India’s finest hour: The greatest military victory ever in the nation’s history
One of India’s greatest military victories, Indira Gandhi’s bold manoeuvres during the 1971 War remain unparalleled. Remembering the 1971 war on the day our subcontinent’s most decisive war ended
Eight days after Indira Gandhi was elected Prime Minister for the third time on March 17, 1971, a major crisis, simmering for a long time, erupted in East Pakistan.
Elections had been held to Pakistan National Assembly in December 1970. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, swept the polls entitling him to be the Prime Minister of Pakistan. This was resisted both by the military dictator Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whose Pakistan People’s Party lost to the Awami League by a huge margin.
Advised by Bhutto and Punjabi, Sindhi- dominated Army and bureaucracy, Yahya Khan ordered a crackdown on East Pakistan on March 25, 1971.
Within hours, hundreds of intellectuals, poets, writers, students and teachers were pulled out and slaughtered in cold blood. Two months earlier, an Indian Airlines flight had been hijacked from Srinagar and blown up in Lahore (without passengers and crew). India had retaliated then by banning Pakistani flights, which had to go around the Indian peninsula for connectivity between West & East Pakistan ,with a fuel halt at Sri Lanka.
As Pakistan’s atrocities in East Pakistan increased, Indian opinion was clamouring for action, especially amongst the media and in West Bengal. But the great daughter of a greater father kept her cool, and publicity stated "a wrong step or even a wrong word, have an effect, different from a desired one."
Refusing to make warlike noises, even while realising war was becoming unavoidable, Indira Gandhi gave primacy to the issue of terrified refugees from East Pakistan who were pouring in from West Bengal like a tsunami. In a matter of months, their numbers rose to nearly 10 million. Here, the mother in Indira Gandhi, typical of an Indian mother’s nature, came to the fore. She ensured, with all her authority in command, that the refugees were provided shelter and well-looked after with sufficient food and medical aid, while being cautious they remain isolated from the local population. This would facilitate all refugees to return after the crisis was over, and no one would be allowed to stay back.
Mrs Gandhi appealed to world leaders to prevail upon Pakistan to stop its brutal repressions and promote a political settlement, so that all displaced persons could go back. India, she said, was unable to bear the tremendous financial and physical burden the problem had imposed on India. However, it was becoming increasingly clear that India would have to tackle the problem herself, militarily if need be. If so, she was advised to plan the Army operation in winter months. Was it the Army chief Sam Manekshaw or her civilian advisers, led by PN Haksar who gave this crucial input? Differences exist between the Army and military historians.
It’s still unclear as to who advised Indira Gandhi to plan a military operation in winters
However, the fact remains the Prime Minister went by her own instincts. More than anyone else, she knew a great deal had to be attended to before launching overt military operations. The country’s security and territorial integrity had to be safeguarded and world opinion moulded in India’s favour. This is when, like a colossus, Indira Gandhi rose to the occasion to preempt a possible Chinese intervention, or an American-Chinese nexus.
On August 9 (coincidently ‘Quit India’ Day), she signed the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. It took care of the American – Chinese threat without compromising India’s policy of non-alignment. Even before the treaty was signed, Mukti Bahini (The Liberation Army of Bangladesh) was provided sanctuary in India and given both training and equipment. The Border Security Force was assigned this task to ease the pressure on the Army preparing for full-scale operations ahead. Mrs Gandhi then turned her attention to international opinion.
In September, she visited the Soviet Union (now Russia and other republics). This was followed by visits to Belgium, Austria, West Germany, Britain, France and USA. Except USA, which remained unmoved, and even hostile, the Indian Prime Minister drew favourable response from the world leaders. (Later Britain and France abstained from voting in the United Nations on resolutions not acceptable to India).
But the foresighted leader was reluctant to start full-scale hostilities. Her dilemma was resolved by Yahya Khan, who foolishly took the first step. On the evening of December 3, 1971, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) attacked several Indian air bases, including Srinagar, Jodhpur, Ambala and Agra.
India now had a reason to go to war. Indira Gandhi declared war on Pakistan and ordered Army Chief General SHFJ Manekshaw to launch full-scale operations against Pakistan – offensive in the East and offensive – defence in the West.
According to military historian Srinath Raghavan, the operational framework conceptualised by Major General KK Singh, Director of Military operations, had been approved by General Manekshaw and conveyed to the Eastern Army commander, Lt. General JS Aurora, as early as July and firmed up by October 1971. Earlier, differences between commanders at various levels (especially between Aurora and his chief of staff Jacob) had been sorted out by the Army Chief. Therefore, when Pakistan provided the opportunity on December 3, the Indian Army, with support of the Navy and Air Force, was more than ready to strike and achieve its twin objectives: Liberate Bangladesh in the East and capture maximum territory in the western front as a bargaining point in case Pakistan captured Indian territory in a surprise attack in any sector.
