K.S. Nair’s December in Dacca review: War, conflict, and India’s role in Bangladesh’s liberation

Putting the spotlight on the land, air and sea battles of 1971 and the huge human costs

June 23, 2022 01:02 pm | Updated June 24, 2022 05:28 pm IST

The author discusses Operation Searchlight in detail, especially why and how the hour of the operation’s launch was advanced.

The author discusses Operation Searchlight in detail, especially why and how the hour of the operation’s launch was advanced.

To mark 50 years of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, several books have appeared in the past year and December in Dacca by K.S. Nair is a refreshing addition to the list. It makes the point that India not only achieved an “overwhelming military victory” but it also put a stop to humanitarian crimes, and importantly, “in view of the lessons from later conflicts such as Afghanistan and Iraq, India withdrew all its military forces from the new country [of Bangladesh] within weeks...”

Mr. Nair precisely analyses the reasons that led to the Liberation War in Part I of the book, titled ‘The Gathering Storm’, ending with India’s official joining of the war in the wee hours of December 3, 1971. The next two parts, ‘Navigating the Storm’ and ‘After the (First) Storm,’ describe the battles and their diplomatic and political aftermath.

Wise voices

With west and east Pakistan geographically and culturally separated, by distance, language and customs, things came to a head after the 1970 general elections when Pakistani generals resisted the transfer of power to the Awami League, which had won in the east. There were wiser voices from among the Army but they were ignored by Pakistani authorities. As it dragged its feet against convening the National Assembly, the Awami League launched a programme of non-cooperation in East Pakistan. Unable to control the momentum, and fighting the reluctance of East Pakistani armed forces officers to take action, Lieutenant General Tikka Khan launched Operation Searchlight in late March 1971 to stamp out the Bengali nationalist movement.

The author discusses the operation in detail, especially why and how the hour of the operation’s launch was advanced. This was followed by the Pakistani Army terrorising the citizens. Soon the population turned against the army and the government.

Nair states that the killings that began on March 25, 1971, sparked the Bangladesh Liberation War, led to deaths of at least a “few million” people, resulted in the creation of the Mukti Bahini supported by the Indian government, and the forming of a provisional government in exile.

Breaking news

The atrocities in East Pakistan were never covered by the international media, but a Pakistani journalist of Goan origin, Anthony Mascarenhas, broke the story first in the Sunday Times in London on June 13, 1971, titling it ‘Genocide’. Though there were appeals to India by East Pakistanis to intervene, India had to use a greater level of diplomacy before it stepped in.

Nair brings out yet another important angle here — there were doubts in the mind of India if independent East Pakistan could become a conduit for insurgent groups.

The war effort, under the title ‘The Balloon Goes Up’, records the details, starting from December 3, 1971, when Operation Chengiz Khan was launched by Pakistan in the west, targeting Indian airbases in places like Amritsar, Ambala and Jaisalmer.

The Indian Air Force went into action, proving its commitment and efficiency; though the air engagement is described in technical details, it is easily readable. Every chapter has Nair’s notes under ‘School boy reflections,’ which will be of interest to younger readers.

The western sea front effort is narrated in detail, including the loss of INS Khukri off the coast of Diu, the first and only Indian warship to be lost in war; and how young IAF officers tracked the submarine PNS Hangor which sank the Khukri.

The narration of the well-known Operation Trident and Karachi attacks reads like a war diary. In the final chapter, Nair recalls the events that took place both militarily and politically, including the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and later developments. Like many others, Nair rues the fact that India did not utilise the tremendous advantage it gained from the victory and does not celebrate the moment often enough.

December in Dacca; K.S. Nair, HarperCollins, ₹699.

The reviewer served under the Eastern Naval command during the Bangladesh liberation war.

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