Indo-Pakistan War, 1971: No lessons learnt, Pakistani belligerence continues
by Jaibans Singh on 09 Dec 2021 11 Comments

The first two weeks of December normally witness a lot of activity in the strategic domain across the Sub-continent as three countries go through the traditional reminiscence of the Indo-Pakistan War, 1971. The war led to the permanent dismemberment of Pakistan and creation of a new nation – Bangladesh. All three countries look at the War narrative from their own perspective. Bangladesh celebrates 16 December as Bijay Dibosh and has, in recent years, been inviting Indian army veterans who fought there to join the celebrations as State guests, to thank them for their services in carving out the new nation.


In India, 16 December is celebrated as Vijay Diwas; it is presaged by a large number of functions like seminars and book launches etc. Indian army veterans of the war are sought out to narrate their experience. A frisson of pride runs through the nation.


In Pakistan, there is a marked absence of academic investigation of the circumstances leading to the war and the end result thereof. This may be due to a deeply embedded feeling of guilt and failure. The country’s biggest counter to India’s victory narrative comes in the form of describing difficulties faced by the Pakistani Prisoners of War (POWs) during the time that they spent in India. Here it is necessary to note that while India gave back all POWs, the Indian soldiers in Pakistani custody were neither acknowledged nor returned; this callous behaviour of Pakistan cannot be condoned.


There are a large number of questions that Pakistan chooses to leave unanswered. Was the war a result of internal contradictions that marked the country? Why couldn’t a common religion bind the diverse entities? Was the severing of the two wings inevitable as they were 1500 km apart and had distinct cultures and way of life?


The horrendous military crackdown in Dhaka on the night of March 25-26, 1971, code named Operation Searchlight, triggered a full-fledged civil war in East Pakistan, the product of the military mind-set of the Pakistani dictatorship. It was a “teach the wimps a lesson” syndrome based on a superiority complex that led to a humanitarian crisis of horrendous proportions and sucked India into its vortex as millions of refugees, mostly Hindus, crossed over the border. As the Genocide spread its tentacles, even Muslims started fleeing to India in great numbers. India willy-nilly became a party to the crisis.


New Delhi wanted War to be declared as early as June 1971, but this was postponed due to the insistence of the then Chief of Army Staff, General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw. It is worth considering if Manekshaw was preparing for an all-out war on both the Western and Eastern fronts?


It is apparent that the Pakistan military hierarchy based its strategy on a war that would be considerably curtailed by international pressure from countries like the US and China that were clearly on its side. In the small window of conflict that it conceived as probable, it sought to garner gains in the Western Theatre to offset any losses in the Eastern Theatre. 


Hence the Eastern Theatre was not reinforced with adequate Air and Naval assets. In the skies it had to contend with 10 aircraft against 125 fielded by the Indian Air Force; quite naturally it surrendered the skies to India within the first few days of the war.


In the high seas, the Eastern Sector witnessed a well-conceived commando operations code named Operation Jackpot, carried out by the Indian Navy along with personnel of the Mukti Bahini (guerrilla force of East Pakistan) that destroyed the supply and communication lines in and around Chittagong and left the Pakistan army without any means of replenishment.


Hostile pressure from the US and China was checkmated by Russia with its veto on the UN resolutions moved by the two countries. The Indian Army, thus, got time to overrun the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan, liberate the area, and declare the creation of a new nation – Bangladesh. It did so with considerable aplomb.


India was quick to declare unilateral ceasefire once the job was done. It might have been a good idea to continue the war and dismember Pakistan in the west as well, but one can understand that there would have been tremendous pressure which precluded this option. Hence one should partially absolve the much-maligned Lt. Gen. AAK Niazi, Pakistani Commander of the Eastern Command, and lay the blame on the collective failure of the military hierarchy in Pakistan.   


Pakistan’s lack of academic engagement with the war has created a vacuum within its present generation in understanding the reasons and consequences of the war. With no course-corrections in place, Pakistan is sailing in the same boat as it was fifty years back. The Army continues to remain supreme, more adept in winning elections and sucking the nation financially, rather than remaining professional and apolitical. Its dictatorial status is intact with a puppet prime minister and the country is in the vortex of a financial crisis but funding of the army remains sacrosanct.


As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our historic victory we need to remain vigilant, especially in the border areas of J&K and Punjab, where Pakistan is attempting to create trouble with hybrid warfare and modern technology like drones. The hatred towards India has only increased under the mentorship of the Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence. There is no indication from across the border for India to lower her guard.


Jaibans Singh is a security analyst and columnist

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