Military & Aerospace

East Pakistan: The Mukti Bahini takes shape
Star Rating Loader Please wait...

A bout the end of the first week of April 1971, most of the revolting Bengali troops had been flushed out into India by the sheer brute force of the Pakistani Army. Some of them were badly mauled, others had lost their weapons, all of them were torn away from their families and homes. Despite the elation of early victories in the wake of the declaration of Bangladesh’s freedom,[1] the later privations of a hazardous trek, heavy casualities, and the sight of brutal atrocities, wanton destruction of property and ruthless genocide had left them bewildered.

Their spirits were low, and the flame of freedom, which had glowed brightly in their hearts for a few days, seemed to be flickering to extinction. For all purposes, the insurgency started on 26 March had virtually died. It was time to protect its spark and nourish it back to life again. After some reorganisation and rest, these forces began to conduct small operations against Pakistani outposts with BSF support. Unfortunately, these efforts were not very effective.

And the rebels had adopted wrong methods, for with a tremendous military balance in favour of the Pakistanis they should have gone in for guerilla warfare.

Why did the insurgency fail? According to Fazal Muqeem Khan, writing in Pakistan’s Crisis in Leadership, the Awami League had earlier formed a military committee headed by a retired Bengali officer, Col M.A.G. Osmani. This committee, says Muqeem Khan, had made a comprehensive plan in December 1970 to seize power if political negotiations failed. Whatever the truth, the revolt did not achieve any results. It is unlikely that it was properly planned. There could be no other explanation for the lack of coordination in the rebels’ operations.

Maybe their failure was due to the suddenness of Operation Blitz and its sledge-hammer blows had been more than Osmani had bargained for. And the rebels had adopted wrong methods, for with a tremendous military balance in favour of the Pakistanis they should have gone in for guerilla warfare. Instead, they chose to fight pitched battles and in consequence suffered heavy loses as at Bhairab Bazaar. Another reason for failure was that the operations were conducted by junior officers who in the flush of initial success forget the systematic achievement of nearer aims and objectives.

It can now be said that despite the Awami League’s hold on the Bengali troops in the name of patriotism, Mujib’s charisma and the professional contacts in the armed forces of Col Osmani, the organisers of the insurgency had not been able to draw up and implement an integrated plan lying down aims and objectives in proper priorities. Nor was an effort made to establish a countrywide and regional system of command and control by nominating leaders and defining areas of operational responsibility. The regular troops and their adjunct, the paramilitary forces, had no contact with the clandestine militant organisations raised by various political parties in the period of political uncertainly. As a result, the revolt had no strong popular base. It had jubilant spectators and many sympathisers, but no organised infrastructure of insurgency to sustain a prolonged effort.

Sealing the borders to stop the inflow was considered but rejected as this would have meant further massacres of Bengalis.

After the rebel forces had crossed into India, a rough and ready command structure evolved and operations in the various sectors were taken over by certain Bangladeshi officers. Maj Khalid Musharraf, Maj Ziaur Rahman and Maj Safiullah become sector commanders in the Sylhet-Comilla, Chittagong-Noakhali and Mymensingh-Tangail areas respectively.­[2] The Kushtia-Jessore and Faridpur-Barisal-Khulna-Patuakhali areas became the responsibility of Maj Usmanand Maj Jalil respectively. They were all well-trained officers of the Pakistani Army, and the first two had been through special training and service with commando companies.

The failure of the revolt and the poor results obtained by the rebel forces in their operations after crossing into India led to a detailed appraisal of the situation by the Indian Government in the last week of April. Initially, it had been strictly neutral, treating the affair as an internal matter of Pakistan. But with refugees pouring into India at the rate of 60,000 a day, it could no longer remain a silent spectator. Huge refugee camps had sprung up all along the 2250-kilometre border, and they presented a bewildering picture of a mass of homeless humanity. They had brought with them what little they could carry, but most of them were in rags—and they were hungry.

Providing food, shelter and clothes for them became the responsibility of the Indian Government, but, saddled with its own financial problems, it was not possible for it to carry this burden for long.[3] Sealing the borders to stop the inflow was considered but rejected as this would have meant further massacres of Bengalis. Confining the refugees to camps was essential as their penetration of the country’s interior areas would have created economic and social complications. The majority of refugees were Bengali Hindus. Their prolonged presence on Indian soil could cause serious communal trouble in India.

The biggest worry of the Indian Government in regard to the revolt was the threat it posed to India’s own security. Extremist elements had already been active in West Bengal and had created a law and order problem in the previous two years. The Army had been called into assist the civil authorities in quelling them. In the other eastern states too subversive elements had been active for some years. If the leadership of the movement in East Pakistan fell into the hand of extremists, a very dangerous situation could have arisen for India. Hence the need to support the moderate element among the Bangladeshis, represented by the vast majority that had voted for Mujib in the December 1970 polls. The Indian aim was to get the refugees to go back, and this could be achieved only with the installation of an elected government in Dacca.

