Lest We Forget

A Republic Day feature remembering the heroes of the Bangladesh war.

Illustrated Weekly | Jan 26, 1982

DECEMBER 3,1971. In the twilight of a cold winter evening, the birds were coming home to roost in the trees around Ambala airfield when the thunder of diving jets and the • noisy explosion of bombs around the runways rudely shattered the stillness. The same scene was enacted at seven other Indian airbases: Amritsar, Pathankot, Srinagar, Avantipur, Uttarlai, Jodhpur and Agra. General Yahya Khan of `Pakistan had kept his word. On November 25 he had declared, “In ten days’ time, I may not be here in Rawalpindi. I may be off fighting a war.” The Pakistan Air Force’s pre-emptive Air strike unleashed the dogs of war between India and Pakistan, for the third time in 25 years.

The Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi was in Calcutta, visiting refugee camps; the Defence Minister (Mr Jagjivan Ram) was in Patna, the Finance Minister (Mr Y.B. Chavan) was in Bombay and the President (Mr V.V. Giri) was attending a reception on the lawns of Parliament House when the air raid Alert was sounded in New Delhi at 5.45 pm. The Prime Minister immediately flew back to New Delhi and joined her Cabinet colleagues, at an emergency meeting.
VARY A KHAN talked of Mad sad tried I. whip op religious frenzy.

At 20 minutes past the midnight, the Prime Minister went on the air. As she began to speak the tension eased, the anxiety of the past few hours was dispelled and fear gave way to hope. Her calmness was reassuring, her confidence infectious: “I speak to you at a moment of great peril to our country and our people. Some hours ago, soon after 5.30 pm., on the 3rd of December, Pakistan launched a full-scale war against us… Today a war in Bangladesh has become a war on India… I have no doubt that by the united will of the people, the wanton and unprovoked aggression of Pakistan should be decisively and finally repelled… Aggression must be met and the people of India will meet it with fortitude, determination, discipline and utmost unity.”

Even as she spoke to the nation, the Indian armed forces, poised for a strike on all fronts, were ordered to hit back. The Indian Air Force retaliated with deadly accuracy the same night, under ideal full moon conditions. Pakistani troops all along the international boundary felt the brunt of the artillery’s wrath and fury and the next morning the army launched its offensive campaign in the East. Ships of the Indian Navy raced to patrol pre-determined locations at sea, to cut off the maritime link between East and West Pakistan.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League swept the (December 1970) General Elections, ordered by Gen. Yahya Khan, and won an absolute majority in the National Assembly, on the basis of the famous six-point programme. However, the military junta in West Pakistan had no intention of handing over the country to the Bengalis. On March 1971, Gen. Yahya Khan postponed the opening session of the National Assembly indefinitely. Ever volatile, East Pakistan went up in flames. The outrage and frustration of Bengalis erupted in violent demonstrations.

Gen. Yahya Khan announced a fresh date March 25 and went to Dacca to negotiate with the Sheikh. The negotiations were an elaborate pretence to give Lt Gen Tikka Khan, the infamous “Butcher of Baluchistan”, adequate time to prepare for a military crackdown. On March 25, 1971, a long nightmare began. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested. The innocent and defenceless people of East Pakistan were mercilessly massacred in a two-month long systematic 0 campaign. It was a calculated genocide. The intellectual elite was singled out for extermination. Women were dishonoured. The army went on a rampage and terrorised the entire region to cow the people into submission. At least three million people were killed and there were two hundred thousand cases of rape. This led to the greatest exodus in history and, over the months, ten million people fled to Indio–for survival, shelter and solace.

Tyranny begets resistance in the natural scheme of things and the people of East Pakistan fought back as only those fighting for their survival could. On April 10, 1971, the Awami League proclaimed independence, effective from March 26, and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was born. Little did anyone know what hardships and tribulations would have to be undergone before the dream of “Sonar Bangla” was realised.

Bengali officers and men left the Pakistani Army to form the nucleus of a guerrilla movement called the Mukti Bahini. This band of ill-equipped but dedicated soldiers exhibited remarkable resourcefulness in sabotaging road and rail communications and thus paralysing the military administration.

Looking after the unending stream of refugees was a grim prospect. So massive a migration in so short a time was unprecedented in history. The financial burden was staggering and unfortunate, at a time when the Indian economy was at last looking up after a long period of gloom. The social and political problems seemed insurmountable. It was the most critical period in independent India’s history. But the nation did not shut its gates. Every unfortunate victim of brutality was welcomed with open arma-housed, fed and clothed, India appealed to the world community to prevail upon Pakistan to stop its military atrocities in Bangladesh, and to create favourable conditions for the return of the hapless victims. What began as Pakistan’s internal affair was gradually becoming a problem of gigantic proportions for India. While the world leaders admired the Indian government’s tremendous restraint in the face of grave provocation, they did nothing to solve the problem.

The Government was forced to contemplate the extreme alternative, in the event of the failure of diplomatic means, and the armed forces quietly set about preparing for an all-out war with Pakistan. Detailed contingency plans were drawn up, discussed threadbare and modified where necessary. When General Yahya Khan chose to launch his ill-fated air strike, India was ready.

War On India

On December 4, 1971, Pakistan formally declared war on India. The Pakistani army launched a major offensive in Chamb with a view to cutting off and eventually occupying Kashmir, and subsidiary thrusts at Poonch, Longewala and Hussainiwala. Gen Yahya Khan talked of Jehad, holy war, and tried to whip up religious frenzy and hatred against India. (“God is with us in our mission. The time has come for the heroic mujahids to give a crushing reply to the enemy.”)

The Pakistani offensive in the West met with determined resistance and was soon halted in its tracks. In the East, the Indian army launched its liberation campaign. By the evening of December 4, the Indian Air RIM had achieved complete mastery over the skies and had wiped out the PAF in East Pakistan. The Indian armed forces were fully in command.

India did not formally declare war Pakistan. Mrs Gandhi spoke more in sorrow then in anger that war could not be avoided. She told Parliament. “Our feeling is One of regret that Pakistan did not -desist from the ultimate folly, and sorrow that at a time when the greatest need of this sub-continent is development, the peoples of India and Pakistan have been pushed into war.”

The whole nation stood solidly united behind the Prime Minister. All party rivalries and differences were forgotten. The Jan Singh President, Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee declared in an eloquent speech, “In this hour of trial there is no party but only one nation, a single determination and one leader.”

With the exception of the US ‘ And Chinese governments, world opinion was sympathetic to India. The Nixon administration, exalting in the cynical games of Realpolitik , branded India as the aggressor. But the US public Congressmen and the media were distinctly pro-India.

On December 6, 1971, India recognised “Ganga Prajatantri Bangladesh”. Mrs Indira Gandhi told a cheering Lok Sabha: “The people of Bangladesh battling their existence and the people of India fighting to defeat aggression, now find themselves partisans in the same cause.”

Lt Gen K.P. Candeth’s Western Army’s defensive-offensive operations met with great success. In the Sialkot sector, the thrust towards Shakargarh progressed as planned, in spite of concerted resistance. At Longewala the invading column was thrown out after four days of bitter fighting. Lt Gen Bewoor’s Southern Army launched a major offensive along the old Bombay-Sind railway axis and advanced 95 kms into Sind with unbelievable speed, across Kutch, Barmer and Jaisahmer sectors.

