The Liberation of Bangladesh: India’s Greatest Military Victory

On December 16, 1971, over 90,000 Pakistani soldiers led by Lt Gen A A K Niazi, surrendered to Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora, Commander-in-Chief of India’s Eastern Command, at the Dhaka race course and the new nation of Bangladesh was born. A day later, on December 17, 1971, the guns fell silent after India’s unilateral offer of a cease fire was accepted by Pakistan’s military ruler General Yahya Khan.
The story had begun about a year earlier. In elections held in 1970, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, had won 167 of 169 seats in East Pakistan and a simple majority in the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament. Though he had lawfully earned the right to form the government, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, refused to accept defeat. As the deadlock lingered on, there were widespread protests in East Pakistan and General Yahya Khan gave orders to the army to crush dissent. On the night of March 25, 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested and the army began a large-scale, brutal crackdown. 
Under Lt Gen Tikka Khan, known as the ‘Butcher of Bengal’, the Pakistan Army unleashed horrific atrocities on the innocent Bengalis. Thousands of them were killed in cold blood. Many more were tortured over several months; many hapless women were raped and molested. Intellectuals and minority Hindus were particularly singled out. The genocide led to a mass exodus and about 10 million refugees straggled across the border into neighbouring Indian states. Despite India’s own difficulties, they were accommodated in refugee camps and were provided with food and shelter.
Earlier in November 1970, the worst cyclone in living memory had struck East Pakistan. The government’s handling of the rescue and relief efforts was not only inefficient and lackadaisical, it was callous and uncaring. Over 125,000 people had perished and many more were rendered homeless. This created a sense of deep resentment and, combined with the failure to allow Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to form a government, completely alienated the Bengali population.  
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi condemned the arrest of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the atrocities in East Pakistan. She asked the armed forces to prepare for war as India’s security was being undermined by the massive influx of refugees. General S H F J Manekshaw (later Field Marshal) told the Prime Minister that the army needed some time to prepare for what would be a war on both the eastern and the western front. The monsoon was but a few months away, the Himalayan passes on India’s border with Tibet would remain open till mid-November and the Chinese could intervene. It was sound military advice as the troops needed for offensive operations in East Pakistan could be pulled out from the Chinese border only after the passes closed. The Prime Minister accepted the advice given to her. This was the high point of civil-military synergy in independent India’s history.
Bengali troops in East Pakistan soon revolted and deserted in large numbers to join the Mukti Bahini, a guerrilla force that began to conduct covert operations against Pakistani forces. India provided political, diplomatic and moral support to the Mukti Bahini. While the armed forces began their preparations for war, Indira Gandhi launched a diplomatic campaign to create awareness about the situation in East Pakistan. She toured major world capitals to appeal to the international community to intercede with the government of Pakistan to put an end to the continuing atrocities and to provide humanitarian assistance to India to look after the refugees, but did not receive anything other than sympathy.
On December 3, 1971, Yahya Khan launched pre-emptive air strikes against 11 forward Indian air bases and India and Pakistan were once again at war. India responded with multi-pronged offensive operations into East Pakistan. On December 6, 1971, India accorded formal recognition to the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told Parliament, “The people of Bangladesh battling for their very existence and the people of India fighting to defeat aggression now find themselves partisans in the same cause.”
The grand strategy in the war was to fight a holding action on the western front and to liberate Dhaka from Pakistan’s tyrannical rule. The Indian Army, with support from the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force and hand-in-hand with the Mukti Bahini, made rapid progress. At the operational level, the army followed the concept of the expanding torrent. Pakistani strong points based on towns and other built up areas were bypassed by the leading columns and left for follow-on troops to clear while the spearheads advanced rapidly towards Dhaka. The military in Bangladesh’s riverine terrain was a logistics nightmare as hundreds of water channels had to be bridged to open lines of maintenance because the main bridges were all well defended. 
Within a week, it became clear to all perceptive observers that Dhaka would soon fall. Maj Gen Rao Farman Ali, Military Adviser to the Governor of East Pakistan, expressed the administration’s willingness to surrender and on December 16, 1971, Maj Gen J F R Jacob, Chief of Staff, Eastern Command, flew into Dhaka to negotiate the terms of surrender. Later that day, Lt Gen Aurora accepted one of military history’s greatest surrenders. Announcing the surrender in Parliament, Indira Gandhi said, “Dhaka is now a free capital of a free country… We hail the people of Bangladesh in their hour of triumph. All nations who value the human spirit will recognize it as a significant milestone in man's quest for liberty.” 
The victory in Bangladesh was the result of a systematically planned, methodically stage-managed and brilliantly executed politico-military campaign. Indira Gandhi proved herself to be a resolute leader who refused to buckle under the pressure of the US fleet led by the USS Enterprise that sailed into the Bay of Bengal during the war to intimidate India. By signing a treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union before the war, she ensured that the Chinese were kept at bay. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw emerged as a charismatic military leader who succeeded in forging rare unity among the three Services so that the full potential of Indian combat power was exploited in an optimal and synergised manner.
It was undoubtedly India’s finest hour. Forty years later, it can be truthfully said that it was a just war and the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers, sailors and airmen were not in vain. However, some of the hard-fought gains were frittered away in the Shimla Agreement signed on July 2, 1972. In its zeal to appear magnanimous in victory, the Government of India failed to either get the Pakistan Army to vacate Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, or to get Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to accept the Cease-fire Line as the international boundary in exchange for over 90,000 prisoners of war. 
The author is Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. Views are personal.