A perfect political-military-
Even before a full-scale war started between India and Pakistan on 3 December 1971, India had already won the Bangladesh battle on the operational front with a deft orchestration of multiple tools of statecraft.
By November 1971, almost 10 million refugees from East Pakistan had fled their homes and streamed into India in the wake of mass killings perpetrated on the Bengali population by the Pakistan military under the ‘Butcher of Bangladesh’, Lt. Gen. Tikka Khan.
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her foreign minister, Sardar Swaran Singh, were on a whirlwind global tour to try and impress on the West and the US of the pressing need to intervene and stop the genocide and stem the flow of refugees into India. They did so in an honest attempt to avoid war, but were realistic enough to keep their instrument of force ready should their efforts fail.
From the turn of events in mid-November 1971, it was quite clear that Indira Gandhi had given her generals the go-ahead to exert pressure on East Pakistan’s periphery with a series of probing military actions. She was shrewd enough to realise that the egoistic Yahya Khan would react on the Western Sector with the trademark Pakistani pre-emptive strikes and grant legitimacy to a full-fledged counter-attack in East Pakistan. On 3 December, when Pakistan Air Force (PAF) aircraft struck multiple IAF bases on the western front, India was perfectly poised to occupy the moral high ground and press ahead into East Pakistan.
Battle of Dhalai
Shuja Nawaz is a respected Pakistan military historian and was among the early scholars to have painted a credible mosaic of how the Indian military, intelligence agencies and Mukti Bahini had commenced widespread military incursions into over 20 salient inside East Pakistan by 20 November to keep Lt. Gen. Niazi, the martial law administrator of East Pakistan, guessing about where the major thrust was coming from.
He also argues in his book Crossed Swords that India started the war, which is a fair argument, but it hardly mattered to the world because of the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) argument proffered rather effectively by India. One of the fiercest early encounters took place in late October in Sagat Singh’s IV Corps Sector around the picturesque tea estate of Dhalai. Located right on the border between Tripura and East Pakistan and about 35 kilometre south-east of the important town of Maulvi Bazaar, the verdant gardens saw a pitched battle for over three days between 61 Brigade and 12 Frontier Force, a Pakistan Army battalion from 14 Division. After suffering a fair number of casualties following some stout resistance from the Frontier Force battalion, the tea estate was captured by the Indian Army and used as one of the many launch pads for the subsequent offensive. IAF operations commenced with a few intrusive reconnaissance missions carried out by IAF Hunters of No. 37 Squadron in October and early November to collect information about the deployment of PAF assets in Dacca (now Dhaka) and Army deployments in the Jamalpur, Sherpur and Comilla area.
Successful air campaign
The first major attacks in East Pakistan by the Indian Army along with elements of the Mukti Bahini were launched on the night of 20/21 November at multiple ingress points. Fierce brigade battles were fought at Boyra in the western sector, Hilli in the north-western sector, Akhaura in the eastern sector and Sylhet in the north-eastern sector. Two brigades of the Indian Army’s 9th Division made significant progress towards Niazi’s fortress of Jessore by capturing a large enclave that comprised the forward defensive localities of Boyra and Garibpur by end-November.
The curtain-raiser for the air campaign also took place in this sector between Sabres of 14 Squadron, PAF and Gnats of 22 Squadron, IAF. The latter were operating an air defence detachment at Dum Dum airport at Calcutta (now Kolkata) because it was a mere 80 km from the border and needed air defence protection. PAF Sabres were called into action on 19 November to support a beleaguered 107 Brigade, which was fighting a rearguard action around Boyra against marauding Indian brigades. On 21 November, as the Pakistanis called upon the lone armoured squadron of approximately 14 Chaffee tanks along with repeated air strikes to throw back the numerically superior Indian forces, the IAF was finally called into action, much to the relief of Indian brigades under attack.
Controlled by a radar unit located at Barrackpore, a few miles out of Calcutta, four Gnat fighters of 22 Squadron were ‘scrambled’ on two occasions – once in the morning and next in the evening – to try and intercept Sabres who were attacking the Indian brigades. Much to the frustration of the Gnats and the Indian brigades, the Sabres vanished from the area by the time the IAF fighters arrived over Boyra.
After another unsuccessful attempt on the morning of 22 November, the Indian finally drew blood in the afternoon thanks to some aggressive flying by a bunch of four ‘young guns’ flying under the formation call sign of Cocktail. In a classic aerial dogfight between two comparable machines, the IAF Gnats pounced on a careless bit of tactical flying on the part of the experienced PAF squadron commander who was leading his formation of three Sabres on a ground attack mission. While Wing Commander Chaudhry, the commanding officer of the squadron managed to get back unscathed, his two young formation members were shot down by Flight Lieutenant Roy Andrew Massey and Flying Officers Donald Lazarus, M.A. Ganapathy and Sunith Francis Soares. Massey, Lazarus and Ganapathy were the IAF’s first Vir Chakra awardees of the conflict. This tactical engagement has been one of the most dissected aerial engagements of the 1971 war and I will not labour further.
‘Shaping the battlefield’ and ‘Shaping the environment’ in East Pakistan were not just terms that were part of sand-model discussions or meetings. They were translated into intent through politico-military-intelligence synergy, acknowledging and leveraging the support of the Mukti Bahini, and by aggressive military action and capture of vital ground that would allow India to dictate the pace of operations in the weeks ahead.
Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal from the IAF and a Visiting Professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.