09 November 2018

Backdrop of the 1971 War - Part III

Military Crackdown

On 25 March, Yahya and his aides quietly flew back to West Pakistan, followed by Bhutto a day later. As ominous clouds gathered over the horizon, it was clear that the time for politics was over.

The military had planned to conduct Operation ‘Searchlight’ starting at 0100 hrs on 26 March, by which time General Yahya would have safely landed in Karachi. Maj Gen Rao Farman Ali, the advisor on civil affairs, was put in charge of operations in Dacca and its environs, while Maj Gen Khadim Hussain Raja, General Officer Commanding (GOC) 14 Division, was given charge of the rest of East Pakistan.

Some of the more important tasks assigned to Farman’s subordinate, Brig Jehanzeb Arbab, (Commander 57 Brigade), included disarming of about 5,000 personnel of East Pakistan Rifles, disarming of 1,000 policemen at the city’s Police Lines, neutralisation of Awami League strong points inside Dacca University, and capture of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman (code-named ‘Big Bird’). Additionally, combing operations and show of force was to be conducted, wherever required.

The operation in Dacca was over by first light, with all objectives achieved. The ‘Big Bird’ was in the cage, and was whisked off to Karachi three days later. The casualty figures of the Bengalis, especially at the University, remain moot. While the Army sources estimated around one hundred deaths in the University area, Bengalis insisted that these ran in thousands.

The main task of securing the rest of East Pakistan with a single army division was not an easy one. The rebel strongholds in Chittagong, Kushtia and Pabna were particularly formidable and well-defended, and needed to be neutralised promptly before the rebels went on the rampage against the non-Bengalis.

Chittagong had just one battalion with 600-odd troops to fight off an estimated 5,000 rebels. Reinforcements from the brigade headquarters at Comilla, including an infantry battalion and a mortar battery, were blocked by the rebels after blowing up of a bridge enroute. All attempts to make headway towards Chittagong were thwarted, and eventually, contact was lost with the relief column.  The GOC himself undertook a search of the column from a helicopter, braving intermittent fire and several hits, but to no avail.  A detachment of commandos was also flown in from Dacca to search for the column, but soon it came under rebel cross fire and took  substantial casualties.[1] When the Officer Commanding of 24 FF fell in action, the Brigade Commander (53 Brigade) at Comilla, Brig Iqbal Shafi, himself took charge of the battalion, and was able to break the rebel resistance not long afterwards.  The way to Chittagong was cleared, but unfortunately, the troops were too late to prevent a horrid massacre of unarmed non-Bengali men, women and children at Ispahani Jute Mills near the edge of the city.

The important tasks in Chittagong included destruction of radio transmitters that had been spewing virulent anti-Pakistan messages, as well as the neutralisation of East Pakistan Regimental Centre and Reserve Police Lines. The latter two locations had a strong presence of trained saboteurs, and were reported to have been heavily stocked with weapons.

After two abortive and costly attempts[2] by a commando detachment to blow up the radio transmitters, PAF Sabres were called in to do the job, which was easily accomplished.

The East Pakistan Regimental Centre was attacked with a couple of tanks, heavy mortar battery, as well as unconventional fire support from the destroyer PNS Jahangir and two gunboats Rajshahi and Balaghat. After a raging battle that lasted for three hours, the target was destroyed and the rebels subdued.

The defenders at the Police Reserve Lines could not face Pak Army’s battalion-sized onslaught, and promptly vacated the area.

While the main operations in Chittagong were over in five days, mopping up continued into the first week of April.

In Kushtia, the task for the Army was to maintain security and establish own presence with the help of a company detached from its battalion headquarters at Jessore, 55 miles away. On 28 March, the local Superintendent of Police informed the Company Commander that an attack on the town by rebels was imminent. The attack commenced with heavy mortar firing early on the morning of 29 March. Troops of an East Bengal battalion joined by the Indian Border Security Force charged on the police armoury occupied by Pak Army troops. In the next few hours, twenty soldiers had fallen. The company headquarters, as well as posts at the telephone exchange and VHF station were also attacked by the Bengali-Indian combine, resulting in heavy casualties. Desperate requests for reinforcements were denied due to other commitments, and air support had to be called off due to poor visibility.

