1971 – India's Greatest Victory
SP's Land Forces|December 2020 - January 2021
As India celebrates 50 years of victory in the 1971 war with Pakistan, SP’s Land Forces looks at how the Indian Army with the support of the IAF and the Indian Navy, bulldozed its way to the liberation of East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) to achieve one of the greatest victories by any modern-day military

LT GENERAL P.C. KATOCH (RETD)

THE DEMOLITION OF EAST Pakistan leading to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 was the greatest victory of India that resulted in the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani military personnel – the largest number of prisoners taken in any war after World War II. It would not be wrong to say that Pakistan had been digging its own grave in East Pakistan for a long that accelerated its collapse. Ironically, western media didn’t mention much about this magnificent Indian victory and the West never took up this campaign as a case study because both the US and Britain were against the Indian action.

Setting in East Pakistan

Continuing oppressive actions in East Pakistan under direction of the West Pakistan-based military junta led by President Yahya Khan had germinated simmering Bengali nationalism for a long time. This led to the movement of self-determination when the military junta annulled results of the general elections held on December 7, 1970, in which the Awami League had won a decisive majority capturing 167 out of 313 seats. The Bengali population expected a swift transfer of power to the Awami League but this was nixed and the national assembly meeting scheduled for March 1971 was postponed. In response, the Awami League held a massive rally on March 7 and launched a programme of non-co-operation, which was hugely successful. However, Prime Minister-designate Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was arrested and taken to West Pakistan. On the night of March 25, 1971, Pakistan launched Operation ‘Searchlight’ against the people of East Pakistan under Lieutenant General Tikka Khan, Governor and General Officer Commanding, East Pakistan. This involved systematic elimination of nationalist Bengali civilians, students, scholars and intelligentsia, religious minorities, resistance fighters and supporters.

Operation ‘Searchlight’ aimed to eliminate the Awami League structure and its support elements including civilians and armed forces personnel. The imposition of martial law authorized free hand in using maximum force for assault and genocide in civil areas. The mandate given to the army included: simultaneous operations across East Pakistan; arresting maximum political, student, cultural organization leaders and teaching staff; must achieve 100 per cent success in Dhaka University – searching and ‘occupying’ the premises; freedom of fire to secure cantonments; domestic and international communications to be cut including telephone, television, radio, and telegraph; all Bengali troops to be neutralized seizing their weapons and ammunition, and; continue dialogue with Awami League pretending to agree to their demands.

By April 10, Pakistan had airlifted two Infantry Divisions (9 and 18) from West to East Pakistan and had gained control of Dhaka, Rangpur-Saidpur, Comilla, Chittagong, and Khulna but lost or abandoned Rajshahi, Sylhet, Pabna, Dinajpur, Mymenshing, and Kushtia. Lieutenant General A.A.K. Niazi, who assumed command of Pakistan forces in East Pakistan on April 11, had planned following strategy: clear all the big cities of insurgents and secure Chittagong; take control and open all river, highway and rail communication network; drive the insurgents away from the interior of the country; launch combing operations across Bangladesh to wipe out the insurgent network.

During the Awami League rally on March 7, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman gave a call to the public to prepare for an all-out struggle. Post the launch of Operation ‘Searchlight’, the formal military leadership of the resistance was created in April 1971 under the Provisional Government of Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Armed Forces were officially established on April 4, 1971. Pakistani army operations under Niazi continued to be resisted by the Mukti Bahini. However, the resistance needed support to overwhelm the Pakistani military especially with Niazi using cities for fortress defence.

The Pakistani army genocide resulted in some 10 million refugees fleeing to India and over 30 million internally displaced. Bangladesh government figures estimate some three million people were killed by the Pakistani army but independent researchers put the figure at between 3,00,000 and 5,00,000. On September 21, 2017, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addressing the United Nations General Assembly said, “In the 1971 war of liberation, we endured an extreme form of genocide. In the 9-month-long war of liberation against Pakistan, three million innocent people were killed and more than 2,00,000 women were violated. The Pakistan military launched the heinous ‘Operation Searchlight’ on 25th March which was the beginning of the 1971 genocide. The 1971 genocide included targeted elimination of individuals on the ground of religion, race and political belief. The intellectuals were killed brutally.” Hasina added that the Bangladesh Parliament had declared March 25 as ‘Genocide Day’ to pay homage to the victims.

The Scene in India

India was flooded with some 10 million refugees from East Pakistan as mentioned above. Setting up camps and administering this large number was a herculean task that stressed out the state administration especially in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. India had allowed the refugees including resistance fighters to cross the border at will. Bangladeshi liberation fighters-led training camps came up in multiple states like Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura and West Bengal. With refugees pouring in, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was under pressure to act. She held a cabinet meeting on April 28, 1971 and ordered the Chief of the Army Staff General (later Field Marshal) SHFJ ‘Sam’ Manekshaw to enter Pakistan but Sam told her it was not the right time.

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