The 1971 war was won in the East but the Western Front was not quiet either
In the 13-day war with Pakistan in 1971, India strategically fought for containment, a holding operation, on the Western Front as fighting to liberate East Pakistan raged in the East
December 16 marks the 49th anniversary of Vijay Divas, when the Pakistan army surrendered before the Indian Defence Forces in Dacca after a military operation that lasted only 13 days. A new nation was carved out from the breaking of Pakistan into two. Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s ‘two-nation theory ‘ based on religion lay in tatters.
“0n Republic Day, 26 January 1972, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi drove in an open jeep to the saluting base on Rajpath to receive the President of India. A vast sea of people had gathered to offer their salutations to their victorious Prime Minister. The earth reverberated with the roar of the crowd...The image which was projected that pale winter morning was of a woman who had stood alone, single minded in her defiance. She had faced and emerged victorious against Pakistan. She had challenged the President of United States and his wily aide Henry Kissinger. She had kept them guessing, called their bluff, outmanoeuvred them.”
The passage quoted above was written by a biographer of Indira Gandhi in 1992, almost two decades after the country’s first and only woman Prime had led the nation to its most glorious military victory. No wars can be won without an inspiring political leadership, outstanding military leadership and the valour and courage of officers and men who physically fight the enemy.
While the iconic military leadership of Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw is well known and recalled often, the names of his counterparts in the Navy, Admiral SM Nanda and Air Force, Air Chief Marshal PC Lal are hardly remembered by even those in service, even less by military historians and veterans. Similarly, though the decisive victory in the war for liberation of Bangladesh is rightly hailed every year, the celebrations, more often than not, focus only on the war in the east. The tougher battles on the western front are generally not revisited. It takes a popular film like Border to remind the people of the many actions that took place in the west.
Four Param Vir Chakras (PVCs) were awarded in the 1971 War- Major Hoshiar Singh (3 Grenadiers), Flying officer Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon, 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal (17 Horse ), and L/Nk Albert Ekka (14 Guards). 0f these, barring the last one, all were won in the western theatre.
While Lt Gen JS Aurora was GOC -in-C Eastern Command before whom the Pakistan army surrendered, Lt Gen KP Candeth, a battle-hardened soldier was the GOC -in -C Western Command. Unlike now there was no Northern Command and Candeth’s area of responsibility was the huge canvas stretching from Jammu and Kashmir through Punjab till northern Rajasthan.
Further South, the Rajasthan border along with Jaisalmer and Barmer till the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat was the responsibility of GOC-in-C Southern Command, Lt General GG Bewoor.
An offensive in the Punjab plains and forays into Rajasthan by the Pakistan army were envisaged. However, due to commitment on the eastern front, the Indian government decided that a strategy of offensive -defence would be the most pragmatic posture. This was also due to the fact that a number of formations of western command had been allocated to the eastern theatre, resulting in near parity between the Indian and Pakistan forces in the west.
While the Western Command had 11 infantry divisions and one armoured division for its vast stretch, the Southern Command had only two infantry divisions, an artillery brigade and less than two regiments of armour. With war clouds on the horizon Candeth, who as deputy chief of army staff in 1965 war had adequate geostrategic experience, swiftly moved his strike formations to their operation locations by Oct 26.
If Yahya Khan had decided to launch an offensive in the western theatre before this date, he could have taken India by surprise. Ultimately when Pakistan did so on December 3 by attacking nine Indian airbases, it was too late. Air Chief Marshal PC Lal had taken adequate precautions to protect the airfields, as a result of which not a single aircraft was hit.
But, what was more important, India got the excuse it was waiting for to go into E.Pakistan.
The strategy in the east was extremely well planned and executed. The Indian army fought a single campaign that had only one objective. But in the West, there were series of operations, mostly defensive in character though there were limited offensives too. Some of the famous and fierce battles took place in Chhamb, Poonch, Uri, Chicken’s Neck, Kargil, Basanter, Shakargarh, Hussainiwala, FazalikaLongewalla, Naya Chor and many more. Since a corps is the highest battle formation, the role of corps commanders is very crucial in planning and execution of higher objectives of war within the available resources. The corps commanders under the Western Command were Lt Generals Sartaj Singh, KK Singh and NC Rawlley. They all, especially Sartaj Singh, acquitted themselves well within the limits of the ‘holding strategy’ of Manekshaw. It was because of this limitation that none of these commanders got the opportunity that someone like Lt Gen Sagat Singh got in the east to show his true mettle. Many armoured regiments, infantry battalions and other units/formations covered themselves with glory in the bloodiest battles that took place both under Western Command and Southern Commands. Mention can be made of a few.
In the battle of Chhamb,9 Horse destroyed 34 enemy tanks along the Manawar Tawi River; in the battle of Basantar, 2/Lt Arun Khetarpal, hardly 20- year old, of the Poona Horse, posthumously won the PVC with his commanding officer Lt Col Hanut Singh winning the MVC for the regiment’s major contribution towards destroying 46 enemy tanks in the Shakargarh sector.
In the same sector Brig AS Vaidya of 16 Armoured Brigade who, as CO 9 Horse was the recipient of an MVC in 1965, won his second MVC for his gallant action against Pakistani armoured brigade. An engineer regiment lost 7 officers while clearing mines for personnel and vehicles, In the battle of Longewala in which the IAF played a decisive role, the company commander Maj Kuldip Singh Chandpuri won MVC for holding his post against enemy tanks despite getting heavily outnumbered. In Kargil, a number of posts which had been taken by Pakistan in the ‘ 65 war were recaptured, giving the Indian army a strategic advantage it enjoys in the region today. Though airpower was effectively used in 1965 too, the 1971 war was the first tri-services war in which both the Air Force and Navy complemented the efforts of the Army with devastating effect in both the sectors.
While the number of sorties flown by the IAF was more than double of 1965 in western sector alone, the Navy acquitted itself with aplomb in a daring attack on Karachi harbour. Though it lost INS Khukri to enemy fire, it had already sunk PNS Ghazi, a submarine which cleared the way for the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant and other ships to operate unhindered in the Bay of Bengal. NS Sekhon posthumously won the only PVC for the Air Force, till now, for a dogfight between his single Gnat and six Sabres of the PAF, of which he shot down two before being fatally hit.
After Pakistan Army surrendered in Dacca on December 16, Yahya Khan made a broadcast to his people that war would go on. But Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had no intention of doing so. The mission of liberating Bangladesh had been accomplished and continuing the war in the West would have meant more casualties, destruction and suffering. Accordingly, she announced in Parliament on Dec 17 that the Indian Defence Forces had been given instructions to ceasefire with effect from 8 PM that day. This was the highest act of statesmanship.
To those people who suspected that India had taken the decision to unilaterally declare a ceasefire under foreign pressure, Sam Manekshaw replied, “I can’t believe that any country can put pressure on Indira Gandhi.”
In recognition of his exemplary military leadership in the war, Gen Manekshaw was promoted to the rank of India’s first Field Marshal and also bestowed with a Padma Vibushan on Republic Day 1972, the day when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was honoured with a Bharat Ratna. That was India’s, and Indira’s greatest moment.
(The writer, an ex Army officer, is former Secretary AICC and a political analyst)