Kushtia was abandoned, and 65 surviving soldiers out of 150 were driven out in a convoy to Jessore. Enroute, a deadly ambush cut down all but nine soldiers who managed to escape, only to be rounded up and subjected to a barbaric end. The ill-prepared company had been virtually wiped out, in what was the worst disaster faced by the Pakistan Army during Operation ‘Searchlight’.

In Pabna, the task was not much different from the one at Kushtia, being mostly show of military presence in the area, by a lightly armed company of troops. Some important vulnerable points like the power house and the telephone exchange were also to be defended against the rebels.  A costly mistake was made in wrongly assessing the strength of the rebels in the area. This realisation came too late when the rebels carried out a surprise raid on the telephone exchange, in which 85 troops were martyred. The remnants were evacuated by a relief party from Rajshahi, but were met with heavy resistance as they fought their way out. The column reached Rajshahi with just 18 survivors; 112 had been martyred in the operation.

Operation ‘Searchlight’ was deemed to have helped achieve full control over much of the province, by the end of April. While the Bengalis claimed that their casualties ran in hundreds of thousands in less than a month, Pakistan Army sources insist that rebel deaths did not exceed four figures. India had good reason to inflate the numbers to paint Pakistan Army in bad light in the eyes of the international community, an exercise in which she succeeded resoundingly. Expulsion of foreign press prior to the operation did not help matters either, and it was only too pleased to parrot India’s line on the subject.
Full-blown Insurgency
While Operation ‘Searchlight’ was underway, two more Army divisions (9 and 16 Divisions), as well as additional paramilitary forces, were flown in from West Pakistan. These forces were lightly armed, and their heavy equipment was left behind.  A new Commander of Eastern Command, Lt Gen A A K ‘Tiger’ Niazi was also posted in, and he had three new GOCs of the three divisions for conducting counter-insurgency operations.

The Indian government had, meanwhile, declared its full support to the rebels, having perceived a distinct possibility of Pakistan’s breakup.   The Director of Indian Institute of Strategic Studies, Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam, gave heft to that perception when he brazenly suggested at a symposium, to destroy Pakistan: “What India must realise is the fact that the breakup of Pakistan is in our interest, and opportunity the like of which will never come again.”[3] He called it a ‘chance of a century’ to destroy India’s enemy number one.

India started a crash programme of military preparations, including reorganisation and re-equipment. On the diplomatic front, she went all out in creating a favourable world opinion, as well as getting erstwhile Soviet Union’s commitment to help in the impending military action.[4]  The presence of Bengali refugees and their plight was also exploited advantageously.

The most consequential action by India was the formation of an organised, well-trained and well-equipped rebel force, to thwart Pak Army’s efforts in fighting the insurgency. The Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters) force was cobbled up with Bengali defectors from the army and para-military forces, students and able-bodied volunteers. Their task, as recalled in India’s Second Liberation by Pran Chopra, was: “Deployment in their own native land with a view to initially immobilizing and tying down the Pakistan military forces for protective tasks in Bengal, subsequently by gradual escalation of guerrilla operations, to sap and corrode the morale of the Pakistan Forces in the eastern sector, and finally to avail the cadres as ancillaries to the Eastern Field Force in the event of Pakistan initiating hostilities against us.”[5]

With a constantly growing number of training camps in India, as many as 100,000 Mukti Bahini had cycled through training courses by end of November. 300 frogmen had also been trained by India to undertake sabotage operations against shipping and riverine craft.

Pak Army had a total of 45,000 troops, including 11,000 paramilitary forces and police.[6] It also had additional support of about 50,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis and some sympathetic Bengalis under the support of an umbrella organisation called Razakars (volunteers). While the Razakars had been fired by patriotic fervour, they did not have proper training to transform their zeal into anything worthwhile. They could hardly conduct operations independent of Pak Army.

Pak Army earnestly started active counter-insurgency operations in April. The main focus was on maintaining occupation of border posts, and controlling major towns. Rebels followed hit-and-run tactics, and could not be countered as they disappeared before the Pak Army arrived on the scene.  This modus operandi of the Mukti Bahini continued incessantly for many months. With time – and ceaseless Indian support – their methods became more   well-planned, and the rebels became more audacious in their attacks.  Bridges, railway lines and electric power stations were the preferred targets. For the Pak Army, fighting an insurgency spread over more than 55,000 square miles was a tall order.  Besides, being involved in a prolonged insurgency without any relief resulted in indifference and apathy setting in.

