As we approach the 50th anniversary of Pakistan’s abject surrender to the Indian Army on 16 December 1971, it makes for an emotive moment in the history of modern India. Much of India does not have any idea about what went into the making of that victory. I write this at a time when the high mark of history is being celebrated and should therefore help in spurring inquisitiveness about the historic event among more people in South Asia.
In March 1971, two events caused a crisis in Pakistan, in its east wing to be precise. First, a massive cyclonic storm, Bhola, in November 1970 in the Bay of Bengal had ravaged East Pakistan killing half a million people. The Pakistan government’s response was so tardy, insufficient and insensitive that it hugely irked the already seething Bengalis. They had their differences with the Urdu-speaking West Pakistanis, who did not appreciate the sentiment of Bengali sub-nationalism; the latter was based upon culture and not faith. This was followed by a general election that resulted in East Pakistan’s Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman romping home to claim the right to form the Pakistan government. Neither Zulfiqar Bhutto (a distant second) nor Yahya Khan, the debauched Army chief and President, could imagine a Pakistan ruled by a Bengali leader. Twenty-four years of built-up emotions and it all came tumbling down as events cascaded out of control, leading to a standoff between the Pakistan Army and the Bengali intellectuals. The Pakistan Army proved its incapability to think strategically, obsessed by its under-assessment of the Indian Armed Forces and the strategic outlook of the Indian leadership.
When the near genocide by the Pakistan Army began in late March 1971, it was virtually a point of no return. Pakistan relied on the countervailing capability of China and the US for whom it had acted as the point of contact for the furtherance of their relationship. It was the Soviet Union whose steadfast support to India gave our leadership the flexibility to deal with the situation. Later the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation helped stave off the Chinese threat and limited the US effort to coerce India through the movement of the Seventh Fleet and the USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal.
General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw’s strategic military advice to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, now made a subject of unnecessary controversy by seasoned Indian diplomat Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, was both pragmatic and practical. Manekshaw advised that India must delay going to war with Pakistan because April-July was not the most advantageous season. The Chinese could intervene along the northern borders and assist Pakistan. The standing crop in Punjab and Rajasthan would be completely destroyed by tanks as tactical battles would take place leading to a food crisis. In addition Manekshaw felt that he needed time to get the logistics into place for the thrusts he planned if we were to go on the offensive and also make up for the serious deficiencies in equipment and ammunition. It does appear trivial on the part of some political and bureaucratic personalities to claim that Manekshaw’s advice was later a wonderfully told tale due to his skills as a raconteur. Without labouring on this point, one would always humbly ask whether anyone other than the Army chief could have given genuine advice based upon the true picture of force levels, equipment profile and logistics. That the final decision to delay the operations and await better preparedness was taken by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi can never be in doubt but neither can the attribution for the advice be taken away from Manekshaw.
It is little known that Islamabad’s original strategy to offset the Indian Army’s plans for a swift offensive into East Pakistan was based on a very basic premise: “the defence of East Pakistan lies in West Pakistan”. The prominent Pakistani analyst and author Lt Gen Atiqur Rehman notes that if this were the strategy, more forces should not have been sent to East Pakistan and India should have been engaged in the west, forcing it to hold back operations in the east. However, it needs to be remembered that the build-up to the war was not sudden but progressive. It was not easy for Islamabad to leave its east wing undefended while the preparations were on, awaiting a major offensive by the Pakistan Army from the west. During the war itself no concentrated effort towards deep thrust into the Indian heartland materialised; perhaps Pakistan felt defeated right at the outset of the war. The Indian Navy’s sea forays to blockade Karachi had a psychological effect leading to a hemmed-in Pakistani mindset. The Indian Air Force’s capability to rule the skies in the east and contain the threat from the Pakistan Air Force in the west provided the flexibility to the ground forces to plan and execute their operations with reasonable impunity.
One of the primary reasons for the quick and resounding Indian victory was the sound articulation of political objectives from which the military aims were extracted. Usually this is one of the most challenging tasks before the highest levels of strategic and operational staff. The politico-military objective that emerged as the main term of reference was the time factor; it had to be the least to prevent intervention of any kind. A holding offensive defence had to be fought in the west to offset any grandiose offensive Pakistani intent. Enough territory had to be captured in East Pakistan to enable the return of the 10 million refugees and setting up of a Provisional Government of Bangladesh in their territory. Swift operations needed to be launched to capture the delineated military objectives in the least time. The doubt that always remains and gives room for analysis is whether Dacca was a primary objective or a ‘be prepared’ one, to be addressed if circumstances were right. Rightly the time appreciation for capture of Dacca should have been perceived as a long-drawn-out affair if the Pakistanis fought to potential. It’s their psychological and physical capitulation and living by the spirit to ‘fight another day’ that led India’s entry into Dacca in less than 14 days. It was also enabled most by the unconventional operations undertaken by Lt Gen Sagat Singh, GOC 4 Corps. He planned and ensured the Meghna crossing by a heliborne battalion and thus enabled the 101st Communication Zone Area to be the first to arrive at Dacca’s doorstep.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir