A just war and a grand victory

Sainik Samachar | Jan 1, 1997

On 25 November 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. 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 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."

It was 3 December 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, Uctarlat, Jodhpur and Agra. Gen Yahya Khan of Pakistan had kept his word. On 25 November 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 then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, was in Calcutta, visiting refugee camps; the then Defence Minister, Mr Jagjivan Ram was in Patna, the Finance Minister, Mr Y B Chavan, was in Bombay and the then 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 then Prime Minister immediately flew back to New Delhi and joined her cabinet colleagues, at an emergency meeting.
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 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.

The problem had begin one year earlier, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League had 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. In 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 – 25 March – 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 25 March 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 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 down 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 the history and, over the months, ten million people fled to India 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 10 April 1971, the Awami League proclaimed independence, effective from 29 March, and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh was born. Little did anyone know that 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 guerilla 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. Massive migration in such a short time was unprecedented. The financial burden was staggering and unfortunately, at a time when the Indian economy had just began to boost 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 the brutality was welcomed with open arms – 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 Gen Yahya Khan chose to launch his ill-fated air strike, India was ready.

War on India

On 4 December 1971, Pakistan formally declared war on India. the Pakistani army launched a major offensive in Chhamb, with view of 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 Pakistan offensive in the West met with determined resistance and was soon halted in its track. In the East, the Indian Army launched its liberation campaign. By the evening of 4 December, the Indian Air Force 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 on Pakistan. Mrs Gandhi spoke more in sorrow than in anger that war could not be avoided. She told the 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 people of India and Pakistan have been pushed into war”.

The whole nation stood solidly united behind the Prime Minister, All party rivalries und differences were forgotten. The Jan Sangh 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, excelling in the cynical games of real-politik branded India as the aggressor. But the US public, Congressmen and the media were distinctly pro-India.

On 6 December 1971, India recognised “Ganga Prajatantri Bangladesh”. Mrs Indira Gandhi told a cheering Lok Sabha; The people of Bangladesh battling for 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 Shakaragarh progressed as planned, despite concerted resistance. At Longewala the invading column was thrown out alter four days of bitter fighting. Lt Gen G G Bewoor’s Southern Army launched a major offensive along the only Bombay – Sind railway axis and advanced 95 Kms into Sind with unbelievable speed, across Kutch, Barmer and Jaisalmer sectors.

The Western and Southern armies consolidated their defences all along the cease-fire line 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 SHFJ Manekshaw, the then Chief of 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 Affairs Minister. The Soviet Union vetoed three consecutive resolutions which demanded withdrawal of forces on both sides and cease-fire designed to bail 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 ceasefire, by a vote of 104 to 11, with ten absentions.

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 and the oil refinery, which continued to burn for three days. Unfortunately, INS submarine 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 ceasefire. This war was the Indian Navy’s debut-the setting was grand and the success complete.

The close support at Chhamb and the tank destroying missions at Longewala earned for the Indian Air Force the affection and gratitude of the Army. The Air Force averaged S00 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. World Governments watched with breathlessness divisions of the Indian Army converging on Dacca with speed, liberating town after town, restoring to the persecuted people their freedom and their dreams.

Grand strategy

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 advance rolled inexorably on. Like a swift mountain stream which 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 ran away. Jessore, Sylhet, Maulvibazar, Comilia and Brahmanbaria fell in quick succession. Chandpur, Laksham, Hilli, Mymensingh, Kushtia and Noakhali followed a few 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 sledgehammer blow on the crumbling morale of Lt Gen Niazi’s soldiers.

On 10 December 1971, Bangladesh forces were brought under Lt Gen Jagjit Singh Aurora’s Command and an unified command was announced. No Lieutenant General 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 to the UN Secretary General seeking a cease-fire . On 4 December, Dr Adam Malik, the Governor resigned. Meanwhile, Bogra and Khulna were liberated and paratroopers dropped in large numbers in Tangail, 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 16 December 1971, when Lt Gen Niaz got the green signal to surrender from Gen Yahya Khan, the Indian troops were Knocking on the gates of Dacca. The race had been won by Maj Gen Gandharv Nagra’s division. Earlier, Gen 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. Maj Gen JER Jacob, the brilliant Chief of staff of Eastern Command, flew to Dacca with the draft Instrument of Surrender.

The surrender time was 4:31 pm on 16 December. The surrender was enacted at the Dacca Race Course where Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman had given his famous call for the independence of Bangladesh, nine months earlier. The Race Course was packed with a delirious mass of humanity. The gold, green and crimson flag of Bangladesh fluttered in the gentle breeze.

Lt Gen Jagjit 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 the 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 of 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 the Army Engineers ingenious improvisations and tremendous resourcefulness in building bridges, laying roads and operating rivercraft.

At 6 pm that evening, Mrs Indira Gandhi told a wildly cheering Lok Sabha, “Dacca is a free capital of 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 ceasefire on the western front from 8 pm tomorrow. India’s magnanimous announcement of unilateral ceasefire left the world gaping with disbelief. After some initial hesitation Gen Yahya Khan accepted the offer and complied.

At 8 pm on 19 December 1971, the guns fell silent, But the story does not end here. Due to India’s persistent efforts, on 9 January 1972, Sheikh Mujibur Rahaman was released by the President Bhutto of Pakistan and took his rightful place as the first Prime 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 words when on 13 March 1972, twelve days before the first anniversary of the military crackdown, the last few Indian soldiers drove back into India.

A few months later, at Shimla, 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 nome, the way they had come. The curtain finally came down on what was undoubtedly a just war and a grand victory.