“All the world admires, a deed well done. And I think, with all modesty, we can say that we have done this action…well”
-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in an address to the Indian Parliament, 18th December 1971
How is a nation born? How do people find common ground, to stand on the crux of history, in our diverse land? The conceptions of a nation are invoked in courtrooms, in lobbies, and at conferences, as delegates fuss over pieces of paper, aloof from emotion. However, there comes a moment in the life of a country that defines its soul. It’s when decades of enduring is rewarded with victory, when millions stand in silence as history is written, and when the young fall on fields of battle, their blood marring the land beneath.
It is easy to lose sight of a conflict that roused the heart of this country half a century ago. To be able to mark its significance requires one to contextualise its importance in the history of a nation, for a nation’s soul lives in its history. The country had lost its first Prime Minister in 1962, whose death came close on the heels of a staggering defeat at the hands of a friend turned foe. Lal Bahadur Shashtri’s death began the era of India’s first lady Prime Minister. A nation battered by challenges and questioned by its critics embarked on a new journey. The conflict that was the Indo-Pak war was marked as the nation’s finest hour, but it was so much more than that. A seminal chapter in India’s history, it defined the future to come. This war cemented the face of Indira Gandhi on India’s political horizon. It marked one of the first instances where India’s intelligence services had been working intimately with the developments at hand. This war changed a subcontinent, carved out a new nation, stood as the testimony of the courage of an army which would earn fame for its professionalism.
A Recipe For Disaster
The relationship between East and West Pakistan in 1971 had been marked with tension. Pakistan, which had held its first elections in January 1971, had seen the rise of the Awami League to rival the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP.) The former’s leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, campaigned on securing the rights of East Pakistan. West Pakistan had long dominated the East, a relationship that was marked by the monopoly of the former.
As Pakistan went to polls in 1971, the PPP emerged as the major party in West Pakistan, but the Awami League swept the more populous East. Fears that the establishment had held for years were now confirmed as Rehman demanded that a federal constitution be established. This would give East Pakistan freedom over its issues, and Rehman even proposed for a different currency. Yahya Khan, the President of Pakistan, travelled to Dakka, where talks were held with Rehman. However, the Sheikh was insistent on his demands. When the convening of the National Assembly was postponed, the Awami League ordered a strike.
In January 1971, the Awami League called an indefinite strike across East Pakistan. Demonstrators clashed with law enforcement. The Pakistani army responded with reinforcements being flown into Chittagong, as universities sheltering the Awami League supporters were attacked. Dissenters were bulldozed, shot dead, and buried. The army fanned out in the countryside to trample the rebellion. One radio station in Chittagong, captured by a mutineer, announced the establishment of the Independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Elements of a religious war began to rise, as Razakars, or religious loyalists, were raised by the Pakistani Army to wage war.
As the Pakistani army continued to trample the rebellion, the fire of the conflict started spreading. The overtly religious symbolism that the war had taken led to attacks on the Hindu minority in East Pakistan, as the community was harassed and temples fell.
What started as a brutal repression in East Pakistan soon spread to India. Millions fled Dacca, and as the repression followed them, they were led into the neighbouring country. By the end of April 1971, half a million refugees had been pushed across the border. By August, this number rose to a staggering 8 million. Refugees occupied camps across Meghalaya, Tripura, West Bengal, while more were accommodated in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.
From the outset, India had kept an eye on the conflict that was brewing in its neighbourhood. The Indians had maintained an ‘Open-door’ policy, allowing the free movement of refugees fleeing the repression back home. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) had been surveying the situation. As Pakistan went to elections, RAW had been monitoring the situation across the border. The verdict was worrying— Pakistan had compounded, on the military front, capabilities which could put India in an uncomfortable position.
