Lt General K.J.S. Dhillon pays tribute to the martyrs of 1971 India-Pakistan war on the occasion of Vijay Diwas at the Army Memorial in Srinagar on 16 December2019. On 3 December, the attack by Pakistani forces in the western sector gave a legitimate cause for India to attack Pakistan

by Lt Gen P.J.S. Pannu (Retd)

The Pakistan Air Force attacked 11 Indian air bases from Jammu and Kashmir to Rajasthan in a pre-emptive air strike at the sunset of 3 December 1971. It violated Indian airspace with about 50 Sabre jet fighters. This opened up the second front for India in the Indian Western Theatre, ostensibly, to make the Indian armed forces recoil, which were then preparing to march into East Pakistan, as a response to the genocide being committed by the Pakistan Army on the Bengali Muslims there. Certain preliminary border actions by the Indian Army had already commenced in November 1971. The western Pakistani Forces, primarily composed of Punjabi Muslims were creating mayhem on their Islamic brethren of East Pakistan, located some 1,600 km away, divided by the brilliance of the British. The country, on partition was unequally divided, with 55% population holding onto one-sixth of land area of the nation in the east as compared to the more influential Western Pakistanis holding large jagirs in the West where only 45% of the population resided.

The reason of the violence was clear—that an inferior Bengali Muslim from the East cannot rule Punjabi dominated West, even though a Bengali (Sheikh Mujibur Rehman) had won an election. This triggered a revolution in East Pakistan, a clear demonstration that religion is not enough to hold a nation together. Pakistan did not want India to come in aid of the Bangla resistance movement and expected that India would suffer the burden of millions of refugees silently. Indian patience was running thin under the increasing threats from Pakistan. On 23 November 1971, Indian Army had penetrated East Pakistan’s borders, with certain elements joining their Bangla allies. Emboldened with certain limited successes of the 1965 war and with American support, Pakistan had a false notion that they would be able to pull off an attack on India on the west and release pressure on their forces in East Pakistan where they were running a “scorched earth” policy of killing, looting and raping the Bengali population in millions.

In April 1971, post the hijack of the Indian Airlines Fokker friendship aircraft by Pakistan, which they also set on fire, India responded by closing Indian airspace to Pakistan, debarring them from flying directly to East Pakistan. Pakistani military garrisons in Dhaka, Comilla, Sylhet, Jessore, Rangpur, Bogra, Khulna, Rajshahi and Chittagong had to be sustained from the sea route. Pakistan had to supply jet fuel for its Sabre jets (F86), gasoline for its Chaffee tanks, ammunition for its guns and wheat for West Pakistan’s army. The supplies had to come via a long route, on Pakistani ships and planes, some needing refuelling in Sri Lanka. In mid 1971, the military requirements of transporting 180,000 tons and 120,000 personnel had doubled after Yahya Khan dispatched two additional infantry divisions from West Pakistan, only to be surrounded by the Indian Army later.

In July 1971, General Yahya Khan, warned India that “total war” was very near. Later, in August, he threatened that Sheikh Mujibur Rehman would be given a death sentence, who after winning elections was denied the leadership of Pakistan and was accused of “political betrayal”. He had been put into solitary confinement in Lyallpur. Millions of Bengali Muslim refugees already pouring in from East Pakistan to Indian territory from the beginning of the year, turned into a torrent with Yahya’s announcement. By the end of the year almost 10 million refugees were already in India. India was sympathetic to East Pakistan and could not bear the increasing burden of feeding refugees. Those days vehicles in Pakistan were seen with stickers reading “Crush India”, while in India the stickers on transport read “Liberate Bangladesh”.

The Pakistan Army, facing a backlash, had recruited Bihari Muslims of East Pakistan to kill the Bengali Muslims—a tactic of running a proxy war they had mastered in earlier years. The Indian Army, on invitation and with the tacit approval of the provincial government of Bangladesh (name given during Liberation Struggle), posted some Bengali speaking military officers with small teams in a manner that they could covertly train and equip the Mukti Bahini under the code name of Operation Jackpot. In the wake of India supporting the liberation of Bangladesh, which had already extended assistance to the Bangla refugees, Pakistan threatened India with dire consequences. The then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, had the great challenge of shaping world opinion against Pakistan and support the cause for the creation of Bangladesh. Henry Kissinger made a hurried visit to India to deter, in fact warn India of consequences if India attacked Pakistan. Kissinger then visited Pakistan and from there visited China in Pakistan’s military aircraft on a secret mission asking for Chinese support to Pakistan.

India was certainly in a war-like situation, handling the mass exodus of refugees, a clear case of ethnic cleansing by Pakistan. The world watched this human tragedy quietly. India was frustrated and had no option but to take recourse to military action. General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw, then COAS, a great professional soldier, had his own mind on picking right time to attack Pakistan, even though he was asked by Indira Gandhi to wage a war in the earlier part of the year. Wary of China, he was looking for winters when China could not open the northern front and soil condition would be fit for Indian tanks to operate. Of course, he had many other reasons to delay. This gave time to India to prepare diplomatically as well as militarily. USSR was the only country that offered to support India. The blocs had shaped up where Pakistan, China and US (leader of NATO) were firmly tied to one side, with India standing alone with ten million Bangla refugees, and was leaning on understanding and support of the USSR.

