Military & Aerospace

Operations of 1971 War
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Issue Book Excerpt: Behind The Scene | Date : 04 Dec , 2020

By January 1967, I had retired. I continued, however, to follow military events very closely and like every Indian. I was thrilled at the conclusion of the 1971 operations with the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani troops in East Pakistan which led to the creation of a new State on the subcontinent. This new state of Bangladesh contained more Muslims than in the truncated Pakistan in the West and should, therefore, logically have laid to rest the two nation theory which led to the breakup of our great country in 1947. The untold miseries of the Partition and worse the bloody struggtle which has continued in some form or the other since then.

I was all the more thrilled that it was Gen (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw and my old comrades Lt Gen JS Aurora, Maj Gen JFR Jacob and Brig Adi Sethna who were responsible for planning the capture of East Pakistan. Lt Gen Sagat Singh and many formation commanders, AVM Daveshar, were well known to me since the 1965 Indo-Pak conflict days. I had the privilege of working with Sam as his Chief of Staff at HQ Western Command and earlier as his Deputy Commandant at the Infantry School. When I was BGS at HQ XV Corps, Sam was GOC 26 Inf Div under XV Corps. We had many lively and frank discussions regarding the future operational planning in J&K. particularly the role of his division (26 Inf Div) which he felt was too passive. Any interaction with Sam invariably left me filled with respect for his ability to quickly grasp the essentials of a problem. Many unfinished plans were fashioned and finalised during his short tenure of one year as GOC-in­-C Western Command.

The fighting in the Western Sector was, however, not equally conclusive and some mistakes reminiscent of the 1965 war occurred once again. The unilateral declaration of a cease fire by the Prime Minister of operations in the West blunted world criticism of India as an expansionist country.

While on a visit to the US in 1974, I heard that Mrs Golda Meir, the then Prime Minister of Israel, is supposed to have said at a Cabinet meeting in 1971 that she wished that she could, like her sister Prime Minister of India, have also ordered a unilateral cease fire on her borders, and like her speak from a position of strength..

This chapter aims to highlight some of the causes of our success in the East and their absence to an equal extent in the West, with a view to learning valuable lessons for the future. Much of it is the result of my discussions with Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, Brig Adi Sethna (later Lt Gen) and with some formation and unit commanders. I have deliberately avoided writing about the background of political and other important events including the details of barbarities inflicted on the population of the erstwhile East Pakistan under the orders of Gen Yahya Khan, the President and the C-in-.C of Pakistan Army. His favourite term ‘mosquitoes’ for the population of Bangladesh was exploited by Lt Gen Tikka Khan as Governor, resulting in untold barbarities.

The first and most important lesson to learn is the manner in which Indian military strategy aimed to fulfil the objectives laid down by the Government making the best use of the resources available. It has to be remembered that the military option was exercised only as the last resort when all methods short of war had been tried out, diplomatic and political. India’s military operation had a limited aim, to liberate East Pakistan so as to get the ten million refugees from East. Pakistan out of India and enable the will of the people of East Pakistan to prevail. It may be seen that in achieving this objective resources of the entire nation were used to the fullest extent for the first time since Independence. Military action was conducted by ail the three Services, coordinated in a manner hithertofore unseen.

The next and an equally important lesson which follows concerns the timing of the campaign. Eight million Hindu and two million Muslim refugees came to Eastern India, starting from the middle of March 1971. It is of interest to recall that the initial exodus was of the Muslim elite of East Bengal, the Hindu exodus start­ed, in the main, only after May 1971. They moved mainly on foot into the nearest Indian territory bordering East Bengal; although half came to West Bengal, the numbers reaching MeghaIaya, Tripura, in many cases were equal to or more than the populations of these areas. Demographic pressures by this influx of refugees were enormous.

