By: Devyani Wadera, Research Analyst, GSDN
Bangladesh, which is seen as an independent republic today, was once part of Pakistan. This state came into its own with the 1971 Indo-Pak war which ended on December 16, 1971 duly marking Bangladesh’s independence. This date portrays a very paradoxical memory for the nations who were embroiled in this turmoil, telling the story of Bangladesh’s long-awaited liberation, India’s decisive victory, and Pakistan’s surrender. The war lasted 13 days and is considered the shortest war in history with India securing a decisive victory and aiding Bangladesh in its quest for self-determination. This war was a blow to Pakistan as it led to the inevitable dismemberment of its country, with the added humiliation of an unconditional public surrender. What ignited this war was the rising Bengali nationalist movement born from the feelings of resentment and agony against the West Pakistani establishment over years of deprivation and oppression. The sheer magnitude of the revolution was staggering not only for the Pakistani regime but for the entire subcontinent which witnessed the defiance of the Bengalis.
Pakistan seceded from erstwhile India on the basis of the two-nation theory which stated that Hindus and Muslims are inherently different and incompatible due to their conflicting religions. Therefore, Pakistan was formed to protect the interests of Muslims with the belief that what united the citizens was their identity as Muslims. However, Pakistan was divided into East and West Pakistan separated by 1600 km of Indian Territory creating differences from the very beginning. The state was marred with problems of unity, not due to the geographical distance but a cultural distance between the two wings that became the major bone of contention. Since Pakistan’s very existence, Bengalis accused the Punjabi regime of subordinating their culture. There was an air of superiority in West Pakistan with a disdain for Bengalis and their culture, believing it was inferior. West Pakistanis claimed that they belonged to the ‘race of the conquerors’ while Bengalis in the words of Punjabi leader Malik Khan Noon, Governor of East Bengal “the East Pakistanis Muslims were converted to Islam from low caste Hindus, and they were not real Muslims.”
The economic and political deprivation blended with the suppression of Bengali culture was a wrong trajectory chosen by Pakistan. It resulted in a dichotomic state where West Pakistan was prospering and East Pakistan was being treated as second-class citizens in their own country. The outright economic disparity can be witnessed through how only 1,500 crores were invested in the eastern wing as compared to 5000 crores spent in West Pakistan. Additionally, 2.6 billion dollars were shifted from East Pakistan to West Pakistan speaking of how the East entered a second colonial era under the Western wing. The political and military power was also concentrated in West Pakistan with the capital being Karachi and the monopoly over bureaucratic, military positions. However, the major dissension was the imposition of Urdu as the official language. The rebuff of Bengali was seen as cultural antagonism leading to widespread agitations. This movement had far-reaching consequences as it fuelled a sub-regional identity among the Bengalis. East Pakistanis now identified more with their language and ethnicity than the common identity of religion.
The Eastern wing showed its discontentment in the 1970 general elections when the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibir Rahman won the elections. The result was alarming for President Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party who were not willing to relinquish control. Many rounds of phony negotiations were held by Khan and Bhutto to keep the Bengalis under the influence that political power will be transferred. While the negotiations were going on the Pakistani army which had been building up forces in the eastern wing since February launched Operation Searchlight, a violent crackdown to suppress the nationalist movement. A planned genocide was unleashed on March 25, 1971, with the army deployed in Dhaka, Chittagong, and other prime locations. The genocide started at 11:30 pm with the arrest of Rahman from his home and soon the army took positions all over Dhaka rolling down tanks, open firing, and attacking civilians with mortars and rockets. Dhaka University became a place of a bloodbath with Jagannath and Iqbal Hall being the hotspots where hundreds of students, teachers, and their families were queued up and shot. Operation Searchlight killed 5 million people and raped 300,000 women. The turmoil in East Pakistan created an alarming situation in India which was closely watching the monumental changes. East Pakistan was in shambles and its people terror-stricken, finding ways to escape this genocide. Close to 11 million refugees fled to India, which overburdened India’s already strained economy.
The genocide induced support and sympathy for Bengalis in India with many urging the state to go to war with Pakistan. The government realized that if India attacked first, it would be labelled as an aggressor, trying to break Pakistan which will ensure Pakistan getting help from the United Nations and majority of the nation’s refusing to recognize Bangladesh. Additionally, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, the Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army, wanted to wait till November for hostilities to begin to avoid Chinese intervention and have time to collect the quantum of force required for such a large-scale operation. Therefore the Indian government made simultaneous efforts to continue the diplomatic drive and also prepare for war. India gave material and moral support as well as training, and expertise to the Mukti Bahanis and was itself involved in skirmishes in operations like Dhalai, Bulge and Akhaura with the Pakistani Army. By November 1971 the violence on the border had increased tremendously and the two countries were on the brink of war. It was at 5:30 pm on December 03, 1971 that the conflict turned into a full-scale war with Pakistani aircrafts dropping bombs on Indian airfields in a pre-emptive air strike. On the same day, Indira Gandhi addressed the nation saying, “The war in Bangladesh has become a war on India,” she said.
The war involved all three branches- army, navy, and air force of the Indian military. The army had to fight this war on both the eastern and western fronts with both having varied terrains and challenges. The strategy devised for the western bloc was to ensure that India does not lose any territory and keep Pakistan under pressure on this front. This was to ensure the Indian army’s swift stream into East Pakistan and capture Dhaka which was the center of power. The strategy implemented here was to bypass the Pakistani army’s strongholds and other prime locations to aim for Dhaka and try to reach the center in a matter of two weeks. The reason behind this plan was to ensure that the war ends in a short period of time to ensure the liberation of Bangladesh without the threat of an attack from the USA or China. Additionally, this was also significant to ensuring a ceasefire is not imposed which would have brought the war to a standstill and resumed the hostilities of West Pakistan in Bangladesh.