On 3 December, the attack by Pakistani forces in the western sector gave a legitimate cause for India to attack Pakistan. Emboldened by Chinese and US support, Pakistan was surprised at the speed of Indian counter offensive in the west. Indian Air Force went in for air attacks on the entire front, literally paralysing the Pakistani Air Force. Indian Navy, in a swift attack caused heavy destruction of the Karachi port on 4 December with a repeat on 12 December with many ships, infrastructure and fuel dumps going up in flames each time. Indian Army’s ground operations, though more defensive initially in the west, were soon beating them in every battle. Contrary to the previous war of 1965, which had emphasised set-piece battles and slow advances, this time in the Eastern Sector, strategy adopted by the Indian Army was to undertake a swift, three-pronged assault of nine infantry divisions with attached armoured units and close air support that rapidly converged on Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan.

US dispatched its Seventh Fleet with Task Force 74, showing its presence near the Bay of Bengal on 11 December. In its support, the United Kingdom also deployed a Carrier Battle Group led by the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle to the Bay, on her final deployment. On 6 and 13 December, the Soviets dispatched two groups of cruisers and destroyers from Vladivostok, who trailed US Task Force 74 into the Indian Ocean from 18 December 1971 until 7 January 1972. The Soviets also had a nuclear submarine to help ward off the threat posed by the USS Enterprise task force in the Indian Ocean.

By the second week of December, Pakistani forces were quickly capitulating and falling apart in the East Pakistan. The morale of the Pakistani Army was abysmally low, even with supplies that could have lasted them for months. Their combat units were more than willing to surrender than fight. The main Indian objective on the eastern front was to capture Dhaka, and on the western front to prevent Pakistan from entering Indian soil. There was no Indian intention of conducting any major offensive into West Pakistan and dismembering it into different states. My unit 22 Maratha LI was involved right from the preliminary operations in East Pakistan prior to the outbreak of open hostilities. Some members of my unit were working closely with Mukti Bahini for months. For conventional operations, the unit was part of 202 Mountain Brigade, initially in reserve, with Brigade task to clear Hilli, a strong point that had to be cleared before advancing towards Rangpur. Pakistan had built a string of well-fortified strong points to defend the border. The BOPs (Border Out Posts) located ahead were cleared during preliminary operations. The attacks launched by other units of the brigade were suffering heavy casualties, who with sheer grit cleared the initial defences with heavy resistance.

My unit was tasked to launch a “silent attack” through the gaps of Pakistan’s 4 Frontier Force Rifles, taking the enemy by surprise which it cleared after some resistance. Once the surprise was lost, the further attack became intense and bloody, with the wiry Marathas slogging it out against the sturdy Pathans from bunker to bunker. The position was captured with heavy casualties on both sides. Post the capture of Hilli, the advance of the brigade towards Rangpur was resumed with the battalion in the lead. A wide outflanking move was undertaken to contact the Rangpur Defences. The enemy being encircled was petrified and began to surrender. The Indian Army was making such advances from all directions.

The paradrop of 2 Para (now Special Forces) at Tangail helped speed up operations towards final capture of Dhaka. By 12 December, Pakistani units still intact, began to willingly lay down arms in front of an increasing strength of Indian troops. On 16 December, Pakistan surrendered all troops located in East Pakistan. Many Pakistani Air Force officers, to save their lives, abandoned their missions and flew their planes into Burma. Similarly, many Pakistani fighter pilots in the western front also escaped and landed their planes in neighbouring Iran. Certain fighter planes supplied by the Middle East and Arab countries to Pakistan without pilots were left on Pakistani runways without being used. The Pakistan military led by Lt Gen A.A.K. Niazi, surrendered at the feet of the Indian forces. Over 90,000 Pakistan personnel (mostly from Pakistan Army) were taken prisoners of war (PoW) by the Indian Army. This was the greatest numbers of prisoners taken in the history of war between two countries ever. No wonder the Pakistan Army uses proxy warriors to fight its battles.

On the western front, certain critical areas had been captured by the Indian Army around Turtuk, Kargil and Kashmir, redefining the Cease Fire Line (CFL) into Line of Control (LoC). The Indian forces captured around 15,000 sq km of land in the west. The Shimla Agreement was signed as a gesture of goodwill where India decided to return the territory captured across the International Border. Territory captured in Jammu and Kashmir was retained by both sides and a new Line of Control was defined up to map reference NJ 9842 in the North. All PoWs were returned to Pakistan within five months, and those charged with war crimes were granted amnesty. Pakistan did not reciprocate the goodwill and has not returned 54 Indian PoWs still languishing in Pakistani jails.

Pakistan sought to have a diversified foreign policy, as Pakistani geo-strategists had been shocked that both China and the United States provided limited support to Pakistan during the course of the war, with the US displaying inability to supply weapons that Pakistan needed the most. The US at best encouraged other countries to help Pakistan with hardware.

Today, 49 years later, while the global dynamics around the subcontinent have changed, India continues to have adversaries in Pakistan and China, and have fought five wars with them. The US has realised the worthlessness of having untrustworthy friends; Pakistan has exported terrorism to the world while selling lies on fighting the War on Terrorism (GWOT) in support of the US. The Chinese have hurt US interests by stealing technology and pirating their intellectual property. China has challenged the US in every field, lately even military. Pakistan has become a vassal state of China and does its bidding. US and Russia relations continue to remain strained but are less serious from the years of cold war. In their case deterrence has worked towards keeping them away from a direct military confrontation, albeit taking opposite sides in global conflicts.

The current India-China-Pakistan conflict remains on the edge given their disputed borders and existence of historical fault lines. How these fronts and collusion pan out in the future need deliberate analysis. The current standoff on the LAC is still in the realm of conventional engagement, while “hybrid wars” are at play and are replacing the conventional. Regional peace can be ensured in remaining prepared for war and “securing peace through strength”. The next “two-front war” under a nuclear overhang and based on high technology will be more complex. Such wars would involve and impact every citizen of the countries involved. Devastation would be colossal and unavoidable. Only the maturity of global leaders can save the day for humanity.