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Swarnim Vijay Parv: The Subtle Art of giving birth to a nation

By Rahul Kamble

 December 16 is a significant day for the Indian subcontinent. In 1971, India won the war against Pakistan that resulted in the birth of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan).On this day 50 years ago, Pakistan lost half its country’s mainland, its forces in the East, and had to publicly surrender to India,which was also the largest military surrender after World War II.

The war started when Pakistan launched air strikes on 11 Indian airbases. It was perhaps the first time in which India’s all three forces fought in unison. The conflict was a result of the Bangladesh Liberation war, when Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) was fighting to seek freedom from (West) Pakistan. In 1971, Pakistani Army began to commit the barbaric genocide on innocent Bengali population, particularly the minority Hindu population in East Pakistan.

In 1970, the Awami League under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won 169 out of 313 Parliamentary seats in Pakistan, but he was denied the office of prime minister. In fact, Pakistan’s military dictator General Yahya Khan arrested Mujib and imposed martial law on East Pakistan.Even as the Bangla Liberation Movement unleashed guerrilla warfare under the aegis of the Mukti Bahini, blowing up railway lines and bridges, the Pakistan army launched a barbarous offensive, comprising of rapes, tortures, lynches, public executions and what not. It is estimated that between 300,000 and 3,000,000 civilians were killed in Bangladesh. What followed was fleeing of eight to ten million people from the country to seek refuge in India.

The then Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi was reluctant to launch a full-scale war against Pakistan as the country was already facing the burden due to the continous flow of refugees from East Pakistan and entering a war meant inviting more burden. India could have militarily intervened in East Pakistan as early as April–May 1971. Seeing an opportunity to cut Pakistan to size and genuinely concerned with the plight of the oppressed Bengali population of East Pakistan, Mrs. Indira Gandhi was keen to launch a military action into East Pakistan immediately. However, a cautious and conservative Indian Army chief, General Sam Manekshaw, was not comfortable with sustaining a two-front operation during the summer and monsoon months, rightly preferring a campaign in the cooler winter months. It was this decision that led to the growth of the Mukti Bahini as a potent guerrilla force and the face of Bengali resistance till India finally intervened with its lightning campaign to liberate East Pakistan in December 1971.

The lessons of 1962 and 1965 loomed on the horizon as Manekshaw wanted to have his forces better trained, better equipped and ready for battle. Supporting Manekshaw in a remarkable show of solidarity, Admiral Nanda, the naval chief, and Air Chief Marshal Lal, the air chief, went about readying their forces for battle with remarkable vigour and professionalism.

Mrs. Gandhi permitted a government in exile by the Awami League near Calcutta, but refrained from according any formal status to it. Mrs. Gandhi bided her time even as Yahya Khan and Tikka Khan lost patience. On 3 December 1971, a pre-emptive strike on eight air-fields from Srinagar to Barmer was made. This ensured that India did not have to initiate a war. 

Much has been written over the years about the overwhelming advantage enjoyed by the Indian Army in the eastern theatre. A closer look at numbers reveals that the asymmetry conformed to more or less a ratio of 3:1, which was generally a globally accepted norm for victory during offensive operations in the plains. The Indian Army’s Eastern Command under Lieutenant General J.S. Aurora deployed a little over three corps around East Pakistan comprising around nine infantry/mountain divisions and three regiments of armour. Added to this were approximately two divisions of ‘fighting fit’ Mukti Bahini regulars at dispersed locations, both within Bangladesh and on the borders. Ranged against this force were a little over three and a half divisions and almost two regiments of armour of the Pakistan Army, hastily organized and reinforced from the West. If there was a significant advantage enjoyed by the Indians, it was in the area of covert and guerrilla operations with the strength of the Mukti Bahini being significantly higher than the 35,000 Razakar and Mujahid force organized by Lieutenant General Niazi, the overall commander of Pak forces in the east. Complementing the Mukti Bahini in covert operations was the Special Frontier Force, which caused much havoc behind enemy lines in the Chittagong sector.

The Indian Armed Forces had in 14 days, liberated a country from where it withdrew in 90 days, picked up 93,000 prisoners, and released them one year later following the 1972 Shimla agreement, at an average body weight of one-and-a–half times their original weight. The war will always be remembered as one of the few wars in history that was fought to protect the dignity of humanity and democracy and not to acquire territory or grab power. The war is also one of the ‘shortest and swiftest’ victories ever recorded in the history of military warfare.Military minds across the globe look upon India’s 1971 Victory for seeking important strategic lessons. These include: Hardening military strength and the ability to apply that strength efficiently in the chosen zone of war; predictions of how outside nations would behave in the event of the war; perceptions of internal unity and of the unity or discord of the enemy; memory or forgetfulness of the realities and sufferings of war; perceptions of prosperity and of ability to sustain economically; the personality and mental quality of the leaders who weighed the evidence; nationalism and ideology; and the personality and mental qualities of the leaders who weighed the evidence and decided for peace or war.

Indian Army was also contestable as the cheerful, hardy and selfless Indian soldier of the time also merits equal recognition. Driven more by the need to uphold the honour and pride of his clan, village, province or regiment, the Indian soldier’s toughness in battle was much acclaimed. The ability to withstand combat stress in conditions he had seldom been exposed to could be attributed as much to the harsh conditions of his rural upbringing, as it was to the disciplined and scientific training regimen.

(Author is a medical student. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at rahulkamble01433@gmail.com)

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