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Indian Army’s dash to Dhaka in 1971 was operational brilliance. It holds lessons for Ladakh

Dhaka had 30,000 defenders against 3,000 of Indian Army. But such is the impact of threatening the centre of gravity that General Niazi agreed to surrender.

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As we celebrate Vijay Diwas, commemorating India’s greatest absolute military victory, it is pertinent to look back at the lessons learnt and their relevance today.

First, after the catastrophic defeat in 1962, the armed forces had been reformed and modernised, and lessons from the stalemate of the 1965 War had been imbibed. Second, defence budget hovered between 3-4 per cent of the GDP from 1962 to 1971, equalled only once more from 1980 to 1990 when the last major reforms took place. Third, the political aim was clearly spelt out — liberate East Pakistan to create Bangladesh. Fourth, there was excellent politico-military dialogue and military advice was paid heed to. Lastly, the armed forces conducted the most brilliant tri-Services operational-level campaign, albeit by default, to achieve the political aim. I will focus on the last ingredient for victory — the operational-level of war.

Also read: Pakistan never ‘surrendered’ in 1971. Kashmir, 26/11, Parliament show why

What is the operational level of war?

In military theory, there are three levels of war — strategic, operational and tactical. Strategic level deals with the political and military aims, and involves drawing broad contours of political and macro military plans. The tactical level deals with battles and is generally restricted up to the divisional-level/corps-level. The operational level of war focuses on campaign planning to achieve the military aims and is practised at theatre command-level. But in large theatres, the campaign planning can also be done at the corps level. It is the essential link between the strategic and the tactical levels, where hundreds of battles are coordinated to target the enemy’s centre of gravity or critical vulnerability to bring about psychological collapse and defeat.

The operational level of war, also known as operational art, was formally evolved by the Germans and Russians post First World War and applied during the Second World War. Western armies adapted to it in the 1980s and exploited it in Gulf War 1 (2 August 1990 – 28 February 1991) with great success. Armies not well-versed in military theory remain obsessed with the tactical battle, and hence, fail to translate and stitch numerous tactical battles into a campaign plan to achieve strategic aims — Indian armed forces fall in this category.

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The Indian experience

No, I am not contradicting myself because the translation of a predominantly attritionist tactical plan in 1971 was left to brilliant commanders and staff officers who, after initial tactical successes, instinctively seized the opportunity to head for Dhaka. Sadly, military theory has never been our forte — 49 years later, we still remain focussed on the tactical level of war.

The public and the media are generally obsessed with battles. Note our focus on encounters to kill terrorists in counter-insurgency operations. They rarely involve discussing political/military aims/strategy, and the operational-level execution. In Eastern Ladakh, our focus has been on the Galwan incident — the night of 15/16 June — and the extent of specific Chinese intrusions at various points. We failed to note the brilliant operational-level plan of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which through a number of coordinated tactical operations achieved its strategic aim.

China sullied our political/military reputation, secured its 1959 claim line, neutralised our defensive strategy, prevented development of border infrastructure in critical areas, and made large tracts of our territory vulnerable for cherry-picking in the event of an escalation. Above all, it didn’t fire a single shot.

An apt comparison to explain the difference in the Indian and Chinese approach is of the man on the fence who sees the situation up to 500 metres versus an eagle in the sky that gets the larger picture.

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The 1971 story

Dhaka was the centre of gravity of East Pakistan. It was the political capital, and all major communication arteries emanated from it. Logically, it should have been our final and principal objective, because it was the geopolitical and geostrategic heart of then East Pakistan. However, it was never spelt out as the strategic objective. Seeped in attritionist culture, which revels in using force on force, the army headquarters’ operational instruction focussed on the ports of Khulna and Chittagong, and also insisted on capture of all other towns except Dhaka.

Years later, Lt Gen Inder Gill, then Director of Military Operations, explained: “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 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.”

In a nutshell, it was the brilliant field commanders and staff officers — 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 — who, after initial tactical success, translated an attritionist tactical-level plan into a brilliant operational-level victory. Pakistan’s defences, based around major towns, were largely intact. Dhaka 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. Rest is history.

