There is an old saying in the Army in Punjabi “Jinne jeet nahi dekhi usko jeetna kaun sikhaega.” Meaning, if one has not seen victory, how can you teach him to win a war? Today, 16 December 2016, is the 45th anniversary of the 1971 India–Pakistan war, the first war after World War 2 which the Indian Army won empathetically. The only war that the independent Indian Army had planned; executed and, carried out with precision and captured 93,000 prisoners of war (POWs). I was involved in this war as a young SSF Subaltern who went on to fight side by side with ‘Mukti Bahini’ in the East for first nine months and then move to West for further action.
The 1971 war cannot be discussed without the debacle that India faced in 1962 war with China. We should not forget how ill-prepared the Indian Army was for that conflict and therefore draw a lesson that a nation that ignores its Army cannot afford peace. The 60’s was a lost decade for India, two successive wars of 1962 and 65, a severe drought, importing food grains from the US, economy was shot to bits, and the rupee was devalued. India’s image plummeted considerably after the 1962 debacle.
Then the 1971 war happened which was planned and executed with perfection by the Indian Armed Forces. All three Forces; Army, Navy and Air Force played a stellar role in executing a pre-planned campaign.
Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had achieved the impossible. She had dismembered India’s main enemy Pakistan, permanently reduced its territory and, humiliated it militarily. The liberation of Bangladesh removed any residual feelings of inferiority about Indian Army’s fighting powers.
Sadly, today, its anniversary is celebrated only by Army/Ex-Servicemen, as if the Armed Forces fought for themselves and not for the country. It is high time we invest some cultural and emotional content in the 1971 War. It is especially important this year as the World is commemorating the start of the First World War. Indian Army’s exploits in Europe and their landing in Marseilles is being celebrated by the French. So, it would be ridiculous for us to ignore our own Vijay Diwas.
After landslide victory of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in General Elections of 70-71 in Pakistan, political parties and the military argued over the formation of a new government. Bengalis became convinced that West Pakistan was deliberately blocking their ambitions. The situation started to become violent. Awami League launched a campaign of Civil Disobedience, its supporters attacked many non-Bengali civilians, and Army flew in thousands of reinforcements. On the evening of 25 March Army launched a pre-emptive strike against the Awami League and other perceived opponents, including members of the intelligentsia and the Hindu community, who at that time made up about 20% of the province's 75 million people. And then the war, in what was then East Pakistan broke out in March 1971.
On 13 June 1971, an article in Briton’s prestigious newspaper ‘Sunday Times’, exposed the brutality of Pakistan's suppression of the East Pakistani uprising. It is said that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was shocked so deeply it had set her “on a campaign of personal diplomacy in the European capitals and Moscow to prepare the ground for Armed Indian Intervention.”
Nobody knows exactly how many people were killed, but certainly, a huge number of people lost their lives. Independent researchers think that between 300,000 and 500,000 died. The Bangladesh Government puts the figure at three million.
“I have witnessed the brutality of ‘kill and burn missions’ as the army units, after clearing out the rebels, pursued the pogrom in the towns and villages. I have seen whole villages devastated by 'punitive action'. And in the officer’s mess at night I have listened incredulously as otherwise brave and honourable men proudly chewed over the day's kill. ‘How many did you get?’ The answers are seared in my memory. Thus, Anthony Mascarenhas wrote in ‘The Sunday Times’, under the headline “Genocide”, which is regarded as one of the most significant articles written on the war.
In the first of many notorious war crimes, Pakistani Soldiers attacked Dhaka University, lining up and executing students and professors. Their campaign of terror then moved into the countryside, where they battled local troops who had mutinied. Indians and Bengali guerrillas fought in support of East Pakistan.
Civil war erupted in Pakistan, pitting the West Pakistan Army against East Pakistanis demanding, first the autonomy and later independence. Fighting forced an estimated 10 million East Pakistani civilians to flee to India.
