Military & Aerospace

The Defence and Decline of Dacca in 1971 (Part-I)
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Issue Vol. 37.1, Jan-Mar 2022 | Date : 25 Mar , 2022

Background of the Great Divide

the Pakistani establishment in West Pakistan had given up on East Pakistan long before 1971, when they adopted the strategy of ‘Defence of East Pakistan Lies in the West (Pakistan)’. Following this strategy, most of the Pakistan armed forces were concentrated in West Pakistan to capture as much Indian territory as possible in order to negotiate Indian gains in East Pakistan. They never prepared for the eventuality that India might fight a defensive battle in the West and attack East Pakistan with its full military might. The Pakistani establishment was more interested in protecting its base (West Pakistan) and wresting Kashmir from India rather than saving East Pakistan.

Till December 1971, India was facing a three-front war situation – East Pakistan, West Pakistan and China. Following the 1962 India-China War, expansion and modernisation of the Indian armed forces was still underway when the 1965 Indo-Pak war broke out. India lacked the capability to undertake any major offensive in East Pakistan and did not conduct any military operation in the East. While the war was going on, China gave an ultimatum to India that increased pressure on the Indian leadership to accept a ceasefire. Undertaking any operation against East Pakistan during the war would have increased the possibility of Chinese intervention.

Till December 1971, India was facing a three-front war situation – East Pakistan, West Pakistan and China…

If India’s strategic situation was so constrained, Pakistan’s situation was no better. It had to defend both the Eastern and Western wings. Since 1947, Pakistan was dominated by West Pakistanis in general and military-bureaucratic nexus of Pakistani Punjabis in particular. East Pakistan’s representation in both these areas (armed forces and bureaucracy) was the bare minimum. For most government job interviews, Bengalis had to travel to West Pakistan, and most could not afford the travel expenses.

West Pakistani-dominated leadership kept its own interests in mind while running the country. They considered West Pakistan as their base and were more interested in its safeguard, welfare and development. East Pakistan was a mere extension of their base and was not that important socially, economically or militarily. They would look down on the short, dark skinned and ‘ugly looking’ Bengalis, who could not even speak Urdu! Their thinking shaped the discriminatory policies they formulated and with the passage of time, East Pakistan started realising that it was being treated as a colony, whose jute was exported and money thus earned was spent on West Pakistan’s welfare; whose growing poverty was of no concern to West Pakistan; whose rail road infrastructure was not developed for the fear of Indian invasion in future; whose security during the 1965 war was left to China! All because they had no plan whatsoever to defend East Pakistan. All their operational plans were restricted to the West. But things changed in 1966-1967. Let us see how.

Evolution of Defensive Plan of East Pakistan

Right after independence in January 1948, Major General Ayub Khan (later Field Marshall and Pakistan’s first dictator) was commanding the 14 Division based in Dacca. He was the first Pakistani officer to command the Division. 14 Division, however, was not a proper Division; all it had was few thousand Ansars (irregulars), two or three regular Battalions and few units of Artillery. There was just one amphibious aircraft for government services in East Pakistan and no Air Force or Navy whatsoever! In 1963, when General Ayub Khan became the President of Pakistan and Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistan Armed Forces, he got a squadron of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) deployed in Dacca. By then, 14 Division was no longer a skeleton fighting unit and had the usual components of a Division.

Pakistan’s Eastern Command knew that they had too few troops to defend the entire province but they plan…

General Yahya Khan commanded 14 Division from 1961 to 1963. He hardly contributed towards formulating any operational plan either to defend East Pakistan against any aggression or to conduct any offensive operations against India. It was like a true peace station posting for him, during which he stayed away from politics and politicians and was very popular among the elite of East Pakistan. The change came in 1966 when a young Lt. Colonel Rao Farman Ali was to go to New Delhi as Military Attaché in the Pakistan Embassy. He was happy because it meant promotion to the rank of full Colonel. But just before the scheduled departure, Farman was called by Pakistan Army’s Chief of General Staff (CGS) General Yaqub, who asked Farman to stay on in GHQ Rawalpindi as Deputy Director of Military Operations (DDMO) and help in finalising the ‘Operational Plan for Defence of Pakistan’.

