Praveen Swami

The still-classified official history of the 1971 war sheds new light on the Manekshaw-Jacob debate.

"MY DEAR Abdullah," wrote Major-General Gandharv Nagra in a simple message delivered to the Pakistan's Eastern Command chief in Dhaka on the morning of December 16, 1971, "I am here. The game is up." When Lieutenant-General Abdullah Niazi saw General Nagra walk through his office door three hours later, he delivered an equally succinct analysis of the causes of Pakistan's defeat: "Pindi mein baithe hue ... [expletive deleted] ne marwa diya [the ... sitting in Rawalpindi got us into this mess]."

An energetic debate has now broken out on just who in India conceived of the military plans that led General Nagra to his adversary's doorstep. The debate has polarised supporters of India's then Army Chief Sam `Bahadur' Manekshaw, who went on to become its first Field Marshal, and the then Chief of Staff of the Eastern Command, Major-General J.F.R. Jacob.

In a recent television interview, General Jacob asserted that the capture of Dhaka did not figure in the Field Marshal's offensive plans. Building on arguments he had earlier made in his 1999 book, Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation, General Jacob argued that Field Marshal Manekshaw had wanted advancing troops to capture towns bypassed in the course of their lightning advance. Without dispute, such a decision would have cost India a decisive victory. India's triumph, General Jacob claimed, was in fact the result of the initiative of mid-ranking officers notably himself.

How credible are these claims? Much of what has passed for argument on the issue has, in fact, consisted of personal and sometimes mean-spirited attacks. Facts, not surprisingly, have been lost amidst the furore. But contained inside the official History of the Bangladesh War, 1971, lie some answers to the Manekshaw-Jacob debate. Prepared after the study of some 5,000 files of Government of India documents and interviews with 66 key participants, the History is still classified an official secret, but has been available to scholars and students of warfare for over a decade now.

What the 874-page History tells us is just what scholars might have anticipated: that the truth appears to lie somewhere in between the claims and counterclaims.

In March 1971, Pakistan initiated a massive pogrom directed at pro-Bangladesh nationalists. By the estimate of the officer who directed the campaign, General Tikka Khan, Pakistani forces killed at least 30,000 people. Mukti Bahini guerrillas responded to the carnage by staging strikes against Pakistani forces from bases inside Indian soil.

By the end of April, India committed itself to backing the Bangladesh forces. In a May 1, 1971, order, Field Marshal Manekshaw ordered the Eastern Command to raise and train a force "for waging guerrilla warfare in East Bengal." Operations by the Mukti Bahini, as well as the top-secret Indian commando units led by Major-General Surjit Singh Uban, proved spectacularly successful. Pakistan retaliated by intensifying infantry and artillery attacks on Indian forward positions. By June, India initiated a series of limited incursions into East Pakistan.

War had become inevitable. Issued by Army Headquarters on August 16, 1971, Operation Instruction 53 laid out an unequivocal offensive mandate for Indian forces. "Destroy the bulk of the Pakistani forces in the Eastern Theatre," the Operation Instruction said, "and occupy the major portion of East Bengal including the entry ports of Chittagong and Chalna-Khulna."

No mention was made of Dhaka itself but this was not surprising. Although Pakistani forces were positioned for the defence of the country's eastern wing, Indian planners anticipated the possibility of a two-division thrust towards Silchar or Agartala, as well as a counter-offensive against Kolkata, along the Jessore-Bangaon and Satkhira-Bashirhat axes. In addition, Pakistan expected both China and the United States to intervene on its side. Plans had to be drawn up not just to secure offensive victory, but guard against defeat in these worst-case scenarios. Indian strategists hoped to take as much territory as possible in a short-duration war, and use it to facilitate a subsequent political settlement.

On the basis of a series of war games conducted in the build-up to the actual fighting, Eastern Command Headquarters revised its offensive plans to best meet its mandate. Instead of taking on heavily defended approaches, Indian commanders reoriented their thrust lines to bypass strongly held enemy defences. But Eastern Army Commander Lieutenant-General Jagjit Singh Aurora also made clear that, "the battle would be a fluid one and that his operation instructions should be used as a basis for general guidance." "Further detailed planning could only be done taking into consideration the progress of various thrusts," the History quotes him as saying.