Indira Gandhi had no other course but to create world opinion in favour of India. She requested Jai Prakash Narayan, the socialist and legendary hero of the freedom struggle and popularly known as JP, to go on a world tour to explain India’s case, which JP, the patriot that he was, willingly undertook. But still matters were getting worse, yet India could not directly intervene. Refugees were continuing to pour in from East Bengal.
Siddhartha Shankar Ray was in charge of the border. India was reeling under the refugee influx and yet it dared not attack East Bengal because then the world opinion would call it the aggressor. On 3rd December 1971, the Pakistan Air Force stuck a number of Indian Air Fields in Northern India. By Midnight, India was officially at war with Pakistan. An excuse was necessary and Pakistan had now conveniently provided it. The war on the East Bengal front was weighed in favour of India; though to start with some hard knocks were taken, it was a smooth march—the whole population of East Bengal was against Pakistan.
In December 1971, India invaded East Pakistan in support of the East Pakistani people. The movements of the Pak Army were leaked in detail by the ‘Mukti Bahini’ and their volunteers to the Indian Army whose task was thus made smooth. To make matters still easier the Indian Air Force had no opposition and bombed General AAK Niazi’s official residence and office.
There was absolute panic, the utter helplessness at being bombed from above by enemy planes, knowing fully well, that you can’t even send one plane to stop them. It was inevitable that General AAK Niazi surrendered without much time. It is interesting to note that the Indian troops had less than 1:2 superiority and were on the offensive. Normally that means more casualties. But it is a tribute to Indian generals and their leadership that the Indian loss was 2,000 men as against that of Pak at 6,000.
Credit for this goes to the dash and efficiency of the three services. Pakistani army surrendered in Dhaka and its more than 90,000 troops became Indian Prisoners of War (POWs). East Pakistan became the independent country of Bangladesh on 16 December 1971 with an active help of Indian Army.
The Bangladesh attack has been compared by many to the famous Blitzkrieg of the Germans. It must be never forgotten that the military success was a joint Indo-Bangladeshi effort. Such was the impact of the 1971 war that the year has transformed into a shorthand for its particular symbolism: 1971, or ekattor, the number 71 in Bengali, has come to stand for a simple equation of a popular nationalist uprising presumed to embody liberal democratic values battling brutal repression by a military dictatorship.
In the West, both sides played a waiting game. In North Kashmir, the Indian Army that was better trained and equipped captured large territory in the dead of winter. There were minor losses in Chhamb and in Indian Punjab. India captured the Shakargarh Tehsil in Pakistani Punjab and many jump-off points on the Western Front.
By the time Cease Fire was declared on the evening of 16 December 1971, India had shifted a number of troops from the East to West and was in a military position to overrun West Pakistan as well. The move of USS Enterprise and American threats of retaliation, as well as, Russian caution possibly saved Pakistan.
An abortive Pakistani attempt to break through in Rajasthan at Longewala was foiled by a dogged Infantry and the Indian Air Force that came to the Army’s rescue. Indian Navy, in the course of the war sunk the Pakistani Ghazi submarine and also raided Karachi Harbour. The Indian Air Force carried out limited attacks only on military targets.1971 war was a comprehensive victory for India. It was the first major victory for a young Indian democracy and helped strengthen the confidence of the leadership and population.
Why is it important to remember the victory of 1971? It was the first time that the Indian leadership decided to take a decisive action on moral grounds. It was the first time that India violated the UN charter. It was the first time that India handled pressure from the US, China and Europe. It was the first time that India decided that an error made by the British in the partition of the country needed to be corrected by force. It was the first time that India decided that the Bangladeshi immigrant problem could only be addressed if the country was given its legitimacy.
Do you think a people who cannot appreciate the cost of war in terms of lives lost can appreciate the benefits of peace?
The best tribute we can pay to the gallant officers and soldiers is to dedicate ourselves to the gigantic task of nation-building and work steadfastly to protect the unity and integrity of our nation.