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The 1971 War For The Liberation Of Bangladesh

No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come -Victor Hugo

The 1971 war was a quasi- total war that led to decisive results.

It broke Pakistan in two and helped the new state of Bangladesh to emerge on the global stage. It entailed a march on the then enemy capital of Dacca, enforced regime change and the mass surrender of some 93,000 prisoners of war. In that respect it was a decisive conflict.India and the nascent Republic of Bangladesh fought this war as allies.

The gallant warriors of the Mukti- bahini played a key role in this conflict. In historical terms it marked the culmination of a deliberate phase of military build up undertaken in response to India’s tactical humiliation at the hands of Chinain 1962. The nation unleashed a tremendous synergistic response and ushered in an era of hard-headed realism in the sphere of foreign policy and national security. The soft power approach gave way to the creation of hard power capabilities that produced decisive results on the battlefield. The 1962-1972 decade was a peak era of professionalism for the Indian armed forces. The 1965 War provided invaluable combat and directional experience at the divisional, corps and theatre levels. It threw up a crop of battle tested brigade, divisional and corps commanders and well blooded units and formations. The 1971 War was a logical denouement of the deliberate decade-long military build-up and the asymmetric capabilities it generated on the subcontinent.

Indian Soldiers Had To Shed Their Blood For The Liberation Of Bangladesh

The bifurcation of the monolith Intelligence Bureau (IB) into the IB and R&AW, post the 1965 War, considerably improved our intelligence and created covert action capabilities that were put to good effect. As

per BN Raman’s testimony, R&AW’s psy-war division performed very well in this operation. A civilian leadership (thoroughly chastised by the 1962 humiliation) had now developed a ruthless and single minded approach toward the furtherance of national interests by using the tools of hard power.

Political Guidance:

The political leadership in the 1971 War was inspired and charismatic. It displayed a single-minded and coldblooded pursuit of national interests. The government knew its mind and had a clear-cut political objective. It had created asymmetric military capabilities on the subcontinent and was prepared to exploit them to further national interests. As per the testimony of Field Marshal Manekshaw, the political leadership had asked him to undertake operations against East Pakistan in March 1971 itself (when refugees had begun to pour in as a result of Pakistan’s military crackdown). This was an intolerable economic burden which India could not have sustained indefinitely. By its brutal and genocidal crackdown, the Pakistan Army had simply transferred the war to Indian territory. The military advice nevertheless was to postpone operations till after the monsoon season and when the Himalayan Passes had closed (to prevent Chinese intervention).The leadership of Shiekh Mujibur Rehman for the entire freedom struggle was historic and inspirational. The military advice was accepted (albeit with some reluctance). This gave the armed forces 7-8 months to prepare and coordinate plans, stage manage forces and logistics and generate inter-Services synergy of an unprecedented order. Gen (later Field Marshal) Manekshaw had served as DMO and was then Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff. He emerged as the virtual CDS and had the full faith and backing of the political elite. The civilian-military interface was unprecedented in its effectiveness.

The Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace and Friendship of August 1971 provided insurance against American or Chinese intervention in the impending conflict and speeded up delivery of weapons and spares.

Strategic Leadership:

The leadership provided by all three Service chiefs was inspiring and highly professional. A decade of professionalism and active combat experience had thrown up this elite. The armed forces had well internalized the lessons of 1962 and 1965. The 1965 War in particular had provided invaluable operational experience at the theatre, corps and divisional level. It had honed skills at the level of operational art. The Services had adequate time to integrate and synergize their plans. It was the peak of inter-Services cooperation and jointmanship (facilitated by the excellent chemistry between the three chiefs).

There was some dissonances between Sam and the Air Chief, but these were resolved at the theatre level. The military leadership’s professional advice to defer operations till after the monsoon and when Himalayan Passes were closed, was accepted. Though initially criticized, it proved to be very sound in hindsight. Bangladesh was designated as the center of gravity of the campaign. An offensive–defensive posture was adopted in the west. Signal intelligence resources were focused in the Eastern Theatre. Along with aerial reconnaissance and Mukti Bahini intelligence, it generated information dominance in the east. The logistical infrastructure to support operations in Bangladesh and engineer bridging resources were also focused in the east.

Centre of Gravity of Operations in Bangladesh:

Lt Gen JFR Jacob has highlighted the debate on the designation of the center of gravity in the Bangladesh theatre of operations. As per his account: Army HQ had felt it should be the entry ports of Khulna and Chittagong. The then DMO, Gen KK Singh was the prime votary of this school of thought. Eastern Command felt it should be Dacca,  the capital city. Infact, Gen Jacob recounts how in the meeting on 16 August 1971, when the Operational Instructions were being finalised, he had strongly insisted upon Dacca as the key objective. In retrospect, it is clear that Indian objectives in Bangladesh were not clearly spelt out at the outset. These evolved even as the situation evolved. The initial set of objectives seemed to be the clichéd capture of maximum territory to resettle the refugees and enable a provisional government of Bangladesh to come up. It is to Gen Jacob’s credit that he clung to his vision of Dacca, the capital city and politico-military nerve center, as the key center of gravity. He has highlighted the difference of perception between the Military Operations Directorate and Eastern Command HQ on the center of gravity issue. The entreports of Khulna and Chittagong were deemed key entry and exit ports. Gen Jacob, however, pointed out the geographical problems clearly involved in aiming operations for these ports. The closer one got to the coastline, the more formidable became the rivers and estuaries as terrain obstacles. The natural grain of communications led to the capital city of Dacca. Like Warsaw in Poland, it was contained within a river triangle. There were close strategic parallels between the German operation in Poland in World War II and Indian operations in Bangladesh. In both cases, the defenders’ perception was that the attacker would aim for shallow penetrations at the border. This was also Niazi’s mindset and he got bogged down into the classical “not an inch will be lost syndrome.” Shuja Nawaz writes in his magnum opus that Lt Gen Niazi had issued strict orders that no unit should withdraw till it had suffered 75 per cent casualties. This is where Gen Jacob says that his desert warfare tactics of bypassing and effecting deep penetrations proved particularly effective in Bangladesh.

The Indian formations were asked to avoid the main roads and expected axes of advance, and use the subsidiary roads and tracks and even railway lines as axes of advance. This helped to generate surprise, facilitated bypassing and tremendously speeded up operations. The Indians refused to fight as per the Pakistani design. In the classical expanding torrent concept, they bypassed the main centers of resistance and made an all out dash for Dacca. This totally dislocated the minds of the Pakistani commanders in the east and served to collapse the Pakistan Army organizationally.

The Campaign Options Available Were:

•           Limited Aim:This entailed effecting shallow penetrations on the periphery to obtain enclaves to resettle 10 million refugees and set up a provisional Government of Bangladesh and seek international recognition.

•           Unlimited Aims: Bypass centers of resistance on the periphery and organizationally collapse the Pakistan Army in the East by a swift, multi-pronged dash to the strategic core triangle of Dacca. This envisaged a high- tempo , air- land campaign.Pakistan’s Eastern Army Commander, Lt Gen Naizi was convinced that India intended to aim for shallow penetrations on the periphery only. No plans were, therefore, drawn up for withdrawal to the Dacca core and its defense and all resources were pushed up to prevent significant loss of territory on the borders. In fact, units were instructed not to withdraw till they had incurred 75 per cent losses.Pakistan’s strategy was totally unhinged by the bypassing of border defenses, and the expanding-torrent concept of attack. It was a classic air-land campaign. The Indians had learned exceedingly well from their reverses at the hands of the Chinese in 1962.