The war on the Western theatre commenced soon after Pakistan launched its air attacks on Indian air fields. This was followed by attacks on selected Indian posts on the same night. As per strategic thinking of Pakistan, the only way to counter Indian offensive in East Pakistan was to open a front in the West. In conformity with this strategy, Pakistan army launched their attacks on 3rd and 4th December in Poonch, Chhamb, Fazil-ka and Longewala in Rajasthan.
The attacks were met with stiff resistance by the Indian forces, which were successful in beating back or containing the attacks. From the Indian side, the operation in the Kashmir and Ladakh sectors led to capture of many strategic posts in Partapur, Poonch, Turtok and Kargil (these posts were not vacated after the Simla agreement). This enabled India to regain control of many posts along the Line of Control (LOC) in J&K which were earlier held by Pakistan since 1965.
The Economist hailing Indira as “Empress of India” after the 1971 War was no exaggeration
The Western Front, both in the plains areas of Jammu, Punjab and Rajasthan, witnessed numerous tank battles. The major clashes included the battles of Chhamb, Dera Baba Nanak, Sehjra, Hussainiwala and Fazilka. The Western Command led by Lt. General K.P. Candeth had J&K and plains of Punjab as its responsibility. Three corps commanders, Lt. Generals Sartaj Singh, NC Rawlley and KK Singh, led the gallant troops, who fought battles that in most place were more fierce than in the East. The Southern Command, led by Lt. General GG Bewoor, was responsible for the Rajasthan sector which saw the battle of Longewala that earned national fame years later with its depiction in the movie Border.
According to Maj. General DK Palit, Vrc, a military historian, the offensive-defensive strategy (in western theatre) had paid off. Western and Southern commands had seen to it that Army Headquarters would be relieved of any anxiety about its Western front and would feel free to pursue the lightning offensive in Bangladesh.
On December 6, as Mrs Gandhi announced in Parliament that Government of India had accorded recognition to the Bangladesh Government, US President Nixon, always strongly pro-Pak, ordered the American Seventh Fleet to move towards Bay of Bengal.
Led by its flagship aircraft carrier Enterprise, a 90,000-tonne ship, the biggest naval vessel in the world, carrying nuclear warheads, the Seventh Fleet was launched to intimidate India and deter it from its mission. But no power on earth could deter India’s ‘Iron Lady’. She asked Manekshaw to speed up the operations. At a public meeting in Delhi on December 12, Mrs Gandhi declared loudly: ‘We shall not retreat. Not by a single step’.
It took the Army just twelve days to reach Dhaka with General Aurora’s task being made easier with the help of brave soldiers led by Lt. General TN Raina, ML Thapan and Sagat Singh, Major Generals GS Gill and GS Nagra. It was Nagra, who, having known the Pakistani Army commander, Lt. General AK Niazi personally, sent the latter the following message on reaching the outskirts of Dacca:
“My dear Abdullah, I am here. The game is up. I suggest you give up yourself to me and I will look after you.” The Instrument of Surrender was signed by Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora and Lt. Gen. Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi on Dec 16, 1971 at 1631 hours in Dacca. With Niazi, 93,000 personnel of Pakistan Army, Navy and Air Force surrendered.
Noted journalist Inder Malhotra, in Indira Gandhi: A personal and political biography, sums up the national sentiments prevailing then: ‘In India the dividing line between political process and religious ritual tends to be blurred. Her countrymen – led, interestingly, by sophisticated leaders of opposition parties – hailed her as Durga (attributed to then Jan Sangh leader AB Vajpayee), the eight-armed tiger – riding invincible goddess in the Hindu pantheon.’ This was India’s and Indira’s first hour. If The Economist called her the Empress of India, it was no exaggeration.
During a recent trip to Jaisalmer, this writer chanced to visit the Southern command set up War Memorial, which is dedicated to the heroes and events of the 1971 war.
Beginning with Indira Gandhi, the memorial carries homage to the then Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram, the three Service Chiefs – Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, Admiral SM Nanda and Air Chief Marshal PC Lal, along with the senior commanders of all three services, BSF and Mukti Bahini.
Above all, it displays the names of all martyrs and gallantry award winners, among whom the four names of winners of Param Vir Chakras standout – 2/ Lt. Arun Khetarpal, Major Hoshiar Singh, L/Naik Albert Ekka and Flying officer Nirmaljit Sekhon.
Though many such memorials have been made by the Army, Air Force and Navy, in various formations, the Jaisalmer memorial stands out as a typical symbol of gratitude of the entire nation to the heroes of India’s greatest military victory. Thanks to a brilliant political leadership, an exemplary military leadership and the supreme sacrifice of gallant officers and men of India’s Defence Forces, as also BSF and Mukti Bahini.
(The Writer, an ex-Army officer, is an ex-Secretary AICC and former Member, NCM. He belongs to the 39 NDA / 48 regular IMA course which was the youngest batch of officers that saw action in 1971 war, and lost two officers hardly 20 years old)
- Indira Gandhi
- 1971 war
- Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
- Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
- East Pakistan
- Pakistan National Assembly
- 1971 Bangladesh war
- Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation
- Srinath Raghavan