Forty years ago on December 17, India witnessed its finest military hour (and consequently Pakistan’s darkest hour), with the liberation of Bangladesh and the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani soldiers in East Pakistan. The fall of Dacca, as the city was known then, surprised many because of two reasons: first, a nuclear-armed US 7th fleet was ready, waiting to intervene and second, Pakistan’s eastern army had enough men to delay the Indian offensive, until a United Nations (UN) ceasefire would send Indian troops back to the original borders. While the common perception is that the war started on December 4, 1971, even the Central Intelligence Agency was unable to “determine to any certainty as to which side had initiated hostilities on 3rd December”. While there were fierce battles on India’s western borders, the campaign in the east, was spectacular.
Initially, India’s politico-military leaders in Delhi — fearing a UN ceasefire — were in a hurry to establish a free Bangladeshi government in the port towns of Khulna and Chittagong, after Soviet Russia informed Delhi that it couldn’t keep vetoing resolutions at the UN for a ceasefire. With limited time, the Indian Army was rushed — bypassing Opposition — to swiftly liberate Dacca. Later, a study of India’s campaign by Pakistan’s National Defence College concluded that: “the credit really goes to General Jacob’s meticulous preparations in the Indian eastern command and to the implementation by his Corps commanders” for India’s blitzkrieg in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Dacca fell, despite the fact that there were 26,400 Pakistani soldiers in the city and only 3,000 Indian soldiers surrounded Dacca. On December 16, during a lull in the battle, Lieutenant General JFR Jacob, Chief of Staff, Eastern Army Command during the 1971 war, sought permission to meet Lieutenant General AAK Niazi to seek his surrender. When in Dacca, Lieutenant General Jacob said to Lieutenant General Niazi that he’d ask him thrice to surrender. If the latter didn’t respond, he’d go back to Calcutta and order the annihilation of Pakistani troops by ruthless bombing.
India had complete air superiority, and Lt Gen Niazi was aware of that. In fact, a warning by India’s Army chief General Sam Manekshaw had already been aired. Lt Gen Niazi knew he was cornered and when he was asked the third time, he simply broke down. The next morning at 9, the world witnessed the largest military surrender since World War 2, and the parade was commanded by Lt Gen Niazi’s ADC, at Lt Gen Jacob’s insistence. The Hamoodur Rahman Commission, which was set up by Zulfikar Bhutto to probe their military disaster, concluded that India had achieved its victory because Lt Gen Niazi lost his nerve. Lt Gen Niazi later admitted that Lt Gen Jacob had ‘blackmailed him into surrendering’.
Declassified records show that the main aim of the US was to protect General Yahya Khan and Pakistan from dismemberment. Within Pakistan, there was a belief that China would come to its assistance in the event of a war. General Khan kept telling his commanders to “wait for Yellow (China) in the North and White (the US) in the South” — but Beijing (then Peking) did not care to interfere. This was in keeping with India’s assessment. After the war, Bhutto even lamented, that China “had not fulfilled its obligations to Pakistan as promised”.
However, despite our military gains, India’s policymakers failed to put in place a favourable political arrangement — which was the ultimate aim of the war — with a new Bangladeshi government in place. India could have sought guarantees from Bangladesh on three essential issues: first, rationalisation of border enclaves; second, transit rights for rail and through Bangladeshi waterways and third, guarantees for its Hindus. But DP Dhar, a close associate of Indira Gandhi, and then head of ministry of external affairs policy planning division, apparently assured our generals that “these problems are political and can be sorted out later”. They never were. And we returned those 93,000 prisoners for nothing!
Maroof Raza is the author of Generals and Governments in India and Pakistan
The views expressed by the author are personal