had some shortages in his reserve war stockpile which needed recoupment. The US resource having dried up,[11]  he had to look around for other avenues of supply to make up at least his critical shortages.[12]

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