Pressures continued to mount on the Government for taking military action, to stem the tide of these refugees and the explosive situation it constituted, not only due to demographic pressure but also law and order in an area where tribal insurgency was a lingering problem in the Northeastern region, and when a bout of urban near ‘insurgency’ was in the process of being brought under control in West Bengal, particularly in and around Calcutta. It is to the credit of the Government that it could withstand these pressures and leave the timings of military operations to the period considered most suitable by the military commanders. Many senior civil servants and others in responsible positions used to pester me in Chandigarh during that period wondering whether the army was ‘chickening out’. My answer that the army was preparing for the opportune moment did not seem to convince them at that time.

The period from March/April 1971 until December 1971 was used most profitably at all levels. Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi’s world tour to proclaim India’s intolerable burden of refugees to bring pressure on Pakistan could only have taken place with the breathing time available to India. Similarly, military preparations for operations in the terrain of East Bengal and force regrouping and redistribution could never have taken place but for the time factor made available and choosing the time when the threat from China across the Himalayas could be contained by the approaching winter. The time available was also made good use of for training and preparation of troops and for the administrative preparations required, taking into account the poor communications, the riverine terrain, the total lack of support bases, because earlier no plans had existed for large-scale operations in this theatre.

During the summer and autumn months, a variety of guerrilla/freedom fighting activities took place and battalions of the East Bengal Regiment of the Pakistan Army which had crossed over into India formed its nucleus. These activities continued to mount and helped to bolster the morale of the Bangladeshis under their Government-in-exile.

On the evening of 3 December, 1971, the Pakistan Air Force struck at IAF airbases all along the Western theatre. Two weeks earlier on 22 November, 1971. Pakistani aircraft had violated Indian territory in the East and had been shot by our forces. Pakistani armour had also made a foray into Indian territory during November and had been almost totally destroyed. These provocative actions had not led to open hostilities. However, the full-scale attack by the PAF on Indian bases extending right up to Agra was a provocation which no country could accept. The armed forces of India, were, therefore ordered to move into East Pakistan in full force the very next morning.

The tactics adopted in the East are of great military significance even to this day. They were novel and followed the principle of the “Expanding Torrent”. Lt Gen AAK Niazi, the GOC-in-C Pak Eastern Command, confessed to Lt Gen Aurora, “You always seemed to come round behind us”. With air supremacy achieved, Indian ground forces could and did move at will, masking centres of resistance by engulfing and enveloping forces on the borders. The IAF not only supported the army to the hilt, but were extremely successful in interdicting Pakistani troop movements. They had signal success on the rivers when Pakistan tried to move troops from one sector to the other in inland water transport craft. With the PAF completely knocked out of the sky, heliborne, para dropping, air supply, casualty evacuation and pamphlet dropping operations could be carried out with impunity. The navy too with its aircraft operating from the carrier INS Vikrant struck from the Bay of Bengal on to Comilla and Chittagong. The navy also helped in the amphibious landing of a battle group of Indian troops at Cox’s Bazar. South of Comilla; this force had been sent to block any movement of Pakistani soldiers trying to escape into Burma.

Within one week of battle, it was evident that the “crust” of the Pakistani defences had been bypassed or crushed. Indian forces were on the threshold of Dhaka. The entire countryside of Bangladesh knew the Indians were winning. The Mukti Bahini, as is the fashion of guerrilla armies, grew tenfold more brave with each new Indian victory. It was considered opportune at that stage to launch a series of appeals to the Pakistani forces to surrender. This was done by pamphlets which were dropped by air, in local languages which the Pakistani soldiers and the Bangladesh civilian population would understand. These appeals were also repeated on radio broadcasts. The Pakistani forces were informed that they would be saved from the wrath of the local population if they gave themselves up to Indian forces. This psychological warfare bore fruit very soon. Pakistani commanders realising that their troops were demoralized, started telling them to hold on. as help was coming from the North and South, referring vaguely to the Chinese in the North and the American Seventh Fleet moving towards the Bay of Bengal from the Pacific. The Pakistani Commanders in East Bengal were, however, making attempts to negotiate a cease fire or surrender through international agencies and finally accepted the Indian call to surrender on 16 December, 1971.