Two types of support were thought of at this stage. Firstly, a limited supply of arms was to be made available together with facilities for training in guerilla warfare. BSF had been giving such support, but it had proved ineffective. The Army was therefore asked to take on this responsibility. The other form of support was diplomatic. Though the Indian Government had not recognised the provisional Bangladesh Government as yet, this government had started functioning from Mujib Nagar in Calcutta with Tajuddin Ahmed as Prime Minister.[4]

The world’ press had given wide publicity to the atrocities committed in East Pakistan.[5] Indian diplomatic missions abroad had also projected New Delhi’s problem with regard to the refugees and the need for an elected government in Dacca so that this uprooted humanity could return to its homeland.[6]

Most foreign governments expressed sympathy for the refugees and for India’s predicament, but those who were in a position to apply pressure on Pakistan to bring democratic rule to Bangladesh did nothing. To apprise the heads of governments of important countries of the situation in the subcontinent personally, Mrs Gandhi went on two foreign tours which took her among other countries to the US and the Soviet Union.

For the time being, the Indian Government did not wish to involve the country’s armed forces in the conflict. But while India had been urging the Pakistan Government to bring about a peaceful solution of the Bangladesh problem by handing over the province to its elected leaders, Yahya Khan was becoming bellicose. It was therefore appreciated that a stage might come when war would be forced on India. Machinery was accordingly set in motion to plan for such an eventuality.

On 14 April, the provisional Bangladesh Government appointed Osmani Commander-in-Chief of all its armed forces. Osmani styled himself the de Gaulle of Bangladesh and set about his task with great zeal. He came from a highly respected family of Sylhet, had been educated at Aligarh University, and had later joined the Indian Army as an emergency commissioned officer in the Second World War.

He was commissioned originally in the Royal Indian Army Service Corps but later changed over to the infantry on the partition of India. He was largely responsible for raising and promoting the East Bengal Regiment. In recognition of his role he was termed “Father of the Regiment.” It is to his credit as a professional that he was selected to be Deputy Director of Military Operations before he resigned because of a difference of opinion with Field Marshal Ayub Khan, then Pakistan’s C-in-C.

 He was certainly a pillar of strength to the provisional government, and he brought a rare sense of integrity to all his dealings.

Disenchanted with West Pakistani domination of the eastern wing, Osmani dedicated himself on retirement to the Bangladesh independence movement and gave it the desired impetus when others wavered in the face of difficulties. He was certainly a pillar of strength to the provisional government, and he brought a rare sense of integrity to all his dealings. He lived and carried himself with dignity and, stickler that he was for protocol, insisted on being treated as the head of the armed forces of an independent country. I remember his refusing to land from an aircraft till the Indian Army commander was ready on the runway to receive him, although Osmani had arrived over the airfield earlier. The poor pilot of Osmani’s craft had to circle over the field for about ten minutes to allow the Army commander to land first and be ready to receive him.

Osmani’s attitude was that he was exiled from his country but not disinherited. His country needed help, not alms. His men had failed in battle, but were not defeated. Although junior in rank, he was no less in stature than his Indian counterparts. At times, a few mocked at his self-acquired prestige, unrelated to realities. Some of his officers thought him old, orthodox and out of tune with the times, but nobody ever questioned his patriotic zeal or integrity of purpose. It is creditable that he did not promote himself in rank as many a lesser men in his position would have been tempted to do at that time.

Osmani soon took stock of his assets in terms of manpower, weaponry and war potential so as to plan their reorganisation, re-equipping and training to achieve his aim.[7] Among regular troops, about five EBR battalions had trickled into India at widely dispersed points in a battered condition. Their numbers had been reduced because of casualties and some defections en route, and they were short of ammunition and heavy weapons.

The level proposed for these forces, called Mukti Bahini, was about three brigade groups organised to function independently.

They had brought whatever could be carried on a man’s back and were short of officers, especially in field ranks. Their JCO and NCO cadres were low. As a result of these combined factors, the units and subunits had lost their cohesion. But what they lacked in material they more than made up for with their burning zeal to fiuht the hated Pakistani Army.

In modern warfare however spirit alone is not enough. Forging these groups into a single, cohesive force was necessary before undertaking bigger tasks, especially when this regular element was to be the nucleus of the envisaged Bangladeshi forces to liberate their country. Paramilitary forces comprising EPR, Mujahids, Ansars and the police, an assortment of about 10,000 ill-armed men, also arrived in India. Since its officer and junior leader cadre were mostly from West Pakistan, this force was leaderless, and as such ineffective as a fighting force.