Geopolitical situations did not help either. The Constitutional crisis in Pakistan, which had roots in opposition to General Ayub Khan’s rule, had put the establishment in disarray. Much like the 1965 war, when infiltration in Kashmir had escalated dramatically, the constitutional crisis and the challenge to Yahya Khan’s rule meant that the Pakistani ruling establishment could try and divert public attention away from the crisis by perpetrating an attack on India. Pakistan’s unknown collaboration with China had also been unsettling for the Indian side. Thus, it was perhaps natural that for the Indians, the developments across the border were matters of interest. Indian bureaucrat D.P. Dhar suggested that India let the events in East Pakistan play out, even though various voices within India wished for swift military action to deter the threat.
As the refugee situation at home worsened, the Indians had been hosting training camps for a guerilla army, known as the Mukti Bahini. With approximately 20000 people, the ranks were filled with former officers of the Pakistani army, young volunteers and refugees learning the use of light arms. By August 1971, the charge of the Mukti Bahini changed hands from the Border Security Force to the Indian Army.
Of Friends and Foes
Diplomacy is perhaps the most important tool of all geopolitical affairs. Alliances forged correctly can prove consequential for the entity concerned. War in the Indian subcontinent, similarly, was never an affair solely between India and Pakistan. Pakistan’s collusion with the Chinese had been eminent from the commencement of this relationship. In April of 1971, the Chinese Prime Minister wrote to Yahya Khan, expressing his disdain of India’s ‘gross interference’ in what he felt were the internal problems of Pakistan. Assuring Pakistan’s premiere of support, he pledged that any form of Indian aggression would see China stand with the former in its struggle.
It is perhaps rational for one to consider the diplomatic scenario that had presented itself before the Indians. However, the front with the Chinese in 1971 was no longer in a state of uncertainty that had perplexed the Indian side in the days of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962. Since the Indo-Sino war of 1962, India had made progress on their front with the Northern neighbour. The collaboration between its two immediate foes in the Indian subcontinent was the least of the predicaments on the diplomatic front. In 1971, as part of efforts from the Pakistanis, Henry Kissinger, national security advisor to the US President Richard Nixon, had been on a tour of Islamabad and then Peking, the Chinese capital. The Chinese had had a falling out with the Soviet Union. President Nixon had suggested that the Indians should help in the peaceful settlement of the situation. He had also asked for the return of the refugees to their home country. Indira Gandhi attacked this suggestion, asking him, if it would have been wise to suggest that the Jews fleeing Hitler’s tyranny in 1930 should go back to their country too. She had also questioned the sale of weapons to the Pakistanis by the Americans.
The Brewing Storm
As India further alienated one superpower, it was getting closer to another. In June 1971, the Indian foreign minister visited Moscow. At the same time, the Indians had signed a deal with the Soviets for the purchase of the TU-22 bomber. The two countries had also been collaborating on the prospect of an increased flow of raw materials and finished goods.
The Soviet-Sino hostilities had begun around the year 1969. The armies of the two countries had clashed on the Uri river. This, along with the fact that both the Indians and Russians shared a long border with the Chinese, only made a close alliance between the two more feasible.
Upon meeting with Andrei Gromyko, Swaran Singh explored the possibility of a treaty with the President of the USSR Praesidium, Alexei Kosygin. The treaty signed in New Delhi on August 9, 1971, by the foreign ministers of the two sides, was one of peace, friendship, and cooperation. The essence of this treaty lay in Article IX, which stated that in the event of either party being subject to aggression or threat, the two parties may immediately engage in consultations for the removal of said threat.
Through this looming threat of war, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited, first in the Soviet Union in September 1971, and then a tour of the Western world. She spoke of the impending doom that was developing with the rise of the refugee crisis with East Pakistan, and that the Bengali people had been dealt a treacherous hand, for the simple crime of having voted democratically.
The Enemy’s Gambit
In October, while the Prime Minister was still on her tour, the conflict on the borders had intensified. The shelling had been powerful, allowing the insurgents to cross their way into East Pakistan. By November, heavy artillery was being rolled out.