Air Supremacy in the East:

The IAF put in a superb performance. It foiled the Pakistani preemptive air attacks in the West and destroyed the Pakistan Air Force in the East. Disclosures made in BN Raman’s book The Kaoboys of R&AW, suggest that Indian intelligence had precise information of the D-day of this air strike and the IAF was fully alerted and prepared when the long awaited Pakistani air attack came. It was a classic case of too little too late.Pakistan launched its air offensive  on the moonlit night of 03 December 1971. Thus, it clearly initiated this war. 12xF-86 aircraft from Peshawer attacked the Indian airfield of Srinagar. 8xMirages and 2xF-104 Star fighters from Sargodha hit the Amritsar radar and the airfield at Pathankot. Another 8xF-86s from Muridke also hit Pathankot while 2xF-104s hit the radar at Faridkot. Thus, out of a squadron strength of some 278 Pakistani combat aircraft, only 32 were employed in the first wave. As a surgical strike, it was a damp squib. In the second wave, some 19x B-57 Canberra bombers struck Indian airfields atSrinagar and Rajasthan. This act of war gave India a clear causus belli to hit back hard. Clearly,Pakistan had initiated this war and made the initiating move. India was fully justified in reacting violently. The IAF retaliated swiftly in both the Eastern and the Western sectors. The IAF mounted energetic operations in the Eastern Theatre that wiped out the sole Pakistani squadron of Sabres. The IAF used runway penetration retarder bombs and put the Pakistani airfields out of commission. It thereby attained air supremacy over Bangladesh. This enabled a very high tempo of operations by the ground forces. Indian convoys could move bumper to bumper whereas all Pakistani troop movements were subjected to relentless and responsive air attacks, and forced to move only by night. Air supremacy enabled the para drop of a battalion group at Tangail. This hastened the fall of Dacca. Could we have dropped a para brigade to execute a turning maneuver and hasten the fall of Dacca even further? Air supremacy also enabled launch of heli-borne operations to secure assault crossings over the Meghna river to threaten Dacca from the south and east. Psychological operations played a major role. Pinpoint air strikes were launched to target the meeting of Gen Niazi and the governor in Dacca. This psychologically shattered Niazi and his command element and hastened the surrender. 

Lt Gen Arora Speaking To A Gathering In Sherpur

Striking the key command and control node of Dacca was a remarkable actualization of the concept of information operations (well before Gulf War I made this term popular). It induced total paralysis in the Pakistani armed forces in the East and was one of the key factors in inducing Niazi to surrender. It exemplified John Wardens inside out strategy of attacking the core of the enemies political and military leadership in Bangladesh. Army-air cooperation was excellent.

Just before the war, Air Marshal PC Lal had changed the Air Force Command boundaries so that HQ Eastern Command would not have to deal with two separate Air Force Commands. The IAF had set up an Advance HQ at Calcutta, located with HQ Eastern Command and it was this that had so greatly facilitated joint army-air operations.

The Ground War:

From an initial force of just four brigades, the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan had been built up to four weak divisions:

•           16 Infantry Division in the Northwestern sector of Hilli-Rangpur (under Maj Gen N H Sheikh).

•           9 Infantry Division in the Western sector of Jessore (under Maj GenM H Ansari).

•           14 Infantry Division in the Southeastern sector of Sylhet-Akhaura (under Maj Gen AM Quazi).

•           36 Infantry Division (newly formed with two brigades) defending the core triangle of Mymensingh-Dacca.

The Ground Offensive:

2 Corps. This was led by Lt Gen Raina (who later became the army chief). 9 Infantry Division led the advance to Jessore. It was subsequently diverted to theport of Khulna. Its operations bogged down in the marshy terrain and deeply reflect the basic controversy in war aims between Army HQ and Eastern Command. 4 Infantry Division led the advance to Kushtia and Jhendia and ultimately reached Faridpur on the Ganga/ Padma. The IWT flotilla allotted to 2 Corps for the push to Dacca was not utilized and a golden opportunity to hasten the fall of Dacca was lost.