Both Yaqub and Farman were to play an important role in formulating a defensive plan for East Pakistan. Farman was to take charge from Colonel MAG Osmani, a Bengali officer. Osmani was holding that office for eight long years but Farman was horrified to see1 that Osmani was not given a single file to review. The level of mistrust of Bengali officers by Pakistani higher command was so high that Osmani’s office was made ineffective, literally. Even peons would not pay any heed to him. And this was in 1966! As per Farman, the Operational Plan of the time was nothing more than a collation of Division-level plans with no ‘Operational Strategy, Hypothesis or Concept of Operations’. Rao and his staff started putting together, “a Defensive Operational plan under the hypothesis of the enemy’s main attack against West Pakistan while the enemy remains Defensive against East Pakistan”. The plan was appreciated and approved by the then Commander-in-Chief General Yahya Khan and the President Field Marshal Ayub Khan.

Encouraged, Farman sought permission from General Yaqub to draft another operational plan under the hypothesis of India’s main attack on East Pakistan while India remains defensive on the Western front, exactly what happened five years later. In response, General Yaqub told him that he (Farman) had been promoted and posted out to Dacca. Yaqub said, “GOC 14 Division in Dacca is going to conduct an exercise called ‘Sundarban I’ under the same hypothesis you just talked about. You will be the Director of the exercise. At the end of the exercise, you may submit your recommendations, which will be given due consideration.” Farman went to Dacca on February 02, 1967, as Commander Artillery under 14 Division and remained there till the surrender of Pakistan forces on December 16, 1971.

At the end of Exercise Sundarban I, Farman had recommended that:–

    • East Pakistan resembles Poland during WW1. Its major cities are on the border thereby attracting defending forces outward and creating a vacuum in the middle, thus exposing Dacca to the enemy forces.
    • The defence of every inch of East Pakistan in not possible and the main objective of the Pakistan Army should be changed from ‘Defence of East Pakistan’ to ‘Remaining in being’.
    • The enemy’s final attack will come from the North in the Central sector and adequate defensive measures must be taken to defend Dacca at all costs.

 Farman was aware of alienation of the Bengali population and the simmering separatist sentiments in East Pakistan. Considering the Pakistan Army’s principle of the “Defence of East Pakistan lies in the West” and ever increasing hostile environment in East Pakistan, ‘Remaining in being’ was the best option for Pakistan Army in case of an open war with India and it was visualised brilliantly by Farman well in advance. The concept of ‘Remaining in being’ was approved by the CGS and was included in the Operational Directive issued on August 09, 1967. “In the East, contain and neutralise as many enemy troops as possible inflicting maximum casualties without running the risk of annihilation”.2

Yaqub’ entry into East Pakistan

In 1969, Lieutenant General Yaqub was posted to East Pakistan as the Commander of the Eastern Theatre. He assumed command of the newly raised 3 Corps, which had just one Division under its command i.e. 14 Division. Yakub was commissioned into Indian Army in 1940, and had very limited experience of war. He had seen active service in World War II in the North African theatre and had become a Prisoner of War (PoW) in 1942 during the Battle of Ghazala. For the rest of WWII, he remained at a PoW camp at Versa, Italy and spent that time reading books and learning different languages. Thereafter, he never participated in any battle. His limited battle experience did not affect his intelligence and competence as a soldier. He was known as a scholar soldier who could be compared with the finest of the German General Staff.3 His strategic mind could see where East Pakistan was heading and he knew very well that there could be no military solution to the political problem of East Pakistan. Throughout his tenure in East Pakistan, he advocated a political solution. And at the same time, doing his military duty, he kept refining the defensive plan of the Eastern Command. Considering the evolving political situation and hostile environment, Yaqub visualised two contingencies and prepared his defensive plan accordingly.

