The decisiveness of 1971

Looking back at the restraint and planning that stood India well in the Bangladesh War

Updated - December 14, 2016 03:14 am IST

Published - December 14, 2016 12:15 am IST

EXODUS: “By November 1971, the number of refugees from East Bengal in India had reached 10 million.” Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during a two-day visit in May 1971 to refugee camps in Silchar and Agartala. Photo: The Hindu Archives

EXODUS: “By November 1971, the number of refugees from East Bengal in India had reached 10 million.” Prime Minister Indira Gandhi during a two-day visit in May 1971 to refugee camps in Silchar and Agartala. Photo: The Hindu Archives

December 16, 2016 marks the 45th anniversary of Vijay Diwas, the day the Pakistan Army in East Bengal surrendered before Lt. Gen. J.S. Aurora, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command, in 1971. A new nation was born after a struggle which lasted but a few months and had its roots in the Pakistan general election of December 1970.

The run-up to war

The Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won a massive majority in the provincial legislature and in all but two of East Pakistan’s quota of seats in the new National Assembly, thus gaining a clear majority. The largest party in West Pakistan was the Pakistan Peoples’ Party headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who threatened to boycott the assembly and oppose the government if Mujib was invited by Gen. Yahya Khan, then President of Pakistan, to become Pakistan’s Prime Minister despite the fact that he had won an overall majority. Mujib was left with no option but to start a civil disobedience movement; he was soon arrested.

Dark clouds started gathering over India’s eastern border. On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani military junta began a crackdown on the people of East Pakistan. It soon turned into a large-scale genocide. The atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army gave rise to the birth of Mukti Bahini, a potent guerrilla force and the face of Bengali resistance.

By November 1971, the number of refugees from East Bengal in India had reached 10 million. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi rose to the challenge with determination and a renewed confidence acquired after having won a massive mandate in the Lok Sabha elections. Throughout the crisis, she acted not only with immense courage but also abundant caution. She did not want to strengthen the Pakistani propaganda that the movement for autonomy in East Pakistan was nothing but an Indian conspiracy, neither did she want to do anything which would lead to India being accused of violating international law and norms.

In following a policy of restraint, Mrs. Gandhi had two other major considerations. First, if it was to be war, it should come at a time of India’s choosing. She agreed with Army chief Sam Manekshaw that military operations in East Pakistan could not be undertaken during the monsoon. The Himalayan passes too would get snowbound only in winter making it impossible for China to send troops to aid Pakistan. Complementing the Army chief’s view was Foreign Minister Swaran Singh, who advised restraint till all diplomatic options were exhausted.

A strategic and military success

The Prime Minister followed a multi-pronged strategy. She realised that international opinion had to be won over to the cause of Bangladesh and made aware of India’s unbearable burden of refugees. From July to November 1971, Mrs. Gandhi and Swaran Singh globetrotted across the Western world, attempting to build a consensus to force a UN resolution condemning the Pakistani atrocities in Bangladesh. India not only gave sanctuary to the Bangladeshi government-in-exile but also trained and equipped the Mukti Bahini.

To secure itself against a possible U.S.-China intervention in case events led to war, India signed on August 9 a 20-year Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. The treaty provided for immediate mutual consultations and appropriate effective measures in case of either country being subjected to a military threat.

Mrs. Gandhi, prepared for the war by November-end, was reluctant to take action first, even though December 4, 1971, had been designated as the day the Indian armed forces would directly undertake the liberation of Bangladesh. At this stage, however, Yahya Khan obliged: Pakistan’s air force launched a surprise attack on December 3 on eight military airfields in western India, hoping to inflict serious damage on the Indian Air Force and also internationalise the Bangladesh issue. The bid failed in both its objectives.

India immediately recognised Bangladesh and backed it with strong military action. The Indian strategy was to hold the Pakistani forces in the western sector through strong defensive action, while waging a short, swift and decisive war in the east. The U.S. government moved two resolutions in the UN Security Council proposing a ceasefire and mutual troop withdrawal, but these were vetoed by the Soviet Union. In desperation President Richard Nixon ordered the American Seventh Fleet to set sail for the Bay of Bengal. But India’s ‘iron lady’ was not to be cowed down by any threat. She asked Manekshaw to direct the Eastern Command to speed up operations. The Indian Army, actively assisted by the Mukti Bahini, virtually ran through East Bengal and reached Dacca within 11 days. A defeated and demoralised 93,000-strong Pakistan Army led by Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi was made to surrender on December 16. The following day, the Indian government announced a unilateral ceasefire on the western front.

Pakistan was reported to have lost half its navy, a quarter of its air force and a third of its army. The war stripped the nation of more than half of its population. Bangladesh was founded, and the 10 million refugees returned to their homeland with cries of ‘Joy Indira Gandhi, Joy Bangladesh’. While A.B. Vajpayee, then a 47-year-old parliamentarian, likened Indira Gandhi to “Durga”, The Economist dubbed her “Empress of India”. It was Indira’s, and India’s, finest hour.


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