On Vijay Diwas, apart from traditional ceremonials, the military must also resolve to master the theory of war and adapt it to our environment. Of course, it needs a review of the Professional Military Education programme. But along with it, we must also study the operational-level absolute victory in the Bangladesh War, and relate it to incomplete victory in 1947-48, defeat in 1962, stalemate in 1965, laboured restoration of status quo in 1999 Kargil War and groping in the dark in Eastern Ladakh.

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. Views are personal.

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  1. I don’t think China did anything brilliant! It was not a open war, rather a steal, when india was not looking. Even then they were stopped.

  2. I have wanted to ask the same question dozens of Rishi Rana is asking
    What did the super bright strategist general of uncommon brilliance himself do in his 40 years to make a difference.
    If the answer is – to wait for retirement and write these bitter narratives then …(less said the better)

  3. Like all large armies, Indian army also has a Director of Military Operations. With its huge pyramid of commanders, it is difficult to digest the fact that India had no operational plan for its long northern border, especially the Eastern Ladakh border. Evidently, PLA planned well and has put India in an expensive fix in Ladakh. One hopes that our operational planners have plans in place to prevent such occurrence along the rest of Indo-china border.

  4. The Vijay Divas should be celebrated jointly by India and Bangladesh in a big way, given the magnitude of the win and birth of a new country. After the second World War, the 1971 war is the biggest win by any country in the world which lasted only 17 days and resulted in surrender of over 79,000 Pakistani soldiers. India should have resolved all unsolved boundary issues with Pkistan then and there. But its okay considering that there was too much international pressure as it was a defeat also for USA which directly supported Pakistan and also for China. But the fact is that no country faced such a crushing defeat and cut into halves as Pakistan did. Cudos to the soldiers of Indian military and fighters of Mukti Vahini.

  5. General Panag saheb, now let us look at the brilliance of General Niazi. Remember our Generals and Niazi are from the same school. He knew sure well that his resources are limited. There was no help from West Pakistan, China or USA. A killed soldier cannot be replaced, a bullet lost cannot be replaced. Therefore he knew even holding out was not possible and he had to surrender. The question was to whom and how fast so that no soldier of his will be killed. He kept all his soldiers together in the towns, (a Roman tactic). He did not fight the Indian army till they reached Dhaka. Observe his brilliance in surrendering without any condition to the first Indian General he met, thus surrendering to the Indian Army and not to Mukti Bahini. Thus safety of POWs was Indian army’s responsibility. Also note he did not destroy the railway lines so that Pakistani soldiers can be transported to India and not remain in Bangladesh. So was there a unwritten understanding between Gen. Niazi and our Generals? Something like: Pak soldiers to hold on to the towns till Indian soldier reached the towns. The Indian army brings its soldiers as fast as possible to Dhaka. The Pakistani General surrenders to Indian army without firing a bullet. And finally the Pakistani soldiers are carted to Indian territory within a week.

  6. Very interesting article. However, could the General please expand on the topic and elaborate on what operational actions were taken by Gen. Jacob, Gen. Sagat Singh and others once it became evident that Dacca was within grasp, and how the army switched gears to go for the big prize. What operations taken by the Indian army made Gen. Niazi realize the game was up and surrender? Please also elaborate on the theme in relation to our shortcomings in relation to 1947-48, 1962, 1965, Kargil and finally Eastern Ladakh – what could have been done, but was done and what was not, and how the result was poor for us . It would be a major effort – perhaps in the scope of a series of articles, or even a book – but it would be hugely instructive and much-needed in the cause of educating the public as well as bringing greater professionalism at the top levels of our military establishment. The General is absolutely right in saying that our focus is excessively on the tactical level – high emotion about the sacrifice of our soldiers in individual engagements, deification of the armed forces or just nationalistic ranting and raving, but very little educated analysis. Gen. Panag’s writing is a refreshing and a great service to the cause of better defending India.

  7. Hon. Lt. Gen Panag. Please share with us what efforts did you make to correct armed forces view from being tactical to operational one during your 40 years tenure in the armed forces especially as GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. And are you trying to influence the change in thought process as Member of Armed Forces Tribunal.

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