The Western and Southern armies consolidated their defences all along the cease-fire tine in Jammu and Kashmir and the international boundary further south and in all captured approximately 4,500 square miles of Pakistani territory, while giving away very little Thus, Gen..S.H.F.J . Manekshaw, the Chief of the Army Staff, was relieved of any anxiety about the Western front and could devote his full attention to the liberation of Bangladesh.
In the Security Council India’s case was handled with consummate skill by Sardar Swaran Singh, the External Affairs Minister. The Soviet Union vetoed three consecutive resolutions which demanded withdrawal of forces on both sides and a cease-fire designed to hail out Pakistan. In a theatrical performance Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ranted, cursed, wept and denounced the Security Council and staged a walk-out in protest. With tears streaming down his face, he shouted to a stunned audience, “I find it disgraceful to my person and my country to remain here… Legalise aggression. Legalise occupation… I will go back and fight.” However, the UN General Assembly passed a US-sponsored resolution asking for the withdrawal of troops on either side and an immediate cease-fire, by a vote of 104 to 11, with ten abstentions.

Daring Attack

In a daring and spectacular attack on Karachi harbour, a task force of the Indian Navy sank two Pakistani destroyers, Khyber and Shahjehan, two minesweepers and three other ships. Then the ,Indian ships steamed closer to Shore and bombarded the port, inflicting heavy damage on the Karachi harbour nd the oil refinery, which continued to burn three days. Unfortunately, INS Khukri which was covering the task forces, was sunk by an enemy submarine. The Eastern Fleet sank Ghazi, a US submarine on loan to the Pakistan Navy, off Vishakapatnam harbour. Aircraft from INS Vikrant bombed Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong harbour with impunity. The Indian Navy successfully isolated Karachi and Bangladesh and rendered the Pakistan Navy totally ineffective. It also kept a close watch for ships of the US Seventh Fleet, ordered into the Bay of Bengal by Nixon to pressurise the Indian Government to, accede to a cease-fire. This war was the Indian Navy’s debut—the setting was grand and the success complete.

The close support at Chamb and the tank destroying missions at Longewala earned for the Indian Air Force the affection and gratitude of the Army. The Air Force averaged 500 sorties per day—the largest air effort since the Second World War=and completely incapacitated the Pakistan Air Force. The decisive air victory was a major contributory factor in the army’s, successes. The large number of strategic installations destroyed by the Indian Air Force immensely hampered Pakistan’s war effort. The fact that our leaders could address massive war rallies with impunity is a measure of the Indian Air Force’s complete mastery of the skies. Capitals watched with breathless incredulity division of the Indian Army converge on Dacca with speed, liberating town after town, restoring to the persecuted people their freedom and their dreams.

In India’s war of compassion, the liberation campaign was meticulously planned with Professional elan and precision and brilliantly executed with relentless tenacity and & determination. With two of the world’s greatest rivers flowing through it, a labyrinthine profusion of minor rivers and rivulets, and an enormous sea of continuous post monsoon marshes and watery rice fields, Bangladesh has the most easily defensible terrain in the world. Also, for political reasons, speedy completion of the operation was of paramount importance. These two factors, the hostile terrain and the need for speed, made the task of our defence planners a truly formidable one.

With hindsight, the strategy that was evolved, and proved eminently successful appears simple. Three powerful thrusts were launched on least expected axes. Minor opposition was cleared. Whenever strong points were encountered, they were encircled and by-passed and the 4 advance rolled inexorably on. Like a swift mountain stream flows around the boulders strewn in its path, corps of the Indian Eastern Army, aided by the Mukti Bahini, dashed towards Dacca with determined haste.

Pakistani garrisons fell like nine pins. In a few cases the enemy offered stubborn resistance, but mostly they just run away. Jessore, Sylhet, Maulvibazar Comilla and Brahmanbaria fell in quick seccession. Chandpur, Laksham, Hilli, Mymensingh, Kushtia and Noakhali followed a couple of days later. Gen. Sam Manekshaw, Chief of the Army Staff, broadcast a message to the Pakistan Army in the East to surrender. He emphasised the futility of further resistance and promised them “treatment befitting a soldier”. The message was a psychological sledge-hammer blow on the crumbling morale of Lt Gen. Niazi’s soldiers.

