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How Dacca Fell in The 1971 Indo-Pak War

Lt Gen Niazi signing the Instrument of Surrender under the gaze of Lt Gen Aurora. (Wikimedia)

On 16th December 1971, Pakistan faced its darkest hour when its soldiers surrendered at the Race Course in Dacca, cornered by the Indian army’s ‘blitzkrieg’ across East Pakistan, after the war for the liberation of Bangladesh. With over 90,000 prisoners of war, it was by far the largest surrender, by any army, since World War –II.  The 1971 Indo-Pak war had formally broken out on 3rd December, when the Pakistani air force had simultaneously attacked as the sun set, several Indian airfields on India’s western front. Pakistan’s aim was to draw India’s maximum forces into battle on India’s western front, to prevent a military operation in East Pakistan in assistance of the Bengali militias who were fighting off the Pakistan army’s clamp down and genocide. They feared an Indian military intervention in East Pakistan, as fighting had actually begun on India’s eastern front in the end of November 1971.

Pakistan’s military clampdown in East Pakistan following a pent up demand for their rights, led to millions of refugees all across eastern India, especially in the states surrounding East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). With all their chief ministers insisting that India must do something to avert this humanitarian crisis, Mrs Indira Gandhi summoned the then Indian army chief, General Sam Manekshaw, for a meeting with her ‘kitchen cabinet’. She wanted the General to go to war, and liberate enough territory in East Pakistan, so that the refugees could be sent back. However, Gen. Sam Manekshaw had cautioned against haste, since many factors were involved. They were into summer of 1971 and thus the harvested grain needed to be moved across the country. So the trains and road transport could either ferry the grain or the troops to battle. And then monsoons would follow, that could hamper the movement of military units, especially in the riverine terrain of Bangladesh.

Thus, Mrs Gandhi heeding military advice, decided that the armed forces do what they are best at, to fight a war and win it. Sam Manekshaw apparently promised her that given the time, he could help her ‘make history and even geography’, as I recall him saying at the first Infantry lecture at Vigyan Bhawan in October 1994.  Thus, even as the armed forces began to prepare for what truly became a historic victory, Mrs Gandhi took up the job of winning the world’s support for India’s humanitarian initiative. By August 1971, New Delhi had signed the Indo-Soviet treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with Moscow. Not only was it a significant departure from the Nehruvian obsession with non-alignment, but it was Russia’s support at the many sessions in the United Nations that stalled resolutions at the initiative of Washington to help Pakistan, when Indian troops rolled down the plains of East Pakistan.

Pakistan military dictator, the often drunk General Yahya Khan, was confident that three factors wouldn’t allow any worthwhile success to the Indian armed forces. Firstly, his well armed military machine in West Pakistan would be enough to threaten India’s strategic states of Punjab and J&K. Secondly, a Chinese military buildup along the Himalayas would tie down enough of the Indian army. These two factors would be enough to deter India from any serious military adventurism in East Pakistan. And finally, he was banking on the US to intervene militarily if India operations became difficult for Pakistan to contain. While the Chinese chose to abstain from any active military involvement against India – as they had also refrained from doing in the 1965 Indo-Pak war – President Nixon of the US, prodded along by Henry Kissinger ordered the US seventh fleet’s task force 74 with the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal, to threaten India’s forces.

But India’s forces were quite literally unstoppable. The military operations in East Pakistan were initially meant to establish a free Bangladeshi government in the port towns of Khulna and Chittagong. Nobody really had expected that Dacca would eventually fall. But the events that unfolded took many in Delhi by surprise, including Mrs Gandhi. And three Indian army officers in particular must get credit for what followed. Major General Inder Gill, who was then the Director of Military Operations (as there was no DGMO then), Major General JFR Jacob, the Chief of Staff in the Easter army Command, and Lt General Sagat Singh, who was commanding IV Corps in Tezpur. Gen. Jacob put together an audacious plan to go straight for Dacca, bypassing the heavily fortified Pakistani army positions on the borders. This got the support of Gen. Gill and Gen. Sagat to relentlessly push the troops ahead. Manekshaw’s focus was on India’s western front, since the 1965 Indo-Pak war had seen almost all the action on the western front, when he was the eastern army commander, and where there wasn’t any action.

