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Govt and military owe India an authentic history of the 1971 Bangladesh War. Rest is mythology

Halos around personalities from the 1971 Bangladesh War victory have no sanctity. Myths and claims of self-aggrandisement must be debunked.

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By all yardsticks, the 1971 Bangladesh War was India’s greatest feat of arms, and ranks high among the all-time great military campaigns in the annals of history. By design or default, there was a clear politico-military strategic aim, political/diplomatic/military conditions were shaped over 10 months, and the coup de grace was dealt between 3 and 16 December 1971 through a lightning operational-level military campaign to create a new nation.

It was the culmination of nine years of military reforms in thought, leadership, training and equipment after the catastrophic defeat in the 1962 War against China. The military machine had been tested in the 1965 War and lessons learnt and imbibed. Military reforms were supported by an optimum defence budget, which was 3-4 per cent of the GDP from 1962 to 1971, equalled only once more from 1980 to 1990 when the last major defence reforms took place.

It is ironic that as a grateful nation that celebrated the Swarnim Vijay Varsh to commemorate 50 years of the 1971 War, we do not have an official military history based on authentic government and military documents. An “unofficial history” was published in 2014 by Dr S.N. Prasad and U.P. Thapliyal, retired officials of the history division of the Ministry of Defence. This history is based only on limited declassified documents and remains below par, as it is merely a chronological record of events and not their critical analysis in terms of the theory of war.

There have been a fair number of books written by military historians, veterans and retired officials. Most are based on secondary sources and lack the authenticity of primary sources in the form of official documents. These books create more controversies than they settle. A recent book, ‘Bangladesh Liberation War: The Definitive Story’ by Chandrashekhar Dasgupta, a former Ambassador to China and the European Union, has rekindled these controversies. Earlier, books by Lt Gen JFR Jacob (Chief of Staff Eastern Command in 1971) — ‘Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation’ — and Srinath Raghavan’s ‘1971: A global history of the creation of Bangladesh’, created similar controversies.

I had written earlier in detail about our shoddy track record in writing authentic military history. In this column, I analyse some of the controversies of the 1971 War.

Also Read: As a young captain in 1971 Bangladesh war, I gave Pakistan’s Lt-Gen the letter to surrender

Timing of the war

The 1971 Bangladesh War is India’s strategic and military success story. It was a collective effort of the nation. Obviously, the political and military hierarchy gets the lion’s share of the credit, but the decisive victory could not have been possible without the brilliance and hard work of the subordinates. Most of the controversies centre around the share of credit for the victory.

The monsoon season in Bangladesh is from June to mid-October. The campaigning season, thus, is from November to June. In the two month period between 26 March and 31 May 1971, theoretically, a military campaign was possible, provided all political and military preparations had been done and world opinion shaped. But this was not practical.

The government needed time to shape the opinion of a Cold War international order wedded to the Westphalian model of nation-states. The Chinese threat and American support for Pakistan had to be counterbalanced. The military had to make preparations for a three-front war — West and East Pakistan, and China. Troops had to be moved and equipment deficiencies made up. These factors ruled out a summer campaign. Hence, early intervention was an emotion divorced from reality. This was clear to both the government and the military.

Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw was the Chief of the Army Staff and Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee in 1971. In his typical flamboyant style, he used to colourfully narrate how he single-handedly dissuaded Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from ordering immediate intervention in Bangladesh. While she was alive, he used to do this only in military forums with the safety of Chatham House Rules and after her death, did so in public forums too. His language became progressively more colourful. Given his larger-than-life image, the Field Marshal’s words have become part of the nation’s lore. But this lore must not be misconstrued as authentic military history.

I have no doubt that the Field Marshal must have given forthright advice to the Prime Minister in person and in the then-avatar of the Cabinet Committee on Security. He would have put across the pros and cons, and concluded that no military campaign could be launched before November. His language would have been respectful and as per protocol. I find it ridiculous for anyone to suggest that it was only the Field Marshal who prevailed upon an “impulsive” Prime Minister or that she used him to convince her own impulsive ministers as suggested by Dasgupta. It was a logical strategic political decision arrived at through a well-founded process.

