Victory In The East – Part 111

Victory In The East

Jayantha Somasunderam


Commanding Officer of Pakistan Army forces in East Pakistan, Lt. Gen A. A. K. Niazi, signing the instrument of surrender on December 16, 1971, in the presence of Lt. Gen. Arora

Birth of Bangladesh – Part III

By Jayantha Somasundaram

(Continued from December 22)

In the aftermath of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, when over50 per cent of the 130,000 Indian Sepoys joined the uprising against the British East India Company, the theory of ‘martial races’ was developed by Lord Roberts of Kandahar, Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army 1885-1893. Thereafter it was believed that the best recruits would be drawn from British India’s northwest. “The Punjabi Muslims headed the list, followed by the Sikhs, the Gurkhas, the Rajputs and others claiming Kshatriya ancestry,” claims G.S. Bhargava in ‘Their Finest Hour’, a record of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War. “Brahmins and Bengalis, including Muslims were out. In the south, while Tamils were tolerated, the Telugus, the Coogis and the Moplahs were not encouraged to join the army.”

This history is important, not only to understand the composition of the Indian and Pakistani armed forces, after 1947, but to comprehend the racialised prism through which military recruitment was perused as well as the caste-based preconceptions through which military capability was understood. Therefore the Pakistani armed forces, staffed mainly by Punjabi Muslims, was seen as inherently superior, compared to the Bengali Mukthi Bahini.

When Bangladesh seceded, only a single division of the Pakistan Army was stationed in East Bengal, but by year-end there were three. The Army’s attempts to quell the independence struggle in the east ultimately led to 10 million Bengalis fleeing to India. Both in rural Bangladesh and in their refugee camps across the Indian border, the Mukti Bahini liberation force took shape. It was trained, armed and supported by India. By the time the Indian Army entered Bangladesh on December 4, the Mukhti Bahini were already 50,000 strong.

The Pakistan Army was mainly made up of recruits from West Pakistan because of a mindset going back to British colonial times which held that the “Bengalis…had not been considered one of the ‘martial races,’” as explained by Peter Tsouras in ‘Changing Orders: The Evolution of the World’s Armies, 1945 to the Present’.

Despite the intensity of the civil war in Bangladesh and the impossible burden of 10 million refugees, New Delhi bided its time, waiting for the onset of winter. Then they could transfer four out of the 10 Mountain Divisions from the Himalayas to the Bangladesh front, confident that its snowbound passes would preclude any Chinese intervention across the Himalayas. These redeployed units took their positions alongside four fresh Indian Divisions, and together they confronted four Pakistani Divisions. The Pakistanis, moreover, were already tied down in a debilitating guerrilla war at the hands of the Mukthi Bahini while simultaneously attempting to defend the long East Pakistan border which was totally surrounded by Indian territory.

In April 1971 when the Indian Cabinet had discussed the prospect of war over the instability in East Bengal, Chief of Army Staff General Sam Manekshaw reported that the Army was not ready and needed time to ensure victory in a conflict with Pakistan. “In December 1971 (when)… India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, asked her Army Chief, Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw if he was ready for the fight. He replied with the gallantry, flirtatiousness and sheer cheek for which he was famous: ‘I am always ready, sweetie.’ (He said he could not bring himself to call Mrs Gandhi “Madame”, because it reminded him of a bawdy-house.)” (The Economist, July 5, 2008)

Gen Manekshaw’s strategy was to have II Corp under Lt. Gen. T.N. Raina attack Bangladesh from the west while Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh’s IV Corp would invade from the east and Lt. Gen. Mohan Thapan XXXIII Corp was to enter from the north. Each Indian Army Corp contained three to four divisions. The Eastern Command was in the hands of Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora and his Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Jack Farj Rafael Jacob. The Indian Army was supported by three brigades of regular Mukti Bahini.

An interesting footnote to the British Army’s theory of Indian martial races and an example of the secular pluralism of India is the fact that Manekshaw was a Parsi and Jacob a Baghdadi Jew.

The 1971 Indo-Pakistan War began on December 3, when the Pakistan Air Force, operating from West Pakistan, in a pre-emptive strike, attacked Indian airfields in its north-west, adjacent to Bangladesh. But these attacks were ineffective and within a matter of hours the Indian Air Force (IAF) was able to establish air superiority over Bangladesh which would become the main theatre of conflict in the coming fortnight.

The strategy of the Pakistan Army (PA) was to hold a set of key chokepoints like river crossings but being too thinly spread, they were repeatedly outflanked by the advancing Indian Army and Mukthi Bahini which bypassed them and secured the Pakistani’s defensive points before they could fall back to them. The Indians used heliborne troops and paratroopers to leapfrog over Pakistani lines. The IAF’s control of the air denied the retreating PA their avenue of relief and escape. Consequently, Pakistani morale plummeted. Peter Tsouras explains that “greatly outnumbered by the Indians, beset by guerrillas and despised by the civilian population, the Pakistan garrison attempted to defend far too much of the country and was spread too thinly.”

On the West Pakistani-Indian frontier, the order of battle was 13 Indian Army Divisions facing 12 Pakistan Army Divisions, giving the illusion of parity. But in fact, India had a 3:2 advantage in personnel and a 2:1 superiority in armour capability. There was, however, heavy fighting in the west where initially PA made gains in Punjab and Kashmir. While the Indians were able to limit and contain the Pakistani advance they also attacked further south in the Sind capturing 3,000 square miles of Pakistani territory.

During British times, it was believed that South Asian troops were incapable of employing armour effectively. During World War II this led then Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, commanding the British Eighth Army battling Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, to relegate the 1st Indian Armoured Division to Palestine, since he was reluctant to commit them on the battlefields of North Africa.

A week into the war, though holding a heavy concentration of troops along the southern border of Jammu and Kashmir, the Pakistanis were quiet on that front. So, in an effort to draw them out and engage them, on December 15, the 47th Indian Infantry Brigade launched an offensive across the Basantar River which divided the two countries. This was in order to establish bridgeheads at Jarpal and also at Ghazipur which was sheltered by a forest; all this with the objective of launching an assault on Zafarwal.

An Indian armoured unit of the 17th Horse with its British Centurion Tanks had to break the resistance at Ghazipur and overnight, crossed a broad defensive minefield. At daybreak, the Pakistani defenders laid a thick smokescreen under cover of which they positioned two squadrons of 31 Cavalry’s M48 Patton tanks and the 13 Lancers Armoured Regiment. The result was the biggest tank battle in the history of the Indo-Pakistan Wars which left 48 Pattons destroyed. Montgomery’s presumption had been disproved!

As the Pakistan Army rolled back, in a desperate reaction, US President Richard Nixon, on the advice of Henry Kissinger, his National Security Advisor ordered the US Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 74 in the Pacific, led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, to enter the Bay of Bengal.

On December 16, Dacca was captured and the 93,000 strong Pakistani Army in Bangladesh surrendered, the largest military surrender post-World War II. The following year the Simla Agreement entered into by New Delhi and Islamabad provided for both the return of Pakistani prisoners of war and Islamabad’s recognition of Bangladesh. The US, Pakistan’s key military ally, was one of the last to recognise Bangladesh. While its other ally China vetoed Bangladesh’s admission to the UNO.

‘I have given you independence, now go and preserve it.’

– Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

(Part IV tomorrow)

About editor 3043 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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