PART I: THE LAND WAR
Background to War: At 5.45 pm on 03 December 1971, Pakistani fighter aircraft swooped down Indian skies and launched a series of pre-emptive attacks on the Indian airfields of Ambala, Srinagar, Avantipur, Pathankot, Uttarlai and Jodhpur hoping to destroy Indian aircraft on ground and win a decisive victory at the onset of the coming war. They failed. Not a single Indian aircraft was lost on the ground and the IAF responded by launching a series of retaliatory attacks inside Pakistan. The same day, Pakistani troops launched an offensive in the Chamb and Poonch sectors of Kashmir, and the next day Indian troops entered East Pakistan. The third Indo-Pak war had begun.
The roots to the war go back to the flawed two-nation theory that created two wings of Pakistan separated by 2500 kilometers of Indian territory. East and West Pakistan were not only geographically separated from each other. Bound only by religion, the Bengalis of East Pakistan and the Punjabis of the West were culturally, ethnically and politically different from each other. The Bengalis were considered inferior to their Punjabi and Pathan brethren of the West and the simmering discontent of East Pakistanis was rising after years of exploitation. Then in 1970 the East Pakistani political party, the Awami League under Sheikh Mujibur Rehman won the General Elections in Pakistan. It meant that for the first time, an East Pakistani would become President of the country.
Yet, rather than accept the result, the elections were annulled, martial law imposed and Shiekh Mujibur Rehman placed under arrest. East Pakistanis hit the streets in violent protest, and the Pakistani government ordered a crack down. Additional troops were flown in, and the uprising put down brutally. The carnage that the Pakistani army wreaked caused over 300000 casualties and sent a flood of refugees – over 7 million of them – pouring into India. Alarmed at the situation on its Eastern border and concerned with the influx of refugees, Mrs Indira Gandhi ordered the Army Chief Gen Sam Manekshaw to ‘Go into East Pakistan’ in April 1970.
General Manekshaw refused stating that he could guarantee victory only if allowed to attack in December, at a time when the armed forces would be fully ready, the Chinese passes closed and the weather conditions better for offensive operations. Mrs Gandhi agreed, and in the period the military prepared for the coming war. The Bengali militia, the Mukti Bahini were trained and built up, and Indian forces began operating with them. Both sides were preparing for a war that seemed inevitable, and skirmishes occurred with increasing frequency. On 22 November, a major battle took place at Garibpur in East Pakistan, on 22 November involving tanks, artillery and even fighter jets of both sides. The Indian success in that encounter set the tone for the coming battles. (See ‘Air and Land Battle at Garibpur). The situation erupted on 03 December with Pakistan’s pre-emptive attack in the West. It gave just the excuse for the Indian Army to enter East Pakistan the next day and go on to create a nation.
The Defeat of Pakistan’s Eastern Command
The Indian Army moved into East Pakistan in a four pronged thrust. 2 Corps with two divisions (4 and 9 Divisions and 50 Para Brigade) advanced from the South West; 33 Corps (30 Division and 71 Brigade) from the North West; 101 Communication Zone with two brigades moved in from the North and the main thrust with 4 Corps moved inwards from the East with three divisions (8, 57 and 23 Divisions)
It would not be a cakewalk. General A K Niazi of the Pakistani Eastern Command had almost four and a half divisions, 25,000 Para military forces, five squadrons of Chaffee tanks, and around 20 F-86 Sabre jet fighters to contest the Indians. He also had the advantage of geography. The terrain was marshy and crisscrossed with rivers making advance difficult. He chose to deploy his forces in the small towns along the approaches. Each town – Jessore, Jhenida, Bogra, Rangpur, Hilli, Jamalpur, Sylhet, Comilla and Chittagong to name a few- was virtually converted into a fortress and would have to be reduced if the Indian were to advance. Another line of fortresses lay deeper in the second tier. In the center was Dacca, secure in a bowl behind the Yamuna and Meghna rivers where lay his headquarters. It was felt that if the fortresses delayed the Indians long enough, the Chinese and the US would intervene. All they had to do was hold.
The Indian plan was to advance deep, capture enough territory to declare Bangla Desh. They advanced rapidly using cycles, rickshaws, bullock carts and boats and even moved tanks in the swampy land. They were aided by the Mukti Bahini, who guided and provided invaluable local information. The fortresses of Jessore, Hilli, Bogra, Mymensingh, were captured after fierce battles. But whenever a fortress could not be captured, it was merely bypassed, and the Indian troops moved deeper leaving a small force to contain it. This helped cut off many Pakistani troops who were now unable to withdraw.
In ten days the Indian thrust lines moved deeper in to East Pakistan. Helicopters and paratroopers were used to insert troops in the rear to cut off retreating Pakistani soldiers and prevent them falling back to Dacca. 2 PARA landed at Tangail and captured a bridge on the Lohaganj River. The para drop which was seen from Dacca first caused jubilation, thinking that the Chinese or American partroopers had arrived to save them. This jubilation changed to consternation when they realized that Indian paratroopers were behind their positions. A major helicopter-borne operation was launched that ferried one battalion, 4/5 Gurkha Rifles, behind enemy lines to hold a position on the Surma River and cut off Pakistani troops in the town of Sylhet. Although only two companies were initially dropped, BBC reported that an entire Indian brigade had been heli-dropped and this false news was built up by the Indians as well. Although over a Brigade of Pakistani troops were in Sylhet (built up to over two brigades as withdrawing troops fell into the town) they did not attack the small heli-borne force and the small force of less than a battalion contained the two brigades in Sylhet till its eventual surrender.
Although the US Seventh Fleet led by the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise steamed into the Bay of Bengal, the US and Chinese made no serious attempt to save the Pakis. The Indians had reached the Meghna River on 12 December and were now within striking distance of Dacca. On 14 December a conference was held at Government House, Dacca, attended by the Governor, Gen Niazi and senior officials. As the meeting was underway, a flight of Indian MIG 21s rocketed the building. This was virtually the last straw and broke Pakistani morale. The Governor resigned, and the next day, Niazi received a message from Lt Gen Aurora, the Indian Commander, asking him to surrender and assuring him of the safety of his troops. Niazi agreed and next day, on 16 December at 4.31 pm in Dacca Race Course, Gen Niazi and Gen Aurora signed the Instrument of Surrender in front of a million strong crowd chanting ‘Joi Bangla.’ 93,000 Pakistani troops – the largest haul of prisoners since World War II – laid down their arms. The war in the East was over. A new nation had been created.
Actions in the Western front continued for one more day. Pakistan had hoped to attain gains in the Western theater but here too it lost territory and equipment. Its offensive in this sector did not materialize and on 17 December Mrs Indira Gandhi declared a unilateral ceasefire. At 2000h on 17 December, the guns finally fell silent.
This was modern India’s most comprehensive victory and attained through close synergy between the Army, Navy and Air Force. Yet, the gains of the battlefield were given away at the bargaining table. In June 1972, during the Shimla Agreement, Mrs Gandhi agreed to release 93,000 Pakistani prisoners without extracting any concessions for a long-term solution to Kashmir. Pakistan was cut to size, but the problem of Kashmir remained unresolved and continued to haunt the Sub-continent for decades thereafter.
(Col Ajay Singh (Retd) is a poet, photographer and writer-at-large who has donned the uniform for 28 years, before falling to the lure of words. Since then, he has written four books – including the bestselling novel, ‘Through Orphaned Eyes’ and over 200 published articles. A renowned public speaker, he lectures extensively in schools, colleges and other institutes. He has co-hosted TV shows and writes screenplay for film and television. He stays in Pune and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)