But official documentation leaves little doubt the capture of Dhaka was on the minds of top commanders well before war broke out on December 3. According to the History, the revised plans explicitly "envisaged that 4 Corps would cross the Meghna between Daukhandi and Bairab Bazar, and advance to Dhaka. 101 Communications Zone Area, with 95 Mtn Bde Gp [Mountain Brigade Group] would advance to Dhaka from the North." Both these forces, India's commanders believed, would be assisted by Bangladesh freedom fighter Abdul Kader `Tiger' Siddiqi's irregular forces. Without the COAS' approval, these plans simply could not have been put in place but the question remains of whether Field Marshal Manekshaw actually envisaged taking the city.

Much of the Manekshaw-Jacob debate was frontally addressed in the History. Its authors noted that a close study of the drive to Dhaka revealed "some baffling features of the operations and raise some awkward questions." Most notable of these was that the city was taken by General Nagra's 101 Communications Zone Area forces, whose "decisive, all-important thrust from the north was allowed to remain the weakest in terms of manpower, artillery and armour. And no written orders or Operation Instruction, nor even a clear military appreciation, is to be found on the subject." Put simply, no one ever issued an unambiguous order to take Dhaka.

Discussions with the protagonists yielded no answers to the authors of the History. Officials in key positions at Army Headquarters in New Delhi insisted that the liberation of all of Bangladesh was their objective all along, and that appropriate instructions would have been issued once the goals outlined in Operation Instruction 53 were achieved. But none were ever sent out. While General Aurora said he expected Lieutenant-General Sagat Singh's 4 Corps to seize Dhaka, the formation received no instructions to this effect. And, while General Jacob backed the 101 CZA to gain the big prize, General Nagra was emphatic that he had received no orders from Eastern Command either.

Who then decided to take Dhaka, and when? "From these conflicting accounts," the History states, "what really happened can still be reconstructed with a high degree of probability." "The highly confused and nebulous conditions inside East Pakistan, the steady flow of reinforcements from West Pakistan into East Bengal and China's threat in the north made it impossible for Army Headquarters to designate Dhaka as the military objective" it argues. While, "Dhaka as the objective was definitely in the minds of the Army Headquarters, HQ Eastern Command as well as HQ 4 Corps," geopolitical realities ensured "Army Headquarters could not then allocate sufficient forces for a deliberate plan to capture Dhaka."

Only on November 30, just three days before the formal outbreak of all-out war, was Army Headquarters able to issue revised orders mandating "the liberation of the whole of Bangladesh as the military task of Eastern Command." General Jacob, who had all along been arguing for an ambitious thrust towards Dhaka, began to receive a more favourable response to his ideas once early Indian thrusts yielded unexpected dividends.

General Jacob, backed by the new Director of Military Operations, Major-General Inder Gill, now began to make quiet preparations for a rapid thrust towards the city. None, however, anticipated the speed with which it came. "Aurora and Jacob did not realise," the History states, "that the two bright field commanders would take the bit in their teeth and gallop for Dhaka even before receiving any order."

Both Army Headquarters and Eastern Command, the authors of the History concluded, "had thought of and made some provision for the capture of Dhaka, but had played safe and issued no formal order to any of the formations in the field. To that extent, Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh and Major Gen. Nagra had used their own initiative, drive and professional acumen to achieve a dazzling victory. It reflects the greatest credit on the Indian Army that it produced field commanders of such calibre, capable of strategic initiative and stage management of major manoeuvres in the course of the campaign without any clear orders from above."

"One who excels at employing the army," wrote Sun Tzu in the sixth-century Chinese classic, The Art of War, "leads them by the hand as if they were only one man." Although Field Marshal Manekshaw might not have been the sole author of India's triumph in Dhaka the commander of media-manufactured myth he succeeded in doing just that.