4 Corps. This was led by Lt Gen Sagat Singh who proved to be the most audacious and daring field commander. 8 Mountain Division (under Maj Gen Krishna Rao, later army chief) rapidly advanced on to Maulvi Bazar and Sylhet. 23 Infantry Division (under Maj Gen Hira) led the advance to Chandpur. 57 Mountain Division under Maj Gen Ken Gonsalves led the advance to Comilla and Daudkhandi. 4 Corps operations were marked by boldness and daring and an all out drive to get to/threaten the capital city of Dacca. Heli-borne operations were used to effect crossings of the major river obstacle of the Meghna on the 07 and 09 December 1971 and speeded up the advance towards Dacca and thereby hastened the collapse of the Pakistan Army in the East. The heli-borne operations of 4 Corps are the most notable feature of this campaign.14 MI-4 helicopters had been allocated to this corps and were located at Agartala (under Group Capt Chandan Singh). Gen Sagat Singh had extensively employed heli-borne operations while leading the counter-insurgency campaign in the northeast. On 07 December 1971, Sagat launched 4/5 Gurkha Rifles battalion group in India’s first war-time heli-borne operation. On 09 December, as the road to Dacca seemed to open up, Gen Sagat launched 4 Guards battalion group across the Meghna river to threaten Dacca from the southwest. These troops reached the southern outskirts of Dacca and brought the city within artillery range as the war ended.

33 Corps. This was led by Lt Gen Thapan.20 Mountain Division (under Maj Gen Lehel), along with two other brigades conducted the operations in the Hilli sector. Intially, the operations seemed to be getting bogged down in an uncalled for battle of attrition at Hilli. However, once the tactics of containing and bypassing were adopted, QUASI - TOTAL WAR: 1971 WAR FOR THE LIBERATION OF BANGLADESH THE RISE OF INDIAN MILITARY POWER – 154 –the operations speeded up and broke through to the ultimate objective of Bogra where the Pakistani garrison surrendered.

101 Communication Zone. Lt Gen Jacob writes that he had asked for the Army HQ reserve, 6 Mountain Division, to be made available for the dash to Dacca from the north. This was apparently turned down by Field Marshal Manekshaw. As a result, 101 Communication Zone progressed operations towards the key geo-political and strategic center ofDacca. The trump card here was the para drop of a battalion group at Tangail which was critical to hastening the fall of Dacca. Dacca was, in fact, the critical center of gravity in this campaign and its fall collapsed the Pakistan Army in the East. The comparative ratio between the opposing land forces was just 1.8:1,far below the basic ratio of 3:1 needed for success in an attack. This just highlights

the critical and overwhelming role played by air power and the speed and pace at which operations were conducted. These served to completely dislocate the minds of the Pakistani commanders.

Naval Operations:

The navy enforced a blockade of Bangladesh and severed the connection between the two wings of Pakistan. It launched a brilliant attack on the Pakistan Navy’s home base of Karachi. This was the brainchild of the highly aggressive Navy Chief Admiral Nanda who was determined that the navy would not sit out this war but make a very effective contribution.Karachi, in fact, was struck twice by missile boats that had been towed there for this attack. Five Osa class missile boats had been towed for this attack. These sank a number of Pakistani capital ships (to include the Pakistani destroyer Khyber, a coastal minesweeper, PNS Muhafiz and a merchant ship). Another flotilla of some 8 Indian Navy ships (including three missile boats) struck Karachi for the second time on the night of 08/09 December 1971 and in concert with the air force, set fire to oil storage tanks at Karachi. It sank the Pakistan Navy’s tanker Karachi and a British and Panamian ship carrying stores and supplies. Not only was Karachi hit twice by Indian Naval Task Forces also bombarded the Pakistani Naval establishment at Gwadar and Pasni. The rout of the Pakistani Navy was so thorough and complete that irate Pakistani mobs beat up the sailors on the streets of Karachi. The Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier battle group provided close air support for ground operations in Bangladesh and prevented the escape of Pakistani forces via the sea. It attacked and put on fire the oil dump and power house at Cox’s Bazaar and hit the ATC, harbor, hangar and fuel dump in Chittagong. Naval commandos extensively sabotaged Pakistani naval and steamer craft operating in the inland waters. Towards the end of the war, an Indian battalion group was landed at Cox’s Bazaar on the coastline to prevent the escape of any Pakistani troops via the sea. This was independent India’s first amphibious operation. The Indian Navy’s performance in the 1971 War was brilliant. Vice Admiral A K Singh attributed this to a highly bold and aggressive naval leadership and the cultural transformation that had come over the Indian Navy as its equipment and training profile changed over largely to Soviet warships and the highly aggressive Soviet military philosophy of aiming for the annihilation of the enemy. The army had mounted a classic Blitzkrieg. Three corps offensives (2 Corps, 33 Corps and 4 Corps) converged on to Dacca. They contained and bypassed strong centers of resistance on the periphery and raced for the core objective of the capital city of Dacca. Dacca is located within a triangle of rivers (Padma, Meghna and Brahmaputra), and Pakistani forces could easily have fallen back and defended the capital for weeks. The enemy commander’s mind, however, was totally dislocated by the speed and tempo of the Indian operations. The Indian forces followed Liddell Hart’s concept of the expanding torrent. 4 Corps operations were most fast paced and brilliant. They brought Dacca within artillery range. Lt Gen Sagat Singh proved to be India’s best field commander. A battalion group was para dropped at Tangail.