Contingency A – There was a possibility of a local uprising with India providing moral and material support; but not invading East Pakistan physically. In this case, Eastern Command would adopt a forward posture, troops would be deployed all along the border, deal with the uprising wherever it existed and prevent any loss of territory to rebels.

Contingency B – There was a possibility of a major insurgency followed by India’s invasion. In this case, the Eastern Command would adopt a defensive posture, use light and mobile elements beyond the major rivers and defend Dacca at all costs making full use of major river obstacles.

On November 12, 1969, GHQ issued another Operational Directive to the Eastern Command stating its mission in just a few words, “3 Corps will defend East Pakistan.” Pakistan’s Eastern Command knew that they had too few troops to defend the entire province but they kept refining their plan. They realised that the Indian Army had eight Divisions in the East, out of which five were deployed against the Chinese Border and three were facing the East Pakistani border.

In the summer of 1970, student officers of Pakistan’s Command and Staff College4 visited East Pakistan and GOC, 14 Division, Major General Khadim Hussain Raja delivered a lecture for about one and a half hours. He described the difficult riverine terrain, the logistic problems it posed and the possible Indian threat being faced. Some points of his presentation are really interesting. He explained that though the number of troops in East Pakistan had increased, there were simply not enough troops in the province to defend it properly. The terrain of the province was so vast that the troop-to-space ratio was really poor. Dacca-based 3 Corps had just 14 Division and that too without adequate artillery, armoured or engineer support, so vital for the terrain.

To make the situation worse, the enemy would enjoy complete air and naval superiority from the very beginning. There was just one PAF squadron and a few Pakistan Navy gun boats deployed in East Pakistan. India was expected to deploy eight to ten fighter squadrons, while the Indian Navy was expected to enforce a complete blockade of Khulna and Chittagong ports. He informed the group that under these challenging circumstances, it was better to trade space for time. He was trying to evolve a defensive plan based on limited offensive and by organising resistance mainly on strong points and fortresses. Their overall plan was to be based on “mobile defence” concept because the rigid point defences would invite total annihilation of the defending forces.

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Later, in August 1970, this plan was tested during the war game “TITU MIR I”. It was conducted under the threat perception of three Indian Divisions against East Pakistan. The concept of Mobile Defence was discussed in detail to validate its effectiveness in the operational environment of East Pakistan. Brigadier Karra Ali Agha attended the war game as Staff Officer to DG East Pakistan Rifles. He recalled that at the end of the exercise, General Yakub spoke for about 20 minutes enlightening everyone present with the difference between ‘mobile defence’ and ‘the defence which is mobile’. In Brigadier Agha’s words, “What a learned discourse it was!” Conclusions drawn from this war game forced the GHQ, Rawalpindi to include ‘Defence of Dacca at all costs’ in the overall plan to defend East Pakistan.

The Plan for Dacca

It is important to note that the ‘Defence of Dacca’ and ‘Remaining in Being’ gradually became the two prime objectives of the Pakistan Army’s plan in East Pakistan. And ‘Mobile Defence’ while making full use of major river obstacles became a cornerstone of the plan. It is equally important to note that this plan was designed when Bengalis had not rebelled completely against the West Pakistani rulers. The general elections of 1970 were still few months away and no one had thought about the military crackdown of March 25. This plan would have worked up to whatever extent possible, only if the local populace had not turned into enemies. But in 1971, all this analytical work of four years and the conclusions drawn were thrown out of the window by one man and Pakistan’s operational plan in East Pakistan took a U-turn in a self-destructive mode due to the actions of that one man. That man was Lieutenant General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi.

(to be continued…)


  1. Khan, Rao Farman Ali, How Pakistan Got Divided, Oxford University Press, p. 8.
  2. Matinuddin, Lt Gen Kamal, Tragedy of Errors: East Pakistan Crisis 1968-1971, Services Book Club, p. 339.
  4. Matinuddin, Lt Gen Kamal, Tragedy of Errors: East Pakistan Crisis 1968-1971, p. 342.
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Sumit Walia

is an IT Specialist. He is also a Military History buff who continues to Explore & Research various facets of the Indian Military History in his spare time.

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