Many hold the view that the year 1971 was the most glorious year of the republic. One saw a focused government in operation, with a well thought out planning, adjusting admirably to the unfolding of events during the year and crafting out a visionary goal with a sure instinct.
As the year dawned, creation of Bangla Desh was in no body’s sights, neither in India nor in Pakistan. Yet, going by the dynamics of history, there was certain inevitability about it. Creating a country in two parts, a thousand miles apart in 1947, with irreconcilable differences in language and culture, was a monstrosity which was bound to unravel on its own. India did play an important role in the process, a role which crystalised on the basis of day to day assessments and a co-ordination of efforts of different members of a policy advising politburo, the kind of which had not existed earlier nor has surfaced since.
In the earliest conceptualization of Pakistan, East Bengal or its interests had found no role. No letter in the name of ‘Pakistan’ had a reference to Bengal. The Muslim League, which grew into a significant Muslim mass movement during the period of the Raj, was born in Dacca in 1906 but took shape in the Eastern heart belt of India and was principally ruled by non Bengali personalities with rare exceptions. With partition in 1947, a vast majority of non-Bengali speaking Muslims migrated to West Pakistan and not to East Pakistan. The underlying reason was that such migrants did not identify East Bengal with the idea of Pakistan.
Jinnah’s purpose in including East Bengal in the concept of his Pakistan was to get an entity with a sizeable number of Muslims that could demographically offset India with its large Hindu population. Otherwise, constituting this geographical freak had no strategic, economic or cultural rationale. Pakistan had continually to pay a big price for this unnatural unity: while, on the one hand, the people of East Pakistan grew more and more dissatisfied, on the other hand, the effort to deal with East Pakistanis took a heavy toll of Pakistan’s energy, resources, time and development.
No acceptable bargain could be worked out over the long years from 1947 to 1971 which could overcome the concerns each wing of Pakistan had regarding the other. West Pakistan had begun to look at East Pakistan as a colony, and East Pakistanis hardly as equal citizens of Pakistan and culturally too Hindu influenced to merit being called real Muslims. The East Bengali reaction commenced with the language issue, moving on to demand for autonomy, then greater autonomy, and finally ended with secession and independence.
A watershed was reached with the December 1970 general elections in Pakistan for the national legislature. The East Pakistani Bengali party, Awami League, led by Mijibur Rehman, secured a clear majority with 160 seats in the house 400, whereas the party winning the largest number of seats in West Pakistan was Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party that won 81. The results entitled Mujibur Rehman to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan, a prospect considered totally repugnant by the West Pakistani elite, Armed Forces and political parties. Mujib was willing to accept a confederal status but Bhutto was unwilling.
The Pakistani authorities sought to solve the impasse through a military crackdown which commenced on the midnight of March 25, 1971. The Punjabi and Pathan troops engaged in an unimaginably savage butchery of the Bengali population, regarded as alien, low and unsavory. They targeted elite Bengali professionals, students, Awami League workers and politicians, police etc., killing them in thousands. Their savagery shocked the conscience of the world. Ten Lakh refugees streamed into West Bengal and were housed in camps.
The crackdown was the spark which transformed the rising Bengali radicalism into an open rebellion against the Pakistani State. Total independence from Pakistan now became the unified aim of all Bengalis of East Pakistan. Bengali soldiers and officers of the Pakistan army revolted. Bengali diplomats serving in Pakistani missions abroad defected. Pakistani brutality in East Pakistan touched new heights. Urdu speaking civilians became Razakars. Members of an extremist Sunni organisation, Al Badar. joined hands with Pakistani soldiery to kill and maim the defenseless Bengalis. The Bengali misery was compounded by the visitation of a cyclone during this period. Some observers have placed the loss of life due to the cyclone and Pakistani repression at nearly a million.
This was the backdrop of events when Awami League leaders who had escaped to Calcutta, now called Kolkata, appealed to the Indian Government to step in and neutralize the Pakistani campaign of atrocities against the Bengalis in East Pakistan. By then Mujibur Rehman had already been arrested and incarcerated in West Pakistan.
India had never faced a situation like this before and had no precedents to go by. The Army was consulted whether they could provide a response. Their answer was that they were unprepared. Many foreign governments that were contacted for possible assistance were sympathetic towards the travails of East Pakistanis but were unable to render concrete effective help.
India understood then that if succour had to be provided to East Pakistan, it would have to be an Indian effort. Thus began the planning to figure out the response to the growing crisis next door which had resulted in an influx of refugees into West Bengal.
