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1971 Bangladesh Liberation War: Meticulous planning was the key

1971 Bangladesh Liberation War

March 1971: As millions of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan streamed into India following the military crackdown and genocide unleashed against the peace-loving and majority Bengali population by Major General Tikka Khan, the ‘Butcher of East Pakistan,’ PM Indira Gandhi was a worried leader. Realising that international pressure to force Pakistan to cease its genocide and accept the verdict of a general election that had elected the Awami League to power was not forthcoming, PM Gandhi asked her army chief and the senior-most among the three service chiefs, General Manekshaw, to prepare for an impending military operation in East Pakistan to force the Pakistanis to stop the ongoing genocide.

After consulting with his fellow chiefs, Manekshaw realised three stark operational realities staring him in the face. First was that he did not have the requisite numerical superiority on the ground in the Eastern Theatre to force a decisive victory. Second was that though the IAF had sufficient numbers to overwhelm the single Sabre F-86 squadron in Dacca, it was still in the process of operationalizing several airfields in the east so that they could support all the army corps with fighter operations.

For India to choke East Pakistan, it needed the Indian Navy with its carrier battle group led by the INS Vikrant to be operational in the Bay of Bengal, which it was not since it was part of the Western Fleet in the Arabian Sea. 

The third operational conundrum faced by all the three services was the lack of adequate intelligence in East Pakistan to facilitate speedy operations. With the pre-monsoon season on the horizon and the distinct possibility of getting bogged down by the monsoons which normally hit Bengal by early June and convert the Meghna and Padma into overflowing and at places raging torrents, Manekshaw was faced with a serious dilemma. Not wanting to say no to his prime minister, but equally cognisant of military realities, he went back to Army HQs for one final staff check to see whether there was any possibility of going into East Pakistan immediately.

Major B.T. Pandit, an engineer officer, a future Vir Chakra awardee from 1971 and among the few engineer officers to command a corps in later years as a lieutenant general, was then posted at the Military Operations directorate. Tasked with doing a thorough staff check on all the logistics and mobility requirements to launch an immediate operation into East Pakistan, Pandit in his quietly unassuming manner, highlighted the dangers of a premature offensive.

He recollects in an interview that features in a book by the author titled ‘India’s Wars: A Military History 1947-1971: ‘Early in March, I was called to the ops room and found Gen Manekshaw, the Vice Chief of Army Staff, the Director of Military Intelligence and my boss, the Director of Military Operations engaged in animated discussion. My boss, who was at the lectern told me as soon as I came in – “Tell the Chief.” Manekshaw cryptically asked “I am told that it will take three months to do the logistic stocking; are you sure?” I said “Yes Sir.” “Have you consulted Eastern Command and spoken to Sethna (Sethna was the Brigadier General Staff at HQ Eastern Command)? I said, “yes sir.” The chief probed further, “Have you spoken to Jakes (Lt Gen Jacob was the Chief of Staff of Eastern Command, and a trusted lieutenant of Manekshaw)? I said “No sir, but I would assume that he would have been told.”

Manekshaw was relentless and probed “Is that the best you can do?” I stuck to my guns. “That bloody takes me to the middle of the monsoon. What If I want to cut it short to a month?” I said “Sir, you will be able to go in only from Calcutta.” I was clear that we would not be able to envelope East Pakistan from all directions, as Manekshaw had planned.’

Read Also: India’s Role in the Liberation War of Bangladesh

The rest is history as Manekshaw went back to PM Indira Gandhi and told her that December was the earliest he could go in and to her credit, she listened to sage military advice. What is also not often assessed is that the six months of preparatory time allowed the Mukti Bahini to emerge as a guerrilla force to reckon with and act as the eyes and ears of the Indian Armed Forces. The well-trained Mukti Bahini then spread out into various sectors within East Pakistan, chipping away at the Pakistan Army with typical hit-and-run operations, thus shaping the battlefield for the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force (IAF), and the Indian Navy (IN) to deliver the final blow in what is now called the ‘Lightning Campaign’ to liberate Bangladesh in a 13-day operation.

By November, the Indian Army had amassed three corps, a division and over 50,000 Mukti Bahini fighters had spread out in four sectors across East Pakistan. The IAF had almost 12 squadrons of fighters and bombers to overwhelm the lone PAF squadron and provide extensive interdiction and close air support to ground forces, while the IN had moved its carrier battle group to the Andamans in April where it trained and waited to commence operations in the Northern parts of the Bay of Bengal to establish complete maritime supremacy and choke East Pakistan of any sustenance through existing shipping lanes. From the preparatory period it is time to reflect on seizing the initiative and converting operational opportunities into spectacular victories.

Lieutenant General Sagat Singh, the corps commander of 4 Corps emerged from the Bangladesh campaign as the commander who used innovative campaign strategies to dislocate and surprise an already weakened adversary into complete capitulation. He was helped in great measure by the successful paradrop at Tangail, north of Dacca and the series of heliborne operations across the Meghna River at Narsingdi and further north at Sylhet, all of which caused a psychological collapse at Dacca due to what is called in military parlance as ‘vertical envelopment.’ Adding to Gen Niazi’s woes was the constant bombing by the IAF and the pressure kept up on the coastal bastion of Chittagong by the Indian Navy.

When the Indian Armed Forces commenced full-fledged operations in the east after Pakistan launched its pre-emptive air strikes in the Western Sector on 3rd December, it is widely believed that Dacca and the complete defeat of the Pakistan Army was never the final objective. It was only around the 10th of December that Sagat smelt an opportunity and went in for the kill by crossing the River Meghna after literally demanding permission to do so.

By doing so, he has arguably emerged as the Indian Army’s most accomplished operational commander to date. In the final analysis, meticulous operational planning, adequate rehearsals and training complemented a whole of government approach that guaranteed success in battle. These are timeless and enduring lessons that must be continuously studied and contextually analysed within the prevailing strategic environment and conflict milieu.

The author is a retired fighter pilot from the IAF, a strategic commentator and an accomplished military historian. He is the author of ‘India’s Wars: A Military History 1947-1971’ and ‘Full Spectrum: India’s Wars 1972-2020.’