Nonetheless, both the regular and paramilitary forces had been active all along the border, carrying out deep forays. They had held out in some enclaves in inaccessible areas with the active support and guidance of BSF. Since this force was operationally responsible for policing the border, such limited operations as continuance of the insurgency fitted well with its role and were left under its control.

After the Indian Army was asked to take over the guidance of all aspects of guerilla warfare on 30 April, it was realised that to wage warfare of the Vietcong type and magnitude a much larger effort of an entirely different discipline was required along with entirely different strategic and tactical concepts. Manekshaw viewed the problem both from the shortterm and long term angles and concluded that if the Bangladeshi forces were to participate as equal partners of the Indian armed forces in a combined offensive to liberate the territory this force should be organised promptly on a planned growth schedule.

The level proposed for these forces, called Mukti Bahini, was about three brigade groups organised to function independently. Five EBR battalions, below strength, were immediately available and they were to be brought up to strength with the inclusion of EPR personnel and equipped at par with Indian Army establishments. It was also planned to raise another four battalions according to a phased programme. In the event, only three additional battalions could be made effective before the war began.

To give representation to each of the services, the Bangladesh Government had raised naval and air force components also, although in comparatively reduced strength.

In the process of reorganisation, the main bottleneck was lack of officer cadres and the time required to train fresh entrants. About 130 cadets, recruited mostly from students, were put through a crash programme of training. Pakistan-trained officers holding senior appointments in the Bangladeshi forces felt that Indian weaponry, firepower and establishments were not up to the mark, not knowing that the Indian Army was equipping them at considerable cost to its own military capability.

I had discussions with Ziaur Rahman and other officers on this subject and got the impression that they had imbibed American military concepts in the heyday of military aid to Pakistan from the US. They indicated a preference for imported weaponry. I found these officers professionally well educated but lacking the flexibility to apply their knowledge to the problem in hand within the prevailing constraints. No wonder they failed to gain much from the preceding insurgency.

By the end of October 1971, the Bangladeshi forces were able to raise eight regular battalions and one artillery regiment which were grouped into three brigades called Z, K and S forces, each consisting of two or three infantry battalions and one battery of artillery consisting of 105-nmm Italian pack howitzers. These were on the Indian pattern, but they unconsciously continued to follow Pakistani tactics, obviously because of their background. There were different schools of thought regarding their mode of deployment. Osmani preferred a separate sector to be allotted to them with independent tasks. This was perhaps inspired by his fierce pride in his country’s independent status. In no way did he wish his forces to be considered an adjunct of the Indian Army.

Click to buy

Lack of the heavy support integral to the Bangladeshi regular formations forbade such deployment on military considerations alone and it was prudent politically to project broadbased Bangladeshi forces participating as allies. The concept of their dispersed employment with Indian Army formations therefore eventually prevailed. There was a difference of opinion between Ziaur Rahman, commander of the First Brigade, and Osmani on the manner in which they were to be employed. Rahman wanted the battalions split into companies which would fight in special groups, commando fashion, while Osmani insisted on conventional warfare. I think Rahman was unnecessarily carried away by his commando service background.

To give representation to each of the services, the Bangladesh Government had raised naval and air force components also, although in comparatively reduced strength. The naval complement consisted of about 40 ensigns drawn from defectors from the Pakistani Navy. They mustered two light-class ships, MV Polish and Padma, and armed them with 40-mm Bofors. These vessels proved adequate for warfare in the estuaries. The air force complement consisted of a Dakota, an Otter and an Alouette helicopter. The crew were Pakistani Air Force defectors, consisting of about ten officers and 30 airmen. The Otter and the Alouetle were armed with rockets and machine guns. The air wing was mainly employed in communication duties with the Bangladesh Government and with top brass of the armed forces during the insurgency, and in combat roles in the hot war.


  1. On 26 March 1971, civil war broke out with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declaring a sovereign, independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh, See Asian Recorder, Vol. XVII, No 20, p. 10147,
  2. Op cit., “Reorganisation of Liberation Forces,” pp. 10153-54,
  3. Op. cit., Vol XVII, No 25, “Refugee Influx from Bangladesh, Appeal to UN,” p. 10209.
  4. Op cit., Vol XVII, No 20, “Democratic Republic of Bangladesh proclaimed,” p. 10154.
  5. Op. cit., Vol XVII, No 26, “World Press Criticism of Genocide,” p. 10228.
  6. OP cit., Vol XVII, No 20, “India’s Request to U Thant,”, p. 10158.
  7. Op. cit. Vol XVII, No 43, “C in C of Liberation Army on War Situation,” p. 10427.
Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left

2 thoughts on “East Pakistan: The Mukti Bahini takes shape

More Comments Loader Loading Comments