In the 1971 war, time was limited, before the US would get the UN to ask for a ceasefire, and then all the military gains would be literally ‘back to square one’, with troops having to return to the international borders. This the Indian army, ably assisted by the Indian air force raced to Dacca. The IAF quite literally bombed the daylights out of the Pakistani air force. Soon the skies were clear of any Pakistan fighters: they lay wrecked on their airfields. And then a heli-borne operation – the first of its kind since independence – put troops across the vast Meghna river, that had until then given Dacca a natural defence. This was followed by the first ever airborne drop of Indian paratroopers.  The word soon spread rapidly that Indian troops had surrounded Dacca, and the Pakistan’s army was outnumbered and cornered. Gen Manekshaw had then warned through a radio announcement, that the Pakistani army must either surrender immediately or be prepared to be slaughtered!

Thus during a brief lull in battle, on a day that the Pakistanis were hoping for a UN led ceasefire an thus Indian withdrawal – since Soviet said vetoes in India’s favour at the UN, couldn’t go on forever-  Maj. Gen. Jacob headed to Dacca unarmed, with the permission of Sam Manekshaw to personally give an ultimatum to the Pakistan army.  Gen. Jacob, then the Chief of Staff of Eastern Command, flew into Dhaka with no protection, but with his smoking pipe and the surrender document for company.  On meeting Lt.Gen AAK Niazi, MC, the overall military commander in East Pakistan, Jacob saluted him, and asked him if he was willing to accept an unconditional surrender. A pompous Gen Niazi, enjoying an afternoon of beer and lunch, as he was hopeful that even then, a ceasefire ordered by the UN could save him and his army a humiliation, and dismissed Jacob’s suggestion, with the wave of his hand.

But Gen. Jacob was adamant, and said to him that he’d ask him thrice, and if Niazi still didn’t respond, he’d go back to Calcutta and order the annihilation of Pakistani troops. And then Jacob went for a stroll. It then struck him that he might just be arrested by the Pakistanis, since all he had on him was his swagger stick and a smoking pipe! However keeping up his bravado, Gen Jacob made another attempt to get Gen Niazi to accept that surrender was a better option, than fighting to the end. But Niazi dismissed him. On his third attempt, when asked by Gen. Jacob said, “are you willing to accept an unconditional surrender Sir?” tears rolled down Gen. Niazi’s cheek, as he hung his head in shame. Gen. Jacob got up, saluted him and drove off to the airport.

On his reaching Calcutta, it was announced to the world that the surrender would follow the next day.  The next day, on 16th December 1971, a large surrender of Pakistan’s military personnel – in the presence of Gen Niazi and many Indian military commanders- took place for the world to see, at Dacca parade ground. Of the POWs, nearly 81,000 POWs were from the Pakistani armed forces (including some Bengali soldiers who had chosen to remain with the Pakistani army) and another 12,000 odd Civilians including collaborators. This was achieved, despite 26,400 Pakistani soldiers being in Dacca, while only 3000 Indian soldiers were nearby. Niazi later admitted that Jacob had “blackmailed me into surrendering”. And to top it all, he got Niazi’s ADC to command the surrender parade, since Niazi had refused to do so.

I have personally heard General Jacob narrate this account, to a gathering at the release of the book, Conflict and Diplomacy: US and the Birth of Bangladesh, Pakistan Divides, by the notable Jaswant Singh and retired Major General S.P. Bhatia (by Rupa & Co). What the book also brings out is that America’s policy makers – primarily President Nixon and his chief advisor Henry Kissinger- continued to believe that the mess that Pakistan’s military men had created in what is now Bangladesh, was more an illusion that India under Mrs. Gandhi was creating to justify India’s desire for aggression. Nixon and Kissinger refused to believe – despite strongly worded telegrams from their own envoys in Dhaka and New Delhi – that things were out of control and the humanitarian crisis that Pakistan’s leadership had created was actually worth their serious attention. They felt that his envoys had gone native, and must be ignored!

Their main aim was clearly to protect General Yahya Khan and Pakistan from complete dismemberment. And so when the War started, with both India and Pakistan making claims and counter claims as to who initiated it all, the CIA, “waived the evidence on 4th December 1971 and concluded that it was not possible to determine to any certainty as to which side had initiated hostilities on 3rd December”. And despite the Pakistani belief that China would come to its assistance in the event of a War – as General Yahya Khan kept saying to his Commanders that “wait for Yellow (China) in the North and White (the US) in the South” – Beijing (then Peking) did not care to interfere. But Pakistan’s hopes were shattered as neither of them could stop the fall of Dacca, even though Washington’s ultimatum that it might be forced to use a nuclear bomb to stop the break up of West Pakistan (as Nixon later mentioned in his memoirs) stopped India from pushing an offensive in West Pakistan after 17 December. But by then, history had been made, and India’s status enhanced in the world, both for its military’s prowess and the moral high ground gained after India’s humanitarian effort to free the oppressed Bangladeshis.

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