On December 10, 1971, Bangladesh forces were brought under Lt Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora’s Command and a unified command was announced. No Lt Gen. in military history had commanded so large an army or borne so heavy a strategic responsibility. The next day, Maj Gen. Rao Farman Ali, Military Adviser to the Governor of East Pakistan, sent an SOS seeking a cease, fire lithe UN Secretary General. On troops assaulted Sy[het and, in the Governor resigned.
Meanwhile, Bogra and Khulna were liberated and paratroopers dropped in large numbers in Tangil, near Dacca. Heliborne troops assaulted Sylhet and, in the first ever Indian amphibious operation, a battalion of troops landed off Cox’s Bazar.

Early in the morning on December 16, 1971, when Lt Gen. Niazi got the green signal to surrender from General Yahya Khan, Indian troops were knocking on the gates of Dacca. The race had been won by Maj Gen. Gandharv Nagra’s division. Earlier, General Manekshaw had set 9 am. as the deadline for surrender and, as a gesture of goodwill, air action over Bangladesh had been halted with effect from 5 pm the previous day. At 1 pm. Maj Gen. J.F. R. Jacob, the brilliant Chief of Staff of Eastern Command, flew to Dacca with the draft Instrument of Surrender.


4.31 pm. December 16, was surrender time. Appropriately, the surrender ceremony was enacted at the Dacca Race course where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had given his famous call for the independence of Bangla Desh, nine months earlier. The Race Course was packed with a delirious mass of humanity and the gold, green and crimson flag of Bangladesh fluttered in the us gentle breeze.
Lt-Gen . Jag jit Singh Aurora, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Command and Bangladesh Forces accepted history’s greatest surrender. Lt-Gen. Niazi, Martial Law Administrator and Commander, Eastern Command (Pakistan) signed the Instrument of Surrender and then, stripped off his epaulettes, unloaded his revolver and, finally, pressed his forehead to that of Lt-Gen Aurora as an act of humble submission and surrender.

Dacca, indeed all of Bangladesh, went wild. Cries of “Joi Bangla”, “Joi India” and “Joi Indira” filled the air. The people of Bangladesh accorded a tumultuous and boisterous welcome to their liberators. They hugged and kissed every Indian officer and jawan within reach and garlanded and showered them with flowers.

In all 93,000 officers and men were taken as prisoners or war. The civilised and humane treatment given to them, rising , far above the terms of the Geneva ‘Conventions, won for India their everlasting gratitude. The “War of Obstacles”, so called by Lt Gen Aurora, had been won against overwhelming odds. The Army’s lightning campaign would not have been possible without their ingenuous improvisations and tremendous resourcefulness in building bridges, laying roads and operating rivercraft.

At 6pm that evening, Mrs Indira td Gandhi told a wildly cheering Lok Sabha. “Dacca is a free capital of a free country. We hail the people of Bangladesh in their hour of triumph.” She shared the people’s elation on the occasion but reminded them of the exhortation in the Gita, “Neither joy nor sorrow should disturb one’s equanimity or blur’ one’s vision of the future.” And, in a move of characteristic statesmanship, she declared, “In order to stop further bloodshed and unnecessary loss of lives, we have ordered our armed forces to cease fire on the western front from 8 pm tomorrow.” India’s magnanimous announcement of a unilateral cease-fire left the world gaping with disbelief. After some initial hesitation (“The Jehad in which we are engaged must continue. Victory Insha Allah will be ours.”) General Yahya Khan accepted the offer and complied.

At 8 pm December 17, 1971, the guns fell silent. But the story does not end here. Due to India’s persistent efforts, on January 9,1972 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman released by President Bhutto of Pakistan and took his rightful place as the crime Minister of Bangladesh. Mrs Indira Gandhi lost no time in announcing that Indian troops will not remain in Bangladesh “a day longer than absolutely necessary.” She kept her word when on March 13, 1972, twelve days before the first anniversary of the military crackdown, the last few Indian soldiers drove back over the border into India.

A few months later, at Simla, she extended a hand of friendship to President Bhutto of Pakistan, repatriated all the prisoners of war and returned all occupied territories. Meanwhile the ten million evacuees from Bangladesh gradually returned home, the way they had come.