On the western front, one of the most memorable engagements was the Battle of Longewala when 120 Indian soldiers were outnumbered by 4000 Pakistani troops, artillery, and tanks. The men did not leave their posts and fiercely faced the enemies and requisitioned support from the airforce. On the morning of 5th December, the hunter aircraft mercilessly bombarded the Pakistani forces which killed 200 soldiers and destroyed 36 tanks and 100 jeeps. On the other hand, in a situation of all-out war in east Pakistan, the Indian Army had made swift advances within the territory. The Indian Army was able to cut through the strongholds since the Pakistan army was scattered throughout the territory in bits and pieces. Additionally, the Pakistani soldiers were demoralized and fatigued after months of fighting in the eastern wing. Lastly, due to Pakistan’s geographical absurdity, it was not possible for them to transport supplies and soldiers to the east which left the soldiers with a shortage of logistical supplies.
These factors contributed to India’s smooth penetration into Pakistani soil with the Indian Army capturing new territories every day. By the December 06, 1971, the Indian Army had captured Jessore, a strong strategic point, and simultaneously, Operation Trident was launched by the Indian Navy on the Karachi seaport which destroyed four Pakistani vessels and the harbour fuel fields. On December 10, 1971 Indian air force attacked the Chittagong airbase, making the way for the army’s headway for Dhaka. During this time, the Pakistanis were hoping for a direct intervention from China and the US which would have influenced the course of the war in their favor. On the other hand, the Soviet Union was backing India so when the US sent its Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal, the Soviets deployed two groups of cruisers and submarines armed with a nuclear warhead. This resulted in a direct confrontation between the two Superpowers and ultimately caused the US fleet to turn back, thus ensuring that the tide does not turn towards Pakistan.
On December 16, 1971 five brigades of the Indian Army were surrounding Dhaka from all sides and left the Pakistani Army with no choice but to surrender. On this day, the Instrument of Accession was signed between the two countries in a public ceremony in Ramna course, the same place where nine months back Mujibir Rahman had declared independence. This was the world’s only public surrender where 93.000 Pakistani troops laid down their weapons. This war as stated earlier is the shortest war in history only ending in 13 days, due to the Indian army’s strategic cleverness where there was a clear objective of going for Dhaka which would have brought the whole war to a halt. Field Marshal Manekshaw knew that capturing other strategic locations would have taken a lot of time, and caused prolongation of the war and ultimately more destruction and loss of lives. Finally, the culmination of this war declared India’s decisive victory and freedom for the people of Bangladesh who now were going back home to a sovereign nation. For Pakistan, this moment was of sheer humiliation where more than half of its territory was dismembered and seceded into an independent nation.
This tussle viewed in the light of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war which will be completing a year soon teaches us a few lessons as to how modern war needs to be short and swift to ensure strategic gains. This can be witnessed in the 1971 Indo-Pak war as this confrontation only lasted for 13 days and is referred to as the shortest war in modern history. This was possible due to the Indian army’s strategic cleverness where there was a clear objective for going for Dhaka which would have brought all hostilities to a halt. Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw knew that capturing other strategic locations would have taken a lot of time, and caused prolongation of the war. A war is successful for a country when it sets and meets its realistic objectives. Otherwise, the war loses its purpose and ultimately causes its prolongation which can be witnessed with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is evident as to how earlier Russia had announced that its objective was to liberate Donbas to create a bridge that connects it with Crimea and Transnistria. However, if this was the initial plan then the Russian army would not have crossed the Dnieper River. This proves that Russia does not have a clear, pragmatic objective which is essentially important as without this aim the fight is directionless. The country does not know what it wants to achieve and what is the end goal of this struggle that can put a stop to this predicament.
As discussed earlier, India waited for nine months to go for a full-fledged war with Pakistan, which was a strong strategic move as the monsoon season was about to begin in East Pakistan. If India would have had taken a hasty military decision it could have hampered India’s success and prolonged the process of liberating Bangladesh. On the other hand, Russia invaded Ukraine in peak winters which slowed Russian tanks on the snow-clad roads and thereby restricted the movement of its troops. Due to the ground conditions, these tanks became an easy target for Ukrainian soldiers who were equipped with the latest US-made Javelin and the British-made NLAW anti-tank missiles. Here the timing chosen by Russia was wrong and proved to be detrimental. In a war, it is of utmost importance that the correct moment is chosen to launch the offensive as it sets the tone for the rest of the tussle. Lastly, when India entered Bangladesh, the people of the country welcomed the army with open arms. The Indian Army had the full support of the locals as well as the Mukti Bahini which made their journey in East Pakistan easier. On the other hand, in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the people of Ukraine did not give up and fully supported their army. The will of the people was not trampled by the mighty force of the Russian army. Instead, a lot of Ukrainian men enlisted in the army, and there was resistance seen from the civilians who employed guerrilla tactics to fight the military. Russia is not only fighting the army of Ukraine, but also the unhindered spirit and passion of its people. This highlights how inherently significant it is to have the support of the people where you are fighting.
The Indo-Pak war demonstrates the strategic cleverness of the Indian forces which resulted in the war being a swift and short action on India’s part. It further highlights how this war not only showcased India’s military prowess but also its tactical intellect.