Data from the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) suggested that the Indians had grossly overestimated the Pakistani capabilities in war. Over the past decade, the Indians had modernised their military, laid the foundation for an indigenous defence industry, and better armed itself. The number of tanks and artillery guns on the Indian side was twice that of the neighbouring one. During the battle of November 21, 1971, Pakistan reported the loss of up to 13 tanks.
Pakistan seized the initiative, bombing Indian holdings in Kashmir on December 3rd. The Indians retaliated with massive airstrikes. In Punjab and Kashmir, they responded on the ground. However, the Indian Navy attacked the port of Karachi. As the enemy’s gambit opened on the western front, the Indian forces saw this as the justification of moving into the east.
On December 5, Pakistani General A.K. Niazi received a message from the army headquarters that the Chinese are coming. However, with the events taking place in winter, such prospects looked unlikely. The Himalayas in the winter were impossible for the Chinese to cross. Earlier in the year, Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw had advised the Prime Minister that the conflict with Pakistan be pushed to the winter. He had even refused to go into East Pakistan when the Prime Minister had asked him to do so in April, simply for the fact that his ‘forces were not ready for such a conflict.’
The Indian Army entered East Pakistan in a four-pronged attack. The Mukti Bahini knew how and where to lay bridges in a terrain crisscrossed by rivers, and they knew where the Pakistani army was positioned. Finally, on December 6, the Indian government made clear an intention to assist the formation of a new nation-state in replacing East Pakistan. It recognised ‘The Provisional Government of the Peoples’ Republic of Bangladesh’.
The presence of the American 7th Fleet was a temporary cause of concern. However, seeing how the Americans were occupied in Vietnam, with the Indo-Soviet treaty strong, the American threat was not seen as a real one. The Indian army pressed on, with attacks on Dacca coming from the North, South and East. Artillery fire rained down on the city. As the fall of Dacca became imminent, the civilian governor in Dacca wished to surrender, while General Niazi hoped to fight on.
On Dec 9, General Niazi was asked by the military leadership in West Pakistan to surrender. They believed that the sacrifice of West Pakistan was meaningless and that if the war goes on any longer, it could put the rest of Pakistan in jeopardy as well. On December 10, Kissinger met the Chinese Ambassador and relayed the fear that the Pakistani army might collapse in the West too. On the 13th, the Indians bombed the residence of the Governor in Dacca. Yahya Khan now ordered Niazi to lay down arms, for ‘further resistance is not humanly possible.’
On the morning of December 15, Niazi asked the American consul-general to relay the message for surrender to the Indian side. The next day, on 16th, the Indian Army’s Eastern Command’s Lieutenant General JS Aurora flew into Dacca to accept the signed instrument of surrender.
Their Finest Hour
It is easy to lose sight of warfare and its nature. Often, glorious storytelling can do the task of elevating human emotions to a state of euphoria. Triumph in conflict can arouse the ambitions of a nation. However, this was not a war that was easy for the young who had to dive into it for the country. What they achieved was glorious, indeed. The Indo-Pak conflict of 1971 still stands to this day as a resemblance of the military ingenuity that it showcased. It took the Indian Army 14 days to capture Dacca and to force the other side to surrender.
At the centre of our remembrance of this conflict, as Indians, will always be the Indian armed forces. The Field Marshal, ever graceful, without even a hint of arrogance, met General Niazi at the campsite which was holding the 93000 prisoners of war that had been captured by the Indian army. The Field Marshal asked him if he could check on the conditions of the camp. He reviewed the situation of the sanitation, food, and how the camps were held.
When the Cabinet objected to this gesture, Indira Gandhi asked Sam Maneckshaw about his kind treatment of the Pakistani soldiers. He had a very simple response, “They are soldiers. They fought and they fought extremely well, and they lost…and I am looking after the soldiers.”
Written by Maanya Shukla for MTTN
Featured Image by Drishtikone