New Delhi: On 3 December 1971, Pakistan Air Force had carried out preemptive aerial strikes on 11 Indian Air Force stations, setting off hostilities between the two neighbours. The day also marked India’s entry into the liberation war being fought in East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh.
The war, which lasted 13 days, ended with the surrender of nearly 90,000 Pakistani soldiers — the largest surrender by an Army since World War-II. India won the war decisively — splitting Pakistan into two, with the creation of Bangladesh.
The war, however, came at a price for India — nearly 3,900 Indian soldiers were killed and nearly 10,000 others injured, with many left to suffer from life-long disabilities.
Among the Indians fighting the war were five heroes whose unforgettable contribution led to the decisive win.
Rameshwar Nath Kao, whose team was called ‘Kao-boys’, is known as the ‘architect of Bangladesh’ for his role in the 1971 war. He was then the chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency.
While the war was indeed a military victory and credit goes to the Army, Air Force and the Navy, Kao was the one working behind the scenes and under whose leadership, the RAW actively helped Mukti Bahini, the Bangladesh forces, to triumph over West Pakistan.
The RAW trained over 1 lakh East Pakistanis, who led the country to freedom with assistance from the Indian military.
General Ziaur Rahman, President of Bangladesh from 1977 to 1981, was said to have told then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that “this man (Kao) knows more about my country than me”.
Interestingly, such was Kao’s acumen that two years before the 1971 war, he had told Gandhi to be ready for Pakistan’s partition.
While Indian diplomats and many others were of the view initially that a united Pakistan was best for India’s interest, it was Kao who nudged Gandhi and others to exploit the freedom movement in East Pakistan.
Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw
Sam Manekshaw, who was the chief of the Indian Army at that time, played a crucial role in delivering India its victory in the Liberation War.
In April 1971, Indira Gandhi wanted the Army to move into East Pakistan. Manekshaw, however, told Gandhi that the Army wasn’t yet ready for war. He asked for a few months’ time to prepare, and Gandhi accepted his request.
In the same month, the Army, however, launched a number of operations in East Pakistan, including helping the RAW train and equip the Mukti Bahini.
About three brigades of Bangladeshi troops were trained along with several thousand guerrillas that eventually took on the Pakistani military and civil officers in the lead-up to the war.
For his able and deft leadership, Manekshaw was awarded the Padma Vibhushan and Padma Bhushan — India’s second and third highest civilian awards.
In January 1973, Manekshaw was conferred with the rank of Field Marshal — the first Army officer of independent India to be honoured with the rank.
Brigadier Kuldip Singh Chandpuri
Brigadier Kuldip Singh Chandpuri was a Major in the Indian Army during the 1971 war. His valiant actions in the famous Battle of Longewala will forever be remembered in the history of the Indian military.
In that battle, Chandpuri was commanding a small group of just over 100 soldiers but had bravely defended the Longewala border post in Rajasthan by fighting against nearly 2,000 Pakistani soldiers who had over 40 tanks.
The small group of soldiers led by Chandpuri thwarted Pakistani attempt to cross the Longewala post for an entire night on 4 December.
Chandpuri was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra, which is India’s second-highest gallantry award, for his exceptional leadership during the battle.
The 1997-hit film Border, based on the Battle of Longewala, showed Chandpuri’s heroic efforts in the battle. Actor-turned-BJP MP Sunny Deol had played Chandpuri in the movie.
Major General Ian Cardozo
Major General Ian Cardozo is a name synonymous with the 1971 War. He was a young Major with the 4/5 Gorkha Rifles when the war broke out.
His battalion’s second-in-command was killed in action and Cardozo was ordered to replace him. Cardozo, who was called cartoos (cartridge) sahab by his Gorkha men as they found pronouncing his name difficult, took part in the Indian Army’s first heliborne operation.
Towards the end of the war, Cardozo stepped on a mine and his leg was badly injured. Due to non-availability of morphine and absence of medics, his leg could not be amputated surgically. Faced with the threat of the gangrene spreading in his body, Cardozo used his own ‘kukri’ (a curved knife) to amputate his leg. Later, a Pakistani military doctor captured by the Indian forces operated on him.
He eventually became the first war-disabled officer of the Indian Army to command a battalion and a brigade.
Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon
Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon is the only Air Force officer to be honoured with the Param Vir Chakra. He was a pilot of a Gnat detachment based in Srinagar for the air defence of the Valley against Pakistani attacks.
Right from the beginning of hostilities between India and Pakistan, he and his colleagues fought successive waves of intruding Pakistani aircraft, maintaining a high reputation of the Gnat aircraft.
On 14 December 1971, Srinagar airfield was attacked by a wave of bombing and strafing of six enemy Sabre aircraft. Sekhon, who was on duty, took off immediately and engaged a pair of the attacking Sabres.
In the fight that ensued, he secured hits on one aircraft and set another on fire. By this time the other Sabre aircraft came to the aid of their hard-pressed companions and Sekhon’s Gnat was again outnumbered, this time by four to one.
Sekhon, however, engaged the enemy alone in an unequal combat. In the fight, he almost held his own but was eventually overcome by sheer weight of numbers. His aircraft crashed and he was killed, his citation read.