The writing on the wall was clear: the population of East Pakistan was not going to stop short of an independent Bangla Desh, as the West Pakistani power brokers had nothing to offer that could meet their aspirations. Retracting at this stage, when too much blood had been spilt, would have been seen by the Bengalis as an insult to their dignity.  Sadly, the time for reconciliation was past.

General Yahya seemed completely afflicted by inaction and inertia over the nine months spanned by the insurgency. His efforts at some sort of reconciliation were confined to superficial measures, including replacement of Lt Gen Tikka Khan with a civilian Governor, to assuage the feelings of the Bengalis who saw Tikka as a tyrant.    A former dentist, trade union leader, and elderly politician, Dr A M Malik was sworn in on 3 September.  A day later, general amnesty for ‘miscreants’ was announced, but there was no mention of the release of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, which made it appear meaningless to the Bengalis. Yahya’s actions were, decidedly, too little, too late.
A Chance of a Century for India
While preparing for a military intervention in East Pakistan, India continued with shrewd diplomatic efforts in parallel. Notably, she signed the euphemistically dubbed Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation on 9 August 1971. Her diplomatic offensive centred around the ‘massive humanitarian problem’ of refugees who had fled to India because of the civil war in East Pakistan. It also helped assuage any apprehensions of a possible wider conflict, especially with regard to US and China, whose beleaguered ally, Pakistan, could have clamoured for help.  In any case, the US was unwilling, and China unable, to do much to avoid a conflagration.

The Indian military, in the meantime, found enough time to prepare for war on two fronts viz, West Pakistan as well as East Pakistan, the latter being considered as the main theatre. Equipment and manpower shortfalls were speedily addressed, and war plans adequately reviewed.

War preparations on the Pakistani side were seriously constrained by shortfalls in the Army’s fighting formations. The move of two infantry divisions from West Pakistan was clearly a short-term response to the deteriorating situation in East Pakistan; it gravely altered the balance of forces in the West, the main theater of war.  Any operational reverses that might occur were to be redressed by denuding the strategic reserves. Unfortunately, this meant that the very foundations of a Pakistani military response had been utterly weakened.

While the insurgency within East Pakistan continued without let, India started artillery shelling on the border outposts in late June. This activity increased in the following months, with as many as 2,000 rounds falling daily.[7]  On the one hand, it served the objective of controlled escalation by India, while on the other, it helped the Mukti Bahini in occupying many salients and enclaves, as these became indefensible under constant fire. By the time of General Yahya’s address to the nation on 12 October, in which he declared that every inch of the sacred soil of Pakistan would be defended, 3,000 square miles of  border area had already gone under Indian control.

India had carefully assessed that Pak Army troops in East Pakistan were tired of fighting an insurgency for over eight months, and their morale was not at its best.  Indian Army had the numbers to overwhelm Pak Army troops three times over, and had adequate mobility and logistics support to make a fast run for Dacca. In West Pakistan, India enjoyed numerical superiority, especially in the Desert Sector where it was overpowering. Her defences were strong in all sectors, and she was confident of stopping any Pakistani foray, were Pakistan to attempt capture of vital territory as a sop for the loss of East Pakistan.

As for the Pakistan Air Force, India saw it mostly in a supporting role for Pak Army, and if the latter’s design could be stymied through deft planning, the aerial battlefront was not seen as a major threat to her designs.

As war clouds appeared over the sub-continent, India found it opportune to act on Subrahmanyam’s advice to avail the chance of a century.  Sadly, at this stage, there was hardly a way out of the morass that Pakistan found itself in but to fight, however best as was possible.

[1] 16 commandos were martyred in this action.
[2] 13 commandos were martyred in this action.
[3] The symposium was organised by the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi. Subrahmanyam’s speech was reported by The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, 1 April 1971.
[4] The Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Co-operation was signed on 9 August 1971.
[5] Pakistan Cut to Size, Manekar, D R, Delhi; page 133.
[6] This figure is quoted by Lt Gen Niazi in his book, The Betrayal of East Pakistan, Chapter 14, page 237.
[7] Witness to Surrender,  Salik, Siddiq; Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1977, page 116.


This article was published in 'Defence Journal' June 2019 issue.


Nadeem Sherwani said...

Sir one of the most objective, concise and well articulated piece of writing that I have seen on the subject, which seems to have become a taboo in Pakistan. I made my children read it and it was eye opening for them. Well done as always and keep these coming....Regards Air Cdre (Retd) Nadeem Sherwani.

Alikhan said...


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