This should not, however, lead the readers to believe that operations in Bangladesh were a walk over. Meticulous planning, vigorous leadership and improvisation of unimaginable magnitude led to victory by troops who had been trained, motivated and had the smell of success in their nostrils.

For the operations in Bangladesh, the Army had taken a hard look at the situation as it existed and got down to it with dedication and zeal, inspired not only by the cause of the national objective but by high class leadership at all levels which was always at the farthest point forward. The figure of some 500 officers and junior commissioned officers killed and wounded (including one Maj Gen and two Brigs who were seriously wounded) and 5.000 other ranks killed and wounded, speaks for itself. Lt Gen Sagat Singh. GOC 4 Corps had a bullet passing out through his hat while leading his forces in a helicopter.

The manner of coordination between the three Services was the best that could be expected even when the Army Command was located in Calcutta, the Air Force in Shillong and the Navy in Visakhapatnam.

Within ten days of the surrender of the Pakistani forces, the Indian Army and civil engineers had restored road communications to the extent required to commence the homeward movement of the refugees. The vast majority walked; road, rail and boat being used mainly for the movement of goods and other supplies required for their rehabilitation. The civil administration in Bangladesh, assisted by Indian forces, had worked out the details for their reception. Refugees moved back to their own districts and from there to their respective subdivisions, and villagers were formally restored their vacated land. In the reverse directions moved the Pakistan prisoners of war to India where their safety and comfort could be ensured.

The operations of 1971 had a limited aim pertaining to East Pakistan and should have been confined only to the Eastern theatre for the achievement of this aim. In the Western theatre the operations had to be basically defensive, because at no time did India intend to breakup the then West Pakistan. However, there seemed to be certain hesitation and doubt about the overall strategy for the forces in the West. On the ground, situation reminiscent of 1965 arose in the Chhamb Sector. The Navy and Air Force achieved some spectacular successes, specially by bringing war to the doorsteps of Karachi, but in no case was the capability of the Pakistani forces in the West destroyed or even blunted. Possibly that was never the intention.

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The creation of a new State on the subcontinent by the force of Indian military arms in 1971 has led to a period of twenty-one years of no formal war between India and Pakistan in contrast to the preceding decades in which two wars had been fought between India and Pakistan and one with China. The success of Indian arms were followed by the Simla Agreement of 1972, to which both India and Pakistan continue to pay faltering lip service. Possibly a far greater tribute to the forces of both India and Pakistan, who had laid down so many lives, could have been the creation of better understanding between three countries of the subcontinent, where, the ghost of the two nation theory could have been finally laid to rest.

It is strange that we again overlooked or underestimated the enemy intention, with regard to Chhamb and did not reinforce this sector with additional troops particularly with armour and artillery. With the depletion of Pakistan forces by three divisions, we had the opportunity of launching limited offensives and clearing up Pakistan occupied Kashmir. A limited offensive from 25 Inf Div Sector towards Mirpur, would have relieved pressure on Chhamb. The second possibility was to capture Kotli which is an important communication centre. This important area would have been part of Indian Kashmir at the end of the hostilities. 15 Corps should have been reinforced with additional troops for offensive operations from 25 Inf Div Sector. It would have created an additional confidence in the might of Indian Army, and dissidents in Poonch area would have not been so vociferous during the subsequent years. This reflects on the planning perceptions at HQ Western Command. The offensive into Shakargarh salient and Dagger also known as ‘Chicken’s neck.’ reflects poor strategic perceptions and a lack-lustre tactical perform area. The high command did not seem to have grasped the implications sufficiently. It appears that the strategy and conduct of operations in the Western Sector were excessively decentralised for planning and its conduct.

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One thought on “Operations of 1971 War

  1. After Bengladesh in 1971 now again India has good opportunity to break pakistan by liberating Baluchistan. I ask Maj Gen (Retd) Jogindar Singh to study about Baluchistan and Baloch freedom fighters like BLA, BRA & BLF with encouraging words so that Indian military and politician make similar plans to repeat 1971 in 2017
    Pakistan is enemy our enemy and they killed our thousands of soldiers in proxy wars since 1987 and in kargil war

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