Also Read: Bangladesh’s freedom wasn’t all about Indian military. Public diplomacy played a huge role

Chief architect of the victory

Another controversy is about the chief architect of the military victory and the selection of Dacca as the objective. After the crackdown in East Pakistan on 26 March 1971, the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army and the flood of 10 million refugees, there was political, military and public consensus that East Pakistan had to be liberated and Bangladesh created. The only question was whether it should be done by supporting a prolonged insurgency or by a military campaign, or by a combination of the two. The decision for a winter campaign taken in April 1971 paved the way for an eight-month-long people’s war supported by India, preliminary military operations to shape the battlefield and a short decisive military campaign in December.

The liberation of East Pakistan required its two centres of gravity – the Pakistan Army, to be defeated, and its geopolitical/geostrategic heart Dacca, to be captured. However, our political and military leadership was not too sure of the outcome as we had no experience of operations on this scale. The initial operational plan was a compromise. The directive given to the Eastern Command focused on the capture of maximum territory, including the major towns and the port cities of Chittagong and Khulna, but shied away from declaring Dacca as the military objective of the campaign.

Years later, Lt Gen Inder Gill, then Director of Military Operations, gave the most logical explanation: “Operational Instructions issued to Eastern Command specified capture of areas up to main river lines. Dacca was not included as the terminal objective. This was because it was considered at the time planning was done that Eastern Command would not have the capability of capturing the whole of East Pakistan before a ceasefire was forced on us. It is (to) the great credit of Indian Army leadership that once Pakistani defences started crumbling, they were able to quickly switch gears and head for Dacca with dash and elan.”

The directive of the Army Headquarters notwithstanding, the capture of Dacca was at the back of everyone’s mind from the highest to the lowest ranks.

It is fairly well established that Maj. Gen. Jacob as the Chief of Staff of Eastern Command at the time proposed a brilliant plan close to the actual outcome, which was scaled down by Army Headquarters as mentioned above. There is no doubt that the brilliant staff officers — then-DMO Maj. Gen. Inder Gill and then-Chief of Staff of Eastern Command Maj. Gen. Jacob — kept Dacca in their sights and worked behind the scenes to engineer its fall. But, that is the job of the General Staff — to translate the higher commanders’ broad directions into a pragmatic plan that overcomes both conservatism and impulsiveness, and caters for seizing opportunities.  And who gave them the freedom of action, but Field Marshal Manekshaw and Lt Gen. Arora, the Eastern Army Commander.

Finally, who can take away the credit from brilliant and dynamic field commanders who took the bit in their mouth and raced towards Dacca once the initial tactical victories created operational level opportunities? Notable among them were General Officer Commanding 4 Corps, Lt Gen Sagat Singh, General Officer Commanding 101 Communication Zone Area, Maj Gen Nagra and his two brigade commanders, Brig H.S. Kler, and Brig Sant Singh. Pakistan’s defences, based around major towns, were largely intact. Dacca had 30,000 defenders against 3,000 of the Indian Army on its outskirts. But such is the impact of threatening the centre of gravity that General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi agreed to surrender.

In a nutshell, there was no chief architect and no chief executioner of the victory in 1971. It was a collective effort.

Also Read: 1971 Bangladesh War: 46 years later we can look at facts more fairly

Leverage of POWs not exploited at Shimla

It is argued by many that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi failed to exploit the leverage of 93,000 Prisoners of War (PsOW) to settle the Jammu and Kashmir problem by converting the then Ceasefire Line into an International Boundary. As per the Geneva Conventions, PsOW can not be used as a bargaining tool. Our own PsOW in Pakistan would have foregone protection if we violated the conventions. The world opinion, including that of our ‘ally’, the Soviet Union, was not in favour of disturbing the status quo. Also, we would have lost the moral ground of undertaking a “just war” to create Bangladesh.

There was no consensus in the country for giving up Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Lastly, if Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had gone back empty-handed, we would have had to deal with a military government in Pakistan.

The Indian government and the military owe it to the nation to produce an authentic history of the 1971 War. Real military history is brutal. Halos around personalities have no sanctity. Myths and claims for self-aggrandisement must be debunked. Lessons must be learnt for posterity. And this can only happen if the government declassifies official political and military records and makes them available for research.

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. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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