101 Comn Zone operations were launched from the north to exploit the exposed flank. 20 Mountain Division was removed at great risk from the Chinese front and deployed to support operations towards Dacca. Dacca fell in just 14 days. The Pakistani armed forces in the East were shaken to the core but largely intact.Islamabad, even at this stage, had hoped for a ceasefire that would enable them to extricate their troops. However, nerves were totally frayed in Dacca. Gen Jacob has described how he had flown into Dacca and hectored Niazi with threats of a resumption of air attacks to induce him to surrender. It was a brilliant psychological warfare exercise that succeeded eminently and highlights the climate of collapse that had been created in Bangladesh.

The most unnerving factor for the Pakistanis was the swarming groups of vengeful Mukti Bahini fighters and the severe pangs of guilt in the Pakistani rank and file. The atrocities they had committed had divested them of their moral underpinnings and professional élan. The rape of almost a million women and the murder of innocent civilians now came to haunt them. The disciplined Indian Army seemed their only refuge from the bands of Mukti Bahini fighters baying for revenge. The photographs of vengeful Mukti Bahini fighters bayoneting Pakistani quislings to death had a major impact. The guilt ridden Pakistani troops were terrified of the retribution the Bengalis would exact. Indian Army troops seemed their last beacon of hope. The surrender and the Indian Army’s promise of protection came as a huge relief. It proved to be a brilliant, text-book tri-Services campaign. Over 93,000 Pakistani troops surrendered in the East. A new-nation state was created with the force of arms for the first time after World War II.

Just War:

It was a just war—just in its causes and aim and also in its conduct. The Pakistani troops had unleashed an unparalleled reign of terror in former East Pakistan. They had carried out ethnic cleansing and genocide on an unprecedented scale and pushed out 10 million refugees into India. The traumatized people of Bangladesh had risen in a spontaneous revolt and sought India’s aid. The East Pakistan rifles had revolted and launched a spirited resistance struggle. The Mukti Bahini provided excellent support by harassing and wearing down the Pakistan Army in the East and providing real-time and accurate intelligence. It was Pakistan which had tried to externalize its internal conflict by unleashing genocide in Bangladesh and pushing some 10 million refugees into India. This put an intolerable burden on the Indian economy. Despite these grave provocations,India had displayed remarkable patience and restraint. It made every possible attempt to secure a peaceful return of the refugees. It struck back only once the Pakistan Air force launched an all-out attack on the Indian air bases. It was an act of war for which India’s resolute response was more than justified. In fact, it comprises the epitome of what a just war should be. It was a victory of historic proportions and in a way, reaffirmed the Kautilyan paradigm of swift and decisive operations preceded by extensive covert operations (the covert campaign was conducted by the Mukti Bahini).The Bangladesh operations, therefore, provide an Indian paradigm for war-fighting. They were characterized by a steadfast selection and maintenance of aim. A comprehensive decade-long military build-up to generate an asymmetry was taken to its logical conclusion through decisive military operations. Given the constraints of the Cold War era on the use of conventional military force, this proved to be a decisive conflict that (for the first time after the World War II) created a new nation state with the force of arms and dismembered Pakistan.

