Former Naval chief Admiral Arun Prakash (Rtd) looks back on the role of Indian Navy in 1971

While the fall of Dhaka and surrender of Pakistani troops was undoubtedly the high point of the 14-day war, Indian Navy too played a key role, recalls former Naval chief Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)

Former Naval chief Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)
Former Naval chief Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)

Aditya Anand

Fifty years after 1971, former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash looks back at Indian Navy’s Operation Trident and Operation Python. Now settled in Goa Admiral Prakash (retd) points out that Indian Navy in 1971 had successfully sealed the Bay of Bengal and had launched a daring attack at Karachi Harbour, destroying warships anchored there.

Having deployed Aircraft Carrier Vikrant in the Bay of Bengal, Naval air power was used to attack targets on shore, at ports and in rivers, thus blockading East Pakistan. The blockade ensured no help could reach Pakistani troops from the sea. Nor could they leave.

Admiral Prakash reminisces that there were also other officers of the Navy who were assisting the Mukti Bahini, also known as the Bangladesh Forces, simultaneously. “There were clandestine operations to sink enemy ships, to attack ports and harbours, riverine traffic etc.

Admiral Prakash, who was on deputation to the Indian Air Force and attached to Squadron 20 based in Pathankot in 1971 points out that the daring attack on Karachi harbour immobilized movement and trade. Merchant ships could neither enter nor leave West Pakistan. The effect was devastating on food and energy supply and it was a huge blow to Pakistani morale.

The naval offensive made strategic use of the Soviet OSA class boats. A 400-tonne boat meant for very short sorties, the boats were meant for harbour defence. But the Indian Navy towed them into the open seas and used them to launch the attack on Karachi, destroying oil reserves and blocking the harbour completely.

These boats were first offered to Pakistan in 1965 by the Soviets, recalls the Admiral, but they refused. India then took them and they were delivered at Calcutta. While they were being towed to Bombay that naval officers were struck by the idea of towing them away from the harbour during war.

“The Pakistanis never expected this. They knew that we had the sailboats in Bombay but they never expected our missile boats to land up at their doorstep. Thereafter no merchant ship wanted to enter Karachi, and any merchant which wanted to leave would seek Indian Navy’s permission,” Admiral Prakash explains. Pakistan Navy never ventured out after that. “So, both in East and West Pakistan, Indian Navy played a key role,” the Admiral adds.

India knew it was futile to expect any help or sympathy from the US. When by December 9 or so it became obvious that East Pakistan would fall and Pakistani forces in East Pakistan would have to surrender, US President Richard Nixon was persuaded to show some gesture of solidarity with Pakistan. If the war had continued after Pakistani forces surrendered in the East, India could have turned its full attention to the West.

The US decided to send its Task Force 74, led by nuclear aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, accompanied by a large amphibious ship, USS Tripoli, four or five missile destroyers, frigates and some landing crafts to the Bay of Bengal. The decision to deploy this task force based in Yokosuka, Japan was made known to everyone. Pakistanis started sending messages to the martial law administrator in East Pakistan that help was coming.

“The message intercepted by us was in code. White is coming from the south and yellow is coming from the north –yellow stood for China and white were these guys,” recalls Admiral Prakash.

Indian military leadership concluded that there could only be two or three aims for this sort of an adventure. One was to threaten India about not going too far in East Pakistan; second was to send a message to India that if you do succeed in East Pakistan, don’t do anything to West Pakistan and finally, to ensure a ceasefire and then evacuate the Pakistani armed forces from East Pakistan.

“The UN Security Council was calling for an immediate ceasefire. India didn’t want one, so the resolution was vetoed by the USSR. By December 14th, when Task Force 74 entered the Bay of Bengal, the war was more or less over. The US task force then turned south and headed for Ceylon (Sri Lanka). it was long after the war that India found out that there was a Soviet submarine tailing the US task force. “The bullying did not succeed because it happened too late in the game,” he believes.

It was a full moon night at the Hindon air base, he recalls. It was at midnight on December 3, 1971 that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared on AIR that we were at war. “There was very little sleep that night. We woke up to find the whole airbase covered in dense fog. We were asked to head back to Pathankot and transit at 500 feet so that we would stay away from the enemies. As I flew the Hunter Fighter Bomber aircraft, it was a surreal sight. Below us was a sheet of white fog, but above us was bright moonlight. We were a little nervous as to what might happen when we reached Pathankot. After about 35 to 40 minutes, we saw what looked like fireworks and realised that it was anti-aircraft fire from our own gunners!”

Admiral Prakash recalls 8 to 10 sorties by him to carry out attacks on Pakistani targets.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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