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HomeOpinionDhaka & Pakistan’s psychological defeat: How Indian military commanders won 1971

Dhaka & Pakistan’s psychological defeat: How Indian military commanders won 1971

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Before 1971, our political and military leadership was inexperienced in waging a war at this scale to achieve absolute victory.

India’s absolute victory in 1971 to create Bangladesh was a result of some of our brilliant military commanders following a bold operational strategy to bring about the psychological collapse of the Pakistan army. This strategy was different from the rather conservative strategy originally conceived by the Army Headquarters.

Before 1971, our political and military leadership was relatively inexperienced in waging a war at this scale to achieve absolute victory. While the desirable political aim was to liberate East Pakistan and create Bangladesh, politically and militarily we were not very confident that this aim could be fully achieved.

The significance of Dhaka

There were two centres of gravity of East Pakistan – the Pakistan army and its critical vulnerability — Dacca (now Dhaka).  So long as the Pakistan army remained a cohesive fighting force, and held on to Dhaka, the political aim could not be achieved. The new nation state would lack legitimacy and international or American intervention remained a possibility.

Our armed forces were not too sure of their capabilities as we had no experience of operations on this scale. The initial operational plan was a compromise. Dhaka was never formally defined as an objective. The directive given to the Eastern Command focused on capture of maximum territory, including the major towns and the port cities of Chittagong and Khulna, but shied away from declaring Dhaka as the military objective of the campaign.

Also read: How I captured and saved India’s first prisoner of war in 1971

Manoeuvre style of warfare

Culturally, our Army followed the attrition style of warfare, which relies on “force on force” to capture terrain objectives. This style literally seeks the enemy to attack. It was the influence of this culture that led us to consider that Dhaka was an “objective too far”. As per this approach, unless all other areas/towns, which were held by the enemy, were physically attacked and captured, we could not have reached Dhaka.

The manoeuvre style of warfare, instead, focuses on ‘defeat’, which lies in the psychological realm. It is empirical wisdom that barring exceptions, ‘defeat’ is a state of mind, a factor of ‘will’. When the conditions are created to bring about a psychological collapse, the enemy accepts defeat even if s/he has adequate resources to continue the fight.

Consequently, in this style, an all-out effort is made to threaten/capture/destroy the critical vulnerability of the enemy with sufficient residual combat potential. Only selected positions or ‘surfaces’ are attacked to create logistics corridors, and ‘gaps’ are exploited to reach the critical vulnerability. Once the critical vulnerability is threatened or captured, the forces, regardless of their strength, are rendered ineffective.

This was the reason why Dhaka had to be the operational-level objective. Without it, the psychological collapse of the enemy forces would not take place and victory would never be complete.

This was well understood by a handful of brilliant commanders and staff officers. Notable among them were the Chief of Staff Eastern Command Major General J.F. R. Jacob, Director General of Military Operations Major General Inderjit Singh Gill, GOC 4 Corps Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh, and Commander of 95 Mountain Brigade  Brigadier H.S. Kler, operating under 101 Communication Zone.

These brilliant commanders never lost sight of Dhaka as the critical operational objective. When the seemingly insurmountable problems were pointed out to Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh by Lt. Gen J.S. Aurora, Singh said: “Leave it to me, I will take you to Dhaka”. Brigadier Kler used to give the example of the agile David striking at Goliath’s critical vulnerability – his forehead. On the eve of the war, he told his subordinates, “Do not take counsel of your fears, we will take this under-equipped brigade to Dhaka.”

Also read: How Bangladeshi intellectuals disappeared two nights before Pakistan surrendered in 1971

Pakistan’s strategy

Pakistan’s Eastern Command also faced a dilemma due to paucity of resources. It correctly identified that Dhaka had to be defended. It was desirable that it was held in strength. Yet the vast territory ahead of Dhaka could not be given up.

The defensive strategy adopted by Pakistan Army was a compromise. Cantonments and major towns were to be developed as fortresses guarding the approaches to Dhaka. These fortresses were to push forward light forces right up to the international boundary (IB) to deny loss of territory. Depending upon the progress of the Indian offensive and the tactical situation, the formations were to conduct an orderly fighting withdrawal to wage a final battle around Dhaka.

India’s strategy

The “default strategy” that was adopted by the maverick commanders and the staff officers was perfect to a fault and ended up being adopted by the Army Headquarters midway through the war.

The political aim was to dismember Pakistan and create the new nation state of Bangladesh. The victory had to be absolute, leaving the international community with no option but to recognise the new state.

The operational strategy was to launch a land, air and sea campaign on multiple thrust lines from the west with 2 Corps, northwest with 33 Corps, north with 101 Communication Zone, east with 4 Corps and south with the Indian Navy. The aim was to threaten/capture the geostrategic and geopolitical centre of gravity – Dhaka – to bring about the psychological collapse of Pakistan’s Eastern Command, and in so doing establish tactical control over the entire territory of  East Pakistan.

The preliminary operations, conducted all along the IB in November, “sucked” the enemy forces forward from Dhaka and the fortress towns. Once the war broke out, from 3 to 10 December, the Indian Army formations across the entire front left the ‘highways and took the byways’ to exploit the gaps and relentlessly attack selected positions from the rear to open logistics corridors. Risks were taken, opportunities were created and river obstacles were surmounted by 4 Corps using helicopter-borne forces and local resources. It was a Blitzkrieg on foot.

Also read: Not Pakistan, Indira Gandhi’s India escalated military action before 1971 war

The enemy’s planned withdrawal to Dhaka became a disorderly retreat. The paradrop at Tangail on 11 December and link up by Brigadier H.S. Kler’s 95 Mountain Brigade from the north and the simultaneous “vertical envelopment” across the Meghna by Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh from the East opened the way to Dhaka. The leading elements, 2 Para and 95 Mountain Brigade, entered Dhaka early in the morning of 16 December, later followed by 57 Mountain Division of 4 Corps.

Bulk of the Pakistan army was still intact. The garrison at Dhaka far outnumbered the leading elements of 101 Communication Zone and 4 Corps threatening it. But such was the impact of the geostrategic and geopolitical centre of gravity being threatened that Pakistan’s Eastern Command psychologically collapsed. By the afternoon of 16 December, the surrender had taken place and history had been created!

Lt Gen H.S. Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal.

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