The Mukti Bahini:

The Mukti Bahini operations had destroyed the politico-military balance of the Pakistani forces in the East. Some 15,000 troops of the East Pakistan Rifles had revolted against the atrocities of the Pakistan Army. By the start of the 1971 War, some 1,00,000, Mukti Bahini guerrillas were operating inside the then territory of East Pakistan.

It was the Pakistan Army that by its brutal oppression and genocide had totally alienated the local population and sparked off a major uprising. The Hamoudur Rehman Committee enquiry report candidly admits this fact. The Pakistan Army had caused this uprising by its brutal crackdown designed to terrify the Bengalis into submission. Once the war began, Indian air supremacy totally demoralized the Pakistani forces and enabled a very high tempo of operations. It acted as a most significant force multiplier and enabled a classic air-land campaign. In the classical  Kautilyan framework, the Mukti Bahini‘s covert operations had destroyed the politico-military balance in East Pakistan well before the launch of the main offensive.

The naval blockade induced a sense of isolation and hopelessness in the Pakistani garrison. Naval air support speeded up operations and sealed off routes of escape. The navy’s successful attack on Pakistan’s home port of

Karachi was a bold and most spectacular operation in the annals of naval warfare. It was highly innovative in design and execution. Osa missile boats were towed for the attack.India’s only “amphibious operation” so far was launched in Cox’s Bazaar (towards the end of the war). This unopposed landing prevented the escape of Pakistani forces towards Burma by sea. The ecstatic people of Bangladesh joyously welcomed the Indian armed forces as liberators. The scenes were strongly reminiscent of the liberation of France in the World War II. Once the operations were completed, the Indian armed forces vacated the territory of Bangladesh.

The 1971 War, thus, exemplifies a just war in all its aspects.

Maj Gen (Dr) GD Bakshi, SM, VSM (retd)

Maj Gen (Dr) GD Bakshi, SM, VSM (retd) is a combat veteran of many skirmishes on the LOC and Counter-Terrorist operations in J&K and Punjab. He commanded his battalion in active operations in Kargil and was awarded the Vishist  Seva Medal. Later he commanded a brigade in Counter-Terrorist operations in the very rugged mountains of Kishtwar and was awarded the Sena Medal for his distinguished services. He subsequently commanded the reputed Romeo Force during intensive Counter-Terrorist operations in the Rajouri-Punch Districts of J&K in the wake of Op Sarp Vinash and succeeded in pacifying the area. He has served two tenures at the highly prestigious Directorate General of Military Operations (during Op Pawan and Op Vijay) and was the first BGS (IW) at HQ Northern Command where he dealt with Information Warfare and Psychological Operations. He is a prolific writer on matters military and non-military and has published 24 books and over 110 papers in many prestigious research journals. His articles have also been published in various National Newspapers. He taught at the Indian Military Academy Dehradun and the Prestigious Defence Services Staff College at Wellington for three years each. He taught at the   National Defense College at New Delhi for two years and retired from this prestigious assignment in Jun08.   He holds a Masters degree in Defence Science and an M Phil in Strategic Studies from the University of Madras. He recently completed his Ph.d from the same University on” Limited Wars in South Asia”. He is an Associate member of the IDSA and a distinguished fellow of the Centre for Air Power Studies. He has taken over as the Editor-in-Chief of the Defence and Security Alert magazine. His books include, “Afghanistan-the First Fault line War,”  “War in the 21st Century”, “The Indian Art Of War” “The  Paradox of Pakistan” , “The Rise of Indian Military Power: Evolution of an Indian Strategic Culture “and “Limited Wars in South Asia.”