One of the earliest and most significant step was to set up a brain trust comprising secretaries to the PM, R&AW, defense, external affairs and army Chief. This body functioned effectively both as a National Intelligence Coordinator and a National Security Advisor. In the former capacity it coordinated evolution of scenarios on the basis of action oriented analytic approaches and aggregates of data, identified gaps in intelligence, material and equipment, and took steps to remove those. In the latter role it provided strategic policy options to the Prime Minister and suggested a road map for diplomatic actions. In the wake of diplomatic initiatives followed the Treaty of Friendship and Security with the Soviet Union which provided a strategic cover to India. Much of the remaining burden which was huge and complex fell on Intelligence.
Meanwhile the Bengali leadership that had sought refuge in India declared complete independence from Pakistan for East Pakistan and formed a government in exile located near Kolkata. A radio station was also set up to broadcast messages to the masses in East Pakistan. Intelligence was responsible for the micro as well as the macro management of this enterprise. The govt. in exile through broadcasts and other means was successful in raising the tempo of resistance among Bengalis against Pakistan. It was evident to the Intelligence that the turn of events in East Pakistan was demoralizing the Pakistani authorities in Islamabad and a surprise sneaky attack on the Western borders of India, to distract attention from East Pakistan and to compel immediate intervention by UN to freeze the situation in favour of the earlier status-quo, could be in the offing. Their new tasks then became identifying signs of war preparations in West Pakistan.
A large number of tell tale signs were discovered which confirmed that a war was actually a work in process in Pakistan. It was found that the 9 Infantry Division of Pakistan army was being moved to East Pakistan by sea. A new division, 17 Division, was being raised to augment the military strength. A regiment of T54 Russian tanks had been moved towards Chhamb near Jammu. One infantry battalion along with a regiment of M48 tanks had been moved to Longowal for infiltration across Rajasthan border. A heavy concentration of armoured and infantry troops was taking place around Multan for deployment towards the Indian border. War stores were being collected in the forest areas near Lahore. Chaffee tanks had been transported to the East. The Pakistan submarine Ghazi had moved out of its base in Karachi towards the Bay of Bengal. Although the authenticity of some information was questioned by a few of the recipients in the Indian military establishment, it stood tested and confirmed subsequently on the battle ground.
Some time around midnight of November 30, 1971 Intelligence woke up the three military Chiefs and alerted them that the Pakistani Air Force was going to mount air raids on the forward Indian air bases within the next 72 hours. The air raids took place on December 3, 1971 but the waiting and alert Indian forces took a heavy toll of the raiders. With these attacks the 1971war had begun. Pakistani tanks and infantry also moved forward in the Longowal and Chhamb sectors. The Pakistani armoured regiment of Patton tanks was completely decimated by the well warned Indian troops in Longowal. The stores dumped in the forest areas near Lahore were totally bombed out and burnt.
Now that a war had actually commenced Indian troops moved into East Pakistan from all three sides of the land border. A debate arose whether their priority objective should be capture of Dacca or the countryside where the Govt. in exile of the newly proclaimed Bangla Desh could be located. As the Western powers by now were active in the UN for a ceasefire, all in the Indian side wanted the Govt. in exile to be perched as soon as possible at Dacca itself. The Indian troops, therefore, kept rushing towards Dacca. Their offensive ended on December 16, 1971 with the unconditional surrender of the Pakistani Commander and his garrisons. Dacca now had its own government of a free Bangla Desh.
If Kargil became later the scene of the most valorous acts of the Indian armed forces ever, Bangla Desh stood out as the most successful Indian military operation during which the military moved with utmost dedication, single mindedness and patriotism to achieve the set targets. The nation felt proud over their glorious performance.
No less was the contribution of diplomacy and intelligence. Diplomacy ably thwarted the designs of the meddling and unfriendly powers to put spokes in the wheels of the Indian enterprise. However, the top honours were truly deserved by the Indian Intelligence which provided invaluable and substantial inputs on the basis of which advance warnings were issued and military campaigning was planned. They also took care with great tact and vision the intricate management of the Bangladeshi leadership, defectors and their requirements till Dacca was freed of the Pakistanis.
Credit has also to be given to the political leadership of the day that remained unfazed by the threats of intervention in favour of Pakistan from certain global powers.
The real casualties of the war were the two nation theory which, though false, had led to the birth of Pakistan, accompanied by a horrendous carnage at partition. The destruction of the theory was equally attended by multiple loss of life, eventually ending in the emancipation of the new national identity of Bangla Desh. The second casualty was the demolition of the concept of Islamic nationalism as a premise for universal nation formation. This aspect has not received much attention but deserves to be investigated further by informed scholarship.
Author is the former chief of Indian external intelligence wing - Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW); by arrangement with South Asia Analysis Group, New Delhi.