Remembering the 1971 India-Pakistan War and the liberation of Bangladesh

The India – Pakistan war of 1971 came to be known as a landmark in the history of warfare.
Remembering the 1971 India-Pakistan War and the liberation of Bangladesh
Remembering the 1971 India-Pakistan War and the liberation of Bangladesh

December 16, 1971, in all probability was and is a defining moment in Asian history. It was on this day, that Pakistan lost half its country, and its forces in the Eastern theatre, and had to publicly surrender to the Indians at Dhaka.

The India – Pakistan war of 1971 came to be known as a landmark in the history of warfare. In a matter of 12 days, operating over one of the world’s most difficult riverine terrains, the Indian Army brought a formidable Pakistani army to its knees, took 93,000 Pakistani prisoners and gave 75 million tormented people of Bangladesh their independence.

On December 12, 1971, London’s Sunday Times wrote, “It took only 12 days for the Indian Army to smash its way to Dacca, an achievement reminiscent of the German blitzkrieg across France in 1940. The strategy was the same: speed, ferocity and flexibility.”

The 1971 war was planned and executed by the flamboyant Indian Army Chief, General Sam Manekshaw (now Field Marshal); the western Army was commanded by Lieutenant General KP Candeth, and the Eastern Army by Lieutenant General JS Aurora.  Lieutenant General Aurora’s Chief of Staff was Major General JFR Jacob. Each of them had a major role to play as history unfolded. It was also the invaluable contribution of Lieutenant General Sagat Singh, General Officer Commanding of 4 Corps that led the charge and created panic in Pakistani minds by using the forces available to him with ingenuity and courage.

Geopolitical environment

March 1971 was when the Pakistani Army began to commit the barbaric genocide on innocent civilians in East Pakistan. Though this was the biggest genocide in the world after the Second World War, it did not receive global sympathy or even the recognition.

It is significant to note though, the prevalent geopolitical climate during this genocide and prior to the war. There were clearly two blocks. “1971 happened after the Cuba crisis, thus the West was extremely paranoid about Russia, in particular Nixon and Kissinger. The paranoia was about Russian military strength. Pakistan happened to be in the military block opposing Russia,and  they joined the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO). Then there was the organisation of Islamic countries which were all Pro-Pakistan,”said Major Chandrakant, a war veteran of the 1971 India – Pakistan War and a recipient of the Vir Chakra.

So much so, that when the refugees crisis began in Bangladesh, the UN High Commission for Refugees just refused to acknowledge that there was a crisis at hand.

“There was a total blackout by the western media. The UN commission for Refugees was led by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. Since the UN did not even pay heed, the world failed to do so too. We did not have a friend in the world,” Major Chandrakant added.

However, what helped change the perception to a large extent was the fact that then France’s culture Minister Andre Malraux began to write and speak about the crisis and in addition a concert for Bangladesh was organised on August 1, 1971 by Pandit Ravishankar and George Harrison at Madison Square Garden in New York which helped sensitise a lot of youngsters about the grave situation at hand.

As for India, the trishool, that is the Army, Navy and the Indian Air Force (IAF) took Pakistan head on. As per Wing Commander Vinod Nebb, a Vir Chakra Awardee who was also one of the participants of the war firmly, he felt that it was a straight face off with Pakistan. “Though the fight was on in East Pakistan, for us, it was a war with Pakistan,” he said

The war which India fought to liberate Bangladesh was perhaps the first in which all three forces fought in unison. In fact, the MiG-21 may be the only aircraft in aviation history to have forced a nation to surrender. A case in point was the attack on the building by IAF in which the governor of East Pakistan was holed up. The puppet government of East Pakistan had declared it would not surrender to the Indians.

Wing Commander Vinod Nebb who was part of the operation recalled the operation. “We conducted the strike and did not have any time. We were given 50 minutes, and though we took 40 minutes to reach, the strike was successful. This proved that any strike by the Trishool, that is, Army, Navy and IAF, cannot be taken lightly and it is difficult to survive,” he said.

As a result, the then Governor of East Pakistan was fear stricken and was forced to surrender.

Role of Babu Jagjivan Ram

What is lesser known is India’s then Defence Minister Babu Jagjivan Ram played an important role in the Liberation of Bangladesh and the war. Barring Gary Bass making a mention of this in his book Blood Telegram, unfortunately, India, in particular the Indian National Congress, has not given this legend the due in recognising his contribution.

“Babu Jagjivan Ram’s role was fascinating.  He used to visit training camps set up for Mukti Bahini fighters in Northeast India. He was solely responsible for co-ordinating between the then Prime Minister’s Office, Home Minister and the Defence Forces.”, exclaimed Lt. Col (Retd.) Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir, Bir Protik and Swadhinata Padak Awardee, Historian and Author in Bangladesh.

Lt. Col. Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir was one of those who crossed over to be a part of Mukti Bahini to fight for the Liberation of Bangladesh from the 14 Pakistan Para-troop brigade.

Babu Jagjivan Ram also played an important role in overseeing the recruitment of Mukti Bahini soldiers. “Reception centres were set up all across East Pakistan; people who possessed the will to take on the challenge of fighting for the Liberation of Bangladesh were screened by the Indian Armed forces and the civilian administration. This task too was overseen by the indomitable Babu Jagjivan Ram”, added Lt.Col Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir

Bangladesh awarded late Babu Jagjivan Ram in 2014 the prestigious ‘Friend of Bangladesh’ award, recognising his contribution and legacy.

Lessons learnt

Many lessons emerge from India’s victory in the Liberation war. Senior retired intelligence officer B. Raman in his book “Kaoboys of R&AW – Down Memory Lane”, has questioned the return of 93,000 prisoners without insisting on a formal recognition in writing by Pakistan that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India. Raman also has pointed out that the leadership then could have also ordered for the liberation of PoK and Gilgit Baltistan after East Pakistan’s liberation in 1971, as these areas are an integral part of India’s territory under illegal Pakistani occupation.

Major General Dhruv Katoch (SM, VSM), Editor of Salute Magazine and Secretary General of the Indian War Veterans Association succinctly opined that a victory in any war requires political aim combined with the use of military force and that there may be vital lessons to be learnt from the Liberation War.

“Diplomatically, it is essential to create alliances to thwart international pressure which can compromise the nation’s war aims. In the military domain, synergised operations between the three services and a healthy civil military relationship remain the key to military success. One other aspect is a major cause of concern today. 45 years after the great victory in the Liberation War, we would require structural changes within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and also within the Service Headquarters to enhance India’s military might. The need for a CDS is more pressing now than ever before, on who should render single point advice to the Raksha Mantri,” he said.

 Finally, on an average at least 6,000-12,000 innocent civilians were massacred brutally daily by the Pakistani Army in the 13 day Liberation War for Bangladesh. It is an absolute shame that the world has forgotten the barbaric atrocity committed by the Pakistani Army.

(The writer is an alumnus of the Asian College of Journalism and is presently the Deputy Director with the India Foundation – A New Delhi based think tank.)

Views expressed by the author are strictly personal. 

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